Pre-TAPIF Checklist

As you may or may not know, I’ll be moving to a tiny town on the Spanish border called Ceret for 7 months to teach English through the French government’s TAPIF program! France is notorious for their bureaucracy, but I think I’m more or less prepared for my departure in a few weeks. If you’re thinking of applying to TAPIF, here’s a snapshot of my pre-departure checklist.

Receive arretรฉ de nomination

This is your work contract. It tells you where you’ll be teaching (sometimes in more than one place!) and for how many hours. I’m scheduled for 12 hours a week at a high school. It took me a while to sign the contract and email back a copy because I was applying to extend my Fulbright grant in Uzbekistan, but I didn’t end up getting accepted. ๐Ÿ˜ฆ Still, it was with a sense of relief and finality that I finally signed the contract and sent it in.

Apply for visa

I was an idiot and forgot my passport to my visa appointment! So I had to go back the next week and apply, passport safely in hand. Fortunately, my first time at the VFS office (a lot of EU countries no longer do visas through their consulates but through a third-party company), my officer was able to look through my other documents and make sure I had everything I needed. ๐Ÿ™‚ When I went back the second time, it was smooth and pleasant; my officer was French and happy I could speak it basically fluently, and the officer next to mine had studied a bit of Catalan and was excited to speak it with me!

Book flights/trains/buses

I chose a flight with a layover in Dublin (woohoo! A new country for me to visit during the 7 hours I have there), the final destination being Barcelona because Ceret is much closer to Barcelona than it is even to Montpellier, let alone Paris. I figured I’d stay a couple days in Barcelona since I’m flying in anyway! I was planning on getting an 8 euro bus to Perpignan, where I could then catch a 1 euro bus to Ceret, but with all my luggage, I decided to book a 40 euro train instead. Painful for my wallet but probably more convenient in the long run!

Book Barcelona accommodations

I booked a hostel but cancelled it the next day because I remembered that I had met a lovely Catalan family in Boston and hit it off with them. I asked them if I could possibly stay with them, and not only did they say yes, they also offered to pick me up from the airport and invited me to their aunt’s 60th birthday party for my first look into a Catalan celebration!! I can’t put into words how touched I am and how people’s generosity makes me want to give even more than I receive. It also shows that no matter how obscure the language, it pays (quite literally!) to study it for the human connections it helps forge. The family and I wouldn’t have met and talked in Boston if I hadn’t heard them speaking Catalan and been like, “Esteu parlant catalร ?!” They were so shocked that an American even knew about Catalonia, let alone could speak the language, and we formed a bond that has given me this wonderful opportunity even though we spent a total of 20 minutes together.

Book initial Ceret accommodations

We were told not to look into apartments at our sites until we arrived since our school might have prepared something for us, and because it’s better to be able to visit apartments in person. So I just booked an Airbnb for the first two weeks, and I’m so excited for it. I’ll be sharing a space with my landlady, who herself loves traveling and has two dogs!! We’ve already been talking a lot through Airbnb messaging, and she provides breakfast every morning. She said we could get to know each other over coffee and croissants, “ร  la francaise” ๐Ÿ™‚ Some of my best memories in France are with my Parisian host mother, talking about her travels over fresh coffee and warm baguettes with homemade apricot jam, so I’m excited for another “host mom” bonding experience with my Airbnb host!

I initially wasn’t very excited for France because I know the workload is going to be lighter, the impact smaller, and the enthusiasm for learning English lower than it all was in Uzbekistan. But I plan to not only make my own projects and get connected to as many work opportunities as possible, but also to just let myself chill. I can read books. Write in my blog. Study various languages. Go on runs and hikes. Improve my French and Catalan. Explore every corner of Ceret. Take online econ classes in preparation for grad school. Travel Europe and maybe even go back to visit Uzbekistan. Besides, while I’m 99.9% sure my assumptions about my work life will be true, I never know how I may be surprised ๐Ÿ™‚

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1 Region, 3 Places: A scratch into the surface of Qashqadaryo Region, Uzbekistan | June 2019

