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Sunday, July 11, 2021

The Best-Laid Plans

 I am a planner.  I love planning and logistics and booking plane tickets and finding rental houses and putting items on the calendar and making schedules, something that Brandon is constantly grateful for because he loathes all of those things.  As soon as we even start talking about taking a trip, I eagerly rush to the internet to work out all of the possible details of this theoretical trip.  Brandon claims that there is probably something profoundly wrong with me for enjoying those things, but he can't complain because I happily save him from doing them himself.

Every summer I plan out our travel as soon as possible.  The day Brandon lets me know that the request for summer leave has come in, I give him the dates that I've already worked out months before.  I blame my mother for this habit, as she has been known to set an alarm on the day that beach rental companies start accepting summer reservations so that she can be the first in line.  

As soon as Brandon lets me know that he has gotten his time off, I start talking with the travel office about booking tickets.  Our tickets are paid for by the government, part of the sweetener deal to make places like Central Asia attractive, so the process of buying them is ten times more difficult and often two times more expensive than if we had just paid for the tickets ourselves.  Countless years of breath have been wasted complaining about the ridiculously antiquated system, but it's still in place because, government.  

I always start this process early because it takes so very long to get it all done and I never know what new complication will come up each year.  One summer his boss took four months to approve Brandon's leave because his boss was leaving and didn't want to speak for the next boss.  That year we got our tickets ten days before we left, despite asking for leave in January.  Another summer we had our tickets bought and paid for months in advance.  Then there was a coup in Turkey five days before we left, so we had to fly through another airport.  When I left to have William, there were fuel issues with Turkish Airlines and the flights were irregular, so we re-booked through Dubai four days before our departure.  I remember looking out the window of our plane and seeing the Turkish airplane that we were supposed to be on.  Another year, nobody wanted to give Brandon any leave at all because there wasn't anyone to run his section while we were gone, and those tickets were bought a week in advance.  Every year I think that I've covered all of the possible scenarios, but it turns out that I'm never quite creative enough to plan for whatever new strange circumstance has popped up.  I've come to be much more calm about the entire process as we always manage to get on the plane, even if the tickets show up the night before we leave (true story).

This year, we actually had tickets in our possession on May 26.  I had lined up everything perfectly for our fourth move, making sure things were ready months in advance.  Then plans changed and we weren't moving anymore.  Our dates for leaving were the same, but we just had to buy tickets to return.  It sounded pretty simple.  Just buy return tickets and we're done.  But, as this is the government, it wasn't simple at all.

First Brandon had to get everyone to agree that he could really stay.  The management here at post was thrilled to have him stay, but the management at our next post wasn't so sure.  It took several weeks of talking, but in the end they were okay with him not learning Kazakh.  Then Brandon had to apply for his job.  Since he was taking over someone else's job (even though it was in the same section), he had to bid on a one-year job that was created exclusively for him.  Next he had to have a handshake offered and then accepted, which took several more weeks.  Then he had to get paneled, and finally he had to get travel orders.  

As soon as Brandon sent me the travel orders, I sent them to the travel office.  They had to return the tickets that had already been bought and then reserve new tickets.  I changed the dates multiple times because Brandon is going hunting with his brother and we had to get that straightened out, which required more texts, emails, and waiting.  We also had to figure out how to get a PCR test in Anchorage and how long Brandon would have to wait in a hotel in Anchorage for results before being able to fly back to Tashkent.  

By early this past week, everything was worked out and I told the travel office to purchase the tickets.  Sure, they told me, just as soon as I turned in "the DS form."  Then we found out that Brandon had to resubmit his itinerary in another government system.  It actually accepted all of the information without any problems (which we had had when we submitted it the first time back in April because we weren't using Internet Explorer) until we got to the end and couldn't actually press the submit button.

He was able to submit the form the next day, but then realized that the people who had to approve it weren't in Tashkent, as both were on R&R.  He worked around one approver, but the second one got a phone call while in the Maldives and he approved it right before going snorkeling.  As of today, it is waiting on two people (who are hopefully not on vacation) in DC to approve it, so perhaps we'll get the tickets on Tuesday.  Or Wednesday.  As long as we get them before Saturday, I really don't care. 

Brandon himself has been pulling twelve- and fourteen-hour days this past week, and only had to work eight hours on Saturday to get ready for a big conference that will be happening the three days before we leave.  He is in charge of arranging schedules, meetings, hotel rooms, diplomatic notes, airport pickups and drop-offs (which always happen at 1 or 2 in the morning), and the myriad other details and emergencies that happen when multiple travelers are coming in from DC.

I had intentionally planned to leave on a Sunday this time, as our departure is always a furious rush of Brandon trying to get everything done and dragging in late the night before we leave.  I always spend the two previous days packing all the suitcases and getting all the details done alone and am crabby because I've been the one running the show without any backup.  

