New York, United States
“Home is where the heart is,” reads the flat stepping stone that my sister painted in fifth grade. It sits to the left of our front door. Its once bright pinks, greens, and yellows are now faded to pastel tints that barely stand out against the dirty white background. “Home is where the heart is.”
What does that mean? What is home?
The questions sit in the back of my mind, just waiting to be answered. Sometimes I have my answer; home is my family house with my pets, my belongings, and my family history. Home is where I grew up and where my heart fills both with joy and anxiety when I walk through the threshold of my blue front door.
Other times the questions haunt me. I don’t have an answer, I don’t know where my home is, nor do I know what it means to “be home.” When I travel my thoughts race to the idea; my mind thinks and thinks and thinks. It circles around the seemingly simple four-letter word.
Seven of us tucked ourselves and our camping gear into “M&M” our trusty, rusty old Mitsubishi Montero, our sidekick. My sister and I sat in the jumper seats in the back, ducking every time we hit a bump to avoid unnecessary bruising to the tops of our heads. The camping gear bounced around the back of the car and on the roof rack as we turned curve after curve. As we headed higher into the Andes, I thought to myself the profound thoughts of a third grader. This is crazy, why are we driving up with twenty other cars with people we barely know to the middle of nowhere?
“Whoa, what’s that?” my sister, Skye, yelled. My dad poked his head out the window and looked up while simultaneously trying to keep “M&M” on the unmarked dirt road.
“Oh, wow! Good eye! I think that’s an Andean Condor!” High above us, a brown-winged bird flew, dipping down every once in a while for some apparent reason. Its nine-foot wingspan cast a giant shadow on the dusty ground. My eyes followed its trajectory as best they could from the squashed confines of the backseat. I wanted to see it, but more than that I wanted to watch it flow through the air with the cold wind beneath its wings, carrying it through the sky.
“No way! Wait there’s another one!” someone yelled.
“Where? I want to see it. I can’t see it!” my brother exclaimed.
“Up there, look! Now there are three! Wow!” my mom said. We followed the majestic condors, soaring high above us, circling in the air. We had never seen a condor before, and now we had just seen three. The caravan of cars continued ahead, but we veered off track, went rogue to find the source of the three condors. They must have been eating something. A horse--a dead horse--a dead horse and her dead baby; she and her foal both died during childbirth. We found the source, the reason why we had just seen three beautiful birds soaring through the cloudless sky. This is so cool, we’re in the Andes chasing condors and finding dead horses! A smile spread across my face. I knew this moment would last forever, it became one of my favorite memories of living in Chile. I was on an adventure. I was living. For years to come, I knew I would return to these familiar places and feel a sense of belonging without searching. I knew these towering mountains, endless expanses of blue sky, crisp spring breezes, and sulfur-scented air belonged to me, they were my home.
The heat rushed into the plane as the backdoors opened. I stepped out into the stiff African air, rusty-colored dust covered the tarmac. I immediately regretted wearing jeans, even though they kept me warm during the flight. Bloom (my professor), my classmates, and I climbed onto the trotro (bus) and watched the Ghanaian bus driver throw our suitcases over head and precariously stack them on the roof. During our drive we listened intently to all the cultural details flying at us:
“The currency here is Ghanaian Cedis.”
“Oh, you have to tear off the corner of the bag and then suck in the water, like if you were drinking from a straw. Like this.” Anne Louise gave a quick demonstration and then passed us each our own water sachet. I struggled to tear off the corner and water spilled water all over my lap.
“Let’s stop for some coconuts!” She suggested and the driver pulled over up ahead to where a thirteen-year-old boy held a machete. In front of us, he picked up green coconuts the size of volleyballs and systematically chopped off the tops of each, offering us fresh coconut water. After a three hour drive, we finally pulled into the driveway of Elvis’ house, this would be home for the next month.
