by
on May 30, 2012 on 5/30/12 from ,

9 months, 4700 photos, 24 flights…

…450,000 miles, 34 beds, 8 currencies, 3 journals and 63 blog posts later. So I return…with lingering tan lines and patches of freckles from the beaches of Varkala; a mile-long summer reading list; a new iTunes library of jazz tunes from preservation hall, the Indian Nanban soundtrack, electronic/ethnic fusions of Tanghetto, and South Africa hip hop; and an amusing amalgamation of items wrapped and rewrapped in my backpack: a self-balancing wooden wine bottle holder with a Spanish phrase etched in the side (don’t ask me what it means anymore…) to hold the bottle of South African merlot I smuggled past customs; a leather hand-painted mask from a market in Buenos Aires; a blue ceramic mug and tea infuser crafted in the “universal township” of Auroville, India; and a big heart made of one long piece of steamed and twisted wood that I for whatever reason felt compelled to purchase on a farm outside the black township of Zwelethemba, South Africa.

Showering and shaving regularly have dropped to the very bottom of my list of priorities, and proper loads of laundry even farther down. I think I’ve worn these red pants for 4 straight days now, and I definitely ran out of underwear before that. The up-close-and-personal arms-raised full body scanner at security was, well, mortifying. I sit sprawled on JFK’s floor filling the last pages of my journal with stream-of-consciousness thoughts in unsharpened colored pencil, equally exhausted as eager, and remind myself that my life abroad in Africa, South America and South Asia has affected me on layers deeper than the mere physical.

Recurrently over the past week, I have felt IHP come full circle. I think back to the hour after I landed in New Orleans in January, splitting a plate of nachos with Danielle at Juan’s; and here we are, microwaving a giant plate of nachos for our homestay family in Zwelethemba. I remember pillowtalk with Sam in the bunk above me at our hostel in NOLA, and again she’s in the bunk above me at our final retreat in High Africa. Ah, or those purple ali baba pants from Morocco that I had to pull out long before India because I didn’t pack enough pants… still here, just full of holes and loose seams. We’ve traded in Mojo’s teas for Bean There’s americanos, and the soulful jazz of preservation hall in NOLA for the beats of Zuluboy in Cape Town, but I spent an equal amount of time nursing mugs of tea and swapping stories with these 32 new friends in January as I did in May. And Niv is still my bug-squashing hero.

Other moments flood back to my memory from time to time, too. Listening to the Voo Doo-practicing vampire in NOLA describe the taste of human blood; hearing Dr. Javier in Buenos Aires explain his use of homeopathy to cure his own tuberculosis; trying on Ama’s saris with Isabella in Chennai and nervously emerging to show Ama how none of her blouses would quite button around us; pinning fresh flowers in my hair and moisturizing my whole body with coconut oil every morning in India; Tiptoeing through Brahadeswara Temple in Thanjavur…or tiptoeing back inside Maria’s apartment in Buenos Aires just before sunrise; Taking an early yoga class on a cardamom plantation in Munnar; blasting John Legend as we cruise through Kerala’s backwaters on our private houseboat; Lying in a bunk-bed with Shaina clutching packs of boiling water to our stomachs to ease terrible nausea spells in South Africa; biting into the finest rib eye steak in the world; visiting a doctor and pharmacy in India to diagnose the mysterious chicken-pox-like spots appearing all over my body; teaching an adorable little South African girl how to surf; and swaying back and forth in unison at a Baptist worship service in Langa as 200 township residents drown out the drummer and electric guitarist with their soulful harmonies—I won’t soon forget how humbled and spiritually empowered I felt by their raw expressions of support, forgiveness, and compassion. Mentioning the many noteworthy academic lectures and discussions we had throughout the semester would lengthen this reflection exponentially, but I cannot discount them.

My global family now extends beyond Talloires, France; Fez, Morocco; Chennai, India; Buenos Aires, Argentina; Cape Town and Zwelethemba, South Africa—to Israel, Mauritius, Puerto Rico, Trinidad, and from America’s West Coast to East. Living abroad has pushed me not only to seek answers, but formulate better questions; in the process, my notions of home and community have been completely redefined and expanded. Where I find shared values, trust, support, and exchange (of beliefs and experience), I find home. The charms of a transient life are, well, transient, and I’ve found much more value in my time as part of a community, actively contributing to the system of support and exchange I just mentioned.

A few arbitrary themes emerge as I ruminate over this past year

Mint. Chai. Mate. Rooibos. Four lands, four teas, always one source of comfort. My global sisters. Salma, age 9. Dragging me through narrow alleys of the medina under the protection of her strong 9 year old hand, diligently crafting Arabic drills for me when she wasn’t combing my hair or painting my toenails. Dharshu, age 11. Fiercely intelligent, eloquent, artistic, and loving. Kaavya, 21. Independent architect/dancer, more curious than Isabella and I combined. Ano, age 14. Acts 25. Watched her wash dishes, change diapers, discipline children and nearly perform the Heimlich, handling all chaos with enviable authority and confidence. I wish I could bring them all home with me. The absence of a father figure (in my own sense of the word) in every single household I lived in. I cherish my biological one even more.

Salt water, sun, autonomy, personal space, and endless fresh fruit and vegetables restored my sense of balance within days of returning home. Though it took me about another week to reluctantly shave my legs. Back in the familiar territory of Cumberland, Maine for two weeks now has highlighted the changes and lessons that were too subtle to notice as they occurred.

1. I Love Bucket Showers.

2. maybe I should lie sometimes and say I’m vegetarian

3. don’t have expectations. All of mine were shattered upon arriving in each country

4. the “invisible backpack” of white privilege carrying unearned assets I can count on cashing in each day is far heavier than the overweight suitcase Ryanair charged me $200 fly with

5. living in others’ homes has helped me be in my own home

6. I enjoy stepping outside of my comfort zone, but I will never enjoy displacing people from their beds

7. when tired, I can and will fall sleep absolutely anywhere. Including wildly loud, uncomfortable, and dangerous public buses in India, and the front row of important lectures

8. my stomach is not invincible

9. I can survive without the comforts of internet, phone, hot water, exercise, fruits, or vegetables.

10. Niv said it best: “Girls are gracious, intelligent creatures, but when it comes to food, they become primal animals.”

11. Personal days and solo ‘splorin are critical to my sanity and general pleasantness

Traveling and sharing beds, planes, trains, buses, a classroom, and often too-few bathrooms with 32 girls and 1 guy for 4 months was wild and taxing and hard on lots of levels. This group has pushed me to face my flaws, to think, to interact, and to inquire. I worry about continuing to push myself in the absence of the people who challenged, mentored and engaged me throughout this past year, just as I worry if the aspects of life I’ve grown to appreciate will simply evaporate.

Our faculty began our program with this quote by T.S Eliot: “And the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”

I read my final reflection post of Morocco today and laugh. It sounds like I thought I figured it all out. I didn’t, and am perhaps even more confused about this world now and my place in it. I can only hope that my altered perspectives and priorities will come into light organically once I stop trying to extrapolate meaning from everything. But in this new state of uncertainty, I do feel a heightened awareness of life, greater ability to recognize just how similar we all are, renewed focus on the present, intensified appreciation for affection and respect, particularly of women (having lived in a society that perpetuates gender oppression like Fes, and one celebrating women and sexuality in all its brilliance, like Buenos Aires), and renewed conscience about how I spend my time. Already, I have no doubt that my reentry to America will be as adventure-laden as my departure!