Home at last

“Are you going to sew a Canadian flag patch on your backpack?” was the question I kept hearing. I was 21 and about to head off to Australia for 10 months with my boyfriend, Bryan. The question wasn’t totally out of left field; many young Americans tell people they’re Canadian when they’re overseas because they want “better treatment.” But we wanted to try to be ambassadors for our country and prove that not all Americans are loud, insensitive “ugly Americans” (though they definitely exist – we got to wait on plenty of them during our stint as surf bum waiters in Maui).

Like a lot of people, we ended up getting hooked on travel and spent most of our 20s scraping together money at odd jobs to save for trips to Third World countries, since the dollar stretches so much further. We never did cave in and sew on Canadian patches, though it was sometimes taxing to always be on the defensive.

Often the anti-American digs were direct, like the man we met in Hoi An, Vietnam, who sneered, “In Belgium, we were protesting the Vietnam War” (ah yes, there were no protests here). When watching an action movie at a hostel in Thailand, an Australian turned to us and said, “Americans sure do like to blow things up!” The sentiment has even followed me home: Recently I received a Christmas card from a friend in Australia, whose new British husband scribbled at the bottom, “Why don’t you ever see mixed race couples on U.S. TV? Unwritten rule? Have a very Merry Xmas.”

But mostly, it was indirect stuff, like how everyone in Manila, the Philippines, called out to Bryan, “Hey Joe!” as though, despite his ponytail and goatee, he could be a G.I., like the ones unpopularly stationed there for most of recent history. Or our new friends we met in Las Tablas, Panama, during Carnival, who happily told us they’d met there for Carnival every year “except 1989 – U.S. invasion.” There was even a man from South Vietnam who wanted to take us on a tour of the Demilitarized Zone because he had fought alongside the United States during the war – and then spent several years in a prison camp after U.S. troops withdrew.

Anytime I’d come in contact with these sorts of sentiments, I’d try to explain that there’s more to Americans than our government’s foreign policy or our TV and movies. I’d stress our strengths, such as the beauty of our natural areas, our passionate activists, our cultural diversity or our strong communities. Often a light would go off in someone’s eyes as preconceived notions melted away, guards were let down and a little cultural insight was gained.

But we would return from our months abroad still searching for a home – a community that embodied all those elements. We knew it was out there, but nothing quite fit. Washington, D.C., Seattle, California and even Maui were dead ends. We decided to try to get rich quick in Taiwan (a failed experiment, incidentally) and see where it led. We spent a lot of nights in a polluted city called Tainan searching for the perfect home on the Internet, and we learned of Durango for the first time.

We came back and spent the summer driving around and checking out places to settle, and Durango ended up being a no-brainer. It had everything I’d described to foreign skeptics: diversity, natural beauty, a strong sense of community. Plus, the skiing, year-round fly fishing and number of microbreweries were an added bonus.

We lived at the Siesta Motel for five days until we landed an apartment. From the get-go, Durango just felt right – and it still does. I love that the employees at the Post Office are much nicer than the expression “Go postal” implies, and that people stop to pet each other’s dogs. I’m thrilled to live in a town so unpretentious that it’s allegedly the worst dressed town in America. And the people we’ve met are incredible.

As we start another year in Durango, I’m still incredibly grateful to have found the America I’d been describing during my travels all along.




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