I know, I know. I swore up and down I wouldn’t be one of those people who abruptly stopped writing on their blog once they returned home. But that’s exactly what I went and did.
In my pre-trip daydreaming days, it used to drive me insane when I’d be following along with someone’s travels and then suddenly would be cut off. Sure, there’d be posts that would pop up six months later, promising updates and future writings, but then they’d trail off again. So I won’t even pretend to make a commitment as to whether this will be a regular thing or just a little blip. But I miss writing. I can’t even begin to tell you how many times I’ve written posts in my head since we returned home. Often times I’d just be distracted by something shiny, and never finish the thought. Other times I’d just struggle to find the words to articulate my feelings about being home. Tonight I felt like writing so I did.
As of last month, we have been home for two years. We’ve been back home longer than we were gone. For a while, absolutely everything in our lives felt up in the air. For all of the lessons learned during our travels about not worrying so much, that things have a way of working out, I was having major difficulty coming to terms with the fact that my post-trip plan was going awry in a major way. Other than some freelance work, I was unemployed for a year and a half. Being unemployed and traveling is one thing; being unemployed and job searching while everyone else is at work is quite another. Each day brought a crushing mixture of boredom, loneliness, and soul searching, and I was losing confidence by the day. For over a year we didn’t hang a single thing on the white walls of our rental because we weren’t sure if we were staying. On top of that, we decided we shouldn’t put off trying to have children any longer. Each month I was (still am) simultaneously terrified I would get pregnant and terrified I wouldn’t, and fighting the growing sense that any illusion of control I had over the process was just that, an illusion. I felt confused. In travel blog land, taking a trip like The Trip was supposed to catapult you into a life where you shun all desire for material possessions, get in touch with your inner soul and passion, and create a life with meaning and purpose not bound by the walls of a house or office. Distancing myself from my hometown and circle of family, friends and acquaintances forced me to examine my inner motivations and desires. While it did shed some light on the life I wanted to lead and the realization that no one but me would create the portions of the life I was not currently experiencing, I never found the clear sense of inner enlightenment others appeared to have.
I suppose it makes me a bad traveler that finding a job working for the man and thereby admitting that I do, at least in part, define myself by my career and crave external validation of my worth, but I can’t deny that finding a job is what brought on some sense of peace. And I’m okay with that. I don’t know how much our travels affected my job hunt. It didn’t affect Sean’s in the least; his employer didn’t even ask him about our trip in his interview. I’m sure some employers were turned off by the crazy person who quit her job to travel the world, but I found most were just curious. I was being selective in a not so good economy, but in the end I found a job with the two criteria I was looking for most: spending my working hours doing something that (hopefully) makes a positive impact on the world and a job that allows me (most days) to have a life outside of work. I’m working as a child welfare attorney at a non-profit – it is about as opposite from my old firm job in every way, good and bad.
The Trip, as it has become known, seems like a movie we watched about someone else’s lives, yet not a single day goes by without some memory or connection to our trip popping up in some fashion. It changed us in countless ways: some superficial, like a higher tolerance for supremely spicy food; some deeper, like giving us confidence to choose to do things our own way instead of the way everyone else does things. It altered the way we understand world news, it changed our perspective on what we need in life, and it gave us a better understanding of human nature. It pushes us to continue to live outside our comfort zones and to create our own happiness. I don’t think it is a coincidence we both are doing little things to challenge ourselves. Sean ran his first half-marathon (and was training for the Pittsburgh Marathon until he hurt his knee) and is learning yoga. I ran my first 5K (which is pretty much a marathon in my world), joined a beer-loving women’s group where I didn’t know anyone, and turned a job offer that was perfect for a million reasons on paper because it didn’t feel right. And it is fantastic to be surrounded by friends and family, particularly with a new pint-sized addition in the form of a super cute nephew.
So I’d say we’re both pretty happy. We’re certainly enjoying our lives much more than we did before we left.
