I said that the world is absurd, but I was too hasty. This world in itself is not reasonable, that is all that can be said. But what is absurd is the confrontation of this irrational and the wild longing or clarity whose call echoes in the human heart. The absurd depends as much on man as on the world. For the moment, it is all that links them together. [...] This is all I can discern clearly in this measureless universe where my adventure takes place. -Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus
Montreal, Canada was the first place in the Northern hemisphere and 'the West' on which I set foot in almost a year. What better way to commemorate the occasion than receiving a ticket?
Ten minutes after leaving the terminal building, at the back seat of an airport van, I was processing my bewilderment at how the streets were clean and the cars even cleaner. At the end of an overpass, a police car pulled us over. "Ma'am in the back? I need to see some ID." This was not a Lebanese checkpoint in the Hezbollah-filled mountains, or an attempt to helicopter into South Sudan. It was, however, Seat belt Safety Month and, unlike Ramadan, Christmas in Ramallah, Ugandan AIDS Awareness Day or Fight Against Malaria Sunday, I had failed to observe it. The policewoman was unable to trace the Greek writing at the front of my passport and quizzically asked "ma'am, do you have seat belts where you are from?" I resisted the impulse to share the state of taxis in Cairo or motorcycles in northern Uganda. Two hundred dollars and a judgmental look later, I was welcomed back into a virtually incorruptible world of lawfulness and cleanliness. Still wearing the Colombian poncho my workshop participants had gifted me 24 hours earlier, I was incongruous.
There were nights in Uganda when I would have given up my firstborn child for a cupcake. There were hot days in Cairo when I could think of little other than the frozen yogurt and bubble tea that accompanied similar days in Harvard Square. I remained incredulous that the illustrious Crepes & Waffles in Colombia did not serve pancakes. When Indian and Thai food presented itself along the way, I would order it, pretending I did not know that it really meant the same chicken with a lot of soy sauce at every establishment, regardless of the national cuisine it purported to embrace. My cravings for these readily available comforts, culinary and beyond, might have made for an ecstatic, soon-to-be gordita in Montreal.
False. Reverse culture shock is a real force with which to be reckoned, fully disorienting one's internal compass and irrationally making one crave the arepas she had had in Bogota a day earlier, as opposed to the laundry list of experiences she had spent a year anticipating. This was another occasion of the 'defamiliarization of the familiar,' my favorite of Drew Faust's concepts and a recurrent theme in this journey.
I did eat non-stop in Canada. I guzzled Tim Horton's French Vanilla coffee, even after spending a year in some of the best coffee-producing nations in the world. I gave a loved one perpetual food coma as he tried to keep up with my expanding appetite. When he asked what else I would like to do now that I was 'back' in a world to which I could better relate, I was at a loss. Besides a visit to a bookstore ("Are you seriously going to pay 18 dollars for Tuesdays with Morrie?!" "We do not have Mitch Albom in the Mayan villages."), we avoided all other shopping, the movies, and all the attractions of sorts. We walked among skyscrapers, in pollution-free, crisp (whom am I kidding - freezing by comparison to the Equator) air. People in the building across the street from where we were staying worked at their desks at all hours, including at 10 PM on a Saturday or 8 AM on a Sunday. That same Saturday ended with Nelly Furtado blasting at a diner, complete with neon lights, fried everything and photoshopped images of banana splits.
I was torn between impulses: I wanted to stockpile the experiences I had been missing and could not have for months again and I simultaneously missed everything I loved about being 'in the field'. I spent a lot of my plane ride to Guatemala wondering whether I would perhaps never feel fully at home anywhere again, always longing for people, places, food, climates and routines I had left behind. There is a reason my dear friend Ericka always calls for 'mindful presence' - but even at its best practice, I cannot help feeling I have left pieces of myself like Little Red Riding Hood bread crumbs everywhere. When I took an hour and a half to get through customs in Guatemala and faced the heat outside the airport building as salsa blasted from a nearby van emitting fumes shamelessly, I felt as though, strangely, this was a place I understood, a familiar place.
Enter Antigua, Guatemala. Home to approximately 34,000 residents, baroque architecture, and three volcanoes, Antigua is an expat darling. Lonely Planet calls it Fake Guatemala and warns tourists who flock here to learn Spanish that they may never practice the language. Yoga, wireless internet, hot shower water, international cuisines, and flatscreen TVs broadcasting the Champions League games coexist along the women in traditional indigenous outfits, the fruit-sellers on the street and one of the highest rates of childhood malnourishment in the world. As far as my stomach is concerned, Antigua has also boasted bagels, brownies, pancakes, carrot cake, all sorts of cakes and home fries. And frozen yogurt, eerily reminiscent of Berryline. I was expecting reverse culture shock in Canada - and could retreat from it - but I was not ready for it in Guatemala.
The conflict trail in Guatemala looks nothing like the tourist trail. And yet, the documentary When the Mountains Tremble, showed armed soldiers in tanks patrolling the streets of picture-perfect Antigua in my lifetime. Antigua little resembles the nearby indigenous villages or Quiche or any of the places still bearing visible civil war scars. There is a certain breed of development worker who is born to hate it: the kind who loves to boast about the poisonous spiders she has killed while working in Insert-Dangerous-Place-Here, or the diseases he contracted while saving orphans, or the way the chief of the Red Cross in a war zone calls him on his cell phone as mines explode left and right.
When Antigua first came into my life, I could not shake the disorientation and surprise; now I try to appreciate it for what it is and to allow myself to partake in the comforts it affords me. A new Australian friend at a cafe, as my favorite Cat Power was bellowing from the speakers, put it best when he said "you do not need to be uncomfortable all the time." There is almost a push-back in the field of conflict-oriented work to live in as poor circumstances as can furnish one with the stories of the greatest bravado and resilience. Antigua allows for none of that and, perhaps, it is for the better. Until I can figure out how pancakes fit with the stories of the fifty women I interviewed two days ago who were mass tortured, or where quiz night at the Irish pub overlaps with the story of Myrna Mack, I will order my next bagel and hunt for that elusive mindful presence.