Nevada Part 2: The Massive Drive – Brian and Lena

After two nights in Reno, we had a short drive to nearby Lake Tahoe, which straddles the borders of California and Nevada. The enormous lake is 72 miles (115 km) around and 1,645ft (501 m) deep. The water is 99.99% pure and reflects vibrant blues and emerald greens below the surrounding 11,000 foot (3353 m) mountain peaks. Lake Tahoe holds a special place in Lena’s memories of family holidays there, and she was excited to share this treasure with everyone. We stayed in an AirBnb on the Nevada side in a town called Incline Village. This gave us proximity to restaurants and markets, as well as breathtaking trails and hidden beaches along the east shore. After time on the road, dusty hikes, and hot beach days, we ended up really appreciating the ability to do laundry in the condo! 

There are so many cool things to do on the lake, and we only had two days and two nights, so our general plan was to cover as much in as little rush as possible. Some of the more exciting activities like the treetop canopy walk and clear bottom kayaks had an age minimum of five years old…and Noodle is only four. This turned out to be the case often on the trip, and our frequent claim was, “ We’ll just have to come back.”

After a big shop at Whole Foods, an impressionable drive over Mt. Rose Pass, and settling into the condo – we decided to head into the woods. Lena consulted some excellent blogs for advice, such as Nevada Moms and Hike It Baby, and we decided to take the trail to Monkey Rock, which is in the Spooner Backcountry area of Lake Tahoe Nevada State Park. The route is quite popular and not difficult, except we accidentally took the shortcut to the top, which meant we climbed (er, dragged the kids) 400 feet (122 m) pretty much straight up in about a quarter mile distance (0.4km). It was totally worth it. The granite outcropping at the top offered fun climbing opportunities for the kids and some heart palpitations for mom. Apparently one of the large boulders is shaped like a monkey head, but Bug and Noodle were unconvinced. They eventually found their perfect nook to take a rest, and we all enjoy the sweeping views while the adults sipped some cold beverages. 

On our way down, we decided to detour to the lake for a dip. We cut down to the Tahoe East Shore Trail for a short distance to cross under the highway and found the trail access to the aptly named Hidden Beach. The sandy cove is dotted with smooth boulders and offers shade (for part of the day), sun and ample splashing opportunities. Although a bit surprised at how freezing Tahoe’s waters truly are, Noodle spent most of the day wading in the sandy shallows while Bug chased crawfish in the rock pools. Having exhausted the kids and our snack supply, we eventually trudged/hiked the mile back to our car. Given our specific restaurant criteria, we eventually found an open cafe with outdoor seating and vegetarian options close to our condo. Sadly, the mediocre meal ended up giving us all our only bout of food poisoning of the entire trip. 

Despite tender tummies, we awoke determined to explore all the personalities of the lake and headed south. Our high spirits on arrival to South Lake Tahoe were dampened on learning that rides on the gondola at Heavenly Ski Resort were closed in anticipation of bad weather. Adults and kids had been excited about the Ridge Rider Coaster down the mountain, and only a few fluffy clouds sat atop the peaks. We decided to curb our disappointment with delicious Mexican food and afternoon margaritas at Azul-Latin Kitchen before some souvenir shopping.

Sensing the kids needed a nap, we hopped back in the van and followed the south shore to iconic Emerald Cove. One of the “American” things Anna wanted was have her picture taken with Smokey Bear, who became famous in the 1940s and 1950s with the slogan, “Only YOU can prevent forest fires.” These signs are located in National Forests all over the United States and broadcast the fire danger in the surrounding area. Lucky for Anna, we were able to fulfill her dream. And the kids were fascinated watching a Forest Service crew load up their fire truck before heading out on a call.

After obligatory photos at the overlook, we parked at the Vikingsholm Trailhead to take the short but steep one mile trail to Emerald Bay Beach. Bug and Noodle loved spotting wildlife and collecting sticks on the way down, and they had a blast exploring the beach. Though not open for tours, we peered in the windows of the quirky Vikingsholm Castle, which was built by an equally interesting heiress, Lora Knight, who literally bought Emerald Bay and had her Scandinavian-inspired mansion built in 1929. We shared a small picnic as the afternoon sun faded and reluctantly left when the imminent storm finally blew in.

We hyped up the storm a bit to keep Bug and Noodle moving up the trail, but aside from some lightning in the distance, we actually avoided rain as we rounded the east shore. Finally, at Carnelian Bay, an incredible rainbow peaked under storm clouds illuminated by the setting sun. It was a stunning end to a stunning day. We were too exhausted to eat a real dinner, and everyone went to bed early in anticipation of our much-hyped route across the desert the next morning. 

We try to keep Bug and Noodle informed of upcoming plans so they are not surprised and can ask questions. We had been telling them that we would stay in the van the whole day because we had to drive a long distance across Nevada. A new term was added to our family lexicon when Noodle concluded that it was going to be a “massive drive.” He was right. It took about 14 hours to travel from the northwest corner of the state across some of the most desolate areas of the country to the southeast corner and into Utah by the end of the day. 

We didn’t want to just blow through. We were determined to see the sights and appreciate this strange slice of Americana. First stop was Tonopah. Highlights included the Clown Motel, famous for its creepy clown museum, and the Old Tonapah Cemetery, which revealed the harsh reality of silver mining in the early 1900s. Lunch at the Tonopah Brewery proved one of the best barbecue stops for Brian and Anna, and they compared all others against it for the remainder of the trip. Despite lacking options for vegetarians, Lena enjoyed a cold beer on tap.

