Back in America

Currently I’m back in the States.

There is reverse culture shock, but not too bad.  Some of the garden variety, and some a bit more. 

The garden variety includes being surprised at things like the driving being so rule-based, or the paved roads being so big with nary a pot hole, or the absence of multitudes of people walking on the streets, or the absence of people in general (Port-au Prince is far more densely populated than Wichita), or the lightning fast speed of the internet (YouTube works!), or the niceness of what seems like every vehicle on the road (I marvel at this each time I’m out), or the neatness and cleanliness I see most everywhere in public.  Even QuickTrip, our local gas station, has immaculate landscaping. 

I think that if there were even a straw wrapper in Kansas blowing across a road, it would stand out, whereas in Haiti you could probably toss a dozen pop bottles on the ground in most places (at least in Port-au Prince), and never see them, as they’d mix in with the other stuff.  And for sure you wouldn’t see grass at a gas station!!

Also, back here little things catch me off guard, causing moments of feeling disoriented.  Such as pumping my own gas: how does that work again?  Or remembering how to use my credit card at checkouts: I felt dumb one day when I did it “wrong” and the lady had to help me.  Or starting to speak Creole, especially at stores.  A few times I’ve caught myself saying, “Wi,” instead of, “Yes.”  Or thinking I need to greet strangers (like store clerks) formally, such as they do in Haiti, but then forgetting how to greet properly in English (how could I forget “Hello”?)  One of the first stores I visited upon returning I told a checkout lady, “Good afternoon, Madam.”  She probably thought I was weird.

But what is more disconcerting (the deeper side of culture adjustment) is the feeling of relational disconnectedness… both in the sense I’ve become out of touch with peoples’ lives here, and also in the sense it can be difficult for others to relate to my own experiences.  Not to mention I was very busy with Heartline before leaving, and here I suddenly have no responsibilities, job, or scheduled activities.  That’s a shock.

One thing I was worried about before coming home is having a judgmental attitude regarding wastefulness, materialism, etc, but haven’t had those feelings, thankfully.  The “American” life vs. life in Haiti is so vastly different they seem to occupy separate compartments of my brain.  How could both existences reside on the same planet?? 

For instance, how could clean, purified water be so abundant in America that we even use it to water our lawns?  While out in the village, I paid about $1 for every five gallons of purified water, and hauled it from a nearby town on the back of my motorcycle.  For sure I wasn’t using it to water grass.

Water Refill

The differences in living standards aren’t insignificant, they are unbelievably immense.  Average (median) American income is roughly 50 times that of average Haitian incomes. ($790 vs. $47,440 – source)

There is a lot of talk about healthcare in America these days.  For the fun of it, I Googled pictures of Wesley Medical Center (a local hospital) and these were two that came up:

Entrance  Entrance 2

So, for contrast, here is a picture I took of the gated entrance to a hospital I visited many times in Port-au Prince:


Well, anyways, guess that is all I have to say for today.  Now I just need to figure out what’s next in my own life.  Having options is a luxury…  but sometimes options are more of a burden than not.

For now, I’m enjoying home, family, McDonald’s, and other such 🙂

addendum: My friend Ryan recently wrote his perspectives of re-entry (here) after having lived in Haiti two years.  His pictures are fun.

My Remarks Following a Visit to the Local Salt Mine

On Monday I visited the Hutchinson Salt Mine with Luke and Mom. 

Being so deep underground (twice the depth of the height of the Statue of Liberty) was disconcerting.  ‘Tis not hospitable for humans down there… had the ventilators quit working we would soon have died from lack of air.  I noticed a tangy smell/taste that made my tongue feel acrid.  Definitely not my first choice for work conditions.  Others may, but I cannot.

The tour operator instructed us not to lick the salt, whatever we did, because it was low grade only used for de-icing roads, not for human consumption.  Luke was quite curious and badly wanted to test the culinary quality, but refrained because – I guess – all the warnings dire.  But then, next thing I know he’d done gone ahead and ate a piece!  No rules against that.  I think he’s Ok, and not palpably ill. 

