Sad though it was to say goodbye to Jo, Kate and Will, my spirit brightened knowing my family and hometown awaited me at the end of a day of travel. It was an incredible feeling to be greeted by my mom, dad, and sister upon arrival to the Cedar Rapids, Iowa airport just before midnight. I was home! Almost, anyway. As any good small town story goes, I happened to share the plane with an old friend from my elementary school days, whose parents waited and chatted with mine for our delayed arrival.
What struck me the most over the next two weeks I spent in the midwest, was how comfortable I felt. It felt normal and ordinary and good. People asked me if it felt strange or overwhelming to be home, if everything seemed excessive or different or if I was having trouble finding my footing away from my new home of Paraguay.
Honestly, I wasn’t. Sleeping in my childhood bed felt awesome. Seeing my family members was amazing. Hanging out with my niece and nephew was the greatest thing ever and it simply did not feel different or strange or out-of-place.
At first that bothered me. After all, hadn’t I learned anything in the two past years? Hadn’t the challenges I’ve faced in Paraguay made me a better, different person? Shouldn’t the overabundance of wealth and freedom of the States make me feel angry and the consumerist culture make me sick? Well, it didn’t. Not on this short visit anyway. And I came to realize that that’s okay, even good. I have learned to adapt to my surroundings. (I even learned to re-train myself to throw the toilet paper into the toilet instead of the wastebasket.)
I have learned to recognize there’s no one way things “should be,” including my reaction to changes. The fact I adapted so easily to life in the US (and have done so again now being back in Paraguay) is what it is. Not everything has to be analyzed. Even for a blog post.
I will say, though, that Isaiah and I both caught our eyes darting to any piece of fuzz or movement on the floor, the past two years having honed our bug-identifying senses. Lo and behold, in three weeks in the US neither one of us ever saw a bug of any kind inside. Perhaps that was the biggest adjustment, and one I’ll gladly accept.
If I wasn’t catching bugs, what occupied my time? Mainly basking in the presence and love of my family: eating my mom’s incredible cooking (she was happy to take my requests!), drawing and making art projects with my 4-year-old niece Marie, hopping around and playing with stickers and musical instruments with my 2-year-old nephew Troy, dining out in Kalona just like the good-old days with Grandma Louise, visiting Grandpa Lynn and feeling sad with him that my dear Grandma Mary passed away in December, talking taxes and finances and careers with my dad, and enjoying the whole local gang on my mom’s side for an afternoon of fun.
I also got to watch Marie walk on the beam and twirl on the bar in her weekly gymnastics class. We ate at a new Mexican restaurant in Kalona after grandparents day at Marie’s preschool, and I was honored to hear her say that she just didn’t understand why it couldn’t be grandparents and aunts day instead of a day to welcome only grandparents into their classroom.
Partway through my Iowa visit, I borrowed my mom’s car and hit the open road of I-80 on the still-familiar route to Goshen, Indiana. Peace Corps doesn’t allow us volunteers to drive, so it had literally been nearly two years since I sat behind a wheel.
What freedom! What fun! It all came back to me and I safely navigated my way to the city where the leafy maples grow and to the home of my other best friend from college, Jen along with her husband LaMont and their 1-month old Mara (born just eight days after her future BFF, Jo).
Ringing that doorbell and being greeted by Jen’s friendly face and the sleeping preciousness of her new daughter was both completely new and wild, and fully normal and comfortable at the same time. Some friendships are strong enough that even 5,075 miles (I googled it) can’t tear you apart, so within a matter of seconds we were chatting and laughing and feeling like we had never been apart. Except for the reminder that while I was away a person was conceived, grown, and brought into the world.
Mara was incredible. She slept and grunted and let me choose her outfits. She loved sleeping on my chest as I lounged on the couch and I tried to play it cool while secretly (constantly) checking that she wasn’t so nuzzled into my sweatshirt that breathing was restricted.
