So it’s timorously early here in Portland, around 5:30 a.m., and I’m sitting awake in the dark of my bedroom. I spent the night lost in dreams of Northern India. I was wandering the dusty roads of the Himalayan foothills, meeting elephants and smoking charas and looking for a friend I’d somehow lost along a steep and winding trail.
I got home four days ago and this persistent, overpowering sense of semantic disorientation has thrown me for a minor loop. It took two days for my ears to stop ringing thunderously. I sleep weird. I wake up too early. I’ve only left the house a couple of times and whenever I do the world feels big and overwhelming and empty.
I work mornings in my pajamas, then I go on walks and hear people talking to each other, quotidian conversations that always catch me by surprise with their dailyness and their booming tenor.
“Americans!” I’ll think, and turn to have a look, because we met fewer than half a dozen of our brethren during our five weeks in India, and the accent became a wary kind of touchstone.
Then I remind myself that everybody is American, here, and I stuff my hands into my pockets against the February chill and keep moving, to the co-op for a $7 turkey sandwich, or the doctor’s on Alberta to have these itchy, itchy bites inspected. (Not scabies. Sand mites.)
I’m trying to figure out my taxes, to return phone calls, to pay bills, to return to Planet Earth, but I’m stuck in this otherwordly orbit, looping aimlessly.
I suppose I am struggling to distill my experiences into something interpretable, and I hadn’t expected that. This sort of muted and tiny feeling that comes over me when I’m dreaming, or waking, too early. I’ve been away from home for far longer than this before, and my returns have always felt sort-of-triumphant and mostly easy peasy. Even after a year or two away, home felt beautiful and natural.
“Sailing ‘round the world in a dirty gondola / oh, to be back in the land of Coca-Cola,” as Bob Dylan would sing. That’s been me. All beautiful things here in America, all well. I love my home, truly, and, rejecting the vitriol shared by some of my countrymen, I am never sad to return to it.
“Go spend time in one of the real shitholes of the earth and then come back tell me what you think of America,” I used to hiss at aforementioned haters, when I was younger and infinitely wiser and nastier. Now I just nod and accept that how you think of Home says more about the times you’ve left it than it does about the times you’ve chosen to stay. That Home is a fluid kind of thing, connoting, mostly, your relationship with Otherness.
After India, I seem to have adopted a duality of thinking when it comes to what, exactly, constitutes Other. India is the Ultimate Other. But so is Here, once you’ve spent time There. And both places will go on with their messy general business of living, with our without me and my pointy-headed, liberal arts school philosophizing. That makes me feel small, but in all the right ways.
My phone rings a lot. People call to ask how India and Sri Lanka were. I tell them: wonderful, filthy, beautiful, disgusting, overpowering, the ultimate ultimate. Airport fires and chai and cockroaches and charas and masalas and Technicolor sunsets and tiny little brown children shitting atop garbage piles and filthy, filmy beauty everywhere you turn, in your nose and eyes and ears like a saffron-colored vapor, so ugly it turns back into beautiful, and then switch that and repeat.
I’m already halfway planning to go back next winter, maybe give the North a real shot this time around. India is definitely not a one-off deal, that much is for sure. Nah. This one’s gonna take some serious doing.