Spots of Time

October 04, 2004

Just Dating Thanks

It's my one-month anniversary. Though I can scarcely believe it, I've been back in the United States for a full month already. What really amazes me, however, is that my trip - two years of my life - already seems like a dream.

Tomorrow I start a new job in San Francisco - doing some contract work for a former employer of mine. I've lined up a place to stay, and for at least the next 3 months, San Francisco is again my home. I'm not complaining about any of it - it confirms my belief that opportunities abound - you just have to be open to them (and have some damn good timing). But, this settling down - even if it is temporary - makes me feel like it’s the end of an era.

Everyone wants to know if it's weird to be back (it is and it isn't). Everyone wants to know if it was really two years - and did the time fly for me as much as it did for them (it was and it did). Everyone wants to know my "favorite" countries (India and Mongolia). And, of course, everyone wants to know what I'm going to do next (I honestly don't know).

The way I see it, my life is in dating mode. Currently, I'm dating San Francisco. I like the city, I enjoy its company, but I'm not at a place where I can commit to anything permanent or long term. I want to have fun, see how things work out - but I'm not ready for another long-term relationship. At least, not yet. After all, I just got out of a two-year commitment. Jumping into something else doesn't seem like a wise option, does it?

And, of course, I've got some baggage from the past. In fact, there is one aspect of my last relationship that I am having serious trouble getting over. I've kind of grown attached to it actually, and giving it up - well, I'm not so sure I can do it. I'm talking about my column.

The column began as a forum for me to share my ideas and observations about the world around me as I traveled its various nooks and crannies. I wanted to share my experiences - to "show" a little bit of the world that I was seeing, though my own eyes and in my own words. But, the column became more than that. It became a challenge for me as a writer - could I maintain a weekly column for a full year – or even longer? It became a vehicle for venting my frustrations - especially in places where I was alone. And, it became a habit that I liked having - a little bit of structure in an otherwise structure less existence.

But, most of all, it was a way for me to document the moments - to remember all that I was doing and seeing and feeling and thinking. I figured that years down the road - when I was an old woman sitting on my front porch and reminiscing about the "good old days" - that my columns would provide me with something more than pictures and memories. That I would have stories - my stories - to read over and over. They would be a permanent reminder of the Technicolor flourishes that only youth can provide, without the watered down Doppler effect that experience and time impart upon an aging memory.

Over the past two years, so many of my adventures have been documented and shared with all of you. Yet so many more never made it past the rough drafts - usually for lack of time but sometimes because the power of a new experience superseded the need for past documentation.

There were romances - and potential romances - with Casanova surf instructors in Australia and (harmless) cyber stalkers in Thailand. There were moments of blissful communion with nature - when my brother and I swam with whale sharks in the Philippines or when, in the Australian outback, my friend Alex and I watched the evolution of the most brilliant red, orange and pink sunrise I have ever seen. These moments and experiences all warranted a column, but somehow they were never realized.

I promised stories I never delivered - about weddings in India and interviews with western swamis. I began stories surrounding issues like Tiananmen Square, the problems with girl babies, and the international communities impression of Americans - then never finished them because I felt like they were too important to rush though and wanted time to research them more fully. Now, months after the fact, their important has not diminished but the time required going back has suddenly become limited in supply.

Ultimately I've decided I need the column to remain a part of my life - at least for a little bit longer. There are too many stories left untold, too many tales that still need telling. Just because my traveling life has been put on pause, doesn't mean the rest of my life is in a holding pattern. Just because I am in the United States, and not some exotic sounding country in the Far East, doesn't mean my quest for information or my desire for adventure has abated – or that my wanderlust is over.

And, just because I have another job, doesn’t mean I am no longer a writer.

So, while my column will flash back to those as yet undocumented moments during my adventures overseas, it will also focus on my reality today – and the adventures that come with it. The column will continue to evolve and change, like I myself will evolve and change. Both eyes forward but with one hand occasionally reaching back - to remind myself of where I came from - to help me in where I am going.

September 10, 2004

Reverse Culture Shock

The beach house sunroom was filled with young California women – 90% of which were new mothers discussing their babies – cute habits, ages, IQs – you name it. "Seriously, Paul CRIED the first time little Sammy did the spit bubble kisses!" "So how old is your little Joey?" "He’s just 12 days younger than Tracy’s baby Riley!" "No, you’re kidding! How cute!" Etc.