We both feel a restlessness deep down that we can’t figure out how to address. We recognize that life can’t always be so dramatic as the year we sold our house, quit our jobs, and hit the road. And neither one of us wants to pick up and take off for good tomorrow. But we can’t help having this nagging feeling that we don’t want our lives to be defined by Before Trip and After Trip. Otherwise the most awesome thing we’ve ever done and ever will do is already over, and that just can’t be.
So that’s what we’re up to: enjoying the stability that being at home brings, but feeling its limitations as well.
Of course, we’ve hit the road as much as possible. Six months after we got home, we skipped across the pond and finally went to Italy just before Christmas, spending ten glorious days eating our way through Rome and Naples.
Last summer, we dug out our passports again, this time for a weekend trip to our neighbor to the north, visiting Niagara Falls and Toronto.
In July, we reminded ourselves that domestic travel can be pretty awesome as well in a nine day road trip through Oregon and Northern California.
In December, we headed to Curacao in the Caribbean for our first underwater exploration since Hawaii.
And, finally, we just returned from a trip to a new frontier for us: South America. We spent 16 fantastic days in Brazil, exploring urban life in Rio de Janiero, taking a peek at the seaside colonial town of Paraty, “hunting” for jaguars in the Pantanal, and tasting, seeing and hearing African culture in Salvador.
We’ve returned with a big hole in our pocketbooks (Brazil is expensive – true story!), depleted vacation banks at work, an insatiable desire for caipirinhas and samba music, and a renewed case of wanderlust. I’m glad spring gave way to summer while we were gone, making it easier to look forward to the coming sun drenched days ahead instead of just daydreaming about our next trip. The choice we’ve made for now is to try to curate a life with balance of trips with a lower case “t”, day to day pleasures at home, and work and responsibility, and we’re still learning how best to do that.
So, that’s all for now. I hope you are well. I hope you are exploring and creating your happiness day by day. I hope you have the courage to leap outside what you feel you ought to do to go somewhere or do something where the end of the story is not yet written.
p.s. A while back, I put together an album with 180 photos from The Trip. Check it out!
p.p.s. Last summer, I came across this poster twice within a few weeks, first in a bathroom of a winery in Oregon and second in a dressing room of a small shop in my neighborhood. Both times, I was struck how well it summed up the lessons I learned on The Trip. I took it as a sign and bought a copy for my living room wall in case I ever need a reminder (which, in turn, spurred me on to hang other things up to make our rented rowhouse look more like a home).
A stopover on the island of Kauai on our way home from New Zealand at pretty much the same cost in flights? You don’t have to ask me twice. And so we found ourselves back in Hawaii for the second time in our lives, something I would never have predicted during our first visit. Back when we visited Oahu, the Big Island and Maui on our honeymoon, Hawaii was pretty much the most exotic place we had ever been. We spent much of our honeymoon soaking in the differences. Now, as the grand finale to our trip around the world and the first time we were back in the United States in over a year, we couldn’t help but notice the similarities. We were bombarded with signs we were back in the United States right away: things like refillable Cokes, free ice water, incessant news coverage, BBQ, and a whole aisle dedicated to just cereal. The signs continued: warning signs at every overlook, a plethora of channels but nothing on t.v., bumper to bumper traffic, chain restaurants galore, big enormous vehicles, and a big ole’ WalMart (albeit with chickens in the parking lot).
What epitomized the differences between the United States and some of the places we visited was our scuba diving experience. Although we had gone as far as to get our advanced scuba certification, we felt like we hadn’t really experienced a great dive due to poor weather conditions and the general distractions of diving as part of a course. Pounding rain storms and flooding threatened our chances at a good dive in Kauai, but we managed to sneak awesome two dives in close to shore. Kauai isn’t known for its diving like the Big Island, but we thought our dives were pretty fantastic. Swimming in between narrow caverns along side giant sea turtles ranks as one of our favorite experiences from our whole trip. Aside from raving over our turtle friends, we couldn’t get over the difference between diving in Thailand and Malaysia on the one hand and Hawaii on the other. First of all, the cost of just two dives was half the cost of our whole certification course! But you get what you pay for – our equipment was all set up nicely for us on the dock, right next to the boat. We didn’t have to climb through five other dive boats to get to ours, or carry our own equipment on a mile long walk, or wade through swelling waves to climb on the boat. Everything was cleaned for us and our instructors spent time going over safety tips in advance of our trip. Our instructors seemed amazed that we were advanced certified divers but had only been on ten dives; meanwhile, no one in Asia would bat an eye.
