• In partnership with John Reamer and Associates •
These days, I spend a lot of time trying to remember where to put my toilet paper.
Since I got back to the States a week ago, I’ve found myself lingering in a lot of bathrooms, awkwardly holding that little used swath and trying to figure out why the trash can is so far away.
When I realize, anew, that I’m back in the ol’ U.S. of A. and I can indeed flush the stuff, my new reaction is less relieved than it is confused — mystified by the fact that the toilets can actually handle it here. I’ve stared into a lot of toilets, unconvinced it will all make its way down.
Perhaps this is the biggest analogy of it all: life in the States, down to the way we dispose of our excrement, is different. Almost every moment back is a reminder of that.
Here in the U.S., many of us accept things like running water, hot showers, climate control, comfy mattresses, non-cement floors, cockroach-free houses, washers and dryers and yes, flushable toilets, as basics we are due.
Those comforts are a big part of why I still long for the U.S. when I’m abroad. I still crave those things. I still expect those things. I spent 32 years of my life relying on those things.
It’s why up until a couple weeks ago, it was my plan to be writing, right now, a column on my appreciation, my harbored longing, for my home country.
But on this jaunt back to the States, something changed.
I’ve felt less able to blindly enjoy those privileges in the same way I used to and instead find myself probing the reasons we have them — and so many don’t.
Maybe I changed earlier, and I’m only now realizing it.
In any case, the last eight days have been a deep dive back into Americana culture, with mixed feelings.
In Cincinnati, where I landed after spending the last few months in Honduras (Belize, Guatemala and Mexico were before that, if you’re new to my journey), I made a beeline for all the foods I miss, particularly good Asian cuisines, which you can’t often find south of the border. I indulged in craft beers and cocktails after months of drinking mostly lagers and rum. I took in a performing arts festival, marveling at its boundary-pushing risks and celebration of diversity.
A friend in Guatemala commented on Instagram how clean and in order everything looked, and I had to agree — there were no piles of trash along the roads, no open sewers pouring into the river, no empty juice cartons adorning the flower bushes. Cincinnati, like many places in the U.S., was simply a beautiful American city.
I acted as such.
I paraded across town in a skirt, unconcerned about the risk my bare skin presented, soaking up the fresh, mild air. I walked with my computer bag and camera in tow, AirBuds in my ears, hyper aware of how many “signs of wealth” I was flashing, but realizing that many others I passed were flashing them too.
Even so, it was uncomfortable. In my other life, in Central America, I would never do these things.
In Lexington, Kentucky, I sipped bourbon at distilleries amidst pristine pastures marked by freshly painted fences and sprawling ranch homes. I watched horse races and ate hot dogs, and saw our own Tiger Woods, from big-screen TVs at the track, complete his remarkable comeback at the Masters. Literally no one around me was toting a machine gun. We were all so safe — to do as we chose, to drink as much as we wanted, to wear what struck us.
My whole life, I’ve thought of all of this as normal. Months ago, I realized, poignantly, that it is not — and I embraced the U.S. for it. These days, different emotions have overwhelmed that sense of relief. Among them: Guilt. Regret. Undeservingness.
I guess I’ve always known the statistics, or some semblance of them. More than 780 million people worldwide live without access to safe water. As of 2015, 1.3 billion were living without electricity. Those are some of the biggies of course — gaping statistics we all have a little bit of a hard time visualizing.
But living in developing countries has revealed to me the steady procession of other hardships: dwindling jobs, political persecution, extreme pollution, potholes at every turn, services that don’t function, the presence of armed guards in every park, outside every restaurant, as the gate to every bank.
I recalled, as my friend and I road-tripped to Pittsburgh the cars of Honduras — many of which have to be hot-wired to start, many of which would be condemned from U.S. roads — and the tumultuous state of the streets and highways. I remembered the normalized reaction to a massive accident that occurred in Tegucigalpa while I was there after the breaks of a truck finally failed on a hill, causing it to plow through dozens of cars.
But on the route to Pittsburgh, the nearly seamless highways were marked with homesteads rather than shanty towns, with dozens of golden arches and with streams and valleys, that regardless of their remoteness, looked perfectly cared for from the heated passenger’s seat of my friend’s SUV.
On my first night back in the States, I talked with people about the weather, about frat names, about beer. Someone I ran into didn’t know where Honduras was on the map. Another US native believed Wisconsin and Colorado were near the East Coast.
It was a reintroduction to polite small talk and alcohol-fueled musings; a change from the intense dialogues I found myself wrapped up in throughout Central American countries.
Conversations, there, I found, go deep quickly. The deficiencies in normal life are impossible to ignore, even over a beer. The urgency for change, for renewal, for hope, reverberates in the streets, the bars, in people’s homes.
A necessary guilt comes along with that understanding, because it’s not a coincidence; the power that the U.S. enjoys today — the very convenience of our flushable toilets — was largely built through asserting its influence in counties that now have very little.
Because of that, one might argue that we should be more sensitive than most to the plights of our neighbors.
But it hasn’t worked that way. Instead, our debates remain mostly centralized. Many of us know less about our own country than much of the outside world does. And despite that the U.S. has active military bases in some 80 countries around the world (the country with the next-greatest sprawl is Russia with bases in 9 countries), we often seem less concerned with what goes on outside our borders than citizens elsewhere, too.
Perhaps from the comfort of our own homes, it’s too hard to imagine the way the rest of the world lives, and too inconvenient to get worked up. Perhaps subconsciously, we’re worried about what investing in some balance of power would mean for us. We’ve come to believe this way of life somehow defines us; says something about who we are and what we’re owed. We really don’t want to think about toting our toilet paper to the curb. And we can’t imagine how life would be if our U.S. influence flopped, if we were the ones fighting ceilings based on our political parties and walking past armed guards to get some lunch.
For now, we don’t have to. Our cities are clean. Our roads are paved. Our toilets flush all; we never have to reckon with our own shit.
As I spend this summer traveling through the U.S., I’ll still indulge in these luxuries of the U.S. I’ll appreciate them.
But I hope I’ll retain this recognition of the other function they serve: to placate us; to distract us from the pull of responsibility. I hope every time I step into a hot shower, I sleep on a pillow-top mattress, I toss my toilet paper right into the bowl, I hope I still feel that slight cringe, too. Because now I better understand how we’re so lucky, and what it means.
I hope, for that reason, it will never feel normal again.