On The Way Back: The thrills and trials of the hero’s return
In less than a week, I’ll be returning to the place where I’m from, a place I haven’t visited for nearly 2 years. There’s a lot out there about the “hero’s journey”, leaving the comforts of the places you know and stepping out into the unknown. Going on to face whatever challenges and experiences exist outside the familiar. But there’s not much on the hero’s return and even less on the hero’s anticipation to returning.
Usually, the story ends with “…and they lived happily ever after.” then the credits start scrolling. And the journey home is a quick scene of the protagonist climbing on a dragon or drinking some magic potion, then being whisked away abruptly to their homecoming. But what happens between the near end and the sequel? I thought it would be cool to share a bit of what I’m feeling while in this limbo of returning home as a traveler.
First things first: the food!
Yes, it will be nice to see all my family and friends that I’ve been away from or for so long, meet their kids, see the new houses and blah blah blah… But the food! My mouth is watering now, thinking of my favorite Mexican joint, with their all-you-can-eat chips and salsa that comes with every order. The gooey cheese filled burrito, oozing delicious black beans and dripping with fresh guacamole and picante pico de gallo sauce. That first savory bite. Then to wash it all down with a tall fresh can of slightly chilled Arizona watermelon iced tea. *Muah*
There’s something about eating the food you grew up on.
It’s not that I haven’t been eating good food during my travels abroad. In fact, it’s rare that I have a meal that’s anything short of amazing on this beautiful journey. But there’s something about eating the food you grew up on. A consistency in flavor and some kind of mental comfort beyond taste, that simply can’t be satiated by foreign meals. Next to your own mother’s home cooking, there’s nothing better than eating out at your favorite local restaurants. And for me, being from the Bay Area, I have a lot. From Pizza places to Thai food restaurants, I’ve got a list as long as a giraffe’s leg of spots I can’t wait to stop into for a bite.
After eating it’s time to catch up with everybody, but in my experience, this can be surprisingly anticlimactic. The truth is that with the advent of the internet and social media over the past few years, being away from the people you love and care about isn’t as hard as I imagine it would have been some time ago.
Of course, nothing compares to being in the presence of the people you cherish. There’s no substitute for giving your grandma a hug or playing a pickup game of basketball with your old schoolmates. But their world goes on when you’re off on your adventures, and nowadays we’re able to watch it continue in real time from afar.
The last time I went back after being away for a few years I already knew what everyone had been up to while I was gone with just a few scrolls through their Facebook feed. It made it easy to reconnect at first, but at the same time, it sucked the fun out of sharing the stories and experiences that we missed out on while we were apart.
I’d be out to dinner with a buddy and they’d start to tell me how they got a new dog and I’d cut in and say “Oh yeah, I saw that. Button’s is her name, right? That video you put on Instagram of her learning to sit was hilarious.”
Then they’d say “Yea.” And that would be it. The conversation would be over.
I’d start to tell a story “Man, when I was in Thailand I had this motorbike accident…”
Then they’d chime in “Yea! And you couldn’t walk for a week after right? I saw your post on Snapchat.”
“Yea.” The foreknowledge would drain all of the excitement and enthusiasm out of the exchange.
It can be nice when you’re trying to show your friends that you’re interested in their life when you’re away, and of course you want to share your photos and stories from the road, but sometimes it’s also good to leave a little mystery and space in the relationship so you can have something new to share when you catch up over drinks.
My advice: Try not to over-share on your favorite social media platform while you’re away.
Don’t go too deep into researching and scrolling through feeds and stories in an attempt to avoid missing out on the current events of back home. Stay in touch with your close friends and family through private messages and video chats, but other than that, just enjoy your moments and trust that your other friends are enjoying theirs. It will make it all the more magical when you finally do see them again.
After checking in and seeing everybody, the next thing to do is go shopping. Don’t get me wrong, living out of a backpack is awesome and all, but it can be a bit limiting as far as wardrobe and knickknacks are concerned. I love my hand stitched doti that I got in India for $4. It took me 20 minutes of haggling on a filthy side street in Deli to get that price. But it’s simply not practical for a springtime in a Californian suburb. And it will be nice to go to a reputable store and buy a pair of earbuds that don’t break as soon as they’re exposed to the air outside of their plastic packaging.
The fact is when you’re traveling and on a budget, you either can’t find or can’t afford good quality items. My style is to travel light and cheap. I usually buy inexpensive, low-quality clothes to fit in with the culture wherever I am, and then ditch them when they either break or are no longer practical. Right now, about half of the clothes I have came from hostel lost-and-found bins, and the other half were given as gifts. Both nice ways to acquire clothing items on the cheap, but not doing much for custom fitting and style. I’m looking forward to getting back to the states and being able to go shopping in a second-hand store where I’ll actually have a selection to choose from.