I finally made it to the 13th and final region of Uzbekistan I had left to visit, Qashqadaryo! I went with my counterpart from the Prosecutors’ Academy, Svetlana, and her spunky, empathetic, creative son, Yaseen. We were visiting Svetlana’s family in their spacious home in Qarshi, where they used to host Peace Corps Volunteers. ๐Ÿ™‚

Qarshi

Svetlana’s dad, a quite youthful-looking man who speaks Russian, picked us up from the train station. We made a stop by the local bakery to give her mom a ride too. When I say bakery, you’re probably thinking of a shop full of sweets and breads. This bakery was literally a place to bake your own dough into non/lepyoshka (my preferred Uzbek bread, a thick circular flatbread) and patyr (flaky, multilayer, slightly buttery flatbread).

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At home, we were greeted by several more people: the kelin (lit. bride, but it refers to the wife of the youngest son of the family), her two daughters, and Svetlana’s two grandmothers. This was as good a day as any to practice Uzbek since only Svetlana, her dad, and Yaseen speak Russian. Over a homemade lunch of chickpea soup, potatoes, patyr, and cherry juice, the family reflected with me about their time hosting Peace Corps Volunteers and how much they learned from it and enjoyed it. Svetlana told me that their house – the very one we were gathered in – was the “cool” spot in the region, where Volunteers would hang out to make pizza and, you know, shower. After I’d eaten and drunk to my heart’s content, her mom laid out a sleeping mattress for me to take a nap in the only air-conditioned room in the house. I can definitely see why this was the place for Americans. ๐Ÿ˜‰

But probably my favorite spot in their house is the front yard, where apricots fall from their trees.

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Shakhrisabz

Svetlana, her parents, Yaseen, and some of Svetlana’s extended family (aunts, cousins, etc) took me to Shakhrisabz, where Amir Temur was born! It was kind of sad to see that Oq Saroy (White Palace) had basically been torn to pieces by the Soviets and never rebuilt.

Ushoqtepa

Before heading back up to Tashkent, Svetlana and I made a quick visit to her sister in the tiny village of Ushoqtepa. It was my first time being shown around an Uzbek farm, and I delighted in the flower bushes, outhouse toilet (I’m passionate about all kinds of toilets even though I cannot poop in squatties), dogs, and cows. Svetlana’s niece and nephew were eager hosts, and as the calf sniffed me repeatedly, the niece very sweetly ventured out, “Baby cow very like you.” I couldn’t tell then who was cuter, her or the calf.

Svetlana’s sister had called ahead to find out what I’d like to eat (even though we only had an hour for our visit before we had to catch our train) and prepared me a vegetarian spread: glossy apricots fresh from the garden, pasta with veggies, and homemade french fries!! I nearly teared up from how thoughtful this mouthwatering meal was. This was true Uzbek hospitality at its finest.

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Svetlana is unusual from other Uzbeks in that, among many other qualities, she has an excellent sense of time and most definitely does not abide by “Uzbek time.” Normally I’m the punctual one fretting over missing a train, but this time, Svetlana was the one dragging me kicking and screaming [kinda] out of the farm village, reminding me we had a train to catch. At the vokzal (train station), I ran into one of my TSUL speaking club attendees, and it turned out his seat was right behind mine! What a small world and such a good note to end this trip on. I was really happy because in speaking club, he tended to be pretty negative and callous, but in our one-on-one convos on the train, he showed to me a confident, reflective, grateful side. I’m so happy I saw him.

This concludes my travel posts from Uzbekistan. ๐Ÿ™‚ As I’ve said before, it’s particularly meaningful to me that I made it to all 13 regions in the country because I developed travel anxiety during the year and explicitly told myself not to make my mental health worse by pressuring myself to travel. But organically and without forcing myself, I did travel. I learned to be gentle with myself and to listen to my body. But I also learned to have more faith in the capabilities of my body and to speak into existence the resilience I wanted to have. These travel entries chronicle the fruits of those labors.

