Back in the U-S-S-A

The sun was well up as the plane descended into the Miami International Airport.  It was just shy of twenty-three months since we’d loaded up two cars, deposited the keys with the property management company who would handle leasing our last substantial possession, our house on Padre Island, and headed north to drop off the last of the belongings with our son in Denver, CO. From there we’d flown to Mexico for several months of traveling around the Yucatan Peninsula followed by wanderings that encompassed every country in Central America.  And now, we were coming back “home”; wondering if we’d experience the reverse culture shock that we’d heard about from other long-term travelers.Flag photo from Padre Island

In Latin America we’d found border crossings to be either ridiculously easy affairs or protracted and potentially problematic even though we’d experienced nothing worse than inconvenient delays, minor price gouging and nasty public toilets. But the effortless return to the States was totally unexpected. We were directed to the Global Entry kiosks where we scanned our passports, filled in a bit of data, mugged for the camera, grabbed our print-outs and went to the friendly customs agents who welcomed us back home. Claiming our bags was not a problem and with no more than a nod and a smile we wandered off to find our next terminal to re-check our baggage en route to our first stop, Newark. So easy. It was all coming back to us. This is the States; things worked here, just like they were supposed to.

Since we’d been gone so long visiting family and friends was a priority and so we spent the month of August journeying from New Jersey to Virginia and then Washington, Colorado and, finally, Texas.  However, besides catching up with F&F we came to S-H-O-P. We were consumers with a mission to replace everything that was battered, tattered and worn from months on the road.  We needed new laptops; the original ones we had purchased were too large, too heavy and needed some major fixin’ expertise. New Kindle Fires had been ordered and awaited us at a relative’s home as well as new I-pods and all the other things that may not be essential but certainly make life easier as well as more enjoyable. We also replaced our luggage in a successful attempt to shed pounds by swapping out the 24-inch hard-sided, spinner-wheels suitcases. They were durable but not really practical for use on cobblestone streets or rutted roadways. And clothing; what we hadn’t abandoned in our last month in Panama was faded and limp, much of it obtained from the Nicaraguan stores called “Ropa Americanas” that sold slightly used clothing unwanted in the US.  And so we shopped from the east coast to the west coast to the Gulf coast for the light-weight, quick-dry, no-fuss clothing necessary for the tropical climes.  Lastly, we snagged new light-weight backpacks at REI in Denver as well as countless other little things on the list like vitamins, sunglasses, etc.

Consumerism is a crass word; it’s so negative and judgmental. It’s also quite apt. We shopped unabashedly. We shopped with glee and gusto. We shopped until we nearly imploded from sensory overload. It’s not possible for us to describe the experience. But a friend named Peter, a transplanted Floridian living in Costa Rica, referred to the US as the “land of too much”  and in this we can wholeheartedly concur.

And the take-aways? The reverse culture shock we’d been told of by fellow travelers? There were a few moments that were a bit disorienting, especially in some of the mega-grocery stores but the culture shock was much less than we’d expected.  However, some observations were duly impressed upon us.

Long distance travel in the States requires air transportation; flying is a necessary evil. There are really no practical or economical options. Of course, there’s Amtrak or Greyhound but chances are the destinations are not on the route or out-of-the-way. And, if you find a workable route it can take, literally, days to reach your destination and may actually be more expensive. For long distance traveling flying the friendly skies is really the only practical option. And for short distances it’s a private vehicle. Buses are inconvenient, cabs are prohibitively expensive and most cities are too spread out to be pedestrian friendly. Quite a contrast to our life on the road using feet, buses, shuttles, tuk-tuks, inexpensive taxis, pangas and water taxis; all forms of economical travel that don’t require an airport or SUV.

We put our home on North Padre Island on the market with little sentimentality and concern only for the market realities of supply/demand and what we may be able to pocket from the transaction.  It was a wonderful place while we were there and we’d intended it as our retirement home. But, it became our last possession that kept us rooted to a place that no longer fitted our needs. We suspect that we’re abnormal in this regard but there are a whole lot of places yet to be seen.