All of a sudden, one of the (few) non-mothers said casually, "You know, if Riley and Joey were born in India to parents who were friends with each other – like their moms are here – most likely they would be serious discussion of them marrying, when both came of age. The husbands might even make an arrangement right then and there."

Silence.

Eight pairs of eyes turned to the woman, who was now realizing that her comment had disrupted the normal flow of conversation – which, had she kept her mouth shut, would have no doubt continued with birth weights, first words and other normal "new mom" conversation. Instead, after an uncomfortable pause and a few polite "Really? How interesting" comments, the conversation returned to the previous topic. The young woman sat quietly back into the couch, harboring strange feelings of social ineptitude and the inability to make conversation. At her earliest opportunity, she left the room and took refuge outside on the beach. That woman was me – about five days ago – the day after I arrived back in the United States.

What was my problem?

Prior to my return, friends of mine who had traveled for a long period time talked to me about the concept of Reverse Culture Shock – basically, getting use to being back in America after living or traveling overseas for an extended period of time. And, I had prepared myself for it. Or, so I thought.

But, with the exception of some shock over prices ($8.00 for a burrito??), and marveling at the clean air and lovely blue skies (in LA, unbelievably enough), it felt pretty much normal to be back at home. Until I had to open my mouth in the company of a group of predominately young mothers – with whose lives, despite similar ages and backgrounds, it seemed I had nothing in common. Yet, this "baptism by fire, I suddenly realized, is the start of what will become usual conversation for me.

The year before I left the US, I attended the weddings of four friends. While I was gone, four more weddings took place and six babies were born (with two more on the way). And, while I was thrilled with the marriages and the prospect of cutie little cuddly babies, I neglected to think seriously about how that would change the relationships I had with my friends. The beach house birthday made me realize that a lot of my conversations, from now on, are going to start involving babies – and that, I guess, is my biggest culture shock of all.

The late 20s and early 30s, it seems, is a time of transition. I vaguely realized this when I left to travel but now that I have returned the reality is fully apparent. It is a time of friends getting married, having babies, moving overseas, returning to schools, changing careers, and generally refocusing their lives. Priorities become different, they become changed. While going out on a Saturday night and drinking or dancing is still the reality for some people, for others watching a video with a glass of wine and the baby monitor is another. For others it is getting use to having someone share your living space or returning to a time of deadlines for term papers and group projects.

So, Reverse Culture Shock, at least for me, will be less about getting accustomed to my return to American culture and more about getting use to the changes that occurred in my own circle of friends and acquaintances while I was away. Due to my relative isolation I have not had time to deal with the changes in an easy, gradual manner. When I left, only a few of my friends were married and none had children. Now, all of a sudden I’ve entered the new and somewhat separate worlds of the "singles" and "the married" and "the married with children."

Apparently, my life over the next few weeks will not be so different from the first few days or weeks traveling in a new country. While I was overseas I found that my transitions between new places were always similar in that certain adjustments had to be made before I could fit in and feel comfortable. Learning words in a new language, understanding what behavior was deemed socially acceptable (or unacceptable), and finding my way in previously uncharted territory. And, it seems those skills will come in handy again – oddly enough, in a land I have known since the day I was born.

In a week or so, when I get back to San Francisco, I have the honor of meet three new people who are sure to become a part of my life – Liam, Josephine and Luca. These three souls are children of friends of mine – children that did not exist when I left the United States. They will be living examples of the fact that time goes on and that just as my life has changed and evolved, so have the lives of my friends (and by no means just the married ones).

While I pride myself on keeping in touch with people, my circumstances did not always allow me to be as (individually) communicative as I would have liked. And so, while I have kept abreast of most of the "big changes" for my friends and relations, I am sure to encounter many surprises over the next few weeks and months as communications lines are re-established.

So, if at times it seems I am tongue-tied or say the wrong thing, please excuse my social gaffs and understand it will take me some time to learn the new language required of me. I have a lot of catching up to do.

August 26, 2004

Homeward Bound

I'm coming home.

There, I said it. Officially.

I feel like there should be a drum roll or something. I've been out of the United States for almost two years. Nearly half of George W.'s presidency. Before the name "Apple" was considered appropriate for a baby. Before (I'm told) ketchup came in colors besides red.

