Our summer holidays are traditionally complicated affairs. In between visits across all the branches of our family tree, we cram in “American” sights and experiences that we hope are impressionable for Bug and Noodle. The whirlwind trip home always leaves our hearts full, as we cherish the time with our families, but we also leave exhausted and ready for a vacation from our vacation. Thus we saw a silver lining in deciding to stay in Tashkent for the summer. As much as we wanted to see our family, it was just too risky to cross borders and potentially get stuck, as happened to so many international teachers last summer.
Until our school director sent the email. Toward the end of the academic year, he informed us that he believed it was crucial for our well-being to be able to leave Uzbekistan, especially since everyone except the new hires had been on lockdown in Tashkent the previous summer and not been home in two years. He assured us that the school would support us should returning prove difficult. This was such a relief because colleagues at some international schools in other countries had received threats of losing their jobs should they leave and not be able to return on time. Unfortunately, not all our colleagues in Tashkent were actually able to go home. Canada, the UK, Australia and New Zealand were (are) enforcing a strict hotel quarantine at the expense of the traveler. On top of the psychological and financial burden, some were flat out denied because their turn around was too short.
Not only did we make the last minute call to spend the summer in the U.S., but we were actually adding a member to the Wandering Thomsper circus. Our colleague Anna was unable to get into New Zealand, so we offered our extended family and a once in a lifetime trip to America as a consolation prize. Since she had never been to the U.S. before, we felt obligated to make her visit amazing. Thus we spent several late nights sketching out a route and booking accommodations for our five week epic Best of the West Roadtrip.
Our plan was to balance nature and urban, see the major sites, and introduce her to some real life Americans. We began with a few days in San Francisco visiting Lena’s family and preparing for the trip, then headed across the border to northern Nevada for a mix of nature and more family. After a long trek through the vast desert in search of aliens, we ended up in Utah for ample exploration of National Parks. Next, we hit southern Nevada to indulge in all things Las Vegas. Because we love long drives, we backtracked to the “Giant Ditch” in the ground known as the Grand Canyon and pushed on to Central California for vineyards and time with Brian’s family. The final stretch brought us up the coast to Cambria, Monterrey and finally back to San Francisco. The journey ended with nine days of nonstop action in the city by the bay.
The trip was so epic and the photos so awesome that we’ve decided to break up the recap into several posts. Get ready!
What do you do when you move to a new country, spend a week locked in hotel quarantine, and are suddenly set free to begin your new life? You move in with your boss.
Once we were released from quarantine, we had no place to go. Our options were to continue staying in the hotel but move to a different floor or move into a hypothetical house that we hadn’t actually found yet. Luckily, our principal graciously stepped in and invited the Wandering Thomsper Circus into her home. You know you are at the house of someone who loves messy inquiry when, within five minutes of arriving, she asks your kids if they’d like to dump a bucket of water in her garden to make mud. The perfect welcome for young kids who hadn’t stepped outdoors for a week.
In Uzbekistan, the law allows you three days to register at your new address. We had three days to find a house…except one day was a holiday, so it was actually two. House hunting began with a strategic packing of snacks and entertainment for the kids and a creative installation of their car seats into a well-loved Russian-made passenger van. Support staff from school arranged so many houses that we eventually abandoned photos and note-taking and went completely on instinct. Due to numerous logistical factors, we did not move around the city in any type of order but rather zigzagged back and forth until we were thoroughly confused and had no idea which neighborhood or <mahallah> we were in.
The first day was overwhelming and a bit disappointing. The designs and quirks of homes in every country vary, and it takes time to adjust expectations and decide what matters and what doesn’t. Can you live in a well-situated house with three types of faux Versailles-esque wallpaper in each room, or will that be overstimulating and prohibit any opportunity for personalizing the space? What matters most to us – commute, walkability to conveniences, size of garden, proximity to other colleagues, sunlight, subdued design that allows us to add our own style.
