Some of my coworkers refer to “going back to the real world” whenever they talk about leaving our little sand spit. I don’t necessarily agree with their terminology. This is, after all, our reality at the moment…and the continuous reality of people that live here year-round. However, I understand their sentiment just a tad bit more, now that I’ve come back from spring break.
I was the only one going anywhere for the break, and after having only been on the island for 2 months, I didn’t think there would be any sort of transition. I was a tad bit wrong.
As a group of coworkers, we had talked a little about our island depriving our senses. Which is mostly true, not necessarily in a negative way, but it also wasn’t something that I realized until I left.
There isn’t much for physical activity on the island, aside from going for a long walk across the tundra…which isn’t safe unarmed or alone (especially for someone like me, a newbie to this area).
There isn’t much for food diversity. You can eat whatever someone invites you over to eat or whatever you can order on to the island and prepare yourself. It doesn’t have all of the easy options of takeout and different ethnic foods.
There isn’t much for noise, aside from the chattering of students during the school day, the wind rattling my old trailer home, the furnace turning on and off, and the incessant roar of snowmobiles and four-wheelers on the roads around the village.
Even light is hit or miss. When I got here, I might never see daylight. Now it is nearly 10:00 p.m. and twilight still keeps the sky bright. Even when I turn off all of the lights and walk from the bathroom to my bedroom, the hallway is so dark I can’t see my hand in front of my face. It is like a vacuum that has sucked away all outlines. I have no microwave or clock on my stove to cast a light from the kitchen down the hallway.
There aren’t many places to go or many things to do. After I adjusted to it, I loved just that! As someone who often suffers from FOMO (the Fear Of Missing Out), I no longer have to worry! I’m not missing anything on the island by staying home. There is no reason to feel the slightest bit guilty if I spend my entire weekend indoors and reading, because there isn’t much else for me to be doing instead.
That all changed when I got into Kotz and later Anchorage.
My first night in Kotz was filled with tons of people in the airport as I waited to find out if I could make it on standby. (Side note: they don’t do standby on the evening jet during week of the end of the Iditarod because the plane makes a stop in Nome—where the race culminates—and they can’t guarantee anybody a spot to Anchorage. It also happens to be spring break and basketball regionals.) I was immediately taken aback by the amount of people…and the number of non-Natives. My life, for the last two months, hasn’t had much diversity. Newness, yes. New culture, yes. But, on the island there are non-Native teachers (all white) and villagers (almost all Inupiaq). Listening to people with different accents and seeing people with different appearances almost overwhelmed me in fascination and amazement.
Then I walked to my AirBNB. I looked at the take-out menus and almost had a mini freak out. I WANTED EVERYTHING. I would have ordered from each place. I wanted all of the fried foods. I wanted all of the fish. I wanted the steak dish and the salmon. I wanted the sushi and the chicken fingers. The choices were endless! I ended up buying way more than I could eat and eating as much as I could stomach.
However, that minor test of my senses was nothing compared to the first day in Anchorage.
It was wonderful, finally getting to explore a place that I had been dreaming of, with a friend from home! Everything was perfect.
Except everything was so much. There were trees, so many trees, and mountains, and unfrozen water! There were cars EVERYWHERE. There was snow on the road, that we were expected to drive on. Parallel parking on streets with parking meters was a thing. Stop signs, stop signs, and speed limits…people ALL OVER THE PLACE! All of those old anxieties that hadn’t been present because I walk everywhere, were suddenly back in full force.
There was a fully stocked Walmart that had EVERYTHING I needed, including real whole milk! In my usual Target-induced spending coma, I spent more money than I should have. They had fifty different types of socks and I wanted them all!
Every time I’d see a familiar store, I’d shout “Oh, there’s a Popeye’s!” or “Hello, McDonald’s!”
I remember thinking, I need to go back to the village, this is too much. It was exhausting…that with my early morning, led to a much-needed nap. (Sorry, Emma, for pooping out on the first day!)
When I told my coworkers about this over a turkey potluck, Saturday night after I had returned to the village, they all just laughed. They understood.
After the initial 48 hours of my trip, when Emma and I were hitting the slopes outside of Anchorage (more about our trip later), I was on a high. I couldn’t help but ask myself:
“How will I go back? How can I handle that again, knowing that all this beauty and activity exists?”
Sometimes, not knowing the options that exist in the world can make us happier people. There is no fear of missing out if we don’t know that there is something to be missed. Yet, I’ve never been content not knowing.
In less than two months, I’ll be back in the lower 48. I’ll have unlimited opportunities to buy and drink milk. I’ll have Chick-Fil-A and Target. I’ll have breweries and a car with roads that will take me anywhere I want to go. My identity will no longer be ‘teacher’ and I’ll just be a ‘person’.
I’m guessing in the beginning, it’ll be too much. Too much stimulation, too many people to visit, too much noise, too many artificial lights, too many options of places to go. But, my greater fear is that at the end of summer, I will question my ability to be able to return to the village.
I love Alaska, I greatly enjoy my adventure in the village, and I love the quirkiness of my remote and solitary life…but when I step out of one reality into the reality that I’ve known longer, there is undoubtedly going to be quite the culture shock.