Second stop was the International Car Forest of the Last Church located in the nearby town of Goldfield. Goldfield is what is known as a living ghost town. In the early 1900s, it was the largest city in the state but now houses a population of around 300. This outdoor art installation consists of cars, trucks, and busses often jutting out of the desert sand at odd angles. The vehicles are covered in fascinating graffiti that provides a colorful contrast to the stark surroundings. The story of the installation is that local artist, Mark Rippie, wanted to create an open air space for artists to leave their mark and set the Guinness World Record for the largest car forest (which apparently is a thing). Bug and Noodle loved chasing lizards, exploring the auto carcasses, and asking endless questions about all the exposed machinery.

From there, we transitioned to The Extraterrestrial Highway, which gets it name due to the fact that is goes right past the Nevada Test Site. This is the location of the fabled and mysterious Area 51. Depending on your source, Area 51 can be described as the location where the US military develops and tests new secret aircraft like the F-117 Nighthawk, or where the US Government keeps proof of alien life and the UFO that supposedly crashed in Roswell, New Mexico in 1947. Anna had only a cursory knowledge of Area 51, so we wanted to show her some exciting sights and perhaps have an alien encounter or two. Unfortunately, what we saw a lot of sage brush, some cows, and a few wild burros. Interesting side note: The burros’ ancestors carried people and supplies across the harsh desert during silver rush and were left behind when mines dried up and towns collapsed. The animals are now protected under Federal Law as living symbols of our history. 

Summer storms chased us most of the way across this long section, which created incredible contrasts in light and gave depth to the endless vistas. Occasionally, we passed through small towns that had seen better days. We wondered about the people living so differently than us, and contemplated the bravery of settlers in the 1800s choosing to cross this barren landscape in covered wagons. This spirit of adventure and openness to the unknown is something we know well as expats living off-the-beaten path. 

Our last stop before ending in St George, Utah, was at the Alien Research Center in Hico. The building is in an old Quonset hut with a two story tall metal alien guarding the front, that Bug and Noodle named Fred.  Sadly, we arrived ten minutes before closing time and weren’t able to chat up the store clerk about her extraterrestrial beliefs and the interesting folks who stop in to buy t-shirts and alien tequila. Moreover, a flash flood warning had been announced for the area, so she was eager close shop and head home. Nonetheless, meeting Fred inspired a litany of questions from the kids on our final stretch to St. George.

Despite Lena being born in Carson City and Brian working in Las Vegas for six years, the massive drive across Nevada revealed even more quirkiness about the state that we both love. Later in the trip, we returned for a very different type of American experience in Las Vegas. But we have so much beauty to share about the National Parks in Utah before we get to that!

A Journey Through Nevada Part 1 – Lena and Brian

After our time in San Francisco, our first stop on our Best of the West Roadtrip was “The Biggest Little City in the World.” There is one main route to get from the Bay Area to Reno that involves taking the interstate I-80 and without fail getting stuck in traffic around Sacramento. However, there are several smaller state roads through the mountains that are opened seasonally and technically take longer but are breathtakingly scenic. Lena had taken one such road almost 20 years ago and always wanted to do it again, so we decided that this was the perfect opportunity. State Highway 4, also  known as Ebbets’ Pass, is a narrow road that winds over the Sierra Nevada mountains. Originally a Native American trail, the route was explored by Euro-American fur trappers and later became popular during the silver and gold rushes of the 1850s and 1860s. Today the route offers an alpine paradise for summer camping and lake sports and winter lodges and snow sports. 

Crystal blue lakes and jagged granite peaks marked the way through tall pine forests. We stopped numerous times to take in views and smell the air. The kids were less excited than the adults, and somewhere along the drive Noodle broke off his headphone jack inside his iPad. For the entirety of our three week roadtrip, he stoically watched the device with no sound. Or fought with his brother while sharing his screen.

Needing to stretch our legs and alleviate the iPad drama, we stopped at Lake Alpine to dip our feet and let Bug and Noodle run wild. There were many other groups lounging around the shore. The kids befriended several dogs and the enthusiasm for games of fetch was mutual. It is alway interesting to see them interact with dogs when we come to the United States. In many countries where we have lived and traveled, canines are not considered family members and are often unpredictable. Therefore, Bug and Noodle are generally interested but hesitant, so it was sweet to see them splashing around and laughing with the gentle pups. As we sipped cold beverages and waded around in the freezing snow melt, an adolescent bald eagle swooped low across the lake. Conversations ceased and all heads raised to watch the majestic creature soar overhead. 

The drive dropped from pine forest into high desert as we entered Nevada. Farmhouses turned into suburban neighborhoods turned into city sprawl as we passed through Carson City and entered downtown Reno. Our destination, The Whitney Peak Hotel, is the only non-gaming hotel in downtown Reno. Unfortunately, the coolest feature, an exterior climbing wall that scales sixteen floors of the hotel, was closed due to COVID restrictions. Thankfully we arrived on a Friday night, and the little city was buzzing. After an alfresco dinner along the Truckee Riverwalk, we strolled the streets. We observed Reno’s history and future colliding as trendy hipster bars sat next to dusty pawn shops that sat next to second-rate casinos. The crowd consisted of homeless beggars, bachelorette parties, and hopeful locals. We got a huge kick out of the vintage cars cruising, and the El Camino with hydraulics was most appreciated by Bug and Noodle. We actually really enjoyed our quick stop and can see why Reno is getting attention as an under the radar place to visit or live. It’s filled with independent small businesses, surrounded by incredible nature, and inhabited by a mix of friendly longterm locals, returners, and transplants. It’s definitely on our list for a future home if we ever move back to the US long term.

