Sunday, February 12, 2012

The Wide-Eyed Rush of Traveling

Abe shared this passage with me today. It's from Thomas Kohnstamm's book, Do Travel Writers Go to Hell?, and Kohnstamm describes my favorite aspects of traveling more perfectly than I ever could. He writes:

"People, when dislocated from their customary surroundings, can free themselves from preconceived notions of how they are supposed to act.  Abroad, that which is formerly unacceptable can become commonplace.  That which is normal at home can be disregarded as an outdated practice of the past.  It's not "When in Rome, do as the Romans do."  People actually tend to do as they've always wanted to do - no one (at least, no one they're going to see again) is watching or passing judgement on them, and they are allowed to re-imagine themselves and recreate their own ability. 

When a human becomes unbound from his or her place, it also affects the perception of time.  The senses are inundated with new sights, smells, and sounds.  The flow of new, often-shocking details makes us more like wide-eyed children than jaded adults.  There is more concentration, recognition, and appreciation given to details throughout the day.  With no tether to a place and no base of reference, relationships and plans become hyperaccelerated.  New best friends are made and then never seen again.  Romances develop with the bottle-rocket trajectory of the Challenger.  For my generation, the first that has always had a computer at home and that considered video games a normal childhood pastime, life on the road is one of the few things that actually overwhelm our tolerance for stimuli and shock us into the here and now."

Sunday, January 15, 2012

The Coming Home of a Trip

Returning home is hard, especially if the place you left often felt like paradise.

New Zealand looks like a paradise: white sandy beaches, clear water, high blue mountains and sunlit green forests.  Leaving that kind of perfection was very hard. But I missed my home, the things I grew up with. I yearned to be close to people I knew and loved for years, for a sense of stability that my transient, traveler’s life lacked. 

Stillman's Bay, Abel Tasman National Park

I boarded my plane in Wellington feeling bittersweet: happy to return, and wistful about all I was leaving behind. What I didn’t expect to feel was lost.

Reverse culture shock always sounded strange to me. I grew up in America, surely I should know what to expect upon my return. But if America and my friends and family hadn’t changed (which they had, of course) I had changed, and the culture shock of coming home hit me much harder than when I arrived in New Zealand.

Going to New Zealand was an adventure, and everything was new and interesting. I felt exhilarated, and my adrenaline overshadowed any shock I felt.  For my first few weeks in New Zealand, I stressed about looking for work or going to a new place. I felt hyper-aware when I met new people, over-analyzing their reactions to things I said and wondering if they would think I was weird or cool or too American. But those fears were gradual and expected; coming home, change flooded me, intense and all at once.

My first night home, I stood on a dark concrete curb, staring at a packed airport parking lot with a lonely fluorescent light and a highway overhang blocking half the sky. A guy on my connecting flight from LAX walked over and asked me what I was doing in New York.  I told him I was returning from New Zealand, he said, “Oh wow, cool!” And then, “Where is New Zealand?”

After he and the other passengers from my flight were all picked up, I wobbled under the weight of my luggage to the nearest payphone to call my parents.  They arrived awhile later, and as we exchanged warm hellos, my dad yelled that he needed to clear the pickup lane. My mom was having trouble operating the GPS, so after attempting a brief conversation about the trip, we all gave up, so my dad would stop yelling about the traffic or how he didn’t know which route to take.

My friends called and excitedly planned to do things with me, and I had been away from them for so long that I fantasized about our first meetings: the smiles and hugs, the hours spent sitting together, drinking wine while I regaled them with stories from my travels. I would tell them about the people and places I loved and show them my thousands of pictures. I felt so changed, that I wanted my friends to look at me and see the difference. I wanted them to listen intently, to relive my year with me and understanding my feelings.

Storefront in Nelson that reminded me of  home
Like in any good narrative, I wanted my return chapter where I come home from my conquest and share my discoveries..or something like that. But when I saw my friends for the first time, everyone tried to talk at once and our initial reunion was nothing like my fantasy. Their lives have changed too; they have formed new friendships in my absence. We need time to get to know each other again.

Now that I am home, I’m obsessed with little things that I missed while I was gone: Entenmann’s donuts, streaming NPR,  and brushing my teeth with an electric toothbrush. Friends look at me strangely, and I feel materialistic. Maybe I shouldn’t have admitted I missed internet and American food so much. Am I saying too much or too little about New Zealand? I have trouble putting things into words. I feel their boredom when I speak; I am over-analyzing again but with old friends this time.

I feel overwhelmed by all of the choices. In New Zealand, I thought countless times about the clothes I wished I’d brought or the things I would do at home when I had 24 hour, unlimited internet access, but now that I am home I don’t know where to start. Yesterday I spent an hour walking back and forth, going upstairs to list some items on ebay, then thinking no, I should apply for jobs because I need to work, or maybe I should read some books or watch the news or no, I need to clean out my room from all this clutter. I am cluttered.

Everyone I see is so full of purpose. They have jobs and career goals, hobbies and friends. They are entrenched; I am an onlooker. My parents both work two jobs to pay their bills. I spend most of my time at home alone trying to look for a new job, so I can begin to save money again. But I feel despondent, uninterested, and lonely. I don’t know if I should talk to my friends at home or the ones I just left in New Zealand. I feel a part of neither world now.

I thought when I left New Zealand that it would be hard to say goodbye to the place and the people I met there. It was. But it was more than that. It was my dream to travel there, to try new things, to think and explore free of stress and baggage. I saved money, quit my job, planned for and lived in that dream for two and a half years. Little did I know, I also defined myself by it.

And so this loss that I feel now, this sadness, is not for the place, or the people, or the wealth of happy experiences I had there.

It is saying goodbye to my dream, my sense of purpose, my driving motivation that is the hardest. I did not realize how much inspiration I drew from my trip until it was over. I never thought realistically about the coming home of the trip. And what I would do when I got here.

Leaving the South Island on the ferry to fly home on a cold, blustery day