Over this past holiday season, we have been lucky to celebrate Thanksgiving with friends, reconnect with people we haven’t seen in a while, travel out of town, and enjoy a quiet Christmas at home. All of that has meant a lot, since our Christmas ornaments are at a port warehouse in Long Beach along with the rest of our worldly goods, and coming home to Virginia has felt at times more like a way station than anything else. Before our NYE celebrations planned for later tonight, I wanted to send some good end-of-decade vibes out into the world.
I recently wrapped up my 15 day language immersion trip in Ecuador with a graduation ceremony and a trip to some thermal springs before returning to a DC winter. Here I reflect on my last days in Ecuador and the value of a language immersion program.
During the first part of week 15 in Spanish (and the second week of my language immersion in Ecuador), I continued enjoying the great outdoors while generally getting my butt kicked by high altitude, thin air, humidity, inflammation and old injuries, and stairs. I had the last laugh though, because I practiced my Spanish, saw new and cool things, and made it through each challenge without quitting.
During the first week I was in Ecuador, I also had the opportunity to visit one of Quito’s most famous basilicas, explore a variety of local foods and markets, party on a fiesta bus (chiva), and hike a volcano. The latter was one of the most physically grueling activities I’ve ever done, not only because I ascended to an altitude of over 15,500 feet (4,800 meters) without being in great shape, but also because of the thin air.
[This is the second blog post in a series of four on my Spanish immersion experience in Ecuador. If you missed the first post, you can find it here.]
I flew into Ecuador’s capital, Quito, from Panama City the Saturday before last and immediately could feel I’d arrived somewhere new. The misty mountains ringed the airport and the cool, rainy air felt precariously thin. Quito is a city of 1.9 million people, perched in the Andes on the slopes of the Pichincha volcano, at an incredible elevation of 9,350 feet (2,850 meters). It is the second highest capital city in the world, after La Paz, Bolivia. Previously I think the highest elevation I had ever reached outside an airplane was Denver (around 5,500 feet). Just standing at the baggage claim in Quito, my heart rate was over 120 beats per minute!
My prior travels in Latin America have been limited to Panama (in 2013) and Mexico (too many times to count since 1991), so I was really looking forward to this adventure.
[This is the first blog post in a series of four on my Spanish immersion experience in Ecuador. More posts coming soon!]
Each year on April 25, Australians and New Zealanders hold a day of remembrance to honor their fallen service members. Anzac Day was originally meant to commemorate the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) volunteer soldiers who landed at Gallipoli, Turkey on April 25, 1915. The battle at Gallipoli, sometimes also called the Dardanelles Campaign, was the first time Australian and New Zealand troops fought together in World War I. More than 11,000 ANZAC soldiers were killed and a further 23,500 wounded at Gallipoli. In the decades that followed, the holiday broadened to honor the fighting Anzac spirit that is a large part of the national identity.
All over Australia, Australians mark Anzac Day with dawn services, marches, and remembrance ceremonies, and reflect on the lives of those who persevered and died protecting the freedoms and values we enjoy.
On Saturday morning, December 29, V and I drove up to Sydney for a few days of relaxation before celebrating New Year’s Eve at the Sydney Opera House. On Thursday evening, V had torn up his arms and one leg in a cycling accident that had landed him in the hospital until Friday night. Besides the fact that he was in pain and uncomfortable, it had looked for a time that we may not make our trip at all. To my great happiness, the wounds were cleaned, he was patched up, and we were on our way. As I drove down the highway with V napping and the radio on low, I felt relieved. I had spent NYE 2005 in Sydney, and it had gone down in history as my all-time favorite fireworks; I was sure that 2018 would be better! But as I soon found out, although our weekend would ultimately happen, it would also be marked by the same roller coaster of worry, good luck, and bad luck that had seized the previous few days.
This piece is the second installment in a story about the almost-derailment of our New Year’s Eve plans in Sydney. If you missed the first post, you can find it here.