Now that its been proven (by Luke) their salt is fine to eat, perhaps we could recommend the mine broaden their market?

Lighting down there was skimpy, so if you ever visit, do bring a flashlight.  The following picture was taken with my cell phone in the only location lit enough to not need a flash: the Men’s Room.

in the Salt Mines of Mordor (ie Hutchinson)

The nifty apparatus slung over my shoulder is a rebreathing device that would convert hazardous gas back into oxygen in the case of a fire.  In 50 years of mining, there hasn’t been a fire yet, thanks Be.  Salt doesn’t burn, which is a plus, and I left all my fireworks at home. 

The floors were smooth and made from saltcrete, (like concrete but from salt).  They said if water gets on the floors they’ll melt like the wicked witch from Wizard of Oz. 

At one point in our tour we had to traverse some five yards of unfinished dirt-like ground.  Before we did so, we were given solemn warnings on the safety hazards of crossing this hazardous, uneven ground.  Good grief!

It’s times like these I have that little bit of culture “shock,” wondering to myself how a caution like this would be received by someone from the Moi tribe?  No doubt a circuit or two would be blown in their brains.  They routinely traverse muddy logs over rushing rivers while balancing heavy burdens or carrying a child slung on their back in a handwoven sack and don’t think twice.  And here to be lectured on the dangers of walking across some dirt?

There are other dangers.  For instance, from time to time ceilings cave in.  That’s dangerous, but thankfully no one so far has been under one when it happened.  In fact, no one has died in the mine yet, supposedly.

I found it interesting they told us that, on the one hand, it will take 50,000 more years for the current 9’ ceilings to get squished back into the ground.  Yet on the other hand, I saw with my own eyes a ceiling that had caved in with significantly less time (like 50 years).  Fortunately, we were all wearing hard hats.

So it’s a working mine, providing salt for roads all over the US.  Like I said, they don’t mine for human consumption.  Despite the massive production quantity (including providing anti-ice for Chicago) the grand total of miners down there furiously chipping away are only…. four! 

No joke, four miners.  Ha, the wonders of mechanization (and explosives), we no longer need people. 

Speaking of mechanization, saw an article on robots in Popular Science while waiting in the eye doctors office this week.  Robots these days have come a long way.  They’re now so smart, and learning so fast, it’s predicted we will soon have our own to do our bidding: from brewing up coffee on our automated coffee makers, to putting dirty dishes into our dishwashers (and turning them on), to fiddling with the thermostat when we get too hot or cold, to popping open a refreshing can of Dr. Pepper for us from the fridge.  Won’t it be great having our own robots?

Robot Gets a Coke

The robot above can get a can of Coke from a specialized fridge, but I’m holding out for one than can bring me Dr. Pepper, which I prefer.

But back to my subject… All in all, I recommend visiting the famous and romanticized Salt Mines of Hutchin-lore if you ever have the chance. Here it is, one of the premier tourist attractions of my home, and one of the 32 Wonders of Kansas, and I have only now experienced the wonder of it all. Inconceivable. 

But whenever you do visit… if you happen to see Mom’s reading glasses on the train down there, please bring them back for her. She left them on the seat towards the back.

Tent and Sailboat Camping in Oklahoma

Last weekend Dad and I went on a three day Father-Son campout. 

All great expeditions start at QuickTrip, and this one was no exception:


The lake we visited, Broken Bow, is known for both its clear waters and also being dotted with scenic islands.  I was planning for us to boat to one of those scenic islands and camp on it.  Yet… I forgot we’re in America, the land of a million rules, one of which was, “No camping on the islands.”  Shucks, why do they have to take the fun out of everything?

