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Sunday, October 11, 2020

Back in Wonka-Land

Last week, my Russian teacher's daughter fell ill.  She wasn't terribly ill, just tired and feeling low, which could be caused by any number of issues.  My teacher started getting worried, however, when her daughter lost her sense of smell and taste.  She got tested, and on Monday discovered that both she and her daughter were positive for COVID.  

I consulted with the medical provider at the embassy, and she put us back in quarantine.  It was convenient timing, as Brandon had spend all day out doing cotton observations and had to complete two weeks of quarantine himself.  I said a silent prayer of thanks that the quarantine came after Brandon and I spent a nice overnight at the Hilton in town without the children.

We are all getting used to quarantining, but getting used to things still doesn't make them enjoyable.  The children were most disappointed about not being able to go to the store for their candy fixes and Kathleen was frustrated with having to wait two weeks before her next horseback riding lesson.  Brandon didn't much care.  I texted a friend who had offered earlier to get us extra cash if we needed it, and got her husband to pick up our mail for us too.

After a very quiet half a week, Eleanor came down with a fever Wednesday evening.  Joseph fell ill that evening also, and by the morning Sophia had a sore throat and William also had a fever.  The fevers were quite low and everyone was in reasonable spirits, so normally I would have thought nothing of it.  I hate taking people to the med unit for something short of hemorrhagic bleeding or compound fractures - mostly because it takes a two-hour chunk out of my busy day.  

However, having four people display symptoms of COVID within five days of exposure to a COVID-positive friend was too coincidental for my taste.  I got in touch with our medical provider, and she generously offered to make a home visit to collect samples for testing.

I had heard that the nasal swabs were long, but I didn't quite realize how long they were until I watched as our masked, face-shielded, gloved, plastic-aproned NP stuck it up and up and up Joseph's nose.  He was not happy about being held in my death-grip and let the entire neighborhood know about it as he screamed like someone was trying to kill him.  

I had thought that his example would reassure Eleanor, but Joseph's screaming didn't inspire much confidence in his younger sister.  This time I held her head still while Sophia held her arms down and our intrepid medical provider crammed another impossibly long swab up both of Eleanor's nostrils.  I think that Eleanor's screaming started before the swab even reached her nostril.  Her screams, if possible, were even louder than Joseph's and went on longer.

Sophia held perfectly still for her swab and didn't utter a sound.

William didn't get swabbed at all.  I could only imagine he would take that probe being shoved up both his nostrils, and if three of us were sick with COVID, it was nearly impossible for anyone in the house to escape getting sick also.  

Within three hours we had the results back - negative.  I was both relieved and also a little bit disappointed.  I'm grateful that everyone just had a regular cold, but it would have been nice to just get the virus done with and not worry about exposure any more.  But mostly I was happy to get back to regularly-scheduled quarantine.

We live a pretty secluded life, only regularly interacting with our housekeeper, the piano teacher, and Russian teacher.  But I shouldn't have been surprised when someone we knew eventually got sick - everything here is pretty much open and while the virus isn't tearing through the population, it also isn't going to be gone anytime soon either.  But now that our Russian teacher (who is doing perfectly well) no longer a carrier, a third of the likely transmission routes is no longer possible.  So hopefully we won't have another quarantine for some time.  Fingers crossed.  

Sunday, October 4, 2020

How to Your Hands on Money That is Already Yours

 Brandon and I are working on a project (which will get its own blog post once it's done).  We started talking about it at the end of last year, looked for artists after quarantine ended, and found one that we liked right before we left for R&R.  We've finally gotten all of the details worked out and the time has come to pay for all the work that he will be doing for us.

Despite Uzbekistan having a relatively solid currency, everyone here likes to be paid in dollars.  We've never been in a country where anyone actually likes to be paid in local currency.  Sometimes you can pay businesses that are geared towards tourists with credit cards, which around here is carpet shops, but not much else.  Checks are just worthless pieces of paper.

Luckily, the embassy has cashier services.  In the US, when you actually need a whole lot of actual dollars, you can go to the bank where you have an account and withdraw money.  That, obviously, isn't an option overseas.  Some embassy families open accounts in their host country so they can use credit cards, get money out, and write checks (in countries where checks are actually a thing).  We've never tried to do that as banks in the places we live can be risky things - in Tajikistan, only fourteen percent of the population kept any money at all in banks.  Everyone else just kept it in sock drawers at home.

So the embassy has a cashier who will help you out, cashing checks and disbursing the money in local currency or dollars.  When we first were posted to Dushanbe, the embassy only allowed disbursement in local currency.  We had to go and visit the Hyatt and get money out in five-hundred dollar increments whenever we needed it to pay our housekeeper.  The ATM claimed to only allow two-hundred dollar withdrawals, but word was passed around that you could actually get out five hundred with a secret workaround.  