Thankfully, day two started much better as houses had bigger gardens, less overwhelming aesthetics, cozy spaces, and quiet but well-situated neighborhoods. We had hoped to be walking distance to our school but hadn’t seen anything in that area that worked for us. We had also looked in the faraway district where embassy families lived but knew the commute would kill us. So we were focusing on an area about 15 minutes driving from school with pockets of quiet residential areas nestled between massive Soviet-style boulevards lined with shops and cafes.
As soon as we turned onto the quiet leafy street and walked in the front gate, we knew we found our home. Enough grass for the kids, fenced pool, outdoor dining space, hardwood floors, extremely plain white wallpaper, monochromatic curtains, dishwasher, water purification system in the kitchen, and soft sunlight. It also had a grand piano, formal dining room, massive finished basement, and five bedrooms. As international teachers, we have never and will never again live in something this spacious. We canceled the rest of the viewings and arranged our move-in for two days later. We have moved by Vietnamese motorbike, Mozambican pick-up truck, Chinese rickshaw, Mexican golf cart, and now Uzbek school bus.
Normally, when new teachers arrive at a school there is an orientation period that includes getting to know the school and city, going out to dinner with various people, meeting returning staff, and taking care of bureaucratic paperwork like opening bank accounts, setting up internet, phones, etc. It can be quite the whirlwind. Especially with jetlag and pushed up against starting a new school year. Entering as a new cohort this year was very different. First, we all arrived at different times due to travel restrictions around the world. Second, the school year had already started virtually. Third, most restaurants were closed and staff were still distancing. And finally, the administration was completely swamped with the intricate plans of preparing to safely opening our school in midst of the pandemic. Despite all this, it was actually one of the smoothest and most welcoming transition we had ever experienced.
In addition to our personal welcome while staying with our principal, returning staff at every level have continuously reached out to take us shopping, have playdates, give us a lift somewhere, or simply stop by to say hello. We have been a bit hesitant to interact because of COVID, but even just the offers helped ease the isolation and uncertainty of relocating to a new country. Thankfully, everyone has seemed to be in agreement about masks, sanitizing, and maintaining distance. Beyond showing us where to find groceries, random house stuff, pizza, coffee, and decent beer and wine, we are so grateful for the outreach and most definitely look forward to growing friendships. It has been a long journey to find a home, school and community that fit us so well. Now we can breathe and unpack.
After a roller coaster year that involved losing our jobs, moving four times, and a pandemic – we can finally exhale. Against all odds, we have made it to our new home in Tashkent, Uzbekistan.
After a flustered farewell to Mexico, we waited in limbo for several months in California. We hunkered down in homes that our family and friends graciously lent us, as sickness, sadness, and uncertainty raged outside. Within our carefully constructed social bubble, we relished reconnecting with Lena’s family and immersing ourselves in nature. By July our new school began speculating about the Uzbek border partially re-opening, so we rounded up all the stuff of our transit life. Camping gear, winter clothes and most toys went into boxes that Brian drove to Phoenix on a sprint to get our shipment sent off. It had been sitting in a storage unit since August after being intercepted in Hamburg on its way to Moscow. Now it would head back to Europe and then south via train from Eastern Europe through Central Asia. Our Kitchen Aid mixer is extremely well traveled. The stories our stuff could tell. Meanwhile, our passports had been sent to the Uzbek Consulate in Washington, DC with extra fees and followed up with phone calls begging to expedite visas in case we were asked to jump on a last minute flight.
The flurry of preparing to leave coincided with preparing to teach remotely on a twelve hour time difference. We were attending Zoom staff meetings that began at 8:00pm and lasted until 3:00am….and then we had to wake up and function as parents of very young kids. We splurged at Target to create virtual learning spaces where we could record lessons and instruct our own children. As soon as we set up our office, we got an email from the school asking us if we could make a charter flight departing from New York in 24 hours. This entailed packing, saying goodbye to family, purchasing last minute flights from San Francisco to New York, and uprooting the kids with minimal notice. Of course we said yes. We just needed to confirm that our permission to be on the flight had made it from Tashkent to New York City. Just as we began to strategize the ultimate departure plan, we got word that the permissions hadn’t arrived. We were off the flight and would likely not have another opportunity until the border opened up to commercial flights in a month or two.
