We are coming up on “summer vacation” here in Costa Rica. As a family we are looking forward to returning to the States for a few weeks of R&R for Christmas and to attend a World Missions Summit. We are totally blessed to be able to travel with relative ease between our mission field and our home state. But in many ways, making short trips back home sort of has the same effect as traveling through time might have. I feel like I get Time Travel Shock and the space-time continuum is interrupted.
When I am in Latin America, the third world is my “normal”. It’s like I exist in a completely different period of time now. There are so many aspects of life that I just take for granted at this point. The things that used to shock me or catch my attention have become part of my background white noise and I hardly notice them any more. But when I am dropped like a paratrooper back into my original setting, everything that used to be “normal” before I was a missionary seems stunning or note-worthy. Not only do I change locations physically, I seem to travel into the future to a time that has not yet existed in Costa Rica. The bouncing back and forth can be quite a shock to me both mentally and emotionally.
Let me expound on just one feature of my time travel shock. When I return to Minnesota the first thing I notice is the SPACE around me. There is just so much SPACE! Even in a crowded airport, I have ample elbow room. When we get in the car and drive from the airport to the house, the cars all keep a reasonable distance from each other. The highway is buffered on both flanks by wide hills of grass or dunes of snow depending on the season. So much unused SPACE! In the grocery store, I have lost all sense of what is an appropriate distance to maintain between myself and the other shoppers. Either I fall into my Latin American patterns of driving my cart right up to the behind of the person in line in front of me, or I over compensate and leave a confusing gap between us. My sense of space is all out of wack.
When I return again to Latin America, the first thing I notice when I step outside of the airport is the closeness of everything and everyone. The humidity wraps around my head and presses against my face, making me feel like I am breathing through a wet blanket. The people press in all around me asking to carry my bags or find a taxi for me. I have to resist the urge to start pushing people out of my way. I want to shove everyone and shout, “Back off! I have been folded into an airplane seat for hours and I really need some space.” The smells of wet pavement, rotting sewer, and over perfumed humanity all press in against my senses leaving me no where to turn. Then we get in the car and start driving home. The traffic zooms up to us and stops suddenly, no buffer, no fear of hitting us. They are just taking up space as fast as they can lest another car come along and claim that inch of pavement. We zoom, they zoom. The buildings on both sides of the highway hug the road, dangerously close. When we stop, people swarm the car trying to sell us things through the car windows. We keep the windows rolled up. That 3/4 of an inch of glass between us and the street vendors feels like enough space. Personal space has become relative.
In addition to our awkward use of space and the gawking our family of 5 will do in every public space, going back for Christmas time is a surreal experience in and of itself. My parents want my kids to make a Christmas list. My kids don’t know what toys are “out there” now. They ask me, “What do I need, Mom?” I just shake my head. I am stuck back in time from when we first left America 6 years ago. I think about what will fit in a suitcase- again, I have space issues. Before we leave, I will search the internet for what clothes are in fashion now. I will try to pack things that are neutral enough so that I blend into the background and don’t make me stick out like someone who just arrived from the year 2006. Not only to we change spaces, we change times as well. I am already anticipating the Time Travel Jet Lag.