We spent Sunday visiting Lena’s birth family in Carson City. The story of Lena’s adoption is long and inspiring….and we will definitely get into that in another post. But for brevity, let’s say that it is always special to connect with her birth mother, Nancy, and all the extended family. We especially enjoyed watching Bug and Noodle connect with their cousins. Everyone is so welcoming and it is such an easy crowd to slip into. They welcomed Anna with open arms and gave her the perfect American family gathering. Aside from meeting such wonderful people, Anna was quite stoked to encounter an overflowing plate of perfectly fried and frosted donuts.

After an amazing weekend in Carson and Reno, we were keen to get back into nature and set off early on Monday morning for Lake Tahoe. We packed so much into our two days around the lake and took so many photos that it warrants it own post.

The Best of the West – Brian and Lena

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!

That Time I Almost Died – Brian and Lena

Facebook is great at reminding its users of past events through its creation of Memories. In my case, the memories are mostly random photos from non-interesting events. Lena seems to get the special shareworthy ones – kids’ births, first date, amazing holidays. However, she recently shared the memory of the worst day of my life. 

When living in Vietnam, we decided to sign up for a race on Phu Quoc and make a fun weekend of it. I often do things on a whim simply for the experience. Lena usually finds this charming. Except for the (two) times I have seen The Backstreet Boys in concert (Dubai and Saigon), which she claims was almost a deal-breaker early in our relationship due to my “terrible taste in music.” I don’t know, it was a pretty good concert… the first time.

Only a quick flight from our former home in Saigon, Phu Quoc is a beautiful tropical island in the Gulf of Thailand that belongs to Vietnam but is located south of Cambodia. Naturally I agreed to the race because I will do anything for a free t-shirt.  She would run the 5K, and I the 10K, and then we would meet up and head to a beach bar. The week previous we both were vacillating about whether we wanted to actually run or simply have a romantic weekend. In the end we decided to run, but because of our indecision, neither of us had trained much. I figured it would be fine since I had run cross country and track in high school with exceptional mediocrity.

Apparently we weren’t the only ones ill-prepared for the race. For some reason, the race was scheduled to start at 3:00pm in the afternoon. In May. In southern Vietnam. So like 100 degrees Fahrenheit and 9,000 percent humidity. I was feeling good as the race began and figured I would be able to complete the distance easily. However, I did find it odd that there was only one water stop early in the race, which consisted of a pile of sealed cases of plastic water bottles dropped haphazardly on the side of the road. I had to stop to rip open the plastic wrapping off one of the cases as no volunteers were staffing the station. That is when I learned how difficult it is to drink from a bottle as you run. I got maybe 37% in my mouth and rest down my shirt. It kept me cool at least. Indicator number two of poor race planning.

When I got to the turnaround point, I counted five people ahead and realized I was toward the front. I had never placed in any race during my entire “career” and was spurred on. I had just passed one guy when I started to not feel so well. I could see the hotel ahead that was the start/finish line, so I figured I could make it. I was definitely feeling the lack of training but wanted to finish. I was maybe 200 meters from the hotel.

Suddenly there was a sharp pain in my leg. Half conscious, I could tell someone was leaning over me. Why was he jabbing a syringe in my leg? Once revived, said person propped me against the side of the hotel and rushed off. My vision was blurry and my mind cloudy. I felt glued to the ground, unable to move as other runners ambled by sipping their after-race beers. I was so thirsty. I scanned the ground for discarded bottles and found a half empty hydration drink that was mostly someone’s backwash. I was past the point of caring about sanitary choices and chugged it. My vision and my mind cleared for about 30 seconds before returning to the land of haze. 

I noticed Lena approaching in slow motion. Hair flowing as she jogged toward me. Face flushed from just completing her 5K. But wait. Who was that ridiculously handsome guy running alongside her? I didn’t have to have perfect vision to notice his tanned skin and partially unbuttoned shirt showing off his glistening chest. I thought this was our romantic weekend.

It turned out he was the Italian doctor who had injected me with vitamin B in the “vintage” ambulance. He was the doctor on call for the race. I couldn’t make out their conversation, but when they reached me, Lena began asking questions. She asked what my name was, which I thought was silly. Of course I know my name. I am not sure what I answered, but it probably wasn’t the answer she needed because she then asked if I knew who she was. Easy. I confidently answered, “Lena Johnson.” Her last name is Thomson. As soon as it came out, I knew it wasn’t right but couldn’t figure out how to correct myself. The attractive duo decided that I needed to go to the hospital. Vietnam is chock full of idle taxis, so I was helped into the nearest taxi, and we sped off to the provincial government hospital. The ambulance had to stay because so many other runners were also having difficulty for the same reason – lack of water plus high temperature equals heat stroke.

As we drove, my vision narrowed to a tiny spot. I told Lena that we needed to call my mom so she could meet us in the hospital. I explained that she could drive from her home in Georgia to Ohio, where I grew up but hadn’t lived for 15 years. It might be the next day but it would be okay. This plan all sounded great in my head. Of course I trusted Lena to take care of me, but my mom would also want to be there. Lena just promised she would call soon.

We arrived to the hospital and I couldn’t control my legs anymore, so the taxi driver and Lena draped me over their shoulders and dragged me from room to room as nurses kept waving us elsewhere. My memories from this point are spotty, so Lena has reorganized and clarified a lot of this part of the story. 

I was finally given a bed in a waiting area, and we were left for over an hour unattended. I vaguely remember nurses walking by and perhaps peaking at me, but nothing happened. No taking vital signs or asking why I was there. Obviously we had a language gap, and a kind Vietnamese guy helping his friend in the next bed over approached us to translate. But even he wasn’t able to get anyone to help us. Then a carton of orange juice appeared. Obviously I chugged it. And I promptly vomited all over myself, the bed and the floor. The helpful nurses gave Lena some napkins and walked away.