The last time we barely avoided a total meltdown at eleven o-clock the night before we left (and we always leave much too early the next day), Brandon had the brilliant idea of taking an extra day off before we left so that I wasn't left alone and he wasn't destroyed from work.  So this time Brandon asked for Friday off so that we had two days to get ready to leave.  He wouldn't be stressed, I wouldn't be frazzled, the suitcases would be packed by early Saturday afternoon, and we could spend the rest of the day swimming, having dinner, and getting to bed early.  Everyone would be happy with each other, our house wouldn't be destroyed from furious packing, and we wouldn't be wondering - as we do every single year - if it is really worth it to kill ourselves to go to America.  After all, the Maldives are always there.

Sometimes I wonder why I keep trying to fight against the inevitable unravelling of all of the my plans.  It really would be easier if I just saved everything until the very end and let everything work out how it inevitably would anyway.  But I just can't bring myself to let go of the illusion that I am in control and so instead go crazy trying to make everything work smoothly and well.  One day I will let go, and that will be right about the time we quit working for the state department.

But for now, I'll go and find myself a paper bag to breathe into.  Then I'll remind myself that life is not all spent traveling and we'll have a great time and forget about all the trouble as soon as we get over the jet lag and start partying.  And then I'll go and waste time on social media for hours as a coping mechanism for dealing with the stress of packing.  And finally I'll get everything all packed, Brandon will send his visitors back to where they came from, and we will get on the airplane just as we do every summer.  And it will be another year before we have to do it all again.  Thank heaven.

Sunday, July 4, 2021

All Alone, Again

 Today, Brandon and I woke up at 8:00.  After making sure the smaller children got breakfast, we showered, dressed, made sure everyone else was dressed, and then started church.  I'm not sure what time it was, but it really didn't matter because there wasn't going to be anyone else showing up anyway.  In fact, there won't be anyone else showing up at our house for church until January.  So it's home-churching for the next seven months.

Our good friends left a few weeks ago, in a blaze of furious socialization, spending days together enjoying the summer delights of Tashkent and the long evenings together by the pool squeezing out the last drops of time spent together here in Uzbekistan.  We will see each other again, but never again living together in the same city, as close as two families can be without actually being related to each other.  I love that the foreign service forges such strong bonds out of often difficult circumstances, but I hate that there is always an end date.  I am sometimes jealous of my parents who have lived in the same house that they bought when I was three.  

So church has been much quieter for the past two weeks.  Luckily, we've done this several times before, the longest being eight months during covid when we saw nobody but ourselves every Sunday morning.  

But having done it before doesn't make it any better.  I can't deny that there are some upsides, however.  There's no Sunday rush to get everyone out the door or have the house ready for guests.  I don't wear makeup or style my hair, although everyone still dresses in church clothes.  Brandon always teaches the lessons, so I'm not responsible for any hurried lesson preparation on Saturday night.  And we eat lunch much earlier which means longer Sunday afternoon naps for Brandon and me.

As nice as those things are, it doesn't make up for all the things that we miss.  The children miss having friends at church, if only as a break from seeing each other all week long.  Worshipping together with friends makes the worship that more sweet.  Brandon and I also miss having friends at church and the sharing of experience and wisdom that comes from being together.  Also, our children behave better when there is an audience.  We all miss feeling like we're part of a unit, a very small part of the larger church of Jesus Christ, working together for the kingdom of God.  It's harder to feel that when you're all alone in a country of 33 million people.

But we'll be fine until reinforcements show up next year.  Thankfully we have enough people that Brandon and I aren't the only ones singing the songs or giving the testimonies.  We even have enough older children that can play the piano, direct the music, pass the sacrament, and run singing time for the primary children.  So it's not that bad.  But it will be nice when new friends show up.  Until then, we'll enjoy our long Sunday naps.  

Sunday, June 13, 2021

Hiking Fail

 A few weeks ago, we had a holiday.  The children had finished school the week before, so we decided to celebrate by doing something fun.  While discussion what to do, Eleanor suggested we go hiking.  We have done almost no hiking the entire time we've been here in Tashkent.  The mountains are at least a ninety-minute drive away from our house, and being pregnant, having a small baby, and COVID have also dampened my adventuring spirit.

So I thought that we'd take it easy and go on a fun hike.  A few winters ago, a new ski resort opened up in the mountains.  There are several Soviet-era skiing areas (I say 'areas' because calling them resorts would be laughable), but the chair lifts are things that Brandon would never let the children get within fifty feet of.  We had friends who were riding chair lifts at a skiing area one summer, the lift got struck by lightning, and they ended up getting down from the lift via ropes.  

This new resort, however, has brand-new lifts and a gondola to the top.  The weather has gotten hot down here in Tashkent, but the temperature looked delightfully cool up in the mountains.  So we loaded the kids in the car, headed up to the mountains, and looked forward to a nice, easy hike that only went down.  