Oh yeah, I wore warm sweaters and sweatshirts and scarves and it was incredible. I kept talking about how pretty the snow was and how invigorating it felt to be in true icy cold air. I loved it! Probably because the homes and transportation options are all warm and protected from that cold, so you can wake your senses in the cold for a bit, and then scurry back inside the toasty warm house, which isn’t an option in Paraguay. Those around me who had endured a very extreme winter for month upon month muttered their happiness that at least someone was enjoying it.
Goshen, my home for nearly 10 years before Paraguay, had changed some but was still the same in the ways that count. Jen, Mara, and I ate at El Camino, got hot drinks at The Electric Brew in its new location around the corner, and tried very tasty pretzels at JoJo’s Pretzels in the former home of The Brew, Goshen’s oldest coffee shop. Lindsay, Mariko, Jeff, and their kids came over for soup and socializing as well as others who stopped in to deliver a home-cooked meal that I was lucky enough to be a part of.
I had lunch with Luke and Verna, my great aunt and uncle who are lovable, smart, witty, and hold so many incredible experiences and memories from which to draw. I enjoyed dinner with Kate’s family at the Constant Spring, which is now owned by her brother Aaron. The international meal that’s served each Wednesday was delicious Pad Thai, which made my taste buds oh so very happy. The snappy conversation and jokes and catching up with the whole family was so good for the soul.
Back in Iowa, I visited friends Sarah and Chad and met their beautiful daughter Willa for the first time and realized that a 7-month old baby is so, so different from the 1-month old babies I was getting used to.
I did my best to take in as many moments with the whole family as possible, as I knew my vacation was quickly coming to an end.
A last glance at my snowy childhood home, and my parents and I headed back to the airport for another round of goodbyes. Knowing it’d be some time before I returned to US soil, I loaded up on a true All-American meal before arriving at the airport, shedding a few tears and many hugs, and then maneuvering through security as I had done many times before. A last wave and a smile to my parents as the escalator carried me to my gate. Which really is true as it’s a small airport. The same airport, I might add, where fellow volunteers and now friends Jon and Nalena first spotted us way back in May 2012 as this whole journey began.
My consolation for the sadness of leaving my family once again was that I was to meet up with Isaiah in the Miami airport. He had spent the past two weeks with his own family in Colorado, and going from seeing each other approximately 24 hours a day to zero had me ready to hang out once again.
Plus, we’d finally have new stories to share. Things that the other didn’t already know due to being. right. there. I was picturing a slow motion reunion like the movies, where we lock eyes from across the room and then fight to push our way through the crowds of people until we meet and hug and twirl while onlookers smile in shared happiness.
Alas, due to weather, his flight was cancelled and he’d be returning to Paraguay two days after originally planned so I’d be making the long journey back alone. Lucky for him, he got two more days with his family. Lucky for me, I had been trained by my last two years as a Peace Corps volunteer to roll with the punches and stay flexible, holding expectations lightly and keeping my eye on the big picture and on what matters – we’re all safe, we’ll see each other soon, and Isaiah verified that fellow volunteer Devin would already be at the airport to drop off a friend at the exact time I was to arrive, and he can spot money-less, ATM card-less me some guaranies to get myself back to Yuty since the credit card I was using for purchases until my planned reunion with Isaiah would mean nothing to our little bus company. (Thank you, Devin!)
Oops, maybe in teaching me to be flexible, Paraguay has also taught me that things tend to work out, so stressful worry and planning for every what-if moment isn’t necessary. Ah, I guess they were right again. (But for the record, you were right Mom and Dad. I should have kept a little of that cash with me. My bad.)
I am so glad I was able to visit the States, my friends, their babies, and my amazing family for a few weeks. It’s left me refreshed and re-energized for our final five months of service in Paraguay. As for Isaiah, he did make it back and had a great time in Colorado. Drop in us next Tuesday and he’d be happy to tell you all about it.