During my first tour in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, we only had one visitor – my mom. She came to visit in August 2016 and although I mentioned it twice (here and here) and shared a handful of photos before we then jetted off to Budapest and Moscow together, I never followed up with the promised travelogue about her visit. Since it’s been almost four years, some details have now faded, and there are hundreds of pictures that are hard to choose between. However, thanks to really good Facebook photo captions I made at the time, everything she went through to get there, and my ongoing belief that I could have done a better job showing more about Uzbekistan during my tour, I decided it was now or never to make this post.
Over the years, I have received lots of questions about housing benefits in the Foreign Service (FS) – primarily what my houses have looked like, if I liked them, and whether I got to pick them. Foreign Service Officers are assigned government-owned (or leased) housing to live in during overseas tours as a benefit of our employment. There can be a misconception that diplomats overseas “live like kings,” but where we live is much more about what is available within the applicable regulations – and sometimes that isn’t great – unless you are an ambassador or deputy chief of mission with a representational residence. (For more on housing sacrifices made by FS families, please read this really terrific article by former FS spouse Donna Scaramastra Gorman, “The Reality of Being a Foreign Service Spouse.”)
Whether you feel like your FS housing is an odd temporary space to put up with, or adore it and cherish it as your own home, the topic of housing inspires a lot of discussion – worry and questions, complaints and gratitude, and plenty of laughs. One post in an FS-related Facebook group asking for submissions of the strangest FS housing quirks led to hundreds of comments and hilarious photos that had me in stitches. I had a submission or two of my own, but so far we have been very lucky. Here I share my perspectives, along with never-before seen photos of our official residences from our first two tours in Tashkent, Uzbekistan and Canberra, Australia.
If you have been reading my blog for a while, you know that I served my first diplomatic tour in Uzbekistan starting in 2015. Many of my blog posts while there were focused on things other than Uzbekistan; although I wrote about narrow aspects of my life, and chronicled our trips around the country, the list of unwise subjects to publicly write about in that particular environment was lengthy.
In retrospect, there may have been more “content” I could have produced about the unique parts of Uzbekistan had I been there under different auspices. There is no question that the high-fraud consular work, security posture, and challenges of being a non-mother in a society where women derive their place chiefly from motherhood all negatively affected my perspective at times. I also was very focused on not drawing attention to my whereabouts and activities too, especially when my blog “mysteriously” became accessible only by VPN. Another American I know succeeded much better in explaining and appreciating what he and his wife experienced during their three years in Uzbekistan. Thirteen months almost to the day on from my departure, it has been an unexpected delight for me to see Uzbekistan again through their eyes.
In my 2016 yearly review and blog statistics recap, I bid 2016 adieu while commenting that it wasn’t my favorite year. I’m not mad at 2017, but I am excited to say goodbye to it. In 2017 I made some fond memories, experienced perhaps my greatest professional challenges and growth yet, and as usual, took recreating pretty seriously. While 2017 brought me a chance to pull out my passport on four continents, it also brought me tedious, ongoing health problems, some of which unfortunately I must carry forward into 2018. As I welcome the new year with a hopeful heart and mind, I’m thinking about where I’ve been and what I have to look forward to in 2018.
On a hot, dry night in May 2015, I landed in Tashkent to begin my first diplomatic tour. My iPhone was shuffling through songs and settled on “The Heart of Rock and Roll” by Huey Lewis and the News just before the wheels hit the tarmac. My heart was excited and hopeful, and my mind was jumbled full of Russian and consular don’t-forgets. Over 105 weeks later, hours from flying away for good, I’m grateful for the best parts of being here, and even the tough parts. Five figure visa interviews. Eleven new countries…and one old. Road trips. Illnesses and injuries. New friends and colleagues. Probably way too many plates of plov cooked in sheep fat. And an inestimable amount of gratitude and hope for what comes next.
During Soviet times, Tashkent had a functioning aircraft production plant called the Chkalov Aircraft Factory, previously also known as the Tashkent Aviation Production Organization (TAPO). The factory was named after famous Soviet pilot Valeriy Chkalov. Although the factory still boasts some contracts and foreign projects, by and large its glory days have passed. I don’t know whether or not the compound is open to the public, but a group of us from the embassy were lucky enough last week to be invited there to check out the museum and some of the planes still on display.