Until a week later. We were squeezed onto a repatriation flight technically for Uzbeks moving home during the pandemic (which makes sense because Uzbekistan’s COVID response relies on science and social responsibility), and it departed in five days. But we were now emotionally prepared and had anticipated logistics ahead of time. Best of all, we had visas and permission to enter the country. After previous experiences trying to get visas for other countries (and not always succeeding), we were pleasantly surprised at how logical and pleasant our interactions were with Uzbeks. For example, we called the Consulate and spoke to a person….a person who was friendly and helpful. Amazing.
The flight to Tashkent left from New York City, but New York had just instituted a self-quarantine requirement for people arriving from several states, including California. No one could really tell us more than transiting would probably be ok. So we booked a nonrefundable room at the only hotel actually at JFK. We were questioned by authorities from the NY Health Department when disembarking our flight from San Francisco, but they waved us on when we explained that we were only staying one night and leaving the country in the morning. Getting to the retro TWA Hotel in Terminal 5 was as to be expected when pushing three teetering carts stacked with 16 suitcases in and out of elevators and on and off the AirTrain. There were some harrowing mishaps of tumbling luggage nearly concussing our wayward children. Brian also discovered that he was not what one might call “in shape.”
We got to the check-in counter exhausted from the trek only to find out that we must pay cash for our baggage overage fees. We were expecting the fee part but not the cash part. After several trips to the ATM and unsuccessful calls to the bank to waive withdrawal limits, we were still short. The incredibly helpful Uzbekistan Airways employee went out of his way to try several work arounds, but without the cash we were stuck. We had used up our built in time cushion trying to solve this fiasco. It did not look like we were going to make the flight. Then Brian pulled out several money orders that the Uzbek Consulate had returned to us because we hadn’t needed to pay expediting fees for our visas. This would be the first but definitely not the last time that we encountered this type of humbling honesty. In the whirlwind of packing, we hadn’t been able to refund the money orders for cash. It was a Hail Mary for the win. The money orders, totaling the exact amount we needed, were accepted as payment and we sprinted for the security gate.
Security was a nightmare. Crowded. Understaffed. Nothing to protect from COVID (ok, the officials wore gloves….the same pair of gloves to protect themselves but no one else). Multiple rescans of luggage for no reason. By the time we were finally through, the flight was boarding. Naturally, our gate was as far away as possible. We raced through the terminal with overstuffed carry-ons, dragging Bug and Noodle on their Trunkis. We arrived panting at an empty gate and looked at each other in panic. Realizing it had just relocated a few gates down, we quickly spotted the well-masked but definitely not physically distanced crowd. We joined the line and caught our breath for the next hour before we were able to board the delayed flight.
Our introduction to Uzbekistan Airways was the flight attendants greeting us dressed head to toe in full protective gear. The flight was completely full. We hadn’t seen this many people in months and the close proximity with recycled air was beyond stressful. We weren’t the only ones though. Many people, including us, pulled out packets of bleach wipes and scrubbed down every inch of their seating areas. The flight was relatively uneventful, although the unmasked young boy sitting in front of us continuously leaned into our space to try and play with Bug and Noodle sent Lena into a mild panic attack mixed with guilt. In any other situation, she would have encouraged the kids to play. But a potential super spreader breathing in our food was too much. Brian made gestures that the child needed to wear a mask. The family graciously complied and did their best with the cute little wiggler for the rest of the flight. On the other hand, Bug and Noodle did amazing. They kept their masks on for all twelve hours – even while eating and sleeping – and never objected to being doused in sanitizer each time they went to the toilet. However, Lena trying to rub an essential oil concoction in their nostrils was a step too far. Brian’s biggest complaint was his broken movie screen that kept him from watching any of the five Uzbek or Russian movies available. Oh, and the food was terrible.
