The struggle to return home

Photos by the author

Returning from a photojournalist gig in Northern Uganda, Richard Stupart finds it hard to go back to the life he left behind on departure.

LIGHT AND DARK is a simple analogy for so many things. Waiting at the baggage counter for my pack and pondering the miles of home beyond the exit gate, I think I would have done well to consider how light and dark interact. How they manage, in a way, to make each other. Allow you to see what it is you have left and what it is you are moving into. Your eyes adjust until someone opens a bright door and you hurt.

I didn’t think any of these things at the time. Instead, I wondered why, for the first time returning from a journey, I felt panicked.

I couldn’t make sense of that reaction two days ago, and withdrew into a pattern of sleeping, checking email, and avoiding people. Mostly avoiding people. Avoiding people and their peopley things. The malls. The weekend get togethers over drinks. The five/two rhythm of salaried working life and the stories that come to make up its universe.

Photo by author

Mostly, I didn’t want to have to talk about the last two weeks. “How was it?” is a question so easily asked, but the weight of the explanation that it compelled me to give was just too large. Too inappropriate.

Ten minute appraisals in the middle of everyone else’s weekly story seemed too disrespectful. A full emotional explanation would be impossible. An attempt to give one would be poor conversational etiquette.

Would lower the mood.

Nobody wants to hear about people who lost their limbs or their children. The old lady who gets wet when it rains because she is too old and doesn’t have the money to reach and repair the bullet holes in her tin roof. The interview that becomes hard to track which daughter was raped when.

Maybe that is why nobody asks how it was. It’s easier not to know.

And it’s easier for me to believe that than to think that nobody really cares about these characters from another world.

Except that they aren’t simply characters. They’re not only points of intellectual interest, or a platform for a discussion about the merits of this type of development aid versus that type. They are living, breathing, acting people that could so easily be assisted in the lives they are trying to fashion for themselves and their children. Not help, like some anonymous charity. Some unit expense to salve a conscience. But to assist. To work with.

Abo Anna. Photo by author

They are friends you haven’t met yet. People you might actually quite like. Might laugh with. Might come to care about. They are as real as the people we cry about when they break up with us, or lend a hand to move their house, or drop their kids off somewhere.

Except that they are more than a thousand miles away, and so they can’t make friends of people like you or me.

Before I left, I thought it would be a journey into darkness. To meet the people that the Lord’s Resistance Army did their terrible deeds to. I thought that there I would need to struggle emotionally. And yet I recall mostly laughter. Smiles and new friends. People who gave their time freely to talk about all sorts of things.

Yes, the painful things. But also the dancing. People coming over to play the harp for us. To tag along on an election campaign rally. To show us fat piglets and kids who laugh a good deal more than many I have seen at home.

It has taken two days since returning and a great deal of soul searching to realise that I had the metaphor wrong. There is no darkness there. No place deserving of a divine, benevolent light. Instead, the darkness lies here. Lies at home. In the fact that we aren’t interested in the stories of the places like Gulu.

It lies in the way this world smothers the stories of the lives of these people and reduces them to simple silhouettes that we can deal with in the coins we pop into an aid collection tin. In darkness, it’s difficult to see the texture and fine detail of a place. Of people. In darkness it’s hard to relate as equals, one to another.

Every story I was told. Every life shared and memory created together in Gulu is a little piece of light in the blindness of the world beyond the airport arrival gate. I can see it now in the undeniable detail that each renders about places and lives that – in so many senses of the word – we cannot see from here. If the metaphorical light needs to be brought anywhere, it needs to be brought here – to the places where we are blindest.

Community Connection

Have you ever had trouble translating your experiences while traveling – both to yourself and to others? What worked to help you cope with the difficulties of return?

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  • Roxanne

    Having lived and worked briefly in Northern Uganda, I can understand both its enchanting effect and its suffocating power. I have yet to process many of my experiences from there and appreciate the way you described the complexity of the stories of Gulu and beyond. I am excited to browse your photos and other work on your blog. Until then, thank you for this post!

