Coming Home to U.S.A. After a Year in Latin America

After a year traveling through seven South American countries, we faced one last border crossing — the one that took us home. The experience was strange, but only at first.

Waking Up From the Dream

The strangest thing about coming home was how quickly the strangeness dissipated. After being repeatedly warned about reverse culture shock — and experiencing the phenomenon myself when I took my first extended trip in my early twenties — I was anxious.

Instead, our year abroad barely feels real. All those experiences might have been a lucid dream. I have to look back at our blog and Instagram for hard evidence that they occurred in real life. I suppose the fact that I have a tan is proof enough.

Maybe it’s because almost everything is the same as when we left. Or maybe at the ages of forty and thirty-five, the ruts in our brains are so deep a year away barely makes a dent.

Our collection of grimy SIM cards is a physical reminder that this wasn’t all a dream.

Anxieties About Coming Home

Before coming back, there was so much to worry about. For a whole year, our house was rented out on Airbnb and VRBO. Countless guests have slept in our beds and ate at our table. Surely the baseboards would be scuffed, the furniture dinged and scratched. I expected, like most vacation rentals, it would smell like cleaning solvents.

Instead, it smelled like home. The house was kept more pristine than if we had lived there, (leading us to the uncomfortable conclusion that we are the destructive force). We owe a lifetime of thanks to Deya, who cleaned up after every guest and Jesse, who fixed whatever broke.

Then there was the worry that coming back would be jarring to the senses. After a year of hiking through mountains, jungles, and beaches, I thought for sure that every cell of my body would rebel against the cold fluorescent lights and soulless blue and gray tones of a corporate office. Instead, when I visited my old company’s office, all I noticed were the people — some that I knew, a few that were no longer there, and many that I had never met.

Most of all, I feared that I might have changed in a way that would make me incomprehensible to my friends and family back home. Maybe even to myself. But now that I reflect on it, that change already happened long ago. Over time, I’ve become adept at filtering myself to match expectations.

Seeing With Fresh Eyes

That’s not to say our first day back wasn’t surreal. Riding in the airport shuttle, we gazed wide-eyed out the window, as if we were seeing our own country for the first time. The radio played eighties classics like Joan Jett’s “I Love Rock’n’Roll” and Def Leppard’s “Photograph.” The rhythms were familiar (these were the songs of my earliest years). But it took some getting used to after a year tapping a foot to Natalia Lafourcade and Daddy Yankee.

On our return home, we stayed overnight in Orlando. Our hotel was one of those areas on the outskirts of the airport where laid-over travelers stay in name brand hotels and eat at upscale restaurant chains. I left on foot to grab a burger at T.G.I. Fridays. It was a chance to take stock of this scene, which seemed absurd from a Latin American point of view.

The first thing I noticed was the colors. Gone were the bright orange tile roofs and party-balloon colored walls. Everything man-made was the color of a business suit — all subdued earth-tones, light gray-browns, charcoal grays — as if the CEO’s of these high-powered corporations were so vain they had their buildings designed in their image.

Another thing I noticed was the super-human scale. The sit-down restaurants I walked past were the size of South American supermarkets. The restrooms inside those restaurants were the size of a whole South American restaurant. Even more vast were the seas of lawn and parking lot asphalt that separated them — from each other and from the street. Even the street seemed way too wide for how few cars passed over it.

I felt like an ant trespassing in a land of giants. And that’s not purely a metaphor in a land where mega-corporations dominate every market and are legally counted as a people. What a contrast with many cities of South America, whose markets consists entirely of small shops, kiosks and stalls.

As I continued on I realized, with a start, that I was alone. A car passed here or there, but the sidewalk was devoid of pedestrians. No reggaeton, bachata, or samba music blared out of open restaurants. This place was dark, lonely and silent. As an introvert, the Latin American’s habit of drowning a space with amplified sound always irritated me. But over time, I learned to instinctively avoid silent and solitary places, since that’s where you tend to get robbed.

Here I knew instinctively that I was safe. Those rules didn’t apply here. But still, the silence and lack of other walking humans felt sad and gloomy.

The Pleasures of Home

While I spent those first hours on American soil amazed, those feelings were short-lived. We snapped out of our dream and got back to business.

Old habits didn’t die, they merely hibernated. Like always, I walked around the house scrutinizing every detail looking for things to fix or improve. My to-do list quickly repopulated — tighten doorknob, sweep wet leaves off roof, cut dead tree and replenish stack of firewood. I felt that old familiar rush of dopamine as I checked each item of my list.

Liuan woke up early every morning to work on the garden.

The boys were on cloud nine. They marveled at the quantity of Legos they owned. They rode bikes, jumped on the trampoline and played with old friends. They disemboweled game sets without wasting a precious moment to put them back in the box before moving on to the next.

I made blackberry pies. I never made a single pie on our whole year-long trip. Every place lacked one or all of the following: pie tins, butter, an oven, a food processor (I mixed the butter and flour with two knives once… never again). I also made bread, which turned out picture perfect since I didn’t have to compensate for a rudimentary oven.

Oh yes, and we really enjoyed the long, hot showers. (Mmm… hot showers.)

Finley learns to make a latticed pie crust.
We are making pies for a family get-together the following day.
Bread this perfect can only be made at home.

Where We Go From Here

So is that it? Are we done traveling?

Well, basically yes. For now.

We are taking one more trip this summer, but there will be no relaxing or sightseeing on this one. Liuan’s mom will be hosting us in southeast Texas as we finish renovating her house after Hurricane Harvey flooded her home in 2017. It’s one of those things I can do easily without a full time job.

After that, we will come home “for good” and put the boys back in school. I’ll continue to work for the company I’ve always worked for.

But things won’t be exactly the same. Rather than work full time, I’ll work as a part time contractor. Liuan has always done freelance work and will continue. Since neither of us are tied to an office, future long-term travel is on the table. The arrangement also allows us time to develop other hobbies and skills and scratch around for our life’s purpose (more on that, or lack thereof, in a future blog post).

Liuan and I have also discussed old habits we wish to leave behind. We want to be less scheduled and more open to spontaneity.

But for now, it is too early to say how our lives will unfold. We are simply appreciating everything we have at home and enjoying the afterglow from a year of adventure.

After a year of recreation and relaxation, a harsh dose of reality: painting a narrow and blazing hot skylight while southeast Texas is under a “heat dome.”
Even the kids are put to work in Grandma’s yard. Oliver says this is the first time he’s ever driven anything. And boy was he smiling when he said it.
  • Matt

    Matt is a software consultant by day and a wide ranging hobbyist at night. He enjoys baking, art, music and lives for travel experiences. But what gets him out of bed in the morning is fresh roasted coffee.

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Matt is a software consultant by day and a wide ranging hobbyist at night. He enjoys baking, art, music and lives for travel experiences. But what gets him out of bed in the morning is fresh roasted coffee.

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1 Response

  1. Kathy Huska-HENSLEY says:

    I’m so glad you all have made it home safely. I’ve been following your blog throughout your entire year journey and you’ve been in my prayers daily. Tell Oliver he can come on down to Tennessee anytime he wants to drive my John Deere.

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