Friday, 28 June 2013

re-entry shock

The most common question since we've returned from Benin is: How was it? My short answer to this question is: it was a great experience for our family.
at the Toronto airport:
home again, home again, jiggety jig

The second most common is: are you experiencing any culture shock?

At first I thought: no, Derek and I have traveled a lot. We're not going to go through that this time. We're not going to break down crying in the cereal aisle of the grocery store, numbed by all of the choices. Or in the pet food aisle, incredulous at the array of foods we have for our pets.

We were gone for a month - not really enough time to move past the "honeymoon phase" of cultural discovery. We observed, tasted, listened to, smelled, experienced many new things, and were immensely blessed by these experiences. There were some frustrations too, but we weren't there long enough to really let them sink in.

But over the past week, there have been things that have been noticeable, and have struck me in a different way than usual. Here are some re-entry shock examples:

At Chapter's book store in Waterloo: paying for chocolate covered pretzels for teachers' gifts and a book for a friend's birthday party and looking at the total and discovering that I had paid $10 each for the pretzels! I was just a little horrified. At the check-out, I was asked if I'd like to donate any money to school libraries across Canada that are in need. The woman asked if I knew of any needy libraries in Canadian schools. I said, "Nope, but I know of one in Benin! That school doesn't have any library at all." She just smiled and asked where Benin was.

In the emergency room in Grand River hospital: on the advice of a Telehealth nurse and the doctor on call (I'm so thankful for those services, by the way), I brought Eden in to the hospital emergency to get bloodwork done to test for malaria last weekend. She had a headache, a high fever, and was nauseous. When they heard that we had just returned from a malaria zone, they took it very seriously and wanted to get her checked out. Out of the 8 people that I talked to that day - nurses, doctors - none of them had ever heard of Benin. Total time spent at the hospital that day was 6 hours, but I kept imagining what we would be doing at a hospital in Benin. I was thankful for the care we got, and that her bloodwork showed no malaria in that test. They were very thorough in their testing. I kept thinking back to an experience in Benin: a woman carrying a girl of about 11, strapped to the mother's back with a piece of fabric, walking up the stairs to the children's section of the hospital in Cotonou, Benin. The girl looked fevered and her face was covered with pocks. She lay limp on her mother's back. The mother struggled, carrying her up the stairs. I wonder what that girl had, and how she is doing now as my daughter runs and jumps and plays at school.

Garbage pick up day: Seeing all of the things that people were tossing out here in Waterloo, wondering how the garbage would have been used in Benin.

Groceries: Easy. That's the word that came to my mind over and over again when I drove to the store on our first morning back. Easy. It was easy to drive to the store. Easy to buy the groceries and find what I needed. Easy to put them in the trunk. Easy to drive home. Easy. I know people don't want to hear this here - that our lives our easy. Because I know our lives are filled with challenges too. So I'll just speak for my own life. When I compare my life here to the lives I saw in Benin, I have it so easy. I don't worry about where my meals are coming from. I don't worry about my child contracting malaria and dying. Or yellow fever, or meningitis, or hepatitis. I don't have to spend time in my day pounding maize into flour or butchering a goat. My stresses are of a different kind, and sometimes come from over-scheduled lives, deadlines, and dis-connectedness with others.

St. Jacobs Market on a Saturday: So quiet and orderly and predictable. No bartering involved at the hour I went (7:30 - this is not early by Beninese standards).

Laundry: Easy. Incredibly easy.

School: Right now I have no patience for parents complaining about what our schools lack, or teachers complaining about too much work, or students who aren't putting forth a good effort at school. This lack of patience comes from seeing schools where teachers work so hard to teach students, and their only tools are themselves and the blackboards. From seeing parents who are so happy with the education their children are getting at L'École les Leaders. From seeing students working so hard over their summer holidays to keep knowledge in their brains. They want to succeed, and their work ethic is so admirable.

I think that one of the biggest gifts of travel is that it gives you new eyes - to see another part of the world, but also to look at your own part of the world a little differently. I hope that I can hold on to these eyes for awhile.

"We shall not cease in exploration
and at the end of all our exploring
will be to arrive where we started
and know the place for the first time." -- T. S. Eliot, "Little Gidding"


  1. Your family has been a gift to those of us here at home too. We can look at our lives with new eyes too, and listen and learn from your family's insightful reflections. Thank you all for that.
    We live so comfortably and easily, it's so true. It's hard not to get sucked into it all and go with what's easy. It's easy for us to forget that throughout the world, people are living very differently from us, with very different privileges. We didn't earn these privileges. I can't even imagine having one of my family members seriously ill, and not being able to get adequate care to make them better.
    (hope Eden is ok now!)

    Eden, Zoe, Rebecca and Derek you have brought a new world to us all. Thank you for all of the honesty and insights.

  2. That picture of you in the hospital Eden looks like like the little room we spent the day in with Eli when his kidneys were sick last year. Maybe it is the same room!

    I really like the thoughts you have shared here... it captures one of the gifts of a trip like this: Seeing your own world with new eyes, and as Rachel says, helping us to share this new perspective too. Reading about how easy our laundry situation is made me smile. It's so true! All of the things in our life that we take for granted. Here's a related Facebook post of mine from recent:

    "Today for whatever reason I'm super excited that I own a toothbrush. Those little things are awesome! Earlier this summer I was super excited about a slice of toast with peanut butter and jam. Also awesome. Don't forget to be excited about the little things in life!"