I expected some culture shock when we returned. But instead we just flowed into life here. We’ve lived in the same neighborhood for 18 years, the same house for 14 years. I’ve had the same job for 13 years. Everything was as we left it. It was all so normal. Granted, drinking from a drinking fountain was strange, and I caught myself about to throw the toilet paper in the bin instead of the toilet. But those were little things. The house smelled the same when we walked in. The cat fell asleep on Bill’s lap. I slept deeply in my own bed.
The hardest part now is not that we’re home but rather we’re not on the trip. It’s over. It’s no longer blowing in my face, blowing my hair in every direction. I’m no longer surrounded by it. It’s off to the side. My backpack is in the basement. The trip now just a package in my life. A group of memories to pull out and turn around in my hands, maybe compare a couple of memories to make some sense of the experiences, but no longer to be in the experience.
There was the night I sang Hotel California to a karaoke machine at a hotel’s Christmas party in Bangkok. There was a Christmas tree with gifts. We played games with chopsticks for prizes. I still have the ID tag on my backpack that I got that night. In the markets in Chiang Mai there were the blind kids led by their mothers singing to a karaoke machine. Their voices were clear although their eyes weren’t. We dropped bhat in their buckets. Their singing was so much better than mine.
We watched nine year old girl, Sanaa, play outside of our window in Lamu. She had a goose egg on her forehead from a beating by her older brother. She sat down next to me and slowly read a book out loud, a book she had borrowed from school. She couldn’t go to school everyday. She had to take care of her baby brother. We later met another Sanaa in Mexico. She was from a more privileged background in Cairo. She showed us where to learn to salsa in Guanajuato. As she was dancing she locked onto her teacher’s eyes. Both Bill and I knew she’ll never leave Mexico.
In an orphanage in Viet Nam there were babies with disabilities we never see in the States. Children here have surgery before they get so ill. Underneath the first shirt I lifted for an exam was skin covered with the red dots of scabies. In Indonesia I was stung by jelly fish. We swam through schools of tiny jelly fish that got caught in my bathing suit top and red dots spread across my chest. But really these dots were scabies bites showing up five weeks after we visited the orphanage. We found medicine in Singapore once I figured that out.
There was the pair of glasses I bought in India. I’d broken my pair I brought from the States. At Vishal Opticals in Haridwar I got glasses made in less than an hour for $20. Weeks later while riding in a taxi in New Delhi, I looked at the moon. There were two. They were beautiful. I quickly learned not to wear the glasses hiking. I couldn’t tell where my feet would land.
At passport control in Qatar the officer wore a white robe with a white veil over his head held in place by a checkered black and white ring. He was beautiful in his Arabian clothes. He looked at the picture in Hank’s passport then looked at Hank. He did a double take and said, “You were fat then.” Hank blushed while we all laughed. To get from Cambodia to Viet Nam we took a boat down the Mekong. The boat stopped at a small dock with a steep, rickety bamboo walkway up to passport control. We were met by immigration officers and chickens.
Now that we’re home all our friends are asking one common question: Where was your favorite place? It’s an impossible question to answer with one single country. Favorite for what? The best food was in Mexico, or maybe it was Turkey. The most beautiful scenery was in Nepal. But then again the beaches of southern India were perfect with coconut palms and warm waves. And what could compare to waking up and looking out over the rice patties of Bali? The history was most layered in Turkey or maybe it was India. The sweetest people were found in a slum in Nairobi although the smiles in Siem Reap came so easily and so warmly. Cambodia had the best pace, India the worst. Each place had its own superlative or even several superlatives.
Oakland has its own superlatives, too. The food is phenomenally delicious. At a friend’s house we ate farro with feta and killer chicken with leeks. At a restaurant I ate chard with butter beans seasoned with garlic, lemon zest, and red chili. I savored each bite so slowly. I’m so happy to be eating California vegetables again. We went to an A’s game against the Red Sox a couple days after arriving home. I tried to look at it as a tourist would. Then the A’s won, and I was a native again. On my way to work I’ve ridden past Lake Merritt, covered with egrets, cormorants, and pelicans. I’ve tried to soak it up as if I’ve never seen it before letting the chill of the Oakland summer fog cement the experience to my bones.
Because now I have the eyes of a traveler. I want this year-long trip around the world to continue to blow my hair in my face. Even if it’s not in a new destination, even if it’s at home. I want to bring that package of memories back from beside me and put it right back in front of me. I want to fill it with more experiences and even more memories to pull out, examine, compare, and enjoy.