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Photo by Celia Mitchell (2015/16 Semester Photo Contest Entry), Indonesia Semester.

Thoughts on our first day

Buenos dias a todos!

By now (with the exception of Paco) everyone should be waking up in their own bed. And “by now” I clearly mean in a good 3-4 hours since it’s currently 6am in Colorado:) I hope your initial reunions with family and friends went well. Perhaps it involved a torrent of stories and hugs, or perhaps a sleepy silence and awkward distance. Whatever you’re feeling, I’m sure it will change soon enough so be patient with yourself and loved ones.

For me, the first morning after a trip (Miami didn’t really count) is always surreal. I woke up at 5 mildly disoriented and confused…Is this Hostal Austria’s bed? Where is everyone? It took me a few moments of blinking and scanning the room to remember my new surroundings. Everyday for the past 3 months Ellie, Alan, and I have woken up with you on our minds. After zombie walks to the bathroom and mumbled good mornings, we would sit over coffee and talk about each of you and how the plan for the day could best fit the mood and needs of the group. Today is the first day we’re not having those conversations, although I still woke up thinking about each of you, and wondering how you are and what you’ll do today. It takes awhile to break that habit and start to recalibrate our own desires and plans without consideration of the 14 other (mas o menos) individuals sleeping nearby.

I wanted to share a quick story from my travels home yesterday. On my connecting flight from Miami to Houston I noticed an African family huddled together by the entrance of the gate. They each held a white plastic bag that said “Agency for Migrant and Refugee Services” (or something to that effect). The mother held an infant and wore a large beaded American flag bracelet on her wrist. The grandfather had a bushy white beard that seemed dyed a henna red at the tips. The adolescent kids were dressed in polyester leather jackets and jeans with zippers unexplainably placed on the knees and thighs, kind of like a 1980s outfit Michael Jackson might wear. Seated on the plane, the family started to fill in the seats around me. Having established a relationship with my frequent and unsolicited smiling, they asked me to help them find their seats by pointing at the tickets. No one in the family spoke English besides a hushed “thank you” and “please.” All 6 of them were spread out in middle seats at the back of the plane. I sat next to the eldest son.

“Is your family traveling to Houston?”
“No, USA.”
“Right, but where in the USA?”
“USA”

The son replied in a whisper and avoided eye contact with me. I pulled out the United flight map from the seat back pocket and with much gesturing figured out that they were from Kenya and traveling to Dallas, which would soon be their new home. He was 17 years old. The family would speak loudly and haltingly to each other from their middle seats, sometimes reaching over other passengers to communicate with a gesture or touch. I could tell that other folks found their behavior a bit rude and jarring. My seat mate kept leaning over me to look out the window. I gestured that we should switch seats so he could see better. I soon fell asleep and awoke to him grabbing my shoulder and pointing out the window, saying “Texas? Texas?”

Off the plane, the family stood together looking bewildered and lost. I looked at the tickets for their connecting flight and gestured that I’d lead them across the terminal to their gate. No matter how slow I walked, they always stayed just a few feet behind me. I left them at the new gate to Dallas and awkwardly shook hands. I handed the son a hastily written note that said “Welcome to the USA. I wish you all the best,” or something to that effect. I turned to run to my own now boarding connection and looked back at the family standing at the gate, waiting for a new life in Dallas.

Despite all the uncertainties and challenges in our politics and culture, we still live in a place that captures the dreams and desired destinies of many around the world. We can’t control the fact that a symbol of division will become our next president, but we can control how we choose to represent our shared values each day.

I thought about how this Kenyan family’s interactions on the plane raised silent ethnocentric judgments from other passengers. I thought about how many Bolivian and Peruvians had gone out of their way to make me feel welcome in a foreign land. I thought about how my own experience of culture shock is so mild in comparison to their unfolding journey. I thought about how different this 17 year old’s life has been from my own and will be in his new home. I thought about the privilege and gratitude I have for being born into a country that is a desired destination for refugees and migrants. I thought about you all and how even though our trip is over, opportunities to learn, feel alive, and practice are values are all around us.

As we said to all of you, if you write us between now and forever, we will always respond. Juan Carlos is sharing coffee with me this morning and seems a bit melancholy/”I want to eat you” separated from the group…or perhaps that’s just the way his face is molded.

Here are a few suggestions for continuing your experience back home:

  • Create slideshows and share with others. Share the images and stories of the people we’ve met!
  • Keep writing and sharing your stories. Publish in your school newspaper, local paper, blog, or national paper.
  • Make your own “storycorps” recordings (check out NPR’s storycorps!). Interview friends, family, and strangers
  • Identify 5 support people in your community that you can reach out to
  • Do “10 minutes of fame” with friends and family
  • Think about what are your comfort, learning, and panic zones back home. Be mindful of pushing yourself into your learning zones
  • Think about writing “magic statements” for your goals and expectations back home. What would make this the best day/week/month/semester of my year?
  • When are you being a prisoner/vacationer/learner back home?
  • Create a group Facebook page to share resources
  • Create a writing group so that we can share stories and keep encouraging each other to write.
  • Think about “how can I have traveler’s eyes” each day. Seek out opportunities for engagement, learning, adventure
  • Whatever made you passionate or come alive in Bolivia/Peru, find ways to pursue it back home. Be an activist for your values and convictions.
  • Think about your intellectual, spiritual, creative, physical, and social well-being each day. What activities can you do to keep all these aspects of your being well-fed?
  • Simplify. What is a need vs. a want. What do you need to thrive?
  • And be PATIENT and COMPASSIONATE with yourself. Don’t let goals turn into guilt. Accept where you are at each day.
  • Share more ideas with the rest of the group!

With Love,

Aaron