I see the mosquito bites are beginning to heal. They seem to be one of the final reminders that I did indeed live in Ecuador for two months. One day my husband, Tony, and I were hiking at Cruce de Via – Los Arrayanes just outside of Quito. It was in seventy five degrees. The next, we found ourselves stuck in Hickory, North Carolina (US) because of a snowstorm, eating hummus and sleeping on and off for hours at a stretch. It was eight degrees outside.
Let me back up.
This re-entry has been rather strange compared to other experiences of coming home. After two months in Cuenca, we left for La Casa de Arte Puembo, a very special B&B owned by a beautiful couple, Viviana and Danilo, that is located less than twenty minutes from the new airport in Quito. We met with some Ecuadorian friends from Quito for dinner our first night in Puembo, laughed, ate, took photos, and reminisced about our time together at the coast.
The following day, Danilo took us for the most incredible hike at Cruce de Via – Los Arrayanes. This path follows an old railroad track from the 1920’s, into a valley leading to the river. It is not something you’d find in tourism books about Ecuador, but rather a place that locals know. They ride and hike this trail from Quito. It took us nearly five hours, but was the most magical way to finish our final day in Ecuador, We had a midnight flight and didn’t want to waste is with that dreading feeling of “waiting” for our flight.
I managed to get mosquito bites, despite Viviana’s warning to cover up, while walking the beautiful grounds at the B&B. I covered up my arms, but wore a long dress and assumed that I’d be fine. Twenty or so bites later, I realized that pants would have been a more wise decision.
With tears in our eyes, we hugged Viviana and Danilo, our B&B hosts and now friends, good bye. We promised to see them again in the future and told them, as they told us, “nuestro casa es su casa” and we meant it. Our trip to the airport was uneventful and we waited at the gate, looking around to see who our fellow passengers would be. We spoke with several young Americans who had traveled for days or months to Ecuador. We shared some of our aloe vera with one who was nursing a sting ray bite on his foot.
We eventually boarded, in a bit of a daze that we were actually returning home.
I’m not sure if it was a physical response to the re-entry reality, but I had a horrific headache the entire flight from Quito to Atlanta. I was miserable. I remember going to the bathroom on the plane and putting toilet paper in the “basura” (garbage) instead of flushing it! I was definitely confused.
Once we arrived in Atlanta, the headache departed, thankfully. We went through customs and the line moved quickly. I was eagerly telling Tony that the best part about coming home is that the agent will always say “welcome home” to you when you are ready to pass through his/her immigration station. We ended up in two different passport control areas and my agent must have woken up on the wrong side of the bed that morning, because he hardly acknowledged me. He said NOTHING to me. NOTHING. Not even the “welcome home” I so desperately needed to hear.
I was heartbroken at that moment. I had just left a country where complete strangers who own a B&B treated me and Tony like family. We ate together, laughed, hiked, shared photos, played music and promised to keep in touch (we have). Then I came home to a complete stranger whose job it is to ensure that I have the right to enter my own country…and he couldn’t even say hello, good morning or welcome back. It was the first time in my life that I had experienced a mute immigration officer.
It literally broke my heart.
I was so upset by this development that when we stopped at a Starbucks to get an iced tea, I asked the server to simply say welcome home to us. I told her they hadn’t said it at immigration and that I really needed someone who was American to welcome us home. She laughed and gave us a hearty “welcome home” and smiled generously. I was so grateful in that moment.
We eventually got our flight to Raleigh and picked up our car at a friend’s house. We were in the driver’s seat for the first time in two months and it was strange. We decided to hit our favorite breakfast joint before heading west to our new home in Asheville.
At the restaurant, we ordered our food and sat down to wait for it to be served. When it was, I spoke Spanish to the waitress (didn’t realize it) and funnily enough, she answered in Spanish. I didn’t flinch. She departed the table and Tony said “you and the waitress spoke Spanish to each other.” I didn’t believe him. He found her and explained that we had just come from a flight from Ecuador. It was surreal.
