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Arriving in America

In the "Cult of Escapism": Arriving in America

Monday, May 28, 2012

Arriving in America

I visited the States from May 4th – 13th, mostly to see my sister graduate, but also to see family and friends, many of whom I hadn't seen in almost two years. The trip consisted of three days in the Boston area and six in New York City. Here are lots of thoughts and impressions after going back:

First, kudos to the Atlanta airport staff – they treated us like human beings, rather than inmates. The process was pretty ridiculous, but at least the staff was nice about it. It makes me laugh that when you get to America, they assume that whatever security you passed on your way in was not adequate and you have to do the whole process again, only with more security measures and less friendliness. Also, why can't those x-ray machines see through your shoes? They can see through your body, with all the bones and stuff, why not a little leather or cloth?
Excited for my first meal in America, I toured the Atlanta food court for a cheap option that wasn't McDonald’s. I don't remember smoking crack on the first flight but I must have been to be delusional enough to think that there'd be a cheap option in an airport. After subduing my shock, I went to Qdoba and got an $8 burrito. After a soda and tax, I ended up spending literally as much as I make in one day. At least it came with chips (which were terrible, but I ate all of them anyway. Of course).
Arriving in America, I wondered what would make me happy and what would make me angry about being around Americans again. Leaving Atlanta, the captain announced that we would have a 25 minute delay on the tarmac and the passengers collectively groaned and a few actually shouted in outrage. I internalized the news without a noise and kept reading my book, but an annoyance crept over me and made it difficult to concentrate.

Thinking back, it wasn't the collective groan that bothered me – that's often sort of an involuntary reaction and is perfectly human – it was the outraged shouting. These people – most of whom were middle aged men – sounded like toddlers who had a toy taken away from them. Incredulous, disbelieving, pouty, utterly selfish and so far unpracticed in empathy. It's OK for toddlers to feel these things because, well, biologically it's difficult for them not to. But for these men it was unforgivable. Get over yourselves, guys. You're groaning like the captain is doing this on purpose, for the sole purpose of inconveniencing you.

Panama is a constant test of patience and the people there are absolute titans at putting up with bullshit. Delays on any trip are basically a given, along with flat tires, unnecessary stops, bad weather, overcrowded vehicles and even protests that stop traffic for multiple hours. It takes a lot for any regular Panamanian to complain during travel and those who do are generally met with a look usually reserved for those that are mentally unstable or a little too drunk.

Dinner at Calvin's in Boston
On the flip side of this, I found most of my American travel companions good natured and prepared to laugh at the discomfort of flying on an American carrier. Additionally, two different people let me borrow their phones so I could call my ride and one of them, a business man traveling for Covidien, gave me his business card and offered me a job when I finished my service. I had heard that Peace Corps looks good on a resume but I wasn't quite expecting that.
A friend picked me up at the airport (thanks again, Nikki) and drove me straight to my friend's house, where about 15 people were waiting for me. Again, I hadn't seen most of these people in a year and a half, some in almost two years, so I was pretty excited. I wouldn't think I'd have the energy, nor the strength, to pick up 15 people in a row and spin them in a circle but that's exactly what I did. I don't have a hometown and my nuclear family doesn't even own any property, so I don't particularly miss anywhere in the U.S., but there are plenty of anyones that I miss like hell. And many of them were there. And it was awesome.
Former roommates
I expected the ensuing debauchery but was surprised at the genuine interest my friends showed. We Peace Corps volunteers are used to people asking us about our services and then promptly ceasing to pay attention. I'm not sure how many times people have asked me to describe my typical day, only to adopt a glazed look seconds later. For a while, I thought I was just boring, but after speaking with other volunteers, the glazing appears to be a typical reaction. So I've gotten used to giving short answers and maybe occasionally dropping an anecdote about killing a spider or something. As if spiders are a significant part of my service.

As such, I kept worrying that when prompted, I would rattle on like an extended family member showing you a slideshow of their trip to the grand canyon. I think I'm leading a fairly unusual and interesting life, but I worried with every interaction that I would overplay it and either put my audience to sleep or come across as a granola-crunching, pretentious douchebag.

I confessed this insecurity to a few friends and each reminded me that living with the impoverished indigenous in the mountains of Panama for two years is much more interesting than visiting the Grand Canyon. Thanks, guys – hopefully people continue to agree.
One of the trippiest experiences going back was just driving across Boston. Trippiest of all was driving up Commonwealth Avenue, past all of the Boston University buildings and bars and old haunts of mine. The feeling was difficult to describe, but imagine sitting in a dark house in the middle of the western Panamanian mountains for a year and a half and reaching into your memory for comfort. Now imagine driving past the places your memory tapped. Affirmation that these ephemeral places actually exist. Confirmation of a former life. A shotgun blast of nostalgia to the chest. That's the closest I can come to describing how it felt.
Big shout out to my extended family. First of all, everyone looked either exactly the same or healthier, which is apparently difficult to accomplish as you age. So props to you guys. Second, every single family member I saw was up to date on this blog.

