Sunday, March 8, 2009

The Great Homecoming

By the time mid December had rolled around, the school year had reached its annual finale with a VERY inspirational 6th grade graduation. In addition to that, our projects had mostly run their courses, and the flood refugees, as much as I cared for and enjoyed them, had brought me to a new level of “end of the year burnout”. I was at a point of having fulfilled many of the original intentions for the “year abroad”, a year that had brought a few highs, a disproportionate number of lows, and many more challenges than had been anticipated. The holiday season was upon us, so after celebrating my first “Purisima” here in Nicaragua several days prior (think a mix of Halloween, Christmas, and 4th of July……..all from a CATHOLIC point of view ), I found myself getting up in the wee hours of the morning and driving east in the direction of the airport. It was time to decompress…..relax….recover a bit……process the year. Exactly 11 months to the day after flying south from Colorado, the time had come for the migration in the northern direction. The time had come, that is, for a vacation.

For several weeks leading up to my flight, I had been thinking about my re-entry into the” first world”. I had been away for almost one year and had grown quite accustomed to Managuan life. But even beyond that, I had grown accustomed to the “lower end” of Nicaraguan life and culture, to the point that I had recently experienced a bit of “culture shock” upon going to the one nice mall in town. And in anticipating the probability of a similar experience on a much larger scale, I was nervously asking myself “What’s it going to be like back in the US?????”

The first answers began to emerge as soon as my flight touched down in Houston. I entered the airport, an airport that suddenly seemed so……absolutely enormous……clean……sterile……luxurious. I entered into the immigration area.
“wow…….so many CLEARLY MARKED lines……so ORDERLY……so…….”

“Sweet Maria! I’ve never seen so many flat screens in one place! And what’s that video they’re playing? It’s just so……so…..inspirational! But what is it for? Is it a commercial? Music video? Travel show? The music…..the scenery…..the cinematography……so professionally produced……the….yes, the PEOPLE……so incredibly attractive and happy! I don’t know where that is, but I WANT TO GO! I want to go NOW! I want to……….hang on a second. I think I’m already THERE! Because THERE is…..well…’s……HERE! Yes, it IS a commercial of sorts. But it’s a commercial for AMERICA. Sure enough, that’s exactly what it is…..a commercial for America, right here in the middle of the immigration line. I’m literally watching a promotional video for my country as I’m standing in a line, waiting to be allowed INTO the SAME country. But that seems, well, odd. Are they trying to inspire us to stay IN the line? As if there would be people who get this far but still find themselves on the proverbial fence? Like…….

…..uh oh…I’m three….two….one person away from showing my passport. Uhhhh….should I…….wait…..uh! I don’t know what I’m going to do! I THOUGHT I wanted to go in, but now I’m not sure if I can commit! No! I can’t! What was I thinking??!!!! I have to get out of this line…this airport….this country!!! NOW! I have to leave right…….oh….but….oh wow…..that scenery….music………if THAT’S the US, I want to be a part of that! I absolutely LOVE IT!!! I WANT IT! CRAVE IT! I WILL stay in this line! I WILL enter this country! Thank you flat screen TV’s! Thank you USA marketing team! Thank You HOUSTON AIPORT! May God bless you….and may God bless the United States of America!!!!!

……..NEXT!.......passport please.

Or maybe they want us to feel good…..or perhaps better…..about the decision we had already made at that point. Like…….

I don’t know what I was thinking. This first world stuff is BUNK! USA… in Utterly Stupid Attempt… being a country. Uh…I REALLY hate it here. Why did I come back? BAD decision. Stupid! Stupid! Stupid! But…wait…..(enter video once again resulting in similar scenario as reported above).

I don’t know, I suppose it really was a great video. And YES….I MAY have even teared up a bit (if you tell anyone, I’ll TOTALLY deny that) in that line, passport in hand. But it did strike me as a bit odd….and INCREDIBLY EXPENSIVE to produce and exhibit on all of those flat screen TVs.
But with such questions still lingering, I showed my passport, denied any involvement in criminal activity abroad (um….mam, could you be more specific about how you define “criminal activity”?), and passed through the gates into the designated “free” (as in liberty….not dollars) part of the country.

Next stop? Baggage claim in order to retrieve my bags and then re-check them domestically. Initial impressions of THIS area? Again……so large….clean…..and……

”I wonder how much those decorative suitcases that light up on top of EVERY carousel cost this airport (i.e. taxpayers)?”

