There’s a moment, when you come home from a trip to another country, that you’re not quite sure where you are. You look around and you see familiar sights – the green couch in the living room, the Giant supermarket with its huge parking lot, or your desk at work – but they all feel a bit foreign. You don’t feel comfortable in familiar surroundings because your mind is still focused on the landscapes and culture of where you’ve been. In my case, it was in Guatemala, where I had recently participated in a medical brigade, offering health care to campesinos in rural highland communities.
I got home on a Tuesday night, unpacked my bag, and showed my wife the colorful placemats and scarves I had purchased in handicrafts markets. The next morning, alone in the house, I found that I couldn’t adapt to my surroundings, to my own life in Maryland. Instead, I recreated the smells of the street market in Quetzaltenango, the sounds of fireworks going off at night while I tried to sleep, and the sights of women in traditional Mayan dress and highways covered with dirt from recent landslides. I threw my used toilet paper into the wastebasket instead of the toilet. And, when the phone rang I answered Buenos dias, because I was used to speaking Spanish to strangers.
I sat down with the stack of unopened mail that had arrived while I was gone, and started to go through it. Even though my name was on the envelopes, I couldn’t relate to a world in which I would be receiving invitations to fundraising dinners ($150 for a seat or $750 for a table) featuring famous movie stars, or offers of 30,000 frequent flyer miles for signing up for a credit card. What did these appeals have to do with the struggles of Mayan campesinos to get health care, or my own concerns of traveling from place to place in rickety vans on roads ravaged by storms and insufficient maintenance?
I thought about my family and our friends, the ones I might have talked to or seen had I not been away. I could imagine what the last ten days had been like for them – work, evening meetings, a concert or movie, a hike on the weekend, dinner with friends, etc. I felt distant from these ordinary experiences – ones that would have been my own, albeit with slight variations between us. And I noted that I hadn’t been able to attend Steve’s birthday party; I’d missed witnessing the cement mixer pave a new driveway next door; and I didn’t get to experience the freaky October snowstorm. I felt impoverished by having missed out, by not sharing these activities and occurrences with my people, those I feel closest to.
But then I remembered what I had experienced – the fireworks exploding in the bleachers of the football game I attended; the ring of perfectly conical volcanoes surrounding the deep blue waters of Lake Atitlan; a Mayan woman slowly unwinding a hand woven strap
from her around her waist to loosen her thick skirt and show the doctor her bloated belly; and the three year old who had an epileptic seizure as I gazed at her. Maybe it was my friends and wife at home who were impoverished. Unlike me, their understanding of how Guatemalans amuse themselves, dress, or feed their families had not been enriched. Their hearts and minds not been stretched in new directions, nor their senses stimulated by dazzling scenery. At least not during those ten days. Who was I to feel left out? There was no way I could reasonably claim that I had been deprived.
But, as time progressed, my perspective began to change. Soon, my concerns about the 30-year old Mayan woman – still unmarried – with a striking heart murmur, or the friendly man who let me bargain him down to a mere $3 for a woven purse, seemed distant and inconsequential. Our interactions faded into the past, moments relinquished to history. And, I found myself to throwing my toilet paper into the toilet bowl again.
That sense of being tugged between two worlds is short-lived. As soon as you get caught up in the whirlwind of everyday life – the doctor’s appointment that you scheduled months ago, shopping for groceries, and responding to the buildup of emails – your recent adventure slips from your consciousness. The sights and the sounds take on a dreamlike quality, as if they were only imagined. But somewhere in the recesses of your mind, you know that your world has been expanded, and you are more cognizant than ever.