Watching the map was mesmerizing as we passed over the Arctic, through Russia and over numerous “Stans” that were complete unknowns in our mental imaging of the world. We had no idea what to expect when we arrived in Tashkent. Passport control was slow but undramatic. Luggage collection was another story. The carrousel was packed with not only passengers and airport employees but also drivers and employees from hotels where people would be quarantining. At that time, all passengers arriving into Uzbekistan were required to quarantine for ten days either in a hotel or at a government quarantine facility. As bags began to appear, Brian jockeyed at the non-distanced carousels and Lena corralled the kids in an empty corner of the hall. All the bags must have been sprayed with disinfectant because they were wet even though it was a bright sunny day. Despite Brian’s masterful skill at building suitcase Jenga towers on rickety luggage carts, we did have one small mishap on a crowded ramp.
We were excited to meet another teacher from our school who had also made our flight, and not only because she helped push a cart. A friendly presence and easy conversation amidst the chaos and uncertainty quickly calmed our nerves. Also, while loading into the hotel van, we caught a glimpse of school staff who came to wave at us from across the parking lot. It was another warm gesture that really made us feel welcomed.
Our new colleague pointed out landmarks and local bazaars as our police escort darted through the empty streets. Although normally congested with traffic, the government had restricted cars on the road to control movement and curb COVID’s spread. After a short drive through the city, we arrived at the Miran International Hotel, where we would would exist in limbo for nearly two weeks. While checking into the hotel, the school director appeared outside a window, waved enthusiastically, and snapped photographic proof that we were on Uzbek soil. We were so touched to see him. On top of everything our school had done to get us to Tashkent during a pandemic, these small gestures really set the tone for what type of community we were entering.
Bewildered and exhausted, we were escorted past military guards and down a dim hallway lit with disinfecting UV lights to our surprisingly spacious and bright room. Noticing the megabed that had been made by pushing two double beds together, all four Thomspers quickly changed into comfy jammies and promptly fell asleep.
“I just want to go home!” Bug sobbed recently as we cuddled his sad little body. We looked at each other over his head, not knowing how to respond. Which home did he mean? Was it China, Mexico, the US, or perhaps even Mozambique?
It had been a difficult decision to return to the US and leave our new life in Sayulita once the pandemic finally reached Mexico. We were just starting to deepen connections and melt into the contours of our lives. However, the truth is the life we loved ended with the quarantine. Before official mandates in Mexico, we chose to social-distance alongside our families in California and Arizona, so the kids had not been to school or played with friends for many weeks. We weren’t going to restaurants or running into friends around town.
Although Sayulita did not officially have any COVID19 cases at that time and the Mexican government was slow to implement social distancing measures, our town was thankfully locked down by TheGavilanesVigilantes, a group of local citizens who somewhat officially maintain the peace. Energy was positive but uncertain. We were helping to feed families in need and financially support local businesses. We bonded with other isolated expat families through WhatsApp groups. And we escaped to the jungle for magical hikes to secluded beaches. However, the reality of the pandemic began to feel more real as beaches were closed, state checkpoints were set up between Nayarit and Jalisco, international borders closed, and flights were canceled. We started to become concerned about how and when we would be able to get home and onward to Uzbekistan. When the virus first appeared, we watched our international teaching friends get stranded in Asia. With the long game in mind, we knew we could not get stuck in Mexico. We’d already lost one job this year and couldn’t afford to lose another.
Our original plan had been to drive home because we had accumulated stuff and needed a car in the US. But both the states of Nayarit and Sinaloa had closed hotels, and we were concerned about safety. Although we wanted to avoid flying – especially because the airport in Puerto Vallarta had recently been flooded with tourists and expats rushing to get home before travel restrictions – we were running out of time. Within a week, we sold our car, golf cart, kitchen appliances, camping gear, and donated tons of toys and clothes. It was a mad dash to pack and catch the only remaining flight to Phoenix (which was canceled the following week).
