It’s been just over a week since we left Mexico City and journeyed back to our hometown of Asheville, NC. On Saturday September 23rd, we unpacked from the Uber, situated June in her crate, and lugged our life belongings to Terminal 1 to check-in for our flight to Washington DC. Airline travel has been anxiety provoking for me for quite some time—precisely since we started traveling as a couple. It seems, we have no lack of stories to tell of unexpected turmoil in the airport. From being denied boarding after passport rules changed and broken ferries resulting in no connection to the mainland’s airport to dashing through the airport only to miss flights on multiple occasions, you could say air travel is our struggle point.
Most recently, when bringing our dog, June, from the states to Mexico City, we encountered some resistance at the check-in counter. “She is a pitbull?” “Uhhhh, she is a lab-pitbull mix” (obviously). “Well, her vet papers say “pitbull” and she won’t be able to board the plane.” What???!!! I spoke to someone in reservations and clarified any breed restrictions, which there were none for “aggressive” breeds. A half an hour and multiple stressed calls to the vet later, “Oh, so sorry! She CAN board the plane. She just can’t be in Miami!” Turns out the county of Miami-Dale, alongside many other places in the world, have strict bans on the entry of pitbulls. I had no idea and really didn’t think about it considering she was clearly a mix. We had spent the whole weekend in Miami splashing around in the warm waters of the sea with June and had no issue, thankfully. Needless to say, they were quite delighted to go ahead and board June to get her on her merry way, away from Miami. We made it through customs on the other side without much difficulty and were sent into the hustle of Mexico City, happily united as a family in a new world.
So on this day, I was a bit stressed. If living through two earthquakes and moving home abruptly wasn’t enough, let’s add air travel with a dog to the list. Despite attempts for my husband to talk sense and reasonability into me, my stomach felt sick, my heart was racing, my hands were sweating. I snapped irritably in response to the smallest of challenges throughout the day. Fortunately, when it came to June, check-in at the ticket counter was fairly straight forward. It appeared we had all of June’s paperwork in good order (updated to reflect her mixed breed) and we had no issues getting her inspected and through to the men who would board her. We did, however, end up paying a small (not small at all) fee for all of our luggage, since free baggage had been eliminated since our last flight with Aeromexico. Didn’t matter…just swipe the credit card, get us on the plane, we’ll figure it out later. That was the attitude I had for the next several days adjusting to our home situation.
As we boarded the plane, the entry way had a table providing no less than 8 different newspapers reporting on the earthquakes, free for flyers to take with them. We grabbed a few to read and to keep in our memoire boxes for later reflection. Other than checking on the latest death tolls, aftershock counts, and reading the one article regarding the collapsed school, I hadn’t read any other news. Just that morning, I had for the first time seen the news coverage on TV panning through my “old” neighborhood. I sat down at my seat and wept quietly as I read the accounts people shared of searching for their spouses, children, and friends. My throat swelled with sadness and disbelief. The images of solidarity, hope, and desperation were beautiful, but solidified that what happened was, in fact, real.
I had planned to sleep on the plane, but couldn’t get my mind to ease. For the past 72 hours, if I wasn’t actively engaging in the chaos, my mind was processing the chaos. The flight attendant informed us of movies available. I needed a mental break and so drifted into the not so-complicated dramas and comedy of “Modern Family.”
Meanwhile we had received a message right before take-off that my sister-in-law had arrived to DC only to be informed she couldn’t check in without a deposit on a debit card. I had called the day before to inform them of our situation and was assured she would have no trouble checking without us, without a card. Still, they refused to let her in with our young niece. For six hours, they would wait for us in the airport parking lot. Good family, bad business. And so, the adjustment to life in the states began.
When we arrived in the airport, we headed to baggage claim to secure our luggage, which apparently includes June. She was distressed, whining with anxiety, panicking to get out of the crate. This was much different from our last trip, when we found her resting soundly in her crate at luggage claim. I couldn’t have expected anything different after the trauma she had endured being separated from us in the earthquake, being lugged around the city for multiple days in strange places, and then being kept in a crate underneath an aircraft. We let her out immediately and walked her through the airport.
