With five days left here in Sana'a, my crazy Middle Eastern adventures seem to be drawing to a close...for now. Exactly six months and twenty days ago, I walked into John Hopkins airport in Cleveland, bound for a flight to JFK in New York, which would connect to Heathrow in London, and then on to... well, that story has already been told. Now, in five days, I'll be chasing the sun westward once again, heading back to Hopkins. The mid-afternoon call to prayer is starting up off in the distance again, it has become so normal it almost takes effort to realize it's happening at this point. As I sit here, trying to fit this little narrative into something resembling a decent finish, little bits and peices of the last half year keep flashing back. Three seconds of free fall off a cliff in Wadi Beni Khalid... navigating the streets and the smells of the Old City in Sana'a... the waves and the lights on the beach in Qurm... Tuti, Abduallah, Said, and Fatima... the clouds rolling off the mountain in Manakha... stepping off the plane and breathing in the frankincense in Salalah... The list goes on and on, with many of the stories told here, and maybe a few that might not get written down. I could probably spend hours just recalling all the people that I've met, the friends from both programs, my second family in Muscat, everyone in all the countries that have facilitated helping me navigate two radically different, but now familiar, cultures. It's been a physically, mentally, and psychologically grinding time, and it certainly feels like it's been a lot longer than seven months. Even for the month in between the two programs, it was simply a matter of decompressing from one trip and gearing up for a second, and trying to graduate in between. So, on one hand, it's definitely nice to know that I don't have any traveling planned for the near future.
On the other hand, I am not looking forward to coming down off of what I've come to think of as the study abroad addiction. Scientists have theorized that anything that elevates the body's stress levels for a long enough period of time, and the corresponding spike in adrenaline, endorphins, and neurotransmitters that go with it, can lead to a physical addiction in the body. Chemical dependency is simply a synthetic way of over-riding the usual bio-mechanical failsafe features. Over the course of these months, based on my previous experience in China and many discussions with fellow study abroad types, both at home and abroad, it definitely seems feasible that someone can get hooked on studying abroad. While overseas, from the moment I wake up, almost everything is stressful ; traveling, eating, trying to think in another language, even going to the bathroom (actually its definitely stressful going to the bathroom here). As soon as you roll out of bed, the body goes into overdrive, far above the normal rate back in the States, to compensate for everything; the new bacteria in the food and the unusual levels of pollution, dodging traffic and dealing with the stress of almost always having to think about what you're saying before you say it. By the time you return to the States, these stressors have almost become the baseline. The corresponding "crash" that comes with going back to a familiar setting, speaking your native tongue, and living in a completely sanitized Western world can almost be painful. Everything slows down exponentially. After returning, you forget all the bad things, and only remember the exciting, pulse-pouding, adrenaline-pumping parts of being overseas, and start plotting crazy schemes about how to get back overseas. Wilfred Thesiger, one of the last great British explorers, had an interesting view of this dilemma in his classic 'Arabian Sands.' As he attempts to cross the Wahiba Sands, one of the most unforgiving parts of the entire world, his group begins to run out of water. Camels soon begin to drop dead, and they can only travel for a few hours each night. As he lay on the scorching sand underneath the broiling Arabian sun, nearly delirious and on the verge of death, all he can think about is how, if he was in London, he would be going mad trying to get to Arabia. He's on the verge of death, and he STILL knows that he would rather travel through Wahiba than be stuck back in the 'civilized' world. That, to me, sounds like a pretty powerful addiction. In my opinion, it is this physical reaction to coming back to America that creates a lot of 'reverse culture shock,' and it's never fun. Consequently, while I can't wait to see Lindy and Carly and everyone else back home, I can already feel the tension building, deep down inside, like a smoker who knows he's going to have to quit soon. Hopefully, going cold turkey (to keep up the metaphor) will cure me of this for a while, that and maybe re-reading some of these blog posts where I irrationally vent my frustration at some part of overseas life.
Lunch in Mughsail... the suq in Mutrah... surviving Nizwa... the hours spent in shops in the Old City... Stephanie's conversation with the cab driver in Doha... sitting on the roof of the Sana'a Nights hotel watching the twinkling of lights shining from the colored glass windows of all the old homes... salta, chipati, biryani, shark, and all the other food I've eaten... the memories keep coming. Time plays funny tricks over here, it seems more fluid, less definite. It feels like the two programs have blended into one another, I can't tell where Muscat stops anymore, and Sana'a begins. There are times here in Sana'a when I catch myself thinking that Sana'a is just another side trip from Muscat, and that I'll be heading back to Zainab's house soon. I swear I've known the people from both these trips my entire life, since we've spent so much time together; traveling in crowded buses, studying, eating, suffering through threats and challenges together. We've spent innumerable hours telling all our life stories, and when we've run out, re-telling the old ones and laughing in all the same places. Seven months... it's hard to imagine all the things you can do in seven simple months.