Old Life, New Eyes

“As surely as there is a voyage away, there is a journey home.”  — John Kabat-Zinn

One of my most vivid memories of my college summer in Russia didn’t occur in Russia at all, but instead on my first day back in the United States.  I had flown straight back to my unfurnished apartment and was waiting for my roommates to show up with pans and cutlery and linens.  I sat in the middle of the floor, eating lettuce out of a bag with my bare hand, reading a Cosmo quiz about sex, and I was swamped by a wave of conflicting emotion.  On the one hand, this was heaven: lettuce and fashion and English and familiarity.  On the other hand, it was excessive and unnecessary and strangely foreign-feeling.

So I’m familiar with the odd dichotomies of coming home.

For the last two weeks, I’ve danced joyfully through a honeymoon phase where everything is easy and familiar and I’m giddily, sloppily in love with my hometown and my life.  Except for sometimes.  Except for those few darker moments, when I think, “Really? This is my normal?  This is how we do it here?  Oh, no.  Definitely not.  That is not going to work for me.”  Because seeing every-day, ho-hum-to-you items through fresh eyes is enlightening and gratitude-inducing — and occasionally painful, embarrassing or a bit alarming. My old life, through my new eyes.


photo 1Hey, you guys, you know what comes out of this device?  Clean, drinkable water.  I know, right?  And it works 24 hours a day.  You don’t have to go to any stores or schlep any bottles or arrange delivery of anything.  Just turn it on and BAM.  Thirst quenched.  Know what else?  You can adjust the temperature.  Yep.  Say you want it cold, for drinking.  Done.  Or warm for getting the oil off your hands.  It does that too.  It is unspeakably incredible.  And one other thing: these exist all over the place, even in public places.  You just walk up and drink whenever you want.  Wow, right? It makes the idea of selling bottled water in a place like this seem so, well, excessive and unnecessary and not a little pretentious.


photo 2 (15)This is like a Personal Destiny Control Device.  I can go wherever I want, whenever I want.  No bustling confusion over which bus, which coins/bills, whether there is seat and who to give my seat up for.  No stultifyingly repetitive chitchat with a taxi driver — “Have you lived here your whole life?”  “We have lived here for four months.”  “To learn Spanish, although it’s hard here, since costenos speak so rapidly.”  “No, my children speak better than I do.  They are like sponges.”  “We love Colombia; the people are muy amable.”  (I feel hives developing even as I type those statements.)  Just me and this vehicle and a thousand lane-line-marked roads with stop signs that apparently mean something and honks that occur only in truly life-or-limb-threatening emergencies.

After six months without this dizzying degree of freedom, muscle memory kicked in and I made it to work without really having to think about it.  What I do have to think about is seatbelts, an item unavailable in much of South America.  We were two miles down Harbor Drive, leaving the airport, when I asked my kids if anyone had remembered to buckle up.  “Seat belts!!” they both cried out in delight.  “We forgot to even look for them!!”


photo (34)Aren’t these the prettiest things you’ve ever seen in your whole life?  I actually squealed when I pulled them out of storage, which is not very serious-intellectual-anti-consumerism-feminist of me, but come on.  They’re gorgeous.  And then, when I hopped up from my desk in my flip-flop-and-hiking-shoe frame of mind, I stumbled and bounced off both my bookshelf and my wall, leaving a bruise on my shoulder.  But still…


photo (37)This is mine.  All mine.  No one else’s Google Hangout alerts appear on it.  Every single greasy fingerprint is mine.  And I can call people, without referring to my cheat-sheet of how to make phone calls in Colombia.  And when I call, the person answers in English and I understand them the first time.  Even if the connection is a little crackly, there is no need for heart palpitations or sweaty palms.  The downside?  People expect me to answer it in a unreasonably timely manner.  There’s no three-day, “I’m-in-the jungle” lag while I think about how (or even if) I want to answer their queries.  It’s oddly constraining, and no me gusta.  I’m starting to get a little compulsive about its symbolism as a shackle to my old hamster-wheel-busy life — you know, not checking it, “forgetting” to bring it places, staring at it malevolently out of the corner of my eye as I walk past. It’s surpassed even my hair dryer as The Symbol of All That Is Wrong With Modern American Life, and that’s saying something.


