Over 900 days on the road, and I'm still not immune to the phenomenon of culture shock.
There wasn't one event that set me off last Wednesday. Anchored by four chicken buses across El Salvador, it was a travel day like so many others. But this time, everything simultaneously rubbed me the wrong way and left me with a sense of guilt over my irritation.
Annoyed: None of the buses had space anywhere – underneath, on top, racks inside – to stow our backpacks.
Guilty: Our bags consumed precious space inside an already packed public bus.
Annoyed: Yet another passenger engaged me when all I wanted to do was to get through the ride in silence.
Guilty: The man talking to me was nice enough. He didn’t hit on me and he made an effort to speak Spanish slowly and to enunciate. My guilt mounted as I avoided small talk by feigning intense interest in the absurd Dolph Lundgren action flick playing on the video screens. (Aside: I can't believe anyone actually funds these films!)
Annoyed: The lunch options on offer at the bus station in San Salvador were fried and appalling. I couldn’t handle another pupusa (a fried corn flour round, usually stuffed with a combination of beans, cheese and pork rinds) or plato tipico (a plate typically consisting of meat, rice, beans, and fried plantains).
Guilty: The Pollo Campero (Central America’s version of KFC) chicken sandwich promotion that flashed outside the bus was all I could think about.
Annoyed: Our seat on the last bus of the day (another squished affair) featured a window with a broken latch. No problem, except that it was raining buckets.
Recipe for travel insanity:
1. Close your window.
2. Wait for bus to hit a bump (every 5-10 seconds) and knock the window ajar.
3. Endure torrents of rain in the face.
4. Slam the window shut.
5. Repeat for the next 45 minutes.
I put my head in my lap, closed my eyes and willed the day to end.
Upon our arrival, irritations I usually dismiss got under my skin: a high school kid joking that I owed him five dollars for the directions he just gave us; men on the street making kissing noises in my direction; a ceiling-less hotel room gathering mold under a leaky roof, and a bug-infested bathroom whose filth defied its use.
Throughout the day, Dan watched all this, sized up my body language and realized something was seriously wrong. He was a champ and picked up the slack for me in the midst of a series of lesser evils: buying lunch (so that I wouldn't collapse in a low blood-sugar funk), negotiating buses, rigging bus windows shut; and choosing a guesthouse. All I had to do was follow.
Deciphering the Emotions
I should note that my episode had nothing to do with El Salvador or its people. In fact, the Salvadoran people have a reputation for being very warm, friendly and engaging. Our experience only served to reinforce that.
While sorting out my feelings, I recalled a graph from my Peace Corps orientation a decade ago. If you have ever traveled, volunteered or worked abroad long-term, you will likely recognize the following culture shock graph indicating a typical emotional cycle someone goes through while living abroad.
The first three months in a new country are considered the honeymoon phase: everything is new, different, delightful. Then comes the fall: the shine wears off and all those once-amusing local characteristics become frustrating and a pain in the ass. Acceptance follows: you learn to take a bit from your own culture and a bit from the local culture, thereby reaching a sort of equilibrium.
So why did I hit the wall now?
We've been in Central America a little over three months. And although the countries we have visited in this region evince differences, they share many similarities (food, landscape, aesthetic, transport, language, etc.). What was exciting and new at the beginning has become routine, and propelled me – rather abruptly – from the honeymoon phase. Now, it’s time to make peace.
Hospitality from Home
A few days later, a group of Americans from Kentucky and Tennessee traveling on a chartered bus offered us a ride to San Miguel, the big city in eastern El Salvador. They saved us four bus changes and served up warm, friendly, and familiar conversation.
One of the women in the group offered us her hotel room in San Miguel, taking a bed in her friend's room for the last night of her stay so that we could enjoy the comfort of her hotel.
I was again humbled by the kindness of strangers…and reminded of why we we're on this crazy journey.