By Conor Sanchez
For the first five minutes after we walked off the plane in Atlanta, Michaela and I were all but missing our straw hats and overalls. We must have looked liked two country bumpkins strolling through Times Square for the first time.
Almost immediately we began gawking at the huge and cavernous terminals, feeling tiny walking through a space three times the average height of a house in Nicaragua. The bathrooms were spotless, the air-conditioning was frigid, and airport officials were strategically positioned on every corner telling us where to go and where to stand.
A thousand questions ran through my head. Has America always been this clean? Why is this building so cold? Since when do customs agents dress like they’re going into battle? I’ve only been gone for 13 months, so why does this feel so overwhelmingly weird?
Bit by bit, we were re-familiarized with various devices and forms of behavior that I had seemingly tossed to the back of my brain; automatic soap dissenters, toilets that can handle toilet paper (a truly incredible capability, by the way), public water-fountains, trains, golf carts transporting people, getting ID’d when I order a beer, diversity, lots of personal space, technology, fashion, glossy magazines, a wine bar, Donald Trump on every television, Blue Moon IPAs, the nicest waitress ever, a delicious avocado chicken sandwich with fresh arugula, and $5 for a magazine? Are you kidding me?
It was sensory overload that only grew more intense as we sat staring at the thousands of travelers making their way to their next gate. After finishing my first IPA beer in over a year, we finally joined the herd and found our connecting flight.
Touching down in New Mexico was different. Perhaps we were calmed by our spectacular descent into the Rio Grande Valley, which gave us a bird’s eye view of the Jemez and Sangre de Cristo mountain ranges to the north. As we flew directly above the Sandias, the setting sun cast a brilliant yellowish glow that blanketed the entire landscape making Albuquerque’s cityscape flare up like the elusive cities of gold. I hadn’t been home in over a year, the longest I’ve ever gone, and it had never felt so good.
I always wondered what returning to the United States after an extended period of time abroad would be like. Not a month or two, but rather a full year living and working among people who speak a different language from me, eat different types of food, and celebrate different holidays. I wanted profound exposure to a foreign culture, something that took me outside my American bubble and allowed me to see things from the outside. For most Americans, Peace Corps is one of the few ways to have that experience.
Many, if not most, Volunteers don’t return home during service. Michaela and I decided we’d wait a year, but if an occasion arose that we’d regret missing, we’d go. In this case, that special occasion was the marriage of one of my best friends. It was also Yom Kippur and there’s a nephew I hadn’t met before. Our trip back was 12 days in total, eight in New Mexico and four in New York City, where the wedding took place. We spent time with family, ate tons of food that we can’t enjoy in Nicaragua, and reflected on our experience at what is more or less the halfway point.
Like service itself, visiting home was a mixed bag of emotions. It was great to be reunited with family. It was a luxury to be reacquainted with all the amenities we once took for granted. We weren’t stared at when we shopped at a grocery store and Michaela wasn’t catcalled if she walked alone. Yet we were constantly aware of the fact that this was indeed a false homecoming. We had just enough time to check-in, meet new additions to the family, and catch up on everything that had changed in a year. Then, just as soon as we were finished saying hello, we were saying goodbye again.
As for changes in ourselves, aside from having a very low tolerance for temperatures below 70 degrees and a very high tolerance for living out of a suitcase, the thing that struck me most was how much I noticed things that I hadn’t paid much attention to before.
For starters, I am much more aware of how many of us Americans speak Spanish. Our bank teller at Wells Fargo. My sister teaching her kindergarden class in Pecos, NM. The lady selling red and green chile tortillas in Truches, NM. My 96-year-old grandmother chatting up employees at Furr’s Cafeteria in her New Mexican spanglish. In the Atlanta airport, a Mexican-American family chatting as they watch the Pope give mass in New York City. On the streets of downtown Brooklyn, Dominican-Americans shopping and speaking in Spanish so fast I was only able to pick up every other word.
It gives me hope that when I leave in a year from now I won’t have to give up one of the things I have enjoyed most about living in Nicaragua – learning and practicing a new language. I’d call it cultural exchange, but Spanish is already our nation’s second language. It’s read on loud speakers at airports and airplanes, it’s sung on the radio, and it’s spoken in Netflix’s awesome new television series ‘Narcos.’ One recent study revealed that the United States now has more Spanish speakers than Spain (New Mexico has the highest percentage with 47%, closely followed by California, Texas, and Arizona). This makes it the world’s second largest Spanish-speaking country after Mexico.
It wasn’t just Spanish, either. There was my mother-in-law chatting with my sister-in-law’s boyfriend in Hebrew. There were half the guests at my friend’s wedding in Long Island speaking in Russian (the groom himself gave his entire toast in Russian). In fact, 20% of the population reports that they speak a language other than English at home. That doesn’t even count those who speak another language but don’t necessarily practice it everyday. It leads me to believe that the idea that Americans are notoriously monolinguistic is almost certainly overstated or increasingly a thing of the past.
In my opinion, this should be celebrated. We should encourage more bilingualism. We should be embracing it as part of our American identity, not just because it’s healthy for the mind and necessary in a globalized world, but because it’s already part of our nation’s history and tradition. I mean, heck, four of our states are named in Spanish.
We spent our last night with a friend in Brooklyn who had recently moved from Washington, D.C. He also happens to be a fellow New Mexican and a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer from Nicaragua. Over Japanese ramen and a few Brooklyn craft brews, we spent the evening comparing our experiences, discussing how Nicaragua has changed (and how it hasn’t), and the role of a Peace Corps Volunteer in affecting change. He related his experience as a health volunteer in the northern department of Madriz.
As we talked I found myself missing Nicaragua more and more. Our friend’s service was over. Before we know it, we too would be looking back on our time with the same critical lens for what we did right or what we could have done better. I felt lucky that it wasn’t over yet, that we still had a little more than a year left.
As much as I had been excited to come home, I was equally excited to get back to the friends we’d made and the work we’d started. As we were landing in Managua, an enthusiastic group of Nicaraguans at the back of the plane began singing a hearty rendition of the song “Nicaragua Mia,” which has the lyrics, “Soy puro pinolero, nicaragüense por gracia de Dios.” When the wheels touched the ground, they began clapping and cheering loudly.
They were home. And so were we.