Our diving trip turned out to be the highlight of our time in Kauai. The aforementioned weather thwarted many of our plans. Kauai is known as the wettest Hawaiian island, but these weren’t ordinary tropic rains. Flooding closed roads around the island from time to time, and thick fogs obscured our views of scenic overlooks. The rainy cold weather meant we only got to spend one(!) afternoon at the beach. We tried to make the best of it. While we didn’t get to view the awesome Na Pali Coast, we cruised around in our HHR as much as possible and tried to sneak in views around the island during breaks in the rains. We pretty much stalked The Right Slice pie company at various sunshine markets around the island, with the added bonus of picking up the last local tropical fruit we’d have in a while to savor back in our condo. We relished in the comfort of our ocean view condo after a month in a campervan and discovered that Blockbuster didn’t go out of business in the year we were away. Overall, while the finale wasn’t as grand as we anticipated when we booked our Hawaiian stopover, it was a pretty darn good end to The Trip.
We’ve been home for almost two months, in fact.
And, yet, you’ve heard nary a peep.
I had every intention of writing about our return. But the truth is, I’ve been having trouble. And the real truth is, I’ve been having trouble writing about returning home because I’m having trouble with being home.
It’s not the culture shock. Sure, things are different here. I had Pad Thai that cost $13.50 – 13 times the cost of the Pad Thai I’d get in Thailand and 13 times the size, too. I can do laundry anytime I want and my outfit options expanded tenfold, yet I still feel like I have nothing to wear. I relish drinking water straight from the tap, everyone’s on a cell phone all the time, including me (even if it is an old school relic that takes me ten minutes to write out a text), and I drove for the first time in over a year. Everything seems really quiet, even though we’re staying in the heart of one of Pittsburgh’s busiest and trendiest neighborhoods. But, overall, the shock part was tempered by meandering our way home from Asia via New Zealand and Hawaii.
No, what’s weird about being home is how not weird it is to be home. We slipped back into our home lives as if we never left. Our cat Fabulous was snuggled back in my lap within hours of our return; we helped my mom with a big move within days; we had eaten at most of our favorite eateries within weeks. Sure, there was some initial awkwardness: at first, we had to actively remind our brains about which direction to go when driving around, even though we’d driven that route a million times. Conversations were strange; how do we, and how do they, sum up an entire year at once? But overall, even though we hadn’t been there for over a year, home is still extremely familiar. The road had become our normal, but returning home pushed our travels back to the realm of exotic and foreign in one foul swoop. Using a squat toilet, eating on the street, doing math every time we paid for something, moving on when things got boring – these concepts suddenly became strange again. Our whole life for the past 13 and a half months didn’t just become a memory, it suddenly seemed like it happened in a dream. Eating baguettes in Paris, getting lost in the souks in Morocco, watching lions protect their kill in South Africa, praying the splash from the Indian’s boy cannonball didn’t hit us with the Ganges’ holy water, riding on the back of motorcycles through Vietnam – did these things actually happen?
Everybody at home warned us we’d be bored when we got here. I didn’t believe them; I was so homesick after being gone for so long, I thought for sure the comforts of home would outweigh any boredom. But after all the reunions, there’s just life at home. There’s big events to look forward to – concerts, get-togethers, new restaurants – but these things happen once every few weeks. I’m struggling to hold onto the appreciation of the little, every-day things I constantly marveled over on the road. It doesn’t help that I have endless hours to fill. Sean went back to work within weeks of returning home (a new job at a great company – yay), but I’m still looking. Even though there are openings at multiple law firms for which I would be qualified (and which would replenish our bank account rather nicely), I’m trying to hold out for a different path. I’m impatient. I am so ready to go back to work, to do something productive with my mind. I’ve had some interviews recently, so there’s hope, but in the meantime, I wait.
