The Ending

Trip Start Feb 14, 2006
Trip End Aug 2006

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Flag of United States  , Colorado
Sunday, August 13, 2006

Coming back to America didn't start well for me. It was 19 hours in a plane, and 40-some hours total from Easter Island to Durango, with plane changes in Santiago, Atlanta and Denver. I cannot sleep on planes. Half of Dad's and my checked bags didn't make it past Atlanta, and the shuttle driver who took us home overcharged us and refused to help us with our heavy, overloaded luggage.

It was noon. I took a three hour nap and tried to make a little of the day. But it was hard to get moving, and I couldn't get a hold of a friend in town to hang out. When I did, conversation was difficult. Dad had also just moved into a new place while I was gone, but the loft was nice enough, in town, and comfortable. I was happy to be out of the woods.

I wouldn't even say I was suffering from terrible reverse culture shock. My euphoria at returning was simply dampened by physical exhaustion. All I really wanted to do was stare at the hills and accept that, finally, I was home

But even that wouldn't have been enough. What I longed for, I guess, was to get some kind of grip on what had changed about me in those five months. Attempting to keep track of it while it was happening would have been like watching grass grow. And in no way did I, or do I currently, expect to see the big picture, or to capture the subtle shifts in my perspective.

In the weeks before, when asked to summarize my trip, I'd often made the sarcastic, callous remark that "it was a long lesson in overcoming obstacles." After all, I'd been a walking disease for over half of the time, and my host family often seemed to care less about making me feel "comfortable" than they did about making sure I wasn't "uncomfortable" (...while turning a profit).

But focusing on the difficulties of my life in Chile would have been to ignore half of the picture. After all, I'd traveled extensively, set eyes on new lands, observed a novel people and absorbed new manners of interpreting aspects of daily life and culture. At least that's the brochure's version of my experiences.

But, without using terms that sound like catchphrases, how could I possibly sum up what I got out of five months away from home? Had enough time passed for me to actually process it? Now, days afterward, even putting down an open-ended conclusion feels a tall task.

But coincidence helped me out. A man who'd been writing a travelogue in the local paper published his "coming home" article the day before I got home, August 6th, and that issue was waiting on the counter at the loft. He'd driven his BMW motorcycle from the northern reaches of Alaska, to the southern tip of South America and back up to Brazil in 10 months. You can find copies of the articles at his website:

On paper, it's a journey anyone would be envious of, but I'd read several of his previous articles and they'd enraged me. Jeremiah had made factual errors: he claimed once to have ridden into Lima, Perú from the north and through the Atacama Desert, which actually sits several hundred miles to the south of Lima on the border with Chile.

He'd also made statements that were culturally ignorant and insulting. Describing a plane flight from Panama to Colombia a few months ago, he wrote this:

"I drew the middle seat. To my left was an 800-pound gorilla wearing dark sunglasses and a cheap suit, clutching a briefcase as though his life depended on it. Maybe it did. The flight attendant asked him several times to stow it in the overhead compartment-he simply stared straight ahead, sweating profusely. To my right was a 65-year-old woman trying desperately to look 55, kissing her rosary while making the sign of the cross .... We sailed over snow-capped peaks barely breaking above the clouds and tropical forests so dense the light never hit the ground. From this altitude you couldn't see the narco-traffickers, the paramilitaries, the FARC guerillas, the corrupt police, or the muggers and thieves that everyone was so worried about. The infamous coca fields were simply part of the blue-green patchwork of color that looked more inviting than threatening. I couldn't wait to touch down ..." ("Into the Belly of the Beast," 12/5/2005).

He went on to say some very kind things about Colombia, and to denote some positive experiences in the towns he traveled through. But the previous passage was unforgivable to me. To the best of my knowledge, in today's Colombia, most of the drug operations are run out of the country's jungles and, yes, are tied to the guerilla movements that operate in those areas. But those areas are mostly in the south of Colombia. One would not fly over them coming from Panama City. Perhaps the more obvious thing to point out is that not every Colombian who can afford a plane ticket is tied to the drug trade. Not every man in a suit who refuses to give up his suitcase is a thug carrying dirty money. Every plane flight I took in Latin America was just a mess; no one, no one, followed regulations or listened to the flight attendants. Besides, some people just dislike airplanes.

In a sense, what I read in that article was an only slightly veiled xenophobia-the kind of xenophobia from those who consider themselves "global citizens" simply because they are well-traveled. It's the worst kind, in my opinion.

I failed to understand how a man could fail to see that a BMW motorcycle was more than just transportation. It was a barrier between him and the people he was meeting. Perhaps, he'd assumed that a vehicle that was open to the elements would somehow bring him more in contact with culture-not just with the wind and rain. Being a westerner makes it difficult enough to relate to another person, but such an obvious display of wealth couldn't have helped. That bicycle likely poisoned the well in every town he stopped in, simply because it would have caused a stir in the community to see him ride in, and the brand name on the bike would have branded him as a wealthy gringo. The locals would have treated him like something more than just another guest; giving him only one look at their lives.

On the flight home, I read a book by a Scotsman who walked across Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban (The Places In Between, by Rory Stewart). That, it seemed to me, was a brilliant way to try and find truth in a foreign people-on foot, dressed in local clothing, speaking the regional dialects. The closer one gets to the ground, the more genuine they become, and the more genuine their interactions are.