Once I have my clothes situation sorted out, it’ll be time to go visit the places I hold dear in my heart.
The hidden gems around the neighborhood of my youth. My secret spots that I used to frequent to clear my mind when I was young. I was so fortunate to grow up on the peninsula where there are so many lushes green parks, long beautiful hiking trails, and stunning picturesque beaches, all within a very short driving distance from my old childhood home. I can’t wait to revisit all those places that make where I’m from uniquely special to me.
I can close my eyes and picture myself winding down the beautiful coastal highway 1 heading south, then driving into the hills surrounded by massive redwood trees on my way to the Mount Madonna yoga ashram for an early morning meditation class. Or stopping in Golden Gate Park to enjoy a fresh joint after an afternoon digging through the crates at the Amoeba music warehouse in the Haight district of San Francisco. I can feel the cool breeze on my face as I gaze out over the speckled dots that light up the bay at night from the hillside of Eaton Park, a secluded, secret place my friends and I used to hang out and drink beers in after hours when we were in high school. The thought of it all makes my soul sing with anticipation.
It should be said that while I’m looking forward to all that I’ve mentioned so far, I also have to be honest and admit the fears and worries I have around my return.
This isn’t my first time coming back after a long trip, and I know it’s not going to be all sunshine and rainbows. The welcome party is short lived before everyone fades back into their own routine and forgets that you’re even around. They have to continue with their own lives, after all.
Before, I had a whole gang of people I couldn’t wait to see and catch up with. In my head, I envisioned an endless month of dinners, brunches, and dive bar chats, laughing, high-fiving and tearing up over shared news and memories. But in reality, I only got to see a fraction of those people, and often only in passing.
Last time I was back I went straight to working full time on a night shift. It was great to be making decent, consistent money for a change, but it made it hard to plan around my friend’s already busy schedules. People had work and were raising families. Their priorities had shifted with new responsibilities over the years. It also didn’t help that I didn’t have my own car, something crucial to being a resident of the Bay Area. I immediately found that my time and freedom were quite diminished and that planning anything was near impossible.
To add to my inconveniences, I didn’t have a cell phone when I first arrived, something that for a traveler is trivial, but as a stationary citizen is a downright necessity. I had no way of getting in touch with anyone and visa versa. I eventually got a number, but my means of sharing it were limited, and all my old contacts had long since changed. It was a serious challenge that I hadn’t anticipated.
The other concern I have is the current political climate in my native land.
I’m from America. When I left Obama was president and weed was only decriminalized in California, not legal for recreational consumption.
This will be my first time setting foot in Trump’s America, a place that from afar looks much more divided than when I left.
As an African-American male, I’m also going back to new social and political movements, campaigns like #metoo and Black Lives Matter that seem to be driving a new narrative across the nation, and I’m not sure where I’ll fit when I become a part of these conversations.
My travels abroad have made me not only aware of, but have sparked in me an interest in geopolitics as well as cultural and social issues, both overseas and at home. I was living in Turkey when the capital city was bombed. I’ve been to Israel and Palestine, and have friends on both sides of the conflict. And I grew up with Mexicans that now live in fear of being deported to a country they have no connection to. I now understand that it’s one thing when the issues in the world are just something you read about in the headlines, but it’s quite another when you know the people that are being affected by these tragedies on a personal level. Since I’ve been gone I’m not sure how my new perspectives will be received by my fellow countrymen.
There’s also the fear of being the victim of police brutality, getting caught in a mass shooting or being maimed in a terrorist attack, things that I could never imagine happening to me while traveling outside the country. Every time I read the news it’s a guarantee at least one of these events has just occurred. The gun issue in the U.S. is staggering and is a problem that is unique only to us. Add to that a few extremists who don’t agree with our foreign or domestic policy, and a police force full of ex-soldiers with PTSD who received their police training in a military war zone, and you have a powder keg of potential danger. Real threats that I know I’ll have to be aware of in the back of my mind any time I visit a public space.
I’m sure I’ll be fine.
The people I need to see I’ll get in touch with. The places and events I want to attend I’m sure will be safe and that I’ll ultimately have a good time. And I know I’ll have some fun, thought-provoking debates while I’m home. But I also have to be aware and honest around the “what if” factors where I’m from.
There’s a quote by the author Marcel Proust that I always like to paraphrase, “We travel, not to see new places, but to bring new eyes to the places we’ve been”.
Well, these eyes have seen a lot of new, and now they’re thirsty to transform the old into new again. Even though for now the plan is only to stop in for a visit, I’m excited, interested, curious and nervous to see how much everything has changed. How much I’ve changed. And how much nothing has changed at all. The hero’s return.