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June 5, 2007

The Relativity of Home

Arriving in the United States after so much time living in Latin America was so very strange. We were away for so long that our perspective on what was familiar and unfamiliar had flipped societies and hemispheres. The Ecuadorian sierra, jungle and Galapagos, the Patagonian Andes of Chile and Argentina and the fabulous city of Buenos Aires had been our homes for the better part of a year. We never expected it was possible to experience culture shock arriving into the North American culture where we'd lived for nearly all of our lives.

But stepping off the plane in Houston's International Airport, we stood in the middle of the busy intersection between the C and E wings, stunned and frozen. I had flown into this airport every week for six months in 2003 when consulting at Anadarko, yet now, nothing was familiar.

The warmth and openness we had become accustomed to in the south was sadly gone. Everyone was reserved, hurried and distant. Nobody made eye contact. People move differently, carrying themselves as if to force the projection of something that's not really there, but that they think should be there. We were back among those who would rather appear, than be. It was so obvious, yet I hadn't ever noticed it like this before. The genuineness of the socially-oriented people we left behind in the Latin world gave way to independents. We and us gave way to me and I. "Come over for wine and food at our house, stay the night even tough we just met a minute ago" gave way to "excuse me, coming through". Like the country's immigration and airports, the people come across as closed and protected.

So many other things struck us through our changed eyes: The enormous personal wealth of the North Americans was evident. People's clothes and bags: shiny and new. A surprising number talking through tiny wireless Bluetooth headsets stuck into their ears. A big majority of the people were grossly obese. Baggy, oversize clothing worn by most. Cleanliness. Attention to safety. Enormous cars, houses and food portions.

But interestingly, as the hours passed, we continued on to San Diego and drove the beautiful stretch of coastal highway we'd driven hundreds of times towards our old neighborhood, the strangeness once again gave way to a sense of familiarity. At first, even driving our rented Jeep was remarkable. I hadn't driven a car in nearly a year and the activity stood out noticeably. But like riding a bike, moments later that too became instinctual, habitual, and unremarkably familiar.

It was as if in the span of a few hours, nearly a year of cultural adaptation had reversed itself. Again.

Certainly after a few days with friends, neighbors, and colleagues, sharing innumerable laughs, hugs and stories we felt at home again. It sometimes felt like we'd never left.

For months, we've traveled northward from the southern end of the continent on foot, by car, minivan, by minibus and double decker bus, hitchhiking, on horseback, by ferry and boat and on more than a few airplanes to arrive at the end of this segment of our world trip where we started, in our hometown and homebase, Montreal. Home for the summer.