An island sat in the distance, covered in palm trees and rampant bushes grew everywhere. Nature took over the island. It called to me and I walked toward it; something about the island intrigued me. A little Ghanaian girl approached me as I started walking through the low tide toward the island. She took my hand. The warmth of her eyes and smile comforted me. With her I was safe. She led me across the tide to a hidden path that only a local could find. I followed as she tugged my arm, encouraging me to keep up. Back and forth we weaved through the dense greenery. In the few clearings, I caught brief glimpses of the Atlantic Ocean. I was in Ghana, walking through the wooded island to a small abandoned colonial settlement. Rusty cannons laid on the ground, suffocated by the trees and overgrown bushes. I was on an island off the coast of Ghana.
The drone of vuvuzelas echoed in the background as I tried to block out the noise of the soccer game. Ghana was playing another African team for a 2014 FIFA World Cup berth. Words on my computer screen appeared as my fingers glided across the keyboard; my latest journal entry almost complete. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a tall, blonde figure approach me; it was my friend, Lenz. He sat down beside me and handed me a juicy mango. I gladly ate it, letting the excess juice drip down my face and off my chin. Bloom walked by, she gave me a smug look, winked, and walked away. Lenz smiled at me. We clasped our sticky hands together and shared a quiet moment as we both looked over the wall. The sun was setting, sending fiery oranges, reds, and yellows into the sky. I cherished the feeling, the feeling that I could live here. The feeling that I could one day make Asebu my home.
El Camino de Santiago de Compostela, Spain
The two-hour bus ride up a twisty, single-lane road finally ended. When the bus luggage compartments opened, it was like the gun went off at the start of a road race; everybody grabbed their bag and immediately made their way to the pilgrim’s office to pick up their “credentials.” It was so easy to get sucked into the rush of fellow peregrinos, but I stopped for a moment to admire Saint Jean Pied de Port, a small quaint French village tucked in the Pyrenees Mountains.
My walk continued weaving in and out of vineyards on clay-red dirt roads. I walked at a quick pace, my body feeling at its best since beginning my journey. Days of walking forward through crowded city streets, through abandoned villages, up sharp, steep mountains, down knee-injuring declines, and across and underneath bridges, came to a close. For a month, I walked to find answers to my senior thesis research question, to find answers to my personal questions, and to discover questions I didn’t know I would ever ask myself.
On day thirty-two I stood at the edge of the earth, Finisterre, staring into the deep blues of the ocean below. The ocean made little noise, no waves crashed against the rocks. Late night seagulls chirped and the wind whistled quietly in the dark. Fog set in to the left, hiding the remaining colors of the sunset. To my right clouds pulled apart like theatre curtains, an orangey-yellow sliver peeked over the eastern hilltops. Even in my slightly inebriated state, I knew what I was seeing, the moon--the supermoon rising.
The moment of closure waved in front of me like the white and black checkered flag waves during races, signaling the final lap. It was over; my journey was over. I realized how much I had learned and felt in just a month. I lived with two outfits, the company of fellow peregrinos and my backpack. I learned that possessing few belongings made me richer in my perspectives, my outlook, and my attitude. I learned that home was where my body walked, slept, cried, sang, ran, breathed, and lived. Home was me, it was the feeling I carried along with me everywhere I went and would go. The whole way I was home.
It never hit me, that moment when one finally realizes that they are in a different country. I knew I was abroad, in Europe, in a different country. I was in a beautiful place driving through the gray-brown forests of winter, on “no name” (according to the GPS) country back roads driving through small, clay-roofed buildings in dirt-road villages. My classmates and I sang George Ezra’s Budapest in the van, drank awful tasting Palinka, forced ourselves to eat eleven kilos of meat (just to say that we did it), and learned about Hungarian geology and art. The experience etched lasting memories in my mind. I waited an entire month for that specific moment of realization where I would register the magnitude of my travels and the feeling of being abroad. It never came.
My Hungarian professor answered me more tersely than I expected. “Kalindi, of everyone here, you absolutely cannot walk the streets by yourself, day or night. No questions asked.”
I stared at her in disbelief. Anger raged through me as I fought back the tears and the hate I had for white people in that moment. Who knows if she ever realized how much I detested her right then. Of everyone in the group, I had the most travel experience; I had lived abroad in Chile, jungle trekked in India, taught in Ghana, backpacked alone across Europe, and of all people, I couldn’t walk the city by myself? Confusion and fury coursed through my veins and my body temperature rose in seconds. My body started to sweat; I only wanted to run away and hide. Never in my life had I felt so alone, so vulnerable, or like such an outcast. And worst of all, by my professor, by someone I admired and respected.
