This never happened to me when I left my country. In places I had never walked, breathing air I had not before tasted, where everything was new I somehow never felt out of place. Now here I am, back on the soil of the country of my birth. Among people who speak my native tongue, among customs and behaviors that may not make sense to me, but are familiar. Here I am, for lack of a better word, home. After all of this time I am finally experiencing culture shock.
As I sequestered myself in a bathroom stall in the Atlanta airport, taking deep breaths and trying to find calm in the chaos that had suddenly enveloped me, I had to laugh at myself. This was the second time in nine months that I had hidden in an airport bathroom. The first, you might remember, was when I hid from ridiculously tenacious cabbies in the Santiago, Chile airport at 4 am. Now it was the crowds of people, the excess EVERYTHING, and the ‘what the heck am I going to do with myself next’ that caused me to feel overwhelmed. I loved the calm freedom of moving about countries at my own pace, of knowing I didn’t need to decide on anything, and could simply do whatever felt right at any given moment. I would also be lying if I said that I wasn’t excited for a bathroom where I could flush my toilet paper, and then wash my hands without having to actually touch anything. There are some pretty awesome aspects to life in the first world.
After crossing multiple borders in South America with barely a glance at my person or my belongings, the first shock of returning was the reintroduction to security procedures for the U.S. Leaving Panama, I had the regular security checkpoint. Then a second metal detector and full carry-on baggage search at the gate. Not a randomly selected search, an EVERYONE gets searched before getting on the plane. In customs in Georgia, walking what seemed like miles through sterile beige hallways to a large room with lines of people and booths of customs officials, the signs reminded me of how this country operates. Is it due to fear or preparedness that we interrogate, photograph and fingerprint would be tourists? I don’t know. I just know it’s a whole lot different than anywhere else I’ve been. Most places just stamp the passport and say next. Panama actually wanted me to take the full six month Visa instead of the two months I had requested.
Sticker would have to be the next shock I went through. After leaving the safety of my bathroom stall, I decided a large beer and some food would be a good way to acclimate. Of course I know airport food is expensive. I just forgot HOW expensive! I had grown accustomed to beer being cheaper than water. Thinking I’d be really generous with the last $20 in my wallet, I decided to give all the change to my waitress. Ordering a beer and a sandwich, I figured that would be around $8. Nope. The “meal” came to $18 and I ended up digging change out to leave her a proper tip.
The next shock of coming home was the stores. I visited my family in Arizona and went straight from the airport to the grocery store. Millions of items sat on shelves, all pretty much the same, illustrating the excess of American culture. My sister asked if I wanted anything. I quite frankly could barely handle even being in there, let alone trying to find something I may want. Until I passed by MY deodorant. Well, that changed things a bit. I like the non-aluminum kinds, and they are virtually impossible to find in South America. It’s the little things, like beer and Tom’s of Maine, that make the return a bit easier.
So what’s next? I have no idea. Really. None. If you have any thoughts on the matter, I’d love to hear them. I have to figure some things out relatively quickly. You know those pesky life things like income, where to live, who I want to be next. How do I do those things and maintain my gypsy status? As the adventure continues, I hope you’ll stay with me. I’ll try to keep it interesting.