  • Jenny Williams

    Thanks for this thoughtful piece, Richard. I spent a number of weeks in northern Uganda, specifically Adjumani and Kitgum, in 2006 (when I was living in Kampala), and again in 2010 (when I returned for a friend’s wedding). I still don’t quite know how to talk, or write, about my time there. But in some ways, I think this struggle is essential: there is no “easy answer” to these experiences–this light and dark–and so as long as we’re struggling with it, we’re honoring its complexity. It’s the not knowing that keeps us searching, keeps us working toward new ways of communicating the experience to other people.

  • Steph

     Beautifully written. There’s so much to say but I think after what you’ve said here, there’s also a lot to reflect on. 

  • Jonathan Gardner

    Richard, what a beautiful article. 
    And how to cope with the darkness upon returning back?  My visits back home seem to keep being put off longer each time for this same reason.  Cutoff versions of sights, smells & feelings from abroad never due justice and any additional details mentioned are grasped as a news coverage featuring as you said “characters”, to some extent, imaginary to them.  But they are not.  They are real.  & in many cases, more “real” than most. 

  • NoOrdinaryJourney

     Most people don’t really want to know … so I just give them a few tidbits to chew on. They will begin to ask intelligent questions if they really do want to know more. 

    • Richard

      That is so very true. It also seemed to be the friends who had themselves experienced a similar alienation from their own journeys who really sat down and listened the most.

  • Amber

    Eloquently put. Thank you.

  • Nann

     I personally would love to hear all the stories you have to share. I’ve found that people often don’t care about what others have to say and disheartening as it can be to not be listened to, I don’t think keeping these stories from them is the answer. Doesn’t that just expand the apathy? 
    Thank you for writing this article though, it’s something I am constantly struggling with and it’s nice to know I’m not the only one. 

  • MiSam

    Richard, that was beautiful. I completely agree. I worked in Burma for a year and coming back, everyone asked me “How was it?”. Where do I start? The poverty? The crimes against humanity? Or the people who were the most hospitable I’ve ever met? Nine months later people are still asking and it’s still the thing that defines me most. I also agree completely with NoOrdinaryJourney: prepare one sentence that stands alone and isn’t too confronting for them, and if they have a genuine interest they’ll ask.

    I fell into culture shock for about six months and the thing that helped me was giving myself a break. Go to the gym only if you want to. Eat what you want. Sleep if you want. Read if you want. Stay in your house and avoid people if you want. Stop constraining yourself and criticising yourself, and let yourself come back to balance naturally. It helped me a lot. Good luck :)

  • rosie jeanne

    Thank you Richard….beautiful writing and resonance with the essence of the human soul 

  • traceymayor

    I agree with Steph, sometimes just reading an article and reflecting has to be enough … we are your listeners.

  • Kellyrobbins89

    Thank you for this. I dont even know you, or these people, but the point you are trying to make is one that so many try to find the words to express. It’s about finding a way to evoke some sort of emotion or understanding in our fellow community about the things we have seen. To show that other human beings are worthy of our attention and aid even if we dont know them. This is a beautiful piece that does a good job at answering the question a lot of us writers often ask: “how can I GET other people to CARE??”

  • Julia Atkins

     I’m sure you know the saying ‘home is where the heart is.’  After all of my travels, many to places, and getting to know people, as you did, I can no longer say, when I return to the place I have lived most of my life, that I have come ‘home’.  If anywhere, my ‘home’ is with the terribly poor but amazingly generous people I met in Cambodia, Bolivia, Vietnam, Peru.  The only ‘cullture shock’ I have experienced is that of coming ‘home’ to the sickening muchness and numbing mindlessness of most of our daily lives.  And yes, very few people really want to hear about my travels.  They cannot relate.  It is just too far out of their ‘comfort zone’.  They would rather tell me about the new (insert whatever you can think of) they bought yesterday, last week, last month.  Or the new (insert anything else you can think of) thing they are thinking of buying.  I look at my photographs and am transported immediately back to where I found people and things more ‘real’.  I vow to ‘go back’.  But as a famous writer once said: ‘you can’t go home again’.  And that applies not just to places of birth and childhood, but also to places where one at some point felt ‘at home’.  Perhaps that’s why I keep on traveling, looking for a place to call ‘home’….

