Life in Transit – Lena and Brian

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. 

Departure

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.” 

The Flight

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.

Arrival

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.

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Simplifying Isn’t So Simple – Lena and Brian

We’ve always known that we have too much stuff. Every time we struggle with a million suitcases and spend thousands of dollars to ship our possession to our next port of call, we swear we will have less stuff next time. Our last two moves have nearly done us in. 

The issue of too much stuff compounded with the birth of our children. In Mozambique, we lived in a single family house with lots of space and storage, and even had a detached garage. We truly wanted it to be our home, so we invested in nice furniture and artwork. Living in a malarial country with limited resources also made us nervous parents, so we stocked up on “necessities” during shopping trips to South Africa every few months. This sense of urgency led to an oversupply of groceries, medicine and baby goods that we ultimately had to purge when we finally moved to China. 

The boys were 7 months and 2 years old when we departed Mozambique for China. Talk about a life change. Although we did our best to sell and donate much of our baby gear, kitchen supplies, furniture, camping equipment and old technology, we somehow ended up with 17 suitcases and a shipment of 62 boxes. And we were downsizing to an Asian apartment! 

Our parenting anxiety waned a bit in China, since the futuristic city of Shenzhen was essentially an enormous, endlessly stocked shopping mall. But considering Brian is an Eagle Scout (Be prepared) and I am a natural worrier (What if), we still held onto some of our vices. For example, strollers seemed to multiply in the entryway to our apartment. We had three. It was embarrassing but justified, we felt. First was the BOB, perfect for the broken sidewalks and unpaved roads in Maputo and jogging on Shenzhen’s beautiful boardwalk (which we each did maybe ten times total in two years). Second was the UppaBaby Vista, perfect for two kids at once, which we used enthusiastically for dinners out because the boys slept beautifully while we had a few more glasses of wine. And third was the Joie umbrella, the one we actually traveled with and used the most because it was lightweight and incredibly durable (cobblestones of Lisbon, hills of Hong Kong, and countless haphazard gate checks). We won’t even get into the Deuter Baby Backpacks which were hidden in the closet.

Unbelievably, our living space is actually quite tidy. We just seem to end up with stuff despite periodic purges and regular donations. Donating in Mozambique was wonderful because expats settled for longer and we had relationships with people who were extremely resourceful and eager to take our things. In China, expats were noncommittal in many ways and everyone wanted things that were shiny and new. As mentioned in our previous post, leaving China with toddling little people was a great opportunity to ditch the last of our baby gear. Moreover, we have always seen part of our responsibility as world travelers to help those who are less fortunate. Although the purge was a challenge, we did end up donating the money raised to an organization we care deeply about called Captivating International, which is committed to sending rural Chinese girls to school.

We also knew our apartment in Moscow would be smaller, and we wanted to create a more “European” lifestyle. To us that meant less junk and overall just being much cooler people. But how do you pack for a country that has a temperature range from 80°F/27°C to -40°F/-40°C? We were leaving China’s 90°F/32°C humidity, visiting family in the Phoenix desert (110°F/43°C) and San Francisco fog (60°F/16°C), and then not receiving our shipment until it would already be snowing in Moscow in October. So our streamlining was rather derailed. 

Art, toys, technology…what we decided was important to ship

When all that packing was rendered useless with the cancelation of our teaching contracts, Lena was ready to burn it all in a spectacular bonfire. Moving to Mexico without a plan forced us to strip our stuff down significantly because we really didn’t know where we would live or how long we would be there. The glitch was that Lena wanted to be in the temperate highlands and Brian wanted to be on the tropical beach. Due to proximity to an international airport, the presence of a great little eco/international school for Bug, and ample opportunities for community involvement – Sayulita won. But a few cooler weather pieces still made it into the packing in anticipation of side trips to Guanajuato, San Miguel de Allende and Ajijic. Nonetheless, many items that were deemed necessities when packing in China didn’t make the final cut and were donated in the US. And it felt good. Which is the point of this twist – strip down and refocus.

The dream of arriving with only one luggage cart had always been there but never been realized. It finally happened!

We have acquired a lot of things throughout our travels and living abroad which are meaningful to us. Our life is international and our home is where we are living. We don’t have a location in US where we can display things we have bought, so they come around the world with us. For us, stuff is familiar – an identity, comfort for our children, and sense of home. What does your stuff mean to you? And how do you manage it?