As we neared the entrance, we saw my sister-in-law and niece. June loves my niece so very much and reacted excitedly to her presence. We all hugged, thankful to be reunited. When we arrived to the hotel, it was close to 2am. I tried to talk with the hotel staff about the upsetting check-in experience, but no manager was on staff. They kindly tried to make up for it by providing us free breakfast coupons for in the morning.
Sunday morning, we slept in a bit and headed down for breakfast. I stopped at the front to talk with manager about my concerns. As we started to talk, my sister-in-law grabbed my attention to look at the news coverage of the earthquakes on the TV behind me. Then she said suddenly, “That’s a new earthquake!” In shock, I processed the information on the screen. Truly, a 6.1 had just hit earlier in the morning, shaking Mexico City again. The third quake in two weeks. Tears welled up, my face went flush and I trembled with anxiety. I tried calmly to hold back my tears as I tried to explain my complaint to the manager, expressing the stress we had all been under as a family through the earthquakes. My voice shook as I spoke. She apologized, again offered breakfast, and gave me a number to the head manager. A number I still haven’t called, because frankly I just can’t revisit the stress of it anymore.
We met my husband and niece for breakfast. The hotel was advertised as pet-friendly, but we were informed we could not leave our dog alone in the room. Understandably, so we brought her to breakfast. Upon arrival, we were told we could not bring her with us. Shaken by the totality of everything, I buckled and started crying. At the time, I just couldn’t take being told about policies anymore. What about family? What about allowing people to be together with whoever and whatever it is that they need in times of pain and loss? Let me make clear, on any other occasion I probably would have just gone on my way and been fine. But, then I was fragile emotionally and less able to regulate my responses to any obstacle. I just couldn’t get the thought out of my head that we would have been so much better cared for in Mexico City. It was truly heart-breaking to leave such a warm force of community to be then welcomed by stiff, impersonal protocol in the states.
Gratefully, the restaurant manager came to us and spoke with us about our situation. She requested that her staff clear the table in the corner of the restaurant so we could sit peacefully as a family with our dog. Over the course of our breakfast, we were then brought three special dishes made for us by the chef as a gesture of good-will and caring about our situation. It was touching and I breathed with a sigh of relief at the nature of people.
We had never been to DC before, and since our family had traveled quite a ways to pick us up, we planned to make the best of the situation by touring the city a bit. We were all excited to see some sites, but most of all couldn’t wait to share in the experience with our niece who we had missed so much. She was excited too…until later she realized all the walking required. But seriously, we had a great time on our impromptu walking tour of The White House, Washington Monument, The National Mall, and The Lincoln Memorial. We only caught ourselves speaking Spanish instinctively with strangers a few times.
By afternoon, we were back on the road, arriving to Asheville in the evening. My family had set up the guest bedroom for us to use. We unloaded our packs and drifted to sleep. June cuddled with her grandparents, then climbed into bed too.
The next couple of days were very strange. I can’t quite describe the experience. Here I was in the town I had grown up with and truly loved. But I couldn’t connect. Undoubtedly, I was happy to see family and friends. Still, I couldn’t understand what I was doing here in this place. I cried every day and truly lost interest in doing anything. One day in particular was very bad as I laid in bed ’til the afternoon dreading whatever was next. I was depressed.
At the same time, I wasn’t sleeping very good. On the first night, I woke to the sound of the fan droning in the background. Confused about where I was, I lay there a few seconds trying to decipher if the earthquake alarm was going off until I realized I wasn’t in Mexico anymore. The next night, June dreamed heavily herself and wiggled the bed so vigorously I woke up in a panic ready to leave. On the third night, I had a nightmare about the earthquake. In it, I experienced so many of the sensations of the real earthquake, but it was occurring in the hotel where we had stayed in DC. I dreamt it was the 4th earthquake in the series and I had that same sense of becoming focused and driven in the crisis, but woke up feeling terrified and drained.
