Earlier this month, I sat propped up in my hospital bed listening to an orthopedic surgeon and an infectious disease specialist address me with gentle concern. For a fourth day, intravenous antibiotics flowed into my veins through a clear tube. Beneath my red rubber-studded hospital sock, the fourth toe on my left foot felt scalded and rotten. Discolored, deformed, twice its normal size, and sporting an open wound, even the nurses said it was a stunner. I’d been neglecting it for almost two years, and my slo-mo crash was finally starting to burn. (Note: I won’t be too graphic, but the medically squeamish may wish to give this post a pass.)
Today marks the one month point since our arrival in Australia. I’m grateful for so many of the advantages of being here, which are already obvious. If I’m honest though, I can’t help but notice that my settling in time has been marked by a number of inconveniences ranging from annoying, to painful, to downright comical (in the “what-else-could-go-wrong” sense). Every officer knows that the period of adjustment and settling in at a new post can be this way, even in a lucky first world posting and with lots of helpful colleagues. My time in Sydney in 2005 and 2006 was so charmed that I really wasn’t expecting to struggle so much at the beginning here. Is it bad luck? Karma from some offense committed in a prior incarnation? Being overly impatient with myself and others? No matter the genesis, I’ve tried persistently to see the glass as half full.
My husband and I were at San Francisco International Airport on a warm night in late July. Bags checked, phone calls made, dinner enjoyed, black passports in hand. Time to go. I strolled up to the departure gate in a long queue of passengers for the flight to Sydney, trying to appear nonchalant. In the pit of my stomach was this dread that one of the eagle-eyed Qantas gate agents would confront me about my carry-on baggage weighing two dozen kilos above the limit. They were all the right dimensions, but if anyone lifted them, they would have been aghast.
Foreign Service Officers (FSOs) have Congressionally-mandated “home leave” between overseas diplomatic postings. We are required to take a minimum of 20 business days in the U.S. in order to reorient ourselves and keep our ties strong. We don’t actually have to spend our home leave days at our home of record (HOR); we can be anywhere in the U.S. and its territories. However, unless an FSO is independently wealthy (ha), has a vacant property to stay in, or willing family members with homes large enough to host an officer and his/her spouse, kids, pets, and stuff for weeks on end, home leave for many can end up feeling like “homeless” leave.
It’s been several weeks since we left Uzbekistan and returned to the U.S., and given that I have worked on this post multiple times without publishing it, I feel like it has been hard to focus on anything other than working, visiting family, and having fun. Our time stateside is ending in about a week; although I don’t see how that could possibly be, the calendar speaks the truth.
My husband and I woke for the final time in Tashkent last Thursday around 02:00, showered, dressed, ate the last random food in our fridge, and lugged our suitcases out to the expediter vehicle. I’d felt a moment of sadness as I walked through the empty rooms of our house, and said goodbye to each room individually. After the baggage was loaded, I stood in the front yard for a moment trying to be present. I gazed at what had been my home for just over two years, and said my goodbyes and thanks.
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.
You know that PCS (Permanent Change of Station) season is right around the corner when everyone is crossing those last regional destinations off their bucket lists. Or at the very least, indulging in a road trip to enjoy time with departing friends! The packing and organizing will get done one way or another.