Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Almost Home

Tuesday, 28/7/09, 10pm: our Air Pacific flight departs from Nadi, Fiji. Sadly, it is not empty, like the 747 we flew to Fiji back in March. We are rather cramped in row 47. Happily, there is a very cute guy sitting across the aisle. Think Jake Gyllenhall meets Adam Levine from Maroon 5. Mel tells me later, as we’re in customs at LAX, that he might be a celebrity, but she’s not sure. But back on the plane, she is ‘extraverted sensing’ and she gleans all sorts of information 3rd handedly. He’s from Seattle, he’s eating candy (we nickname him Chunky, Pudge’s soulmate), he’s reading a thin book, he’s very friendly (he instigates conversation with both the elderly couple to his right and the girl between him and Mel), and he’s a vegetarian. And I wish he was in 47C.

We finally have dinner (a chicken sandwich) around midnight Fiji time, and we pop sleeping pills. I cover my eyes with the sleeping mask Air Pac kindly provided me with, and don’t wake up until they serve breakfast roughly 6 hours later. I watch an episode of Flight of the Conchords, Season I, and we get ready to meet America.

I told Nathan a while back that I thought I’d have culture shock when we landed in America, after 4+ months abroad.

And culture shock we had.

We prance off the plane just in front of Chunky (gentleman that he appears to be, he insists we exit first), and are immediately greeted by the chaos that is labeled LAX. It’s 1pm PST, but our brains are thinking it’s something more like 8am. The loudspeaker is positively screaming our flight/baggage information and the noise pollution is overwhelming. Nobody greets us with a “Bula” or a “G’day” or even a smile. We get on the walking sidewalk, momentarily forgetting to stay right, instead of our now learned left tendency. We hear the American accent everywhere. We keep talking in the Aussie accent, because we miss it so, so, so much.

We stand in line for passport control, and I’m fantastically pleased with the speedy and efficient passport service. What took 30 minutes in Fiji takes 10-15 in LA. People in line chat a bit, but for the most part are quiet and keeping to themselves. We make it through customs successfully, losing Chunky as his single, but stuffed, backpack arrives far before our massive 4 tanks/suitcases arrive.

We re-check our bags, and head to United to check in. We hike about half a mile around to another terminal. Along the way, we wander through a cloud of cigarette smoke, and I’m caught off guard. I had forgotten about this American/Euro custom. Surely, some Aussies smoke, but I haven’t walked into cigarette smoke once the entire 4 months I’ve been there, because it’s not as prevalent. I believe the reason for its rarity is the extremely graphic advertising the National Government shows everywhere. I step off the lift and notice a man talking to himself, and I’m reminded of America’s need to constantly be on the phone, to be hands-free, etc. I also haven’t seen a single bluetooth since I’ve been in Australia. I’m sure they are there, but I’ve not witnessed even one. Only in America do we look like we’re talking to ourselves. I stifle a giggle and wander on.
I think of our friend Christian’s perspective of America, based on TV, people, the world: “It’s dangerous and Americans are fat.” During our time in Australia, I rarely found myself being extremely aware, because its not necessary there. Crime rates are fairly low, at least in the areas we spent time in. However, these stereotypes of America from the Aussies have rubbed off on me, because I find myself being ultra aware of my surroundings, people, and my passport/money.

Mel and I find ourselves lunching at a restaurant in the International Terminal after we’ve checked in for our domestic flight, which is a mere 7 hours away (ugh.) We are thrilled to drink unsweetened tea (brewed tea is fantastic!) as we leisurely feast on spaghetti and a caesar salad. As we’re figuring out the bill separations, we almost walk out without tipping - oops. We are so used to the tip being included as part of the bill that we trip over our old habit.

I also notice that I keep trying to figure out the exchange rate, another old habit, even though I’m using American money now. Mel hands me a $20 and two quarters, and the quarters feel like play money, compared to the heavy Australian and Fijian coins. I see a Bank of America ATM, and it seems oddly out of place.

Things are measured in inches again, distances denoted by miles. The date format is different, and I find myself still using the Euro/Aussie format. The domestic terminal houses flights to cities I haven’t thought of in months. Mel’s old American cell phone works, while our Aussie phones are rendered useless at least for a while. Hulu now works again (I celebrate with a tweet of happiness) since our connection is from an American server. We watch some SNL, the Alice in Wonderland trailer, and a few other brilliant bits online.

Along the shuttle ride back to our terminal, Mel and I quietly notice and chat about the difference in people. It seems that LA is almost the polar opposite of Australia in so many ways, but primarily the mindset. In this city, people are reserved with each other, mostly avoiding eye contact, keeping their iPods on, and ultimately being focused on the internal rather than what is happening around them. This is far different from Australia and Fiji, where everyone along your path throws a quick witty comment or a smile followed by a big hello.

Just as we notice this, a man who works for the airport boards the back of the bus as if he’s inspecting or surveying the driver as he works. He greets us, “Hello girls!” and offers us gum. We chat with him a bit, and then Mel nudges me as a new passenger arrives with Swiss luggage that matches mine. I engage him in conversation with this bit of shared experience, and we end up talking for about 15 minutes until he reaches his terminal. He’s going to Melbourne in December, we are happy to hear. These two people have made us realize that WE need to be the change that we want to see in America. We can’t react to people and how people are, but rather we must engage with people if we want to have those conversations.

After making it back to our terminal and through security for the second time, we head to our gate. Mel takes a quick nap as I ramble on and listen to a few friends online. I soon need to charge my computer, so I shake Mel awake and I tell her where I’m going as I give her the rest of her bags.

I walk away from her, only to turn around as I near a power outlet because my cord still has the Aussie adapter on it. As I near her, she opens her eyes and says, “I knew you were coming for the power adapter. I’ve been hearing Prabaker’s (one of the Indians from Shantaram, which I’ve given her to read) voice in my head saying random phrases in an Indian accent, and all of the sudden, he said, ‘Your friend, she very very much needs your power cord.‘ and then you walked up.”

I swear to you, this has been happening to us very frequently the past few days. I have a theory that we are both so used to being around each other, that we’re now able to read each other’s phermones and sometimes know what the other person is thinking before she says it. It’s creepy, and kind of cool.

I think about our next flight, and I’m struck by the oddity of it. We left Fiji at 10pm on Tuesday night. We arrived into LA at 1pm on Tuesday afternoon, ‘time-traveling’ 9 hours backwards. Our flight to Orlando leaves at exactly the same time we left Fiji - 10pm on Tuesday night. It’s kind of cool. We lost our St. Patty’s day back in March, when we flew from LA to Fiji, so we’re having a very, very long and complicatedly-timed Tuesday. I’ve never been so disoriented about what time it is, particularly since my computer clock is still on Fijian time. Hopefully when we go 3 hours further into the future, it will be less confusing.

Finally, we are only about 6 hours away from home. I told Mel that part of coming back wasn’t as difficult as I thought it would be. I’m very happy to be home. But I still believe that part of my heart is back in Sydney, and one day, I’m gonna get it back for good.

And thus ends yet another era of my life. It’s odd, how my mind divides my life into different sections: college, New York, Florida with Brad, Florida after Brad, traveling in Australia w/ MJW, living in Australia with Mel, and now, back to Orlando.

The future is so blurry and I don’t know what it looks like. I am welcoming back Orlando with open arms, hoping to find and/or stay within contentment while I am led to be in this city. It’s a challenge, leaving a country and a people you’ve grown to love without truly knowing if you’ll make it back. It matters not how much I plan, for plans often turn out far different than originally arranged.

Welcome Home.

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