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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.