"Funny thing about coming home; looks the same, smells the same. You'll realize what's changed is you."
-- F. Scott Fitzgerald

Through closed eyes, I noticed my room becoming more & more illuminated.  Wide-awake at 02:00, I laid in bed until 04:00 when I checked Facebook but everyone in my new timezone was sleeping, as it was a tame Tuesday night.  At 05:47 I swallowed Dramamine, to knock myself out, since I clearly wasn't going to beat jet-lag on my own.

I woke 13 hours later -- not of my own volition -- but because my insulin pump was vibrating from lack of use.  My mobile phone has no new texts or voicemails because I have no desire to let people know I've returned, or to speak with anyone, not even my friends and family.  Of course, I missed them but it's too soon. I'm not ready to let go of my time abroad. Instead, I have holed myself up inside the house as I crop photos, review footage that I already know like the back of my hand, and blog about my travels.  I have been rolling around & warming my heart in the blanket of memories that I created in the past 7 weeks.  I am morphing into a recluse.

I dread returning to work because I do not want to answer the barrage of questions from people I rarely communicate with outside of my professional life.  It will be so phony and feels fundamentally wrong to fake my excitement at reuniting.  I am a walking zombie, living in limbo. I am stuck between  my experiences in another country and my perceptions of my own country, and I don't know how to change it.

I cannot reach out to those wonderful friends and family that support me in my darkest times because I have been away almost 2 months.  The dialogue between us is lost.  I am unable to relate to anything back here in the United States of America: the lifestyles; the problems; the people I love.  In just one night I went from shouting "moce" (pronounced "moe-they") a.k.a. goodbye to the attentive Fijian hoteliers  and fraternizing with the Tongan rugby team at NAN, to people-watching in LAX where every passenger was consumed by a handheld device. Also adjusting, Mom rhetorically asked "What did people do in airports before cell phones?"  I believe they interacted with other human beings.

Daily, I admire the unsightly hole in my foot because I am proud to sport it.  I cut it on an underwater stalactite in a pitch black cave.  And although it is painful, I do not want my large, sensitive bruise to dissipate because I remember how I earned it: diving onto the deck of a catamaran (my shin slamming into a metal bleacher) to observe a wild Tiger Shark the size of a truck.

We are fresh off a 48-hour trek from Fiji. Ohio's summer sun barely phases me because I am accustomed to the intensity of Fiji's, which has already burnt me. I rinse in a warm shower for the first time in two weeks.  I flick the light on in the middle of the night without needing to fire up a generator.  The tap water is potable.  I can get in my car & drive directly from Point A to Point B, instead of requiring a minimum of 2 hours to travel indirectly via local bus. The milk here is real & liquid, not powdered; the coffee in Ohio, instantly brewed as opposed to the Fijian norm: crystallized.  With the push of one button the washing machine swiftly cleans a pile of laundry whereas the villagers scrub theirs by hand.  These are the commodities I took for granted before Fiji.  I was already convinced Americans lived better than most countries, but now I have lived the difference.

Post-Fiji, those luxuries are almost too precious for me to use.  Because of this revelation I lounge outside without sunscreen; shower every third day; dry clothes on the line; repeatedly wear the same sweaty red dress, and -- most of all -- hate that TripAdvisor member who denigrated Fiji because he was "unable to watch a televised rugby match" & his "bed sheets bore small holes."

Before our journey commenced, Mom & I packed clothes and sandals to throw away in order to lighten the load back to the U.S.A.  During week 7 I assessed my white t-shirt: beige armpit stains, faded images, shrunken, holes throughout, yellowing, damp, and smelling musty. I refused to wear the fetid shirt except the days I went snorkeling in the salty ocean water.  But instead of throwing it in the rubbish a.k.a. trash as planned, I placed it in a plastic bag next to the bin (along with Mom's tops of equal status).  This item of clothing, that I could not bring myself to wear, was something the locals in this bucolic area might want or need.

Growing up in California, I remember my dad often forced my half-brother & I to sit at the kitchen table until our wooden bowls were empty.  I loathed having to stuff myself with [sometimes] nasty cuisine and often had to cry my way out of finishing it.  I respect his discipline now, for I was a spoiled American girl who had not yet learned the value of a meal. Throughout Fiji I tried to take small portions of everything as not to waste a bite.  This wasn't pre-packaged food prepared in bulk like at McDonald's.  Usually, I knew the person who spent all afternoon cutting & cooking my dinner while I was away, frolicking on beaches.
In conversing with staff members, most worked around 24 days straight then received 5 days off.  And I am not referring to a typical 09:00-17:00 day.  I assumed Oni -- the amazing matriarch of Oarsman's Lodge on Nacula Island -- was in her office at 07:00 (if not earlier) & remained on the premises until at least 23:00, entertaining visitors, as we continued to toss back beers or chat. Can you imagine being forced to interact with and please wastrels when you yourself are so exhausted and broke? Yet she & her staff seemed so pleased to share their culture, songs and time with us.  Likewise, each guest had unforgettably fun evenings spent racing Hermit Crabs or singing a Fijian song similar to Old McDonald.

What's more, the Fijian staff give their guests all this customer service with a smile!  Reportedly, they gross -- on average -- $2 FJD a.k.a. $1 USD an hour and there is no set minimum wage.  They make your bed daily even in hostels' dormitories.  Most greet you with a lively "Bula!" a.k.a. "Hello!"  When the sea was too rough for us to be ferried to our resort, a kind employee who was missing a tooth carried two suitcases and my Mom's backpack uphill then across the island in succor since she struggled with the hike.  Our hotel restaurant's hostess was the whole package: she sat guests, took their orders, refilled drinks, delivered entrees, and cleared tables. To my horror, the marama a.k.a. important woman thanked me for not complaining to management that my sandwich arrived with tomatoes (I had requested it without).  According to her, I was the first guest to not make a fuss about an incorrect order.  I gawked while my mom in turn apologized for other self-absorbed diners.
After our warm reception at Oarsman's Lodge, Mom and I frequently gave money to those that went out of their way to aid us though tipping in Fiji was not compulsory. And why not?  I spend $5 a week on vending machine sodas. Surely, I could part with $5 to show my gratitude.
This year, like others past, I passed the July 4th holiday in a foreign country, where it was just another day on the calendar.  However, my patriotism is triggered when I set foot on American soil or see the American flag flying from an embassy because it is the one country out of 195 where I possess rights.  Rights that countless others have died and would die for.  My Fijian experience -- the good & the bad -- is still fresh and festering; the disparities and differences still so heavy on my mind. I am mentally and emotionally laboring to reconcile what I have seen and lived the last 2 weeks, with my present American circumstances.