Don’t underestimate the shock of culture
How can I write of England when I’ve just been through my most challenging, other-worldly travel adventure yet?!
When the plane touched down on English soil after three months of being away I felt a very intense cocktail of emotions. Relief and excitement mingled with a sense of loss, achievement, pride and optimism for the future flooded through me. I just sat and tried to breathe and focus on exactly the sensations running through me at that moment. Better than any high or falling in love, this filled me with incredible confidence.
To see green fields and the long shadows produced by weak winter sunlight on hedgerows was mesmerising. The ‘large’ size hot chocolate I bought at the airport Costa really was humongous by South American beverage size standards. The icy air that hit me as I left the airport was a fresh shock. To hear cockney accents and have people understand my every word was a welcome relief. Most of all, it was wonderful to see my dad and sister meet me at the airport: to have people who know me and hugged me and who I could trust to carry my bag for me.
Green and pleasant land
All the ride home (in a smoothly driven car with seat belts and a driver that could control his road rage and obey traffic lights) and for the next few weeks, I continued to adjust. If I had culture shock when I first arrived in South America, I would claim reverse-culture shock when I returned.
There were no ants on the ‘clean’ plates, no cracked pavements, tarmac instead of dust roads, buildings without hay in the plaster. My eyes were no longer inflamed from the sun-cream and salt. My phone jumped back to providing me with an internet connection everywhere I went. I noticed information everywhere I looked and there was no need to ask anyone for directions. It was possible, once again, to stand face to face with someone on the tube, brushing against them yet avoiding all eye contact. I was carried along on the tide of commuters twice a day and whirled past cold, glassy skyscrapers.
Within days, I went from seeing views like this…
Street in Chachapoyas at dawn
Boat at sunset on the Amazon
Sunset at Huanchaco, Peru
Sea lion lounging in the bay at Huanchaco, Peru
… to views like this.
The City of London at sunset
I remember heading into a public toilet in the service station on the M1, shortly after returning, and being in awe of its cleanliness. I’ve never been so happy to see a toilet seat, toilet paper, a real flush (no buckets needed), soap and mirrors. The hand-dryers were overwhelming! And, of course, the luxury of throwing toilet paper into the actual toilet! Everything was so easy. Almost too easy.
Drawing in Museo de Arte, Lima, Peru
I don’t think the effects of culture shock should be underestimated. It is such an amazing way of making one appreciate the little wonders of this ‘first world’ we have created for ourselves. Although I considered myself a fairly informed person before I went, I did not appreciate how different the details of everyday life can be, even in countries that rank ‘high’ or ‘very high’ on the Human Development Index. Culture shock has made me so much more appreciative of the ease of my life in England, but also intensely appreciative of the positive things that South Americans have and which the Britishand, in particular, Londoners, lack. Here, I am chiefly thinking of openness towards strangers and the ability to express feelings.
Even the pigeons are more adorable in South America
Most astonishing of all, was the feeling of safety I had when I returned to England. I know I was being more careful of my belongings in South America. Certainly I was less keen to walk alone at night. But I don’t think I had appreciated just how unsafe I really felt until I had left. I realised I had almost been holding my breath the entire time. Whether because it was actually terribly unsafe, because everyone kept warning me not to do things as a solo female traveler or because I stuck out so much (white, partially blonde, poor Spanish), but I certainly felt like I needed a brave front for the majority of my journey. And returning to my home county felt comfortable. So whilst travelling was INCREDIBLE, it was also exhausting and scary and I am looking forward to low-effort travel around the UK now. With this newfound appreciation of my homeland, anything will be a piece of cake now right?
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