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.

There are no affiliate links in this post.

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.

Life and Death Decisions – Lena and Brian

A major motivation for moving to Sayulita was access to amazing beaches. Our favorite and the quietest is called Playa de Los Muertos, which translates to {Beach of the Dead}. This has nothing to do with anything bad happening at the beach itself, but rather that the entrance is located adjacent to a cemetery. At four years old, death is a concept Bug is beginning to contemplate. The first time we walked to the beach, he burst into tears after learning that dead people laid within the elevated concrete graves. He now loves riding in the golf cart over the jungle dirt track, but he’s still is a little unsure about the interred neighbors we pass on the way to the playa. We have offered to stop and explore the colorfully decorated site, but both boys are hesitant. Bug verbalizes his fears of death. He doesn’t want to die. He doesn’t want to live to be 100. He is afraid of shadows that could be ghosts. But he does want to walk like a skeleton someday. I wonder if this has anything to do with Héctor in the movie Coco?

Charro {cowboy} on a dancing horse in the Día De Los Muertos parade.

Celebrating Día De Los Muertos showed the kids a different approach to death. Leading up to the three day festival, we did watch Coco again (it was too scary this summer) and found many similarities in Sayulita. They loved all the skeleton statues and painted faces. They loved the alebrije {spirit animal} crouched on top of an ambulance in the parade. And the dancing horses (except when mommy dropped a piece of candy that got squished by a hoof. Oops.) They loved the marigold-covered tunnel in the plaza that represented crossing over, which was shown as a bridge in the movie. They loved the curlicues on charro costumes, booming tubas and engraved guitars. They loved the street food and energetic playmates zipping around the mayhem.

Reactions to death vary greatly across cultures – from stark, solemn funerals in the US to the celebratory Famadihana {turning the bones} in Madagascar where ancestors remains are exhumed. In Mexico, Día De Los Muertos is a multi-day festival for remembering and celebrating deceased loves ones. Although adjacent to Halloween, it is fundamentally very different. We encountered devoutly Catholic Mexicans who were offended by the ghoulishness and dark tone of Halloween. Outside religion, many villagers in Sayulita rightfully defend the indigenous cultural roots and sacredness of Día de Los Muertos. Nonetheless, scary costumes and trick-or-treating have seeped into Mexico and skulls have become quite kitsch in the U.S. as a result of global popular culture and transmigration across the northern border. The international school in Sayulita is very careful to honor both traditions.

Our own cultural tradition for Halloween with a twist – pumpkins carved as a vampire, spider, alien, and cyclops.

As a hub for expat culture, the biggest Halloween event is at the school. This was the first year our kids really understood Halloween and the whole costume thing. We spent time leading up to the event discussing all the pretending. They practiced wearing costumes and needed reassurance that friendly faces hid behind scary masks. We watched videos of face painting to see how people could look like monsters. We were proud of Bug that he agreed to wear a costume this year because last year he completely refused. Brian was even able to take them through the haunted house put on by the secondary students, although they still talk about how frightening it was. After ample treats and games, the party ended in time to head to the plaza to launch the Día de Los Muertos Festival. Along the way, children stopped at local businesses to trick-or-treat, but it was very low key (fine with us, less candy). Also, instead of spiderwebs, witches and bats, Sayulita was decorated in colorful Ojos de Dios {Eyes of God}, papel picado {colorful flags}, and elaborate alters called ofrendas. The only shared decoration was skeletons. But even the skeletons in Mexico have more personality with distinctive shapes, elaborate outfits, and detailed biographies.

A key aspect of the festival was the ofrendas built around the plaza, at businesses and in private homes. The tiered shrines displayed photos, clothes and favorite foods of the deceased, and they were decorated with Catholic symbols, marigolds, skulls, and candles. The children’s school built one for a teacher who died several year ago. It was a moving experience to participate in that, even in our very small way of placing marigolds.

“Life is 10% what happens to you and 90% how you react.”

Charles R. Swindoll

Mexicans choose celebration. Of course they are devastated when their loved ones die. All humans feel that. But they choose not to make it taboo. The choose to remember. They choose to let the dead live again through laughter and memories. They remember people in their entirety, which includes and surpasses the moment of death. It was an honor to share in that experience this year.

Blending of indigenous and Catholic belies, as a priest offered blessings at the end of the symbolic tunnel.

For us and our current situation, losing a job is so small. But the lesson is the same. Do we choose to mourn the broken dream? Or do we choose to celebrate everything we’ve gained along this journey? The bigger picture needs time to reveal itself, but we are working on putting the pieces together in a new way and moving forward. The humor and cheekiness of this holiday speaks to our dry sarcasm. Death is painful? Dress up as a skeleton. Life sucks? Go to the beach.

“Todos somos calaveras.” {We are all skeletons.}

José Guadalupe Posada

Celebrating Halloween and then Dia De Los Muertos validated so much about being expats and raising third culture kids (TCKs). We value the traditions that belong to our own culture – the small ways of understanding what it means to be “American” (which is a contentious term in Latin America anyhow because members of both continents consider themselves American) – while simultaneously embracing our identity as global citizens. We immerse ourselves in other cultures to develop empathy, connect with people who appear different but fundamentally aren’t, and ultimately learn more deeply about who we are and why. There are so many perspectives and exploring them truly enriches our lives.

