One of the most difficult things about traveling is how life continues to happen at home, even while we’re away. In late January two years ago, we woke up one morning in Mexico to find that we’d been robbed in the middle of the night. Three days later, while we waited on pins and needles to have new passports issued in time before our return flight home, a friend discovered that our house was flooded. Flooded. Eighty-four gallons of water per hour coursed through the first floor of our property for three days before the problem was discovered and the water shut off.
Last year, my dad had heart surgery while we were drifting ignorantly down the Amazon River. When we got back to our “home base” in Lima, the very first thing I did was make contact with my parents (despite a long estrangement of 4 years). We had three days to decide whether we were gonna take that flight to Chile that we’d already booked months in advance or go home. Hands down, we decided that it was time to go home.
This year, our cat got sick. It’s a small thing in comparison with my dad having heart surgery, but the timing is painful. We’re eight days, 30,000 miles, and eight flights from home and the probability is low that our kitty will survive long enough for us to see him again.
We travel knowing that life will go on at home. But I can’t go see the pyramids and be at home at the same time. There’s no technology that honestly bridges that gap yet. And I suppose this is what stops a lot of people from traveling. The odds are always good that we’re going to miss something important when we leave. Or that something important will happen to us where we go. It’s hard to reconcile all of it when something important happens in both places at the same time.
At home, when I start packing our bags for a long trip, I always wonder what the important stuff will be. Will we get robbed? Assaulted? Lost? What will happen at home? Most of the time, we live our lives day-to-day or week-to-week. And life just marches on and marking time isn’t necessary or even healthy. But when we travel, I always wonder what will happen between the time we leave and the time we return. The good stuff, like seeing the Great Wall of China, or visiting the Colosseum in Rome is cool, but it’s not Real Life. Real Life happens on the way to the Great Wall or during a phone call that we get right before the driver picks us up to take us to the Great Wall.
This is one of the big differences between traveling and relocating permanently. When a person relocates permanently, it’s normal to settle into the new place and call it “home”. The old place is no longer where life happens. Life happens in the new place. It’s not that a person who relocates stops caring about the people they once knew, but just that it’s natural to acknowledge that the day-to-day goings-on of the old place are no longer relevant to the day-to-day goings on of the new place. Shifting the idea of “home” from there to here happens without effort most of the time. Thoughts shift. Feelings shift. There’s a period of discomfort and then the new place becomes “home”.
On one of our last walks along the water in Tunisia, right after the presidential elections there, the sun was setting behind a fluffy cloud along the horizon, and the Tunisians were calm and friendly to us. And I felt almost comfortable. For the briefest instant, just a fleeting moment, I felt…as though I could live there. And then, the moment was gone.
“If I could collect about a thousand more moments like this one maybe Tunisia wouldn’t seem so bad.” I said to John as rays of sunlight spread out fan-like into the water.
“I don’t know…” he said with skepticism. “The sunset is pretty, but I still hate it here…”
Maybe home is just the place where we’ve had the opportunity to gather plenty of moments that feel okay. The question of what makes “home” Home and what makes another place, sometimes even a familiar place, “foreign” is something that’s bothered me for a long time. Why can I make a home in a new place when I move there (even if I move away a year later), but I can’t seem to make a home out of a comfortable vacation rental overseas for two months? You’d think I’d be able to hijack my brain, my emotions, flip a switch, distract myself, something and settle into a vacation rental in Spain just like I can settle into my living room at Home.
But alas, it’s not possible. It’s more complicated than flipping a switch.
It’s hard to look for the quiet moments of simple okay-ness when we’re focused on going back home for one thing. And it’s hard to be emotionally invested in two places at once. My body may be in South Africa, but my spirit is at home with my sick cat. I can’t have fun touring around the tip of Africa on the same day that I have to decide whether or not to put my beloved cat to sleep back in Nebraska. The distance doesn’t diminish the emotional investment that I have in my home.
After three months of being away from the place that I’ve dubbed home, and the place where most of the my thoughts and feelings originate, I’m ready to stop thinking about two different places at the same time. I just want to see my sick little kitty and pet his forehead. I want to see people I know at the grocery store and complain about the weather.
UPDATE 2017: Garfield survived. He had a feeding tube for a month after we returned home, but slowly we were able to nurse him back to health. Now, and he and his partner, Babylonia, travel with us. They’re both healthy and happy and we’ve found greater peace by taking residence for longer, rather than shorter periods away than at “home”.