Expat No Longer

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Up to this point, my traveller’s life has involved ping-ponging across the Atlantic ‒ except for a few southerly dips to places like New Zealand and Bora Bora. But last week I added a third continent to my travels: South America. Brazil, to be exact.

I’d picked the rainforest mainly to check a bucket list box about seeing flocks of parrots fly in the wild. You don’t see these birds on Exmoor in England, or in the snow drifts of Wisconsin. But as I lived this long-awaited ‘parrot moment’, I found the most moving experience wasn’t the parrots at all. It was finding myself deep inside two million square miles of ancient forest.

I never got too excited about North American history. So much had been written over in order to fit what the early European settlers needed this continent to be; a blank slate. European history wasn’t my ‘thing’ either. I got an F grade in ‘O’ Level history. (Keep that to yourselves. My mother doesn’t know yet.) However, the older I get the more I appreciate ancient castles and abbeys, Roman ruins and Iron Age settlements; an attempt to understand one’s place in the world before leaving it, perhaps? That said, a few thousand years was the extent of my limited historical understanding.

That all changed in a split second in the Amazon rainforest.

I was on a small skiff, deep into a narrow tributary of the Rio Negro. Night was falling fast. The captain cut the engine. I sat, surrounded by the hums, cracks, buzzes, howls, screeches of the jungle. I became primordial, part of millions of years of history, evolution happening right in front of my face. Trees adapting to life in sunken status ‒ full of secret compounds and potions. Caiman staring from the waters, straight out of Jurassic Park. Tapirs – the likes of which I’d only pictured posed next to wax figures of early Man in museums – picking their way through the trees. As I stared in awed silence, I became a million-year-old tree frog, a pink-nosed Boto, a squirrel monkey, a seed pod so advanced it put NASA to shame. I mingled with the stars, the night so dark I reached up and pulled a planet into my lap. I asked it questions about its origins as it sparkled and nodded to its forest acquaintances. Or maybe I was just suffering the effects of the anti-malaria pills, known to give one strange dreams. No matter. The impact of that experience will rewrite my own history.

At the risk of sounding clichéd, I’m now hyperaware of how small I am, how much I don’t know, how an indigenous child understands more about life than I ever will, how pathetic the current US political situation is ‒ well, maybe I was already aware of that last one, but you get the idea.

Most importantly, I finally understand the line from ‘Desiderata’:

‘You are a child of the universe,
no less than the trees and the stars;
you have a right to be here.’

I am changed. In this alien rainforest, the likes of which I’ve never seen, I realised something: I may still be an expat in a superficial, border-controlled manner. But as a being on this planet, I am home.

Image: author’s own

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8 thoughts on “Expat No Longer

  1. What a lovely piece of writing. It sounds like an amazing trip, too. I hope the mosquitoes left you more or less alone.
    And let me know if you ever come to San Francisco: we can go to Telegraph Hill and admire the wild parrots which hang out there!

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    • Thank you! The good thing about the Rio Negro is that the water is highly acidic. Therefore, much less bacteria and barely any mosquitoes. I’ve been to San Francisco many times but must have missed the parrots there! You’ve been added to the travel list 🙂

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  2. Tracey, I’m so glad you could have this amazing experience. I’ve had to face the fact that I am no longer a good traveler. There is no place I want to go so much that I’m willing to endure such a long flight (and airport “experience”), vaccinations or courses of medications. But I love hearing about other people’s adventures, especially when the accounts are so wonderfully written as yours!

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    • Thank you for your kind words! There is nothing relaxing or glamourous about long-haul travel. It’s just this darn travel bug I have. It’s been with me since childhood and I can’t outrun it. So I’ll put up with the cramped plane seats and the cramped stomach from the anti-malaria pills and all that stuff for as long as I’m healthy and able. And I’ll keep writing about it too. 🙂

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    • Does it depend on where you’re from and where you’re going? I’ve been referred to as expat for most of my thirty years in the US, though that seems to have changed somewhat in the last year or so. For me, I feel expat places the emphasis on the place you left behind and immigrant places the emphasis on where you landed. Thanks for reading!

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