I am back in the U.S., land of pizza and baseball and harmless mozzies (except for New York City, but that’s like a foreign country anyway). Readjusting to Western life has been surprisingly easy in all ways except the prices. When I got to Salt Lake City and asked for a hotel room, I was quoted a price of $90. After some Middle East theatrics, I got the rate down to $70. For 1 night! For $70, you could stay:
2.5 nights at Mrs. Simpson’s Guest House in Turtle Bay, Kenya.
14 nights at the Tabasco Hostel in Jerusalem, Israel.
23 nights at the Youth Hostel in Rethymno, Crete.
63 nights at the Happy Land Hotel in Luxor, Egypt.
Having paid the (seemingly) exorbitant rate, I went to my (seemingly) lavishroom. The room had air conditioning! Sweet air conditioning. I left it on “high” from the minute I walked in to the minute I left. I was freezing by 2 am, but I didn’t care. The room also had cable TV, with baseball! Sweet baseball. It’s a good thing the baseball was there, because if I hadn’t been so excited to watch it, I might have spent the whole night in the bathroom. The bathroom! Endless miles of glittering white tile, with massive piles of soft white towels and a toilet featuring a seat, toilet paper, and working flush action. And a shower by itself bigger than the entire bathroom at the Happy Land Hotel, with sliding glass doors and an apparently inexhaustible supply of blissfully hot water. I know because I attempted to exhaust it. I sang the whole time. Lord, did I sing in that shower. It’s hard to remember exactly what I sang, since there was no music, no identifiable (or indeed, consistent) key, and I was making it up as I went along. But I can say that lyrically it was a complex, textured exploration of such enduring concepts as hot,” “soapy,” and “squeaky clean.”
My experiences on this trip in foreign bathrooms and hotels have taught me many things about myself; most importantly, that I am American to the core. I wasn’t gone 3 weeks and I was already longing for hot showers, toilet seats, pizza, and baseball. I read a fascinating essay (in a book given to me by Father Lavoie in Jerusalem) about a career traveler named Norman Lewis, whose experiences in the jungles of Asia and Africa make my trip seem like an extended trip to Disneyland, and I can’t imagine how I’d survive as he did. On the other hand, I also learned that you can get used to just about anything if you just shut off the right parts of your mind (i.e., all parts of your mind concerned with personal hygiene and, if you’re taking public transportation, personal safety. You’d be amazed how many parts this is). But the one thing about Norman Lewis that I can understand is the desire to keep going back. Already I am mentally outlining my next trip, which should be to India, in 2002. There will be all kinds of adventures to be had there, I’m sure.
But for now I’m enjoying the many things that make this country great: potable water, self-adhesive stamps, the widespread use of addresses and street signs, e-ticketing, and pizza delivery. But most of all, I’m enjoying the company of friends, old and new. I learned on my trip that I am not as asocial as I once thought; while I very much appreciated the unparalleled freedom that solo travel provides, at times it got terribly lonely. Special thanks to all those who sent e-mails: it did a lot to keep the loneliness at bay. (How did Norman Lewis manage without the internet?)
Upon re-entering the U.S., I had an overnight stay in New York City, and I stayed with my former roommate Don. In an act of saintly kindness, he surprised me with a large group of friends from business school, and a large container of vanilla ice cream. I was so surprised to suddenly be in a room full of people I’d known for years that there was an awkward initial moment where I stood there looking at them, and they at me. It didn’t help that during this awkward moment a mozzie flew right by my face, and I reflexively clapped my hands together once, killing it instantly and sending its little body plummeting to the floor. But then the awkward moment passed and I took a couple of steps to hug everyone, before remembering that the first thing I needed to do was shower. There hadn’t been any running water at all the last 2 days in Nairobi, so at the moment I almost hugged my friends, it had been:
21 hours since I’d left Nairobi for Don’s condo outside NYC.
77 hours since my last cold shower (in Mombasa).
14 days since my last lukewarm shower (at Mrs. Simpson’s, that one night I got it to work).
34 days since my last hot shower / shave (8 / 6, in Jerusalem).
~120 days since I’d had a haircut.
In addition, I had spent the last of my money buying souvenirs in Kenya, and I bought so much stuff that I had to leave behind all my clothes to make room (not that this was much of a loss, since I lived out of one duffel bag for 3.5 months, so the few clothes I took were in really bad shape by the end). So I had were the clothes on my back, which included my one pair of pants, a pair of pants sporting two disintegrating knees, and massive holes in the crotch area and in the right buttock, which I’d covered by cutting out the right front pocket, and cannibalizing the material to make patches. I don’t why the right buttock wore out so much faster than the left one, but I’ve decided to put this in my mental file of Questions Best Left Unanswered.
Anyway, after a quick shower (lukewarm; if I’d taken a hot shower I might never have rejoined the party) I spent the next few hours happily engaged in long conversations and comfortable silences. Another lesson of the trip: treasure your friendships, because someday when life has taken a bad turn and you find yourself sleeping alone in a park in Suez, it is the memories of long conversations and comfortable silences that you will cling to in the night for support.
I am now back in Los Angeles, living in a new apartment with John, my friend and former roommate from college.
Anyone on this list traveling to Los Angeles is welcome to crash here with us. The bathroom is quite nice. And I encourage everyone to travel. Then you can see for yourself if your experience of the world matches mine: that nothing beats close friends and vanilla ice cream, that there’s no place like Home, that people everywhere are, in spite of the cultural differences, pretty much the same, and that there’s not a place in this world where you can’t find someone who will write your name on a grain of rice.
This ends the Summer Update series; on Monday a new life begins when I start my new job as a consultant for marchFIRST. It was formed recently from the merger of 3 companies, and as far as I can tell, the new company is chaotic, disorganized and focused entirely on the future. In short, it may be the perfect place for me. But, since it is a thoroughly white-collar job, I can only assume that the frequency of near-death experiences and seatless toilets will go down, and so I think that marchFIRST Updates should be less frequent as well1. So, I wish everyone well; take care, and safe travels!
© Gus Mattammal, All Rights Reserved