Passengers we are making our descent into Denver. Please return your seats to the upright position and be sure your items are stowed away for landing. Thank you for flying United Airlines, we hope you have a great stay in Denver or wherever your final destination may be.
Wait. What? Denver? The 4 – hour flight was finished?
I glanced out the window into the blackness of the night and saw the dots of lights littered in the mountains, scattered around the airport, and glowing intensely as we cruised adjacent to downtown. Oh my gosh. Yeah. I’m home.
My travels had started approximately 32 hours prior to my final plane ride. It was hard to believe that just a day or two before I had come from my small little Rwandan village and was now approaching the cold skies of Colorado. I left Kigali at 8:55pm on a Tuesday (Rwanda time). The plane lifted off and I had to keep my emotions in check. I had placed my last call to Divine.
“Divine! I am about to go in the sky in the plane. But I wanted you to be the last person I called from Rwanda. I will call you in America. I promise.”
“Wow! You are going into the heavens. Please have a safe journey. I will be praying for you. And I will be so happy to discuss with you after you finish to be in the home for you.”
“Thank you, shu. I love you so much and don’t worry, we are together.”
“And meeee! I love you.”
We were en route to Belgium. We of course had an unnecessarily long stop-over in Nairobi, Kenya and so the total duration of my flight was around 11 hours. I sat next to a small, 7-year old child, and an older African man. We didn’t say too much during the journey. Although he gently had to tap my head when I started sleeping on his shoulder about 2 hours into the flight. I embarrassingly apologized; I had been dreaming that Divine had joined me on this flight to America and so sleeping on her shoulder was completely normal. No problem, except this old man certainly was not Divine. Whoops.
We touched down in Brussels and my lay over was easy. I grabbed my first Starbuck’s coffee since I had visited England in April and continued to the gate. Our plane started to taxi and I was seriously confused. 30 people. That was the grand total of the number of people on our huge jet, about to make a major transatlantic journey. Weird. But I absolutely soaked it up; the flight attendants kept the water and coffee coming for the entire 8 hours. I watched 2 movies, read a book, and slept. It was one of the more enjoyable flights I have had.
I’ll never forget what it felt like to fly over New York City. I have been to New York a couple times now, but there was something special about seeing that city upon arriving back in America for the first time in a couple of years. I was glowing.
I was glowing all the way through customs….taking it all in…considering my 4-layover as a potential opportunity to go exploring…
Until I looked a little closer at my ticket to Denver. For whatever reason, my connecting flight was not out of the JFK airport where I had flown into. Oh no. I had to get myself to La Guardia. Not a major problem, but bear in mind this is the FIRST thing I have to do on American soil. Thanks, Peace Corps.
I managed to gather my 4 large bags and clumsily make it outside into the thin, crisp, winter air. Goodness, it’s cold, I thought to myself.
I had made a friend on the flight, however, a nice American woman who lives in Belgium but was visiting her family in Queens. She felt so sorry for me that she gave me the cardigan off of her back. I thanked her profusely. Maybe I wouldn’t freeze after all.
I waited for the shuttle. I looked across the street.
At the subway station I saw the one and only advertisement. It was a large board that said the following,
“Never will you have to say ‘I should have…’”
Beside the words was the large and recognizable Peace Corps insignia. I smiled. I smiled and laughed and wished I had a friend with me to enjoy this wonderful piece of irony. A Peace Corps advertisement on the streets of New York. Of course this would be the first thing I would see.
I managed to find the shuttle (and pay a whopping $13 – thank goodness Peace Corps had sent $30 for me to travel with) and the nice driver generously lent me his phone so I “could make my calls” as he so aptly put it. “Have fun, dear” he remarked when he passed over his small machine. Yes, that’s what I thought of this. I knew smartphones were like THE THING now, but wow. Trying to operate it made me feel like I had time traveled 10 years into the future. “Um, how do I push these buttons?” He guided me to use the android operating system and I called my mom and dad. And then I called Ali. And then Jordana. And then Rachel. And then Lauren. I was a bit obnoxious. The entire shuttle bus was laughing by the time it was all over; this girl be crazy. I talked freely, loudly, and couldn’t stop talking about how many cars I saw on the roads! AMERICA!
Once inside everything went smoothly. Except for the security lines. Apparently these are VERY SERIOUS. I was not moving quickly enough and eventually people from behind started hollering at me. Ma’am! Hurry quickly! Go!
Mmkay. Definitely not in Rwanda anymore.
And so the rest is history. I took that plane. And you know what? I came home.
