Culture Shock, Or Rather, Hemisphere Shock

Heather Markel, Writer, Speaker, Photographer, Traveler, Business Strategist

So much I didn’t know about the world.

After 10 months in South America and Africa, I’ve just returned to the Northern Hemisphere. It’s the place I’ve spent most of my life, and yet, it feels completely foreign. I find myself in Lisbon, rushing to be home by dark, and then realizing I no longer have to watch my back, and yet, bizarrely, I miss doing so. I doubt my own safety for some time, despite knowing it’s no longer necessary, and realize I’ve taken this part of life for granted for almost a year.

A street in Lisbon.

Photograph by Heather Markel, Copyright 2019

My ride to the north from Johannesburg is turbulent. Less because of the air and more because I wasn’t ready to leave. Air France has changed its seat layout since last time I flew with them and even though I’m short, the leg space is unbearable especially for a 12 hour flight. When the person in front of me lowers their seat they end up in my lap like in a bus which makes me miss all my bus rides around South America. All the way from Africa I am sad to be leaving this continent and the southern hemisphere, with which I have viscerally connected.

Even more, I miss the clicking of the Xhosa language and the pleasantness of people I met from Zimbabwe and Malawi, Zanzibar and the Cape. I realize that having to be alert all the time made me be even more in tune with my intuition. Walking around Lisbon it feels so safe that I don’t trust the safety. My intuition feels unnecessary, and it feels like a loss.

“Culture shock is part of the journey.”

After adjusting to the color of my skin making me stick out like a sore thumb, I miss that, too. I keep hoping to meet Africans everywhere I go so I can maybe speak some Xhosa or Shona and rejoice in the connection. On my flight from Paris to Lisbon I meet a lovely man from Angola traveling with his adorable children. They, too, have made a long flight from Africa to come to Europe.

One of my favorite memories – a visit to the Himba tribe in Africa.

Photograph by Heather Markel, Copyright 2019

I’ve seen the power of the universe showing up so many times during my journey that I shouldn’t be surprised anymore. Perhaps my surprise is becoming gratitude, which I realize on my train ride from Lisbon to Faro. I bought an assigned seat, and the universe gifted me a neighbor who is Portuguese but lived in South Africa for 30 years! We speak at length about life there and I feel like I’ve received a gift, someone that understands how I feel broken-hearted to be gone from Africa.

Walking around small towns and a deserted island in the Algarve I realize this is the first time in months I can end up all alone in the middle of nowhere and not have to worry about it. In so many places in South America and Africa, it seemed a bad idea to venture alone into the wilderness. Here, once again, it’s perfectly safe.

I come to realize how much easier it is to feel lonely in the Northern Hemisphere. In South America and Africa, though many of the people that approached me were vendors, they wanted to talk to me, to know my name, and where I’m from, and speak about life. It was sometimes impossible to be alone. Up North, people are so involved in their phones or their own thoughts, that I can walk along public streets and wonder if I might be invisible. I don’t miss this about where I come from.

Near Cusco, a reminder of stolen wealth. There used to be a golden snake that decorated this rock.

Photograph by Heather Markel. Copyright 2020

Another question that plagued me during my travels is why the Northern Hemisphere, in particular North America and Europe, have so much more wealth than the Southern Hemisphere. As I ventured from country to country and from one continent to another, I learn the thing all these countries have in common is having their wealth stolen by people from the north. A Moai statue taken from Easter Island, gold taken from Peru, people from Africa….I wonder if the world would be different and the distribution of wealth different, had these thefts not occured.
And yet, despite the evident different distribution of wealth in the South, seen in materials for housing, less expensive clothing and lack of ostentatious jewelry, I am overjoyed at how much happiness exists. Family connection and friends are valued much more, something some of us have perhaps lost with our focus on material things and work.
I think the most shocking, for me, is that though I realize I’ve taken many things about “home” for granted, there is perhaps more that I haven’t fully lived or experienced because of the wealth-focused life I left behind. Our life in the North may be more materially wealthy, but the South has, for me, felt more wealthy in connection, intuition and beauty. I look forward to my return there.

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