I felt a rush of hot humid air against my skin as I stepped out of the airport terminal.
Immediately, tears of perspiration began to trickle down my neck. I was home, why didn’t it feel like it? Everything was too clean. Everything was too well maintained. The cars were too new, and definitely too shiny. The windshields glittered in the sunlight, temporarily blinding me. Most startling of all was cacophony of different-looking people. No longer was I surrounded by people with similar skin, hair, and facial features. Each person was completely different, from the redheaded woman with curls dripping across her bright blue eyes, to the brown-skinned man with straight black hair, to the tall white man with gray hair, to the black woman who, although she looked more familiar to me, was pushing a child in a stroller (instead of on her back). And, if the visual onslaught wasn’t enough, everyone was speaking English. What’s with that? I must be in the wrong place.
I swallowed the fear that I had gotten on the wrong plane and looked at my ticket. Nope, the ticket said Orlando. This was where I was supposed to be. So why did it feel like I wasn’t?
The mind is a curious thing. Secretly and silently, it adapts to its surroundings. What seems foreign one day is familiar by the next. Many of us tend to experience ourselves as somehow constant. If anything changes, it is the world around us, not we ourselves.
In fact, the world into which I had just stumbled had not changed at all since the time I left it a year ago. I had. I was not the same person today as the one I was then. I was not even the same person today as the one I was yesterday, chatting in Kiswahili to various shopkeepers as I took my last walk through the narrow walkways of Zanzibar as if I had lived there my entire life, the later struggling to express myself in Kinyarwanda in Kigali when I arrived back in Rwanda in transit. The ease with which I could now speak and understand what was said felt alien to me.
As the days passed, I became used to hearing English. I can answer an email in Swahili, and then open the next and answer it in Kinyarwanda. I already take it for granted that the lights will go on when I flicked the switch, and that water will enthusiastically leap from the tap whenever I turn one on. Whether I am in Florida, in Washington D.C., or in Vermont. It is the same everywhere — water flows and lights glows at my command. Pretty cool!
But I still hesitate when I pour myself a bath: Will there be hot water? When I stand at the bathroom sink to brush my teeth, I stop for moment to search, something is missing … the bottle of water to rinse my brush. Ah yes, I don’t need it here. I am still surprised that I can fill a glass with water from the tap and drink it. And the whole “order-what-I-want-online-today- and-have-it- land-on-my-doorstep-two-days-later” experience is as unsettling as it is convenient. I still carry my computer with me whenever I leave my hotel room when there is no safe provided, and feel safer with my credit cards zipped tight against my chest in my travel vest than in my pocket.
I had a déjà vu feeling when I found myself in a room full of Americans at the U.S. Department of State (DOS) Pre-Departure Orientation for the English Language Program that is sending me to Nepal next month: Just as when I returned from Japan, everyone was too loud, all they did was talk about themselves, and express enthusiasm for everything. It was clear that a cheerful upbeat demeanor was the only acceptable style of self-presentation appropriate for that venue. The enthusiasm for everything, rather than reassuring me, made me wonder what they weren’t saying. Everything couldn’t be that good, could it? I am definitely more cautious than I was a year ago. My year of chronic disappointment has left me hesitant to accept what I see, or hear, at face value and act with confidence believing that what I am told is what will actually happen. Perhaps this is a more health approach to life than my previous naiveté borne out of my idealism. And so…. I am still waiting for the other shoe to drop. What shoe, I do not know. But I am quite certain that there is another shoe hanging around waiting to surprise me.