On November 7, my husband and I attended the United States Marine Corps Ball in honor of the corps’ 240th birthday. The celebration was held here in Tashkent, and although I had a brutal cold, was lost and late, and forgot to have my dress hemmed, we rolled with it and had a good time.
I sat in an armchair grinning, wearing soft jeans and a sweater, the wine from the ball long worn off, one leg tucked underneath me. It was almost 01:00, and yet we were in our living room eating Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, a rare American treat recently delivered in my frozen goods shipment from Ramstein Air Base in Germany. First ice cream from home in 6 months!
Why were we up at this hour, you might ask? Well, because I was preparing to take a short solo vacation for 9 days, so we were making the most of our last evening together before my 02:00 motor pool pickup.
After nearly six months in Uzbekistan, it would be my first trip out. My husband, just here then for two months, would hang back and continue working on settling into new work projects.
At five minutes before two in the morning, I observed on our security monitor the diplomatic expeditor Suburban backed into our driveway, its engine running. Saying goodbye to my husband and two tortoises hibernating under the front lawn, I walked out with my purse and suitcase and I was off to the airport!
Blowing my nose and sucking on Ricolas, I pondered the last time I had taken a day off, or taken a vacation. No, not PCS-ing to post between consultations up the ying yang and a hectic international move. No, not staying home because of a last-minute announcement of a local Uzbek holiday and subsequent embassy closure. And no, not a CLO-sponsored trip somewhere in Uzbekistan.
All those things are great, and are things which I am grateful for. But actual pre-planned, pre-approved days off are something else. Annual leave, feds say, or time really away from work. And although I have leave coming out of my ears, my last vacation was Christmas in 2014, when my husband and I went to California and Nevada to see my family for less than a week. That’s it! And I only got that because the Foreign Service Institute (FSI) closed for a few days and language students madly went on hiatus.
So despite feeling like death, alone in the back of the Suburban, I grinned to myself. I was off to Prague, Czech Republic, and then on to Sarajevo, Bosnia & Herzegovina, and finally to Istanbul, Turkey – a trip I had been planning for almost two months. What would I see? What would I eat?? Everything, I figured. Grin.
As we zoomed through the unlit streets of Tashkent, traffic lights blinked out of service. Cars straddled lanes in defensive positions. A dozen cars, and I think eleven of them were white Chevys. The other was probably a silver Nexia, or maybe an old orange Lada. The police presence, as usual, was heavy and prominent.
At Tashkent International Airport, we pulled right up to the security booth before the door and met our expeditor. I bade the driver farewell and strolled in, trying not to notice all the stares.
Inside, the check-in area was mobbed. No rhyme or reason, and no lines. Just crowds of people clustered in every direction, shrink-wrapped duffel bags at their feet, nervous and irritated, jockeying for position, moving and shifting constantly towards check-in, like a big, living organ.
The confluence of the ungodly hour, the stark light and the accompanying stark disorder immediately started getting on my nerves. I coughed and lurked on the sidelines wrapped in my scarf, as the embassy’s expeditor took my black diplomatic passport and boarding pass and fought the crowd to the front of the counter. He checked me in, and then waved me over to drop off my very underweight suitcase. The Aeroflot airlines representative courteously informed me he was upgrading my seat. I thanked him, and headed to passport control.
When my black diplomatic passport was stamped, I stashed it. Then the agent motioned me to the exit door to my left, where a buzzer sounded and a little green running man was illuminated, indicating I was approved to leave. It weirdly and suddenly occurred to me that every officer had heard or would hear this buzzer when leaving our post for the last time, including me someday.
A few hours later, I found myself in a faraway Russian city, browsing the airport duty free with glee. I drank a wonderful Starbucks coffee and read a book about disaster preparedness case studies in another window armchair. Exhausted, I tried not to nod off.
By and by I arrived in Prague. I presented my blue tourist passport at passport control, new and virtually empty. The agent looked at me quizzically. “Where are you coming from?” he asked in clipped English. I handed him my other black, diplomatic passport with my Uzbek visa inside. “I’m just here on vacation,” I said, curbing my instinct to say it in Russian, but he was already nodding his head in understanding. My blue passport got an entrance stamp with the metal bang familiar to all of us visa line officers.
A driver holding a sign with my name on it greeted me in the arrival area, and we proceeded outside to his Volkswagen. The parking lot was filled with nice cars. I looked around at the mild, quiet, sunny day, acutely aware that I had definitely gotten to somewhere else.
Ironically, although most people in the Czech Republic apparently do not speak Russian, unless they are of a certain age, my driver was an older gentleman and fluent in Russian, so we chatted on wide-ranging topics as we motored 25 minutes down to my hotel. As tired as I was, I didn’t mind our conversation a bit and was surprised to find words coming to me easily, although my grammar was likely the familiar jumble.
The amount of thoughts that I was struck with during my first hour in Prague was almost overwhelming. I suppose that is one of the few downsides of traveling alone: you think of so many things when exposed to a new place, and, unless you have someone to tell them to or you write them down, they just bang around in your head.
Observations become insights, become philosophies, become false genius, then ignite new questions.
Look at all the fancy cars! It seems like every other vehicle is a Mercedes, an SUV or a Volkswagen station wagon. And look, a red one! A black one, blue and forest green, champagne. Look at how they are parked, all in a line.
A woman and man walk arms linked through a park. He turns his head contemplatively towards her while she says something. He takes a sip from his coffee and they continue on. A young mom pushes her baby stroller, leading a leashed dog wearing a sweater. Her blond hair is in a ponytail and she is jogging fast. Why are people so relaxed? Well of course. They are operating on another plane, one in which they have what they need for a decent life. They are living in a place not where people try to flee from, but to. They are calm, and all appears well.
We drive by another green park, and I see people on park benches, and kids flying kites on a Sunday afternoon. My cab driver can’t remember the Russian word for kite, so he tells me the Czech word, which reminded me of a dragon, or a dracula.
I don’t see any police or militia. Two cars come to an intersection simultaneously. No one honks. One driver yields the right-of-way. The other proceeds, signaling the turn. I guffaw in the back seat of the Volkswagen. As we wind through suburbs I see the majestic city laid out below, spires and stone and tiles, and I am lost in the possibilities.
Nothing I see actually surprises me on any level. It just strikes me, over and over. Look! See! Remember? Remember! I just need to take a deep breath. For a little while, I will adapt to another reality. One I will not truly get to know, but just live in the margins of, as a tourist, admiring, consuming, making assumptions, and ultimately enjoying the heck out of.
I spent about five days in Prague. When I got to my hotel, the bed was large, soft and white. Colored lamps shone from either nightstand, and from the small desk. Matching colored lanterns hung from the vaulted wooden ceiling. A large stone shower enclosed by a glass door was across from a large porcelin bathtub standing on four sturdy feet. A small fridge full of goodies was topped by a coffee and tea selection, and light from three large windows bathed the whole suite in a late-Sunday afternoon yellow. Long white filmy curtains were looped and knotted to keep from dragging on the swept wooden floor, punctuated by area rugs. The steep street below was marked by happy shouts and life. The room was instantly my solace.
I set my bag down, connected to wifi, and then set out to see my surroundings.