So no; there was no culture shock. But there was no culture fixation either. The US is unique both in history and in current time. It is pre-eminent for many reasons. And we love it dearly. It has given us the freedom to pursue this passion of ours for travel and new experiences. We are not spurning the US; we are bidding a temporary adieu. We shall return to visit and okay, “consume” quite often.

By Richard and Anita

 

44 comments

    • There’s much to love and loathe about the consumerism culture of the US and the easy availability of goods and customer services. While we enjoy finding what we need we’ve discovered with each visit back “home” that it takes quite a bit of time to adjust to the HUGE variety of choices, colors, quantities, flavors, etc. It’s much simpler and less stressful to have fewer options!

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  • Interesting read about your reverse culture shock. It really makes one think, doesn’t it? I’m afraid I’ also have to agree with with your friends comment about the “land of too much” — certainly seems that way sometimes although so many don’t have the means to afford much of it. About travel by car in the U.S. – I think it’s a wonderful way to see this country. Granted, if you’ve got time constraints, that’s an issue — but that would be the issue anywhere.

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    • Coming back to the US for a visit was a real eye-opener. There are different ways to spin “the land of too much” but it’s also hard not to appreciate the sheer abundance and bounty of what the US has to offer. We would love to take a long road trip in the US as some point in the future especially now that we don’t have any time constraints. There’s are so many amazing places that we haven’t seen in our home country.

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  • Welcome “home” for now. 🙂

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  • When I was a child, we lived in Mexico for a year and in England for a year. Each time we returned to Philadelphia, our house/refrigerator/car, etc. seemed ginormous. Back then (the 1960’s), the differences between cultures and countries was much more stark than today. In today’s cities around the world, because of globalization, you will find the same stores and hear the same popular music. English is the linga franca. We sold our house in the Philadelphia suburbs, downsized and moved to Center City Philadelphia where we rent an apartment and are able to hardly ever use a car. I do food shopping at small stores. We can walk most places we have to go and we use public transportation. I think the differences are much more evident in rural areas. In fact, there is probably more of a culture difference between large cities in the US and rural areas than there is among US big cities and big cities in Europe and even South America.

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    • How lucky you are to live in one of the places in the US where there’s good public transportation and small, independently owned stores to do your shopping. We’ve really enjoyed being sans auto and walking about to do our shopping in small markets and finding family run places to eat. And you’re right, many of the bigger cities in Mexico and Central America have American chain restaurants such as McDonalds and Pizza Hut as well as various WalMart spinoffs and the mega-malls. Western culture has indeed permeated the big cities in Latin America and is even felt in many of rural villages, too.

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  • Wonderful to hear that you are enjoying your adventure and continuing. I think so many people don’t do it because they fear change and stick with the two week holiday somewhere 5* – for me it would be leaving the kids, even though they are grown up, but if yours are scattered, then as you say you need to travel to see them anyway. Keep on enjoying 🙂

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    • We are truly happy with our lifestyle as retired nomads and seem to be thriving on the many changes and challenges that travel involves. Since we’re not tied to belongings or a base it gives us the ultimate freedom in selecting new locations. A “vagabond” lifestyle may not be for everyone but it seems to suit us!

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  • I hope you are enjoying your travels and best wishes with selling your home. We are selling our home at the moment in Florida and there is NOTHING I would like to do more than leave the country! I’m looking forward to hearing about your next destination 🙂

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    • We’re very happy with our nomadic lifestyle and, although we have a property manager, will like not having the responsibility of a home. As you can see from this post our family is scattered all over the US and we have to travel to see them anyway – it doesn’t matter from where and there are so many amazing places that we have yet to see! P.S. We’ll cross our fingers that your home and ours sell quickly!