Bukhara, Uzbekistan, as told by my stomach | June 2019

The last stop on the travels Thomas and I did together was Bukhara. Since I’ve already written a post about the city itself and the emotions I was experiencing, here’s one focused on what I ate and drank! ๐Ÿ˜‰ All time stamps are purely for stylistic purposes – I have no idea when these meals and coffee breaks actually occurred.

June 4

18:03 – Pasta and wine at Bella Italia. Authentic? No. Delicious and much-needed (especially the chilled glass of white)? Absolutely. In Uzbekistan, you often share taxis with other riders. In this case, Thomas and I climbed in to find ourselves faced with a 10-year-old boy whom Thomas recognized as a friend he made earlier that day at the do’kon (convenience store) around the corner from our Airbnb!

19:32 – Strolling through Chor Minor as a thunderstorm was about to break, Thomas and I saw a few kids sitting on a ledge, counting from when lightning struck and shrieking with delight when thunder followed. They kept shouting “Olma!” (apple) at us. At first I thought they wanted us to try an apple off the fruit trees around the Minor, but an “olma bering!” (give us apples) quickly clarified things for me. So there was Thomas, plucking off apples in the middle of an imminent storm, for these Uzbek kids.

June 5

10:01 – I woke up to an empty stomach, no electricity because of the violent storm, and a note from Thomas declaring that he’d gone off in search of coffee and wifi. When he came back, he told me about some local people he’d befriended at a nearby choyxona (lit. “tea room,” where Uzbek men gather in hordes to spend time with friends). His one year of Russian in high school got him really far in Uzbekistan!

10:55 – Okay, this has nothing to do with my stomach, but as Thomas and I headed into the city for the day, we heard a kitten mewling insistently at us. The following photoshoot ensued.

11:16 – We settled down for coffees at a cafe right on Labi Hauz, soaking in the summer rays, listening to the tinkle of the fountains, and making fun of all the YT pipo wandering around in their tropical print shirts, bermuda shorts, and do’ppi (traditional Uzbek hats). When we finished our drinks, we moved 5 feet to the restaurant attached for plov. Once again, the carrots were too alive for my taste!

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1:13 – For a bit of repose from the heat of the day, we ducked into Wishbone Cafe, a German establishment. I ordered their Russian-brand bottled lemonade, but it tasted like bubble gum.

19:28 – Thomas picked out Old House for dinner, a courtyard restaurant/museum nestled in the heart of the Jewish Quarter. I initially wasn’t thrilled to be eating Uzbek food again, but I quickly changed my mind. The atmosphere was absolutely gorgeous, quiet and intimate, and the service was excellent. I enjoyed my white wine and potato somsas, and that dinner was probably one of the best dinners of my life simply for the environment and the conversations. Thomas and I got to talk about the nitty-gritty of our lives and promise to support each other, I found out he was high school friends with the boyfriend of a Youtuber I follow religiously, and an email popped up on my phone that I’d gotten an interview for Peace Corps Kosovo!

June 6

10:06 – We went back to the Labi Hauz square to visit the cafe I went to with Brian in March, owned by a Korean-Uzbek. He remembered me! ๐Ÿ™‚

Such an amazing, relaxing trip for the interactions we had with Uzbek people and with each other. Bonus: no panic attacks on my part. ๐Ÿ˜‰ It was such a triumph for me to go back to the place that I still so viscerally associate with my brain just coming apart and be like, Bukhara, I’m not scared of you and brain, I’m not scared of you either!

I’m also really impressed with how easily Thomas made Uzbek friends not just in Bukhara but everywhere we went: around Tashkent, at the yurt camp. He only has one year of formal Russian study under his belt (and that was yearsss ago), but his natural aptitude for languages and, more importantly, his open heart got him so far. It made me happy to see him repping America in a positive light and integrating so well into Uzbekistan.

