I roll over in my mound of fluffy pillows and wrap the goose down comforter closer around my body and drift off into carefree sleep for another couple of hours. Later in the morning, I awake lazily and walk across the varnished oak hardwood hallway to turn on the high-pressure showerhead that will soon revitalize me with its soothing warm waters. As I am picking out a shirt from my overstuffed closet, my nose picks up a faint waft of bacon. The succulent bacony goodness draws me downstairs to the kitchen where a sizzling breakfast of omelets, bacon and bagels awaits me. The TV is chattering in the background about the relationship debacle between Tom & Katie, and my dog Dude is crouching happily at my feet. I grab a newspaper, pour a glass of fresh orange juice and take a seat on a softly padded dining room chair to leisurely enjoy the morning…Obviously I am not in Chuuk anymore.
I made the 6000 mile, 36 hour journey across the vast expanse of the Pacific back to the place that I used to call reality. I did a little experimentation with time travel and leapt back 24 hours in time as I crossed over the international dateline. It felt like a snippet of Bill Murray’s movie Groundhog’s Day when I got to experience July 2 twice in a row. It took me four connecting flights and a few cocktails, but I finally arrived back home sweet home.
I had said a temporary goodbye to plates of canned mackerel, cold bucket showers and the sweltering heat of the tropics and hello to grande burritos, cold beer and the comforts of suburbia. My first order of business once on American soil had been mentally mapped out for months; I drove directly to In n’ Out burger and feasted on a juicy double-double animal-style no-tomato. My first five meals followed a meticulously planned itinerary. After In n’ Out opened the flood gates, I munched on a platter of tacos for dinner, shoveled down a mound of bacon and cheese for breakfast, indulged in some more spicy Mexican for lunch, and capped it off with a hearty meal of steak and potatoes. As my vacation wore on, my culinary palate would continue to explore all the varied possibilities that stocked supermarkets and limitless strip malls could supply.
Before returning home I had read about and heard the harrowing legends of overwhelming culture shock that returned Peace Corps volunteers often encounter. The readjustment back to the world of technology and overabundance can sometimes inundate the senses and cause nervous breakdowns or harsh disillusionment. In my case, the transition wasn't too difficult. I didn't forget how to drive a car, my toilet was still in the same place and the sun still rose in the east. New stores had popped up, contemporary music was blaring from radios, and every single human being was ticking away on an Iphone; but overall everything was just how I remembered it.
Although I handled the shocks of modernity rather well, I have to admit that when I stepped into a Target megastore I was a little taken aback and had to sit down for a moment. My heart started to pump rapidly and my breathing became shallower as I stared down the endless lines of easily accessible consumer luxuries that were plastered across the shiny white warehouse. An entire aisle dedicated to spatulas and a half dozen rows of soap just seemed a little bit ridiculous to me.
My three weeks in the states never left me an idle moment. I was being shuffled from person to person and allocating my time the best that I could to accommodate the constant requests from friends and family. I went on errands with my mom, played golf and pool with my dad, hung out with my siblings and chilled with all my buddies. At the OC fair I gorged on some greasy treats and then rocked out to a Matisyahu concert. We tasted deep-fried Oreos, cool-aid, and Klondike bars along with chocolate covered bacon and the infamous Caveman: a 4 pound smoked turkey leg wrapped in a full pound of bacon……mmmm, delicious artery blockage.
A weekend in Hollywood at the fancy five-star W hotel was probably the most polar opposite place I could possibly imagine from my village in Chuuk. My friend Brad rented a multi-thousand dollar suite and invited everyone we knew to party the night away. The scene at the rooftop pool best exemplified the swanky affluence of the place. Silicon breasts strutting around in 6 inch heels were fawned over by throngs of gold watches and perfectly gelled hair that showcased the full glamour and beauty of Hollywood. On the menu, there was a bottle of Dom Perignon champagne modestly priced at a measly $75,000! Yes, you heard me correct, that price has three zeroes following it and could be a down payment on a nice house.
The urban sprawl of Los Angeles spread out in all directions from the poolside vantage point and provided a fitting background for the boundless affluence that was represented by the hotel. As the night wore on, we partied to the max and rumor has it that one of my buddies may or may not have impulsively thrown a champagne bottle at a ten thousand dollar pane of ornately decorated glass and shattered it to pieces. I’ll leave that up to your imagination.
I did my best to take advantage of the amazing things about living in the developed world and drank my fair share of beer, took 20 minute showers, slept in until 11 everyday, and ate tasty foods until I felt like I was going to pop. A good amount of my time was spent shooting pool and darts in my garage while listening to old records and playing dice with my friends and family. I also played a couple of rounds of golf and to my pleasant surprise found out that two years of not touching a golf club might have actually made me a better golfer. The sport of golf is all about staying mentally calm and focused, and I guess that countless hours of relaxation in the islands have trained my mind to be impervious to distraction.
Most of my trip home was wonderful, except for the actual reason that I made the trip back to America. I came home so that I could be the best man in my big brother’s wedding and watch him marry the beautiful love of his life. Unfortunately, fate had different plans and threw in a monkey wrench that forestalled the wedding. On the night of Independence Day, Jim was riding in the back of a pickup truck and when it came to a stop he went to hop out of the back but slipped backwards and smacked his head on the asphalt. The fall knocked him unconscious and he began to bleed out of his ear. The next few days were spent in the ICU and it was determined that he had a fractured skull. There was no permanent long-term damage, but the short-term damage was severe. The prognosis for recovery was a long and difficult road of nausea, sleepiness, pain and confusion. Following doctors’ orders and the feelings of the family, the wedding was postponed. However our spirits were brightened as time wore on because Jim made miraculous progress and was back on his feet in a matter of days. He is still not 100%, but fortunately is stronger and healthier than anyone could have imagined. This freak accident put a serious damper on my trip home and dashed away the official reasons for me to leave my post in Micronesia, but all that really matters is that my bro is ok.
The scary situation with my brother and the emotion that racked our family gave me a clear illustration of why I love America. It’s not the lighting fast technology, comfortable beds and delicious food. The reason that America is the best place on earth for me is because of the people that live there. My family and my friends. That's what I truly miss about home. I can rather easily handle the lack of material goods, infrastructure, entertainment and comforts in Chuuk, but the lack of my family and friends is the real challenge to overcome.
On the flip side, the people of Chuuk are what really matter to me there. My fellow volunteers, my host family and the people in my community are what make it genuinely special. The unbelievable beauty and carefree lifestyle are great, but the people make the difference.
In many of my conversations with Americans about my experiences in Chuuk, the question was asked about which place I like better, Chuuk or America? As I pondered this question and weighed the pros and cons of the lives that I live in both places, I came to an interesting conclusion. My trip to California made me realize two things: I love America and I love Chuuk. Being home made me appreciate all the fabulous things about America, but at the same time it made me appreciative of my life in Chuuk. These two parallel universes that I inhabit could not be much more of opposites, but somehow I honestly and truly love them both.