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Location: Cincinnati, Ohio, United States

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Easing in to the comfort of carpet

Last week I wrote about my time in Guatemala in 1995, how I’d arrived via a one-way ticket with big dreams of gaining fluency in Spanish and then making my way to Brazil to volunteer in the rain forest. Never mind that the national language in Brazil is Portuguese.

From day one I longed for home. That first week at language school I latched on to a couple from Oregon, who acted as my surrogate parents. I traveled with them and others on weekends. The school provided copious outings or activities: observing Mayans looming fabric and practicing religious rituals, painting a local primary school—and playing soccer with the students there, delivering donated saplings to an indigenous community. I kept busy. Still, I missed home.

After five weeks I abandoned my save-the-rain-forest plan and made reservations to get home the next weekend.

A little after 11 a.m. on Saturday I arrived at the local bus station, the first leg of my journey. Though scheduled to leave for Guatemala City at 11:45 a.m., the bus did not leave until it had a full ridership—at 2 p.m. I waited with an American guy I recognized from the previous weekend’s travels. We grew hungry during the wait. He shared his peanuts, I shared my cookies. By the time we reached the city in the early evening, I was famished.

The place of lodging where I’d made reservations—an artsy, lofty place with purple shag and neon lights—was near the bus terminal. I dropped my bag and walked to a McDonalds counter at a mall near. I ordered, “McMenu numero cinco, por favor”: a chicken sandwich, fries and a Sprite, to go. I wanted to return to my room ASAP and ensconce myself in its luxury, unlike anything I’d experienced in six weeks: fluffy bedding, carpeting and heat.

In my room I set the thermostat at 75o, kicked my shoes off and walked around in bare feet; besides people, the thing from home I missed most was carpeting. I burrowed into my warm bed and ate dinner as I watched the Braves win the World Series, having beat the Indians in six games.

My trip home the next morning was interrupted by a long layover in Dallas. At the gate I sat next to a Latino about my age. Turns out, he had flown from Guatemala City on the same flight I had that morning. He was going to Dayton too. He worked for AT&T and was arriving for training.

During the flight I got an idea and searched him out on the plane and told him to wait for me when he got off. He did, and we walked toward baggage claim hand-in-hand.

When Mom saw us, I told her I'd just met him my last week in Guatemala. “His family is so poor. Together he and I can make a good life,” I said, “and you can always use help on the farm.” She quickly replied that “if he can get a visa, he can work anywhere”—besides on my farm, she meant but didn’t say.

That response was her only reaction, though she was quiet as we walked; I imagined her trying to digest this new situation. Her under-reaction was disappointing to me. I thought I’d really played a good joke on her, but she wasn’t freaking out like I’d expected.

Since she wasn’t giving me what I wanted, I came clean. Her relief was evident. But, she still took the Guatemalan home with us. Turns out the guy's rental car and hotel weren't reserved until the following day, so she offered him the spare bed.

So I was eased back into my usual reality: the hotel’s relative luxury in Guatemala and a Guatemalan in the comforts of home.

The next day the Guatemalan and I toured the Air Force Museum on the Wright-Pat AFB, which he loved (all men do), before I dropped him at the airport to pick up his rental car. Then a short drive home, where I stepped out of my shoes and enjoyed the thick carpet massaging my feet as I walked upstairs to my warm bed and a mid-afternoon nap. Oh, to be home.

Help fight homesickness

Since last November I have sent care packages, one a month, to a random soldier or marine who is serving overseas, and not until recently have I realized the similarity in my situation more than 15 years ago and that of many of our overseas troops.

When I was 25 I spent six weeks in Guatemala attending language school. I was homesick—from the first day, when I spent the night in a grimy little room—at a boarding house? a hostel? somebody’s home? I never did know. I just stayed where my transporters dropped me, trusting that they’d collect me the next morning for the trip further west.

They did. Later that second day we arrived in the dirty town of Quetzaltenango and I met my host family. I was shown to my room, which was better than where I’d stayed the previous night, but it was so different from what I was used to.

Most homes in Latin America are built around a courtyard. My room had two doors: one led to a holding area for the propane tank used to heat water, which further led to the bathroom, and the other door led to the courtyard, through which I had to walk to get to anywhere besides the bathroom.

The mostly concrete courtyard had a tree growing here, green stuffs sprouting there, a dog lying in the sun, chickens pecking all around, cats up to mischief, an iguana seemingly content in his box and a parrot swinging on a bike tire hung by the kitchen window.

Still, I was homesick. I wrote postcards, two or three a week, to Mom, to Dad and stepmom, to aunts and uncles, to grandparents, to friends. I was trying to stay connected. However, the Guatemalan mail service was corrupt and nothing sent from the States got through to me. Nothing for six weeks. It was 1995, before cell phones and e-mail became popular.