Yurt Camping in Navoiy Region, Uzbekistan | June 2019

The visit of one of my best friends, Thomas, coincided with the release of Miley Cyrus’ comeback EP, She is Coming. So I’m now blasting it as I write up this post, trying to conjure back up the same things I felt as Thomas and I were whisked down dusty desert Uzbek roads, Miley’s drawl snarling in my ears. “Party up the street” indeed, I thought as we scaled up and down tiny hills, talking about such elicit topics as sex and being gay, confident that our driver couldn’t understand us. (We joked that he would suddenly turn around and say in fluent English, “Yes, let’s smash the cisgender white patriarchy!”)

We started off in Samarkand, where Magistr Cafe did me dirty. I asked for a tomato pasta, but the waiter brought me a bolognese. I insisted I get the tomato I ordered. He rolled his eyes and came back with ketchup… for me to squirt all over a bolognese? I finally got what I wanted, but this is yet another in a long list of hilarious stories I have about service at Uzbek restaurants.

Since I had already been to Samarkand, I only accompanied Thomas to the Registan, one of few images most people have of Uzbekistan, if they have any images of it at all. (I admit I was guilty of this before getting my Fulbright!) A policeman may or may not have pocketed our “entrance fee” for himself, but it was cheaper than the actual entrance fee, and we just wanted to get him off our case.

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We were staying with Peter, and over a delicious dinner of spaghetti with homemade tomato sauce and lepyoshka, we discussed colonialism in Africa and the current state of US politics. He saw us off the next morning with freshly-brewed coffee. Always a pleasure being with Peter. ๐Ÿ™‚

We were picked up by a driver for the tour company we were yurt camping through, pleasantly surprised to see that the car had seat belts and that the driver stuck to the speed limit like glue. We had a homemade lunch at a local family’s house on the road to Nurata, and I happily consumed cold noodles, traditional shurva soup, non, and green tea. Then we were shown around the mosque complex in Nurata, but neither of our guides explained the history behind it.

After a long drive that ended in some off-roading through thick reddish sand and tough shrubs, we arrived at our yurt camp! It was exactly what I hoped it’d be: silent, secluded, severed from any mobile or internet connections. While Thomas rode camels (I’ve already done that in Abu Dhabi and Cairo and have had my fix of jarring dismounts), I sat by the campfire circle to journal. Neither Thomas nor I particularly jived with most of the other campers, a mix of mostly older white retirees from the US, Canada, and Western Europe who made lowkey racist comments and had very little contextual understanding of the region they were traveling. So we spent most of our time chatting with our super awesome guide, Nastia, going back and forth between sharing our perspectives on Uzbek politics in English and moving to easier topics in Russian to accommodate our levels. As Thomas and I spoke French with each other for practice, we suddenly realized two other people in the camp were speaking French too! And that’s how we befriended a Parisian couple closer to our age. ๐Ÿ™‚

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I had been asking our other guide if plov would be served at dinner, and he assured me there would be. Little did I know that the chefs made plov specifically for Thomas and me! The rest of the campers got a potato/beef dish (that I also helped myself to off the plates of our French friends, hehe). I was touched by this generous gesture; plov takes a lot of effort to make, and I certainly wasn’t charged extra for my special dish!

That night, we all gathered around a roaring campfire and relaxed as a man on a dutar sang in Kazakh. Thomas leaned over and told me about how happy, relaxed, and himself he’d felt our entire trip together. Feeling emotional and a little weepy, I said I felt the same way, that I’d been scarred after my Bukhara Breakdown (how do I add a TM emoji in here??) and anxious about travel since then, but that having him as my travel companion made me feel 100% safe. We hugged it out, and then he pulled me and our French friends up to dance. I normally hate dancing, but I was feeling so good and free of my usual baggage that evening that I just let it loose! We tried to get other people to dance with us, but they complained about their hips, backs, etc. I tried to get performer to play the Andijon Polka, but he didn’t know it. ๐Ÿ˜ฆ

I know I’m a total camping noob, but I could not bring myself to shower with all the moths and cockroaches in my shower. I could, however, sleep with all the dead insects in my bed. :,)

The next day we made our last stop of the tour package, to Lake Aydar on the border of Kazakhstan. It was exactly the relaxing beach vacation I needed, even though we were only there for a few hours. I was so calm that I found myself just staring into the water for several minutes, watching it lap at my feet. Then we enjoyed a lunch of potatoes and freshly-caught fish and Uzbek sweets before continuing onward.