I had checked the website before going, and the hiking page mentioned two routes at the top of the resorts, and specifically mentioned one as 'long but easy.'  After an exciting ride on the gondola, everyone tumbled out, eager to enjoy the lovely view and perhaps a little less eager to start hiking.  It's pretty safe to say that my enthusiasm for hiking is at least double anyone else's in the family.  

After looking around and taking a few pictures, we started looking for the trail.  I had thought (in retrospect quite foolishly forgetting that - despite riding a European skiing gondola - we were still in Central Asia) that the trail would be clearly marked.  After all, the resort had an entire page dedicated to hiking at the resort, complete with scenic pictures.  However, everything going down from the summit looked both steep and scree-covered.  There wasn't anything that looked like trails and no signs pointing toward trails either.

By this point the children were all ready to hop back in the gondola and ride back down to the bottom.  No clear hiking trails clearly meant that there didn't have to be any hiking.  But I stubbornly insisted that there had to be some way to get down from the top - all resorts have an easy cat-track down from the top for the poor fools that get in over their head.  Besides, we had to spend a little more time doing something in the mountains.  I have a personal rule that you have to spend more time at your destination than it took to get there.  

After a little scouting, I found a ski trail that looked promising, and herded everyone over to start the fun.  "It will be fun," I told them, "and besides, how hard can it be?  We're just walking down the hill!"  Insert ominous music.

At first the trail was flat and gentle.  After five minutes of walking, we came to a split.  One route was listed as blue, the other orange.  I did a lot of skiing in college, so I knew what blue meant - intermediate route.  But I'd never heard of orange, as US resorts label their resorts as black, blue, and green.  So I figured that orange should be easier than blue and we took the orange route.  Ominous music again.

Pretty soon we came to our first downhill.  In addition to being reasonably steep, it was also scree-covered.  But it wasn't too bad, and it was an orange - and not blue - slope, after all.  Everyone scrambled down the slope, working hard to not turn their descent into an uncontrolled tumble.  Brandon had Elizabeth on his back, and I led William down.  The only thing worse than scrambling down a scree-covered slope is scrambling down one with a toddler.  But everyone made it down the slope and we were rewarded with a stunning view of the surrounding slopes.  And another slope.

This one was at least plant-covered, so the scramble wasn't quite so bad.  But it was followed by another one, and another, and another.  After three or four slopes, Brandon asked if perhaps we should just climb back up and ride the gondola down.  He had injured one of his knees years ago while working at a Stouffer's frozen food factory in the early years of our marriage.  It only bothers him while hiking downhill, and it's made worse by carrying a 25-pound baby on his back.  His knee was starting to bother him and he wasn't sure if he could make it down the rest of the way.

I looked at the slope we had just scrambled down, and thought about scrambling back up it while hauling a four-year old.  Then I thought about scrambling up three more of them.  Then I looked down at how far we had to go to the bottom of the resort.  I made the third bad decision of the day and insisted that it wouldn't be that much longer until we got to the bottom.  

Several slopes later, Brandon was climbing down backwards on his hands and knees, William had skinned his knees, and everyone was shaking from exhaustion.  As I scrambled down the steepest slope, I imagined what it would be like to ski down it.  There was no way that this slope was easier than a blue, and it looked about as steep as some of the blacks I had recklessly zoomed down during my young and irresponsible college years.

By the time we reached a meadow with a lake in it, Brandon was done.  William had developed blisters on both toes.  So Kathleen strapped on the baby carrier and took Elizabeth while I piggy-backed William.  After scouting on ahead, Brandon and I determined that we had made it down the worst of the slopes and we had a pretty easy route back to our car.  

Half an hour later, we finally emerged from the mountain dusty, exhausted, injured, and triumphant.  Everyone hobbled back to the car and gratefully climbed back in, happy to be through with the 'fun' that their sadistic mother had subjected them to on a holiday.  

While driving home, everyone wanted to know if they would ever have to hike like that again.  "No, no," I assured them, "that wasn't hiking.  That was scrambling down black ski slopes.  Nobody hikes like that."  They sighed in relief.  And then Joseph piped up from the back, "See, Mom, I told you that we should have just ridden the gondola down!  You should have listened to me!!" Hopefully I'll remember this next time and listen to the advice of my nine year-olds.  But honestly, I probably won't.  Some people never learn.

Sunday, June 6, 2021

Change of Plans

We've been anticipating our departure from Tashkent for quite a few months now.  I've gone on two shopping weekends to get all of the treasures that I just couldn't leave here in Uzbekistan.  The children have started to anticipate all of the fun things we can do in the United States.  I've given away or sold all of my flower pots.  We've enjoyed our last fall, winter, and spring in Tashkent, and enjoyed our last delicious strawberry season.  I even sold our cars back in April.  We've made sure that this move will go smoothly by getting ready early.

And then life laughed.

