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points of re-entry

The United States is quiet. No car horns. No shouting vendors. No roaring, muffler-less combis or downshifting buses. It’s clean. I took a walk around Syreena’s suburban neighborhood and found a single piece of trash: a cardboard McDonald’s box. Everyone has American accents, and I no longer have to do a double take when I see blonde hair. I’m back in the land of the gringos. From Miami to Orlando to Baltimore to Odenton to Boston to New Durham, New Hampshire, I’ve spent the past three weeks working my way up the coast, readjusting to strip malls and Starbucks and fast-moving interstate traffic. As a houseguest, I marveled at the commonplace luxuries of middle-class America: vacuum cleaners, microwave ovens, lawn mowers, Swiffer cleaning products, dishwashers, pre-sliced deli meat.

I was nervous about coming back. What do I eat? How do I find pay phones? How can I get around without a car? I tried to practice asking directions in my mind – the words formed in Spanish. Strange, this time around, I didn’t hit that point in the trip where I felt glad to be going home soon. Up to my final days in Huaraz, I was still wandering the streets and visiting friends and forgetting, completely, that I should be saying goodbyes. I spent a lot of time talking to people, asking questions, trying to draw some conclusions about what I’ve seen and learned. What separates Peru from the first world? I asked. What is halting the process of development? Juan, an older man I met in the Plaza de Armas in Huaraz told me that Peruvians lack knowledge, education. Max, a mountain guide, said that it’s corruption holding them back. It’s there in every layer of government, individuals working for themselves, thinking only of the short-term: national individualism instead of national unity.

Antonieta, the woman who ran the hostel where I was staying, had spent several years living in the United States. One of her sons was born in Miami; the other earned his citizenship with help from his father’s business contacts. The older boy has done two tours in Iraq. It was disorienting to see an “Operation Iraqi Freedom” blanket embroidered with the American flag folded over the back of a chair in her living room. She described the first time a car slowed down and waved her across a busy street in downtown Miami. “Here, they don’t care, they’d run you down.” She loved being greeted by cashiers in US grocery stores, or receiving a simple “hello”, or a smile of acknowledgement from people on the street. “The women in my church – people who didn’t know me, who’d barely met me! They surprised me with a baby shower. I’d been feeling so alone, so overwhelmed at the thought of having another baby in a foreign country. I didn’t know if I should have it at all.” Back in 1970, when she was 10, her parents were killed in a massive earthquake that destroyed Huaraz and surrounding towns. “I was all alone. Not a soul came to help. Not an aunt, or a friend, no one.” Peruvians, Antonieta told me, “lack humanity.”

Good things for me to hear about the States before returning. Good things to remember against my dread. And, like all good encounters, speaking with Antonieta raised more questions for me to consider. What is my role as a traveler from the US? The neutral observer who learns to blend in? Or the bringer of culture and light to the third world? Is it arrogant to imagine myself teaching through examples, such as not throwing trash on the ground, like ceding passage on sidewalks, like smiling and being open and friendly instead of sinking into the surly masses? In the Amazon I wrote that to know a culture one has to live a culture. But has my romantic traveler’s lens blinded me, awed me into imitating behaviors that would appall me in the US?

I spent several days visiting a girl my age named Emely, who worked in the open market, selling jackets imported from Bolivia. From eight to five every day, she sits in the street in front of the rack of coats, haggling with customers, crocheting afghan squares, passing the time with the abuelitas who sell dried corn and flaxseed and other grains next to her. I met Emely when I stopped to talk to the abuelitas; I was looking for someone to teach me a few words in the local Quechua dialect. Emely’s twenty-four, with a three-year-old daughter, and single. And with dreams of traveling to “La India”. “These coats are just for now,” she’d tell me. “I’m from Lima; lots of people in this town are from Lima [the coastal capital of Peru]. If I opened a restaurant, with real food from the coast – you can’t get that here, not good food, well prepared. If you did it right you’d have good business.” She told me about her ex-boyfriend, the father of her daughter. “She will never, never live with him. Even if I have to go to Spain to work and save money, I’ll leave her with my family, or I’ll bring her with me.” The strength of her determination to provide a better life for her daughter, her fears of having to leave her behind to seek better employment, her occasional struggles with depression when life overwhelms her – I heard it all as I sat with her on the cold curbing. This wasn’t the first time I’d heard this kind of story from a woman my age, but it still blew me away, each and every time.

Sofia, a Belgian NGO worker living in Huaraz, had suggested that among the women, it’s a sense of self that’s missing. A Peruvian woman of the lower class is the spouse of a, the daughter of b, the mother of x, y, z. “When I asked a group of campesinas what their dreams were, they didn’t understand the question. They thought I wanted to know about what they’d dreamed the night before.” So what about Emely? And Wilson, and the scattered others I came to know who are driven by the strength of their hopes and dreams? How are dreams sown and cultivated? How are they harvested?

I met a young man from Texas at the start of my trip who told me that he believes that those capable of traveling as I do have a responsibility to give back in some way. This idea lingered, and as my encounters became less touristy and more humbling, it returned with a large question mark: how? And is my responsibility to my fellow Americans or to the people I meet as I travel?

I’ve been back in the US for a month now, and the adjusting continues, quicker than I thought possible. Jeni, my Machu Picchu hiking partner, returned to her native North American home several months before I did, and wrote to warn me about “how quickly [the shock] fades and you find yourself buying a coffee that is worth a chicken, a dozen eggs, a bag full of produce, and a massage in Peru.” She’s only exaggerating a little. I’m struggling with our consumer culture, all of the Stuff™ that our economy and lifestyle affords – things I haven’t seen in nine months. This is the point of progress, right? To be able to afford to buy things to make life easier. Wouldn’t Emely jump at the chance to have a washer and a dryer in her own house? Walking with Sian one day in Boston, we noticed a line of people waiting outside a tidy Newbury Street storefront with black awning and pictures of cupcakes with bones crossed underneath. These were young people, trendy, university-types, with hair cut into hard angled shapes to match the plastic jewelry and large square sunglasses covering their faces.  They sat wrapped in fleece blankets in canvas folding chairs, leather-booted feet stretched out and propped up in front of them. Others sprawled on inflatable mattresses and looked up videos on their laptops.  “What are you waiting for?” Sian asked a girl with curly black hair.
“He’s releasing a new t-shirt design,” she responded.
Oh.  Is it free?
“No, no,” she laughed.  “$75.”
How long have you been waiting?
“Since Wednesday.”

This is my culture. Seventy-five dollar t-shirts and leather couches and the $1,000 laptop I’m using to write this blog entry. Now that I’m back, comfortably settled in the belly of the beast, what do I need to do to live up to my responsibility as a traveler? How do I “give back”, as my Texan friend advocated? In the past nine months I’ve lived a different life, an intensely personal one. Traveling alone I’ve internalized everything that I’ve seen and experienced. Now I have to find a way to dig it out and put it in context for the people who ask about my trip. I have to figure out how to teach and show without bragging, to change minds and inspire selflessness without lecturing. And relearn how to live in the United States. And keep in touch with Emely, with Antonieta, Max, and Sofia, to keep the cultural interchange open in anticipation of the day when we find a way to help each other, and maybe even the rest of the world.

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