There are a number of problems attached to wanderlust and, subsequently, to travel. In my experience the most acute problem hasn’t been expenses, or physical discomfort, or even danger. The hardest thing about travel, for me, is homesickness.
The first time I spent more than a week away from home I was 8 or 9. I went to Arizona with my aunt to visit family. I don’t remember feeling homesick. I just remember crying myself to sleep each night and one painful phone call to my mom—her telling me that it would be alright, I’d be home soon—me looking at the rose patterned wall paper of my grandfather’s ranch style home, the pale red flowers bulbous and glassy through the lens of my little tears!
I was 11 or 12 when I traveled semi solo again. My sister and I went to an overnight Christian summer camp for two weeks. I cried for home in the top bunk of my tent, listening to other kids fart and sneeze. (Farts and sneezes sound the same all around the world by the way, there’s nothing foreign about bodily functions. . .it’s just that they lack their inherent hilariousness when you’re 12, missing your bed and your mom)
I’m an animal of routine. The good Lord knows I love a comfortable, uninterrupted routine. I can’t hide it and I won’t deny it. A daily blissful pain-free Olivian monotony is so desirable that I sometimes fantasize about living life like a rerun of some old black & white 50’s sitcom.
Yet, strangely, I’ve wanted to study abroad, travel abroad, live abroad, since I was 17 years old.
I finally did that during my last intersession at college.
I went to Puebla, Mexico for a month in January of 2016 to study Mexican culture and civilization. Puebla is in central Mexico, near volcanoes and mountains. I stayed with a host family. The house I lived in was immaculate, in a quiet neighborhood where everyone walked their dogs in the early morning. White walls, white floors, a sun roof in the dining room. Family portraits everywhere. Stylish white modern decor. Three floors.
The neighboring house had an enormous purple and pink butterfly painted across the garage door. I used to cross a park and dip through Jaime’s Frutería to get to La Ibero. Sometimes a random dog would run up on me in the park and scare the bejeezus out of me as I walked home from friends’ houses or from school, lost in thought about home.
La Universidad Iberoamericana is an impressive university, with smart, beautiful well dressed students. Generations of scholars comprised the faculty. My history professor was a renowned historian, as was her mother. They both came to class one day and spoke about Spanish architecture in Mexico, about the elite of Mexico’s early days, about the Tlatelolco Massacre.
(Mexican tradition, Mexican motherhood, and Mexican sisterhood is fierce. If you’re interested in tradition, in motherhood, in sisterhood—in life really—visit Puebla)
My other teacher, a Spanish language professor, didn’t fuss with lectures or text books when it came to teaching a class of 4 students Spanish grammar in 3 weeks. He just liked to converse and asked us to address him informally. He spoke French, he was puzzled by English, and he loved a woman named Sofia with sharp curves and soft edges that he wrote about in short stories he never published. He seemed 25 but could’t have been any younger than 50. (He kissed me on the cheek on our last day of class. His cheek was so warm when he touched mine that I thought one of us had a fever)
My third professor, an American who taught at the University of Scranton, was an expert on Brazil and Latin America generally. She supervised the trip to Puebla and took me and the other Scranton students on weekend trips to Oaxaca, Teotihuacán, and Monte Albán among other places. She was severe, she kept us safe, and she spoke the language.
I remember that my host mother always cooked for me. She put her arm around me at the doctor’s office when I had the flu. She and her husband took me shopping one day at a huge marble distributor. Multiple floors of lamps, tables, chairs, center pieces, tea cups, plates, tobacco pipes, tiny elephants, Virgin Marys, shot glasses, doorknobs, and so many other blurred, pastel colored shapes I can’t sharpen in my memories. The marble seemed to soak up all the sunlight falling through the small rectangular windows above all the many shelves. The rooms glowed. The sunlight was pale when we walked into the distributor’s courtyard. Huge marble tables, marble garden stepping stones, giant sculptures.
My host father told me that he found the American legal system fascinating on the way back home that day, that soon he’d go to the States to learn more about how to implement my government’s framework into his. Sometimes he didn’t know when I understood Spanish and when I didn’t. Half the time I didn’t understand anything. When I somehow got 100% of what was being said, the time it took to form an answer buried the cue to respond under a murky lake of missed opportunities for verbal communication. None of my host family or my classmates’ host families spoke English. Interacting with them was hard and exciting and hilarious.
