The Road Back

1:6-TreeI’m back in the US. I’ve been back for some time, truth be told. I’ve been tearing through books, dog-sitting, running errands and decompressing from the last several months.

A run-down of the trip itself: I took a taxi to the Quito airport, discussing politics and infrastructure with the driver. Resolutely spoke Spanish to the ticket agent, despite attempts to engage me in English. Flew to Panama, flew to LA, flew to Denver. Twenty-four hours later, I was home.

A wise person once told me that planes carry us faster than the body was meant to go; traveling by air cancels distance at such a mind-boggling rate that the spirit gets left behind. She said, “By the time your body gets home, your spirit is probably still hovering somewhere off the coast of Panama.” She was right. If there had been a reliable, safe intercontinental train (ha!) I would’ve boarded it in a heartbeat, just to allow myself to process the true distance of that journey. For the first time in my life, I felt cheated out of the magnitude of my trip. I wanted to pay for those thousands of miles with my time, but paid with money instead.


A study in cognitive dissonance at the Panama airport. Darwin award winners only.

I did not experience heavy culture shock upon return – the worst of it was in the LA airport, where I noticed how tall everyone was, how rude some people seemed, how helpful others were but how I didn’t recognize their communication style, how the money I forked over for a sandwich and juice could’ve lasted me through a day of dining in Ecuador (fourteen dollars?!?), and so on. I curled up on a bench at 1am and waited for the check-in desk to reopen at 3:45. That morning was a low point.

When I got home, it seemed like home. I didn’t imagine a parallel reality (“In Ecuador it would be like this…”) and I didn’t annoy my family with a litany of expectations picked up from a different culture. (Why are the trash cans and cars so big? Why are the mountains so small? Where’s the rice? Why does the sun barely rise? Why aren’t there people selling fruit on the corner and knick-knacks at traffic lights?). I devoured vegetables gleefully and gradually came to accept the small mountains and weak winter sunshine. And paid more attention to my dreams.

Before we all left, our program director advised us to tune in with the sleeping brain, because many South American cultures treat dreams as another facet of reality. That counsel came at the opportune moment, just when I was working malaria medication out of my system; the extra-vivid dreams generated by the pills made it easy to remember episodes from my subconscious.


I made a friend in the Galápagos!

What I didn’t expect was that my entire semester would take on a dreamlike aspect. In the grocery store I find things – guayusa tea, yuca chips – that spark nostalgia, but they’re not enough to break the barrier between my two realities. The person I was in Ecuador is still here, but dormant inside my Spanish brain, and last semester feels like another life. In this state, it becomes all the more important to remember things that are intangible, but still a vital piece of who I am.

I asked a former teacher of mine how I could hold my experiences together, not think of them as disconnected episodes from different worlds. She told me that I shouldn’t try. In class, she liked teaching the theory and practice of syzygy – an astronomy term that she interpreted to mean, “holding two wildly different things together to see what comes out of the tension between them.” In this model, you needn’t try to reconcile different experiences or make them fit together neatly. Instead, you try your best to let each element “dance to its own rhythm,” even when those rhythms are wildly disparate – and see what comes out of it.

So that is my project for the present. Making space in myself for a lot of divergent memories and feelings to dance around. Not trying to craft a neat narrative, and taking my cue from Zadie Smith, who advises, “protect the time and space in which you write. Keep everybody away from it, even the people who are most important to you.” At times, I have found this to be just as true about changing as writing.

Before we left, we were told, “When you miss Ecuador, remind yourself that life goes on here, with or without you.” It doesn’t do to be completely self-absorbed; somewhere, taxi drivers are still cheating gringas, panaderĂ­as are still wafting ambrosial bread smells, and people are still cramming themselves into buses like sardines into a can. This is a source of both wistfulness and consolation.

1:6 Kiba