Masked and doused in hand sanitizer, we boarded a nearly empty flight. Including the four of us, there was a grand total of 9 passengers on the plane. We were nervous about entering the US after all the hype, but there were no lines at Customs, no questions, no temperature checks, no interview about quarantine. The airport was dark and deserted, and we wandered around a bit looking for the parking garage where Brian’s mom had left us her car. Due to health concerns in Brian’s family, there really wasn’t any point staying in Phoenix because we couldn’t interact with anyone even after our initial quarantine. Since his family wouldn’t be leaving their homes any time in the near future, they very generously lent us a car.
Upon finding the car and hidden key, we had our first wardrobe change and began the Tetris game of cramming our stuff – including two huge carseats – into the tiny vehicle. It took an hour. Then we found the SIM cards Mimi had left for us and spent twenty minutes on the phone with T-Mobile so we could be in communication and access maps while driving to San Francisco. When it was finally time to get on the road, Bug and Noodle were extremely unpleased with us. It only slightly had something to do with us breaking Noodle’s toy guitar during the luggage transition. Thankfully, Mimi had packed us a kit, so we pumped the kids full of peanut butter sandwiches and gold fish. Welcome to America.
Despite the risk of staying in a hotel, we knew the kids couldn’t do the drive in one push. We decided to break up the twelve hours to San Francisco with a stopover in Palm Springs. Not the fashionable getaway one might imagine. A very short stay limited to the car and the hotel room. So after another wardrobe change, we brandished Bug and Noodle with disinfectant wipes (thanks again to Mimi’s kit) and set them loose. Of course Lena was right behind double wiping door knobs, toilet handles and remote controls. But we couldn’t wipe the sheets or the couch. Everything we touched felt like a potential exposure and we were on edge.
Driving through the Sierras the next morning was a special reprieve as they were covered in colorful swaths of wildflowers and capped with snow. Although far away on peaks, the kids were excited to to see snow for the first time and inundated us with questions about the “snow gear” they would need to climb to the summits. Little did they know that their parents had been fantasizing about a long term plan to section hike the PCT (Pacific Crest Trail, a through hike from Mexico to Canada that paralleled some of our driving route) as a family someday. Similar to those hiking in the mountains alongside us, we survived the road trip on junk food and stopped occasionally to run around in fields and attend to nature calls outside the confines of public toilets. As the roads were empty except for trucks fulfilling the frenzy of online orders (which we would shortly contribute to), we made excellent time.
Our next stop on the Thomsper Displaced Tour of 2019-2020 was Lena’s sister’s house in San Francisco. She was not there as her clan was riding out the shelter-in-place restrictions in the isolated winter wonderland of Montana. This meant we had their house to ourselves for a month. The space was kid-friendly, well-stocked and full of natural light. It was also wonderful to just leave the back door open for the kids to run free in the fenced backyard while we were strictly quarantining for our first 14 days back. Socially distanced stoop visits worked well for Lena and Bug’s birthday parties, as we sat at the top of the stairs and guests stayed at the bottom. And we regularly took advantage of urban hikes and open green spaces throughout the city.
Sadly, we had to relocate again when Tía and family returned. It was decided that two families with four toddlers and one on the way (not ours!) was just a tad too much. It was bittersweet to move 45 minutes away from family and our stoop visits, but we are quickly adjusting to dreamy suburban life in Marin County. After some adjustments to make the space more kid-friendly and copious cuddles as the boys acclimated to yet another home that wasn’t theirs, they have grown to love deer sightings in the large backyard, bike riding on the quiet streets, and hiking through the magical forests that surround us. Treks into town for gelato are also a plus.
This year has been quite the ride. Failed move to Moscow. Scrambling to figure out where we were going to spend our year on not off. Locking down and relocating internationally during a global pandemic. Staying in two different houses once we returned to the US. And waiting to find out when we will be able to get to Uzbekistan. We have learned and relearned about the importance of resilience and focusing on the blessings in the present. But we have also realized how desperately our children are needing a place to call “home.” This is the endless dilemma of the expat life.