Foreign Service Officers (FSOs) have Congressionally-mandated “home leave” between overseas diplomatic postings. We are required to take a minimum of 20 business days in the U.S. in order to reorient ourselves and keep our ties strong. We don’t actually have to spend our home leave days at our home of record (HOR); we can be anywhere in the U.S. and its territories. However, unless an FSO is independently wealthy (ha), has a vacant property to stay in, or willing family members with homes large enough to host an officer and his/her spouse, kids, pets, and stuff for weeks on end, home leave for many can end up feeling like “homeless” leave.
My husband and I woke for the final time in Tashkent last Thursday around 02:00, showered, dressed, ate the last random food in our fridge, and lugged our suitcases out to the expediter vehicle. I’d felt a moment of sadness as I walked through the empty rooms of our house, and said goodbye to each room individually. After the baggage was loaded, I stood in the front yard for a moment trying to be present. I gazed at what had been my home for just over two years, and said my goodbyes and thanks.
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.
A few months ago, my husband and I looked ahead to the last for-sure three day weekend of our Tashkent tour. We wanted to take advantage of the time for a trip that wouldn’t require taking a day off. As the President’s Day weekend fell between Valentine’s Day and my husband’s birthday, I suggested visiting either Dubai in the United Arab Emirates or Almaty, Kazakhstan for a romantic getaway. Since we already have Kazakh visas, Almaty is closer and the flights are cheaper, and the main reason to go to Dubai is shopping – which holds less and less allure as we near our packout in May – we chose Almaty.
Two Friday nights ago after work, I flew so far to the east that I ended up west, jumping four time zones ahead between Tashkent and Seoul, and then 17 more time zones backwards as I continued in the same direction towards San Francisco. I was en route door to door for about 36 hours. Unfortunately for me I only slept about 90 minutes cumulatively during the two overnights I transited. Because I was chasing the sun and then fleeing the sun, I ended up with possibly the longest Saturday of my life.
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.
I admit it: 2016 was not my favorite year. It was professionally and personally challenging. It felt like I was battling one problem after another in a difficult environment, in disintegrating health, and with my main support network of family and friends a dozen time zones away. In 2016 many things were lacking in my life: good health, human respect in civil discourse, and tacos. I noticed these deficiencies, got pissed off and disappointed and sad over them, and tried to move on. However, 2016 was awesome for my passport, the blog, and my ability to adapt and learn new skills.
Several weeks ago, the land crossing at the border between Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan opened to vehicular traffic for the first time since I’ve been here. It takes about fifteen minutes from our house in Tashkent to drive past the ring road and up the M-39 to the crossing itself. After going through immigration and customs on both the Uzbek and Kazakh sides, it’s about another 90 minutes (depending on weather and road conditions) to the Kazakh city of Shymkent (Шымкент). Oh Shymkent – where have you been all my Tashkent tour?
A little more than a year ago, one of my former colleagues spent the last weekend before his packout from Tashkent hopping a domestic flight with his family. He told me that he couldn’t believe his two year tour had passed by without him ever making it to Khiva, an Uzbek city in the far west of the country. He told me, “If you get a chance to go to Khiva, take it. Don’t wait until the last minute when you need to pack and have a million other things to do.” So when the embassy’s Community Liasison Office (CLO) organized a trip last month to Khiva, my husband and I were among the first to sign up.