My fingers and lips were turning blue and my conscious self was no longer in control. My biological system took over and was pushing all the blood it could to my heart. I was in full on fight or flight, and flight was not an option. I was fighting internally, and Lena was fighting externally with everyone to give me a f*%king IV, which was all I really needed. No one would listen. She was also yelling in my face to stay awake. I could hear her but I couldn’t do anything about it. In my mind, I was answering her by telling her to stop yelling at me. She says I just stared at her blankly. I was so angry with the whole situation. The clearest and most profound thought that sticks with me was the realization that I might die, and if I did, I would die angry. I wondered if that is how people feel at the end when their bodies are fighting to live. I didn’t want my last feeling to be anger. I didn’t want to die angry…or at all.

Everyone in our little waiting room was shouting as I fell unconscious in a pool of vomit, and finally the nurses sprung into action. They grabbed my bed and raced me to the emergency hall where the sickest patients were all being treated together. I was unable to open my eyes, but I do remember thinking that whoever was driving thought it was bumper cars as they rammed the bed into every wall and corner along the way. That also made me angry because now I just wanted to go to sleep.

Lena says someone then injected me with something but wouldn’t show her or anyone who was helping us what it was (we had Vietnamese speakers on call to help translate). Sometime during this hours-long situation, the doctor who attended me at the race called Lena to check in. At that point, I was unconscious with an unstable pulse (checked by Lena, not a nurse). He assumed that the injection had been something to stabilize my heart but told Lena to start making preparations to MedEvac me to either Bangkok or Singapore if I didn’t make a turn for the better very soon. She knew I was really sick, but this discussion took it to another level of seriousness.

I believe I was very close to dying when I was finally given an IV. It had taken so long to get treatment because the doctor had not seen me or authorized anything; therefore, despite Lena and friends’ best efforts, the nurses were not allowed to administer anything. Although I was unconscious when the saline and other medicines entered my veins, Lena saw my color return and my body relax. Finally, she was able to figure out how to call my mom in the US from her Vietnamese flip phone, and she promised to call again when I woke. 

At one point, our friends, Kevin and Krystal, who also had run the race, came to the hospital to offer support. Since I was stabilized and it had been hours since the race, Krystal stayed with me and Kevin rushed Lena back to our hotel on his motorbike. In Vietnamese hospitals, the patients are expected to bring their own bedding, clothing and food. We had nothing.

Her memory of that surreal experience was the sea air blasting her face, and all she could think on a loop was, “This isn’t real. I don’t know this story. Focus.” At the hotel, she launched off the bike and raced across the sand to our romantic beachfront room. Our suitcase wouldn’t fit on the motorbike, so she grabbed a pillow, stuffed a bedsheet inside, and tossed in a change of clothes for me. We didn’t have any food.

I regained consciousness about an hour later and was relieved that my vision had cleared, my anger dissipated, and control of my body returned. I had no idea where I was, but Lena was there brushing my forehead and crying on my face. A nighttime hush filled the room, though the ubiquitous motorbike engines and horn honking from the street below floated in through the open window. The lights had been turned off, and I noticed fires flickering all around. 

After VERY SLOWLY sipping two coconuts that Kevin and Krystal had brought, I miraculously needed to use the toilet. This was complicated since Lena needed to support me, carry the IV, and dodge people crouched on woven seagrass mats laid all over the floor and hallway. We realized the fires came from small coal burners that family members used to cook food for themselves and their sick loved ones. No cafeteria in this hospital. 

Once in the tiny toilet, she braced me against the wall and gently laced the IV through my armhole to change me out of my sweat and vomit stained race clothes. Then she steadied me to pee. We crossed quite a few comfort zones that night. The bathroom was far from ideal, but we made it back to the bed and feasted from the styrofoam takeout box filled with the standard rice, veggie and meat combo our friends had picked up from a food cart around the corner.

The fires went out and people laid down on the mats. Having seen several cockroaches on our restroom trip, Lena decided to cause a stir and join me on my hospital bed for the night. When I say bed, I mean a thin mattress over a wooden board. It was many decades old and could be adjusted with a hand crank, which she promptly broke when trying to flatten it out. It was such a hilarious moment that marked the end of the worse part of the ordeal. Not to say that we slept extraordinarily well crammed together on the ancient bed sharing one pillow and a single sheet. The humid air was sticky with smells of cooking and dying. And snores around the room were punctuated by moans, frantic family members, and nurses rushing to attend someone who was not lucky enough to make a turn for the better.

Whenever I opened my eyes, the old lady tending to her husband in the next bed would catch my eye and smile. Lena mentioned that several times in the night, the woman gently woke her, signaling to untwist my IV. It was tender to see the old woman’s devotion to her dying husband. No words were spoken between us, but we deeply felt her love and care as two foreigners in a scary situation without family. In Vietnam, family is everything. We didn’t have family, but we did have friends. We can’t even imagine how much harder the night would have been without Kevin and Krystal’s support – from translation to transportation to food to emotional support – we are forever grateful.

The next morning I was released after getting an ECG (ecocardiogram) from an ancient machine and paying our bill, which came to a grand total of $78. Interestingly, before leaving the hospital, some race organizers finally stopped by. Aside from being like eighteen years old, they apologized for the lack of water with the excuse that half the order wasn’t delivered. Then they offered me a free race entry for next year. We didn’t make it. However, this wasn’t the last romantic weekend that I’ve managed to ruin.  Also, I’ve talked about running in another race, but for some reason Lena is not very keen on that idea.

Lena revealed to me years later that she made a deal with God that night. If I lived, she would marry me. While I had planned on proposing, apparently I needed some divine intervention.

