Sunday, February 1, 2015

On transitioning back to US soil (also known as culture non-shock).

One of my strongest memories of Nepal was watching two women break a pile of small rocks into even smaller rocks by hand. We were in a taxi going from Birithati back to Pokhara after 18 days hiking the Annapurna Circuit. The 30-minute taxi ride cost us $20 (probably a combined week's salary for these women). Normally we would've looked for a public bus but we were tired, and it was getting late, and there weren't many other options at that hour, so we paid the $20.

There are many things I will never forget about Nepal - the beautiful mountains, the gorgeous valleys, the prayer wheels, the adorable yaks, crazy smog-filled Kathmandu... and the image of those two women blankly staring at us as our taxi drove around their pile of rocks and sped off down the road.

A few days later we flew from Nepal to Perth. Our 20-minute bus ride from the airport to the central business district cost us $4 each. We went in search of a bathroom and found a Target - our first in 18 months. I walked in and saw the bathing suits. "I need a new bathing suit," I thought. I even stopped to peruse them. And then I caught myself, chided myself, and continued my bathroom search. "Want" is not the same as "need."

Our next stop in downtown Perth was the grocery store. We walked into Woolworth's and spent 30 minutes perusing all of our options for our picnic lunch. "Let's get cheese! And lunch meat! And tomatoes!" "And bread, snacks! Oh, and fruit! And of course peanut butter. And maybe some chocolate."

We had just spent 18 days in the mountains of Nepal not knowing where or when we would eat our next meal, but knowing it would be the exact same thing we'd had the day before (rice for lunch, noodles for dinner, or vice versa), and that it would cost us about $3 each. The vegetables we would eat were locally grown and seasonal, and the eggs were from the chickens wandering around the restaurant's lawn.

That morning in Perth at Woolworth's, we paid $21 (and 30 minutes of our time) for our small bag of lunch supplies. Our apples were from New Zealand; our peanut butter was full of sugar.

Culture shock? More like culture hard-slap-in-the-face.

We absolutely loved our time in Australia, but for a while I would continue to be appalled at the cost of food, the cost of dining out, the cost of transportation, the cost of everything. A simple lunch on our day trip to Fremantle would've been at least $20 each (so we packed a lunch from the grocery store instead - this time, $13 total - almost the same cost as our two flat whites at Gino's that morning). The center of Glenelg was a long strip of spendy restaurants and expensive ice cream shops, and our hotel had a casino. At the night market in Darwin, I watched people eat half of their small-and-overpriced food cart dinner and drink half of their small bottled water, then throw the rest in the trash, plastic and all.

Coming off seven months in some of the poorest countries in the world, all of this was a pretty painful re-entry into western life. Eventually we got past the excess, the waste, and the rampant obesity (Jamie Oliver doesn't have a Ministry of Food mission in Australia for nothing). We would occasionally indulge in $4 chocolate bars and $8 pints of beer. We would spend $150 for a day trip down the Great Ocean Road. We would pay $25 each to visit a pretentious museum in Hobart and $38 on a mediocre Vietnamese dinner in Melbourne.

For a while, every time we spent money we would say "remember when we could live for a week on that amount?" After a while, this changed to "remember when we paid a lousy $2.50 for a fantastic cup of coffee at Oblique?"

moving right along...

Enter Hawaii - Oahu, to be exact. We, being us, took the public bus from the Honolulu airport the morning we arrived. For a while we were the only white people amongst the passengers. As we listened to random conversations in Japanese, Hawaiian slang, and various other languages we couldn't easily identify, I had to keep reminding myself that we were actually back in the United States. (I also had to do this every time I looked out the window and panicked that the bus was on the wrong side of the road... haha.)

After that bus ride, though, we were definitely back in familiar territory. Instead of ordering flat whites, we ordered a cup of coffee. Instead of wondering whether $1.99/litre for petrol was cheap or expensive, we instinctively knew that $3.50 for a gallon of gas was a pretty good deal. Instead of buying crisps, biscuits and plonk at the supermarket, we bought chips, cookies and cheap wine. Instead of paying with colorful money that came in various sizes, we used boring same-sized US dollars and didn't have to mentally convert what our purchase was actually costing us.

But was there culture shock when we hit US soil? Coming from the land down under, not really.

Hawaii has probably been the easiest transition from Australia back to the US. Tourists spend amazing amounts of money to sunbathe on beaches with thousands of other tourists before heading back to their expensive all-inclusive resorts. Food prices are crazy; eating out is damn near impossible on our budget; lodging is ridiculous. It's easy to see why poverty is so high here. The only thing that doesn't cost an arm and a leg is public transportation - but good luck finding a bus that actually runs on time and more than once a day.

I understand that Australia and Hawaii are islands and the cost of transporting goods over thousands of miles of water must be factored into prices... But doesn't that suggest looking into using the resources you have, instead of importing things you think you need? Every culture has done this for thousands of years and survived just fine. They didn't need gluten-free blahblahblah or Ben & Jerry's ice cream or fast food. That's one thing that conquering societies have never mastered - if you can't find it in nature or make it locally, perhaps you don't really need it.

Cost of living aside, there has been one interesting shift in cultures from Australia to Hawaii and that's a rather obvious lack of trust. It's not that the local residents are mean. They just aren't very friendly, generally speaking (unless you are with another local, or you show interest in something they are selling). Hardly anyone raises their head as we pass them on the street. People at the grocery store don't make eye contact. Folks don't seem to know - let alone trust - their neighbors.

Surely part of this is due to transient mainland snowbirds and hoardes of international tourists passing through every day. Why bother to get to know you, when you'll be gone tomorrow? The other part is that it's just stereotypical American behavior. We build fences. We buy guns to protect ourselves and our property. We're suspicious until you give us reason not to be. It's such a change from Australia where almost any stranger would say hello and everyone would stop to chat (and chat, and chat some more) if you opened that door.

It also seems that everyone here has a dog. A mean dog, that must be tied up, that barks incessantly when you walk past. Our farming roommate was even warned to carry a stick on her morning runs. Petty crime is a big problem on the islands, and beyond that a lot of locals grow their own pot, so guard dogs make some sense. But being lunged at by a snarling canine as we walk to the market just adds to the general feel of mistrust.

Don't get me wrong, we are loving our time in Hawaii too.

what's not to love?

However. We're not looking forward to tall fences separating us from our neighbors - we want to know who lives next door. We don't want to live where people look confused when you say hello, or look put out when you ask for help. We like waving to drivers as we pass them on the road. We want to enjoy what's right around us, whether it's the like-minded company we keep, or the food we pick from the backyard, or the entertainment that nature provides.

We will let these values guide us when we are "back" (whatever "back" means). We'll try to ingrain a little of that Australian (and Canadian, and SE Asian) hospitality into our American culture.

And when we are "back" I will remember those two Nepalese women and the distinction between "want" and "need" when considering how to spend my boring same-sized US dollars.  For example...




  1. if Dog The Bounty Hunter has taught me anything, it's that all Hawaiians are meth-addicted fugitives

    1. Probably true in any major city, actually. So much opportunity to give a little something back to The Universe!