Its happened to me a few times now, I get back from traveling abroad, find myself trying to get acclimated back into my life. Its jarring to experience. People refer to this as a type of culture shock. To me its more shock then it is culture. I might be sitting at the dining table or getting out of my car, when I wonder if any of the trip I was on was real. Did I just experience that?
But I was caught in this discombobulating moment where I was brushing my teeth at night. I took a sip of water and immediately spit it out. I had this fear that I would get myself sick because I just drank untreated water.
That was a major concern for me while traveling throughout Central America. Past experiences with water while traveling resulted ICU visit and saline drip lines. But for that moment I was caught in a state of confusion as to where I was. I was no longer at home but in Honduras or Guatemala or Chiapas. I had to reassure myself of my locality.
The truth is, the feeling doesn’t start while traveling, it starts when I am on my trip. While visiting incredibly poor areas, seeing the poverty all around me; I can transport myself out of there. I find myself back in the air conditioned room, eating a full course meal, talking to people about things that just seem superfluous given the real needs of people i just met.
This is a constant flux in my reality while traveling abroad. But lately the idea of people suffering and there not being hope to change has taken me into this weird place of apathy and a-politicalness. Its one thing to see how things aren’t changing toward the ideals I have, and a whole other to see first hand how the United States has let down its principles of democracy and equality and justice in other countries. It is why I asked Rev. Blackmon about how I should approach my trip. She responded with “Go search for the Divine in Central America.”
I was able to move past my hesitations. Instead, I had to worry about water and food, about insects and not being left wandering alone outside. Those were the concerns preoccupying my time. But then there were the people I met. Listening to their stories. The hardest thing about this trip to Central America was toggling between the really poor humble circumstances of the people I was talking with and then handling things like the thousand dollars of technology I carried with me. That was incredibly surreal as well.
The world is mixed- rich, poor, the continually marginalizing middle class- layered on top of each other, interacting constantly. This is what I take away from my experiences with settling back in. This year I had a chance to experience this first hand.
While the rest of the world is layered like this, I realize here in the US its not like that. Here in the US we can hide away in our suburbs and hilltop gated enclaves of privilege. That is the reality we constructed. The ghetto’s of the inner city, they aren’t places where we readily go. We call this “white flight” and its a common theme across the country, people who can moving out of the large cities into suburbs, especially out West. And when these folks with means decide to reclaim city centers in places like Los Angeles and San Francisco, we see the process as gentrification.
But I realize that on my Union MLP trip to New York city, I was confronted with the homeless and the poor, on the subways, in the streets. New York City’s pricer neighborhoods aren’t all that “cleansed” of this reality. At first it was surreal, but after some time I felt familiar with it. Thats how the neighborhoods of Karachi are. Its like that in Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador. You can live behind walled mansions but at the end of the day you are confronted with extreme poverty. The vast majority of the people live in that condition of poverty.
I do wonder if what I experience when I return from my travels is what humanitarian aid workers, or even Peace Corps volunteers and even journalists, feel to a greater extent when they return home from their time abroad. For instance, there is the well documented experience of [North] American soldiers returning home from the many theaters of war the US was engaged with had a hard time transitioning back to their civilian lives. A component of that has a lot to do with PTSD. There is also the psychological condition of vicarious trauma for those who are engaged and surrounded by trauma.
One of the main instances of this dire contrast was the last night in Guatemala, after meeting some incredibly poor people. In particular a indigenous woman who travelled two days to meet with us and who didn’t make enough in a year to cover the cost of her travel. I sat at this restaurant called Los Cebelliones.
My meal there comprised of the amount of money this woman would make in 3 months. I can’t fathom that. The reality of the sort of buying power I have as an [North] American consumer is insane. But my ability to enjoy this is a privilege, and this always comes at a cost to someone. The simple reality is that business is all about the ledger and in accounting you balance out the sheets. If privilege is an asset then it comes as an expense or a liability or is left over as retained earnings from some transaction.
I am grappling more then ever with this idea of what my privilege costs. Before it was easy to live life through theories. Globalization is good for everyone. But what sort of globalization? I don’t have an answer to this. I am not anti-globalization. I actually think the idea of free movement of people, ideas, money has many advantages. But what I saw first hand in Central America, its tilted to those with money and power.