Monday, October 17, 2011

Finding America

And so I returned. I had no idea what to expect really... The thought of return was just as scary as my Guatemalan departure over 2 years ago. Anyone that browses these Peace Corps blogs can typically read and re-read about rants and experiences about cultural adaptation or misadaptation. But what happens when the gringo comes back "home"? It turns out that for me and as for most, returning home meant getting sucker punched with acute reverse culture shock.

My two and a half weeks of travel included stops all over NY state. I was perplexed to find each place so unique, changed and yet the same, but still so different from one another. I reacquainted and met with old and new friends, all of whom represented a different part of American society - a different part of the middle-america struggle and what it means to be American today.

The beginning - Cairo, NY.

My teenage years. I remember the freedom of the summers, getting my driver's license, soccer practice, pranks, thinking I had it all. I remember the freedom we felt then. Today, I find it hard to find any trace of it at all anymore in this unchanged small American town. And so I came back down memory lane and was challenged with all sorts of curious questions, you know like, "Hey, aren't you in Brazil?" or "How's Europe treating you?" or, "Hey, wow, you're not fat!?" Some people spoke with me suspiciously and distantly maybe because I had done the unthinkable - not only did I get out and come back but I went somewhere so unimaginable that most couldn't even remember its name. It's the irony of it all isn't it? Standing there face to face with your facebook friend, each one convinced that the other is crazier than the other.

My visit was highlighted by your typical small town america events - A firefighters convention, 9/11 Anniversary, a baby christening, a run into an ex-boyfriend, and tomato planting at my grandmother's grave. At the time of my visit, Hurricate Irene had left its marks throughout the area. It was the first time many in the area had seen anything like this, it was the talk of town. Much to my surprise, I fell easy in conversations, able to revert to my Guatemalan-trained weather conversation starters. If I hadn't now lived thru two seasons of rain, hurricanes and tropical depressions here in Guatemala, I suppose I would have been shocked too. But I wasn't, I was grateful actually... for insurance. Oh America, you're so efficient. And so throughout my visit, I mingled once again with my teenage past and its future - by meeting babies, fresh beer bellies and age-wrinkled acquaintances. There's something so lonely and yet so comforting about coming back to this place. I'm convinced that no matter when I come back, everything will still be there, babies now grown up, teenagers, married, grandchildren, and as the world confuses us and makes everything oh so more complicated, I know that silent Cairo will still be there, right there, waiting for me.

Ads after Hurricane Irene

Ela - One of my favorite baby friends

Gone West - Buffalo, NY

For being somewhat of globe trotters, it's pretty funny that my family somehow ended up making Buffalo a home base. How to describe Buffalo? Well I guess in a few simple words: under-rated and quirky. Where do I begin with Buffalo? I guess at the beginning of it all. I'm waiting outside the amtrak office, wondering again what to expect... "Will he pick me up by car, bike? Does he even have a place to live? Am I going to be sleeping in a cardboard box?" And then I see it - that car. I can't believe he even still has it. Yep, it's him, he looks like a french hippie, the accordian player, my brother. As I was brought around all around the music scene - accordion classes, rehearsals, open mic nights, back-room library jam sessions, gigs - I realize that this isn't my scene at all anymore. I'm shy, introverted, and most likely coming off as a boring, snobby A-Type. I'm asked what my creative talents are, if I play an instrument or if I'm left brained. Well, geez, I don't know. I haven't thought about "left-brains" since middle school science class. As it turns out, the only thing to comes out of my brain in Buffalo would be a border-line sociological aspergers disorder. It wasn't just my social scene phobia though, there were simple things too - you know, like being unable to cross intersections on bike rides or actually choosing an ice cream flavor. In the midst of all of this, it finally hits me - I'm a god damn weirdo. I knew I wouldn't quite fit-in in Cairo, but Buffalo, well it hits me by surprise. It turns out that I bond more with my childhood nemesis Yann (now my awesome and quirky Cheesecake factory prep-chep bro.) We bond over the simple things - hikes, mushrooms, fossils and funny enough, our lack of communication with one another.

But Buffalo, oh buffalo, you are just screaming to be different, to be heard through your run-down factories, your ghettos, your yuppy middle-class, your eccentric bums and bohemian artists. It's something to be admired - the fact that Buffalo is living there on its own, a tiny island in the middle of America. I appreciate the fact that Buffalo exists, and it's there because it is, after all, America (now bring it in the Star Splangled Banners please.)

Apparently Buffalo was also home to to the first Crash-test dummy doll.

Cranky Yann = typical sibling fight!!