One the other side, there was this Durangoan Che impersonator. But seemed to make some progress as the articles went along, I'll admit, and offered glimmers of hope that he wasn't simply another wealthy American with spare cash and too much free time. And for a man who'd lived in Durango for 30 years, the trip couldn't help but be a growing experience. It would have been so for anyone.

But, returning to the point, his closing article disappointed me. Basically, he attempted to underline the differences he saw between the Durango he returned to and the places he'd visited. He was struggling to make sense of all of the change he'd seen in 800-odd words.

First, he criticized the "new" Durango, only 10 months different from when he left, as having "more people, more condos, more cars, more noise, more congestion, more everything ..." He didn't think to consider that, perhaps, his perspective had changed or that he might have idealized his hometown during his absence. Change, of course, is inevitable. And Durango really doesn't seem all that different to me now.

Next, he denoted "three" things about American society that had become "foreign" to him:

--1: "The richness of its soil." A poor pun that he translates into: " This country is awash in cash and all of the material possessions it can buy ... Talk of a downturn in our economy merely means that most Americans can afford only the 40-inch flat-screen TV instead of the 50-inch model."

--2: "Americans enjoy a degree of convenience unparalleled in human history ... we can obtain virtually anything, anytime, and for far less than it would cost the world's average citizen - even if it were available to them, and usually it's not."

--3: "...arguably a product of the former two: our manic lifestyle." ("No Place like Home, 8/6/06)

No, that's not arguable, it's obvious. The fact of the matter is that all three points are really the same one; he's just criticizing American materialism, as if it were entirely unique to us-or, rather, that we took it to a new degree. The points are valid enough, though they are sprinkled with hyperbole. Most Americans cannot afford a flat screen television. Many cannot even afford to drive a car. An astounding proportion cannot even buy health insurance.

But by noticing these things, and only these things, the writer displayed that he, too, is a materialist. He ends by saying he sees America through the eyes of an outsider nowadays, "often great, but needlessly selfish," and recommends that we "plot a new course-as global citizens-wherein we learn to share." But that's all he sees. It's cliché to criticize Americans in terms of consumption; it's something we'd all like to see change, but for the moment it seems to be a given. And it's not unique to us.

Not even a week back in the country, I couldn't possibly name all of the differences I see between Chile and America, nor the similarities. Are Americans the only materialists in the world? Certainly not. I saw my host mother and sister pore over an Avon catalogue for hours every odd week, getting ready to make the next makeup order-which arrived in a box almost too heavy to lift. Many Chileans were purchasing those damned flat-screen Tvs, and racking up such astounding credit card debt that it's surprising anyone would trust them with the little sheets of plastic. A friend of mine saw a Chilean man ask if he could make a $12 pharmacy purchase in three payments on his credit card. I even saw a truck and SUV craze hitting the country, where gas is up around $5 a gallon.

Rising prosperity, it seems, drives people to consume more, even if that means consuming irresponsibly.

What other differences are there? Well, I've noticed that the ritual acts of greeting and parting in Chile, shaking hands and kissing on the cheek, are often saved in the US for instances in which one wants to show respect or special affection. I remember noting the symptoms of a predominantly Catholic society as compared to a predominantly protestant one-both of which are often quite secular. I saw a society in Chile that placed a very high value on spending time with family, but in which one rarely made friends far outside the family. My host family knew none of their neighbors' names, for example. But all of these subjects are mired in complexity, and I've summarized them in far too superficial of a way.

If I already knew that nothing in life is black and white, the subtlety and complexity in life has grown even more obvious to me-as has the danger of sinking into total relativism. Either way, I appreciate the exercise of interacting with other cultures, of attempting to look through the eyes of others, to see the infinite facets to every issue. Traveling reminds me of the irresponsibility in acting righteous and in making assumptions. I, of course, continue to do both of those things ...

Furthermore, I believe I've come to understand certain things that were unclear to me the first few times I left this country. For instance, no matter how much interaction I have with other cultures, I will forever remain an American. And, as I've already alluded to, when one attempts to highlight stark differences between peoples, they usually fail to comprehend their, at turns tragic, comical and profoundly unifying similarities. Either way, it seems that all of our souls are bound to tap out the rhythm of the same tune, even if we play it with different instruments and sing in different tongues.

(If that last sentence was a bit clichéd, forgive me.)

Every time I've gone overseas, I've viewed it as an opportunity to come back new, different, to seize the opportunity to begin again. Perhaps that's foolish and idealistic; new beginnings don't come easily or gracefully, and rarely pan out as one would hope for. Watching the past drift away and out of reach is liable to make me feel lethargic, even lost-as if in I were caught a process well beyond my control. When life is in constant motion, closure is very hard to come by. And there's no need to obsess over it.

And if life is that endlessly onward march to the sea that I've long believed it is, in which every person you meet and every place you see marks you in a way that you will carry forever, then the effects of those interactions and encounters are neither singular nor concrete. Chile will influence my future, and my future will influence the ways in which I will look back on Chile.

What changed in me? Ask me tomorrow, and you might well get a different answer.

How's that for an open-ended conclusion?
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