This time will be different, I promise myself emphatically, squeezing my fingers around the airplane armrests so my body is as stable as my word. How could it not be? I’ve spent the last three weeks exploring the literal paradise that is Belize, criss crossing every inch of its unique landscape while bonding with locals and like-minded travelers.
I am stoic with the refusal to go home and return to the slavery of my technological devices. I cast out the routine that has recently characterized me, the schedule which includes me never leaving the house and never meeting new people as are the joys of self-employment. I can and will be this wonderful new relaxed Caribbean version of myself (who apparently likes reggae) that I’ve cultivated over the last few days, and this is how things will be from now on.
Okay, great, so it’s settled. Tropical Me is going to stop wearing makeup, quit committing to everyone else’s deadlines just because that’s How Things Are Done where I live, and just generally chill the fuck out. I’ll wander the streets of San Francisco in flip flops quietly cursing the fog I’ve always loved, demanding the world accept my most recent whimsy.
These are similar to promises I’ve made plenty of times before, and never really kept. As a 14-year-old returning from Europe I declared everyone would henceforth be greeted with cheek kisses, and that lasted maybe a week. I couldn’t even keep an Argentinean accent going for long after coming back from a summer in the Córdoban countryside, much to the relief of my Spanish teachers.
However, none of that changes that unique blend of nostalgia, relief, and panic that accompanies many overly self-aware travelers (like me) on the plane back home. You think of the complicated life ahead of you, choosing to ignore that while yes you were in the slower-paced Belize, you were also on vacation, which is inherently less peppered with responsibility. Either way, you keep a cold grip on the new facets of you that have come to light while abroad, hoping that maybe this time you can take a few of the fragments back home with you.
You know from experience that the way these experiences have shaped you have the potential to slip away quickly as you return to the you-shaped rut on your couch.
There’s the lack of time spent online and how much it didn’t matter. The rooster-based early wake ups that allowed you to experience the entire day. The genuine way people treated each other – can you imagine, people actually acknowledging their neighbors, and treating them with respect no matter their vocation? The unprocessed food was pretty good too, even though it gave you giardia.
But you can’t have live poultry in your 400 square foot apartment in the city, you can’t force everyone around you suddenly eager to talk to strangers, and hating on living in a developed nation is beyond cliche. In fact, many of these desires make you border on becoming a Humanitarian of Tinder, and we can’t have that.
Ultimately it’s not so much about the sunshine or the flip flops or the face kissing, it’s about you, and how easily you return to a routine that you don’t find especially fulfilling. Abroad you thrived in discomfort, opened up your heart just enough to fall in love a little bit, and for a brief handful of days escaped the bubble of anxieties and insecurities that everyone back home seems to find completely normal. You haven’t seen this you for a while.
You’re scared you’ve left behind the more authentic version of yourself that you thought was lost years ago, the person eager to explore and adventure, even though you were certain your wanderlust had long since been extinguished.
That’s what all the armrest squeezing on the plane ride back home is about. You earnestly believed that the fire had long since gone out, so every mile home feels like you’re sucking the life out of the ember you’ve only just discovered still exists.
The good news is nothing is ever as dramatic as I make it out to be, even though my goal in life is to live with as much intensity as a Meat Loaf song. Sure, I might go back to walking quickly and wearing makeup as needed, but ultimately my fulfillment is up to me, so if I want to talk to the neighbors, then I should talk to the neighbors, be they in San Francisco or anywhere else.
And maybe if I squeeze hard enough, I’ll continue being the version of me who takes things a little less seriously.
Or, I can just go back to Belize.