Friday, June 7, 2013

The United States and me: A torrid love affair. Part V: Another great trip (and coda)

It's been about a year since our last trip to the US, and I must say that it was one of the best trips I've ever taken, anywhere.  After a rocky start with our flight, it was just all fun and good feelings.  It was the first time in a long time (ever?) that I felt balanced in a good way between our Colombian home and my Midwestern roots.  Usually I swing from missing or romanticizing one place, to demonizing the other, and vice versa.  I'm thrilled to be leaving one place and excited to see the other, and then after a few days I'm sick of the new place!  This time though, I was coming off of showing our home life in Colombia to some good friends that were visiting, so I was filled with pride and appreciation of our home and our life here, but I was also very happy to be returning to the US and seeing all the cool things my homeland has to offer.

Here's how the trip went:

Once again we were almost held up at Colombian Immigration.  After our mishap in 2011 with Sam’s passports, I’d taken care to bring along both his US and Colombian documents.  But this time they wanted a birth certificate proving that Sammy was our son.  I appreciate that the country is trying to cut down on abductions and such, but if they were really serious about it, wouldn’t they have a clear database to show who the parents are of any minor with a passport?  That’s information that’s registered when the baby is born, and certainly the national government should have easy access to it.  In fact, the old version of the passport had a space for a minor’s parents, but the new “improved” version doesn’t!   

At any rate, we negotiated and pleaded our way through that ordeal.  Frankly, I am appalled by Colombia’s treatment of migratory issues.  As of now I’m still waiting for a new foreigner ID card that I applied for 14 months ago and that I’ve provided new applications and fingerprints for at least four times.  Both times we’ve left Colombia with Sam we’ve had problems due to ambiguous, inefficient migration policies.  I guess I never get too worked up about the latter though, because it always happens in the midst of my enthusiasm for going back to the States, and I’m always just grateful when they finally let us through!

After the Immigration scare, we had a mainly uneventful flight on Spirit airlines.  I think I've written before about my appreciation for Spirit.  They give you the same flight from one place to another, for a much lower price.  Of course there's no food and the conditions are far from luxurious, but if it means saving a few hundred dollars, I don't mind it. 

The only (unpleasant) excitement came at the end of the trip, when the plane was taxiing but passengers were not yet supposed to stand up.  There was an old man who got up and started reaching for his luggage, and since he was mostly deaf he didn't hear the multiple times the stewardess admonished him to sit down from the back of the plane.  It might also have been an issue that he didn't speak English, but mainly I think the problem was that no one next to him helped to relay the message that he should sit down.  My impression is that Colombians, or at least those from the central region, are pretty non-participatory in this type of situation of speaking up to a stranger.  At any rate, after a few tries, the stewardess got fed up and said something to the effect of, "Come on, you're not stupid!  Sit down!"  This did cause an uproar from the Colombians who comprised the majority of the passengers in the back of the plane with us.  They were appalled at her lack of respect for an older person (though she was pretty old herself, and no one who loudly protested after the fact had enough respect for the old man to help him understand beforehand that he was supposed to sit down).  A teenage Colombian-American kid sitting next to me yelled out anonymously, "RACIST!!" and the mob just kept hurling hostility at the stewardess long after the old man sat down and everything should have quieted down.

The whole situation was ugly, and had me feeling a general annoyance at everyone.  Mainly at the insensitive, stupid stewardess for being rude and for not knowing even a word of Spanish (and getting pissed at non-English speakers!) despite working on a Spanish-speaking route.  But I was also annoyed with the passengers for not helping out when they could have, and then getting all righteous and immediately assuming that an unpleasant Anglo must be unpleasant because she's racist, and not because she's been working for ten hours straight or some other reason.  I scolded the teenage kid for being irresponsible and flippant about putting such a serious label as "racist" on someone.

But then, as we were getting off the flight, I pulled a typical, self-rightous move that just left me feeling like an idiot, and probably offended everyone around me.  I told the rude stewardess that she should be proud of herself for getting one old deaf man to sit down while in the process alienating about sixty Colombians that will likely never fly Spirit again.  I then went on to let loose a string of profanity to the effect that if anyone was stupid on the flight, it would be her, and that she should learn a few words of Spanish.  Everyone was shocked to hear so much vulgarity in a supposedly civilized setting, and I just felt like a jackass, especially because I probably just invalidated what was otherwise a sound point that she should have considered.

From there we discovered that our delay getting out of Bogota meant we'd missed our connection to Chicago, and that Spirit wouldn't reimburse us or anything since it had all been weather-related.  This led to a wild goose chase to find a hotel, and since we didn't have cellphones that worked in the US, and the airport didn't have payphones, we had to resort to three shady "courtesy phones", one of which was totally non-functional, and the other two of which were connected to touch screen advertisements that usually didn't work.

