Thursday, December 15, 2011

Reverse culture shock

I underdressed, again. Say what you will about the lack of winter in coastal California, but when the air temperature is 41 degrees and a brisk 15 mph wind is whipping along a bald ridge, it's cold. But of course the California sun has lulled me into a sense of complacency, so here I am, up on Black Mountain with the Fatback, trying to slap some life back into my rigid fingers, again. If Fatty Fatback had a personality he'd probably be silently laughing at the poetic justice of my discomfort, trapped as he is in a land without snow.

I steamrolled over some rocks and launched down the fall-line, mowing over clumps of grass on a faint deer trail. The cold wind tore through my meager layers and chilled the beads of sweat on my skin. I mashed the pedals as the contour turned upward, and topped out with an even better view of sunset. Wispy clouds, golden haze, and the distant mirror of the Pacific Ocean reflecting fire from the sun. Squinting into the sunlight, I failed to see a herd of grazing deer until they erupted from the grass mere meters away, then raced down the ridge. I scanned the sloping meadow for a good place to drop toward Indian Creek but thought better of it, because it is illegal to be in this park after dark, and this is still highly-regulated coastal California. No more off-roading today; the sunset view would have to do. I touched my frozen feet to the ground and smiled, because it was worth it.

The reverse culture shock I'd been experiencing since I returned from Nepal was finally starting to fade. I think most people who travel through a developing nation experience this to some extent. At first there is relief ("Wow, look how smooth these roads are. So strange not to have motorcycles buzzing around on all sides as diesel trucks bear down on you.") Then there is the sense of novelty. ("Wow, there's so much fresh produce in this one store, and I don't need to haggle with a guy pushing a cart full of tangerines.") Then comes guilt. ("Why do I have so many bicycles? I met a young man in Nepal who walked three hours to work because he couldn't afford any other form of transportation. I should start a charity that raises funds to give sturdy work bicycles to families in Nepal.") Then comes a kind of cultural despair, which can happen when you return from a place where people do so much with so little, to a place where you can't go to Target for cat litter without finding yourself fully submerged in a mad holiday frenzy. ("I watched men building a stone levee with their hands, hoisting huge boulders and hammering them into place, in an effort to divert monsoonal flooding that had killed several people in their village. That was the human spirit. This is insanity.") Then, finally, acceptance. ("I have so many opportunities. I'm free to ride my fat bike any time I want. I really am lucky to live here.")

So I returned to my routine, still grateful for my opportunities back home, still enthralled with the landscape and people of Nepal, still disturbed by holiday excess. Normal life returned to me quickly, but I did spend more time thinking how I could better strike a balance in my own world, and how I could find a way to add a few of my own stones to that life-saving levee. Not because I believe Nepalis — or frenzied holiday shoppers — need saving. People can do a lot with a little if they have to. And people with a lot can do a little if they want to. I can do a little. I can contribute where I can, and on the homefront, I can focus my energy toward the world I want to live in. Be the change I want to see, so to speak.

Bicycling is always a great place to start.


  1. Jill - this is a truly poetic post. Wonderful writing and agreed, the mad panick in the big stores at Christmas is insane.

  2. People can do a lot. But sharing our wealth can still be helpful.

    I just started helping Nyaya Health (Health care in rural Nepal), which I picked from

  3. I experienced this last year after spending the summer in Costa Rica, and I suspect it's almost potent when it's your first trip somewhere so alien - it was certainly a shock for me. Of course, you word it better than me!

    When I got back, all I could think about was how grateful I should be for everything I had, especially the opporitunities that were readily available to me. You're absolutely right - it's eye-opening to see how happy people can be when they have very little compared to what we're used to, and it made it me wonder if I would be happier without all the choices that are open to me - well, maybe in some ways anyway! A year on I still reflect on what I learned from the people of Costa Rica on appreciating what I have. Since getting back, I found the courage to turn my whole life on it's head and make some changes that had been a long time coming - I can only say good things about my time spent away, and can't wait for the next adventure - I fancy Nepal, and after reading your adventures there I'm even more convinced of that!

  4. I wish everyone had the chance to travel the world -- I think our country would be a lot different. Sadly, it's mostly just us privileged kids, who are already also privileged with lots of education anyhow, who get to experience these eye-opening things. (Said like a true privileged liberal :p)

  5. Beautifully written

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  7. Wonderful thoughts. I traveled through much of that part of Nepal in 1996 and experienced a lot of the same feelings - and also some of the same stomach issues in Pokhara!

    However, I also wanted to say how much I love the photo of the deer. Beautifully captured.