In Hungary, dark-skinned people are often mistaken for gypsies, or Roma. And I as an Indian in a gypsy-ridden country, I needed to be careful. I knew about Roma in Hungary; I understood they were criticized and ostracized. However, until that evening I didn’t truly understand how they felt. I knew my professor was trying to protect me, but the way she singled me out made me cringe, made me hate the country, my skin color, and the privilege so many white people don’t even know they possess.
The rest of the students already returned the United States; I still had a few days left to roam the streets of Buda and Pest. By myself, I wandered to the Jewish quarter, drew sketches of the plazas outside from the inside of warm cafés, drank hot chocolate, and read a satirical book about Hungarian culture. I called my family and friends to recount my month-long experiences, I wrote postcards, and kept a meticulously detailed journal. My experience forever recorded and the feelings forever seared on my heart. Something didn’t feel right. Hungary’s beauty, strength, and mystery awed me, but I did not yearn to revisit its hilltops and cityscapes that way I longed to return to other places. Hungary never provided me with a sense of belonging and never made me feel like I was home.
San Jose, Costa Rica
I only heard the hum of the engines. My surroundings vanished, and in that moment only I existed staring out a window, imagining the summer ahead of me. We began our descent ten minutes earlier. The clouds now floated above us, and I saw the city lights speckle below in the breaks of the clouds. Outside a black curtain smothered the city, only quick flashes of lightning illuminated the night sky, revealing the harsh, jagged contours of San Jose. I realized these hills would be my home for the next three months.
Water rushed down the side of a cliff and I watched in awe from the raft ten feet away. I could feel the mist spray my hair and face. A pair of toucans flew above me, little black and yellow specks standing out against the blue sky. I watched the others paddle for a minute while I took it all in. I’m in Costa Rica, I’m getting paid to raft down a river and marvel at the country’s wildlife. Is this real?
“Fooooorrwaaaarrrd!!” Walter yelled. The loud command from our river guide halted my thoughts, and I returned to real life, only briefly. Three big strokes and we made it through the rapid, water pummeling toward us and straight into our eyes. I could be a river guide and lead tourists down the rivers. I could live here. My mind raced with endless possibilities of forging a plan to make Costa Rica my permanent home.
After a few short weeks, I came to love the beauty of the jagged hills of “Chepe” (San Jose). And in a few more short weeks, my legs loathed the hills and the challenge of running up and down them each day. Far off in the distance, a cloud nestled itself in between two hill communities. My tongue and stomach protested the ubiquitous rice and beans. The rain soaked my tan skin and blurred my vision. Car alarms and obnoxious, unnecessary honks deafened my ears. Stale bread, mixed with the putrid smell of animal poop, filled my nose. These senses became familiar, and after traveling around Costa Rica, coming back to “Chepe” and to these senses felt like coming home. I was home.
Every time I experience the world, something changes within my mind, body, or soul. I am currently living here in Costa Rica, experiencing another spectacular country, learning about tico people and soaking up the culture. Right now Costa Rica is my home, and although it is not “home” in the sense many of us think, it is still my home.
With time and travel, I have come to realize that New York is my tangible home. It is where I return after weeks or months of traveling. It is where my friends and family envelop me with love when I walk through the threshold of my blue front door. It is my physical home. But time and travel also revealed to me that my home is intangible. It is a feeling. It is where my body exists. Home is the way my mind and body experience the world and feel comfortable and uncomfortable at the same time. Home is the ability to find comfort in what I have, my belongings, and my body. Home is when the comfort of being alone while traveling in foreign places brings you peace and solace, when solitude is enough.
It guess it is true, “home is where the heart is.” Home is me, and wherever I am, I will be home.
Photos by author.
Kalindi Naslund is a multi-local Spanish teacher, traveler, home chef, reader, and freelance writer. She currently lives in Catalonia, Spain where she teaches students English and takes Catalan classes. While she’s not busy in the classroom teaching or learning, she explores the Catalonian region, makes frequent visits to Barcelona, and travels around Europe.