Domesticity Never Looked So Exciting
July 3, 2000
By Stephen Murdoch
Section: My Turn
Edition: U.S. Edition
The teenage girl across the aisle from me got quietly sick onto the floor of the bus. I quickly picked up my feet and put them on a fellow passenger’s bags of rice, startling the chickens that had been resting there. It was Nicaraguan disco that blared from the bus speakers as we careered through the mountainous countryside, but the music could have been Thai, Kenyan or Indian for all it mattered. I had been on bus rides just like this in many different countries. In the past, the chickens, the ear-shattering music, the small seats that forced my knees up to my chest—it all would have given me a rush. Now I just wanted to get off the bus and fly home, first-class.
It was the spring of 1999, and my wife and I were riding on an old American school bus north of Managua to the jungle mountain town of Jinotega. We arrived in evening drizzle and walked the empty streets with our heavy backpacks looking for food and shelter.
I was used to roughing it in out-of-the-way towns. For a year during college I studied in Vishakhapatnam, a large steel town in southeast India. When I tell Indians this now, they are at a loss for words. Nobody goes there voluntarily. When I was in my late 20s and just out of law school, I got my first job as a human-rights lawyer in Prei Veng, a Cambodian town near the Vietnamese border. Culture in Prei Veng consists of watching Chinese fight flicks and porn videos simultaneously on two screens while eating at the local restaurant.
In the four years I had been with my wife we had lived in three different countries and visited many more. Our last move had been to Lima, Peru, where I’d been working as a freelance journalist in the months before our trip to Jinotega. All this traveling weighed on me as we trudged through the town—wet, hungry and tired.
Our brief stay was markedly lackluster. The next morning my wife and I went for a hike, which ended quickly because of a downpour. I sloshed down the trail, becoming grumpier each time I slipped on the incline. We wandered the streets, past market stalls full of Nike knockoffs and fly-infested meats. We clambered back aboard the bus to Managua after just 18 hours.
A few years earlier Jinotega would have fascinated me. How did the people live? What did they eat? Would they be friendly? On our ride back, I tried to figure out why these questions no longer interested me.
Perhaps I wasn’t the adventure traveler I once was. I remember meeting an old colleague of mine who was always in search of the exotic. We sat eating mangoes in her kitchen while she told me of a trip she had just taken to the coast with her 10-year-old son. During the four-hour ride through the Khmer Rouge-riddled jungle, her son had hung out the front door of the bus, holding on by just a hand and a foot. At the time, I thought their excursion sounded terrific.
Recalling the story as I rode to Managua, the trip began to seem more like a nightmare than an adventure. Wouldn’t Disneyland have been more appropriate?
My Nicaraguan journey seemed equally pointless. As the bus pulled into towns along the way to pick up grungy adventurers, my disdain for my fellow backpackers grew. I wanted to yell out, “Take a bath! Get a real shirt—tie-dye went out in the ’70s!” The whole concept of adventure travel, I convinced myself, was flawed. In the age of the jet airplane and satellite communication there is no such thing as remote. The coffee shops of Hanoi are filled with slackers from Seattle, and even tiny villages get “Dallas” reruns beamed in from space.
Such curmudgeonly thinking was robbing me of the pleasurable experiences I’d once had while living abroad. I wanted back all those days I spent in small-town Asia. Imagine a Cambodian’s visiting the United States and avoiding New York because American life is so much more authentic in Wibaux, Mont.!
I felt foolish that I had sweated away my junior year in Vishakhapatnam while my classmates got drunk in London pubs or chatted up Parisian women in the Louvre. I cursed myself for hanging out in dusty downtown Prei Veng instead of getting a real law job in the States.
As the bus pulled into Managua, it dawned on me that I have, suddenly and gracelessly, begun to slip into middle age. Oh, how embarrassing. I wouldn’t trade my experiences in Prei Veng and Vishakhapatnam for anything (although you could have my Lima days for a six-pack in the park). I’m not saying that I want to hang up my backpack forever, but domesticity never looked so exciting. I want to live in the United States and have a career and a family. Traveling taught me a lot about the world and myself, but now it’s time to have a home.
I cursed myself for hanging out in dusty downtown Prei Veng instead of getting a real job in the United States
Copyright © 2000 Newsweek, Inc.
Record Number: 005510E58E6A26EE5B7C0