While Brandon and I were getting ready for the day two and a half weeks ago, we were chatting about the usual random assortment of observations, plans, and gossip that makes up a lot of chit-chat between two people that have been married for sixteen years.  While tying his tie, Brandon mentioned that one of his colleagues in the political section was unexpectedly leaving a year early.  While I finished brushing my hair, a thought occurred to me.

"Hey, what if we stayed an extra year and you filled the spot until her replacement arrives next summer?  Then we could stay here instead of spending ten months stuffed into an Oakwood apartment while you learned Kazakh, you could help out in your section, and the kids could keep doing all their lessons for the next year?"

He thought for a minute.  "You know, that is a really good idea.  I think that could really work and everyone could win.  I'll go talk to my boss as soon as I get in to work this morning."

His boss thought it was a fantastic idea, as she was looking at an entire section of officers new to Tashkent this fall, and wasn't sure that they would be able to get anyone to come and fill a year-long gap that the officer's departure was creating.  And to make matters worse, the officer who is leaving is coordinating election monitoring for the first presidential election since Mirziyoyev came to power six years ago.  She was thrilled that such a neat solution could appear that helped everyone out, and quickly got everyone here in Tashkent just as happy about the idea.

There followed some back-and-forth with Nur-Sultan, but they were also fine with the arrangement.  Brandon had been signed up to study a year of Kazakh, but it was only really to fill the year before we arrived in Kazakhstan.  His job is conducted almost entirely in Russian, which he has been speaking for twenty years, so learning Kazakh wasn't really necessary.

And within a couple of weeks, our plans for the next year had changed entirely.  

When we told the children that there was a possibility of staying, all of them were excited to be able to stay.  I had thought that they would be sad about missing out on America, friends, and family, but it turns out that I evidently care more about those things than they do.  In fact, of everyone in the family, I was the one who was most disappointed about missing DC.  Some of them were excited about being able to ride for another year, and others were happy to stay in the same place instead of doing something new, and others were happy to stay in our house with a pool.  I think the only people that are sad about staying are our neighbors who will have to listen to our noise for an extra year.

All of the people that we pay - the piano teacher, Russian teacher, the stable, pool guy, and our housekeeper - were also happy that we would be staying for another year and providing them with another year of guaranteed income.  Teaching five children's lessons makes for some pretty substantial money, so it's nice to know that our beloved teachers will be able to be comfortable for at least one more year.

It's taken a little while to get my mind wrapped around a complete change of plans.  I had been dreading language training ever since our plans for out-year bidding didn't work in the fall of 2019.  I've never liked the year of waiting that language training feels like to me.  I'm always impatient to make it to the next adventure and the next new thing, and having a year pause is practically torturous.  

But it's still strange to change my mindset from "we're leaving in six weeks" to "we're leaving in a year and six weeks."  All of the things that I didn't care about because we were leaving became things that I had to worry about again.  I suddenly remembered the things that I didn't like about here.  My mad rush to buy everything suddenly felt a little premature.  And my complete lack of caring about anyone new coming to post had to change.  Because if we were going to be here for another year and our best family was leaving this summer, we'd have to make some friends for the next year.  

But it's also great that I get another year to enjoy all of the things I enjoy about Uzbekistan.  When strawberry season ended this week, I wasn't quite so sad because we'll have another strawberry season next year.  Every swim in the pool doesn't feel quite so desperate because we have a whole other year to enjoy it.  Kathleen isn't counting down the rides left on her favorite horse.  And I don't have to worry how the children will deal with a year-long gap in their Russian and piano lessons.  

It almost feels like we get a do-over of the past year.  Between being pregnant with Elizabeth, medevacing for three months in the fall of 2019, and COVID, we actually haven't had that much of a chance to explore Uzbekistan.  But with this extra year, we can do some things that we've never had a chance to do.  We've already told friends and family that they have a bonus year to come see us, and have visitors planning a trip in October.  

We also found out that, as a result of arcane rules about home leave, we will be taking our home leave this year and moving straight to Nur-Sultan next year.  It will be like moving to another city in the US.  We can have our things packed up in a few days and then simply hop on a plane with a week's worth of clothes and be in Nur-Sultan in two hours.  The children about lost their minds when they realized that we can get to our next home by one o'clock in the afternoon without any red-eye flights, massive jet-lag, or eight weeks of living out of suitcases.  

So I think it's safe to say that everyone is happy with our change of plans.  Very rarely in the State Department do situations happen when the solution for a problem works out so well for everyone involved, and it's great that this is one of those times.  I'll take every happy instance when it comes.

Sunday, May 30, 2021

Girls' Weekend, Part Two


As I was driving up to my friend's house at the conclusion of our last girls weekend, she turned to me with an excited face, "Do you want to go to Bukhara to go rug shopping??"  

"Of course!!" I excitedly replied.  Because if one girls' weekend to go shopping is good, two girls' weekends to go shopping are even better.  Just like the Fergana Valley is the center of ceramic production in Uzbekistan, Bukhara is the place to buy rugs.  