Back of library open mic night

Suburbia - Long Island, NY

Oh Long Island... Suburbia hub long island. It's the poster child image for hopeful immigrants here in Guatemala. The perfect house, the perfect family, the white picket fence, the 9-5, the kids, the perfect dog, the diners, the boats, the malls, the cars and the L.I.E. Long Island is home to most of my college friends and to be honest, it was never a place I thought I would have called home a few years ago. Long Island quickly (literally) welcomes you with the L.I.E. (think the German Autobahn.) As we passed assembly lines of cars, malls and signs, and so many signs, I couldn't help but to ask outloud "Where is everyone going?", which was quickly followed by, "Hmmmm, I wonder how much those electronic signs cost.." I start remembering the Esther of a few years ago, driving down this same highway anxiously mowing through a 1 1/2 hour commute to work. Gosh, that was silly. We pass more signs, perfect houses, malls, more "Traffic moving ahead Smoothly's" that all seem the same and it then sinks in - I'm back.

I meet them all again, all my old college friends, some with babies, some matured and probably almost engaged, but all of whom form fragments of my old life. We party of course, I drink too many octoberfest-brownhoney-cinnamon-something weird-beers and I pay the price the next day. As I recuperate, we make our way to the beach, and snack on Fire Island. I's spotted here and there with yuppy and ritzy city-folk. I blend in too, I drink a Dirty Martini. Remember those? We walk back down on the beach at sunset, it's deserted, it's peaceful, I'm reminded of an old, pristine Long Island.

There is a huge El Salvadorian immigrant community on Long Island and I am determined to find a Guatemalan Restaurant. We drive through Brentwood, I see a Pollo Campero! But no Guatemalan restaurant... I feel comforted by the neighborhood even though it's considered the ghetto. I think to myself that if I ever have to move back to Long Island, I'll move to Brentwood. My good friend Allie thinks I'm crazy, but for me, it's a small piece of Guatemala.

Long Island footprrints

What the what? - NYC

My NYC trip was a whirwind from the very beginning. It started with a lunch with my old boss, a politician. It's nice and heartwarming to see each other and all, but it's awkward... I really don't care about local politics anymore and he can tell. Damn it. I don't know how far I got to be from what I used to be. I can't tell if my old boss is proud or a tad disappointed by the person I've become. Well, that's life I guess. I take a visit to my old office and I see a few peppy mini-Esthers fresh out of college. I look at the zoning maps that I used to know so well, and I feel comfort. I wonder if I could ever work there again. It's a few years later, and it's the same constituent issues - dog poop, zoning problems, tax increases and complaints, complaints, complaints. I guess that's what makes the city work. My brothers and father are in town too and on our first night together, I take them around a sketchy Queensborough neighborhood. We walk past Affordable Housing and projects, deserted warehouses and I can sense that my family is feeling uneasy. We walk to the East Side River and along a boardwalk of factories, generators, lit warehouses, all lightly dimmed by the highrises of Manhattan. We shyly greet factory workers who are busy printing tomorrow's newspaper. And there they are, I think, producing, producing, producing for the highrises that shadow them.

My good friend Deirde offers her place in Astoria, where I used to live. I always thought I'd go back there after Peace Corps, but I'm not so sure anymore. It's changed and yet it's the same. I have a bagel and coffee from Dunkin Donuts every morning on my morning commutes to Manhattan. I try to befriend the Indian workers at Dunkin Donuts and want to physically hurt racist, bitchy clients. I find out that the N and W lines are still having issues even after 2 years. I spend my days with my family and meet with friends at night. I can't stay up past 11pm or past one beer. I cross a familiar past in NYC - Brooklyn bridge at dusk, a star wars NYU party at Washington Square, Museum of Natural History, Central Park, St. Gennaro's, Brazilian buffets, a pregnant friend, and blisters on my toes.

Accompanying and playing with my father's orchestra are members of a famous Brazilian samba school, Vai Vai. Most are favela (slum) kids who for the first time in their life are in NYC. You can tell their excitement... The shopping, Lincoln Center, the buzz and magic of NYC. Their excitement doesn't faze me - I'm ready to leave, I want to go home, I'm cranky and a rather unenjoyable person. Everyone is buying, buying, buying in NYC. My own father is erratic and stressed out about buying an IPAD while there. I too decide I want an IPOD while there, and find myself completely upset when I'm unable to get one. But I'm more upset at myself; I'm angry that I too, have let myself become so irked by an object and a want. And at the want of an IPOD I know that I have hope.. That I'll be able to rehabilitate and adapt back one day. But just not right now.

My brothers and father on our sketchy boardwalk promenade

A ritual - Brooklyn Bridge at dusk

I was scandalized by this ad - "Are you addicted to Cocaine??"

Don't mess with your local angry musician

And then, just like that, I'm home. The plane lands, I feel an adrenaline of emotions, and I just smile. I've been back for a few weeks now, enduring what it seems like eternal days of rain. The highways are blocked up by mudslides and we're not allowed to leave sites. But hey, at least I'm stuck back home.

Well I guess afterall this post is about you and why, after all, I was such a weirdo when you last saw me a few weeks ago. Don't worry, I'll be normal again one day I swear.

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