photo 3Omigosh, do you see this? This is four different types of greens, people, all washed and ready to eat — raw even, if I feel like it. Oh, and if I want to wash them again — which sounds ridiculous to me, frankly — I can, and I don’t have to painstakingly dry each piece. And cheese in many flavors. Also beer made with hops. Not that Aguila, the Colombian national beer, is made completely sin hops, but I’m pretty sure they just wave them over the top of the fermentation tank, kind of like the makers of Bud Light do. I had one of these with pulled pork, and one with a thin-crust pizza, and one with this amazing steak-and-shrimp burrito smothered in hot sauce. They go with everything; you should try one. Oh, wait, you probably have fridge full of them and think it’s no biggie. (Lucky bastards…)


photo (35)

I used to think that public toilets were a little gross. Not that I ever took seriously those inflammatory articles about how fecal matter is flung into the air every time a toilet is flushed — and by the way, if that’s your big worry about public toilets, how lucky are you!? — but still not my favorite experience. But do you see this place? Not only does the toilet have a seat — no need to squat! — but there are paper seat covers to make you doubly safe from germs. And toilet paper is provided. You don’t have to BYO. For six months, I had a wad of toilet paper in every pocket, which wreaked havoc with every load of laundry.

When we landed in Dallas, after flying out of Lima, I did something I hadn’t done in half a year: *I dropped the toilet paper in the toilet*. No open trash can that you aim for without looking in because, wow. No one wants to see that. And no dubious lidded trash can that you try to figure out how not to touch. IT WAS AWESOME. But after two weeks, it still feels oddly furtive, like I’m rule-breaking.


photo 2

Apparently, we are incredibly dirty, hairy, snotty, ugly, stinky human beings in our house. Because this is one of TWO bins full of toiletries and related products that I had to unpack when we got back. I could open a CVS with this stuff (and that’s ignoring the fact that somehow we have accumulated — no joke — seven separate cans of athlete’s foot spray and four enormous “back-up” bottles of mouthwash). We survived — nay, thrived — for six months with a mere handful of lotions and potions, and judging from the photos, we don’t look like homeless Yetis, so…. what’s this all for?


photo 3 (5)Check out this car.  It is huge. Like, unnecessarily enormous. The public buses in Santa Marta were approximately this size, and they carried up to 30 people. Also, on occasion, a 10-gallon bucket of fish stashed in the aisle, but I’m not saying your average Chevy Tahoe really needs to do that. Here, apparently, these vehicles — the size of some Colombian houses, by the way — exist to carry around one small-ish woman with a Starbucks cup. And the drivers here are so *angry.* I know I ranted for six months about what awful drivers Colombians are but it seemed due to the distracting party going on in their heads at all times, and a much greater acceptance of mortality. Their honks were of the heads-up-I’m-running-the-stop-sign variety, not the my-anger-fueled-self-importance-is erupting-like-a-volcano-all-over-the-highway kind I feel here. In general, this vague cloud of pathological rush-rushingness and excruciating entitlement — my meeting/daycare/errand is more important that yours — is making my head spin. And not just on the roads. Approximately 300 times a day, I find myself thinking, “Whoa, there, buddy. Slow down. Take a deep breath. I don’t think your [coffee order/print job/parking spot] is really worth this tidal wave of emotion.” I never thought I would say this, but a little inefficiency is good for you.