So this last weekend we took the train to Bukhara to go and find more lovely things to fill our houses with.  We had initially planned to only spend one day, flying there in the morning and flying home in the evening.  But there weren't flights, so instead we spent two days, going on Friday and returning on Saturday.

There is a fast train that takes two hours to go to Samarkand and continues another two and a half hours on to Bukhara.  It's fairly new and quite comfortable, so it wasn't much trouble to take the train instead of flying.  We arrived in Bukhara before noon, dropped our bags off in the hotel, got some lunch, and then set out on our quest to find beautiful carpets.

The Silk Road cities in Uzbekistan have been hit hard by the lack of tourists for the last year, and so there were fewer rug shops open than when I went to Bukhara with my parents two years ago.  Which was probably okay, as we intended to visit every single rug shop that we could find in the city.  Rug shopping isn't something that can be rushed, so we were happy to have two days.  

Having perfected our technique during our last trip, we made sure to take pictures of all the rugs that caught our fancy, not forgetting to note the starting price of each rug on the picture.  By the time we had reached our last shop, I had at least thirty pictures on the camera roll of my phone and we didn't want to see any more rugs.  It turns out that there can actually be too many beautiful rugs in one city.  

Bukhara was holding the Silk and Spices festival the weekend we were there, and all of the citizens of Bukhara were out that evening to enjoy the dancers, music, and performers that were spread throughout the old city.  After dinner, we enjoyed the party before stumbling back to our rooms and reviewing pictures and texting husbands for their input.

After phone calls and consults in the morning, I had narrowed down my list to three carpets and my friend had settled on definitely one and maybe two.  Following breakfast, we set out to bargain for our treasures.  The sellers were happy to have customers, and so we both got good deals on the carpets.  I ended up buying two somaks, which are embroidered woven carpets in addition to two knotted carpets.  My friend ended up with two rugs from the same seller that I bought mine from, so he was a very happy man by the end of the morning.  

Our train didn't leave until four in the afternoon, so we enjoyed a long lunch in an air conditioned restaurant (the temperature was in the low hundreds both days) before boarding our train back to Tashkent.  We spent the entire ride talking, soaking up one of the last times we could spent hours talking without interruptions.  After we had gotten to Tashkent, one of our fellow passengers commented in Russian to another, "Can you believe, they spent the entire time talking?!? Four and a half hours! They never ever shut up!" We got a good laugh and silently apologized to our fellow passengers.

Now I have four more beautiful rugs to add to the four that I already have, and all of them definitely spark joy.  And these four new rugs will always remind me of my lovely weekend spent with friends in Bukhara.  

Sunday, May 23, 2021

Happy Birthday, Sophia!

This week, Sophia turned thirteen, which means that I now have two teenagers in my house.  When I mentioned this to Sophia, she looked at me with a somewhat incredulous expression and replied, "Mom, you're going to have two teenagers in the house until William leaves on his mission - and that is in fourteen years!" So I guess the era of teenager-hood has arrived at the Sherwood house.

But to be fair, Sophia has - so far - shown no inclination to become like some of the horror stories that one hears about.  She is very practically minded and doesn't like conflict, so that certainly helps to keep the drama to a minimum in the house.  Occasionally we will have a difference of opinion about things, but she's very good about talking things through without getting dramatic.  Once she told me that occasionally she will run scenarios in her head where she decides to defy the parental orders just to see what could possibly happen.  "But," she commented with a shrug, "I always realize that that you have all the power and will win every time.  So it's really not worth it."

So far, I'm enjoying the teenage years of my two girls, as we get to have fun conversations together discussing life, future plans, and things that are going on around us.  They're both quite helpful and have helped widen the island of sanity in the middle of the whirlwind of life with seven children.  My role as a mother with them has changed over the years and I'm much more advisory than I used to be, checking in on them from time to time and offering help with problems and situations, but letting them do the heavy lifting from day to day.  It's probably a good thing that they're both so independent as I have my hands full with their five younger siblings.

To celebrate Sophia's birthday, we cancelled school for the day.  Sophia is mostly done with her school for the year anyway, as their online classes were gracious enough to finish the week before her birthday.  But everyone got school off, as birthdays in our house are holidays for the entire family.  

She started the day crafting with Kathleen, then swam until lunch.  After lunch, everyone enjoyed watching a movie and eating popcorn, something that never happens in the middle of the day on a weekday.  For dinner in the evening, we had sushi, followed by Sophia's favorite raspberry-chocolate-meringue cake.  And of course there were presents, because what's a birthday without presents?

Sophia really enjoys climbing and will climb any tree she can find, so on Saturday we went rock climbing at a local gym that a friend had recommended.  All of the children enjoyed making it to the top of the wall, and Sophia was the fastest each time.  