Home for the Holidays – Lena

Major holidays require significant motivation and carefully consideration when living abroad. Otherwise they will likely pass by unnoticed. The required intentionality is twofold. First, our children are third culture kids (TCKs) who have spent minimal time in their passport country and thus are not growing up immersed in the religious and cultural traditions that Brian and I draw on for memories and comfort. Even when Christmas is acknowledged in the country where we live, it is generally a novelty and doesn’t penetrate into every moment from Halloween to New Years. Without the insidious Christmas music, creepy shopping mall Santas or endless TV commercials pushing cheap plastic toys, holiday season for Bug and Noodle is mostly about slowing down, spending time together, eating delicious food, and going on adventures. Second, holidays can bridge connections with people who live in our current country of residence and deepening our understanding of their culture.

As single expats without children, Christmas once meant solo travel for Brian and trips home for me. Now, the financial hit of four long-haul tickets alongside the time-sucking 32 hours in transit (each way) and soul-crushing jetlag means limiting trips home to once a year for the longer summer break from school. The non-sympathy-stirring caveat is that we often live close to destinations that might be once-in-a-lifetime trips for others. However, given the pandemic and related quarantine requirements, international travel is out of the question this year. Being so far from home during such an emotional and turbulent time globally while actively adapting to a new culture might seem the perfect storm for homesickness, as happened to me last year. But the optimism of our most recent move and the desire to nest in our new home actually made this a very cozy and content Christmas. 

Expat teachers usually hop on the first flight out of town the moment school finishes for the holiday break, as we are quite burnt out by mid-December and ready to rejuvenate on a beach or re-energize by plunging into a brand new culture. However, this year most colleagues chose to stay in Tashkent for obvious reasons, so none of us was suffering from expat envy while imagining the adventures of our friends and feeling left behind. Instead, we played tourist by skiing in the nearby mountains, checking out restaurants, and rummaging at antique and handicraft markets. Moreover, it was wonderful to get to know colleagues better without the stress of school looming over us. Highlights included making Christmas ornaments with the kids’ friends, tasting our first pavlova courtesy of our friend from New Zealand who joined us for Christmas Eve dinner, and ringing in the New Year at very small and carefully orchestrated gatherings.

Because the children have now reached an age of unbounded curiosity, some of their questions and our insights can give a bit of insight into our uniquely expat holiday. Here are the gems:

Why do we have a Christmas tree?

First, it’s actually not always a tree. Pine trees often don’t grow in most places we have lived (or they are imported and offer grave financial and climate destruction). Despite the guilt about buying plastic, we have bought and sold several fake trees; they just never seem to make the cut for taking up space in the shipment. In Mexico, we used a cactus. This year we could have done a different potted plant, but we just haven’t gotten to that point of household decor. So we settled for a hybrid plastic beauty that offers two types of needles as well as berries and pinecones. As a former tree guy, Brian believes it to be a cross-breed of holly, white pine and blue spruce. Bug and Noodle had a blast attaching the color-coded branches. And we were humored that the combination of tree, grand piano and formal dining room applied to our own lives.

Second, the branches offer a place to display all the decorations we have picked up throughout our travels. The process of unpacking and hanging ornaments creates a special tradition of recollecting memories. Additionally, Brian and I are darn near giddy as we wrap and arrange presents underneath said holiday plant on Christmas Eve because it sparks our inner child and gives us satisfaction that we have achieved some level of parenting success this year.

Who is Santa Claus? Will he know where we live? How is he going to get in our house?

We have wavered about our strategic approach to the Santa part of Christmas. Both Brian and I have fond memories of the magic and anticipation surrounding St. Nick. Neither harbors the horror story of shockingly discovering he wasn’t real. It was a gradual thing aided by loose-lipped older siblings. We never felt betrayed by our parents for intentionally lying to us. It was just fun. And once we found out the truth, it was still fun to pretend. But wow, there are some strong feelings about the subject. Especially since our parenting and teaching are so deeply committed to respecting and empowering children. Psychologists have written extensively about the harm that lying to children about Santa can cause. This is supported by educators and parents dedicated to the Montessori method, which believes that adults shouldn’t expose children under six to fantasy, including Santa, as it can cause a range of negative effects. Others remind us that honesty and the true spirit of Christmas can be nurtured. The approaches we connect to honor the spirit of Christmas and are shaped most by the children’s questions and play invitations…with a little sprinkling of pretend from us.

I am completely creeped out by the Foucauldian watchman vibe of a certain approach to Christmas that uses a spying elf or Santa to scare children into good behavior. Gift-giving in our house is inspired by generosity rather than anybody’s naughty or nice behavior. Moreover, Elf on the Shelf requires way to much effort at a time of year when us teacher-parents are drowning in end-of-the-year professional responsibilities.

A dad we know offered to stop by our home dressed as Santa on Christmas Eve Day, and Brian and I wavered. Would it frighten the kids? Or take the lie a tad too far? We decided to accept the offer and see what happened. Although Bug and Noodle quickly realized that it was their friend’s dad, the squealed and reveled in the excitement. Obviously they left the Big Guy a plate of cookies before bed because that was our caloric reward for nudging them through the authentic literacy experience of writing him a letter. And the next morning, Santa’s name appeared on several presents under our tree – but definitely not the best ones because Mom and Dad are taking credit for that – and Bug proudly decoded the gift tags with he new phonics skills. When the children asked if Santa was real, we responded with our favorite teacher question: “What do you think?” And let them lead the way.

Why is Santa in Uzbekistan blue? Who is that lady with Santa?

