On the afternoon of July 22, 2005, I flew into Sydney’s coastal winter for the first time, having left behind a European summer. I was moving to Australia to study for a master of international relations at Macquarie University, and one of the things that had attracted me — besides the obvious perks of living in Sydney and MQ’s solid academic program, of course! — was the ability to study in English. I’d been living for a couple of years in the non English-speaking world and I was keen to study in my mother tongue again. After a few memorable, unintentionally offensive, and head-scratching moments, I realized: the mother tongue has gone in such delightfully different directions over the last few hundred years.
It’s a little hard for me to believe, but November 11 marked fifteen years since I left my home in California to become a Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV) in the Republic of Macedonia. Me and 19 other trainees attended a two day Staging workshop in Washington, DC before heading overseas, arriving in Macedonia’s capital, Skopje on November 15, 2002. I had pursued my PCV candidacy at that point for about fourteen months: during my senior year in college, beyond the September 11 attacks, and through a bewilderingly bureaucratic set of recruitment hurdles. Being brave enough to get on the plane and leave for the Peace Corps started a process that forever altered the trajectory of my life.
Friday, November 10 was a federal holiday in observance of Veterans Day, and it was also the 242nd anniversary of the founding of the United States Marine Corps. At U.S. embassies around the world, it’s the Marines who protect our embassy facilities and everything in them. We owe them (as well as our diplomatic security partners and our host country guards) a debt of gratitude, and everyone in the Foreign Service knows that November means the Marine Ball.
It took us about eight weeks from the time we arrived in Canberra to really get out on the weekends and start to explore the city. Sure, we’d spent precious weekend hours running what few errands one can during non-business hours here: Setting up banking, assessing the offerings of Australian Costco, and even having blood drawn. Lots of things are slowing our jump from survival mode to enjoyment mode. My husband looking for work. Car trouble, repeatedly. And of course there was my six week hospitalization, my full-time job, and having everything we own on a cargo ship somewhere. At a certain point, we decided not to let anything stop us from having some fun – not the freezing cold weather, not the 24 inch chest catheter tube coming out of my upper arm, and not the fact that our lives are in boxes and we don’t know where our socks or cheese grater are. In October, as spring began to warm the Southern Hemisphere, we’ve been out and about in Canberra.
During Soviet times, Tashkent had a functioning aircraft production plant called the Chkalov Aircraft Factory, previously also known as the Tashkent Aviation Production Organization (TAPO). The factory was named after famous Soviet pilot Valeriy Chkalov. Although the factory still boasts some contracts and foreign projects, by and large its glory days have passed. I don’t know whether or not the compound is open to the public, but a group of us from the embassy were lucky enough last week to be invited there to check out the museum and some of the planes still on display.
I strolled slowly downhill through the gravel and broken pavement towards the Aral Sea as raindrops began to fall. The Land Cruiser rolled up slowly on my right, and M called out through the open window, “Hey lady, want a ride?” Looking skeptically over my shoulder, I replied, “I don’t usually take rides from strangers. But you guys look all right.” I laughed at myself as I clumsily climbed in and we rolled the remaining few hundred yards down to the seaport.
[This is a companion piece to my prior post about traveling to the Aral Sea earlier this month. If you missed the first post, you can find it here.]
The Aral Sea is located in the autonomous republic of Karakalpakstan, in the far northwestern part of Uzbekistan. While once the fourth largest lake in the world, over the last several decades it has lost 90 percent of its water, mostly due to irresponsible Soviet agricultural practices. Scientists have long considered the Aral Sea to be one of the greatest environmental disasters in human history. I saw a National Geographic article featuring the impending destruction of the sea around twenty years ago, and a small seed of fascination was planted. It has been without a doubt my biggest bucket list item during my tour in Uzbekistan. We were fortunate to finally make our visit happen two weeks ago – one of the most sad and contemplative, yet amazing and mysterious trips I’ve ever taken.
Last spring, I took a road trip through the Fergana Valley with some of my embassy colleagues and friends. Unfortunately, it happened during a time when my husband was in London and couldn’t attend. So this year when the trip was announced again, we signed up, and a couple of our friends said they’d roll with us, too. More than a dozen diplomatic-plated vehicles caravaning through the valley drew a lot of amazed stares and sometimes even a wave. Two days and in excess of a dozen hours in the car led us to beautiful Uzbek silk, hand-painted ceramic pottery, and the palace of the former khan. How could we say no to our second-to-last Uzbek road trip?
Next month will make two years that I’ve lived in Uzbekistan. In the course of my work here on immigrant and “green card lottery” cases, I’ve looked at literally hundreds of Uzbek wedding photos, submitted to bolster the bona fides of a relationship. I’ve seen the dresses, the festive and colorful tables, and the giant plates of plov. But literally every Uzbek I know is already married. In fact, my Uzbek colleagues who are the same age as I am have children who are now preparing for university. That is probably why I’ve never actually received an invitation to an Uzbek wedding. But a couple of weeks ago, one of my colleagues A., walked into my office and asked me what I was doing on April 14.
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.