So we car camped, which was just as well…. except that if you know us Middleton’s and car camping we have to look over every possible option before making a decision.  For the first hour of driving around various campgrounds I was despairing of ever finding something halfway decent (ie: secluded, flat, scenic, with easy lake access, etc) but then we discovered this beautiful gem, all tucked away in a back corner with nary a soul around (ok, one other soul, but of the “non-alcoholic peacable” variety):

Our Campsite

Boats at our Campspot

As far as the sailing went, it was decent.  Sometimes we had enough wind, a time or two a storm blew through and we had too much wind, and sometimes we were completely becalmed… But weather conditions are all part of the fun.  And the main thing isn’t the sailing anyways, it’s just to be outside, away from the “grind,” and spending time together. I’m 15 months removed from any type of “grind,” but still felt the trip was needed for me to unwind from my unwinding.

Here’s a pic I snapped of the boats on an island we stopped for lunch:

Docked for Lunch

I nearly fell asleep because I’m fairly lazy, as a rule:


Here is a minute worth of non-professional video clips:

Dad and I Camping

All in all I would say it was a success.  Our tent only blew over once (while we were sleeping in it) and we only got stuck on the lake in thunderstorms a few times. 

Trivia: Did you know it always rains on Middleton campouts?  Yep, this has been documented as far back as 20 years ago (when my re-memory began).  I used to say, when we planned a campout, “It’s going to rain” with a *wink* *wink” because we really know it’s all a coincidence, right?  Nope, I no longer believe in coincidence, there must be an uncanny force at work, one with a propensive bent towards mischief, I shouldn’t wonder.

The phenomena could be illustrated well through the recounting of hosts of stories.  One of the most dramatic was the Trinity Baptist Father-Son campout Dad organized when I was about 10.  I remember our tent collapsing in the night during a salacious downpour replete with continual lightning, thunder, and monsoon-like rains.  So we left our tent in a heap and went to sleep in the van.  Then someone woke us up a few hours later rapping on our windows and pointing out we were now on an island in the middle of a flash flood!  Oh the joys of camping. 

More recently, in Israel I went backpacking several times with my Polish friend Tomasz.  He caught on real quick to the whole Nick-Rain-Deal, and by the second time out was already questioning whether he wanted to be camping with me anymore! 

No joke, the two of us went out to the Negev desert and got rained out.  Apparently it only pours there on the rarest of occasions (annual rainfall ~1inch).  So rare in fact, that the next day we came across geology students who had driven down from Jerusalem just to witness the unique features created by a rainstorm in the desert since it hardly ever happens!  Well, what did they expect?  A Middleton showed up in Israel.

Lastly, here we are in the middle of a drought in Wichita, right?  The creek behind my parents house is DRY which has never happened in the 14 years they’ve lived there.  Yet… the morning we left for Oklahoma there was so much rain Mom called us later to say there was mass flooding in Wichita!  Go figure.

I’m not sure if it’s a Middleton thing or a Nick thing.  Maybe I should change my name to Jonah?

Around the World in 180 Days (wrap-up post, by request)

I remember more than one night lying in bed late, in the dark, except for a dull street-lamp filtering through cracks in my venetian blinds, feeling restless.  Getting up and going for long walks: padding round and round the nearby pond at my apartment with the spraying fountain in the middle.  This was about a year and a half ago.

Twas thinking, “I’m tired of here.  Maybe I should take a trip.  A big trip.  Maybe I could make more of a difference somewhere else.  Maybe there’s a hungry kid out there on the other side of the globe whom I could give a lunch to.  A kid that, if I stayed here, wouldn’t get lunch.  Or maybe I would be changed through having my horizons stretched in a wild cross-cultural experience.  Maybe I would see reality clearer.  Maybe I would see something interesting, at least.  Maybe I would see God!  Maybe it would be good for me, or perhaps something good would come from it, anyhow.”

In any extent, I had too many greenbacks burning holes in my pocket to get excited about continuing working a job I was ambivalent towards at best, and downright weary of at worst.