(I’m forgoing a photo, to protect the innocent bystanders of my reverse culture shock).  Until I went to the mall and the beach here in San Diego, I hadn’t realized how skinny-strong Colombians are.  Of course, not everyone was stringy and colt-kneed like the kids; the mannequins that make J-Lo look like Kate Moss exist for a reason, and older Colombian women have a tendency to go battleship-shaped like in Greece and Russia, solid prow pushing through crowds.  But everyone was so solid.  Nothing doughy or squishy or jiggly or soft.  (Here I will pause and request that this observation not trigger a exercise-and-diet-binge among the borderline-unhealthy-about-this-issue among us. I’m not referring to you; you look great and I hope you can find peace and love your body, just as I hope all these people I just called “doughy” will, because this obsession with weight in the U.S. now strikes me as a bit boring and self-indulgent.)

The preponderance of translucently-pale skin here is jarring, too, and obviously a significant change from Santa Marta, where the browner-skinned make up 99.9% of the population (the four of us and the staff of the Israeli dive shop comprising the other 0.1%…).  Of course, to be fair, it’s summer in San Diego and the fleets of minivans with Kansas, Michigan and Pennsylvania license plates are all in town, which changes the shape and color of my hometown every year.  But still, it’s strange to notice things about Colombia after returning home.


photo (36)And then there’s this.  I mean, seriously: on-demand dog walking?  For six months, I’ve been surrounded by two types of dogs: strays, who provided uncurated daily lessons for my children in sex, death and power, and guard dogs, who lunged heart-stoppingly at us everywhere.  So I’m having my trouble wrapping my head around a culture where we aren’t able to walk our own dogs and instead call someone: “Hey, Rover needs to go out, so can you just come over and take care of that for me?”  Really? I am struggling mightily with the idea that there isn’t space for more important, or relevant jobs, like, say, growing food, or teaching children, or curing cancer, but sure, we’ll totally get behind Uber-for-your-dog-poop.


And then there’s something that can’t be photographed:  the amorphous, stifling pressure to slip right back into my pre-sabbatical routines and habits, to go right back into the Old Me, ignoring all the work and growth I did over the last six months.  The muscle-memory that tightens my shoulders as I start my commute home.  The well-worn grooves in my brain planning how I’ll complete a task with the maximum possible efficiency.  The temptation to make lists and check items off and get it done and make everything — toenails, front porch, dinner, Facebook post — perfect.  Ugh.

The other day, on the one-week anniversary of our return, I took the long way home through City Heights, a neighborhood which boast 126 separate languages and suffers from not-insignificant poverty.  I was so happy to read the signs in Spanish, to see the pushcart vendors and the curvaceous mannequins, and to take a brief break from the scrubbed, shiny, perfection-seeking blandness that fills my zip code.  And I realized that it felt familiar and that I may be the teeniest bit homesick for Colombia.  So I guess this reverse culture shock is really a thing.

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2 thoughts on “Old Life, New Eyes

  1. Dear Karpos,
    Seems the adventure is winding down so I must comment is case this is the last of the Columbian saga. Stefanie Smith-Jones is my niece and Tom and I wrote to you when you were first looking for a place to spend six months. We are the sailing gypsies who have lived outside the US for most of our adult life. Your writing has made us laugh, giggle, shed a few well worn tears and mostly stirred wonderful and poignant memories of our times living and working as expats around the world. Your insights are so amazingly spot on and you have truly put into wonderfully well wrought words so many of our own personal experiences. This last one on reentry was particularly enjoyable as we have now elected to return to the US for six months a year, keeping one foot still firmly on deck in the Caribbean. We also have experienced so many of those confused mixtures of both welcoming the comforts and ease of our native country while finding so many of the excesses jarring and frustrating. Welcome home and thank you for taking the time and energy to share your expat adventure. You are a superb writing and we have certainly enjoyed each entry. We’ll miss them.

    Kathy Wagner

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    • Dear Kathy, Thank you SO MUCH for your words. They mean so much to me. I started this blog to keep my mom and mother-in-law satiated, and to see what writing about my experiences was like. But knowing that people like you have enjoyed it, and seen their own experiences reflected means so much to me! It makes all my angst about letting people inside my head worth it. And for what it’s worth, every time I see Stefanie’s photos on Facebook when she visits you, I have to wipe the drool off my keyboard… Thank you again for telling me you liked the blog! Becca

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