It seems like just a few years ago that I was a young mother of two and Sophia was a cute little baby with an infectious smile and adorable mohawk.  But now she is almost as tall as me, weighs about fifteen pounds less than me, and is closer to being a mother with her own little baby than she is to being my little baby.  But I guess that's what happens when one has children - they grow up without ever asking your permission.  

We're all happy to have Sophia in our family.  Happy Birthday, Sophia!

Sunday, May 16, 2021

Tashkent: Best and Worst

We're starting to wrap up our tour here in Tashkent, with our departure date two months away.  A tour always seems like it was short when we're at the end of one, with all of the things we've done and seen compressed by retrospect.  This tour has seemed especially short, as it has been mostly been filled with two major events - having Elizabeth and COVID.  But we've still had a wonderful tour here, and will be sad to leave when it's time.  However, we've known that our time would have to come to an end at some point, so it's not an enormous wrench to leave.

We were happy to get our assignment to Tashkent, and it's mostly lived up to our expectations.  It's been a good post for us and will probably be the best post we've ever been to, with its nice mix of cheap living, big housing, reasonable weather, good friends, and enough things to do to keep everyone entertained.  Every post is a combination of the local conditions and also everyone's own personal family situation, and both of those things have been good for us here in Tashkent.

However, as with any place anyone ever lives, there have also been downsides.  I'm not sure if I can come up with ten, so I'll stick to five, in no particular order.

1. Getting here.  Traveling to Central Asia is not for the faint of heart.  It's stuck right in the middle of Asia, very far from just about everything.  We are literally halfway around the world from the western part of the US, so there's no way that traveling can be anything but a long, painful slog that usually lasts more than twenty-four hours for a one-way journey.  There is thankfully a direct flight to Frankfurt which actually arrives in Tashkent the day after you leave the US (which beats Dushanbe by an entire day), but it doesn't fly every day, so you have to plan accordingly.  After we are done with Central Asia (whenever that will be), I hope to never have to take any trip that has travel over 24 hours.  Or even 12.

2.  The summers.  I like hot summers.  I grew up in North Carolina, so I'm not scared of heat.  But summers in Tashkent aren't just hot, they're HOT.  The weather gets in to the hundreds in June and doesn't start to think about cooling below that until late August.  Our back steps get so hot by midday in July that Elizabeth and William, with their little legs that can't move quickly, have to be carried up the stairs so they don't burn the bottoms of their feet.  Thankfully we have a pool because nobody wants to go anywhere when the weather is just so hot.  

3.  The size.  Tashkent is a big city.  It was the third-largest city in the former Soviet Union, coming in after Moscow and Kiev.  But unlike many FSU cities, most of Tashkent is private houses and not apartments.  This means that the city sprawls and almost everything here is at least twenty minutes away.  Any time I had a pedicure, hair cut, dentist appointment, visit to the embassy, trip to any medical clinic, or lunch date, it was always at least twenty minutes away.  It gets tiresome to have nothing at all close to our house.  Thankfully the stable, the place that I go to most often of anywhere, is only ten minutes away.

4. The restaurants.  There are actually a lot of restaurants in Tashkent.  There is a decent-sized middle class here and it seems that Uzbeks really enjoy going out to eat.  But it also seems that Uzbeks really, really like eating Uzbek food.  At least two thirds of the restaurants here are Uzbek restaurants.  And while Uzbek food has some tasty dishes, it would be a stretch to call it 'varied.'  If you like meat, dumplings, or plov, then Uzbek food is what you want.  But if you like something else, then you're pretty much out of luck.  Of the remaining restaurants in the city, half of those are burger restaurants, a quarter are sushi, and the remaining twenty-five percent are all of other cuisines.  Brandon and I have gone to the same eight restaurants for three years now, and we're ready for a change.

5. The in-country travel.  This has been disappointing.  I was hoping for some more adventures or places that we could go for fun as a family, but we've been sorely disappointed.  The three star attractions, the silk road cities, are pretty amazing, but they're really only good for a visit apiece.  Once you've seen those, there's not much left.  I've heard of people going to the Aral Sea, but that involves an airplane ride followed by a ten-hour car ride.  There's one place we found that was in the mountains that was okay, but it wasn't great.  We've never actually gone camping here, and the hiking was nothing great after all of the amazing hiking we did in Tajikistan.  Sadly, I don't see our travel opportunities getting better once we get to Kazakhstan.  

Now, on to the good points.

1.  The prices.  As a friend once pointed out, nine times anything is expensive, so it's been nice to be in a place where nine zoo tickets won't set us back two hundred dollars, much less twenty bucks.  We will order dinner for the entire family and can get away with food for everyone for less than twenty-five dollars.  Brandon and I go out on a date every weekend, and dinner for both of us usually runs around thirty dollars.  I ride twice a week for ninety dollars a month, and we can go bowling for two hours for around thirty dollars.  I'm going to miss that when we're in DC for a year.  