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My favorite part of my favorite song off Miley’s new album goes, “My momma always told me that I’d make it, so I made it.” Staring off into the water of a lake that straddles two Central Asian countries, I couldn’t help but find it surreal that my mom and I always knew I’d make it somewhere, but little did we know that Uzbekistan would be one of those places.

 

Osh, Kyrgyzstan | May + June 2019

Because Andijan is just an hour drive away from Do’stlik (Friendship), the Uzbek-Kyrgyz border, Sarah and I decided to hop on over to Osh in Kyrgyzstan for a weekend after our Fergana Valley tour. I also went back to Osh solo at the end of June, and both times, I was with a Peace Corps Volunteer serving in Kyrgyzstan, Carl.

The border crossing

It’s very easy to cross from either side. Sometimes the lines get long and chaotic, but fair or not, foreigners are always pushed to the front – by the people in line. ๐Ÿ™‚ Other than none of the passport control officers ever believing I was American despite holding my American passport, there were no problems. I’ve even made some Kyrgyz friends while crossing!

Brio

The most Western-style cafe in Osh, travelers and more liberal Kyrgyz/Uzbeks (Osh is a majority Uzbek city despite being in Kyrgyzstan, a product of purposeful Soviet border creation) understandably flock to Brio to chill, hang out with friends, and work. There’s wifi, good coffee, and decent pastries and meals. I’ve spent many an hour there chatting with Carl and Sarah, meeting new friends, reading, Facetiming, writing, and grading papers.

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Friends!

On our first day in Osh, Sarah, Carl, and I got dinner with Heidi, an ELF we love, and Jyldyz, a Fulbright Foreign Student alum and (in my mind) the Krygyz Svetlana, someone who takes her work seriously and has big dreams. From talking to her and following her Facebook posts, I see she does a lot for English education and girls’ empowerment in Kyrgyzstan! She kindly gifted me a blue scarf and Sarah a white kalpak, the traditional Central Asian hat. (Karakalpakstan is actually named after the black kalpaks that Karakalpaks wear! Kara – or qora in Uzbek specifically – means black in Turkic languages.)

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Sulaiman-Too

We hiked this small mountain in the middle of the city with a beautiful mosque out front. It’s a short, easy hike, but poor Sarah was holding in her diarrhea the whole time, and I’m scared of heights and was a little dizzy at the top lol. Carl and I went down a “fertility slide,” but only six times instead of the required seven ’cause I’m not trying to pop one out.

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“Don’t bother me I’m holding in my diarrhea.”

Street art

I wish I knew the significance of any of these paintings and designs, but suffice to just admire them!

Parks

I spent a lot of my second trip to Osh at Brio and then wandering around the parks on my own. It was nice to stop and literally smell the flowers, something I’m usually in too much of a hurry/too much of a homebody to do.

Even though sightseeing wasn’t a priority for me while in Osh, I look back on my times there and remember how nice it was to just work at Brio, sit in the park, or chill at the apartment. Osh definitely wasn’t so much a tourist destination for me as it was a vacation from real life, where I could just hole up and not need to think too hard. It was a much-needed break from the exhaustion of the year, in excellent company and full of fond memories.

The Ferghana Valley, Uzbekistan | May 2019

After much hedging and hawing about whether I could handle this trip or not (plot twist: I could indeed ๐Ÿ™‚ ), I joined Sarah on a whirlwind tour of Uzbekistan’s Fergana Valley, plus Osh in western Kyrgyzstan. (More on the latter in another blog post.) The Valley is composed of three regions: Namangan, Fergana, and Andijan. We visited Namangan the city, Fergana the city, Margilan (Fergana), Rishton (Fergana), and Andijan the city.

Namangan

To save time, Sarah and I flew over the mountains and into Namangan instead of taking the recommended but long taxi ride through the mountains. V was on our flight and, since Sarah and I were so engrossed in our phones, she managed to cross the entire waiting hall and plop herself right next to us and say hi before we even noticed her. ๐Ÿ˜› She also got upgraded to business class while Sarah and I were in economy. Sniff.

The three of us were met in Namangan by one of Ben’s students, Olim, who was an absolute gem. He was holding a sign for us! He pointed out the sights of Namangan (including the high school where the Access program is hosted!) and refused to let us pay for the cab despite our protests.

Shannon, Ben, Sarah, and I took a walk around Bobur Park (V was probably deep into a much-needed self-care bath at her hotel), where preparations for the annual flower festival were under way. They climbed into a ferris wheel in the amusement park, but I kept my feet on the ground, chatting in Uzbek with the attendants as the other three went round and round on the potential death trap that is Uzbek amusement park rides.

Then we all met up with V at Istanbul Restaurant and, the next morning, breakfast-ed at her hotel. I had my first apricot of the season, which Ben kindly provided. I chopped it apart like a madwoman before eating it, leading Ben to remark, “Geez, I wouldn’t have brought it if I knew you’d eat it like that.”

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Fergana

The drive from Namangan to Fergana was only 1.5 hours, and Graham took us to a nice restaurant in the center of the city with yummy pasta and real coffee! ๐Ÿ˜€ His awesome colleague, Doniyor, joined us even though he was fasting. I felt bad wolfing down my second plate of spaghetti as he sat there hungry and thirsty in the hot May sun.

We headed over to Margilon, which houses the famous Yogordlik Silk Factory. Sarah noticed our friend Sara with her dad!!! Sara was a Fulbright Student Researcher in Kazakhstan and interned in the political section of US Embassy Tashkent this summer. Such an insane coincidence – who knew we’d find someone we knew in a little town in the middle of the Fergana Valley?!

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Anyway, it was fascinating seeing the different processes of silk production. We touched the silk worms (I’m generally scared of any type of worm, but these guys were so soft!), examined both natural and synthetic dyes, learned about how designs are made, and watched a woman weave together some atlas fabric. Sarah tried her luck at it, but it’s even harder than it looks. The best part was watching some artisans work on silk carpets; those take months or even years to finish.

We wrapped up our day in Rishton, where a famous ceramics workshop is located. I chatted in French with some European diplomats stationed in Dushanbe and vacationing in Uzbekistan, watched the artisans make clay pots and paint dishes, pet an extremely lazy kitty, and bought a small owl plate that I use as a bracelet holder.

Andijan

Graham, Sarah, and I piled into a taxi and headed to Andijan, where Caroline was holding a music festival that we were all volunteering at. (Ben, Shannon, and V went directly there from Namangan.) We had a bit of a rough start to the morning. There was no time for lunch, and everyone was fasting for Ramadan, so we had to grab some snacks from a grocery store and quickly eat it on the steps outside. Hailing a taxi was also a pain; people were demanding too much money or didn’t know where we needed to go. But we finally made it to the university and had a great time!

I enjoyed the music festival because I could see students coming out of their shells as they sang. Sure, not all of them could sing well or had good English skills, but neither of those are important. What was important was that they felt confident enough to try something new and do something scary! I sure as hell would never sing in another language in front of a crowd. (I say that, but did I scream the lyrics to ะ”ะตั€ะถะธ to strangers in a crowded square in one of the most touristy cities in Uzbekistan? Yes.) Additionally, the Andijan Access group performed the “Cups” song, and Graham and Shannon went solos. Graham was on his ukelele singing his own original songs, and Shannon played the guitar and sang. To wrap things up, Caroline danced the Andijan Polka, which I always enjoy hearing and watching! My favorite part of the festival was actually after the festival, though. As most students streamed out of the auditorium, Graham and a few guys spontaneously started jamming together. With the boys on the piano and Graham on the ukelele, they played an acoustic version of the Andijan Polka, adding their own intense flair to it. Caroline got up and danced to it, completing the Hallmark moment. โค

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One of Caroline’s colleagues kindly drove us around Andijan, including up on a scenic hill and down to the mosque.

