No discussion about returning from a prolonged period abroad is complete without thorough time devoted to reverse culture shock. And within the larger folds of a discussion about reentry, the conversation inevitably turns to perspective. Specifically, that people don’t seem to have any. Of course this isn’t a fair statement, but coming off of long-term travel to the developing world often leaves you in a fastidious state of mind. However, there is something to be said about travel also crystallizing your perceptions, honing suspiciously naïve sentiments into firm sets of belief. Even within the context of culture shock, it can help keep life in perspective. And if you concentrate enough, it can help mold you into the person you strive to be.

During my time in Burma, I spent a week in a tiny town called Hpa-An. Staying put for so long wasn’t in my plans, but something happened my first night in town that changed the connection I felt to the tiny village in Burma’s Mon State. That something was this:

I was exhausted when I arrived, coming off of a fairly ridiculous gauntlet of nightbus to daybus to tuk-tuk. I checked into one of two places in town licensed to house foreigners and joked with the other tourists that I was going to sleep at 7 and if they didn’t see me in the morning, it merely meant that I was planning to sleep thorough another day. I went to sleep at dusk and woke up to faint screams and panicked scurrying in the attic, the Rakhine boys who worked at the hotel trying to stuff their belongings into a bag. Disoriented, my mind in still cobwebbed from sleep, it didn’t register that the air was thick with smoke. I tumbled out of bed and ran down the three flights of stairs to the street. Several buildings were on fire, and given that much of the town was made of wood and that it had no fire station, people assumed the worst. Next door to the hotel was a doctor’s clinic and women ferried in and out carrying supplies to waiting trucks. Grabbing the most expensive ones they could find (a microscope, medication, laboratory equipment), hoping to save what they could. One woman stopped to catch her breath. “This is all,” she blurted out, roughly gesturing to the chaos behind her. The hotel owner explained: no insurance, no savings. If her clinic went down, so did everything she had.

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  • Jodi Ettenberg

    Born in Montreal, Canada, Jodi Ettenberg is a former new media and technology lawyer who quit her job after 5+ years of working…

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