We finally hit the road, My deep tan and mosquito bites didn’t match the freezing cold weather that we flew into. A “deep freeze” had hit the south and it was eight degrees. A snowstorm was on its way and we raced to make it as far as we could before the snow required us to pull over. Less than two hours from our new home city, we pulled into a random hotel because the snow was becoming dangerous. A quick stop at the market meant that dinner would be crackers, hummus and a banana. We flopped into bed, with the TV on, and slept for what felt like days. When I woke, I couldn’t reconcile the itching on my legs with the six inches of snow outside. I was simply confused and feeling lost.
The next day, we managed to make the drive up the steep mountain to our new city, Asheville. Our household goods were in storage there for the past two months. Our furniture had lived in Asheville longer than we had! The mover couldn’t move us in such snow, so we slept on an air mattress for the night and layered our clothing as it was eight degrees outside. The heater simply wasn’t designed for that type of cold weather. I felt a deep chill in my bones. It lasted over two weeks. Even as the weather warmed up, I simply could not get warm. I slept with a hat on most nights. My body was not ready for re-entry.
This re-entry has been very different than others. This was the first time I had moved “home” to a new city in the US. Tony and I had made the decision to head to Asheville before leaving for Ecuador. It is a place that we love and it has been calling us for some time. Like Cuenca, it is in the mountains and the views from every place in the city can take your breath away. Also like Cuenca, it is a place that values family, community, the arts and education.
This time, we were coming home to an apartment we had never seen. We had picked the community to live in prior to Ecuador, but the apartment we ended up in only became available once we were in Cuenca. We had no idea what it looked like, but it was going to be home. Once the mover could pass through the snow, we got our “stuff” and unpacked in record time. We hung artwork from my previous trip to Ecuador – so there was a physical, daily reminder that we had actually been there. Our old friends who live in Asheville visited – some had lived in Ecuador too and we had that wonderful reality check over dinner.
Earlier that week, we went to a see a documentary film at the local university and felt utterly strange to be in this environment. Someone commented on my tan skin. I did my best to answer “how was Ecuador?” and we came home that night, feeling like strangers in a strange land.
It is just over a month since we’ve returned to the US. We are making inroads in our new community, adjusting to the little luxuries such as being able to drink water from the tap. I still am struggling with a wicked case of giardia (intestinal parasites) that I picked up in Ecuador. They got so bad at one point this past month that I pinched a nerve in my back and was immobile for nearly two weeks. (The intestine swell and put pressure on the back. I know – too much information – but this is part of my re-entry reality.)
One of the most comforting re-entry moments came to me via the US postal system. Katy, one of the Melibee team, had made a beautiful necklace for me that included a map of Ecuador, and a little bee had been pasted over a part of it. A bee in Ecuador. It is something I wear with a lot of joy. It serves as a reminder that someone does understand how challenging re-entry can “bee” and how much it matters to be welcomed home with an open heart and open ears.
As we know, re-entry isn’t all gloom and doom. It should be the beginning of another growth period. In my case, it has meant researching the Latino community in my new home city and finding a Spanish language group. Tony and I have been in touch with our many new friends from Ecuador and have already talked about how we can craft a life of regularly returning or possibly living in Cuenca for part of each year. It is truly the beginning of our love affair with Ecuador (sans the giardia)!
That is my re-entry mix so far: confusion, pain, reconciliation and moving forward. It feels a bit like that hike we took the final day in Ecuador. My body hurt from walking for miles, my brain was confused by the incredible beauty that surrounded us at every turn (could it get more stunning than this? Yes, with every turn around the corner, it did!), the reconciliation that I was going to be aching for days – but that it would be worth it, and finally the moving forward despite the pain. After all, the hike had to come to an end at some point. Our re-entry is kind of like the train tunnels we hiked through on our final day in Ecuador – dark and uncertain, but with light at the end.
I’ll be writing again about my re-entry. Stay tuned.
Note: I hope to soon write about my experience with our exercises from Beyond Abroad- Innovative Re-Entry Exercises. They have been very helpful in processing this part of the journey…and will continue to be once home too.