The 1001 heads north out of Chiang Mai and snakes its way into the mountains, rows of green ridges stacked one after the other. The sun shines in December, warm on my skin, but the chilled air in the shadows of overhanging trees reminds me that it is winter in the northern hemisphere. About an hour north of the city flows a unique section of a river known in English as, “The Sticky Waterfalls.” Limestone and other minerals in the water leave behind deposits on the rocks as the small river rushes downhill, creating a sandpaper-like texture that is truly “sticky.” Visitors to the protected area wear bathing suits and race up the waterfalls, their feet and hands gripping the sloping hillside like Gore-Tex. Lush green forest hugs the sticky track on all sides and trees sprout from underneath the fresh, flowing water. At the base of the waterfalls rises a rock wall, about 20 or 30 feet tall. A simple path skirts the wall and leads to the second section of the three-tired, natural playground. This simple, alternative route makes my choice to climb the vertical wall all the more foolish. Although the grip holds along the wall possess the same sandy texture as the rest of the waterfall, they rise in smooth bumps, rounded by the passage of water. In other words, they are difficult to grab. I never intended to climb the wall; I only wanted to boulder at the base, to see where the easiest holds would take me. Hold after hold I proceeded up the wall, letting the route take me where it would, enjoying the process of pulling my weight this way and that way. I see the next logical grip to my left. It’s a bit further away than I would like, but I can make it and I do so easily, enjoying the sense of achievement. Two passes later, I have run out of options for ascent. Oh well, I think, time to head down. I look back and realize that the holds have taken me almost 20 feet up the wall. My friend Julian, coaching me from the base of the wall, looks a lot further away than I anticipated. The holds to my right, on the path I initially traveled, are too far away, at an awkward descending angle. Panic creeps into my chest. The water rushing over my face suddenly feels a lot more ferocious. The top of the wall is now closer than the bottom, and I have no choice but to continue. I find myself in a poor position with most of my weight on my hands, attempting to swing my left foot up near my shoulder. My foot scrapes at the wall, unable to grip. The water slams against my face. The entire weight of my body is now on my forearms and I lunge with my foot. Suddenly, none of my weight is connected to the earth and I’m falling, vertically. I hit the ground, hard, on my feet and Julian is behind me to ensure I don’t fall back and crack my head. I take a step and feel my entire body trembling. My lungs swallow air in deep, urgent mouthfuls.
I’m home now and this is one example of the kind of adventure stories that people want to hear. They want excitement and danger in a pre-packaged format from the boy who has been traveling the world for two years. When I fail to deliver something animating, conversation quickly moves on to this social circle or that news story. There is a fundamental disconnect in what Americans expect of Africa and the reality I portray. Many think that, because I was not in San Diego, I was in a constant state of travel. I was not. I did not go on an adventure; I taught English in a public high school. Teaching is frustrating, laborious, and gratifying work, but days rarely deviate from the routine because consistency is the nature of the job and, therefore, the majority of my Mozambican experience lacks the escapades that people at home expect. I accumulated stories just as anyone in San Diego or Dallas or San Francisco or Boston did in the last two years because, at a certain point, my house in Lichinga became my home and the “adventure” became my life. But “Africa” is a loaded word, and many Americans can only relate to it via adventure stories. People want to hear about the time the military police officer placed his pistol on my forehead and said he would send me home in a coffin. They want to hear about camping on a rocky outcropping in lake Malawi when the hippos surrounded our tent and temporarily separated us from the mainland. They want to hear about the psychotic man with the machete that came to my school because he wanted to murder a student. Danger and nature do exist in Africa, just as they exist anywhere else and these stories, like stories anywhere, are the exception to the norm. When I left San Diego, I became the exception. I took hold of a grip to the left and swiftly switched courses. That exception became my norm, and we began to operate on two different planes of existence as my route ran parallel up the rock face.
I have been home for one month and, although the sensation is not like a vertical drop, I do feel pinned between the two tracks with few grips to hold. I circumnavigated the globe with two friends from Peace Corps during my return, using Asia as a buffer zone, a transport tunnel to prepare me for San Diego: Mauritius to Malaysia to Singapore to Thailand to California. Our identities came into flux as planes transported us from our home to various tourist destinations, converting us from cultural experts in backwater communities of rural Mozambique to common travelers. We did not react well (he said in hindsight).