Sean’s parents very generously offered to put us up when we got home. We lived with them for two weeks, and while the home-cooked meals and freedom to do laundry was wonderful, we didn’t want to impose on them indefinitely. So, we’re doing it to our friend instead! We’re paying him a small amount of rent and he’s putting up with us and our cat for the time being. We’ve looked at apartment after apartment, and missed out on one due to stiff competition, but rejected the rest for one reason or another. You’d think our standards would be lowered after the hovels in which we stayed during this past year, but we’re yearning to find a good, clean, bright place to call home. We’ve even got our eye on an old house in the city with lots of original charm (and corresponding pain-in-the-ass old house problems) so we’re not ruling out buying something yet. I’ve realized my two loves – old houses and travel – don’t mesh together very well. Every time I get smitten with a house, all I have to do is think of all the places I want to go to remind myself to tone it down and not chain myself to an oversized mortgage and endless hours of renovation.
So, that’s what’s been happening during these two months. I’m in limbo and slightly adrift. I’m eager for stability, yet I jump at the chance to eat some pho or pad thai. Nothing compares to being able to talk to and see our friends and family on a regular basis, or being able to snuggle with Fabulous any time I feel like it, yet we went as far as to price flights to Italy to try to fit in one last hurrah before Sean returned to work. I sat down to write about returning home many times but have been struggling to find the words. Returning home is complicated. I am glad to be home, but I’m still working out what this next stage of my life will look like. After all, if you shake things up as much as we did, it takes a while for the pieces to settle.
Today, 408 days after we first set off, heading east around the world, we return home to Pittsburgh.
The big, fat, black raincloud that we picked up back in Malaysia followed us to Hawaii, showering seven inches just on Sunday alone and flooding parts of Kaua’i. The bad weather this past week thwarted much of our plans, giving me way too much time to think. I feel like I’m running in place, treading water. The feeling I have can best be described as bittersweet – more sweet than bitter, more bitter than sweet. It’s the end of the biggest thing I’ve ever done in my life, but it is time. I’m ready to move on from moving on.
My thoughts race forwards, to excitement at seeing my friends, my family, my cat; to what I’m going to do this weekend; to tasks I need to take care of to reintegrate into everyday life.
My thoughts are in the present, but they’re all in terms of lasts, to the last Iced Mocha at Small Town Coffee; to the last Aloha; to the last tropical fruits; to the all too brief moment of sunshine on my face and sand between my toes, to the last pretty flower.
My thoughts race backwards, to the butterflies I felt sitting in JFK, waiting to embark to Barcelona; to fleeting memories of the past year; to disbelief that it is all over. Other than my memories of New Zealand, the rest of it – all of it – is already fading fast. Things like being in Ireland with my friends seem like an isolated vacation I took a long time ago.
Overall, I’m full of anticipation, because I don’t feel like my journey is over. Sure, the perpetual physical motion is over, but the spiritual and mental motion in some ways is just beginning. Even after college, I’ve never felt like my life is so open, so full of possibility, as it is now.
Future, what do you hold for me? Only time will tell.
After being out of the country for 13 months, our official re-entry into the United States was rather anti-climatic. I didn’t expect our homeland to give us any sort of fanfare, of course, but a smile from the Department of Homeland Security official or even a second glance at our effort to squeeze all 26 countries onto the tiny box under the line inquiring which countries we visited might have been nice. But our immigration official clearly never got the memo that he was the “face of the United States” even though he was sitting right underneath a poster that told us just that. Hopefully the United States reserves its surliest officials for its own citizens and puts the smiley ones in the foreign lines.