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  • Wonderful post! What an interesting perspective and surprise ending to the post~

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    • There are many posts that we’ve read about reverse culture shock and bemoaning our culture of spending and consumption. However, it was so terrific to set off with a shopping list of items we needed to replace for our travels and actually find and cross them off. We felt quite wealthy with our little stash of new things after several months of “make do or do without!”

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  • Interesting post! You must be doing the right thing if you could come home, enjoy it, and then move on the next adventure in Ecuador. I haven’t ever been away that long, but when I return home I’m always struck by the size of things in North America – homes, roads, and supermarkets.

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  • I have only been away for a month and that was in Europe. Part of our time was spent in rural areas where life is simpler. I do long for a life like that, yet I wonder how long I could sustain it. Guess I am not ready to change my reality for a while. Great post!

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  • You have captured our response to returning to the US after spending extended time in Greece. I do still have ‘culture shock’ at food prices, packaged vegetables and the like after learning to shop in municipal markets where supplies are fresh, plentiful and inexpensive. We are at the point of returning to a home here but like you so aptly said we have no fixation any longer with being in the US – not spurning it – but certainly not being drawn to it as we once were. A lovely post and one we can so relate to. . .look forward to reading of your continued adventures.

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    • We love shopping in the local markets, too while we’re traveling and enjoy the social interactions, smiles and a little bargaining almost as much as the low prices. The giant mega grocery stores were the places we experienced the most reverse culture shock and sensory overload and it’s almost impossible to buy the one thing on your list without passing by so many other temptations…

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  • When you’re shopping to replace items that have been worn to a thread from years of use while away… I don’t think of that as consumerism – Consumerism to me is buying unnecessary items, that then require you to buy storage systems to store them in as you really have no use for them!
    Although I find it a concern that if we all stopped buying, our consumer based economy would totally collapse –
    Now that’s a scary thought that if we all just bought what we needed there would be virtually no employment 😦

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    • It is indeed sobering to realize that our economy is built upon so many consumer goods that aren’t really necessary and encourages people to spend beyond their means. The year we took to sell and give away our possessions before we began traveling really opened our eyes that the cycle of buying and accumulating things and acquiring more debt limits a lot of other options and keeps many people from doing what they really want.

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  • It sounds as if you were on a diet and then were let loose to eat all of the foods that had been forbidden. Then you got full and left! The consumerism here (and I am very guilty of perpetuating it) gets more and more unappealing as I see more of the world. Sadly the consumerism still seems to be spreading although there are minor glimmers of hope. I’m thinking that Ecuador must feel very far from where you were this summer! Is the plan to not have a “home” again? I don’t think I could do that route – I have to know I have a base for some reason.

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    • Ha! An apt observation and we have to plead guilty to several acts of gluttony as the sheer temptation of goods in the US seems to lead to a deadly spiral of the “I wants” and the inability to distinguish want from need. Luckily for us, since we have to carry everything our consumerism was rather limited as we replaced old worn-out items with new things that we’re taking great delight in until we wear them out or break them, through the next months of use of the road. As for our plans – We’re enjoying the nomadic lifestyle for now and finding that our “home” doesn’t have to really be in any fixed place. At some point we’ll pick a base (out f the US) when we tire of traveling or our health presents problems but for now life on the road is everything we’d hoped for.

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  • Loved this post and I can feel your sense of glee shopping. Shopping with a purpose for stuff you really need can be fun – it’s the mindless looking I hate. Sounds like you’re on an interesting life path – one that has great appeal to me.

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    • Neither of us have much patience anymore for browsing since we have a limited amount of things that we can take with us! This makes impulse buying a thing of the past and it’s very important that we stick to buying just the things on our lists because those ounces add up to pounds… We like the forced minimalism of traveling, however, and it seems to suit us for now.

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  • Interesting observations. We have never been out of The States for nearly that long, but still notice a little bit of the same things when we return from a long trip.