    • Karina

      Thanks for your incredible words.. I so understand you sista.. I too have been traveling the world for the last 8 years I in fact made a living out of it because I had to keep traveling… I created a documentary filmed around the world on 20 tribes and the West see 
      I spent my life savings as I felt like you the people in these far off lands and the adventures and cultural exchanges you receive when traveling is far more of a reason to spend money  on than buying that new car that house those shoes and living in the western world.. I love a lot of the west do not get me wrong I just prefer to live amongst the tribal Indigenous people and be the bridge to the two worlds…
      And yes I have felt just as you did many times culture shocked and isolated coming back to what is supposed to be my people and my home… people did not get my stories or my adventures nor did they care… I do have some more traveler friends like us who sit between the two worlds looking for a home… and I know there are more out there.
      So thanks again for coming forward and helping me to feel a connection tonight after reading your comments and the main article.. Lets keep traveling and connecting the bridge of the two worlds together…I am on the road with you Sista xoxo Travel wide and Far….Karina xoxo

  • Kelli Stansell

    When returning from a journey, or even the closing of a season, I am reminded of the need I have… the need for time. I expect myself to process quickly because ‘it’s not my first time re-entering my own culture,’ or whatever excuse I have for being ‘super-woman.’ Really, what I continue to find true, is that I need to allow myself time to be confused, lonely, frustrated, sad, joyful, achy, etc. followed by allowing myself to process, however that needs to happen – when the time comes. I find myself relying on pen and paper to figure out what just happened, how it changed who I am, and what I’m going to do about it now.
    Food for thought, give it a munch. :) Thanks for sharing about your journey.

  • Stephenflett

    Excellent article. I’m sure everyone who has travelled to a “third-world”(not my phrase but seemingly the most common…) country and returned home has felt a similar thing.  That suspicious feeling that nothing-really-matters, the not-wanting-to-have-to-explain or the sense of guilt that you life this charmed life compared to so many others.
    imho, the strangest thing is how sad and unappreciative people seem back home(for me, the UK) compared to people who life in nearly daily struggle, full of smiles and positivity.

  • Melissa Adams

    Wow, what a story. It got me all choked up as I read it, sitting here toothless, looking like a battered ex-wife after returning prematurely from South Africa after a tumble on safari that cost me 3 porcelain crowns & assorted other injuries. My wounds will heal and I’ll look like a princess again, but I can’t help but wonder how I’d cope if I were a woman in one of the townships we visited who got her front teeth smashed in a fall or a brawl and didn’t have the resources to make things right. Would I ever be able to smile proudly again, to revel in the joys of newly-won freedom? Those people in the shantys may be poor in material things, but they’re rich in spirit. Unlike the rich folk in Houghton & Camps Bay, they know their neighbors and they all have each others’ backs.

  • jenna

     really moving piece richard.

    i can’t relate to your experiences in uganda, but i agree that the act of travelling itself does bring light into your own darkness.

    it always amazing me how difficult it is to adjust going back and not being able to truly explain what you have experience, and what you’ve learnt from other people that even the most important people in your life will never meet.

    • Richard

      It’s strange how travel puts you in that position of a human bridge almost. You end up with one foot each in different worlds. Few in either place can understand the stories from the other, and it can be so frustrating trying to reconcile yourself to both.

  • Karin-Marijke Vis

    Tears in my eyes. 
    “Mostly, I didn’t want to have to talk about the last two weeks. “How was it?” is a question so easily asked, but the weight of the explanation that it compelled me to give was just too large. Too inappropriate.”
    Feel exactly what you mean.

  • Richard

     Thanks for the amazing feedback everyone. I sat on that piece for at least three days, not wanting to go out with friends, talk to people, or engage with the the world at all. It still hits me as unbelievably strange how my home, where I had close friends and family before leaving could become such a  numb place on my return.

    In the end, after the third day back, something just clicked and I sat down, deciding to write it as it came out, unfiltered – in the hope that it would be some sort of catharsis. In the end, I think it was in a way.

    I can’t ever forget, but I can be a little more at peace with the inconsistency between the two worlds and questions about my own responsibilities in them. And that seems to be a good place from which to take a next step onward.

