I remember I was invited to a house party a week or two after returning home from two years spent abroad. I had only seen family, so the idea of reconnecting with friends was exciting. The problem was, when I arrived at the location, something wasn’t right. I recognized the faces, and the house was familiar as well, but everything felt a bit…foreign. I thought, maybe it was the jet lag? Maybe it was the end of a horrific bout with Giardia? Maybe it was the change in weather or scenery? Something just didn’t click. After a brief time socializing, I found myself feeling suffocated, anxious, and longing to be alone. Why didn’t home feel the same way?
It’s amazing how quickly something exotic can become familiar. In the same regard, the velocity at which one’s perception can change is astounding. I have been lucky enough to visit over 30 countries, spanning 6 continents, and countless plane, train, car, boat, motorcycle, and self-propelled rides. In the midsts of these adventures, I’ve encountered an immense amount of transformative experiences. The crazy thing is, I realize that the trip that changed my life was not to a foreign destination, but to a place I know better than any. The trip that changed my life was the first time I returned home after a long travel.
On the plane back to Colorado after two years of travel throughout Asia and Australia, I was excited. I had become a new person. I had a new array of life experiences, as well as new ideas about faith, love, purpose, and almost anything worth talking about. I had a new hop in my step, and I couldn’t wait for those steps to grace my native soil. The initial landing in the Denver Airport was fantastic, and seeing my family was something I savored, but this euphoria was short lived. Much like honeymooners returning back to work after the excitement becomes a memory, home felt like…home. The problem was, even though things looked very similar to when I had left, home wasn’t the same. It would take weeks to figure out the culprit, but the truth was home was exactly what it was when I departed. I was the one who changed.
The realization crept in slowly. Little by little I found that I now processed my surroundings in a much different way. Although I went to some hectic markets in southeast Asia, I remember visiting a Bed, Bath, and Beyond, with consumer products from the floor to the ceiling during the holiday season, and it giving me anxiety. Listening to the news and being surrounded by TVs, after only having limited wifi and no cell phone while traveling, was a shock. Hearing conversations about careers, kids, mortgages; things that are completely normal for people around my age, were so far removed from the esoteric conversations I was having just a few weeks prior. I hadn’t thought about this stuff for years, and now, it was at the forefront of my existence. Much like my life had changed during my time abroad, so had that of my friends and family. Our trajectories seemed to be aiming in differing directions.
What challenged me the most was the concept that many of the people I hold dear didn’t see my travel as relevant experience. The first couple times I heard, “welcome back to the real world!” I thought it was funny. I even used it myself. That was until I realized this wasn’t just a colloquialism. Many people believed those two years were just a break from what they believed was reality. A reality, which I used to accept as my own. I pondered how if these folks believed travel was time spent in la la land, what the hell were all us vagabonds doing? If experiences in different cultures aren't part of the existing world, what does that mean for the places, the people, and the epiphanies encountered each time we don a backpack and passport?
After a few weeks, I started to understand the “reverse culture shock,” a bit more. I found that while people would ask about my trip, their attention was quite limited. If I could limit my tales to headlines like, “The Motorcycle Crash I had in Bali,” or “Experiencing a Cremation in Varanasi,” people would listen for a story or two. The deeper moments I yearned to share seemed to grasp very little attention. I could talk about travel romances, nights out, or more familiar concepts, but the intricacies of a city I love like Chiang Mai, the feeling I had while listening to the hauntingly beautiful wail of the call to prayer on Lombok in Indonesia; these stories fell on deaf ears. After a headline, conversation would turn to how I financed my trip, then, travel talk would cease. My experiences, my friends, my new way of life, still so potent and empowering, seemed to have no place back in the “real world.”
If you talk to any traveler who has left home for a long period of time, their return will involve setbacks. The truth is, traveling is a way to shift one’s paradigm. With any action there is a reaction, and gaining a new lens comes at a cost. If you allow travel to seep in, the change becomes permanent. It is hard to unsee the things you saw. It is difficult to unlearn lessons, or forget deep-seated feelings you had for places and people. Certain facets of your past will evaporate. Those associated with these facets will also begin to drift away. It’s a hard pill to swallow, but all growth and change comes with collateral damage.
Returning home was difficult, but it taught me two very important lessons. The first: your experiences, regardless of how they are met by others, are relevant. You are not “returning to reality,” because what you have seen is reality. Some people will understand this. Hold them close and allow them to aid you on the long road to understanding. The second: belief is a powerful tool. I left with belief that I would find what I was looking for abroad, even without knowing what I was seeking. While I didn’t expect a trip planned to last only 6-months would evolve into two years, I also didn’t expect to find myself still drawn to being abroad more so than “home.” I believed I would thrive abroad, and it manifested in a way that I never would have believed possible without taking the leap.
With practice, I’ve gained the awareness to permeate between current home and homeland, but my first trip back to Colorado was not so graceful. Sometimes it isn't the moments of ecstasy that teach us valuable lessons. Often, it’s moments where we find ourselves starring up from the bottom, wondering how we ended up here. Though I thought returning home was the end of the journey, I found it was just the beginning. Each trip has its purpose. It may not be what we expect or plan for, but I can say with certainty it is what we need.