21 November 2007
9:26 AM

818 days in South America

There used to be a little counter on this site that kept track of the days I’d been gone. It has stopped at 818 days because after more than two years outside the U.S., I finally made my way home yesterday. Roy and I finished our detour through Peru and Bolivia and flew home from Lima. It’s a little surreal to be back in America after so much time away. A few observations:

I’m not tall anymore. While I was living in Bolivia and Chile, people always commented on how tall I am. If I was on the subway, I could look around and usually I was the tallest person in the area. I certainly enjoyed the ride while it lasted because now that I’m back in the U.S., I’m an average Joe again.

It’s comforting to see different ethnic groups again. In Bolivia, for example, black people are very uncommon. So uncommon that, should you see one, Bolivians say you should pinch him or her for good luck. When I arrived in Miami I saw faces of all different colors. The man sitting across from me at the gate had a Haitian passport in his shirt pocket. I heard several languages that I don’t know. I saw a couple who had just arrived from Singapore. I can’t say exactly why, but it made me feel good to be back in America and see the tremendous diversity of people who make their home here.

Passing through Miami was an interesting twist because when I left for Chile two years ago the last place I stopped in the U.S. was Miami. At that time I felt like I was already in another world. People everywhere were speaking Spanish, which I didn’t understand, and I had no idea what was going on. Roy and I even declined a free upgrade to first class unintentionally (doh!) because we didn’t understand the flight attendant. I remember being concerned that my passing through Miami might foreshadow the giant confusion that was to follow. It did. But on my return trip, I felt comforted hearing Spanish throughout the terminal. The mix of English and Spanish was a reminder that I hadn’t left Latin America behind.

Side note: when you’re in an airport or any heavy-tourist place, the standard for speaking Spanish well is incredibly low.

GATE AGENT: Did you pack your bags yourself?
ME: .
GATE AGENT: Have they been in your possession at all times since you packed them?
GATE AGENT: Are you carrying any items given to you by a stranger?
ME: No.
GATE AGENT: You speak Spanish very well.
ME: What?!

Apparently you only need to pronounce three or four words correctly to earn high marks.

In the meantime, I’m marveling at how smooth roads are, how clean everything is, how well toilets flush, and how warm it is indoors. This is my second winter this year, but since it’s always 70-something in houses here, I think I’ll manage. Although it feels strange, it’s good to be home.