Monday, August 13, 2012

Coming Home

A paradox that has much exercised mathematicians is that of the Einsteinian space traveller. Having journeyed at great speed for several months around the universe, he returns to earth to find that whole decades have passed. The anthropological traveller is in the reverse position. He goes away for what seems an inordinately long period to other worlds, ponders cosmic problems, ages greatly. When he returns, only a few months have elapsed ... only his closest friends have noticed he has been away at all.
It is positively insulting how well the world functions without one. While the traveller has been away questioning his most basic assumptions life has continued sweetly unruffled. Friends continue to collect matching French saucepans.

From The Innocent Anthropologist: Notes from a Mud Hut by Nigel Barley

I'm feeling so liminal. After leaving our town of Mtwara, there was a week of being in transit; then a week on the Queen Mary 2 passenger ship; then a week in a small town in New Jersey; and as of this writing the start of a week in Los Angeles.

There was something about arriving in this sprawling metropolis that finally set in a feeling of being overwhelmed by the differences in coming home. Driving along Century Boulevard felt like landing on another planet. It was like being a space traveler looking out the windows of a spaceship on to a strange landscape.

Earlier today I walked into a Ralph's supermarket. It's nothing particularly unusual for the U.S. But it's a massively large store. I tried to imagine what it would be like for a Tanzanian to see this. The incredible material abundance, aisle after aisle of foodstuffs, housewares, dog food (!). The shock of how expensive things are as he mentally calculates from dollars into shillings.

Of course, it's all terribly familiar to me too. It's a relief to be back in the English-speaking world, to be able to understand what people are saying to me and to each other. It's a joy not having to struggle to express the simplest things. How easy it is to take language for granted when it is one that is native to you.

Life has indeed continued as usual. The people I know have, for the most part, kept on much as they did when we left. I, on the other hand, am in the midst of passing from one world back to another. I've been through this before. But this time I've been away for three years. -Earl

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