Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Return to the States, Return to Nicaragua

December 21 came quickly. I can remember when Doug Emeott visited Nicaragua in early August and was only a couple weeks shy of returning home after a summer abroad in Costa Rica. We talked about everything he would do within the first week home…where he would eat, what he would drink, how long the first hot shower would be. As much as I enjoyed dreaming about the states, I didn’t let myself dwell on it too much. December seemed too far away to even entertain thoughts of home. But, the weeks and months passed quickly and I was soon on the plane, returning after eight months.

I landed in Houston on my way to Phoenix and was a bit shocked at the development. There seemed to be too many houses, roads, and cars. The number of pools and golf courses that we flew over was ridiculous. Most of my thoughts were along these same lines during the remainder of the vacation…every store seemed too big, every road seemed too crowded, every restaurant seemed to have too many choices, and (thankfully) every employee seemed to be too nice (Nicaragua could use some customer service training).

So besides the initial shock of how big everything was, nothing seemed too different and my vacation didn’t disappoint. The food, hot showers, and flushing toilets were everything I had dreamt about and more. I had forgotten not only how much we have, but also how nice everything is. Everything was so comfortable and pretty. It was hard to leave when the time came. The two weeks, as expected, went more quickly than I wanted.

I haven’t seriously thought of ending my service early and the thought never crossed my mind when I returned on January 4th. But, I certainly wanted to stay in the states for at least another week, and I found myself jealous of the volunteers that were close to ending their service. I thought that I might be able to ease myself back into life here, but that hope quickly vanished when I landed in Managua, got to my hotel room and found no hot water and mosquitoes. If that didn’t remind me where I was, the next day, with its stifling heat, three hour school bus ride back to my site, and rice and bean dinner, certainly did. I was back and there was no hiding.

I was more shocked upon my return to Nicaragua than my return to the US. I had forgotten how much seemed normal when I left. Though I cursed the cold water shower for a few days (and my neighbors’ stereo at 6:00am every morning), I quickly adjusted to the obvious differences like food, latrines, and power outages. The hardest part was readjusting to everything that goes along with being the foreigner.

Before I left, I had gotten used to the stares on the bus and in the street. I knew how to handle the conversation I have long since grown tired of with the guy on every bus that wants to know where I’m from, what I’m doing, if I’d like to meet his family, or if I know his brother in Miami I could brush off the drunks in the park that want to shake my hand and then ask me for five pesos. I could ignore my host family’s constant questions as to why I don’t want to come to their home more often, why I don’t want to eat there, and why I’m not staying to visit more even though I’ve been there for two hours. The kids that knock on my door at 8am wanting to play, the neighbors’ kids watching me through the fence as I clean my clothes, and every kid’s questions as to how much this or that costs in the US…it all seemed normal when I left.

It’s hard to describe the feelings that go along with all of it. Coming from the US where you can be as anonymous as you want and you are afforded a large level of privacy from the time you’re very young, it’s hard to adjust to being an object that everyone wants a piece of. For example, I often feel guilty if during the middle of the day I decide to relax in my hammock and read as opposed to spending time with my host family or other friends. When I do decide to stay in my house I have to shut my door and windows to avoid being bothered by the kids on my block. Everyday from 8am to 8pm, if I want to be alone, I need to hide in my house. The only time I feel safe to do whatever I want to do without guilt and without fear of being bothered is after 8pm.

But, the lack of privacy is only one part. The feeling of out of “placeness” also weighs heavy. Whether I’m with people I know or strangers I always feel a bit out of my element, uncomfortable. It’s surely a combination of many things, not least of which is the differences in culture and language. But, this combination adds up to a never ending feeling that I’m off my guard. Off my guard but always on call…Surprisingly, I had learned to deal with all of this before I left, but the first week back was especially difficult.

Now, almost three weeks since returning, I feel normal again. I’ve gotten used to all the stuff I was used to before I visited the states, and again feel confident and proud of what I’m doing. During the first week back when it was pretty rough going, I kept reminding myself of what I was doing in my job a year ago and how unhappy I was. Nothing could be that bad and I quickly realized that the negative and challenging aspects of living here are far outweighed by the positives. Though I’m still jealous of the food they’ll be eating and the comforts they’ll be returning to in a few short weeks, I feel kind of bad for the volunteers that are ending their service. Their two year vacation/retirement is ending. Mine is still just beginning.