I didn’t feel right when I woke up on a plane descending over Manhattan today. It was all wrong. The buildings, the trees, the colors. I suddenly had the strange sensation that I was waking up from some kind of dream. I know I didn’t literally dream up the last months in Ecuador, but I got this inexplicable panicked feeling that this was all wrong, and I had to get back before it was too late. Too late for what? I have no idea, but for just a moment I had a completely illogical urge to turn around run back to Ecuador before I was fully awake, and could never get it back. A panic like feeling trapped, only instead of shut in, I felt like I was locked out.
This moment of panic passed, but the strangeness didn’t. Nothing was quite normal. The guards in the airport were stern faced and spoke to me sharply, as though I had done something wrong. Oh right… we Americans are scared of people in airports now. There was no trash bin for used paper next to the toilet. Oh yeah… I’m suppose to flush it. There were water fountains. I can drink the tapwater! The young children behind me on the plane were whining, talking loudly, and complaining. Bizarre and annoying. In one waiting area I noticed 4 different Apple laptops and 2 tablets or e-readers or whatever. OMG! It’s the future! I could understand all the little conversations going on around me, and American accents had never seemed so striking before. They actually sounded too American, like they were faking it. Do I sound like that? I’ve only been gone five months, but my brain had shifted what is “normal” to such a degree, that I felt disoriented like I was in a place I’ve never been before.
I snapped out of this once I saw my little brother. His familiar but old looking face grounded me. He found me, bought me an enormous Five Guys hamburger with cajan fries, a root beer, a slice of white pizza, AND a jumbo candy bar to immediately satisfy most the cravings that I had been having while away, and off we went.
The weird lost feeling came back on the long drive upstate. Why do I feel like here is somehow less then real? Or that there is the part that’s not real. I watched the tall bushy trees flash by me and felt the simultaneous abnormality and normality, which further deepened the odd feeling in my gut. I have never experienced culture shock before, but I imagine that it might be somewhat related to the existential haze I was in. Culture shock in one’s own culture… is that even possible?
When I stepped out of the car in front of my parents house, I was struck by the smell. I remembered arriving in Ecuador, at the beginning of that other life, and letting the smell wash over me. Let it soothe my anxieties with both its foreignity, and its familiarity, it’s like Tonga, it’s like home, everything will be fine. The Pacific ocean, tropical flowers, and outdoor cooking fires, diesel engines, the warm air heavy with humidity, relaxing my skin and my muscles. I let New York do the same. A whiff of Lilac, the musk of an Northeastern forest, dew on trimmed lawns, a nearby dairy farm, the brisk spring nighttime air bursting in my lungs like menthol. Everything will be fine, it’s like home. Everything will be fine.
Original published May 14, 2011, on tumblr as “Nueva York”.