2.  The housing.  We have a six thousand square-foot house with four bedrooms, four and a half baths, a garage, a pool, and a pool house, and a great yard.  Being stuck here during COVID times hasn't been a real stretch, as everyone in the family can go to their own room in the house if we're really driving each other crazy.  We live in a nice quiet neighborhood, so the kids will often play outside in the street, ride their bikes around, go to the neighborhood park, or buy candy at the grocery store.  I always tell the kids to enjoy the house, as there's no way they'll live in a place this big when they're adults and have to pay a mortgage.

3. The community.  Before COVID hit, Tashkent had a very active social community.  There was a Bunco night every month, and lots of ladies were always there to enjoy each other's company.  We would get together for birthdays and baby showers.  In the summer, the kids would get together for pool days and city outings twice a week.  It is a great community where everyone is happy to get together, but doesn't mind if you'd rather stay home.  As Brandon noted once, it has enough people to be able to find good friends, but not so few that you feel pressured to go to everything.

4. The handicrafts.  Oh, the handicrafts.  We have bought so many things here that they will get their own blog post with pictures.  We have bought more things during this tour than we have bought in our previous three tours combined.  The combination of good prices and a very high standard of workmanship has made it so easy to fill our house with beautiful things.  I don't regret a single one, as every time I see them I am filled with happiness.  And as a bonus, I'm helping out local artisans.

5. The friends.  In the end, the best part of any place that we live has been the friends that we've made at each post.  Sometimes I am envious of people who get to stay in one place, make friends, and then grow old with those friends.  My mother has friends who she was pregnant with who now are grandmothers.  I'll never have that in my life.  But I also have so many friends that I have made because I get to move every few years and start from scratch.  I never would have met the amazing women that I know if I'd stayed in one place.  I've made so many wonderful friends here, and already have made plans to meet up with some in the future for some fun travel.  

When we pack our suitcases and head out for the airport one last time, I will be sad to be leaving Tashkent.  It has been a good three years for us, and we're not likely to ever return.  But we'll have quite a bit of Uzbekistan to bring with us, we'll have lots of lovely memories, and even better friends.  It will have been a good three years.

Sunday, May 9, 2021

Fruit Season

For the last two months, I've been dreaming of strawberries.  Every time I would pull out another tired apple or orange from the refrigerator, I would count down the weeks until I could start looking for strawberry stands on the side of the roads in Tashkent.  

If I were in America, I could have strawberries any time I wanted to go down to Costco and get a five-pound tub of California-grown strawberries that tasted mostly like the real thing.  I could also get mangoes, blueberries, pineapples, and pears any time of the year.  Because America is the place where you can buy just about anything for money.

But here in Uzbekistan, summer fruit is only available in the summer.  I've started to see some fruit out of season in the grocery store - mangoes for three dollars apiece, pineapples for eight, and strawberries flown all of the way from the US for some sort of price that I didn't even bother checking.  

For the rest of the population who doesn't want to pay those prices for fruit that would be eaten by children in .30 seconds, we just have to wait for summer.  

Two weeks ago the strawberry stands started popping up all over Tashkent.  The road to the stable always has multiple stands, so we're able to stock up twice a week.  At first they were kind of expensive, but I didn't really care if I spent thirty dollars a week on strawberries because it was the first fresh fruit in months.  As soon as I'd bring another two-kilo bucket home, the children would descend on it like vultures, crowding around it while shoving strawberries in as fast as they could get them.

The price has now dropped to seventy-five cents a pound, and now the second wave of summer fruit has come on - cherries, apricots, and Framberries, a strawberry cultivar that tastes like a blend of strawberries and raspberries.  Last week I had a four two-kilo pails lined up across my counter, and within two days they were all empty.

Before we leave Tashkent, I'll get to have all the summer fruit except pears, each wave of fruit gorged on until everyone is so sick of strawberries, apricots, cherries, peaches, plums, nectarines, raspberries, and melons that they don't want to look at them any more.  

We're especially enjoying the fruit this year as next year we'll be back in America where fresh summer strawberries haven't thought about costing 75 cents a pound in the last two decades, and Framberries aren't found outside of high-end farmer's markets.  I'm sure the children will enjoy the novelty of blueberries in January, but we're all going to miss the amazing fruit here in Tashkent.  But for now, we're going to enjoy as much as we can.

Sunday, May 2, 2021

Happy Birthday, Eleanor!

Eleanor turned seven this week.  I have always regarded Eleanor as being the oldest of my three babies.  I've been able to maintain that illusion for several years now, but with a seven year-old who is almost done with first grade, I have to finally admit that my babies are growing up.  

Eleanor, of course, is thrilled to have made it to the ripe old age of seven and is excited to have only one more year until she can be baptized.  She has been looking forward to this birthday for months and has been excitedly counting down the days as part of her math lessons for the last month.

