It was an epic journey. I felt like a migratory bird on a long-desired route toward home and couldn’t wait to introduce the girls to Kodiak.
Junia, our tireless driver, was from the inner-city. She stepped on the harbor dock, looked around at our town and had a strange sense of moving back in time. Liana did a quick skip-step beside her and saluted my brothers as they ran up for hugs or criticized the excess of mud on the car, depending on their ages.
We grandly rode through downtown, me pointing out the important landmarks like McDonalds and Mack’s and the two girls nodding their (pretend?) interest.
After a quick look at Mill Bay Beach we were home to the miracle of hot showers and food that wasn’t carbohydrates and sleeping on sheets.
It was bliss.
Unfortunately, as the days went by I realized that seeing home through the eyes of a tourist wasn’t as natural a development as I imagined. The girls didn’t appreciate the woods and walks I wanted to show them, or if they did, didn’t exclaim over them as much as I deemed appropriate. Junia felt dirty in places that weren’t covered in the comfort of city cement.
Liana began a relationship of wary avoidance with my little brothers, pushing Junia towards them whenever they wanted to play.
I was confused about my place at home, uncertain and scared about my post-college future, so I didn’t ease into the tour guide role with grace or aplomb.
In short, the visit was quite different from the scenes I had happily imagined in the backseat of the Subaru as we cruised through Canada. My friends were seeing my home town on their terms, not mine, and it wasn’t always a comfortable experience.
Flash forward two years. I sit in my front room in Ahuachapán, El Salvador, my feet on the cement floor as I write. I have lived here almost a year and a half, and Junia has come down from grad school for her first visit. She made it through customs to find me standing and jumping with a home-made welcome sign before we found the right bus to take us to my far-off town.
My small city is full of trash, smoke-spitting vehicles and street dogs, so she takes to it right away.
Her presence frees my public persona: dancing and singing on the sidewalks is possible when there’s someone walking by your side.
I am putting off work and going to do touristy things I’ve never done. I’m seeing my home in a new way and it’s wonderful.
My relationship with El Salvador is not as deeply rooted as my connection to Kodiak and home. Maybe that’s why it’s easier to welcome visitors here; their opinions don’t matter as much. I guarded memories of Kodiak so closely to my heart in college that it became too precious and vulnerable. Even a neutral nod from my visiting friends as they saw a favorite beach or my high school track felt like a slight.
It’s in El Salvador that I’m learning to be more generous with things I clutch close. Life here is precarious, and most people have little to give to a visitor.
Still, they ply Junia and me with food as we enter their mud houses, treat us like queens, open their lives to our foreign eyes and judgments without hesitation.
They are teaching me to be brave in my welcomes, to hold what feels precious in my world more loosely and with more humor.
On the bus yesterday I asked Junia what kind of animal she would be if she could choose.
“An ant,” she replied immediately. “They live in community, they go to far-off places but never alone, and they look weak but you can’t exterminate them all.”
I teased her for choosing such an ugly, mechanistic creature, but her reasons made sense: The city and its community fascinate her. She took a sip out of her water bottle and asked me the same question, “Well, if you’re going to hate on ants so much, what would you be?”
I thought for a second about our adventures together in the states and abroad and smiled. “A migratory bird,” I said, “because they always find the way home.”