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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The Art of Starting Over – Lena and Brian

As international educators, we are well-versed in moving to new countries and starting a life from scratch. The idea of packing our bags and flying off into the unknown is nothing new. In truth, we were once addicted to it. However, it takes a huge physical and emotional toll to transition, and we were looking forward to putting down roots until the kids finished elementary school.

Moving to Mexico has been a dream of Lena’s for decades. But this was bittersweet. It wasn’t a move we had planned. We weren’t heading to new jobs. No one was waiting for us. No principal picking us up from the airport or new colleagues checking to see if we needed anything. No welcome picnic or tour of our new city. And certainly no settling in allowance. 

We arrived in Sayulita in an emotional fog with some vague expectations and a lot of questions. Where would we live? Would we be able to enroll the kids in school? How would we get ourselves around town or into the city? When would we start making friends?

The nervousness of not having answers was tempered slightly by the fact that we are familiar with Mexico. Lena spent summers during university conducting anthropological research and backpacking around the country. We even got married down the highway in Puerto Vallarta. Our challenges were softened by her ability to speak (rusty) Spanish and, as she says, Brian’s willingness to “learn with enthusiasm.” With minimal language distance, positive feedback from native speakers, and the immediate need to set up our life – this felt way more surmountable than previous experiences learning to communicate (with varying degrees of effectiveness) in Arabic, Vietnamese or Mandarin. 

Essential needs were narrowed down to the top three: a house, a school, and transportation. Further down on the list were food and friends (true sustenance). Eating was not an issue, as we could buy amazing street food, tortillas hot off the press, and fresh fruits and veggies for unbelievably cheap prices. And we knew friendships would develop once we were more settled. 

First step: House 

During our furious 48 hours of research prior to moving to Mexico, we uncovered a fascinating subculture of nomad families who trek around the world with admirable success. But we were hesitant. First, we were still uncertain about our budget. And second, during previous moves, the kids struggled much more than we anticipated. We had been bouncing around the US for weeks, sleeping on family members’ couches and living out of suitcases. Although we wanted to explore this amazing country, we knew that establishing a “home” was important. 

Most international schools either provide housing or a stipend, and some even assist with the search. Therefore, our first independent challenge was finding a last minute, long term rental in a tourist-centered beach town. We arrived during the “off season” when many businesses were closed and home owners were away. Nor could we locate any actual community bulletin boards. Plenty of short term rentals could be found through websites like AirBnB and SayulitaLife, but renting one of those for a year would have been prohibitively expensive. 

Our two-pronged strategy involved word-of-mouth and Facebook. Every time we met someone new on the street, at a restaurant, or in the park, we mentioned that we were looking for a place. Also, we got some leads by posting a plea on the community Facebook page. Unfortunately, we soon realized that Sayulita was going to be way more expensive than we initially thought. After looking at some very small and dark apartments in our price range, we bumped up our budget and got lucky. A single family house with a verdant garden, mountain views, and most importantly air conditioning in the bedrooms. It is round with a thatched roof, which reminds us of places we stayed in southern Africa. And it even has a name! Although a bit of a fixer upper, we hadn’t seen anything nearly as spacious or bright.

Signing a year lease was slightly scary, but it also released so much stress about immediate plans. Our luck and choice were reaffirmed after meeting several other recently-arrived expat families who couldn’t find long term places and will have to move around throughout the year. The trauma of our recent packing-and-moving spectacles is too raw. If we hadn’t found our house, we probably would have scrapped Sayulita and settled somewhere else.

Second step: School

School was a huge factor in our decision-making. We looked at a few other expat-friendly locations (San Miguel de Allende and Merida) but were not impressed by the schools. We also stumbled into the idea of unschooling and world schooling during our research blitz. Very intriguing but perhaps not what our toddlers needed. Definitely a tabled discussion for a future adventure. Despite debates about the institution, we felt strongly that Bug and Noodle needed to be in an actual school. And it needed to be a school that we believed in.

We shelled out tons of money in China for them to attend school and weren’t about to let go of that principle now. Creating protégées is not the motivation. What drives our conviction is the importance of socialization and the power of play. The kids needed to interact with peers, develop social-emotional skills, and engage in a stimulating environment. Plus, they were desperate for a routine. And mommy and daddy were desperate for time to quietly sit in a restaurant, swim without stress, and actually get some work done. Essentially, we all just needed space and time to grow beyond our tight-knit unit.

Another blessing of this year ON not off is that we can explore a completely different type of school than is our norm. As mentioned previously, we were excited about Costa Verde International School. The very small, low-stress, highly active vibe is exactly what we need. Bug and Noodle have 9 students in their joint 3-4 year old class. Their teachers are wonderfully child-centered in their approach. We have no doubt that they truly know our children as individuals and strive to meet their social-emotional, psychological, intellectual and linguistic needs. Moreover, the curriculum and community population is inclusively bilingual and 40% of the students are locals on scholarship. This is a place that is deeply committed to its community in terms of culture, language, and the environment. The sustainability focus is so compelling because this is something we are consciously modeling and always improving on as teachers and parents.

Third step: Transportation

Summers in Sayulita are beyond hot and humid. We walked around town for the first few weeks, but finally hit our limit on shlepping withering children and sweating through three outfits each day. The most popular mode of transportation is golf cart. However, rental prices average around $50USD per day. Crazy expensive. After finding our house, which is located at the top of a steep hill, we decided to blow a huge portion of our annual budget buying a golf cart. We ended up finding an advertisement for Riviera Golf Carts, which builds custom carts meant to handle the hills and cobblestones here. While the price was steep, we ran the numbers and it worked out to less than half the weekly rental amount if we spread the cost over the year. And it’s electric, so we are proud to be environmentally friendly!

We were feeling confident in our decision until we needed to rent a car to get to Puerto Vallarta (golf carts can’t go on the highway). We found a highly rated, superbly honest rental company in nearby Bucerias called Gecko Car Rental. The owner, Adam, mentioned he was selling low mileage 2014 cars for the exact same price we just paid for the golf cart. We’ve come back to that missed opportunity while riding the local bus over potholes for 45 minutes into the city or cramming Costco loot into an expensive taxi. But a car in Sayulita, where spend the vast majority of our time, is not necessary. The town is tiny, parking is limited, and cleaning sand off golf cart vinyl is super easy.

The wrap up

The list was complete. We were officially Sayuleros. Easy peasy. Just don’t arrive in a New York state of mind. We have cut our teeth in countries where there is no urgency to get things done and communication is indirect at best. Inshallah {God Willing} was often heard in the Middle East and basically means that the deadline is loose. Vietnamese has many shades of yes, and yes can actually mean no. Amanhã {tomorrow} in Mozambique and the cognate mañana {tomorrow} in Mexico mean that something might happen tomorrow, or the next day, or the day after that. This as a fact we know intellectually. But it was a shock to the system after living in a massively entrepreneurial Chinese megacity that evolved at lightning speed. 

While trying to sort our lives in Sayulita, emails would dangle without response for days…or forever. When searching for a house or trying to get the kids into school, delays and evasive responses caused anxiety. We wanted to know what our life would be like, and we wanted to know now. Hot tip: phone calls, WhatsApp or showing up in person are most effective. It’s not that people don’t care. They do. Actually, many people have been extremely friendly and helpful. It’s just that the sense of time and the order of priorities are different. Families are more important than mobile phones. And people tend to trust that everything will work out in the end. Two lessons that have been very good for us to embrace.

Stay tuned for upcoming posts about the golf cart remodel, the joys of our charming house, making friends, and all the delicious food!