    • Marie

      This is such a profound reflection for a writer, or anyone to make. I think we are all drawn to certain paths but we are not always open enough to realise it and just head on down the wrong one. This writing shows exactly why your path is one of photography and journalism. Because not all people would see the relationship between the two worlds as well as have the methods in which to inform others. It is more common to slip into each world and accept the confines as if they are just different rooms. It seems to me that what you are saying in this essay is that you are exactly where you are meant to be.

  • Lacy

    Wow – what to say? My impulse is to say that I’ve been there, I’ve been to Gulu, I’ve met those precious people, I know and feel exactly the things you are feeling – but even this sentiment seems hollow. What is terrifying more than anything is that for me, the feeling fades. The struggle I felt in coming home was so strong, and I tried to figure out a way to navigate the everyday, to rearrange my priorities so that my actions reflected the gravity of my experience – validated it, made it real somehow, important as I felt it was. But now, almost two years later, I am terrified to see that the rhythms of 9-5 have taken such a hold on my life again. My question is one of sustainability. How do we take what we have gained and hold onto it? 

    • Richard

      God, I completely get that Lacy. The memory is always there – intellectually. But it’s the hardest thing in the world to keep it emotionally alive, to keep those things you remember in sight.

      I’d really love to know how you tackled that. It seems like the hardest battle of all – holding onto that fire as it grows cold.

  • Teethetrav

    Richard,  One of the best travel pieces I’ve read recently.  Thank you for articulating one of the prime benefits of travel:  getting out of your own skin and into another’s.  We can’t all travel everywhere, but articles like this one transport us and help us understand the rest of the world.  

  • Fiona Gale

    Yes, I have had an extreme difficulty coming home after a long journey overseas, both occasions living and working there.   I resonated so much with most of what you said, the hiding from people, the long winded emotional leg of “So, how was it?”  that is in your mind but obviously no one wants to hear that so instead you keep quiet.  They just want to hear  “oh it was so awesome!!” Your actual personal journey was more than likely filled with many happy and joyous moments but also intense, self-reflecting, or even sad moments.  The strange numbness that hangs over the entire atmosphere of coming back to the States puts you in a sort of purgatory…neither here nor there, and you move through it in the only way you can, one day at a time.. 
    Life is never the same after a long journey, you can get back into your groove eventually I suppose, although that has not really been the case for me … I am always daydreaming about the next adventure.

  • Rosa Pérez Parapar

    Richard,  what a moving piece of writing! I teach English at a state high school  in Spain, would you let me use it for my classes? You see, we had a couple of boys from Uganda in our classes for a couple of months last winter  ( )and the experience was amazing for the Spanish students and probably unforgettable for the Ugandan boys; as for me, it was just bitter-sweet because I could guess what was going on in their lives in Uganda and the contrast with their lives among us.To make a long story short, we talked a lot about Uganda, we read a story where Gulu was mentioned, so your words could give a different perspective.
    Best wishes,

    • Richard

      Hi Rosa – You are absolutely welcome. Please feel free.

  • Leslie (Downtown Traveler)

    Great post. Sounds like a rough transition… talk about culture shock.

  • Dumisani Ndubane

    True dat Richard… the light must be brought here to this “unfeeling” place wher we take every fleeting breath forgranted… thanks for sharing (“,)

  • Josh Mc

    Wow Richard! I really loved this article and how you contrasted our view of bringing the ‘light’ to the other when we really are in need of ‘light’ just as much as they might be! A true story of humanity. I lived in Indonesia for a year and had a hard time adjusting when I returned home as well. I live there for a year and I would always panic when someone asked me ‘how was it?’ sometimes even using the word ‘trip.’ Time has been my friend as I’ve dealt slowly with the adjustment, along with developing new friendships with people who share that same passion that’s arisen in me. My faith in God is also another thing that has stabilized me as I’ve considered how he loves all people, everywhere and no one group is better than another.

    Again, great article. Thank you for sharing!

  • Mallika Henry

    Really beautiful piece following such vivid emotional logic.  Is it hard for people to care, or is it hard for people to imagine?  Or is it that there is something so missing from much of life in “contemporary society”?  Or is it that it is becomes so hard to take it seriously?

  • soultravelers3

    Beautiful piece!

