For the last ten days, my husband and I have been on R&R travel outside of Uzbekistan. We left Tashkent and started off with a day’s layover in Turkey on the way to the Maldives, and we are currently in Malaysia.
We came to post knowing that Tashkent has an annual R&R entitlement, so I planned this first trip for almost four months with a lot of anticipation. Part of the allure of an R&R is to “rest and recuperate” from difficult working and living conditions in a post of assignment, and I have been really looking forward to this break. When our expeditors arrived to take us to the airport, I practically leapt out the door.
During our planned 13 hour stopover in Istanbul, we managed to figure out the metro system, find some delicious Mediterranean lunch, baklava and Turkish delights, and wander through the Grand Bazaar without being pickpocketed.
I’m not much of a travel shopper, and we had a strict weight requirement for the upcoming seaplane trip to our Maldivian island, so I didn’t buy anything large. However, it was sure fun to look.
We also visited the famous Blue Mosque, where I hadn’t been inside on my two previous trips to Istanbul. I’d brought a cardigan and head scarf to mask my hair and bare shoulders. But the admissions lady was not so much a fan of my skinny capris and required me to don a long, baggy skirt over them. I was actually grateful because it was a chilly day and temperature-wise I was underdressed in anticipation of my tropical destination. I probably looked silly in my mismatched layers, but what little we managed to see of the awe-inspiring inside of the mosque before the call to prayer was worth it.
The best decision we made in Istanbul, however, was to sleep the evening away in the airport hotel, as our flight to Male did not depart until around midnight. Late that afternoon, as we couldn’t fight the fatigue any longer, we gave into our tiredness and went in search of a soft bed, still making our late plane in plenty of time, showered and alert.
After an uneventful and citrus-scented Turkish Airlines flight, we emerged into the muggy, scorching heat of Male (and that was just inside the airport, ha ha!).
After a short delay to collect our luggage and board a tiny seaplane that would ferry us the 40 minute hop to the island, we were finally off. As I expected, laid out below were some of the most stunning scenes of any flight I’ve been on.
Some of the most interesting atolls are those which have sunk below the Indian Ocean’s surface, their white sands giving off a ghostly glow underneath the still shallow turquoise water. There’s just something about the color of the water in the Maldives that doesn’t even seem possible.
Our week on the island was as fabulous as could be imagined. We stayed in a jacuzzi water villa, and gorged on unlimited, delicious food and drink. Everywhere we went was no sandals required, and there had to have been less than one hundred people on the island total. The view off our back deck was out of this world.
The yellow and turquoise tropical fish, eels, the hunting white heron, the sea turtles, the sting rays and the small sharks – all patrolled the shallow lagoons and the white sand beaches, seemingly oblivious to their good fortune.
Despite being instantly enamored with the paradise island, unfortunately, it seemed that my feelings were not reciprocated.
The second day we were there, I not only scraped both of my feet on coral while swimming, I also got a first degree sunburn and punctured the bottom of my right large toe on seemingly nothing in the sand. Although I’d stayed in the shade, mindful of the equator’s proximity, during my brief ocean swims my shoulders, neck, back, arms, stomach, legs and even hands became entirely scorched, actually blistering within days and making sleep almost unbearable. I never in my life have been sunburned so intensely and in fact I didn’t even think it was possible, especially not without laying out and not in the span of a mere few hours. I’m not even generally the whitest person, with Italian and Portuguese heritage on my mom’s side, and I am not particularly accident-prone either.
Although I comforted myself with plenty of frozen cocktails and an aloe treatment at the island’s spa, the damage was done. The burn also prevented me from noticing a bigger problem until two days later: a serious infection from the coral scrape that spread from the top of my left foot and streaked red up my leg. Soon a nasty blister the size of a quarter emerged and spread its tentacles across the top of my foot. My foot swelled unrecognizably, and walking became a major challenge.
A doctor came from a nearby island and examined the swollen, blistered infection. He quickly prescribed seven days of antibiotics, an antimicrobial ointment, and a syringe of Clexane that I would have to administer to my own abdomen shortly before our onward flight to Sri Lanka in order to reduce the risk of deep vein thrombosis.
So while my injuries caused some misery (and me having to bow out of snorkeling, kayaking and a sunset cruise), they didn’t spoil the trip. However, they did cause a ton of limping, foot elevation and people looking at me with pity. I also got away with wearing a slipper-clad bandaged left foot through international airports in Male, Colombo, Kuala Lumpur and Penang as we transited, and that was interesting. (I will always be grateful that I grabbed the complimentary pair of slippers from the Istanbul airport hotel on the way out of the door, because sandals weren’t an option for a while.)
One of my Facebook friends joked yesterday in response to a picture I posted of our resort in Malaysia that I’m on vacation while living in another country. His conclusion was that I’m on vacation while on vacation. It made me laugh, but it also was a sobering reminder that the general American public doesn’t really understand the work of our diplomats overseas.
It’s fair to say that the life diplomatic has its perks and privileges. Private school for kids, paid R&R airfare, diplomatic balls and receptions. But with those privileges come responsibilities, and sacrifices. We live away from our families, miss important milestones in the lives of our loved ones, and often serve in poor or dangerous conditions. My medical care in Uzbekistan is currently inadequate to address an ongoing chronic health condition. We don’t pick our postings. I signed a worldwide availability agreement, and I meant it.
I work like a dog, and am regularly in the embassy 12 hours a day. It’s no vacation, but I do it out of a love for my country and a strong belief in public service. My role is small, but I protect and serve my country and its people every day, and it makes me proud. I’m a professional, good at what I do, and it’s a job that many Americans don’t understand and couldn’t handle.
Yes – I get hardship pay, and I can afford to take luxury vacations. I am privileged. But I’ve earned that, and it cost me my own blood, sweat and tears, sometimes literally, over the last two decades to get where I am. I have been prudent, hard-working and fiscally responsible. And it is simply benefits like R&R travel that give us a mental and physical break, keep us sane and allow us to return to our work focused and ready to again take up the challenges to which we have agreed.
I know my friend’s comment was a lighthearted remark, borne out of the unfamiliar, and I wasn’t at all offended. I am grateful for a reminder that I have a platform and the chance to share what we do, and the realities of this lifestyle for which we have worked so hard.
To those Americans on overseas vacations: please be careful. Consular officers will be here for you the best we can when you need help. To our American diplomats and military serving and traveling around the world: ladies and gentlemen, I salute you from Malaysia with my coconut water. Thank you for your service.