Dad was waiting at baggage claim with his Overland High School jacket and orange Hendrix hat. Some things never change. We embraced a long time. Once we made it to the car, he gave me the largest burrito I had ever seen. Happiness, personified.
We went home. He took me to my mom’s house and there everybody was waiting. The Christmas lights shined brightly and you know what’s crazy? It almost felt like I had never left. Mom ran me a hot bath that night, complete with new bubble bath and warm vanilla sugar body lotion. Y’all, that’s some kind of homecoming. She had prepared a basket full of things – soaps, lotions, sunglasses, everything that I would be needing.
I’ve now been home for a week. It was probably the fastest week I have had in a very long time.
Things move quickly here. It’s almost as if time picks up speed in the American time zones because I feel like I can barely keep up.
I have a phone and you can just imagine that I’ve been texting and calling people much in the same way that I have been refilling my water bottle. It’s fun.
Mom and I went shopping for a new pair of jeans, took some selfies, and she helped me get organized enough to get a membership at the nearby 24 Hour Fitness. That’s really how I have spent a lot of the hours of my first week back. Exercising – especially running helps me feel calm, collected, and grounded. What’s more is that this gym has a pool, hot tub, sauna, and steam room, and so my 1-hour workouts have become 2 ½ hour gym sessions because of all of these extra amenities.
I watched a Denver Broncos game (and enjoyed it thoroughly despite the Broncos playing quite sub-par), hung out with my brother, went to a wine-tasting party, visited my grandmother’s memorial site, and attended a large Newell family welcome home party. It’s been incredible seeing everybody. It really is like a dream.
People have a lot of questions. And sometimes, I feel like I have good answers. But not all the time. I’m having a really hard time finding the right words to explain it all; how do you begin to explain 2 years of living in a place so so very different? But, I’m trying. I really am.
There are things I don’t understand. I don’t understand why people aren’t greeting each other on the roads. I don’t really understand why there are so many damn cars. And, it’s hard to grasp the grocery store aisles. There is a lot of things here. So many things. Maybe what’s hard about this is that I feel quite disconnected to my friends and life in Rwanda. Even on skype, when I’ve called my girls, it’s already becoming hard to picture them in their houses and them in their communities as I sit on my large, beautiful, and spacious bed. This, I suppose, is the process of coming home and going through change.
But my favorite question so far has been,
“what is the biggest thing you are taking away from your Peace Corps experience?”
A family friend asked this question and I smiled instantly and knew the answer. It’s that our lives are so very different, but they carry equal value and weight. The world isn’t about who has the more worthy life, it’s about how we can share life experiences and learn from each other. Yeah, this sounds earthy and hippie, but it really is something I experienced firsthand. Development work and helping other people isn’t about instilling the drive to HAVE MORE only, it’s to BE more. And it goes both ways. Because Lord knows, many Rwandans showed me how to be a stronger Christian, a good woman, and a good cook. Among other things.
One of the more interesting experiences about being back in the United States is having the ability to be clued into everything.
Let’s take for example, the gym locker room.
If I was in Rwanda, women would have side conversations to themselves and I would half-listen and eventually become swept up in my own thoughts because of my lack of comprehension to a language other than my own.
Here, however, I can listen (eavesdrop?) and understand it perfectly.
And y’all, gym locker rooms lend themselves to great conversations.
Yesterday, I was applying lotion to my legs when two elderly women were discussing a recent pedicure experience they had.
“You know, I just couldn’t decide if I wanted to go with a dark pink or a light pink. It’s always hard to make these decisions in the holiday season.”
“Oh absolutely! However, with winter it might be better to choose a darker color to accentuate the darker tones of the season.”
Another time I was removing my sneakers when a middle-aged Southern women entered the room, “Good morning ladies! Here’s to making it a great day!”
The other women smiled, laughed, and exchanged pleasantries.
Man, I love America.
Adjustment and transition are not easy. Ever.
I expect the massive lines at Panera to continue to shock me for a while. The selection at Wal-mart will probably alarm me for some time to come. And, on a deeper level, it’s going to be hard to move away from the life I had for the last 2+ years. While it IS hard to explain, it was also a deeply spiritual experience and so I am just trying to turn my anxieties, difficulties, and fears to God, because He knows and understands more than anyone.
I was driving my car – yes DRIVING! – to meet my dad for lunch yesterday. The country station was rocking and I had my sunglasses on…and I just felt so happy to be back. Back in America.
I was thinking about my first week home, about all the things I am catching up on, about the new things I am seeing, and about how I can tie in all of my experiences from the most recent phase of my life. I don’t really know how to do it, but I know I will. I know I will.