As I mentioned the other day, we were experiencing the second May 3, 2011 of our lives, a mistake that luckily only cost us $44 extra dollars in extra fees. (And, of course, the cost of an extra day in Hawaii, but every day in Hawaii is priceless). The first May 3 was mostly spent in the air (unfortunately utterly upright in a tiny non-reclining seat), with a small tidbit spent on the ground in Fiji. We couldn’t resist taking a peek at Fiji during our eight hour layover, even though it meant going through immigration and customs, withdrawing Fijian dollars, and haggling with a taxi driver. It’s surprising how hard it is to find the local cuisine in many countries. Everyone we asked for a restaurant recommendation kept suggesting Indian. We finally figured out why – turns out there is a proliferation of Indians in Fiji and their business savvy makes Indian food the most visible. We ended up getting a taste of Fiji via a Mediterranean restaurant owned by an American. They fixed us up some tasty mahi-mahi in a Fijian style along with cassava chips, and we spent much of our time chatting with a really friendly Fijian waitress. Much better than hanging out in the transfer room at the airport, although I got positively attacked by Fijian mosquitoes who honed in on the fresh foreign meat that are my ankles the second I walked out of the airport. I’m still paying for our brief foray into our 26th country visited on this trip. My ankles are blotchy and swollen; the itching is so bad that it kept me up last night despite only getting a few hours sleep on our flight. Thank goodness for Asian Tiger Balm.
Luckily, May 3, Round 2 turned out to be a good day. Our first order of business in the United States was to try the pretzel M&Ms that came out during our time away and that the rest of the world is not privy to. (They get crispy M&Ms instead, a forgotten relic here at home). We found them to be crunchy, salty and sweet as promised. Our next little delight was our rental car. We had reserved a $20 a day budget car on Hotwire and despite getting the hard sell to upgrade for an extra $11 a day at the desk, the parking lot attendant gave us a free upgrade to a brand-new (and rather funky) Chevy HHR out on the lot.
Although I was cursing our laziness in not reserving accommodations in advance because it meant we’d have to try to find affordable lodging in the midst of luxury resorts in our dazed and sleepy state, finding a place to stay for the next eight nights turned out to be relatively painless. We have to be the only people that show up in Kauai without reservations. The locals are friendly and when inquiring where we were planning to stay as a conversation piece, they hid their surprise well with a quick well, that’s good, keeping it flexible! when we responded sleepily that we didn’t know. We had picked up a Kauai Revealed guidebook at the airport since we liked the Revealed series so much on our honeymoon and found that most of the accommodation recommendations had been moved on-line since then. The book is a far cry from Lonely Planet’s fly by the seat of your pants approach and is clearly geared toward advance planners (which is most of the people visiting Hawaii; hell, half of them come here in tour groups). Nevertheless, despite our wavering over whether it was ridiculous to buy a guidebook for a destination in your own country, the guidebook has already served us well several times. Most notably, one of the few accommodation suggestions it had in the book was for Kapa’a Sands Resort, our home for the next week. They’re awesome little condos right by the ocean on the east side of Kauai. Ours is just a studio with a balcony and a kitchen, but it feels like a mansion to us. All of this is a long-winded way of saying that I had my upteenth reminder on this trip not to sweat the small stuff and much of the time it’s just better to let things work themselves out.
Other than Sean having to endure an hour-long hair
cut hacking by a crazy drunk hairdresser who spoke to him at length about life forces on the island and the apparently fascinating way his hair grows, we’re enjoying our return to the States. Our culture shock at being interjected back into the United States was cushioned somewhat by our month spent in New Zealand. We already gawked at the prices and the large people (present in every car-loving country we’ve visited on this trip; food for thought) and stuffed ourselves with cheese (a food sorely lacking from our Asian diets). But culture shock is here nonetheless. Hawaii might be our most unique state but it is a state for sure. We marveled at not using a plug adapter and driving on the right (Sean’s only veered to the left once!) Our Cokes at lunch were enormous and still could be refilled for free; at dinner, the waitress automatically brought us ice waters at the beginning and our check at the end. Speaking of dinner, we had giant portions of long-awaited honest-to-goodness BBQ and (moist!) chocolate cake. We stocked up on Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups at the grocery store (how could the peanut butter and chocolate taste sensation not have spread worldwide?) and chose cereal from an entire aisle of options. We’ve listened to non-stop coverage about Osama Bid Laden’s death (as opposed to a quick mention on the news in New Zealand) and there’s ridiculous reality shows and game shows that didn’t exist when we left (by the way, Mark Graff is really into his new gig). And please tell me people don’t actually wear pajama jeans?!?!