Winning Entry: 2009 Chang Non-Fiction Writing Contest
Published in the White Wall Review, Issue 33

So Now I’m Home….

As the jeep started to crawl forward again, our tour guide, Cat, wondered aloud about the delay. Sandwiched in the back seat between Katina, a fellow traveler, and me, her suspicions had begun to balloon. Why had we spent the last 15 minutes idling on the corner of this mountainside road?

Our Tibetan tour guide turned back to face us. Looking like a little boy caught with his hand in the cookie jar, he said mischievously, “Small landslide.

“Landslide?!?!”, Katina and I echoed enthusiastically.

Cat started and looked at us, bewildered. “Why are you two so excited?”

Back in my hometown of Toronto, stuck on what some might consider a different kind of perilous journey – the crowded subway ride to work – this memory comes back to me unbidden and I chuckle, but cough quickly to muffle the noise. After all, I don’t want my drowsy, cranky and, likely, sweaty fellow commuters thinking that their bad luck extends to being trapped next to a crazy woman.

More than a year has now passed since I returned from living and traveling abroad, but the nostalgic flashbacks have never ceased. What triggers them varies from the mundane – the way a woman’s hairfalls or the Princess Leia-like headphones a man wears – to the irritatingly coincidental – posters for New Zealand, home for most of my time away, plastered all over the walls of my daily subway station. Familiar faces abound, only for me to realize that the people I think I am seeing live half a world away. How did I get here???

In search of new experiences, I walked away from my safe, stable job in Toronto and packed up for New Zealand, a country I’d never been to, knew very little about, where I had no friends and no job lined up. But if the Lord of The Rings movies were anything to go by it looked like a breathtakingly beautiful country….

Traveling around the world can be exciting and illuminating, but it is always – always – unpredictable. Sobbing in airports in three different countries, having my heart broken, trying to avoid roaming Tibetan yaks and wild dogs for a middle-of-the night trip to an outdoor “washroom” (the term is used loosely), throwing up in a Nepalese taxi cab (and partly on my friend) prior to the start of a four-day trek – these were not exactly the experiences I had had in mind. Yet, these are the moments that bring a smile to my face or a laugh cascading through my body.

Despite the warnings, you expect to slip back into your former life like slipping into the waters of a pool – perhaps with an initial shock, but adjusting quickly. Instead, there is an ever-present discomfort, like I no longer fit in this place where I was born and raised, and where I’ve lived for most of my life. I’m left with the unavoidable questions: Where do I belong? Who am I? Where is home?

It’s my third day in Auckland, and still, the tears come. I sit on the dock with my feet hanging out over the water. The billowing white sails of the boats bobbing by in Waitemata Harbour should be enough to distract me, but the dawning realization that I’m going to miss every day of the next two years of my friends’ and family’s lives easily overpowers the view. All I want right now is to hear a familiar voice – trying not to sprint to a payphone is a challenge. At the nearby bus depot, with shaking hands and the roar of bus engines in the background, I clumsily press the digits for the phone number of my good friend, Leslie. She listens patiently, reminding me of my desire for new and different experiences and then, slowly, carefully, she asks for the email address of my colleague, Gary, whom she’d met at my farewell dinner.

Fast forward two and a half years, and I am sitting in a church pew watching Leslie and Gary exchange vows. Thrilled for my two friends, I nevertheless feel a little lost – how had we jumped from their first meeting to their wedding day? How did my friends, from two separate spheres of my life, become boyfriend and girlfriend, and now, husband and wife? I am to co-emcee their reception, but I feel like I know too little about their relationship.

My intimacy with the minutiae of my friends’ lives once meant we were close. Now there are gaps that will never be filled and I struggle with redefining the dynamics of my friendships.

Perhaps it was a sign of the things to come when my parents almost didn’t recognize me at the airport upon my return. The reason was as deceivingly insignificant as the colour of my sweater: pink, a colour I had adamantly refused to wear all my life. It was my way of telling them that their daughter had returned a different person, but I hadn’t realized, or even considered, what that would translate to in every day life. I’d had an existence of such range, filled with ups and downs, adventures and challenges, sadness and excitement. How do you bottle all that up, push it aside and keep it from engulfing you?

They say that with time, I’ll readjust, that I’ll become accustomed to the routine again. But what if I don’t want to? What if I believe that traveling teaches me to become a better person, a better human being? Travel lends perspective: you are physically apart from everything you once knew and thought was normal. When you return to your old life with a new perspective, where does that leave you? Who does that make you?

We have been on the train now for about 36 hours, but there are still another 12 to go before we reach Lhasa, Tibet. Strangers no more, we have talked ourselves into quiet. I grow tired of listening to the same songs on my iPod and my eyes are weary from reading. To escape the cramped confines of my 6- bed sleeper car, I go next door to another of our tour group’s 6-bed sleeper cars. A little while later, I climb back on to my middle bunk and watch the haunting and barren landscape go by. And that is when I spot him: a pilgrim also on a journey, only, unlike us, he will not be traveling by train. Three steps followed by a prostration. I learn that he will repeat this sequence all the way to Lhasa.

In the relative vastness of New Zealand, I missed the buzzing energy of Toronto’s financial district – people jabbering away on cell phones, executives rushing to meetings, taxis screeching to a halt to claim their next fare. Now, I sometimes stare in wonder at it all. Toronto has not changed much – a new restaurant here, a new condo there – yet it feels foreign.

What makes a place a home? Is it simply where you were born? Perhaps where your family or friends are? Or is it that place where you feel comfort, safety and familiarity?

I could never have been prepared for feeling torn in two, forever missing another place and another family of friends. Nor could I have known how this unquenchable thirst for more – more travel, more exploration, more knowledge – would gnaw at me, intruding far too often when least welcome or expected.

 I cannot fall asleep. It is well after midnight and despite the relative quiet and my tightly shut eyes, sleep is refusing to overtake me. Through the nearly sheer white curtains, I can make out the dotted lights of mid-town Toronto and the Petro Canada station a few blocks away. I dread these nights, when, despite my best intentions for those recommended 8 hours of repose, I spend an hour or two tossing and turning instead. I pick my way through the memories in my head, wondering which one will work best to put me in that necessary serene state: I close my eyes and picture Ninety Mile Beach in New Zealand with its wind-tossed and sunburned grass lying atop majestic sand dunes, deserted in the waning afternoon sunlight, only the crash of waves declaring their arrival upon the sand to keep me company.