Monday, August 3, 2009

A Welcome Home

From Yesterday, at Miami International Airport.

We were somewhere over Georgetown, getting closer to Cuba when I started to feel nauseated. I was hot and sweating, especially from the armpits, which had gone through months of draught while living in the mountains. My stomach betrayed me—aches and pains and the feeling that I could puke at a moments notice. All I needed to do was give the go ahead. I opened up the window shade and looked out at the light blue/green water as we got closer to the Florida Keys. I was coming home.

This was my second attempt now to fly from Quito to Miami, since I was bumped from an overbooked flight yesterday morning. I had to spend the rest of the day hanging around a 3 star hotel, way too nice for what I needed, courtesy of LAN Airlines. But I’d finally made it on the plane after 11 months of living in the South American country, and we were about to start the descent into my home country.

For the most part, I’d already taken care of the thoughts that most long-term expats experience while coming home the day or two before I was originally supposed to leave. And since I was now placed in Business Class, I was pampered and watching, “School of Rock” with Jack Black, taking my mind away. Yet once the movie ended, it was back to the impending descent. Anything but that.

Stretched out on the comfy seat, I was already in a bit of culture shock. This was all too nice, and I wasn’t ready for it. I had expected my reverse culture shock to start at home, but in the morning I was already invited to the VIP room, and there I sat like a pauper, stuffing food and drinks into my bag as other passengers left half eaten sandwiches on their plate, all from the complimentary buffet.

We descended and my heart rate jumped. My palms, sweaty and clammy, would not stay dry as I rubbed them on my jeans. My head ablaze with thoughts, one moment happy to be coming home, another moment silently freaking out. I knew it would not be easy. Simultaneously hot and cold, my body was just a mess. I expected mixed feelings, but not like this. 11 months is a long time to be away from home, after all, but I was not expecting this.

And then it was touch down. A smile would come and go quickly, then return and leave again as I walked through the terminal, through customs, and to pick up my bags. I anxiously snapped my fingers and moved around like a kid with ADD, a cross between excitement and fear. I’m back in the United States, and I’m already seeing things differently. First, as a general impression, we are a bigger people. We are fatter and taller. There are so many fat people here, and I don’t mean to say that as an insult, but when you see a fat person outside the U.S. they are just fat. But here they seem obese or on the way. It’s just something you really notice after being outside of the country for a while. And we are taller. I was used to being average height in Ecuador, but now I’m just a short guy again, and I feel almost like a kid having to look up to talk to people.

After picking up my luggage I went across the airport to check in with American Airlines for my connection to Boston. But at the counter the woman told me there was no record of a reservation for me. LAN told me they had taken care of my connection for me because they bumped me from the flight, and now they were saying that LAN had done nothing. I guess they just plum forgot about it. I had to walk back across the other side of the airport, where I was told to go downstairs. Downstairs, I was told to go upstairs, where again I was told to go downstairs. Getting the run around, someone finally went to figure out how I could get proof of blame from LAN. I waited over 30 minutes, but with the patience learned from life in South America, I kept it calm even though inside I was getting pissed off. We were still on Ecuadorian time. I was in Miami, of that I was sure, but for all intents and purposes we were still in Latin America. Everyone was speaking Spanish, and those who were speaking English had an accent suggesting that it was a second language. I didn’t mind it as much though, as it still feels natural to speak in Spanish. So basically, it’s like being in South America, but with more, fatter gringos.

After running around the airport a few more times I finally had my boarding pass and was able to pass through security, though each minute here so far has just made me feel worse. I went to the Au Bon Pain to ask how much an apple was and the woman told me $1.18. I laughed and walked away. I’d rather go hungry. I hear conversations and feel almost sick. “So I was like, what the hell, and he’s all, whatever, and then they’re like…” Do we all sound this shallow?

Maybe it’s too soon, and I just need some more time to adjust. I have this layover in Miami before heading home to Boston, but I get a feeling that the layover will last much longer than that. Eventually I’ll feel right at home again, but I’ll never forget how I feel right now. I do not fit in here. And that means I don’t fit in anywhere. Luckily in three weeks I’m going back to South America, where I can at least be assured that I shouldn’t fit in there.

Yesterday, sitting at the pool in the hotel, I was watching the clouds moving back and forth like a school of fish floating with the current. It was beautiful. It was the same sky in Cuenca, and Miami, and Boston. And looking up at the sky right now, I know that some of my friends in Cuenca are walking down the street looking up at the same thing. It’s a big world, but it’s all connected some how. Yet it comforts me not at all to know that they are there looking at the same thing I am. Because they are there and I am here, and nothing will change that, not even the popcorn clouds in the sky. So the chapter of Ecuador has now been closed in my life, but like any good book, you can always go back and read it again. And like all good books, you never forget what you’ve read and learned. And the next step forward is a new chapter. The hardest part could still be ahead.

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