I socialized and traveled around the country on weekends with other students at my language school. Yet, still, I was homesick.

At the start of my third week, a man from Virginia arrived at the school. He was twice my age, yet we got along great and hung out together all the time we weren’t in school. He was there only two weeks, left after my fifth, and after that I was just miserable.

I had traveled to Guatemala on a one-way ticket. My original plan was to spend 17 weeks there, then travel to Brazil to volunteer in a rain forest. The weekend after my new friend left, I thought, "There's nothing to say I can't go home." So I flew back to the States a week later.

These days I send toothbrushes, shampoo, cans of soup, and energy bars to our troops. My husband thinks the appropriate military branch is likely supplying what they need so questions my supportive efforts. My step-mom said, “It’s probably not what’s sent; it’s just that someone thought enough to reach out.”

When I heard that, I was transported back to Guatemala, lying on my flea-ridden bed (I closed both doors to my room in the mornings, but when I’d come home, they’d be swung wide and a cat [with fleas] would be lying at the foot of my bed.), writing my postcards home, wishing for some kind of contact. A postcard, a care package, a scribbled note. Just to know that someone at home was thinking of me would have eased or even erased my pain for a little bit. It would have meant so much, to know that someone was thinking of me.

Please do what you can to support our troops. Find where to send at www.AnySoldier.com.

Have a fun day canoeing. It’s that time of year.

Back in 1998 when I invited my not-yet husband to go canoeing with me and my coworkers, he accepted without enthusiasm. Something like, “I guess.” We’d had three dates by that time, and I told him, quite seriously, that I expected to see a little more excitement if I ask him to do something with me again. Mark said he was happy to spend time with me but was not thrilled about canoeing. He can’t swim, he said.

Who can’t swim? Any animal can swim if you throw it in the water. I thought.

The Saturday came. On the way to Morgan’s Canoe Livery in Morrow we stopped at Mom’s Restaurant in Red Lion, where Franklin, Springboro and Lebanon converge. The place was crowded. Mark and I took the last table available, the booth next to the front window. The table was right next to the window with only one bench, looking out. So I scooted in next to Mark, and we ate side by side. He ordered biscuits and gravy and loved it. I cannot remember what I ordered.

Finally at Morgan’s that June day, I introduced Mark to my coworkers, he and I loaded the canoe with our sandwiches and sodas for lunch and off we floated.

A couple hours in, once it had warmed up, I was keeping my eye out for a good spot to flip the canoe, someplace deep enough that we would get completely wet for refreshment, deep enough that we could swim.

I was riding in the back and at the perfect place, I leaned left and over we went. I went under and came up in time to see Mark pop up, grabbing for our downed canoe. He looked terrified; I felt terrible. He couldn’t swim.

The water came to Mark’s chin, which is deep enough to be scary if you don’t know how to swim. I swam after our lunch floating in the current and returned to Mark, who, at that point, had no idea I had flipped us on purpose. The canoe was full to the top with river water, and I threw our lunch on top. We floated the canoe to the far grassy bank, away from river traffic.

We hoisted ourselves from the deep water onto the bank; I set our lunch in the grass; we picked the canoe up, flipped it to empty the water and placed it on the river; I replaced our lunch in the bottom; Mark got in; I got in; and over we went.

I caught our lunch before it had floated too far and tossed it on the bank. We hoisted ourselves out of the river, picked the canoe up, flipped it to empty the water, and placed it on the river; I grabbed our lunch; Mark got in; I got in; and…over we went.

Thus far, I had been keeping my temper in check. This time I blew—though I didn’t yell at Mark directly, despite being angry with him for not balancing each time I got in. However, I was letting loose the expletives—and this was just our fourth date. I didn’t think that at the time though.

I grabbed our lunch before it had floated too far. I tossed the lunch on the bank and climbed from the water. Canoes floated past filled with boys about 10 years old, paddling slowly, jaws hanging, eyes wide, staring at me. I’m sure they heard nothing they hadn’t heard before. Perhaps they hadn’t heard all those words strung together so creatively. I shut up.

Hands on hips and with a sigh, I told Mark I needed to rest a minute; my arms were almost spaghetti after hoisting myself from the water three times and flipping the canoe twice already. Eventually, we picked it up and flipped it and I got in first this time. This time we were good—until the rapids farther downstream. The river was shallow there, thank goodness.

That evening after Mark had gone home, I thought about how much I was starting to like him. But, I honestly thought we’d just had our last date. Would he want to continue seeing someone who loses her cool as I had done?

You know how it turned out. He thought the whole thing—except the canoe capsizing—was funny.

Had he known I flipped us on purpose, the ending might be different. I didn’t tell him until we were married.