Mauritius is an island nation east of Madagascar that boasts an awesome blend of African, Indian, and Asian culture united under the common language of French. On the northwestern shore rests Grand Baie, a popular beach area with plenty of overpriced bars. There are also overpriced restaurants with outdoor seating below modern shop fronts, where diners can appreciate the view of the bay or decide to stroll amongst the Quiksilver, North Face, and various jewelry stores that line the boardwalk. When we arrived, I felt certain that some strange island god had lifted up Newport Beach or La Jolla shores and transported it safely to this tiny harbor in the Indian Ocean. The beach was crowded and we didn’t want to shop. After wandering a bit, we bought bottles of beer at a cheap liquor store and took them to an empty, concrete pier, where we played music from our portable speakers and danced amongst ourselves for several hours, much to the amusement of the Mauritians in the area. Somehow, drinking and dancing distinguished us from the other tourists who came to Mauritius to stroll along western boulevards and purchase western goods. If nothing else, it functioned as a kind of manifesto for us, a blatant rejection of the typical tourist who purchases souvenirs and tells their friends at home about the quality of local craftsmanship in such and such remote corner of the world. Everywhere we went, we became the anti-tourist: tourists whose goal it was to subvert the common tourist simply by being less interested tourists. Rather than take classic selfies at various cultural sites, we went to those same cultural sites and quietly mocked those who took such photos, especially the woman at the temple above Chiang Mai who took photos of the children in “traditional clothing” and would later use them to demonstrate her worldliness to her friends. Our solace came from the friends we made in each location: Teddy, Jesika, and their daughters in Mauritius; Caleb in Singapore; Tanison and Jayjay in Thailand. With them, we felt a certain sense of that insider identity reminiscent of Mozambique – the same way that all tourists feel when they get a sense of “local culture.” We were aware, on some level, of this hypocrisy. But the way we saw it, based on our timeline, there were two options: be the tourist that exploits other peoples and cultures in order to feel traveled or say screw it and just get drunk with new friends. We were disillusioned with the world and with ourselves, which means that often we were drunk.
It was, of course, an unsustainable way of life. I knew this much the whole time. My literal fall at the cascades in Thailand also served as a figurative crashing to the earth after a month of bittersweet interactions with new places and new people. Travel and exploration – constant engagement with the new and the different – have become an essential aspect of my identity. However, the experiences in Mozambique that cultivated this trait also serve as a constant reminder that every exotic paradise is also somebody’s home. Surface level enjoyment of a beautiful location – especially the tourist façade in most resort areas – punches me with guilt and shame. What makes Mauritius beautiful are Aisa and Alicia, the young daughters of Teddy and Jesika that chased me around a shopping mall for an hour until the button on my shirt ripped and I had to lie on the concrete to catch my breath. These glimpses at the beating heart of any destination are what make travel lovely; they are the simple recognition that this place is also a home. Perhaps that is why I felt most comfortable within the street markets and sprawling outdoor park in Kuala Lumpur – daily life was on display, and I could melt into the metropolis, forgetting that I was any different from anyone else.
Now I’m home (in San Diego) and I know that I’m not really any different, just distant. Many of my friendships are much the same as they were when I left (some have improved; others have dissipated). It’s odd how the patterns of a relationship can reweave themselves with such ease, as if the past two years tucked themselves beneath 2014 and 2017 to form a strange lump in the fabric of our lives. I’m back, but I lack the shared experiences tying everyone else together, so people try to relate to me the only way they can: enter adventure-formatted response. When I fail to translate two years into a Homeric epic, we skip over Mozambique and the day continues. It is a benign lump but I can’t stop thinking about it. Friends and family have reintegrated me into their habits, but I’m still stuck in the middle of that waterfall trying to figure out which route I’m supposed to follow. The only real decision I have come to is that America is very cold.
On Wednesday, I finally saw the girl I loved for the three years before I went to Mozambique. We ate poke – which has become weirdly popular – at Liberty Station. She was the last familiar face I saw when I left San Diego and it took me an entire month at home before we met again. We sat next to a gas fire pit outside, holding our hands up to the flames, flipping them from back to front every few seconds in order to keep both sides warm. Her hands were smaller than I remembered, delicate with slender fingers and a silver ring with a white stone on her right ring finger. A man in a down jacket stood on the opposite side of the fire, warming his hands as well. “It was really good to see you,” she said. I kept my eyes on the flames, dancing in perfect patterns from the circular gas pipe tucked between the smooth, blackened stones. “You probably won’t see me again for a while,” I said. “I think that’s probably best,” she said. We continued to stare at the flames until it was time to go.