Sunday, January 22, 2017

An American Road Trip: Back Home Again!

It’s hard to believe that almost 3 months have passed since I last updated this blog. Needless to say, quite a bit has happened since my last post and I’m going to do my best to get y’all caught up on the happenings of my post-Peace Corps life!

PCV à RPCV: The Journey Home

The last week of my Peace Corps service was filled with tons of smiles, laughter, and tears. Some of the many highlights included:

-       Members of my beloved community English classes receiving their certificates of completion, officially commemorating their achievements and successes during the course of the past year and a half

-       Various despedidas (going away parties) at both my school and with members of my community, that included tons of food, dancing, and memories that I have taken back to the United States with me

-       My final bus ride from Repelon to Barranquilla to officially close out my service in Colombia
-       Being able to “ring the bell” (a Peace Corps Colombia tradition that signals the end of a volunteer’s service) in the Peace Corps office with the rest of my CII6 cohort

-       Exchanging tearful and heartfelt “see you laters” with fellow CII6ers and other members of the staff who helped shape and make my Peace Corps service an unforgettable experience

After 27 months away from the United States, my friends, and my family, it was time to head to the airport for the long-awaited journey home. Derek and I were able to book the same flights all the way to Houston. Upon touching down in Houston, the realization that I was back on US soil immediately hit me. We were welcomed back to the motherland with a new look customs area, filled with automated machines and English everywhere. After figuring out the machines (and where the correct button to take the picture was located at), we proceeded through security and back into “civilized” society.

It wasn’t until my flight to Chicago that I fully embraced the fact that my Peace Corps service had ended and I was starting life over again in America. Saying goodbye to Derek (who was headed to Omaha from Houston) severed my last Peace Corps tie and made the transition all that more real. I also had a moment on the plane where I just lost complete control and started openly sobbing while indulging in real orange juice for the first time in over 2 years. Never before in my life has pulp tasted so good!

As the Chicago skyline came into view, my pulse quickened and the jitters started to set in. I knew that waiting for me at the airport were three of my best friends from my AmeriCorps years (Kevin, Erin, and Phetsada, who had flown up from Atlanta solely for the weekend). Waiting to deplane took what felt like ages, as those around me just didn’t quite understand the excitement/anxiety that was accompanying me. Finally, off the plane and dodging other slow moving travelers, I made my way to baggage claim, hoping to cross paths with the others sooner than later.

My baggage claim was the very last carousel, so as I made my way to claim my bags, I passed by a group of people holding signs and balloons. The name “Michael” jumped out at me. I did a double-take and was greeted by the smiling and surprised faces of my people! Despite the anticlimactic reunion (turns out they were looking for my red and white shirt, which had been covered up by my blue and white sweatshirt), tears still flowed nonetheless. I was so relieved and amped to see them that I couldn’t control myself!

My return to the states was marked by two big events: Halloween weekend and the Chicago Cubs World Series bid. As some of you may know, the Cubs (formerly known as the “loveable losers”) had been previously marred in a World Series championship drought that had reached 108 years. Game 4 was slated for the Saturday that I got home, so to say that the city was brimming with excitement and electricity would be an understatement. Erin and Kevin’s apartment ended up being about a mile or so from Wrigley Field (so close that you could hear the crowd’s moans and cheers from inside their apartment). This alone led to an abundance of fans and other enthusiasts milling around the local bars and restaurants. I just told myself that they were all there to welcome me home.

After spending some time down by the lake and just walking around, we turned our attention to the festivities for the night: Halloween. Talk about a welcome home experience! We headed out, decked out as athletes (gotta love last minute, low budget costumes!) to meet up with a friend of Erin’s at a local bar. This experience totally threw me for a loop and introduced me to “reverse culture shock.”

Upon entering the bar, we were greeted by our waitress. She immediately asked us for our orders and my mind went completely blank. I had forgotten how to order a drink at an American bar! Gone were the staples of Colombia (Aguila, Club Colombia, Costeñitas, Aguardiente) and in their place were strange bottles and handles depicting brands that were foreign to me. A complete look of confusion and befuddlement overtook my face as my mind went blank.

To try and redeem myself, I asked for a menu. One problem – I had forgotten the English equivalent. I just kept repeating over and over again “La carta, por favor”. With each repetition, our poor waitress just kept staring at me, obviously not comprehending at all what I was saying. Luckily, Phetsada saved me from by daze by asking for a menu like a normal human. This was one of many “re-acclimating” experiences that I encountered during my first week back.

The rest of the night was a crash course in American culture. The bar scene in the states is so different from that of Colombia. I spent most of the night in awe of the pick-up attempts happening all around me. I had clearly forgotten that that was one of the main activities that took place in this environment. The music, a mixture of rap and hip-hop, was for the most part unfamiliar to me. I found myself yearning for the comforts of champeta and vallenato.

The next day, after a wonderful brunch, my parents made their way to Kevin and Erin’s apartment to pick me up. It was so great to see them for the first time in almost 11 months. We then made our way to central Illinois, where I was able to spend some time with my aunts and grandma. It was great being surrounded by family again after such a long time apart. Eventually, we made the 4-hour journey back to Iowa. I was officially home after 27 months away. 

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