From Heartbreak to Blessing – Lena

One month ago, I was packing winter parkas and snow boots in anticipation of our move to northern Europe. The following week, I read the devastating email first, and Brian ran to my shouts of “No!” The children peered from behind him, frightened to see me crying on my knees. My gentle husband crouched down to hold me and tenderly lifted me up. Together we carried our toddlers to the couch and nestled them into our laps to explain that we would not be moving to Russia. We shared openly about our sadness and welcomed their litany of questions. They wanted to know if they could still build snowmen, when they would see their toys again, and why Bug couldn’t go to his new school. It was heartbreaking. The next few days went in slow motion as we held ourselves together for the boys, scrambled for jobs we didn’t want, and figured out the logistics of canceled contracts. Two weeks ago, we decided to halt the search and repack for Mexico. And last week, we stumbled into our new lives. 

Where we landed in Sayulita. A lovely little apartment aptly called the “Heart House.”

Through this whirlwind of deep emotions and drastic changes, I am beginning to embrace the blessings of this unplanned detour. Although quite nervous about how the year will unfold, I actual feel content most of the time. In a very short time of winging it in Sayulita, I can feel that Mexico is shifting something within me. Ironically, prior to accepting teaching contracts in China, I had actually tried to take time off from work, but we had been unable to negotiate a contract for Brian and three dependents. Two years later when we accepted our jobs in Russia, I wasn’t even considering not working. Now, as the last hints of baby-ness linger on my children’s cherub faces, my lost wish has been granted.

I love teaching. As most working mothers do, I often struggle with balance and guilt. However, I believe in the long run that it is important for my sons to see me as a multifaceted woman with gifts that include and extend beyond motherhood. Nonetheless, each time I went back to work at 3 or 4 months postpartum, a deep angst rested in my soul about being separated from my babies too soon. And I know it’s cliche, but I was beyond exhausted. The quiet joy that new moms feel during late night feedings and early morning wake-ups became shrouded in anxiety about how few hours of sleep I got and how early the kids needed to be up for school. Those middle of the night moments comforting my babies are once again making my heart full. I can just hold them, caress them, smell them. There is no underlying dread. It’s simply an intimate moment to treasure. And at their ages, I know full well that these moments are fleeting.

Now I am excited to just be a parent at school. Not a teacher-parent. I can actually spend time engaging in my own children’s classrooms, connecting with their teachers, and getting to know classmates’ parents. I can pick them up from school on time. Take them to the park. Or meet up with new friends for a playdate. I don’t have afterschool meetings and unfinished work looming over me. Of course, Brian and I will need to navigate some online work and the creation of this blog, but one of us can and will be there for our children. This is such an unexpected relief.

We have been truly grateful for the love and support of amazing in-home childcare that we’ve afforded up to this point. In Mozambique, our nanny and housekeeper, Sonia and Julieta, not only steadied me as a new mom but enveloped my babies in meticulous care and genuine love. In China, Aliu brought the boys to and from school, cooked nutritious meals, arranged playdates, and contributed significantly to their upbringing. Not to mention washing dishes, doing laundry and mopping floors. These women were the glue that have allowed Brian and I to commit to our professional growth and given us peace that our boys have had a village raising them. Despite my gratitude, there is often a twinge of sadness about the special moments shared between nanny and child that do not include me. Yet this is the guilt I swallow in an attempt to balance motherhood and with intellectual fulfillment. 

I’ve always been a writer. And a night owl. As a teenager, my poetry flowed as my family slept. As a university student, my thesis was born through late nights in the library stacks (which dates me!) and around-the-clock writing binges sustained by microwave popcorn and instant coffee. Once I got a “real” job and became a mom, I said farewell to that impulsivity and the creativity that came with it. I occasionally reminisced but cringed at the potential exhaustion. Interestingly, since arriving in Sayulita, my old rhythms are resurfacing. Blog posts are flowing into the wee hours (including this one), and consequently Brian feeds the boys breakfast and plays with them while I sleep in a bit. I’m not consumed with guilt that he’s doing more than me (because we I have often been overly sensitive about having equally demarcated parenting responsibilities). I’m content and well rested, which makes me a more engaged mom and partner overall. And if I need a bit more sleep, I just siesta with the kids in the afternoon. I could never nap with the kids in my past life or else the evening would have fallen to pieces and a late night would have destroyed the morning and so forth. Now it just is what it is. 

After sitting alone and writing, I have been laying awake next to my sleeping husband each night, his rhythmic breathing stirring meditations about the distance in our marriage. Fundamentally, we are solid. We are co-parents. We are passionate teachers. We are a travel team. But we are often disconnected. In part, this is because I have often felt emotionally drained and literally over-touched by my babies, who rightfully cling to me like little monkeys and constantly engage in curious chatter. (They really are that adorable.) Need I mention the energy and patience needed to teach elementary school? I am ashamed to admit that I have actually recoiled at my husband’s touch. In defense, I was at the point where my stolen moments of seclusion were on the toilet – and even those were often intruded upon by toddlers. I truly hope that our break from teaching and experience co-writing this blog will facilitate a deeper understanding of how Brian and I arrived at this point in our marriage and how we can move forward with more intentionality and tenderness.

What I have come to realize is that this year is a miraculous opportunity to be fully present with my children, my husband, and myself.

Parenting and partnerships are always full of joy, contradictions, truths and uncertainty. One’s sense of self can be lost in the (often unrecognized) work of connecting to and sustaining the people we love. When we finally create spaces for solitude, they can be emotionally laden, rushed and unfulfilling. How are you striving to find balance? What are some self-sustaining practices you have learned along the way? Please share!