“Have you ever been somewhere and just been struck by this feeling that this is home?”
That was the question posed to the audience at a talk I went to last week. The speaker was trying to describe what it was like to finally find her calling.
The first thing that came to my mind? Cusco, Peru. May 2014. Sitting by the big window in my small bedroom in a hostel in the neighborhood of Lucrepata and talking on the phone via a spotty Wi-Fi connection to a friend in the United States.
“I freaking live in Peru!“I told her. “I feel like I am exactly where I should be.”
That is precisely the last time I remember feeling that way.
Lately I’ve been thinking home is just wherever you wind up. That it’s not a choice so much as a fluke. Maybe you just stay in one place so long your life becomes entangled with those around you and eventually, without intending it, you couldn’t leave if you wanted.
Sometimes I’ll be sitting with a friend here in San Francisco planning some event in the not-too-distant future, and she’ll say something like, “Next year, when we do this…” and I feel the panic rising in my chest. I keep thinking, “Maybe next year I’ll be living somewhere else, and I won’t have to do this.”
I am scanning for the exits.
Then two days ago, I got a call from Peru. Of course, I didn’t answer it because who could be calling me from Peru? I immediately messaged the only person I keep in touch with regularly there: my American expat friend, Kim.
“Miguel asked me for your phone number,” she told me. “I sent it to him five minutes ago.”
Miguel? I hadn’t spoken to him on the phone in almost two years. I figured there must be some emergency.
When he called again the next day, I answered. His voice sounded familiar and foreign at the same time. I distinctly noticed the new difficulty I had in understanding his English. I distinctly noticed how my tongue tripped over Spanish words I used to say with relative ease. We both realized, with sadness, how much I was forgetting Cusco when I couldn’t recall the brand of water I used to buy on an almost-daily basis (it’s unsafe to drink tap water there).
I asked about his scooter (he had tried to get me to ride it but, without a helmet, I refused). He told me the police had confiscated it after discovering his registration papers weren’t up to date. So he has since upgraded to a Kawasaki motorcycle (on which, he assured me, he always rides with a helmet).
“How is your heart?” he asked me, with no transition.
“My…heart?” I asked, pretending I didn’t know what he meant.
“Yes,” he replied.
“It’s hanging in there.”
My mind flooded with memories of nights spent crying and mornings spent not wanting to get out of bed. Cusco was a place of suffering, too. If it weren’t for Kim and Miguel both, I would have had a terrible time.
“You are not ready to open up yourself,” he deduced. “Do you have a pet?”
I groaned. “No, I can’t have one. I move and travel too much.”
“Then get a little dog.”
“I hate little dogs. They just yap and they can’t protect you.”
“Are you looking for protection?” he asked. “You should be looking for company. It would be good for you to have a little dog. You could pet him…take him for walks…”
I chuckled. Two years later and 4,800 miles away, Miguel is still trying to take care of me.
Cusco is inextricably a part of me now. In the blogosphere, I am known as the “Cusco expert.” I still get emails weekly from travelers seeking advice for their trip to that ancient Inca city. And yet, I don’t know how to tell people why I haven’t gone back, when I was so sure that one day I would.
Perhaps, at its core, it’s a fear of getting too close, of getting entangled in other people’s lives to the point I’m not free to leave. Perhaps I like to keep certain things in the past.
But what do you do when the past comes calling, and you realize you’ve missed it?
And that’s when it hit me: Maybe home becomes home when you find the people you don’t want to leave anymore.
. . .
This essay first appeared in The Wherever Weekly, my
weekly sporadic newsletter, on July 17, 2016. To be the first to access my latest personal essays, blog posts, and travel and creativity tips, subscribe below: