Round the world! There is much in that sound to inspire proud feelings; but whereto does all that circumnavigation conduct? Only through numberless perils to the very point whence we started, where those that we left behind secure, were all the time before us. –Herman Melville, Moby Dick
We’ve now been home for almost five months, and one of the first things everyone still asks us is how the transition back to our lives in DC has been. The short answer is that it was surprisingly easy. We’ve settled in well; the transition was actually quite a bit smoother than we thought or feared it would be. But the trip has made a profound impact on the way we see the world and our place in it.
It turns out–unsurprisingly–that all the things that make us Americans rich and comfortable are really easy to get used to. Every day we’re presented with an effortless solution to even the most trivial of problems, but when we compare the excess and wastefulness of this lifestyle to those of the huge range of people we met on our trip, it forces us toward a better understanding of our place near the top of the world’s economic ladder, and with that comes an extreme thankfulness and humility for what we have.
On the trip we met all kinds of people, from Western travelers like ourselves ,to locals working in restaurants and hotels that had never left their hometown, to poor subsistence farmers living hand-to-mouth, and on down to people so poverty-stricken, dejected, and abused that it was hard to even identify them as humans. We visited small villages where if you only have one thing, you’re considered rich: if you have a pot, you can make money by selling some food on the streets of your town; if you have a shovel, you can make money by digging ditches; if you have a small screwdriver you can fix watches and eyeglasses from your stoop. Some of the people we met that had the least were some of the happiest and most hardworking people we came across, and these memories remind us that none of the things that have the potential to make us truly happy can be seen, touched, or bought; none of the things that have the potential to give our lives fulfillment are material things.
Coming back to our own lives, these memories and the lessons we learned from the people we met encourage us to view the things around us in a new light. They force us to consider the things we need to be happy, and what we have the potential (even the responsibility) to do to make the world a better place than it was when we got here. Perhaps more than making us hopeful for the future and our contribution to it, these memories make our relationship with our country, our city, and even our apartment a complicated one, and maybe this is the most important lesson we learned on the trip: to look at things critically, to consider our place in all the systems in which we participate, from the hyperlocal to the global. We’re trying our best to take the opportunities given to us by chance and make the most of them. If we’re looking at the world differently, and trying to think deeply to consider our place in it, we’re also trying to find ways to put the conclusions drawn from such considerations into action. While we’ve always been aware of these things, we’re trying more than ever to pay more attention to what we eat, to our waste, to trying to find extra ways to be (globally) responsible: taking that extra second to consider our options when we need to buy something: do we really need it? Which option uses the least packaging? Can we get one that was made locally?
Sometimes I miss being a traveler, the freedom of waking up every day and deciding where to go and what to do. I miss the feeling of awe and splendor, the total jaw-dropping beauty of what’s around every curve in the road, waking up after an overnight bus ride to see the fascinating place we’ve wound up in. Part of making the transition back to lives as upper-middle class Americans is keeping that sense of adventurousness: finding things in our own city, in our own neighborhood, in our own home to look at in a new way; to be excited by them in a new way. I’ve come to look at each day as an opportunity to learn something new or see something I’ve never noticed before, and to carry that sense of adventure through the journey of each day.