The first time I came back to England from a trip to Latin America, I was disappointed to find I felt no culture shock. The very first morning I awoke at home in Kent, everything felt so normal, as if I had never been away, and the continent where I had just spent nine months working and travelling was already fading away like a dream.
The lack of culture shock was probably due to the fact that I had spent most of my time away living in Buenos Aires, which could pass for a European capital city in many respects. I had spent a month backpacking around Bolivia and Peru, but had stuck mainly to the tourist trail and seen plenty of other foreigners on my way.
Now, however, things are very different. I’m back in Latin America, but not in a big city. I live on a remote ranch in the mountains of Guatemala, far off the beaten track. To go shopping I must first catch a horse, then ride down to the nearest town, an hour away, where I buy succulent avocados and plantains from wrinkled Maya women squatting behind piles of tropical fruit and veg. I have never seen another tourist there. I talk to the locals in Spanish, but many of them also speak Kaqchikel, a pre-Columbian Maya tongue.
So perhaps it’s not surprising that these days I do experience culture shock whenever I pop back to England. When I step off the plane at Heathrow, the first thing that strikes me is how fast people talk in London. Everyone seems so stressed. Compared to the slow pace of life in the Guatemalan highlands, everybody seems in such a rush. The next thing that shocks me is how trivial most people’s problems are. My friend’s mother tells me she has had a dreadful week: first, the cat went missing for a couple of hours on Wednesday, and then the car door wouldn’t shut properly on Friday. I’m trying to look sympathetic, but inside I’m screaming, “Are you serious? Most people where I live can’t even afford shoes for their kids!”
I know I would sound like a prig if I said anything, so I keep quiet. I don’t want to feel morally superior and yet I can feel my indignation rising up like acid reflux, burning the back of my throat. I try to remember how equally parochial my own perspective was when I lived and worked in England, how I would get so annoyed when someone pushed in front of me on the tube, or the supermarket didn’t stock my favourite brand of ice cream. And I realise how lucky I am to see things from a more global point of view now.
It is a cliché that travel broadens the mind, but it’s less often appreciated how it helps you see your own country in a different light. It’s also clichéd to wax lyrical about how the poor are happier than the rich, but I’m under no illusion here. I see poverty and malnutrition every day in Guatemala, and with a homicide rate of around 40 per 100,000, it’s one of the most violent countries in the world. All the same, I doubt that many of the people from my nearest village would move to the UK if they had a choice. I’ve asked many of them if they would like to live anywhere else, and not one has said yes.
It’s not as if they have no idea what life is like in the rich countries. They often watch American movies and sitcoms, and many go to the US to work illegally for years, sending money back home every month to their families. But they always come back. “America has no soul,” they tell me, and back in Britain, I think the same thing about my native country. Or to put it another way, there are no dragons left here.
After a couple of months back in England, I notice myself losing my sense of perspective. I start getting annoyed at silly things, such as the lack of a road sign when I’m trying to find my way around town, or the fact that a certain coffee shop doesn’t accept contactless payment. And then I catch myself in the act. I remember how these things didn’t bother me in the first few weeks after returning. And I realise it’s time to go back to Guatemala.
‘The Utopia Experiment’ by Dylan Evans is published by Picador.