My feelings about returning home from South America were quite complicated, a strange mix of sadness and anticipation, of struggle and apprehension. I expected to stay with the group for four months but came back home after three. I was clear about this decision and yet apprehensive about re-adjusting to my previous life. My trip so completely consumed me, I was so immersed in day-to-day challenges that home now seemed distant and even strange. This is how it all fell out.
I was disappointed in the services that Pangea196, the remote travel company, was providing. I never got the community vibe I was seeking. The group was smaller than I expected, 13 instead of the 25-40 I had been told in my interviews; the accommodations were a mixed bag of difficult situations; and the people in charge, sweet as they might be, were sorely inexperienced in what they were doing. Lacking a successful plan that promoted group synergy, we bonded around our common frustration.
Ranging in age from 25-69, my fellow travelers were all interesting and fun. I did enjoy the impromptu and self-directed interactions I had with them and I went on some very exciting excursions and side trips. But, eventually, the negative cloud that hung over us wore me down. I was not the only one to bail. Several others were also abandoning Pangea196 to travel on their own, leaving just eight participants in the group at the end of March and only two at the end of April. The company has since folded.
So, home it was for me. With this came the nagging fear of missing out (FOMO in hip parlance). I had never been to Colombia, Budapest, and other places my new friends were going. Part of me still longed for that. I didn’t want to feel like a quitter. Fortunately, I didn’t. I thought all their Instagram and Facebook pictures would make me wistful. Unfortunately, they did.
Over the course of three months, I expected to miss my BF, my family, my friends and, surprisingly, I didn’t…at least not in any effective way. What I soon realized is that most of my interactions with these people are mediated — we talk by phone, text, or email much more than we see each other in person — and that didn’t change. My BF and I only see each other IRL once or twice a week and now we were “seeing” each other in video calls almost every night. Technology certainly reduced the perceived distance and, in some cases, even improved the communication. With this came an increased dependence on my mobile phone. Losing or damaging it was a constant anxiety.
Because I took my web business with me, I was still building and managing websites from each country; so I didn’t miss that part of my life either. Instead of sitting in my house alone at my computer, I got to work from a variety of co-working spaces and make-shift desks in sometimes ill-equipped apartments. But not having an Apple store in each city added to the stress about my technological dependence. This is a reality of a global digital nomad. The term “back-up” took on a new meaning: not just for data but now also for equipment. Those fortunate few with back-up phones and computers had less worry.
The big question
So, what about home? Did spending 12 weeks away, in situations so different than my “normal” life, have an impact? I had wondered what it would be like to return to my house, my family and friends, my routine. Would things seem different? Would I be different? I was restless and bored before I left. Would that be “cured”, or would I be bitten by the travel bug, addicted to wanderlust, and find myself even more bored and restless?
Impact number one
My BF picked me up at the airport and it was wonderful to be wrapped in his arms and hold him close. And then we drove to my house. The first thing that struck me as I walked through the door was how much STUFF I have. For three months, I lived out of a suitcase in very sparsely furnished apartments or rooms in countries where many people did not experience abundance and luxury. When I walked into my home I was immediately overwhelmed by all my furniture, dishes, glasses, accessories, knick-knacks, clothing, shoes… by everything. It felt crowded, cluttered, and claustrophobic. I began to ask myself “Do I really need all this? Do I need 6 cutting boards and 8 colanders? Do I need 30 pairs of shoes? Do I need all this STUFF?” And, that was just inside my house! There was also the yard and numerous gardens filled with trees, shrubs, plants and flowers that require attention.
I now recognize that for years I have been accumulating things and then spending a large part of my time maintaining them. I love my house; as a single woman, I am proud to be a homeowner. I also enjoy gardening; it is nurturing and satisfying on many levels. Yet, I wonder is this really what I want to do? My perspective has changed. I am looking at my middle-class American way of life differently, more critically, and much of it seems indulgent and wasteful. As the months have passed, even though I’ve eased back into the flow, I am incrementally changing my attitude and habits. I am gradually getting rid of things and I am staying out of the stores so that I do not buying anything more. It is slow going…but it is happening. I’ve even considered moving into a condo and volunteering at a local garden project when I want to get my hands in the dirt.
Impact number two
The next shock of recognition I call “life in a car”. In South America I walked every day, everywhere. I walked to co-working, language class, laundromats, restaurants, and museums; I walked to get groceries, an ice cream, a massage, or a haircut; I walked to explore and sight-see. For bigger trips further afield, I used public transportation. At night, I often took a taxi or called an Uber. I did not drive, at all, ever. I forgot how much time, here at home, I typically spend in a car. It’s a lot; often an hour-plus a day if I have to go more than one place. Here, I walk nowhere except in circles to get exercise. I am dependent on my car and suddenly it felt bizarre. And isolating. All the time I am driving, I am alone and separated from my environment. I live in the suburbs; things are far apart; I have little choice. There is little I can do unless I move to an urban area.
Impact number three
A slower realization is that I’ve become too familiar with my environment to the point of losing interest. Everything was new and seemed so exciting in So. America and I no longer felt that way about my local scene. Sadly, apathy has set in. But what if I was a tourist, wouldn’t I want to go out and about exploring? The truth is that I live in a thriving, growing cultural area; there are lots of things to see and do. Maybe I just need a change of attitude. Rather than be a tourist in So. America who is trying to live like a local, I should be a local who is trying to live like a tourist. This means going to all the parks and museums and galleries and trendy new hot spots…or at least to some of them. This means taking the history and architectural tours of the downtown areas. This means opening my eyes and seeing the area in a new light. Of course, I’ll have to do that in my car…but still, it sounds like a plan.
Overall, despite the disappointments, despite the early departure, my three month stint in So. America was a wonderful experience. Traveling and living with people I didn’t know, to places I had never been, where they don’t speak much English was clearly out of my comfort zone. I challenged myself on every level, both personal and inter-personal. It gave me a broader historical and cultural perspective . It cured my boredom. I got to see and do and feel…in new and exciting places and in unexpected ways. I enjoyed traveling and hanging out with younger people. It was the opposite of a living in an over-50 community. I was most inspired by the young women who had their own companies and were defining their world beyond physical and geographic barriers. Would I do it again? Yes, I would do some sort of extended trip like this, maybe one with more of a social impact. The travel bug has bitten.