    We solve this problem by being perpetual travelers ( as a family for the last 5 years to 42 countries on 5 continents on 23 dollars a day per person) so we have MANY places as home.

    The other advantage is we travel as a family so we have constant companions to discuss our travel experiences with and I think that makes it doesn’t really matter if others understand or not. We’re not expats and not on vacations but living an open ended freedom lifestyle…slow travel and spending a longer time in places helps too.

    When the world IS your home..there is no need to struggle. And yes, indeed the light is everywhere, but perhaps easier to see in some places more than others.

  • Lacy

    Thanks, Richard. I’ve done some more thinking over the past few days and have written a blog in response. Would love for you to check it out and share your thoughts. 

  • Turner Wright

     I’ve been struggling with the same concept since my return from the areas hit by the tsunami in Japanese. To simply write a Facebook status update or include a brief mention in my daily chats with people seems shallow and completely missing the point. For me, I think it’s better to just take time off from both the digital world and the real world after an experience like that to just let it soak in.

  • Ian MacKenzie

    Wow, stunning. Thanks for sharing Richard.  Reminds me of the track “Blue Skies Over Bad Lands” by Matthew Good.“Blue Skies Over Bad Lands”What if you woke up in the middle of the night And in your bare feet you walked outside And realizing that you were awake that you could fly Out over the world To places that you’ve only heard of See faces that you were sold as murderers But just like you they’re only lonely boys and girls Like all over the world What if you could lift them up? What if you could make it so that times weren’t tough? So ever morning when the world woke up There’d only be weather on the news And what if you were back in bed With one of them floating over your head What do you say to your enemies When you don’t know what it is that could have been between you? There ain’t no blue skies over bad lands Even if it ain’t raining in the mornings But you don’t need to fly to understand it Just understand understanding 

    • Richard

      Man, I just listened to that song now. It’s as beautiful as it is haunting. Thanks so much for sharing the link.

  • Filipa Chatillon de Oliveira


    I´m not sure what moved me the most, the description about how, despite all the horror they´ve been through, these People are still capable of giving so much of themselves and show joy,the work you´re doing showing it or your feeling of helplesness when it comes to explaining, back home, “how it was”.

    I haven´t been to a country where these memories are still so recent, and so brutal, but after spending a year abroad and experiencing profound inner changes I can totally relate.

    Thank you for bringing light, and for describing it in such a beautifull way.

  • Sarah P

    I lived in Central America for almost a year, so I have been trying to cope since I got back two months ago. The exhaustion, lethargy, not wanting people to ask but wanting so badly to talk about it with someone, no longer understanding what it’s like here anymore. It’s frustrating. But at least I have those memories of the friends, the beach, the jungle, the food, the lifestyle. And at least I am not one of those people who doesn’t want to know. If I know you and you go somewhere, I want to know all about it and want you to listen to me tell you all about it too. Great article, I really needed this right now.

    • Sam.vh11

      Good luck Sarah! Like I said, the thing that helped me was giving myself time and not forcing it. Be gentle with yourself. Eat, sleep, repeat, and it will settle itself in a bit :)

  • TiredTraveler

    Jesus Christ people, get over yourselves. Quit acting as though anyone is more “real” than anyone else. The poor are not anymore authentic than the rich simply because their concerns center around where they will get the next meal instead of the next gadget they will buy. I am so tired of listening to Peace Corps types passing judgment on everyone who isn’t as pseudo-intellectual as they are about the “realness” of life outside the Western world.

    The people trapped in the poverty that you romanticize would kill to have a McMansion and a Lexus, or even a simple apartment in the Bronx and a job at Subway. In fact, that’s why the West is where it is today–people crave progress. Given the choice, very few people would choose to live in a dirt floor hut over an apartment with indoor plumbing.

    “Sickening muchness” indeed. Small minds, simple opinions.

  • Rubytan

    Beautiful and poignant piece. Definitely one of my favourites here. Well done.

  • Ryan Wallace

    Great article, heartfelt and well-written. Returning from any travels is difficult (and from anywhere your friends never seem to really ask more than ‘how was it?’) but at least you have those memories, and the desire to help more in future. Those are important things.