We are at the halfway point, the apex of this journey. For three months we’ve been climbing up from our monolingual, baffled-by-everything starting point, and now we’re teetering at the top, starting the long slide toward our return to “normal” life. In the grand tradition of Buzzfeed, where every article is “26 Male Celebs With Dimples That Will Melt Your Heart” and “20 Signs You are Definitely a Sagittarius”, I present to you “Three Things I’ve Learned (So Far) on this Journey.”
- I really like my children.
There are some judge-y parents out there who will be horrified by my counter-cultural confession that I feared unbuffered 24/7 time with my children more than druglords, malaria or kidnapping. Of course I love my children, but I have always found it easier to like them in small doses. But I don’t have that luxury here. Except when they are at school (which is happening with decreasing frequency), they are always — every single moment — within arm’s reach of me.
And one of my offspring is purportedly entering the Dark Years, the ones that other parents, upon hearing her age, shake their heads sympathetically and ask, “Has the crazy started yet?” This is terrifying for all parents, of course, but particularly for me after enduring a long set of very dark years — the first six of her life, in fact — where my feelings toward motherhood of this particular child were ambivalent at best.
But so far (and I’m knocking on wood here) the 24/7 togetherness has been lovely, a kissing-cousin of how I pictured motherhood before it actually fell on me like two crates of stubborn, opinionated, needy bricks. Here, without distractions and routines and to-do lists, we talk. Like, for real. Retta and I discuss John Green’s Paper Towns and whether you see a mirror (a reflection of your own thoughts and perceptions) more than a window (who they truly are) when you look at other people. And what matters in friendships and what happens when you die and how the Nazis got so many people to follow them and all the things I remember ruminating about, alone in my room with the Pretty in Pink soundtrack on repeat when I was a teenager. Jack and I play long “imagination games” while we are hiking or waiting or trapped somewhere: “Okay, so we’re in an orphanage for special kids — I’m really fast and strong, what do you want your superpower to be? Okay, so you’re like MacGyver and build stuff and we just figured out that the leaders of the orphanage are evil and are trying to make us into a team of villains so…” At home, with a long list of things to accomplish in limited time and infinite potential distractions, I found these games torturous. Here, when I can’t do anything else, it’s a fascinating window into my child’s worldview.
Of course, I already worry about what will happen when we return to Normal Life. They will have other social outlets with whom to Think Deep Thoughts while listening to angst-y music, or to debate the merits of ninja stars versus laser guns. And our conversations will be filled up with daily reports and the logistical minutiae of lunch-making and soccer carpools and homework. Is this just a magical interlude, or the foundation of something lasting? Either way, I already miss them.
- Values are dependent on cultural context
I mean, duh, right? Every educated liberal-progressive has had this drilled into their head: that what you believe is true and right and appropriate is completely dependent on the cultural context in which you live. But it’s a whole different experience to jump into a new cultural stew and watch your values slide toward its norm.
Take safety for example. The Kaiser Travel Clinic loaded us up with malaria medication, but the four locals we’ve asked here don’t bother with antimalarials, so we don’t either. I haven’t seen a seatbelt in three months. I routinely ride on the middle hump of the back seat, the location in an accident from which I would cannonball through the windshield. Nine people in a Jeep designed for five doesn’t make me blink, nor does following machete-wielding almost-strangers through the jungle, nor eating empanadas from a street cart.
Actually, they all make me blink once, slowly, in an “Should I be okay with this?” sort of way, before stepping into the risk.
I think most humans — at least adult humans and certainly the vast majority of parents — weigh risks against benefits in their decisions. But three months in Colombia have made me wonder if this driving desire to minimize risk down to zero, regardless of costs, to wrap ourselves in metaphorical bubble wrap so that absolutely nothing bad could get through to us, is a uniquely American phenomenon. It is partly a function of privilege, of course, to be able to afford a car that comes with enough seatbelts for each family member instead of traveling four to a motorscooter, or hanging off the back of a cheap, diesel-belching bus. But it’s a strong cultural norm. So strong that my American thought-process when weighing a risky action begins not with, “Am I okay with this risk?” but instead, “How will it look to others if the unlikely occurs?” And since it appears that Colombians would fully support my decision to let me kids ride on the back bumper — since they do it themselves — I’ve gone native. Of course, I’ll feel like an idiot when I’m wracked with a simulcast of malaria, dengue fever and chikungunya or huddled in a remote health clinic with a life-threatening injury, but I’ve discovered that this level of risk-taking is actually quite comfortable for me.
Customer service is another area where I’m rapidly adjusting to a new norm. Of the 32 countries I have visited in my life, Colombia is hands-down the friendliest. However, three months here has taught me that there is a vast chasm between personal friendliness and actual customer service. There seems, in Santa Marta at least, little to no attention paid to the comfort or convenience of a customer’s experience. Why post hours or prices when you can just show up and be surprised? Why pay online when there are so many friendly bank tellers happy to help you when they are done with the forty people in line in front of you? But while the processes are still frustrating, when a Colombian behind a counter smiles, it reaches all the way into their eyes. Which is a lovely change of pace from the US, where a smile often feels like a rote action from a twenty-point checklist of How To Treat Customers.
Expectations of punctuality. Formality of communications. Attitudes toward appropriate dress. All morphing. I wonder if — at the end of six months — there will be a category of values that hasn’t shifted under the relentless pressure of new surroundings. And how long those shifts will last when I’m back swimming in my own cultural stew.
- Wherever you go, there you are
The prevailing wisdom about travel is that it changes you in deep and profound ways. You come back a different person, wiser, more experienced, with new perspectives and values. And a life-changing experience was what I was aiming for: a crucible in which the negative trappings of my personality (all caused, of course, by the circumstances of my normal life) would melt away and my true self would emerge, beaming beatifically through the trials and tribulations that life tossed my way, calm, patient, self-aware, considerate.
This was not a rational expectation, obviously, nor even a conscious one, but it was there. Of course my impatience is caused by having too many demands on me. Of course my tendency to perseverate past all reason on potential scenarios was due solely to the pressures of my job. Of course I’m bad at remembering birthdays and picking out presents because I just don’t have time.
The already-enlightened among you are not surprised to hear that, even without the demands, without the job, with plenty of time, I’m still impatient, have absurdly high control needs, expend too much adrenaline on situations I can’t change, and get caught up in whether I am disappointing people whose opinions don’t really matter. Realizing this is both deeply disappointing — is this obsessive ball of stress actually the real me? — and perversely freeing — the choices I make about job/family/culture are not the problem.
But this crucible of travel has clarified some things as well, that I can take home. I love routine, for example. I can stop dismissing the comfort of schedules as bourgeois and close-minded; they make me happy, and my best self, and that is good. Also, I’m more introverted than I realized, and more pleasant to be around after three hours by myself; for the sake of myself and others, I shouldn’t fight that. There are other revelations, suspicions that had danced around the edges of my self-awareness, but these three months have brought them into sharp relief. And maybe that’s really what travel does: not so much “changes you” as shows you who you really are. Which provides you a good foundation for the hard work of change, or acceptance, or (sometimes) pretending you didn’t notice what you learned.
And now I begin to wonder what the next three months will teach me….