Reflections on visiting Arequipa after having moved away more than a year ago.
We Smiths moved back to the states from Arequipa in April of 2015. Just over a year later, this June, we were able to take a trip back to visit. As are most things of real value in this world, it left us with feelings across the spectrum.
When we checked our baggage to leave for the trip, there was a sense of rightness that came over all of us. We know this part. We are familiar with the travel, the planes, the change of language and brand of snacks available during the flight. We know every airport, exactly where to walk the baggage through and what food is worth the wait. Upon arrival in Arequipa, we were met by friends, took the familiar path out the main door to the line of waiting taxis and felt the air of Arequipa blowing through the open car windows as we passed back in time—or at least it felt like it. We knew the route we were taking and the destination. We stayed with friends in our old neighborhood and knew which bodegas had ice cream or which was more likely open on Sundays. I can’t quite express strongly enough just how right it felt to be there, as though all our efforts and intentions could finally just stop and we relaxed back into the muscle memory of living in Arequipa. Our whole family breathed a deep sigh of relief.
And yet, as the days passed, the differences became more stark, though we struggled to identify them. Some very concrete things were too much changed to feel right, to feel like “our” Arequipa. It also quickly became obvious that we weren’t needed. Our relationships carried the same weight and I know our visit lifted more spirits than just our own, but we weren't necessary to the general functioning of…anyone, or anything. It’s a little embarrassing to admit, but when you leave a labor of love like that behind, you want everyone to carry on well without you and you want the best for them…and at the same time, if we are being honest here, you kind of want something to fall apart without you. It is a desire for affirmation that you really were vital in your role, that you didn’t aggrandize your life there, to know it mattered. We were thrilled to find that everyone is managing just fine. We were a little sad to realize that everyone is managing just fine.
By the end of the trip, we had satisfied all our cravings for the city, our friends, the food, and it felt like the right time to leave. And it was different this time, because we could slip away with no major upset in their lives. We had visited, not come to live and work, and leaving was the natural step. Our longing, now fulfilled, began to subside.
It wasn’t until we had arrived back in Texas again and were processing the very complicated feelings that come with reverse culture shock through the lens of the first visit back and I finally hit on the shift I was feeling. Our whole time leading up to going to Peru in the first place started way back before we graduated college. The team formed, the dream formed, we took steps in that direction and so on and so forth. It was always “us” or “we” that did it. We were part of something happening and let ourselves get lost in the flow, fully committed. It’s how undertakings like mission work and development occur and it is good. Your whole life revolves around your purpose and the people working alongside you.
After leaving Peru, the grief came mostly from that disconnect, that our family lost the community, the group identity and purpose. I didn’t accept it. I railed against any new belonging. We have attended a new church for almost a year and have yet to place membership because it felt like cheating on our Arequipa family. The Smiths don’t belong to a Tyler church; our people are in Peru. I still tend to refer to our current church family as “they” or “them”, as in “I think they allow members to use the building” or “Maybe they will talk about that on Sunday”. Never “us” or “we”. That connection somehow still belonged in South America. Our hearts were still there, and nothing else measured up alongside it as a replacement. It felt wrong to align myself with others, despite their actual proximity.
At some point during our trip, the idea that we still belonged first to our Peruvian life began to loosen its grip. We were the outsiders in conversations, the ones who had to be introduced to the new members. “We” language didn’t apply. This was “them” living life together, not “us”. And again, that sense of rightness that had welcomed us on our visit settled in again, but this time giving us permission to say goodbye again, more freely and more gently. I know I landed back in the States with a new peace. We had chosen Arequipa and fought to be there. I didn’t know how to stop fighting to be there, even if just in my own heart, until I went back. It was only after that trip that I could acknowledge that I would have to do the hard, slow work of putting down new roots right where I am now.
Even now, I can’t do the math on how I ended up changed. The rift in my heart and identity finally felt healed enough to accept the losses and the gains as the package deal they are. All I know is, going home to visit is the only reason that I was able also to come home when we left.