I called sandwiches “seeds”.
I called Thursday “eggs”.
“Use concrete words with her,” my host father would say quietly, kindly to the family.
“Come here, come look at the moon” my host mom told me in the dining room when the two of us were alone one night, the bright nocturnal orb shining through the sunroof.
“I drink coffee everyday, even when it’s hot out,” he told me once, his eyebrows raised, his finger pointed knowingly at the sunroof, the sun shining through it.
“When I saw her I said: that’s for me!”He was laughing, recalling falling in love with his wife.
“We decided we wanted to have our kids early, travel later in life. . . He’s taking me to Rome,” she said. She leaned toward me, as if telling a secret: “I look very European.”
“Don’t forget us here, don’t forget Mexico,” she said to me just before I left.
But I wanted to forget everything. I was incredibly homesick. Every night.
I felt so silly, misunderstanding every other sentence, keeping quiet when I knew I would normally have been loud and sarcastic. I felt like I was betraying myself, staying buttoned up to save face. Everything felt too different, too beautiful, too interesting to be home, to be me.
One night I was in the front seat of a car with my classmate’s host brother. He was driving us to a Lucha Libre fight (If you ever get the chance, see one of those. It’s very much like Jack Black’s Nacho Libre (another fantastic thing). I asked this young Mexican guy in the city square one day if he found Nacho offensive. He said “No, we’re actually like that movie. We don’t get offended by jokes as Americans do.”)
The host brother was asking me simple questions that night, and I gave him simple answers. The radio was playing an American pop song. Everyone in the car was under 20. I felt at ease, a surprise. Up until that night, I had been surrounded by adults 50 years + most of the time. It’s hard to feel at home in a new country as a young person when you have little exposure to other young people, and some hard quality about my homesickness softened that night.
About a week later, I met up with two young professors from Scranton. They took me to Cholula, a small town near Puebla. It’s filled with latin hipsters, artisan pizza, jazz bars, and cobblestone streets home to the occasional goat or 8 person parade honoring a minor saint or Mary. People set off fireworks every hour, clockwork. I ate in an indoor restaurant that had a Bilbo Baggins party tree growing in the middle of it, little tea lights were tied to its long, winding branches. There was a small gray bird perched on one of the tree roots. At one point I caught it eyeing my pasta.
One of the waitresses at this pizza place I went to that weekend called me beautiful after she took my order. She had black dread locks, a pierced nose, and almond eyes. I will love her forever. I called the pizza slices thin using a word usually reserved for people that night. (Thin human pizza never tasted so good)
I went home that evening a little drunk, put on all my many layers (most of Mexico’s homes don’t have a heating system, so the edge of every night has a nice blade like 45-50°F)chill to it). My mind sank into a bog of sleep.
I dreamt I was pulling up a bucket from a marble well. It was so light I thought it was empty. When I pulled it up, it was filled with a thin golden liquid. I drank it all.
I went home a few days later. The first thing my mother said was that I smelled differently. The scent of Mexico faded quickly, and I started to miss Mexico slowly.
Oaxaca, Teotihuacan, D.F, Puebla, museums, mountains, mezcal, churches built on ruins, ancient native grounds, pyramids, flying pole dancers, chocolate grasshoppers, pre-hispanic medical instructions for birth painted on huge stones. . .I saw all of these things and I wanted to unsee them at the same time.
That’s homesickness. Every beautiful thing you see exists under the towering shadow of your bed from home, your kitchen from home, your roads from home, your grocery store from home, your boyfriend’s crooked smile that goes everywhere with you. It feels like you’re thirsty. You feel your home calling to you from the back of your throat.
Then, at some point, a rose on a wall, or somebody’s boisterous night-time fart, or a song on a radio in a car in Mexico, or some dread-locked beauty becomes this thin golden liquid that you drink the moment you perceive the rose, the fart, the song, the beauty. Then everything becomes that liquid and you drink—guzzle—and home stops calling from the back of your throat, and your scent changes.
And suddenly, you wake up from some hazy dream and feel sick at the thought of going home.