I was confused for days, trying to make sense of my mixed emotions. Being a therapist by trade, I knew what I was experiencing was “normal” after going through a traumatic experience. I bargained with myself that I needed to give myself some time to adjust following not only the earthquake, but a major life disruption moving abruptly back to a different culture, a different lifestyle. My husband asked if I wanted to go anywhere one day, maybe we could go to a restaurant or cafe. I didn’t care. If I wasn’t walking through my neighborhood to the cafe, hopping on the crowded Mexico City buses to get to the art museum, strolling with June off leash through the park, or struggling to converse in Spanish, it didn’t interest me.
I grieved the connections I was making in the city as I started pursuing freelance writing and other projects pertaining to Mexico. I had just started making friends, and I couldn’t walk to see them today. I continued to read news articles and updated posts on what people were doing in the city to regroup and rebuild and It felt weird being so distant from it and yet fully interested as if I were still there. My brother-in-law couldn’t find a ride to a family get together when we returned and I again cried, devastated and convinced that people here are so isolated, even in times of need. It felt so drastic compared to what we had just left. I thought about all the things I loved about Asheville, and I just couldn’t feel anything. That left me feeling more depressed and with more spurts of crying.
Still, every thought like this was balanced with “But I’m alive, and other people aren’t. I have shelter and food, other people don’t.” I recognize my privilege and won’t forget how this contributes to me having options, and ultimately, being “okay.” As I write this, I still find myself thinking judgmental thoughts such as “Stop being so melodramatic,” but the better part of me knows this is my experience and I need to honor my feelings. Yet, I consciously hoped that this was just an acute reaction and that I would start thinking and feeling better as time passed. A friend in Mexico knew I was struggling and shared this article, which provided me comfort to know I wasn’t just a narcissistic self-loathing nut.
By Wednesday, I had seen some close family and friends. I was reconnecting with the people, but still struggling to connect with life here. I have to extend the greatest thanks here to my husband, who seemed to understand what might help me. Thursday was my birthday. I didn’t have any plans and, of course, I really didn’t want to do anything. My husband made plans for us to go to my favorite brewery with friends in the evening. I wasn’t opposed, but didn’t feel compelled either way. We don’t have a car here, which is good in some ways. On that day, we walked down the hill and caught the public bus to downtown Asheville. Walking and riding the bus, I started to feel some joy as I reconnected with our routine we held in Mexico City. It was very different, as we walked down steep wooded hills in quiet residential neighborhoods and rode in an empty bus with air conditioning, but the rhythm was there.
It was a sweet day as we walked miles around Asheville, to places that seemed so far before, but now we realized were no further of a walk than to Colonia Juarez or el Centro in CDMX. We enjoyed a coffee, lunch at the amazing Buxton Hall, and walked through a couple of local galleries. The coffee and lunch were outstanding. I have to say, I felt angry after our gallery visits…everything is “So Asheville.” If you live here, you probably know what I mean. Puke green and orange blown glass vases and multicolored paint layered, then scraped on canvas. We were excited, however, to see the pack of this roadie outside of a nearby restaurant. Even though I didn’t meet the traveler, I felt some camaraderie and was definitely impressed with the packing skills. Still, only in Asheville…
Many friends and family came to celebrate my birthday that afternoon. Being in the presence of like-minded people helped rejuvenate my spirits. Since then, each day has gotten a little easier. We continue to walk 20 minutes to the bus stop, ride the bus to somewhere, and seek a place to sit and write or enjoy good coffee or beer. Financially, we probably shouldn’t be partaking in these extras, but I’m convinced its worth my sanity to get out and maintain some sort of resemblance of the lifestyle I just left.
I restarted work teaching online the day after returning to Asheville and that has been really helpful to reestablish flow and routine too. What will happen next? We’re not totally sure. We know we want to keep traveling, but need to save some funds first. I’m focused on side projects to help with this goal and after an evening of trying to establish our next “plan,” we have decided to focus on work and enjoying the fall in Asheville for now. We’ll revisit plans perhaps next month. In the meantime, I am enjoying writing, still completing projects, and am looking forward to sharing our amazing Mexico experiences with you in my upcoming posts!