Home Leave 2012: Azimuth Check

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An azimuth check, as Jean has just reminded me, is a bearing point, a time when an outdoorsman pulls out his compass and chooses a point on the horizon as a waypoint. We ask certain questions at this check: Where are we? Where are we going? Where have we been? Is our course good or do we need to change it? I think our home leave is just such a check, a good place and time to take a breather and assess the situation.

Where are we? There are a couple ways we can answer that one…Home leave in the USA!
Where are we going? Zimbabwe for two years, Jean serving as a political officer. Embarking on a lifelong journey of adventure. To Hell and back. We’ve swapped our roles as breadwinner and childcare provider, providing at least me with a modicum of satisfaction.
Where have we been? Nepal, having completed our first (hardship) tour in the Foreign Service as a family, Jean serving as a consular officer. Before Nepal, raising kiddos and toiling in the rat race of Northern VA’s grind. Built a house from scratch.
Is our course good or do we need to change it? We both agree that this is an AWESOME lifestyle and well worth the tradeoffs. We think that our kids are getting a lifetime of unique experiences, not to mention our own, and a worldwide perspective.
Azimuth check done, let’s go!

So we’ve been back in the US for about 5 weeks, just 2 to go. And getting back here has been awesome don’t get me wrong. But the reverse culture shock has made me awestruck in more ways than one.
To give this list some context, I’ll summarize what Nepal has been like for us in a few sentences. Nepal only opened its borders in 1951. Prior to that, it has had no colonization, only influences from India and China. Hence, everything still operates in a 14th-century village mentality. All modern conveniences are an unexpected novelty, and are quite often unreliable and shoddy. Most things are not imported (kitchen drawer hardware, furniture, etc), but are rather made, either from memory, or an idea of what a westerner might think is useful. Since the Maoist insurgency in 2006, when many villagers immigrated to Kathmandu from their villages for safety, the population of the city has exploded from under one million to over four million people. The government, in a standstill since the constitution has been undergoing (supposedly) reform since 2010, is not prepared to deal with the traffic, the trash, the infrastructure needs (electricity, water, etc) that so many people generate. Hence, power is available most of the time in the rainy season (it is primarily hydroelectric), but one can go nearly 24 hours without power in the dry season, EVERY DAY. The Hindu and Buddhist attitudes have given rise to a saying, “Ke garne” (KAY GARNAY), or “what can you do?” which is a fatalist way of not getting too worked over what is just outside their front step. Indeed the concept of “frontage” for one’s property is uknown. The economy operates nearly 100% on cash. Labor and local goods cost nearly nothing. Food quality is always suspect, so one sticks to places of repute. Plastic wrappers and waste litter the streets. The climate is harsh on roads, and repair methods are ancient. The sandy soil of the valley is easily swept away by the monsoon rains, so sinkholes often cause large portions of roads to collapse. The air, being trapped in the valley, becomes quite polluted in the dry winter season. The risk of a catastrophic earthquake is paramount in our minds, the last one being in 1934, and the country quite overdue for one. Grocery stores have decent food on occasion, if you see an imported good you buy a three month supply at the very least, as next week no one in town will have it. Fast food is nonexistent, for better or worse. Still, one can live anywhere for two years…

The list:

  1. Gas station pumps have tv screens. Because advertisers need a go at me in the five minutes it takes to pump gas. And there’s no mute button!
  2. Gas station credit card swipes require a zip code. Where do I live again?
  3. There is NO TRASH anywhere. At ALL. Seriously.
  4. The roads are AWESOME, as in nearly no potholes. And I can drive over 35MPH. OMG.
  5. WEGMAN’S, the best grocery store on earth
  6. Museums are clean and well laid out. And they’re free (Smithsonian).
  7. McCafe. Not that I’m a McD’s fan, but where is Ronald? Where are the arches? Where are the plastic red, yellow, nay even beige furniture? WHAT? It’s all different from what I remember
  8. Craft beer is now in cans. OMG, Consumables for next post just got AWESOME.
  9. The. Internet….Bracingly. Fast. Netflix works! (not that my kids are particularly surprised, it’s just something else to take for granted)
  10. Arlington is full of beautiful people shopping in jogging outfits. I can’t stop staring. It’s been a while since I saw this.
  11. The power has not gone out once. No kidding! (ok, there was that storm just recently)
  12. There are as many hybrid vehicles here as there are Suzuki Maruti 800 cabs in Kathmandu. It’s a thing of beauty.
  13. Bike trails are marked with blazes. And sometimes signs. And sometimes small PSA’s(public service announcements). In some cases, hazards (trees, rocks) are constructed on some trails on purpose and are marked with tiny orange flags. This was quite confusing at first. Some group of people thought about public safety, eventually decided on a method of execution, and made this happen. Probably in less than a year. Marvelous.

These points above and more acquaint me to the phrase of “reverse culture shock” where-in I find some things aren’t quite where or how I left them, and with other things I simply perceive them differently now that I’ve been living in another culture for a couple years. The kids loved coming back, though it’s more for visiting with their family and friends than the creature comforts we enjoy as adults. With the advent of the internet, and therefore our American culture being more pervasive than ever, the need to come back to the states isn’t as much as it used to be I think, but it’s still a good reminder to us why we think the U.S. of A as the best country on earth.

Anyway, in about two weeks (of BLISS AND GLORY, THANK YOU AMERICA*), we’re departing for Zimbabwe, where we’ll spend our second tour for a couple years. Thanks to the good graces of our collective parenting meerkat clan, we’ll have packed out our consumables (my next blog post) and our UAB (air freight) by a couple weeks from now, and will be well on our way to Zim life.

Speaking of life in Mugabe-land, we’ll be looking forward to getting settled in and saying hello to our friends from Nepal and Vietnam.

*Odd point here. In the eastern hemisphere, the USA is called “America,” contributing to collective educators’ chagrin when the youth of our great country repeats this in self-reference, and adults using the term with “America! expletive-yeah!” When one gets a taxi to the embassy in Kathmandu, for instance, you say:

American Embassy jaane!

If you say something about the U.S. Embassy, you may very well end up at the Russian Embassy, or perhaps just Thamel, the tourist district, the cabby assuming you are just a drunk trekker.