One night I mustered resolve, packed my car with a sleeping bag and several cans of beans and hit the road, but got sleepy in Western Kansas and pulled over in a field to rest.  Next morning I drove back to work and reality. So much for that. 

But then I really did it! quit my job, and after warming up with a western America road trip and six weeks in the Haiti and DR, launched on a six month “vision trip” to some of the furthest flung reaches of the globe.  Now I’m back.

Was I profoundly changed?  Doubt it, but maybe.  Did I reduce my denarii in the bank?  Considerably.  Do I regret what I did?  No.  At least not yet. 

If nothing else, after poking around mother earth… she now feels cramped to me, far too small.  Airplanes have diminished her girth to survivor status.

Since getting back I’ve had a funny feeling hit me several times, especially at night before I fall asleep: a feeling of my brain being crowded with too many memories.  Like an action reel in fast forward: strange people, exotic locales, and bizarre events all race across my mind-screen…  causing an overwhelming feeling like I can’t process everything, like the recollections have no context in which to make sense, no appropriate neuron rack on which to hang their tails. 

In short: the proverbial lawnmower deck of my brain is clogged with the wet grass of incohesive experiences, to borrow the colloquialism.

So I’ve traveled.  Got to do fun things, serious things, educational things, religious things, and a few dangerous things (not too dangerous).

A few highlights:

Scuba dived in the Red Sea, snorkeled in the Caribbean, surfed in the Indian ocean, and swam off Waikiki Beach in Hawaii.  Took a horse full gallop in the Sinai, a boat full throttle down the Omo, and scary mutatos full speed through Africa. 

Pilgrimaged in the footsteps of Jesus in the Galilee, studied the Bible at the Wailing Western Wall in Jerusalem, and frequented Messianic congregations in Israel.  Climbed Saharan sand dunes in simmering heat, punched cattle in the Negev, and drank boiling tea with Bedouins in the dessert. 

Came face to face with grinding poverty in Port-au Prince, Addis Ababa, and the Kibera slums.  Rode a camel round the Giza Pyramids, a ferry through Venicean canals, and a Land Cruiser through outback bush.  Visited remote tribes in both the jungles of Papua and the savannahs of Ethiopia.  Went to the source of the Nile in the African highlands, and its mighty exit in Alexandria.

Saw raw Islam in the soaring minarets of Cairo, raw Orthodoxy in the rock-hewn churches of Lalibella, raw Judaism in the yiddish davening of Hasidim, and raw Christianity in the exuberant praise of Haitians.

Lived two months within a snipers range of the Gaza strip, visited the border region of Syria, crossed the Sinai, and traversed bandit-ridden northern Kenya.  Frequented the epicenter of world tension: the Temple Mount of Jerusalem, and spent time at the birthing place of the Egyptian revolution: the infamous Tahrir Square.  Got a haircut in Tahrir square too (thought I’d throw that in).  Arrived in Sentani, Indonesia during a time of political unrest.

Experienced the exhaustion of overnight bus rides, the stress of hitchhiking after midnight (alone), the frustration of being unable to communicate, and the isolated feelings of rolling into foreign shanty towns.

Numerous individuals and families provided me with overwhelming hospitality and I was the recipient of multiple gifts and special kindnesses.  Had my heart touched through friendships made on four continents.  Was inspired by sacrificial examples of living and giving I saw in a number of missionaries.  Got to rub shoulders with some special folks.

In the WWII history department, got to see General MacArthur’s Pacific base in Indonesia, tour the USS Arizona Monument in Pearl Harbor, and was deeply moved by the holocaust museum of Yad Vashem.

Did volunteer work in five countries.  Put in enough community service hours to no doubt earn the corresponding Boy Scout merit badge.

Speaking of which, what about that lunch for the hungry kid on the other side of the globe I’d thought about giving before I left?  Well, here and there I was able to give some kids lunch, and even a few adults.  It wasn’t much, but something… Some I talked with, others prayed with, some were preached to, others just got food, and a few received a Bible besides.  So a soul or two out in this wide world went less hungry, at least for a day, because I left home, and perhaps a few got spiritual food as well.

