by Ellen Barone
“So, when exactly are you coming home?” my father asked.
“I don’t know, Dad. Our visas allow us to stay in Peru for at least three months, then we’re thinking of heading on to Argentina and Chile...”
The broken and sputtering magicJack connection at the South American Explorers Club in Cusco broadcasted about every third word of our conversation, but the message that traveled down the steep stone streets of the ancient Inca capital and across the continents to the lush green lawns of Newark, Delaware, the college town I’d grown up in and where my parents still live, was crystal clear: We weren’t coming “home”.
Plaza de Armas at night, Cusco, Peru.
The truth was, my husband, Hank, and I had no idea when, or if, we were going home. We didn’t even know what “home” meant anymore. We’d been winging it, temporarily inhabiting Mexico, Nicaragua, Ecuador and Peru: itinerant and loose in the world in a manner that both worried and intrigued family and friends back home.
We were four thousand miles from our homeland, eleven thousand feet above sea level, south of the Equator where summer is winter, and living in a fourth-floor walkup without heat. Yet, life felt sweet and rich and fortunate.
We were foreigners, at the other side of the world, landed there by grace, on the cusp of discovering something we couldn’t yet articulate.
A year had passed since we’d crammed a lifetime of belongings into storage in New Mexico, driven cross country, and parked our six-year-old Corolla in my parents’ Delaware driveway with vague promises to return for it in a year—or so.
As a freelance travel writer and photographer I have journeyed to six continents, crossed the Sahara on camelback, traversed the Malay Peninsula by rail, walked up and down mountains in Patagonia, snorkeled with whale sharks in Belize, and photographed lions in the Serengeti. But after years of working on assignments that parachuted me into foreign cultures for compact, intense periods of time, I wanted to experience the deeper pleasure and challenge of learning to live a different kind of life: One with all the hours in the world to read, write, practice my Spanish, enjoy the tastes, smells, sights and serendipitous pleasures of another place, and generally just work out who I am.
I wasn’t one of those people fortunate enough to understand myself at a young age, but I know how it feels when I try to be someone I’m not. How it exhausts and depletes me, and leaves me feeling angry and resentful. I have spent a good many years — too many, I think— being ashamed of my unwillingness to live for a mortgage, car payments, social status and obligation. I thought for a long while that this meant I was a selfish failure, the flaky, lazy black sheep of a society that believed in a success that is measured by education and achievement, status and possessions.
It’s taken nearly fifty years to accept that all I really want in life is freedom — the ability to wake up every day to a life of my choosing, to work at a pace and place that suits me, to have time for walks and talks, to create something beautiful with my life, and to share it and be sustained by it.
Everyone has reasons for the lifestyle choices they make — to have children, not to have children, to live in one place or to move away, to remain in a secure job or follow the path of an entrepreneur. But I imagine there comes a time when most adults reexamine those choices and ponder who they really want to be when they grow up.
For me, that person is gradually taking shape, emerging in greater clarity with each country and each new experience; like a wispy Etch-A-Sketch drawing. On good days, I’m proud of that person; on bad days, she’s an embarrassment.
Still, looking back, I see that hidden away in my luggage was a seed of potential, an embryonic self hidden beneath the shallow surface of doubt and ridicule that germinated in the warm soil of Latin America. A seedling that lay waiting, ready to sprout and blossom under the sunshine of self acceptance. I liked being who I wanted to be without anyone to remind me of who I had been.
Being Away has opened us up, turned old habits inside out, and unearthed new priorities. Outwardly, nothing has changed but the countries we called home. I have not transformed into a size-two picture of perfection and poise. Hank did not buy a Harley or run off with our doe-eyed, twenty-four-year-old Peruvian maid. Inwardly, however, there is something new — the glimmer of possibility.
As the uncertainty over my life choices began to ebb, I slowly began to suspect that the simple pleasures of our foreign existence—walking miles each day, eating unfamiliar foods, enjoying a lazy siesta in the warmth of the afternoon sun, or watching the moon rise over an unexplored horizon—were, in fact, the joys of home.
“What if we didn’t go back? What if we kept going?” I said to Hank one night as we walked home after dinner. The urge to continue suddenly felt overpowering.
“OK,” he said. Just like that. Not a moment of hesitation as he reached for me and scooped me in his arms. “Where to next?”
This is the Hank I love, a man of few words and quick ease when it’s least expected and most appreciated. We talked for a while about Chile and Argentina and then an email we received from our Spanish tutor in Nicaragua.
When we set off on this journey of discovery, we assumed it would end with us setting up a new home in a new place, something we’d done before and were prepared to do again. But the path has proven unpredictable and has inspired a question that I keep asking myself: Is home more than a physical place on the map? Something that we carry inside of us?