Thankfully, the cashier here is happy to hand over crisp hundred-dollar bills, which is good as we have a Russian tutor, piano teacher, pool man, and housekeeper who all want to be paid each month in US currency.  The only hitch is the daily limit - a thousand dollars a day.

A thousand dollars a day sounds like a lot of money.  But when you're paying a housekeeper who comes three times a week, a piano teacher that comes for three and a half hours a week, and a Russian tutor who practically lives at your house, that limit gets reached pretty easily.  And those are just the people that want to be paid in dollars - add in food for nine people and horseback riding lessons for six - and we have a pretty impressive cash flow these days.

But even with the limit, we usually don't run into problems.  Usually, the cashier is open every day, and so after a handful of trips to the window and more than a handful of stacks of money, there is enough money for monthly expenses.

We are not, however, in usual times - and haven't been for over six months now.  Instead of being open every day, the cashier office is now only open for three hours once a week - with the same thousand dollar limit.  Up until recently, we've been able to keep up with our army of dependents with weekly visits to the cashier's office.  It's a pain to go in once a week just to get money, but it's worked enough.

But then we decided to commission a project.  When the details were worked out and the final price was named, the artist asked if he could get his payment in advance.  He is a very well-known artist in Bukhara, so I'm less worried about being taken for a ride.  Additionally, the tourist business here is close to zero and he was quite sick with covid during the summer, so getting his payment in advance would help him out a lot.  I agreed to pay him in advance, and my wonderful Russian teacher, who has been helping out with the project, offered to be a courier for the money,

The only thing missing was the actual money.  We have plenty of money, but it turns out that having money in numbers and having money in actual bills is not the same thing.  And when you're in Uzbekistan in the middle of a pandemic and limited cash withdrawal availability, those two things are very, very different.

We started with an appeal to the financial management officer.  The daily money cap is more of a guideline, and if you ask in advance, the cashier will try and accommodate larger sums.  I could practically hear the incredulous laughter as she looked at the amount we were requesting.  No, she politely responded, that wouldn't be possible especially as we're nearing the end of the fiscal year and money services are already strained.  However, she noted, the ATM at the embassy could dispense up to two thousand dollars a day.

Great.  All we had to do was make a few trips and we would be fine.  Brandon and I headed over to the embassy and strode over to the Bank of Uzbekistan ATM, debit cards in hand.  The first attempt to enter Brandon's PIN ended in scrambled text, as did the second.  We decided to try the Russian option, which made it to the next window where we asked for two thousand dollars.  Were we willing to accept the ten dollar fee?  At this point, we weren't spoiled for choice.  Yes.  Ten seconds later, the machine spit out both our card and a receipt, but no cash.  Next we asked for a thousand dollars, with the same result.  

The hotels around here also have ATMs, so we headed to the Hyatt next.  There were no dollars available, only local currency.  And for the privilege of getting our own money, we had to pay a 1.5% service fee.  I will never grumble about US ATM fees again.  By this point, the afternoon was over and need to get home to cook dinner, so we gave up.

I talked with my Russian teacher the next day, hoping for some magic way we could get money from Tashkent to Bukhara without actually needing to physically give it to someone.  I now have a new appreciation for Venmo, wire transfers, online shopping, electronic bill pay, and PayPal.  She didn't have anything new to offer, so we resigned ourselves to a whole lot of ATM visits.

That evening we made another trip to the embassy to try to ATM one more time.  Not only did the artist prefer dollars to soum, but it would take ten times the number of bills to pay him the same amount of money.  This time we used the Russian screen and only asked for five hundred dollars.  The machine whirred, a polite voice told us to wait, and five crisp hundred dollar bills waited for us.  We tried again and five hundred more dollars joined the first stack nestled carefully in my wallet.  Brandon and I high-fived each other.  Then we tried it again.  Our luck didn't hold out.  The next ATM similarly disappointed us, but we still couldn't contain the glee that came from actually holding our very own money in our very own hands.

And so for the next several days, either Brandon or I (or sometimes both of us) made our daily trek to the embassy for money.  The ATM sits in the lobby within sight of the Marine who mans the security station for the embassy, and I can only imagine what he thought as he saw us coming for money day after day.  Each day another ten bills would join our growing stack, and I would count, again, how many more visits we had left until there was enough money.  

Two days before my teacher had plane tickets scheduled for her courier service, we finally had it all.  I handed it over to her as first I, then she, counted out each crisp bill to make sure they were all there.  I said a silent prayer that nobody would try and see how much money she had in her purse while she made the journey.  It isn't enough money that we can't afford to lose it, but it's still a lot of money.

Yesterday she sent pictures of the handoff, and so now we just have to wait for the beautiful things that will come from our artist.  Brandon and I are planning on a trip to go and pick up the work ourselves when it is done, and I am eagerly looking forward to the time when I can hold the work in my own hands and appreciate the beautiful thing that belongs to us.  And even better, we will have already paid for it.