The Fam
Here's some advice to aspiring or new volunteers that are reading this – keep a blog and make sure your family and friends know the address, because you'll have a lot less to explain when you get back. It was so, SO much easier to see an aunt and have her ask, “So how's the tourism project going?” rather than, “So what exactly do you do down there?” or “What do you mean, you don't have electricity?!”

Third and funniest of all, a big shout out to my aunt Martha Mary for the peanut butter crackers. At some point on this blog, I wrote about how much I like peanut butter crackers and when I arrived at the restaurant for my sister's graduation dinner (where I first saw most of my extended family), every aunt, uncle and cousin had a packet of peanut butter crackers in their pocket, which they gave me after I hugged and greeted them. I knew immediately that Martha Mary was behind it and it was extremely considerate, touching and now that I'm back, delicious.
My sister went to Pratt Institute in Brooklyn (an excellent art school) and so I spent seven out of my ten days in the States in New York City. I've never lived in NYC but after this week, I think I want to. Great food, unparalleled diversity, a 24 hour subway and the largest concentration of beautiful people I've ever experienced. My friend kept joking with me that every day he sees the girl that he wants to spend the rest of his life with and every day it's a different stranger on the subway. That's kind of cruel, but also kind of amazing. It also reminded me that, while I'm seriously enjoying living where I do, I'm a city guy and one day I'll move back into that kind of life. Probably in New York.

One thing I couldn't understand about New York, however, was the Brooklyn – Manhattan divide. They're physically divided by a river but the train easily carries you from one side to another in about two minutes. And your ears pop as you go under water, which is kind of funny because suddenly the stoic New York train passengers all yawn simultaneously. But seriously, it's the same price as going anywhere else in Manhattan and it's only one stop from the East Village – and Manhattan people seem to have no problem going to the East Village.

Yet I kept having to convince friends who were only 20 or 30 minutes away to come across the water. And across the board, Manhattan people hesitated to come to Brooklyn and Brooklyn people hesitated to cross the other way. It baffled me and I ended up dropping the “don't make me tell about how hard it is for me to get here” card, which mostly worked. Kudos here to Abby for unhesitatingly crossing the river and to Jon for coming from Queens two nights in a row. He confessed that the guilt-tripping worked but then couldn't help but ask how exactly it is that I get there (Answer: one hour bus to the highway, seven hour bus to the city, twenty minute bus to the airport, five hour flight to New York).
The Manhattan skyline from Brooklyn

Further props to Jon for understanding my insatiable and sort of ridiculous wanderlust. After thanking him for making it out to Brooklyn, Jon said, “Of course, man, if you're going to South America after this, you may never come back.” I laughed and commented to another friend, “Hey Trisha, Jon thinks I'm going to get killed in South America.” “No, no” he responded, “It's just, you're going to South America, who knows what you'll find down there.” Good point, Jon. Maybe I'll find El Dorado or hot Brazilian twins that want to marry me*.

*Men's desire to have a threesome with twins is one of the most ridiculous fantasies ever and also the only acceptable way to openly encourage incest.
In ten days, I never quite adjusted back to the climate. I was constantly dry and thirsty, with a runny nose. Every morning, I woke up feeling like someone had vacuumed the fluid out of my head. But I didn't sweat, let alone sweat through my shirt every day. So that was nice.

Almost immediately, my sinuses clogged and they remained that way the entire trip. I don't know if it's the cold or the pollution, or the combination, but America does a number on my nose. For the first time since I can remember, I haven't had to carry tissues in Panama. Maybe it's the clean mountain air,
but I can consistently breathe without blowing my nose. I hope one day I can find a location where I don't constantly sweat profusely OR have permanently clogged sinuses. Maybe El Dorado.
One thing that struck me was, when talking about my experiences, how many people said something like, “I'm so jealous!” or “I wish I could do something like that!” Umm, you can. Any of you. The average age in Peace Corps is 28 and 10% of volunteers are retirees. One of the first volunteers I met is 66 years old and several of my good friends are in their 30s. You can defer your student debt and you can bring your spouse. Send me your excuses and I will send you a response to counter them. Bottom line: if you're interested in doing the Peace Corps, then do the Peace Corps.
I returned to the States to see my sister graduate. And graduate she did – summa cum laude and recipient of a “Major Award.” My little sister's officially been an adult for three years but it's really dawning on me now. Isn't it weird how people grow up like that? I'm still dealing with the realization that professional athletes are now consistently younger than me. Shitty.
Hookah in the East Village
As much as I enjoyed being in New York, the real pleasure of the trip was seeing my family and friends. One of my favorite feelings is seeing a good friend after a long time and picking up right where you left off, as if that time had never passed. After the initial “Oh-my-god-it's-good-to-see-yous,” my friends and I just fell back into our old banter and it felt great. After ten days of near-constant exposure to family and friends, I'm wondering why I continue to insist on living far away from them.

But then, I have five months of service left and then South America's calling...


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