It isn’t very often that you get to take a year and travel around the world. It stands to reason that it is equally as rare that you get the opportunity to adjust to being home after spending a year traveling around the world. It turns out going is the easy part. There is a lot to like about being back in the United Sates and a special comfort attached to residing in one’s home, but there continue to be daily tugs on our hearts and backpack cords to remind us about all we experienced. It would be impractical and boring to list all the things we miss, however there are a few that stick out to me.
1 Geographic Diversity – I miss deserts, I miss mountains, I miss oceans, and I miss waterfalls. Wait a second. What am I complaining about? We may be in Georgia, but we are in the middle of a drought which has made our yard look like a desert. There is a hill about 25 miles from here people call a mountain (Stone Mountain), though to someone from the Rockies it looks more like a bump, and our neighborhood has a waterfall.
2. Open Air Markets – Shopping in the US is so antiseptic. Walmart and Costco have taken all the adventure out of buying groceries. There is nothing like the sickening sweet smell of cow carcasses wafting through a Bolivian market, the cacophony of aromas rising out of a Vietnamese one, with flowers on one side of the aisle and dying, flapping fish on the other, or the adventure of getting to know one Thai dessert food vendor out of a hundred and then frequenting her stand each day to purchase whatever homemade delicacy she has on offer. I enjoy chatting with the clerks at Quik Trip, but I know they didn’t awaken in a grass hut at 4:00 am to prepare my hot dog nor does the dollar I fork over mean as much to them.
3. The World as Our Playground – At home we watch Kieran and Asher torment bugs, jump off rocks, and play with animals, but it’s just not the same as seeing them leap off ledges at ancient Khmer temples, set up ant fights in the middle of a Roman colosseum, or chase llamas through the ancient Incan ruins of Machu Picchu. They didn’t have an understanding of the significance of these places but were simply kids enjoying life in their given surroundings. For me, however, their oblivion helped the settings come alive. I imagined that the children who grew up in these places were equally immune to their histories and played with just as much abandon as did our little ones. Kids breathe new life into old places and ours taught us to see them in a new light. Now we can’t imagine visiting another UNESCO World Heritage site without them!
4. The Uncertainty of of Tomorrow – For a year we approached every morning and every corner as the beginning of a new adventure. With this attitude we were never bored and regularly surprised by what each day brought. When you have to find shelter, food, and entertainment in places where you don’t speak the language, predictability is not part of your life. Every interaction and task is a new experience offering untold insight, pleasure, and sometimes frustration. As I look back I often can’t believe how many surprises we had on any given day. The shock of our 1950’s era apartment in Bulgaria and disappointment of a daytime visit to the underwhelming fortress ruins were countered by the discovery of a cheap, delicious pizza restaurant where we dined with fascinating fellow travelers and an evening stroll to the edge of town where we watched the ruins come alive courtesy of a world-class sound and laser show.
Other times our days were just one exciting adventure after another. When we were driving from the east coast of South Africa to Zambia, we stopped for our first night in a city in northern South Africa. The city was the last big point on the map before Botswana and the last outpost for 200 miles. As we pulled in there was one nice hotel but it was out of our price range, and we were ready to camp. Rather than give in and spend the money, we decided to drive around and look for camp sites. As dusk approached the bustling city started to change. People disappeared and police in modified tanks emerged. We decided to drive out of the city and look for a more remote place, assuming in-town camping would be questionable at best. We started by driving west, but it quickly became obvious this was the wrong direction. Somewhat shaken, we turned around and found a lovely campsite about 10 miles to the northeast of town. It was dark by the time we pulled in so we sent up our tents, made dinner, showered, and went to bed. We were completely unaware of the wonderful red rock, turquoise blue lake, and mischievous baboons that would be there to greet us in the morning. Over the course of the next day elephants chased us, panhandlers pestered us, and I had an argument which ended with me throwing a french fry at the wall of a Wimpy Burger. Asher teases me about that incident to this day.
Togetherness – Togetherness is a gift that is difficult to achieve in the modern world. As a traveling executive, I had little opportunity before our trip to spend significant chunks of time with the kids. For one fabulous year I was able to spend every minute of every day with the five most important people in my life. Not only was it fulfilling simply to be with them, it was truly amazing to experience the world through six different lenses and discuss and share our many experiences as we lived them. By contrast, with the exception of weekends, we now spend more hours apart than together and I prod the kids to find out what’s happening at school. When they’re not in school, the older two are occupied with homework or socializing while the younger two have to go to bed so early we only have a few hours with them each afternoon. Time is passing much more quickly now than it did on the road and Anne and I fear our time with our kids is once again slipping away.
6. Food, Food, Food – You knew this one was coming. You can go to an international food court at home. You can go to ethnic restaurants, but 90% of the time what you are getting is a dumbed down version of a native cuisine. I have been to many great Chinese restaurants around the US, but it was in Chengdu that I finally ate hotpot (fish heads and all) so strong it left my mouth numb, almost dentist numb. The food in Vietnam is different because it is fresh, as in breathing hours before you eat it fresh. I wake up with teeth marks on my hand as I dream about the steaks in Argentina. As an example, I picked up a hibachi chicken and rice bowl yesterday. The food was good, but instead of the traditional light soy or ginger sauces used in Japan, they dropped in about a cup of mayonnaise mixed with ketchup. This was my dipping sauce? It was fry sauce! Ughh. I like mayonnaise as much as the next person, but combining a light Japanese rice bowl with fry sauce is unnatural and should be prevented. When I lived in Japan almost twenty years ago, I actually had my grandma send me a recipe so I could make “American style” mayonnaise as it wasn’t even sold there. After my meal, I was sorry for the other patrons, sorry for the sweet little Japanese couple who can’t serve their native food in its lowfat form, and mostly sorry for me because my food was so dry I actually had to use my fry sauce.