When I left the US, it was November 2002. When I return it will be September 2004. The whole of 2003 (not to mention most of 2004) was spent overseas, and while that means I didn't need to file taxes this year, it means a whole lot more. For starters, I've never seen "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy." I hope someone taped it for me? :)

When the United States invaded Iraq, I was touring the island of Tasmania, just off the coast of southern Australia. While Arnold Schwarzenegger was being elected Governor of California, I was volunteering in an Akha village in the north of Thailand. When Saddam was captured (why were we chasing him again?) I was in the small Laotian town of Luang Prabang. And so it goes with every major US event for the past 22 months - most of which I heard about weeks or even months after they occurred.

Not that I lamented my delays in information - US news has always been far too US-centric for my tastes, and frankly I enjoyed reading the English-language publications in the Asian and Pacific countries I was visiting. But, there were times when my self imposed media exile seemed wrong. Like when I found out my dad's girlfriend had moved in - from the answering machine message. Or, when my friend called me in Australia to tell me my childhood pet had gone to kitty heaven. Or, worse yet, when my best friend from college had to resort to email - to tell me her mom had died suddenly.

I've seen things in these past two years that most people can only dream about. I've had my picture taken in front of the Taj Mahal in India, walked the Great Wall in China, explored the ruins of Angkor Wat in Cambodia, and dove in the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. I've been in the world's most populated country (China) and in its least (Mongolia). I've been to a traditional Indian wedding and wept with the brides family, crushed a scorpion that crawled out from under my mattress minutes before I was about to sleep on it, witnessed cuddly koala bears fighting with a viciousness I never imagined possible and finally understood what Cat Stevens was singing about when I saw my "moon shadow" in the Outback in Australia. A trip of a lifetime to be sure.

Yet, amazingly enough, I've spent 22 months traveling and only really visited 9 countries on two continents: Australia, Singapore, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, The Philippines, India, China and Mongolia (I'm not counting visa runs and stop overs). Even adding in all the other countries I have ever visited (Mexico, Canada, Cuba, Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, The U.K., Spain, and the former Yugoslavia) that still only gives me 19 - out of the currently 192 countries recognized by the United States. Puts "seeing the world" into perspective doesn't it?

In less than 10 days, God, Buddha, Allah, and especially Mother Nature willing, my vagabond feet will find their way back to US soil. And, while some of you may find it strange, the thought scares me as much as it delights me. While I can't wait to see my friends and family, obtaining that reality means my current reality must come to an end. At least for now.

During my travels many people wrote and asked me if I was going to travel forever. I always laughed at that question - obviously it is impossible. But, the more I thought about it, the more I realized that - yes - I will travel forever (though, not continuously). Because that is how long it would take for me to "see the world" - and even then, success is far from guaranteed. I'm willing to take the risk.

(Sorry Dad - I know you thought it was "out of my system")

The "reality" of my current situation is that I've been "on the road" for longer than any job I've ever held - a fact that just dawned on me at this particular moment. Not exactly a "strength" prospective employers will want me to highlight, eh? And, don't even get me started on what I am going to do "next." It would be nice to tell you that my travels have suddenly clarified my purpose in life, but the sad truth is I'm about as lost, career wise, as I was before I left. Maybe the only difference is that my perspective for "what's out there" has broadened. Which, for better or worse, gives me more options to wade through.

I've met expats (expatriates) doing everything from Peace Corps work in Mongolia to running guesthouses in the Philippines to teaching English in China to technical consulting in Singapore to protesting in the U.K. And, frankly, it all sounds good to me. John Lennon said, "Life is what happens while your are busy making other plans." Well, lets just say I feel confident that my future includes some time making plans from countries other than the United States,

But, for now, I'm content to return to the country of my birth, a country I have learned to appreciate even more having been away. Isn't that always the case? Sure, the US is not perfect, but then I don't think there is a country who can qualify for that award. And, while I will still continue to hold my country up to what some might say are too high of standards, that is my right and a freedom I have - and one I realize I admire and appreciate very much.

I don't know what's in store for me when I return to the US. After I gorge myself on Honey Nut Cheerios, Kettle Corn Microwave Popcorn and Mrs. Smith's frozen apple pie (funny what you miss), I suppose I'll need to determine which fork in the road I'll take next. And, while the thought does occasionally keep me awake at night, in truth I'm pretty excited about the possiblities.

Helen Keller said, "Life is either a daring adventure or nothing at all." And I say, bring it on.