Last week my worlds collided. And it was really strange.
One of the boys from Palau, whom I got to know very well working with the church kids for one year, flew into Salt Lake City on Monday. Skarlee is starting a two-year Mormon mission in Australia, but, in what must be the most indirect path to Australia, they had him fly to Utah first to spend a few weeks in a training center. I was asked to pick him up at the airport.
I was ecstatic to do this. I've missed Skarlee greatly in the six months (CAN YOU BELIEVE IT'S BEEN SIX MONTHS!?) since I left the land of coconuts. Skarlee is one of the kindest and most remarkable young men I have ever met. He comes from very very rough home circumstances and has had more challenges in his 19 years of life than most people probably would in 100 years. But he is upbeat and kind and charitable. And I'm going to try to stand right next to him on the Great and Terrible Day of the Coming of the Lord in hopes that he gets to choose one friend to take with him on his exotic reward vacation for being one of the top 10 best people who has ever lived.
More than anything, I was so curious to witness Skarlee's impressions of NOT Palau. Because Palau is really all that Skarlee has ever known. He was born in the islands and up until last week he had never left them. He had never really seen civilization. No stoplights. No speed limits over 30 miles per hour. No outdoor temperature other than HOT ALL OF THE TIME ALWAYS.
I tried to imagine what that would be like. What would it be like, for example, to wear a coat for the first time. Or to see the sun set not at 6:00. Or to look out at a landscape, as far as the eye can see, and not be faced with ocean. All of it, for the first time after twenty years of life.
I waited for him with other strangers holding signs for the people they were at the airport to retrieve. It felt funny, thinking about how I was now on the other end of a similar experience I had a year and a half ago when Daniel and I landed in the tiny Palauan airport and emerged to find a woman named Cinta who drove us through the dark jungle to our apartment. I was nervous. And tired. And totally unsure about what to expect.
One year later when I was dropped back off at that same airport, even more nervous and tired than I was before, I remember seeing a man who worked there and whom I recognized from the day I landed in Palau. I remember thinking that he saw me come and go but didn't really see all of the middle part. The struggle. The heartache. The pain. The tears, both happy and sad. The friendships. The beauty. The evolution of spirit and mind. He just saw me come and go. And that seemed strange to me.
Skarlee started descending the escalator at the Salt Lake City airport and as he did there was a moment where I saw him but he had not yet spotted me. In that moment, our reunion wasn't shared. It was exclusively mine. And I basked in that.
I felt so many emotions come flooding over me. Nostalgia for happy memories. Anxiety for all of the ways he represented a Palau that practically tore my soul in half. Elation for the reality that his life is finally becoming something he has deserved all along. But mostly peace--the kind of peace you feel when you get to reconnect with a wonderful person you wish you never had to leave.
And then he saw me. He smiled. Relief overtook his face--the kind of relief you feel when something pleasantly familiar pops out of an intimidating world.
We approached my car and Skarlee tried to get into it on the wrong side. I remembered that the steering wheel is on the right in vehicles in Palau.
Then we drove into downtown Salt Lake City.
Skarlee: Brother Eli? Why don't the trees have any leaves?
Eli: Because it's still winter here.
Eli: Oh . . . um . . . you see, when it gets cold here, the leaves die and fall off of the trees. Then they grow back when it gets warm again.
Skarlee: Why aren't there any leaves on the ground then?
Eli: Because we cleaned them up several months ago when they all fell.
Skarlee: YOU HAVE TO DO THIS EVERY YEAR?!
Eli: I don't like it either, pal. Winter is why I moved to Palau.
Skarlee: It feels like the inside of the refrigerator at the store outside.
Eli: Well it's 58 degrees. This is actually pretty warm for us right now.
Skarlee: It is sometimes even colder than it is right now?!?
Eli: Oh child.
Skarlee commented repeatedly how he felt like all of the cars were going "as fast as Superman." He thought it strange that there were "so many American flags EVERYWHERE," something I hadn't really noticed before. He took pictures of everything he saw out of the windows. The tire store. A 20-story building. An overpass.
His eyes were wide open and he seemed shocked in the way you might seem shocked if you visited another planet. He commented that he felt like he was "in the future." He laughed every time the navigation in my car piped in and told us where to go. He acted apprehensive when I encouraged him to say hello to Daniel through the car's stereo system when we called him.
The evening was too short and eventually, after stopping by to visit the Johnsens, who lived in Palau the same time as me, we had to part ways.
I watched him, this foreign creature in a foreign world, just like I had been in his when he taught me how to chop open a coconut we pulled off of trees near home or find houses in a jungle that didn't have an address. And I thought about how strange this felt. That two people born thousands of miles apart and into vastly different cultures and circumstances can somehow come together and connect. And teach one another about falling leaves and coconuts and tall buildings and humanity.
I don't think living in Palau is for me. But darn it. I'm sure glad I didn't know that a couple of years ago.
~It Just Gets Stranger