Uzbekistan is a crossroads in so many ways, and holidays prove not an exception. We noticed that December brought modest holiday light decorations and tree displays that were familiar to our American frame of reference. But the Santa figure was skinny and dressed in blue, and his only companion was a beautiful young woman in a wintry princess costume. After questioning our local friends and a peek at Wikipedia, we learned that the man is not Santa Claus or Saint Nick, but Grandfather Frost or Ded Moroz (Дед Мороз). He made his way to modern day Uzbekistan via pagan Slavic mythology that influenced Soviet culture. He is similarly kind and delivers toys to children. However, diverging from our lore, the supporting character here is his granddaughter, Snegurochka (Снегурочка) rather than Mrs Claus or elves. And horses pull his sleigh instead of flying reindeer.

Due to the secularity of communism, Ded Moroz was temporarily banned in the late 1920s but eventually brought back. However, he was then reassigned to stand in front of the now called New Years Trees and bring presents on January 1 instead of Christmas Day. It should be added that Russian Orthodox Christianity celebrates Christmas on January 7 or 8 following the Julian calendar rather than on December 25 for sects of Christianity following the Gregorian calendar, not that the technicality has much religious implication since biblical scholars agree that Jesus was not actually born in the winter

Who is Jesus? Why are we celebrating his birthday?

Well, Brian and I are a bit loose in our religious discussions with the kids. We grew up going to varying intensities of Sunday school and got the gist of Christianity, but neither of us identifies strongly with the faith today. We talk to the children about God (as he or she). They know that the mosques, temples and churches they’ve visited are special places to pray. We describe praying as mindfulness and listening to our hearts. Things that we emphasis as sacred are family, kindness, acceptance of others and ourselves, and nature. Jesus fits well into this view. Bug and Noodle know he was a wonderful man who was kind and generous and loving to all. The one slightly religious tradition for our Christmas is cuddling up and watching the movie, The Star, which is a very child-friendly depiction of Jesus’ birth. 

Admittedly, this was not our best year for strongly emphasizing the giving part of Christmas. We did take each child shopping separately to choose gifts for the rest of the family. Also, they selected items to donate to our school’s charity drive for local children in need (and we involve them in events throughout the year). However, now that we are more settled in UZ and the children are at ages where they can more independently participate in many tasks, we are keen to weave empathy and charity into our family traditions not just at Christmas but throughout the year.

Home Sweet Home – Lena and Brian

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.

10 Days. 4 People. 1 Room. – Lena and Brian

When we agreed to take the charter flight to Tashkent, we knew a hotel quarantine was waiting for us at the other end. But we were so eager to get started with the next chapter of our lives that it didn’t really phase us. Until the van pulled up to the back of a midsized low rise hotel on a side street in middle of the city. We all hopped out, passed through a sanitation tunnel (which the kids thought was like sprinklers and wanted to do again), entered through a back door, and shuffled through a series of unlit grand marble halls to the lobby…where we were met by several staff in full PPE. There were only a handful of us checking in, and we were quickly led to our rooms.

We were met with a lovely welcome kit. Two delicious fruit plates with fresh peaches, nectarines and grapes. Bags of nuts. Adorable totes. Mountains of toys on lend by teacher families, which honestly saved our lives. And laptops and teaching supplies. Ah yes, virtual school started in two days – the reason we were here.

Luckily, the room was quite large, which allowed for all our luggage and plenty of extra space. Yet we knew we were in trouble when Noodle informed us on the first day, “This hotel room is boring.” He was right. No kitchen area. The TV had one fuzzy sports channel. The internet was spotty. And one entire wall was glass. The upside to the windows was being able to sit in sunlight for our daily  vitamin D boost and hang our heads out the window for fresh air. The downsides to all this glass were that we baked during the day and had an amazing view of…the parking lot. So much for catching a glimpse of Tashkent.

About an hour after arriving, the doorbell rang and we opened it to find four plastics bags with to-go meals. Everyone was so tired that we fell asleep without eating. Bug and Noodle woke up hungry around 3:00am, so we set some couch cushions around the coffee table and inspected the cold offerings. They were endless. A big bowl of soup, heaping mound of white rice, a dinner roll, some French fries, and a hunk of meat (for Brian and the kids) or grilled vegetables (for Lena). The food was not award winning but it wasn’t terrible either. Bland enough for the kids and seasoned enough for the adults. But wow, the carbs. Thankfully, Lena had insisted on bringing some healthy supplements from Trader Joe’s, such as chia seeds and flax meal for the oatmeal and kale chips and freeze dried broccoli for snacks. (It was a sad day when the kale chips ran out.) Starvation and malnutrition were not going to happen here.

Breakfast consisted of porridge, hard boiled eggs, yogurt, Laughing Cow cheese, packaged cheese slices, questionable meat slices, cold hot dogs, and apricot juice boxes. Noodle enthusiastically ate all four hot dogs every single day. And Lena’s overpacking was well-received when her preparedness brought forth Starbucks instant coffee on the first day and later a French press and canister of grounds. One cup of fresh hot coffee was worth all those baggage overage fees and a nearly missed flight.

The doorbell rang again, and Brian opened it expecting the lunch delivery. Instead, he was met with two people in full PPE carrying a large metal box. The one with the clipboard announced, “COVID Test,” while the other opened box and began setting up. Bug promptly went into full meltdown, and Noodle volunteered to go first. However, Brian took that honor. He wheeled the office chair towards the door, signed some official papers written entirely in Russian, and sat down. Although keeping calm, his eyes definitely widened when the enormous cotton swab was removed from the package. Later COVID tests confirm that this swab was not thin,  flexible, or designed for comfort.

Extremely uncomfortable and burning was how Brian described it. Noodle was up next. Brian enveloped him tightly, and despite some wiggles, the nurse was able to complete the test on her first try. When done, he burst out laughing because it tickled so much. Bug was distraught and cried before, during and after the test. He collapsed on the bed and watched as Lena had her nostrils swabbed. She also was not a fan of the test and ended up with a bloody nose. 

We needed to wait three days for the results, which would determine if we could leave our room and split up for online learning. While waited for the results and for virtual school to begin, we drew pictures, played with toys, watched fuzzy Russian League football, and made obstacle courses around the room. 

We had not experienced virtual teaching in the spring so this was a steep learning curve for Lena and Brian. Bug and Noodle had finished up their schooling in Mexico online, so that had given a bit of an idea of what to expect. The internet only worked in a direct line from the door to the desk, so after choreographing a delicate internet set-up, we were able to prep and launch the year. Lena and Bug worked at the desk, where kindergarten was happening, and Brian sat by the door with Noodle where he deftly used his mute button to navigate grade four teaching and preK learning. In an effort to make the first day special, we even took the obligatory first day of school photos with the Do Not Disturb sign in the background. 

After learning that our COVID results were negative, Lena and Bug were able to relocate to a separate hotel room with much better internet for the school day. They literally packed their backpacks, water bottles and snacks, and said good bye for the day. However, on the first day of leaving the room, Lena was warned by our liaison at school that the military guard working that day was not so keen on the arrangement and she should be cautious. Needless to say, Bug was tutored on being extremely quiet, walking quickly without looking around, and acting like everything was normal as they passed the elevator. He did amazingly well, and the guard was strangely not at his desk for the three minutes it took to scurry down the hallway. The way back in the afternoon was a different story. Bug got curious and forgot to whisper, and Lena forgot our room number since this was the only time she had left the room in several days. Thankfully, Brian opened the door and they ducked safely inside. 

Throughout our stay, our school community regularly checked in on us via Telegram, which is a replica of WhatsApp or WeChat. After hearing about the meals, Lena’s teaching partner sent over amazing hummus from a Lebanese restaurant, dark chocolate, and carrots. And after hearing that we were subsisting on water, our principal dropped off several bottles of beer and wine hidden within bags of chocolate, yogurt, crackers, and real cheese. 

Once school began, the days flew by. We kept as normal a schedule as possible with wardrobe changes, meals, playing, evening baths, and bedtime stories. With jet lag, excessive screentime, and the cognitive load of virtual learning – we were exhausted by the end of the day. The best part of our time in quarantine was when our school liaison called to tell us that we could leave the next day. The government had announced that the time was shortened from ten days to seven (it has since shifted back to ten, then to fourteen, and now to quarantine at home). As homeless newbies with nowhere to go, our principal graciously housed us and our mountain of luggage for several days while we put the details of our life together.

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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Heading for the Hills – Brian

Nature is an anchor for our family. Lena and I share parallel childhood memories of camping and trips to national parks. Lena was a Girl Scout, and I was an Eagle Scout. I spent a university summer at Rocky Mountain National Park as an Environmental Educator, and my first job after graduating was for the US Forest Service. Our honeymoon was camping in Kruger National Park in South Africa, and we first tested the waters of family camping in Sai Kung, Hong Kong when the kids were 1 and 2 years old. Our favorite social distancing activity in Mexico was trekking through the jungle surrounding Sayulita to spend long days lounging under makeshift shelters on empty beaches. Socially distanced urban hikes around San Francisco injected the monotony of shelter-at-home with fresh air and endless views.

By the time we found ourselves in Marin, we were surrounded by incredible outdoor opportunities living at the base of Mount Tamalpais and down the road from Samuel P. Taylor State Park and Point Reyes National Seashore. When word got out that Lassen Volcanic National Park had re-opened, we were ready to hit the road. However, we struggled to find clear information about which campgrounds were open. The ones that took reservations were all booked. Clearly we were not the only family itching to get away. Despite not having a secured spot for our tent, we tossed our gear in the trunk of Mimi’s car and headed to the mountains. In addition to sleeping in a tent and roasting marshmallows, Bug and Noodle were extremely excited to see volcanoes. Of course they were expecting active eruptions, and we let them relish in that excitement before crushing their dreams.

Luckily, we were able to claim a first-come-first-serve spot at the Southwest Walk-In Campground, which is located near the Kohm Yah-mah-nee Visitor Center in the southwest corner of the park. This was an ideal location because the Visitor Center has a shop selling hot coffee and cold beer, and its on the main park road. Regarding the campsite, we had read about black bear danger so we were prepared with our bear canister, but each campsite comes with a large bear-proof storage cabinet. It also offers a sturdy picnic table and metal-ringed fire pit. Our site had minimal shade, so we were glad to have an extra tarp over our table. Although technically a hike-in campground, the parking lot is a two minute walk from the site. The restrooms were open and offered flush toilets, sinks and soap for handwashing, a utility sink to wash dishes, and secure bins for refuse and recycling. In addition to the snack shop, the Visitors Center also has a ranger station, gift shop, very clean restrooms, amphitheater, and a (closed) exhibition area. Although the Ranger-led programs were canceled due to COVID restrictions, we had informative and friendly conversations with the appropriately-masked rangers as they passed through the campground and greeted us at the Visitors Center.

There are many great trails in the park. We started our exploration of the park by hiking the 3.6 mile round trip to Mill Creek Falls since the trailhead was steps from our campsite. This is a moderate trail that rises and falls gently as it winds through huge red fir trees. Sadly, the white bark pines along the trail and throughout the park are being decimated by blister rust and mountain pine beetles, and many have taken on the orange tinge of dying trees. Nonetheless, Bug and Noodle loved the creek crossings, insect sightings and opportunities to climb on fallen logs. They also got to test out their new hiking poles, which were a short-lived novelty that ended up clipped to our backpacks. By the end of the hike, Noodle was whining on my shoulders and Lena was a fountain of positive talk about perseverance as she dragged Bug up the final ascent. We are still working on pacing ourselves. Due to its elevation and thus late season snow, the most popular Bumpass Hell Trail and Hydrothermal Area were still closed in early July.

Surrounded by nature, we encouraged the kids to notice details and voice their curiosities. These are skills that we believe are important for lifelong learners and should be honed consciously. Without toys or gadgets, the boys noticed everything from beetles to clouds, asked a million questions, and played creatively with the tree stumps, sticks and rocks around us. We also just spent time watching birds and staring at the campfire. Embracing nature has many health benefits, such as increasing attention span, decreasing stress (and thus lowering cortisol levels), and improving the immune system. Quite the antidote for being stuck indoors during a pandemic. 

We were particularly excited that the Junior Ranger Program by the National Park Service was still available during our stay. In its modified form, the kids were able to complete a highly differentiated interactive booklet that included various activities to document observations about geology, ecology, and human impact on the environment. In non-COVID times, they would have participated in Ranger-led hikes, attended presentations in the amphitheater, and viewed exhibits in the Visitors Center. Nonetheless, Bug and Noodle were excited to find and classify rocks, identify features of different trees, match animals with their tracks, and consider how our choices affect nature. Their work was rewarded with an official swearing-in ceremony led by a real Park Ranger. After raising their right hand and promising to protect the park and all natural spaces, each child received a special badge. Of course we bought the adorable Junior Ranger vests.

Naturally, we were all excited to see volcanoes. Lassen is unique because it contains all four types of volcanoes in the world. The biggest is Lassen Peak (10,457ft/3,187m), which is an active plug dome that last erupted between 1914-1917. The park also contains clear examples of cinder cone (aptly named Cinder Cone, at 6,896ft/2,102m, final eruption in 1666), shield (Prospect Peak, at 8,342ft/2,542m) and composite (Brokeoff Mountain – also called Mount Tehama by local tribes – at 9,235ft/2,815m, which became extinct 387,000 years ago). However, these dormant or extinct specimens just looked like plain old mountains to the kids, and Noodle was disappointed he didn’t get to see “Mountain Lassen ‘derupt.’”

The main and only road through the park is the Lassen Volcanic National Park Highway, which begins at the Kohm Yah-mah-nee Visitor Center and winds up and down throughout the park to the Northwest corner around the Manzanita Lake Area. This 30-mile drive hits many of the highlights in the park from hydrothermal areas to dramatic views to frigid alpine lakes. 

Our first stop was the Sulfur Works Hydrothermal which we smelled long before arriving. Even wearing masks, the odor was nose-melting. Both Bug and Noodle were amazed by the boiling mud pot, which was located right next to the highway. They couldn’t get enough of the idea that liquid hot magma was making the mud boil. 

After getting back into fresh air, their next excitement was experiencing snow for the first time in their lives. It was just some dirty drifts on the side of the road, but they were ecstatic – until they felt it. They instinctively made snowballs, but Noodle cried when his ungloved hands turned red. His verdict was, “Too cold.” Melting snow means freezing mountain lakes, and I couldn’t resist an invigorating plunge into Lake Helen.

The road’s varied altitudes pass through multiple plant life zones. It begins in the red fir forest, which also includes lodgepole pine, mountain hemlock, and western white pine. Then the sparse subalpine zone, which is the upper limit of tree growth, offers gnarled white bark pine and mountain hemlock growing as “flag trees” (branches growing on only one side) that hint to the challenges of long winters. Finally, it descends through verdant meadows, winding creeks, and red fir covered in lichen. 

The breathtaking drive ended at Manzanita Lake, which is also the location of the park’s largest campground. The lake added another breathtaking component to our endless views of snowcapped mountains and towering trees for the past couple of days. Unfortunately, we couldn’t swim due to warnings about river otter attacks. However, Bug recently learned about fishing and this was his first real attempt. For several weeks, the kids had been practicing their casts with toddler-friendly training poles in our backyard. Alas, no luck catching a fish in Manzanita Lake (though tons were jumping), but they happily reeled in many sticks and aquatic plants.

Since everything was going so well, we decided to tack on a few extra days in a slightly different location. After stopping at Lake Almanor to check out the real estate, we headed east to the shores of Lake Davis in Plumas County. We settled on a US Forest Service campground called Grasshopper Flat and pitched our tent in a huge site with direct access to the water. With no real plan at Lake Davis, we ate slow breakfasts on our private peninsula, swung in the hammock, checked out the quaint town of Graeagle, and took another attempt at fishing. Noodle was over fishing by this point and contently played with “boats” (sticks and leaves) in the calm shores. On the other hand, Bug was determined to catch a fish – a large bass to be specific. I ended up accidentally catching a small sunfish on a test cast after a rod repair, and I went from father of the year to heartbreaker after Bug failed to catch anything and was devastated. He did not like the life lesson that fishing is about patience. After three days of relaxing lakeside, we were ready to head home. The shower blocks were closed and we were caked in six days of dust. Even the kids were begging for a bath. Had we been able to wash, we probably would have stayed longer. 

The week was perfect. We played in the dirt. We breathed fresh air. We went on long walks. We laughed. And we said thank you for all the gifts we share together. It’s been a few weeks since the trip, and we’ve sent off all our camping equipment in our shipment to Uzbekistan (only to learn that we will actually be in California for quite a bit longer), so naturally Bug and Noodle have begun requesting another camping trip.

I Just Want To Go Home – Lena and Brian

“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 The Gavilanes Vigilantes, 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.