Tuesday, March 8, 2011

The re-entry process: reverse culture shock

After five powerful and liberating weeks of experiential learning in Mexico, we have arrived back in Canada. The flight seemed shorter this time and in many ways stepping off the plane and onto the soil of my home country was just as shocking as taking the steps onto Mexican soil 38 days ago.

Our return for me was quite overwhelming; being surrounded by an English-speaking majority, with eager travels coming from beach holidays and business endeavors. Young children wailing on the floors and young men and women dressed to the nines, wearing their sunglasses inside at night. Within the airport everything seemed to sparkle - the ceilings, the walls, the counters, the floors. The bathrooms were so clean you could eat in there, although of course no one did, and on each of the bathroom stalls free wii-fi throughout the entire airport was advertised, even there on the toilets; this way no one would have to miss even a minute of work.

As I used the bathroom, without my computer, I was impressed to see a toilet seat. I looked around for the garbage can to dispose of the paper as we had done in Mexico, forgetting it was no longer expected and after the automatic flush of the toilet I was able to use the hottest of waters to wash my hands. Walking back to the group, a few of us stopped to take our first drink of Canadian water from the fountain that provided free drinking water. Many of us did it not because we were necessarily thirsty, but because here we could. We would no longer have to rely on purchasing bottled water to guarantee safe drinking water, as the people of Mexico must do everyday, or they take the risk of getting sick.

After stopping at Tim Horton’s to silence our stomachs, where the vegetables weren’t fresh and the coffee not nearly as good as our host state of Chiapas, we headed down one of the most traveled highways, the 401, back to Belleville. It felt if we were floating down the road compared to traveling the streets of Mexico, where cars would cut you off or stop abruptly to allow more passengers to enter. There were no speed bumps, roadblocks or migrating pigs or goats in the middle of the lane and everything surrounding us looked so big and so distant from the window of my seat it looked like it must be in the far distance, but it wasn’t. It was right in front of me. Every time I return home I am reminded of how much space we have here in Canada. Everything seems wider, more spacious and in many ways much colder, and I’m not only talking about the temperature that was -5 as opposed to +20 and the banks of piled snow, which replaced the coconut trees and flower bushes. It was the distance between people that made things seem cold, and the one-way paths of all those surrounding us. It seemed lonelier here at home than it did in Mexico. A classmate of mine said it was like stepping out of a movie that was in colour into a new one of only black and white; it was true.

As we sat on the bus sharing our experiences and reflecting on our journey in our neighbouring country, we could see the school approaching in the distance. As we pulled up we saw the silhouettes of our friends and family there to meet us. We said our goodbyes and went our separate ways back to our homes.

As I walked the three flights of stairs and entered my apartment I had never felt so comfortable to be home but yet like such a stranger in my own space. Things looked different, felt different. The energy was stale and the walls looked bare. I felt like I had come back to a space where someone else had been living.

After I took a minute to simply sit and think, I walked to the kitchen table and rummaged through the mail that awaited me. Income tax statements, bills, a membership renewal for The Council of Canadians, a reminder that I had forgot to pay March rent – oops! And a letter from my grade eight teacher.

I needed to take a few more minutes before I could tackle them.

I walked into my bedroom to see a pink envelope leaning on my pillow with a card inside from my mum and a vase of flowers on my windowsill. I had asked her to visit my apartment, make sure I hadn’t forgotten anything plugged in or turned on and to water my plants while my roommate and I were both away. I opened the letter, which was a warm welcome written with love. I began to empty my bag and walked to the fridge to store away the Oaxacan cheese I had managed to bring home – don’t worry it lasts longer without refrigeration than cheese in Canada, I promise – when I opened what I was expecting to be an empty fridge, it was filled with fruits, vegetables, juice, milk, eggs and all the necessities of a family. I truly have the best mum in the world!

What happened next was strange, and I thought for a while if I would share it. As I looked at my full fridge, clean apartment and view through my window, I started to cry. I was overwhelmed with gratitude, comfort and compassion but also with displacement and privilege. I have learned the life I live and this reality in which is mine, in many ways, is no reality at all.

As I contemplated wither or not to turn on my space heater before crawling into bed, I decided to once again just take a moment to sit. I sat quietly, closed my eyes and gave thanks for everything that I had experienced, all that I had learned and everything in which I am blessed with.

As I curled up into bed – the one I had secretly been missing the comfort of - I realized these things I would also have to relearn and would too, take some adjustment.

The Tree of Life - in a place called Tule

There is something about sitting beside a tree that is over 1500 years old that makes life beautiful. Today that’s what three of us ISW girls did, went to visit the 1500 year old Tree of Life in a small town called Tule, about 30 minutes outside of Oaxaca City.

We traveled in a collectivo to the small town of Tule to sit on a bench where many people from all over the world have sat before, simply to admire the beautiful gift in which Mother Nature had given; The Tree of Life, with its trunk stretching 11meters in diameter and it’s upper branches housing hundreds of singing birds, butterflies and creatures. Regardless of its struggles, the fights of furry with the wind and battles to withstand mankind, this tree had survived growing higher and becoming stronger each day.

It seemed as though the width of the tree stretched across the earth and the branches reached into the sky. Although some of the trees in the jungle would give this one a run for its money in size, The Tree of Life has years and with years comes wisdom; even within a tree.

There is something about sitting beside this tree that makes the world seem a little smaller. To think once upon a time, there was only nature and land surrounding this beautiful tree and now it has a neighbouring Spanish colonial cathedral and is surrounded by a tourist town to accommodate travelers, like us, who pass through to admire. Many say the Tree of Life is now

in danger of survival, as natural resources in the area are running low, they have created a town surrounding this tree, taking the water from the land and nutrients from the soil.

This tree is sacred, and to many people represents the power of life, beauty and strength. Lets hope humans can recognize this and keep the Tree of Life alive….