Sarah and I wrapped up our Fergana Valley trip in the company of Graham, Caroline, and Caroline’s friend Habib at a Turkish restaurant that served delicious pizza and yummy Turkish coffee. Group dinners are usually a miss for me – they can be overwhelming, and I find that people don’t really listen to me or let me speak in a group setting. But these were just the right people, and I felt the most relaxed and appreciated I’d felt at a group dinner in months, the perfect wrap-up to an awesome trip. ๐Ÿ™‚ To complete the scene of Uzbek hospitality, when I told Habib that I liked his earbuds (I’d borrowed them for a few days), he let me keep them!! :O I slipped Caroline a 10,000 so’m bill to sneak into his wallet, and he still asks me to this day why I did that and how he was happy to give me something that made me happy. ๐Ÿ™‚

Three regions in three days? Check!

Nukus + Moynaq, Republic of Karakalpakstan, Uzbekistan | April 2019

Finally, my travel hiatus was over, and I couldn’t have been more excited to be back on the road. Caroline, Sarah, and I landed in dusty, sunny Nukus after a surprise layover in Urgench, ready to take on the weekend!

A warm greeting

Dina, the Access coordinator in Nukus, met the three of us at the airport and arranged a free ride to our hotel! The sweetest ever- we were not expecting the latter. In the weeks leading up to our arrival, she’d been very responsive to my emails and Telegram messages planning things out, a kind of attention to detail I rarely find even among Americans. ;p And here’s the Uzbek and Karakalpak flags side-by-side!

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Cinnamon Cafe

The closest to a Western-style cafe you can find in the semi-autonomous region of Karakalpakstan, Cinnamon Cafe provided us with everything we were craving: noodle dishes, pizza, and strong coffee. There, we metย Dylan, an Aussi who had been solo-traveling Central Asia. He had come from Afghanistan and was heading into Turkmenistan! ๐Ÿ˜ฎ It’s funny because when I first saw Dylan, I thought he’d be one of those dude bros who was too cool for us. In fact, I was a little cold to him because I didn’t want to annoy him. Now he is one of my absolute best friends in the world. More on that later. ๐Ÿ™‚

Savitskiy Museum

Thisย museum is one of the jewels of Uzbekistan, where artist Igor Savitskiy amassed a huge collection of Uzbek folk pieces and Russian avant-garde art. Many of the artists and pieces were banned during the Soviet Union, when socialist realism (think plain paintings of farmers in a field and triumphant statues of Soviet heroes) was the only acceptable school of art. We couldn’t take pictures inside, but I wish I’d bought the photo permit just to remember what I saw. There was an animal-themed exhibit going on, and as a longtime animal lover myself (I used to sketch them in my free time, so even more meaningful!), I was entranced by the vivid colors bursting from the walls and the feral eyes staring back at me from some of the pieces. I was equally mesmerized by the folk art; bright atlas fabrics and yurt coverings adorned the exhibit.

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Talks with Dylan

Unfortunately, I had only made it through one floor of one building (there are two buildings, I believe each with two or three floors) when my fatigue from barely sleeping the night before and my anxiety about our Access presentation in a few hours caught up to me. I wandered over to a couch and tried to nap, then went outside, hoping that the sun would wake me up. Dylan suddenly appeared, and we headed back to Cinnamon together. As we talked, I found out that he has the exact same phobia as me, and I couldn’t believe it! This guy who has been solo to Iran, Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, and Turkmenistan? With my phobia? No way! But yes way, and finding someone who could understand me on such a primal, fear-based level was absolutely insane – and comforting. We really opened up to each other about everything related to the intersection of our mental health and travels (it’s all a cycle, people!), and I was so glad he’d approached me, even though I felt bad that that meant he couldn’t see the rest of the museum either. In the end, though, we can both go back. But had we not had that conversation when we did, we never would have.

