After a year of adventure and the unexpected, we’re back at our home in the US. We are settling into a life that is both familiar and unsettlingly different. I’ve gained some new perspectives over the past year, and I wonder whether they will endure:
Friends and family
For the first time since last December, we’ve seen familiar faces in person! We have wonderful neighbors, and it’s been a treat to see them and catch up. COVID has kept us from seeing family members in other states, and we are very much looking forward to the time when we can visit them safely. During the past year we were often surrounded by people, but our interactions were always fleeting: a tour guide for a day or two; a restaurant server for an hour; or a cashier for a minute. I’m not naturally very social, and this anonymity often suited me. Until I got home I didn’t realize how much I missed seeing friends and family.
Our 1920’s-era house is small by American standards: new homes average nearly 1000 sq. ft. larger. In many ways ours feels huge though. In the past year we’ve spent plenty of time living in tiny apartments and hotel rooms. Back in our own house, we can spread out and even avoid each other if we want to. There is more privacy. The boys, after sharing a bedroom for many years, have moved into separate rooms.
For the first time in more than 12 months, we can take a break from searching for apartments and hotel rooms. It is a huge relief. It’s incredibly stressful to not know where you’re going to sleep next. I feel like I’ve caught a glimpse of the uncertainty and pressure faced by those who are in this situation by circumstance rather than by choice.
We’ve gotten most of our stuff out of storage by now and are unpacking boxes and re-hanging pictures on the walls. We traveled for an entire year with around 150lbs of gear, and for the most part that didn’t feel limiting. In fact, that much gear often felt excessive (did I really need hiking shoes and Allbirds and sandals and flip-flops?). Back home, every room of our house holds 150lbs (or more) of stuff. We were quickly overwhelmed by having so many things around us. Clothes, books, toys, kitchen gadgets, miscellaneous electronics, knick-knacks….the list is seemingly infinite. One lesson from the trip is how little we need to own in order to have a perfectly reasonable lifestyle. We’ve started to purge some of the clutter and excess, and I hope we can keep that mentality. Ask me in a year how it’s going.
It’s summertime! We haven’t experienced much summer in the past year, and I didn’t realize how much I missed it. It’s warm here at home, and the sun goes down late. We canceled the ‘hot’ part of our itinerary (Australia, Southeast Asia, and Japan) due to COVID, and temperatures in the 40s + 50s were our norm for most of the year. We’re not used to temperatures above 70°!
Compared with the US, many other countries seem to invest more in the welfare of families and children. This manifests in so many ways, such as affordable health care or playgrounds with clean public restrooms nearby. Given the relative wealth of the US, we can do much, much better.
On being an American abroad
We honeymooned in Brazil in late 2004; the 2004 election and US invasion of Iraq were both in the news. One day we took an excursion on a boat, and some locals on the trip asked us what we thought of then-President Bush. We explained in a mishmash of Portuguese, Spanish, English, and gesticulation that we were supremely disappointed in our president and were horrified by the bungled war he had started in Iraq. After this revelation the locals visibly relaxed and were much friendlier toward us. This incident, while brief, was an eye-opener for me. It was the first time I understood that part of my role as a tourist was as an ambassador responsible for sharing some of the nuance and complexity of my own country. It was also a reminder that people in other countries pay lots of attention to the United States, even though that attention is generally not reciprocal (in 2004, did you know who was the president of Brazil? I didn’t).
Fast-forward to 2019 and 2020. As tourists, and especially American tourists, we played a number of different roles. In some places people saw us as nothing more than walking ATMs ready to dispense wads of cash in exchange for mediocre goods and indifferent service. In parts of South America, we were viewed with a combination of envy and pity: we came from a rich but violent and morally-bankrupt society where everyone has plenty of food and big houses, but there are gunfights on every corner. On a number of occasions guides or locals were shocked we knew anything at all about their part of the world: Americans are supposed to be ignorant. Many Europeans seemed to feel sorry for us: our society had everything needed to become more civilized, except the will to actually do so. Some people we encountered were relieved we didn’t live up to the “loud and obnoxious” stereotype, and I am sure there are others who were annoyed that we lived up to the “loud and obnoxious” stereotype. Many countries seem to have a low-grade fear that America, with all its might, will do something (intentionally or not), to hurt them (war, economic policy, climate change, etc). On a few occasions I got the impression that locals didn’t mind my tourist dollars but would otherwise prefer that I not be there. I wonder if travelers from, say, Canada have similar experiences.
In such a large, complex world all of these viewpoints contain both truths and inaccuracies. We tried to be gracious guests, respecting local norms and (when appropriate) sharing our experiences from America – both good and bad. Sometimes this meant describing the beauty and wonder of our National Parks or the endless choice available in supermarkets. There were also discussions about health care, gun violence, and politics (the electoral college is especially baffling to the rest of the world). Yet other times we found ourselves explaining that our fresh fruit wasn’t as good as what’s available locally, or that many of our roads were also festooned with giant potholes.
Virtually everywhere we went we also found warmth and smiles. For the most part people were proud to share their world with us. Travel is, at its core, really about learning and understanding.
Some other observations from the road
- Same-day shipping is amazing, and we are spoiled to have access to it.
- The same thing must be said for potable tap water…
- …and central heating.
- Pringles chips are available everywhere. Kellogg’s must earn a fortune from them.