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    • It was interesting to us how easily we seemed to adapt to life back in the USA and even pick up some of the old habits again : Driving everywhere rather than walking, dashing to the grocery store for this and that and flipping through television channels that were all in English. However, for all the conveniences that life in the US has to offer our lives on the road seem much simpler…

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  • I really enjoyed reading your observations. Returning home after being away from a while often makes one notice things you hand’t thought of before. I can appreciate the need and desire for the shopping spree, the replenishing of things in the “land of too much”.

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    • The main thing that kept our replacement shopping spree in check and our feet firmly planted on the ground was the fact that we each have a suitcase and backpack and our motto was “You buy it, you carry it”! However, we had forgotten the sheer range of choices that are available in the US; retail stores, malls and specialty shops everywhere and shelves and aisles packed with everything one could possibly desire. Rather sobering!

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  • I can so appreciate your observations. It has been a long time since I shopped “with a vengeance” even though we only left the U.S. a month ago. Living on Kauai was kind of a transition in that regard. It is disconcerting, however, when the technology we need to run our business is less than reliable. The first thing Pete had to do in Fiji was take an all-day trip to Suva to the Apple dealer for diagnostics. Fortunately, things turned out well, though we anticipate additional first world problems with other gadgets. Looking forward to hearing stories from Ecuador. 🙂

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    • I can sympathize with the tech problems – it’s hard to believe that we’re so dependent on them and a major heartbreak and upheaval when they fail us! We limped back from Central America with 2 barely working I-pods, 1 functioning kindle because the other had been dropped and 2 computers that had several tweeks by “technicians” in many countries and needed major work. It was such a delight to find new electronics at affordable prices and start our travels again with everything in good repair.

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  • Welcome back! I always suffer reverse culture shock but can blame that in part on the cold weather in Canada. In Miami at least you don’t have to worry about that! The first thing I do when I get back to Canada from Mexico is go eat ethnic food – Indian, Thai, Greek — you name it. It helps with the adjustment to my northern home.

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    • We definitely expected more disorientation than actually occurred. I think the few days spent in Panama City helped with the adjustment a little because of the traffic and impersonal crowds which took some getting used to after life in small Central American towns. However, it was terrific to see friends and family and enjoy some good ethnic food (Vietnamese is my fave)!

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  • Yes, Ann, we’ve left the US after a fast and furious month visiting friends and family and, as you see, too many stores! It’s back to a simpler life for us where all we have to decide is where to go next!

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  • Nice essay. Cogent observations. Well-written. Its a pleasure to read an essay without overly simplistic formulaic criticism or simplistic chauvinism. I hope you’re having fun wherever you are.

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    • So glad you enjoyed our post, Bruce While we were looking forward to returning to the US to visit we were a little worried about the “reverse culture shock” that we’d heard about that (not-so-subtly) criticizes the western world’s preoccupation with consumerism and cramming every minute of the day with some activity. We definitely felt our stress levels ratchet up a few notches but we enjoyed our shopping experiences for the most part. Of course it helps when all we shopped for had to fit in a suitcase and backpack! And yes, we’re back to a simpler life-style, enjoying Manta, Ecuador for the next few months.

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  • Shopping with glee and gusto! I love it! We just returned from the states visiting our son in Yosemite and what a whirlwind of a trip. We were in 18 airports…back and forth across the country. So, where are you now? I can’t wait for your next adventure. Sounds like you are ready to go..new backpacks, new laptops, new Kindle Fires…woopie for you!!!

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    • By our count, we were in 10 airports and 2 Amtrak stations so we’re a ways behind you! We’ve spent September much more quietly (recovering ha-ha) from the cross-country trek and settling into a much simpler life in Manta, Ecuador for a few months. The shopping was fun at times and sometimes overwhelming but it’s great to have all of our “stuff” working and in good repair and (somewhat) sylish!

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  • Great post. I’m sure you are glad to back in you traveling shoes!!!

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  • Oh my, when I first started reading this i expected you would tell us of a US location where you are now living!!! Yet, I see you have already left the US again!

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