After dealing with the bags, it was on to the gate. While en route, I noticed yet another circle of TVs in the ceiling, this time displaying various artistic designs in unison. In fact, I was so struck by them, I had to stop and count them. 82. “Unbelievable”, I thought, “this really IS the land of plenty”.

Moving on to the gate. I think besides the……CART!!!......besides the sheer “abundance” . That is, besides being struck by the……..MOVE TO THE RIGHT!......uh…sorry……the overt excess of it all, I noticed…….BEEP BEEP!!!......CART COMING THROUGH!!!.......

FOR CRYING OUT LOUD! Apart from me, does anyone WALK to their gate anymore????? This is like a super highway!!!!!!!!

OK…sorry about that. Where was I? Oh yes. Another thing that stuck me immediately upon arriving to Houston was the ability to understand EVERYTHING around me. And this one really was nice. Don’t get me wrong. I’ve come a long way in the last year with respect to the language. I work and function exclusively in Spanish on a daily basis and have immersed into the culture with relative success. But there is still SO MUCH that I miss both culturally and linguistically as I go about my average day. As I am reminded often, the old saying can certainly be true. The devil IS often in the details, and I can easily find myself in a bit of a jam as a result. But here in THIS country, I could understand EVERYTHING!!! All these people around me? Understood. That lady complaining about her boyfriend on her cell phone? Crystal clear. Ahhhh… nice. I mean……excuse me for a moment……

“what….he did WHAT? Oh no he di-int! Yes honey….you SHOULD call it off with that loser…..the sooner the better! He doesn’t deserve you! You’re better than that! You got to be tru to YO-SELF!.”

Again….I apologize for the interruption. It’s a bit difficult to describe this one, but I think it falls under the category of “depth of understanding”, an intangible yet vital aspect of finding one’s way in a given culture. In my new life, it’s an ever-present challenge, and I often times tend to run a bit shallow. Here in the USA, I’m happy to report that I am one deep muchacho.
“aaaahhhh……it’s good to be home”.

Well, after my first visit to Starbucks in a year (HOW MUCH for the muffin????), several hours of people-watching (everyone is so LARGE…..and…..PALE), and the final leg of the journey (pleasantly uneventful), I was back home in Colorado with just enough time to catch the sunset over the Rockies. Beautiful. Home Sweet Home.

Here in Nicaragua, in an attempt to elevate and fortify my seemingly pathetic and puny immune system (definitely on the list of “challenges” from last year), I take a LOT of Vitamin C. The actual TAKING of various dietary supplements is no problem. OBTAINING them, on the other hand, even something as simple as Vitamin C can be, like many other things around here, easier said than done. If I’m lucky and time it just right, there will be one or two bottles of the ONE type of Vitamin C at the ONE store where I can find it on a regular basis. If not…..well, maybe next time. Bearing this in mind, you can imagine my shock as I stood, mouth open, in front of the literal WALL of Vitamin C. It was Day 2 of “re-entry 08”, and I had just walked into the local Whole Foods store.

“I don’t know what to say…..what to think…..or where to even begin. I just need a small bottle of C…….mam? Excuse me…….mam? Um, I think I’m going need a bit of assistance over here in the C aisle!”

Whole Foods.....definitely one of my favorite stores in the traditional sense. I mean I really enjoy food…..APPRECIATE it……..QUALITY food, that is……the flavors…..cultures…….idea of what it can represent between friends and family. I’m not sure if I’d be considered a true “foodie” (nope, don’t watch the food network), but I HAVE been known to have a truly great day simply as a result of enjoying the perfect mango in the AM. And coffee? I won’t even get started.

I was EXCITED to come to Whole Foods, and it had only been a year since my last visit. But as I passed through the aisles…..the produce section…..bulk foods…….seafood…….prepared foods…..bakery…….Asian……Italian…….well, you get the idea……I have to admit that it was a bit overwhelming. I think the best way I can explain it is that it felt as though EVERY nation on Earth had taken a collection of the absolute BEST foods that their perspective cultures had to offer and sent them to this ONE Whole Foods in a remote corner of Colorado Springs ON THE SAME DAY! As if there was some type of annual food festival for the entire WORLD, and I had just happened to be at the right place at the right time.

“Good Afternoon Whole Food Shoppers! TODAY ONLY…….we’re featuring the best of……EVERYTHING!!!!!! Enjoy your shopping.”

Yea, definitely a bit overwhelming. In fact, I wasn’t even able to finish my much anticipated “tour de samples” due to complete sensory overload. The second half of the store would have to wait for another day. I had had enough for day 2, and reverse culture shock was in full effect………..

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