On January 2, 2018, I booked a one-bedroom apartment in Sydney for three nights across New Year’s Eve weekend. Yes, 52 weeks in advance. It’s not unusual to book NYE accommodation in Sydney really early, especially when some hotels are booked two NYEs in advance and it is majorly on your bucket list! More than a million visitors pack Sydney Harbour each NYE, so when I found an apartment with hotel amenities within walking distance, I put the money down. As the months went by, I purchased tickets for other things to round out our itinerary. An anniversary dinner in the Sydney Tower Eye, a dinner and cabaret show cruise around Sydney Harbour, and to top it all off: a ticketed NYE party at the Sydney Opera House Portside on December 31. All prepaid and nonrefundable, of course, although I bought an insurance policy for the Opera House tickets.
In the weeks leading up to the trip, my husband had ominously joked that he hoped his kidney stones didn’t act up and ruin the trip. Because he has been hospitalized at short notice more than once in crippling pain with stones, the joke wasn’t all that funny. But then something really unfunny happened that almost turned our once-in-a-lifetime trip into the trip that wasn’t.
I’ve now spent three Christmas seasons in Australia (2005, 2017, and 2018), and have been lucky enough to experience some of the delightful differences between celebrating an Australian vs. an American Christmas.
For Memorial Day weekend, we went on a road trip to New South Wales’ Hunter Valley wine region. I planned it a few months ago; although I last went in 2005, my husband had never been, and I thought it would be a nice getaway for us after a stressful few weeks at the embassy between official visits, long hours, and feeling bummed after the departure from post of two close friends. Throughout May and June (late autumn and early winter), the Hunter celebrates its annual Wine and Food Festival. But with 150 wineries, restaurants, and cellar doors to choose from year-round, it’s always a wine and food festival there!
In 1996, the United States Senate designated the first Friday in May as “American Foreign Service Day.” It is on this day that members of the Foreign Service around the world come together to recognize the work that our nation’s diplomats do. It is also a day to pay tribute to those we’ve lost; today at high noon, we at U.S. Embassy Canberra gathered at the chancery flagpole for a few moments of reflection and remembrance.
Australians take a four day weekend for the Easter holiday, which I didn’t pay much attention to until it was nearly upon us. But a chance to go out of town for more than one night was too good to pass up, so I searched for romantic getaway places on AirBnB. I found and booked an inexpensive but nice-looking one with excellent reviews on the Sapphire Coast of New South Wales, a couple hours south of Canberra where we hadn’t yet been. After a day or so, I realized the reason that property had still been open when everything else – as is so typical during school holidays – was already booked solid: our AirBnB was in the coastal town of Tathra, which had headlined national news a couple weeks earlier while being ravaged by bushfires.
Dozens of Russian diplomats posted to the United States declared persona non grata and sent home. Thousands of American troops marching into Poland in the largest U.S. military reinforcement of Europe in decades. An entire world on the edge of its seat awaiting the inauguration of a new U.S. head of state. It was in this dramatic and turbulent political climate earlier this month that one hopeful American diplomat went on holiday to the Russian Federation.
Several weeks ago, the land crossing at the border between Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan opened to vehicular traffic for the first time since I’ve been here. It takes about fifteen minutes from our house in Tashkent to drive past the ring road and up the M-39 to the crossing itself. After going through immigration and customs on both the Uzbek and Kazakh sides, it’s about another 90 minutes (depending on weather and road conditions) to the Kazakh city of Shymkent (Шымкент). Oh Shymkent – where have you been all my Tashkent tour?
A few weekends ago, my husband and I took a two day trip up to Charvak Reservoir, a man-made lake about 60 miles northeast of Uzbekistan’s capital, Tashkent.
The reservoir is located in the western part of the Tien Shan mountains, and it definitely feels like Central Asia. Because of the road conditions, it can take a good 90 minutes to get there. Nearby Chimgan is also popular in the winter for skiing and sledding, and features lots of bare mountains, daunting as they are treeless. We stayed in a hotel some people call “the pyramids”, set literally right on the water. I’m sure it’s very crowded in the summer, but in the winter we had it all to ourselves.