Hurtling forward

22 12 2010

She wore a matronly dress on her large frame, and makeup was smudged crudely across her drooping eyelids.  She smiled at me from the table that she shared with three homeless men, and then approached.  “You two are so beautiful,” she said to me and Kristel.  “I just had to say hello.  I was a man, but now I am a lesbian.”

This is the sort of conversation opener that I might have perceived as creepy once, and reacted accordingly; but traveling solo has given me a better eye for loneliness.  So I smiled, and we talked.  She described feeling out of place in her old body, and I asked her, “are you happy now, since the operation?”  It’s not the sort of intimate question that I would normally ask a stranger, but she wanted to confide in someone.  “I thought it would make me happier,” she answered, “but it hasn’t.”

There have been several times in my life when I knew I should touch someone – when it was obvious that human contact was what they craved, and I was in a position to offer it but I didn’t.  I hope this story is about the last time I err on the side of propriety (or more accurately, remaining within my comfort zone) rather than reaching out to them.

The first time I remember doing this was when I was a child – maybe 6.  A man in a wheelchair had come to speak to our class about his disability, which also involved limited mobility in his arms and a tube in his throat that he had to cover with his finger in order to talk.  I don’t remember much more than that, other than seeing dried saliva around his lips and thinking it was ‘gross.’  At the end of his talk, he asked us all to come up and give him a hug.  I went and hid in the bathroom. 

Kids can be so awful.  It’s easy to write it off by saying that they don’t know any better, but would I still remember this and feel guilty for it if I didn’t know any better at the time?  I have tried to forgive my 6-year-old self, but I want to smack her for her insensitivity and rudeness nonetheless.

I told a story a few days ago, about a little girl – maybe 6 – in a market in Peru, who walked up to me and touched my hand, then trotted over to her mother’s side and turned back to give me a proud smile.  I shared with my friend that I saw myself in that moment as the girl, but I didn’t add that it was like looking at a better version of myself, and that it recalled the shameful memory of the man in the wheelchair.  That little girl’s sweet smile was the smile I could have given him.

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This year, my experiences with people whose languages I do not speak have ranged from beautiful brushes with humanity to situations that made me want to scream.  I have been hung up on for not speaking Thai, patiently given directions in German by a woman who knew full well I could not understand, but who felt compelled to try anyhow, caressed on the cheek by a woman who seemed to think it was cute that I couldn’t speak Portuguese, been laughingly described as a “suffering American” while trying to fumble through shopping for a camera in Spanish,  and of course, ripped off in many countries.  Both the good and the bad have resulted in an increased sympathy for people in the U.S. who don’t speak English… people that I might have been too impatient with in the past, and people that I might have grown frustrated with when we couldn’t communicate. 

This is the sort of situation that we should all be on the other side of at some point, since the frustration of being the one on the receiving end is nowhere near the frustration of being the one unable to express themself.  When face to face with a person who is praying to be understood, it is a failure as a human being to not treat them compassionately.

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Christmas is only 3 days away, and rather than spending it with my family somewhere in the wintery U.S., I am with an adopted family in Ecuador… it’s hot, parrots squawk outside at dusk, iguanas prowl through the backyard, and I dissect strange tropical fruits for breakfast.  This is one of the many times this year that I have found myself utterly bewildered by my life as it is now compared to the life I’ve always had.  When things approach normal again, maybe that will be bewildering as well.

The topic of homesickness comes up often, both with people back home and with fellow travellers.  I miss people, yes.  I miss certain things as well: going to the gym, my Monday night dance class, clothes and shoes other than the limited selection I carry in my backpack, driving, the ability to call a friend who knows me well rather than making a friend who will get a crash course on me and then may never see me again, and I even miss working.  But the only times I would say that I have felt homesick were the 4th of July, Thanksgiving, and I am sure I will feel homesick on Christmas day.   The rest of the time, it doesn’t even occur to me to wish I were in the U.S. – it is pointless to ache for something that I can return to whenever I choose… if I missed it so much, I would just go back. 

If anything, I feel homesick for my favorite cities and people that have taken me in during my travels, knowing that I might never see them again… or if I do, it can never be in the same way.  To travel like this is to fall in love and then leave the object of my affection over and over again; it brings both sadness and a feeling of lightness.

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I was supposed to fly from Santiago to Guayaquil on December 16th, but the pilot turned the plane back from the runway due to an engine light coming on.  So I spent another evening in Santiago with new friends thrown together by circumstance, playing tour guide in a city I had only passing knowledge of, discussing business ideas over drinks, and being reminded of the beauty of plans that do not go as planned.

Because of the delay, a woman on the plane was unable to celebrate her birthday with her family – so the crew did their best to make it up to her on our flight the following day by announcing her birthday to the rest of the passengers and then by throwing her an impromptu birthday party in the back of the plane, with cake and sparkling wine, and random other passengers pulled from the line to the bathroom (like me) to help make it more festive.  I hope that when she looks at the photos of smiling strangers around her on her special day, she remembers that event as the perfect ending to an unexpected adventure.  That’s what it was for me.

My birthday also passed this month.  I don’t worry so much about getting older as I worry about not doing enough while I’m young.  This explains so many of my choices in life, but even as I make those choices I wonder about the life I’m not living in Houston, the life I’m not living in Los Angeles, my husband and children that don’t yet (and may never) exist, the house I don’t own, the job I don’t have… all of these Bizarro Worlds I might just as easily have inhabited as the life I’m actually in.

“I want to live abroad at some point,” I wrote to Katie.

“You do live abroad,” she replied.

Yes… I suppose I do.


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4 responses

22 12 2010
Scott Rose

Like. (From Petra, Jordan, where I will be spending Christmas this year.)

22 12 2010
Emily

This is beautiful Christine, thank you for the gift of your perspective. You are a true student of life and it’s one of the things I like the most about you. Happy Christmas with the parrots. ❤

8 07 2011
cesar

ive just read this journal entry, and it was beautiful. What Emily says here is perfect and i couldnt say it better myself.

23 12 2010
Diane

You’ve made good use of your year, have learned some things about life, and things about yourself. Self-knowledge and acceptance are crucial to moving forward successfully. Good for you!……………..Now come home already!!

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