Access presentation

Yes, despite everyone and my mom telling me after my Bukhara Breakdown not to combine work with travel, I decided to go ahead and do something with the Access group at Nukus Pedagogical University anyway. But this time Caroline and Sarah were in tow, which took a lot of the pressure off me. I had been feeling a little sick from nerves, and when we walked into the auditorium, it was full of balloons, another phobia of mine! But I just steeled myself and walked in and pretended they weren’t there, and I got through the lesson without screaming or running away, a new development for me. Anyway, Caroline and I had prepared a super fun presentation about American culture, full of discussion questions. I talked about stuff like coffee, ethnic food, and DC’s Embassy Day and Folklife Festival, and Caroline talked about things like baseball, traditional music (such as “Yankee Doodle”), and domestic travel. Sarah wasn’t originally going to present with us, but she got looped in anyway, and people enjoyed her sarcastic comments and funny stories. The students went wild when Caroline danced the Andijon Polka with them and were impressed by our attempts at speaking Karakalpak. By the end of the presentation I was definitely feeling a little overwhelmed and on the brink of an anxiety attack, but I did have a good time, and I hope to work with Dina again someday.

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Moynaq

Moynaq is about a 3 hour drive from Nukus and is on the shores of where the Aral Sea used to be before Soviet mismanagement and continuing irresponsible irrigation practices reduced it to about 25% of its original size. The resulting salt deposits have made Karakalpakstan infamous for health problems, such as lung infections and gastrointestinal upset. I can’t help but admire the commitment, independence and resilience of the people; one of my best students was Karakalpak, and the rector of TSUL was too.

Our first stop was a tiny museum that played a video about the Aral Sea disaster and all the good things being done to resolve it. Unfortunately, in my opinion, the video was little more than propaganda made by the Uzbek government to even allow the museum to remain open and otherwise talk about disaster in a country that likes to market itself as a paradise, both to its own citizens and to the outside world. For some more information about the fate of the sea, with a balance of good (Kazakh side) and bad (Uzbek side), check out thisย BBC article.

We had lunch at a roadside restaurant that I was at first dubious about. The lights weren’t working, and the waitress was confused when I asked for a menu – apparently there are only a couple things you can order there, so you just walk in and ask for them. And yet, the plov I had gave me ZERO DIARRHEA! I don’t think I’d had or have had a single plov since that didn’t cause some kind of GI upset! Snaps to Moynaq!

Finally, we reached what we’d come all this way to see: the ship graveyard, where the husks of former fishing boats sit in the desert shrubs, abandoned and rusting. I was disappointed. I didn’t realize what a tourist site it was, and as I watched hordes of schoolchildren laughing and screaming and climbing all over these delicate structures, I was overwhelmed with how sad it all was. To restore the Uzbek side of the Aral Sea to even a fraction of its former glory would involve diverting water used by farmers into the sea, taking away much-needed jobs. It’s not really anyone’s fault in the present day that the sea is in the condition it’s in; who am I to say that the Uzbek government should prioritize ecology over the very real poverty of its citizens? And yet as people scrambled all over the “graveyard” like it was a playground, I just felt sad. There’s nothing else to say about it.

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Abandoned boats on the former shore of the Aral Sea. Moynaq, Autonomous Republic of Karakalpakstan

Business class!

On my solo flight back to Tashkent (Caroline was staying to explore the forts outside of Urgench, and Sarah was taking a later flight), I got upgraded to business! Woohoo! My second time in business class. Fortunately, we had another layover in Urgench, which prolonged my enjoyable time in the cabin. No one was sitting next to me, and I was served a coffee before takeoff. Okay, so it’s not much in the vein of luxury, but for a simple gal like me, I was happy.

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If you want to see more photos from my trip, they’re on my Facebook. ๐Ÿ™‚ Unfortunately, I only have so much free storage left on WordPress. ๐Ÿ˜‰ If you’re coming to Uzbekistan, I’d definitely recommend a trip out to Karakalpakstan. Even though I was unimpressed by the graveyard, it’s still worth seeing to get an idea of the scale of damage, and being in the Savitskiy Museum was like being whisked into another world. Hey, why don’t you do an Access presentation while you’re at it? ๐Ÿ˜›