We somehow found a reservation despite all this, and my wife's calm assuaged my visions of being stuck in the Florida exurbs with no way of entering in contact with another (non-Floridian) human being.  We were driven by a Haitian shuttle driver to a hotel run by a Jamaican woman, where we chose not to use the AC despite the high heat and humidity.  It just felt more comfortable to us to deal with the natural heat than to ensconce ourselves in artificial cool.  Despite our being used to year-round temperatures between 40 and 70 Fahrenheit, for some reason we were okay in the 90-degree Florida heat.  I think we were just happy to have somewhere to sleep, and to be well on our way to Chicago.

The next morning our flight went smoothly.  We had a Colombian driver to the airport, and then in Chicago we had a Yoruba Nigerian cabbie with whom we exchanged stories of African traditional gods and their American manifestations.  I always get such a kick out of meeting people from so many other places when we visit the US--I think I appreciate it a lot more now than when I lived there.  Beyond this, after so many years abroad even the whitebread, supposedly boring culture we take for granted in the States seems to me like the most fascinating thing in the world!

The trip itself was wonderful.  Unlike prior trips, we didn’t overschedule ourselves, and just played it by ear at a leisurely summer pace.  Even so, we experienced restaurants, plays, farmer markets, concerts, museums, architectural tours, a trip to the Shanghai Circus on Navy Pier, Netflix movies at night, canoe trips, family visits...  I loved that Sam could run around naked in the summer heat, and we spent many an afternoon playing in my mom's front yard in a kiddy pool we borrowed from someone.  This trip I also made a point to get out of the North Side, so we went to the Science and Industry Museum, a Mass at the famous St. Sabina's church, and Rainbow Beach with its amazing view of the Chicago skyline.

I saw old friends, and I even spent an afternoon shooting the breeze and drinking beer with my neighbors as we waited to park cars for the Cubs game (my mother lives right next to the ballpark).  In general I found myself admiring and longing for the type of regular, nonheroic life many people seem to live in the States.  We saw folks just living, doing cool things with their free time (from hobbies to helping family members to volunteering for worthy causes), enabled by their relative well-being to dedicate themselves to interesting pursuits.  There wasn't the hardship and deprivation that Caro and I sometimes find ourselves going through due to low-paying small-town jobs and lots of family commitments.  As I was fantasizing about the type of normal, routine life that a well-paying US-style job might afford us, Caro rightly pointed out that a too-normal life would get boring fast.  Still though, I wouldn't mind a bit more stability in life, and I think that the higher pay-scale of the US allows just that for a lot of people, at least middle-class professionals (who don't get caught up in spending a lot on consumer junk!).

The whole trip left me dreaming about coming to live in Chicago or Wisconsin, and all the possible projects I could do there.  In this respect I was sad to leave, but also happy to have something to look forward to.

Shortly after returning from this delightful trip, this is what I wrote in my journal:

Now we're back in Colombia.  We've traded the hazy, humid sun of Wisconsin that kisses and bronzes and gilds the skin, the sun you can leave your baby naked under all day, for the cold, harsh Bogota sun that prickles and chaps and burns in minutes.  We've left our vacation dream world for the debts and worries and disorder and work of our regular lives.  But this is home too, and in spite of myself I find solace and subtle pleasure in the familiar sights and sounds of Colombia's capital.  And I'm sure happy to get back to real, home-made fruit juice with every meal.

I will be in Colombia for another year or two, and I intend to make the most of my time here.  I will keep working on different agricultural development projects, and enjoy the quirky, wonderful culture I have come into.  I hope not to feel too homesick for the US in the time remaining before we return to live there a while.  In the meanwhile, I think a healthy measure to take is for me to get my hands on more classic music from the US.  In particular I've been missing good 1970s music like Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes and Curtis Mayfield, as well as missing and wanting to learn more about classic country like Johnny Cash or Willie Nelson.  My fantasy of gradually amassing a library of vinyl records at 2nd hand stores will have to wait until we're back Stateside, but perhaps I can at least get CDs or have friends send me MP3s.

In the past few months, between mourning the situation of the US, pining for its popular culture, becoming angry at problems that are an insidious mix of systemic failure and personal irresponsibility, and finally visiting my beloved country, I have learned a number of things.  I have learned the value of a stable, calm, middle class living situation, not only for one's own personal comfort, but also because it enables you to think less about the daily struggle for existence and more about larger things like art and culture and hobbies and even working for the good of those less fortunate than you are.  I have reinforced my understanding that home for me is basically where my wife and kid are (and if my mom's around it's an added bonus), and that a big part of my feeling calm and stable has to do with being near them.  And perhaps most monumental for my vision of the world and my role in it is that I've begun to think of the myriad social, environmental, and economic problems that are assailing the modern US (and that will begin to or have already begun to afflict most other countries in the world too) not merely as stupid, irresponsible shortcomings caused by other people (though they kind of are) but rather as issues that I've got a stake in and that it's up to me to be a part of solving.

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