In travelling over 40,000 miles, the globe was circumnavigated on everything from the back of a bicycle to the back of a transport truck. 

On Top of Truck in Kenya

I purchased 18 one-way airline tickets which totaled 30 legs of flights.  Total cost for said tickets (including the trip to Haiti/DR last summer) was $3,250.  That doesn’t seem too bad…  got a few good deals from credit card promotions and always hunted for bottom basement carriers when bought any ticket outright.  Hence the extravagant number of layovers and flying inconvenient hours sleeping in airports.

So how much did the whole trip cost?  I don’t know, didn’t keep track.

But I did touch ground in 12 countries, which is a nice number, but with all that somehow escaped falling in love with any cute foreigner girl, of whom I met several.

Trendy stats aside, what have I learned?

That, my friend, will have to wait for another post. Mainly because I’m not yet sure what I’ve learned.

But first, time to head off for quality time staffing at Turkey Hill Ranch Bible camp in Missouri!  Sleepless nights, here I come… 

(note my Blogging may wane as internet at camp is more sketchy than in remote southeast Asia)

I Feel Welcomed Back!

Tomorrow I get back to Wichita once again, yippee! 

Already I’m feeling quite welcome.  Spent a week with Luke and Sarah out West, and they treated me royally – we had a great time (at least I did!)

Then a short visit to Seth & family here in Texas which has also been good reconnecting. 

My six year old niece Kailee especially has been pulling on my heart strings.  She was quite disappointed I couldn’t stay longer, and cried for a good while tonight over that sad fact. 

After her cry, she wrote me a note which she then came in and put on my pillow.  It read, “I’ll miss you uncle nicky” and drawn around were large hearts colored in red.  Then at the bottom she wrote, “Nick and Kailee alwis togethr forevr.” 

I went in her room and thanked her, and she elaborated that although we couldn’t be together in person forever, yet we could be together in our hearts forever, which I agreed, and promised also to write her better in the future, which she seemed glad of, and reminded me I had only written her one postcard since last time, over six months ago.  Yikes!

Yes, traveling the world is good.  But having family and friends back home that think you’re ok and fuss over you a little is also good.

In other news… Amtrak

Amtrak Train

Don’t know if I’ll ever get around to a full “American Train Report,” but suffice it to say I did spend 28 hours riding one from Los Angeles to Albany, Oregon (supposed to be 27 hours, but they got behind an hour along the way).

Here is a 1 minute clip of scenery I took out the observation car windows:

Of all the forms of transportation I’ve ever travelled, which are many and sundry, this was by far the most comfortable, though perhaps the slowest. 

The seats were spacious, reclined, and even had foot rests which kicked up lazy-boy style.  There were even 110V outlets for charging laptops, cell phones, whatever (and of course cell phones worked because we were on land versus the air).  In contrast to flying, security with Amtrak was conveniently zero, just walk on. 

I rode coach on my Amtrak ride.  My ticket was $160… versus $140 for Greyhound or $120 for an airplane flight.  Yes, flying would have been cheaper, but sans the experience.

To ride sleeper-class would have cost another $850, which seemed steep to me, but did include free meals and wi-fi. 

So I finally had my last flight in this big adventure: another red-eye affair from Portland to Dallas – left 1:00am and arrived 6:30am.  The timing was inconvenient, there was zero leg room enroute, nor any in-flight snacks or beverages, plus I was given no choice of seat location and my tray had advertisements, not to mention while on the ramp we sweltered because they kept the air conditioning off, but hey, it was cheap: $75! You too can get such discounts by flying the ultra low-cost carrier Spirit.

That flight marks the 30th one I’ve taken in my trek ‘round the world.  *whew* 

I guess if I’ve learned anything at all travelling, I’ve learned it’s true what Grandpa Belcher always says: “Wherever you are, there you are.” 

And here I am, nearly back home!