I strolled slowly downhill through the gravel and broken pavement towards the Aral Sea as raindrops began to fall. The Land Cruiser rolled up slowly on my right, and M called out through the open window, “Hey lady, want a ride?” Looking skeptically over my shoulder, I replied, “I don’t usually take rides from strangers. But you guys look all right.” I laughed at myself as I clumsily climbed in and we rolled the remaining few hundred yards down to the seaport.
[This is a companion piece to my prior post about traveling to the Aral Sea earlier this month. If you missed the first post, you can find it here.]
The Aral Sea is located in the autonomous republic of Karakalpakstan, in the far northwestern part of Uzbekistan. While once the fourth largest lake in the world, over the last several decades it has lost 90 percent of its water, mostly due to irresponsible Soviet agricultural practices. Scientists have long considered the Aral Sea to be one of the greatest environmental disasters in human history. I saw a National Geographic article featuring the impending destruction of the sea around twenty years ago, and a small seed of fascination was planted. It has been without a doubt my biggest bucket list item during my tour in Uzbekistan. We were fortunate to finally make our visit happen two weeks ago – one of the most sad and contemplative, yet amazing and mysterious trips I’ve ever taken.
Last spring, I took a road trip through the Fergana Valley with some of my embassy colleagues and friends. Unfortunately, it happened during a time when my husband was in London and couldn’t attend. So this year when the trip was announced again, we signed up, and a couple of our friends said they’d roll with us, too. More than a dozen diplomatic-plated vehicles caravaning through the valley drew a lot of amazed stares and sometimes even a wave. Two days and in excess of a dozen hours in the car led us to beautiful Uzbek silk, hand-painted ceramic pottery, and the palace of the former khan. How could we say no to our second-to-last Uzbek road trip?
The weekend before last, my husband and I made our fifth and final trip to Kazakhstan. It seemed only fitting that we should bid farewell to Shymkent now that spring has bloomed, and we have less than six weeks remaining here.
Next month will make two years that I’ve lived in Uzbekistan. In the course of my work here on immigrant and “green card lottery” cases, I’ve looked at literally hundreds of Uzbek wedding photos, submitted to bolster the bona fides of a relationship. I’ve seen the dresses, the festive and colorful tables, and the giant plates of plov. But literally every Uzbek I know is already married. In fact, my Uzbek colleagues who are the same age as I am have children who are now preparing for university. That is probably why I’ve never actually received an invitation to an Uzbek wedding. But a couple of weeks ago, one of my colleagues A., walked into my office and asked me what I was doing on April 14.
Spring can be a particularly angst-filled time for Foreign Service Officers on the summer bid cycle as they prepare to depart their posts for home leave, perhaps more training, and eventually, onward assignments. We call it a PCS move, or Permanent Change of Station. The details of PCS to-dos seem endless. From the complicated logistics of an overseas-to-overseas move, to meeting requirements for your new position, to completing a staggering list of duties designed to wrap up a life you’ve spent two years building – all while fully employed in your real job, saying goodbye to colleagues and friends in droves, and bucket-listing like crazy – it’s a lot to manage. Whether you can’t wait to finish your tour or the thought of departing makes you tearful, your launch will happen. Don’t get scorched on the launch pad.
This evening when I came home from the embassy, I directly attacked a pile of laundry that seems to multiply like mushrooms in the dark. Why can’t I be arsed to keep on top of this? I asked myself with annoyance. All I have to do is let the machine do the work. And yet the wash cycle is 90 minutes. And my closet is on the third floor while the laundry room is in the basement. And I hate folding. And I am not supposed to lift more than 10 pounds. And my foot and leg are numb and I have a recent history of falling down the stairs. And, and, and. But then I inadvertently took a trip down memory lane: I looked back at a journal entry from March 2003 when I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in the Republic of Macedonia. After I read it, I smiled ruefully and felt a little ashamed.
It was Friday morning, St. Patrick’s Day, and my husband and I were leaving for work. The temperature was in the mid-50s Fahrenheit, and as we’d decided two nights before looking at the weather, it was time for the tortoises to come out of hibernation. Apparently they’d had the same thought, because as we lifted the lid off their burrow, they were already on the way out themselves. For the first time since October 18 (150 days), we were seeing our tortoises awake and on the move!
Last week in Uzbekistan was more fun than the average week, with a diplomatic reception, a road trip on a rare Wednesday off, a spring masquerade ball, and what my neighbor S and I have come to call our “neighbor appreciation” Sunday evening dinners.