  8. Glad you made it back only the worse for wear.
    You've grown in this experience traveling overseas. It's hard not to get sick in those countries-they're filthy and the people are filthy. That's not to say they aren't wonderful people-they are. But it's still a horribly dirty place.
    The guilt thing is a tough one to discuss. Maybe you truly have something to feel guilty about, maybek" not. Keep this in mind though. There is a simple way to NOT feel guilty. If, everything you have, you purchased with money that you earned in return for a service, etc., and in the process you didn't screw or cheat anybody to get it, then purge your mind of guilt (THAT guilt anyway). I've been pretty fortunate in life, but I cringe when I hear it said that, "you need to give back". That assumes that I took something in the first place rather than earning it. By earning it, I'm even-steven at the end of every day. Just food for thought.
    I'm glad you've made it back safe (and main-man too of course). Still awaiting your bicycling-across-Europe-enjoying-food-and-sun series!!


  9. There is a good chance you will be biking in snow up on Skyline this Winter. We usually get at least one snowfall and sometimes 5-6 with up to a foot in accumilation.

  10. Thanks, all. Z-man, I agree with you. If people are not doing harm, in the general sense of harm, I believe strongly that everyone should be free to live their own lives. That's why I try to refrain from passing judgement on people dragging two carts full of stuff at Target during the holidays. Maybe this is something that truly brings them joy. I have my own values and believe others are entitled to theirs.

    But, with humanity as whole, it is hard for me to reconcile individual freedoms with community and environmental responsibility. It's something I wrestle with every day in my own life; I don't even pretend to have answers on how to balance these often competing dynamics on the whole. But that inner dialogue is what I was writing about in this post. Yes, it effectively boils down to "I've been pretty fortunate in my life. How can I give back?" But there's also, "I love to ride my bike. It really doesn't do anything for anyone but me, but why shouldn't I do exactly that?"

    Then there's the Target shopper. She earned her money. She wants her family to have a great Christmas, and they probably will. I don't hold consumerism as a personal value, but I am a consumer, so I try not to judge. And yet I do feel sadness for all the stuff that will end up in a landfill or as microscopic pieces of plastic floating in the ocean. So I automatically think about ways I can counteract this image in my mind with my own actions. I personally opted out of gift giving and receiving with my closest friends and family, in hopes of at least partly reducing the distribution of things people don't need or even want. This (admittedly very small) gesture aligns with my individual values, and helps me feel a greater sense of balance. And so on. Ultimately these decisions are entirely up to individuals, as they should be.

  11. I have a huge problem just watching the frenzy of xmas shoppers. Really big.
    That said, you should give a lil something to friends and family, just as a different way of letting them know.... For example, there's this Ferrari I've had my eye on. But the way to avoid giving something unwanted/unneeded is to simply ask. Generally you will know these people well enough.
    We've discussed the environmental thing before-the jet fuel usage etc. You make up your own mind on that one.
    I am stymied, still, to get the consumerism thing. I'm a consumer and you certainly are gf. I once wrote a personal paper called the "Hawaii Manifesto" which I could not locate with a gun to my head but remember enough of to discuss. If you'd like we can, if not, I'm not offended. But it was a cool way of minimal living but living a rich life at the same time.
    If we don't speak, you love-birds have a Merry X-mas, and no training on Xmas! That's as bad as going to the office. I, for one, am off to sunnier climes to get ready for and do a 120K Brevet.

    take care!


  12. Z-man, again I agree with you. I live an incredibly rich life from a historical and environmental perspective. This is the fundamental problem that I often bring up in environmental discussions I sometimes have with peers. We can live our lives as "responsibly" as we want, but amid the infrastructure of our modern world, it's all but impossible not to leave what would historically be an extremely large footprint. We're changing the world faster than we can understand. And there are 7 billion of us. What does this mean for our future? I don't know, but I'm personally not optimistic that humanity will be able to maintain this short-term status quo indefinitely, even if *everyone* started riding bikes to work and *everyone* stopped using plastic grocery bags. These efforts are still just throwing straw in front of a runaway train. This view is, unsurprisingly, not popular among my peers. If these discussions get more heated they usually involve somebody (not me) musing, "why don't you just kill yourself?" (as the only way to stop my own footprint from growing.)

    I don't think I should kill myself and I don't think anyone else should either. But I also believe drastic actions are what it will take to stop this train. Likely it involves the generation and distribution of energy, and likely we haven't even thought of let alone invented it yet. Meanwhile, we are all the ones who are alive, and we should live our lives. That essentially sums up my beliefs, which I can of course debate for hours in my own head. But as I've said, I value natural environments immensely, so I try to take as much personal responsibility as I can to preserve these places for the foreseeable future. But I do continue to seek out outdoor spaces and enjoy them in the ways that mean the most to me, that for many purposes are my life.

    I'd love to hear more about your Hawaii Manifesto. You can e-mail me at Have fun at the Brevet. I've been wanting to get into those for a while now, ever since I rode a dirt 200K in Alaska. So much to do with my short, small life. :)

  13. Jill - your nice post took me back to 2008 when I experienced the exact same feelings coming back home (Los Altos) from MTB Himachal. Including the sickness, but I was lucky to get sick after the race and lot less seriously than you. One thing I realized for sure: people living in the foothills of the Himalayas are happy. They don't need charity. They need clean water. last thing in the world they need is cola in plastic bottles and potato chips in mylar bags. And they need bicycles, of course.


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