Brandon and I broke our family ban on birthday parties for Eleanor this year.  She has found a best friend here at post, and when we found out that her friend's birthday was the day before Eleanor's, a combined birthday party was planned.  We're good friends with the family, so everyone was happy to have an excuse to get together anyway.

As birthday parties go, it was extremely low key.  I had Kathleen and Sophia blow up a few balloons and make a sign, but otherwise it was pretty much the exact same thing as having friends over on a Saturday afternoon.  Eleanor and her friend were happy to be sung to, blow out candles, and open some presents before going back to playing.  I was happy to have my commitment limited to making a cake and ordering pizza.

Eleanor is generally a happy, cheerful, helpful child.  She loves to draw and loves to draw horses most of all, leaving her creations scattered through the house.  Her favorite day of the week is Friday, as it is the day that she gets to ride, and all her favorite toys are horses.  I sometimes joke that Eleanor is my reward for not having killed her two older rambunctious, mischievous brothers.  She has the unenviable position of being stuck between two older and one younger brother and usually takes their torments without too much trouble.  When my older girls have grown up and left me, I'll be happy to have Eleanor to keep me company.  

We are all happy to have Eleanor as part of our crazy family.  Happy Birthday, Eleanor!

Sunday, April 25, 2021

Girls' Weekend

In the Foreign Service, there are various posts that have lots of interesting local handicrafts to buy, and these place are often referred to as 'shopping posts.'  Uzbekistan is ones of those posts.  They have lovely carpets, beautiful Persian miniatures, interesting metalworking, detailed woodcarving, handwoven silk fabric, hand-embroidered tapestries, and stunning pottery.  When my parents came to visit, my mother assured me that they didn't need anything else for their house.  I smiled to myself when she said this, knowing that she hadn't seen all of the beautiful things that Uzbekistan has to offer.  

There are various regions that are known for various handicrafts, so if you really want to get serious about shopping in Uzbekistan, then the best place to buy things is in the region that they're made.  All of the handicrafts can be found in Tashkent, but often you can find higher quality, more selection, and better prices when you go outside Tashkent for shopping.

Two years ago, the three Relief Society sisters in the church group here took a trip to Samarkand, the center of suzani,hand-embroidered tapestry, production.  We had a lovely weekend together and bought a serious amount of suzanis.  When you combine stunningly beautiful handicrafts with three women egging each other on, it makes for some pretty intense shopping.  While shopping, we saw a beautiful ceramic bowl and found that it had come from another region.  We decided that our next trip would be for pottery shopping.

Between having Elizabeth and COVID, we didn't get an opportunity to take another trip until this spring.  One of the sisters left last summer, so it was only two of us this time.  We were able to get our first round of vaccinations a few weeks ago, so as soon as we knew that the vaccinations were coming, we got the trip set up.  We are both leaving this summer, so it was now or never.

Thankfully our amazing Russian teacher, Elmira, was able to coordinate everything for us, booking the hotel, finding masters to visit, and setting up the schedule.  She was even able to come with us and act as our translator and bargainer.  

We left early Friday morning and drove four hours to the first town, Kokand, and were able to pass this trip off as cultural enlightenment by visiting a two hundred year-old mosque and the palace of the Kokand Khanate, built in the late nineteenth century.  

But to make sure we accomplished our true purpose, we were also able to get some shopping in, visiting the workshop of a master woodcarver, fabric weaver, and knife maker.  I found a lovely table and fabric, and my friend was able to purchase some equally lovely knives.

On Saturday we rose bright and early to get to Rishtan, the home to numerous ceramic workshops in Uzbekistan.  One of the main ceramicists had gotten a group masters together several years before and organized the construction of a ceramics center, which was finished last year.  The lovely complex has the workshops, showrooms, and homes of twenty ceramicists.  

We had originally planned to spend two hours, but finally pulled away with a loaded trunk four hours after showing up.  Each time we stepped into a new shop, there were new and different delights to greet us, and it was almost physically painful to have to only choose a few.  By the end of our visit, everyone was happy.  We were happy with our treasures and they were happy that we had liberally spread our generosity across the entire complex.

Our visit finished with a trip to the home and workshop of our host, Alisher.  He had a special treat for us - the opening and unloading of a kiln-full of new pottery that he and his apprentices had been working on for the last several months.  I had thought that I was done with my shopping, but as they pulled out piece after stunning piece from the kiln, I realized that I was sadly mistaken.  When I showed my Russian teacher which pieces had caught my fancy, I told her that I didn't even care about the price anymore.  I just wanted the pieces.

By the end of the day, I had found thirteen new treasures to take home with me to fill my house with the beauty of Uzbekistan.  I figured that it was a good trade - all of the local craftsman got paid for all of their hard labor and I would have lovely things to spark joy whenever I looked at them.  It's probably a good thing that we're leaving in a few months, however - otherwise I'd be tempted to go back and get some more pottery.  But instead I'll just be content with what I have.  And whenever I look at it, I'll be reminded of a lovely weekend with two lovely friends.