Travel, transition, and taking stock

This weekend I was filled with a sudden urge to write. For months, whenever I contemplated writing, I felt a big, threatening blank space rise up in my brain. Initially it was because I was in the thick of a lot of international travel, sudden decisions, and a busy workload at work, leaving little time to write.  As things settled, a strong desire to reflect inward, spend quality time with loved ones (remotely), and get out in nature whenever possible replaced my usual enjoyment of writing. On top of that, it felt impossible to write my own story in a genuine and mindful way when there has been so much happening collectively. COVID-19 and the much-needed reckoning with systemic racism in the U.S., around the world, and deep in our institutions rightly called my attention elsewhere. 

But it feels time to write with at least an update and also a good dose of reflection. 

Let’s go back to where I last left off. On February 22, in Said Pur in Sunshine, I wrote about a particularly lovely experience exploring Islamabad. About a week after that I took off for a much-needed vacation. Heading off a week earlier than A, I joined my mum for an incredible mother-daughter trip in Bali to celebrate her milestone birthday.

We were extremely lucky we traveled during the first week of March, as most countries were only just starting to react to COVID-19 so our trip proceeded as planned. Apart from a few less tourists, most everything was open, and we thoroughly enjoyed exploring first Ubud in the center of the island and then Sanur on the coast. That trip could fill several posts on its own, but suffice to say it was truly a trip of a lifetime that I will hold dear to my heart for the rest of my life. Along with amazing quality time with my mum, it was just the right balance of relaxing by the pool, exploring beautiful temples and cultural sites, hiking and biking, and getting in some beach time. 

Bali villas cannot be beat

It was clear as my mum and I left Bali to head to New Zealand that things were starting to shift. The airports felt both hectic and less full than usual. In Wellington, there wasn’t much extra checking at that time, though within just a week COVID-19 policies would ramp up and become more streamlined. A’s flight arrived just slightly before ours, so we all met up at the airport. It was wonderful to be reunited and, as always, felt like no time had passed at all since we were all last together (over two years before).

When I arrived in Bali, it took me a good few days to clear work and life in Pakistan from my mind. A felt just the same once he arrived in New Zealand, so we prioritized relaxation and mental health over adventures. We went hiking almost every day and soaked up the country’s natural beauty, clean air, and ever present birdsong as the weather just started to turn to fall. We also spent lots of time sleeping in, hanging out at home, watching Survivor with my parents, and playing board games. 

There was a strange sense of normalcy even as things were already changing. We quickly realized that we needed to cancel our planned trip to Melbourne, Australia to visit my brother Gregory. One day Melbourne, one day. I think the last gasp of the before times for us was flying down to Queenstown where we had a perfectly lovely and normal time exploring and doing yet more hiking. One day we rode a cable car up to Skyline, an adventure sport spot poised at the start of the Ben Lomond summit trail. We donned helmets and spent an afternoon enjoying the luge, a downhill go-cart-type track winding down the mountainside. 

We headed back from Queenstown to Wellington to spend a few more days with my family there, but the next morning woke up to messages from colleagues and friends in Islamabad that Pakistan was effectively closing its airspace. If we didn’t fly back immediately and get in before midnight that coming Saturday, we likely wouldn’t be able to return.

Although the idea of spending a bit more time with family was appealing, being stranded indefinitely in a third country with dwindling flight options was not. Given how rapidly things were changing with COVID-19, we faced the very real prospect of not being able to get back and, foremost in our mind quite frankly, organize and pack our very unorganized and unpacked apartment. It was even unclear if we would be able to get back to the U.S.! Within two hours, we frantically packed up our things and headed to the airport for the long, three-leg trip back to Islamabad. 

As we flew into Islamabad, I remember looking out the window and seeing gray as far as I could see. Gray tinged with beige and browns and yellow clouds hanging over the small villages clustered among more gray and brown. Despite this honestly unappealing sight, I felt a rightness in my stomach that said that I was right where I was supposed to be. A and I grasped hands and then, as we unbuckled our seatbelts, I felt that we were metaphorically buckling up for staying here for an indefinite long haul. We got through Islamabad immigration just five hours before the airspace closed to in-bound flights. “Well that’s that,” we thought, “we’re here.”

I was wrong of course. It seemed that nothing during those jumbled days in March was clear or organized for anyone, anywhere. 

With some amount of foresight, we didn’t bother unpacking our suitcases. We had just done laundry in Wellington, so we just let them be and slept. Within 24 hours, we knew that we needed to leave as well or risk being stuck in Pakistan indefinitely.

We spent the next four days packing up our apartment. I know we must have slept and rested during that time, but all the days were a blur of jet lag and preparations. As I said goodbye to friends, one thoughtfully said, “All my best for your time in Rabat.” I stared at her and mumbled, “Oh, we’re going to Morocco next.” My travel-addled brain conflating the very city I’ll be living in with somewhere else. Fatigue mixed with planning and a distinct feeling that we would forever lack closure for this particular chapter of our lives. 

On our last evening, A and I took one last walk, a walk we had done countless times. I’m sure the sound of the evening call to prayer played in the distance; it always did at that time of day. We talked about our time in Pakistan, the challenges and successes, the fun times and the not fun times (norovirus anyone?), the things we couldn’t wait to leave and the people, places, and things we’d miss forever. It helped.

We left the next morning, in a steady rain. There was a raw feeling in my throat; a sharp lump. I didn’t want to give into it. I had the presence of mind to spend the trip to the airport writing down my thoughts in my iPhone’s notes app. I hadn’t looked at it again until now and just remembered that I wrote something about the rain. Here it is:

There’s a strange rain as we leave Islamabad. The mountains are clear with the early morning haze of sunrise but thick clouds hang directly overhead as if drawn by a child across a scribbled sky. Heavy drops thunk individually onto the pavement, the waiting cars, our heads. It feels fitting on this bittersweet day, that despite the clouds and raindrops, the sun is still faintly turning the sky golden along the horizon, turning the gray clouds silver.

Looking out past the empty highway, Islamabad is quiet with everything paused. I have a complicated relationship with this place, and it has challenged and changed me in such a deeply profound way that I can hardly quantify it. I am thankful to have lived in Pakistan, perhaps a little thankful to leave it, and I wonder if I’ll ever be back here again.

I don’t know what awaits me back in the U.S. It feels like I’m going to a foreign country with how much has changed and so quickly with isolations, closures, quarantines. But I do know that I’ll be ok.

Writing also helped me quickly pass the time on the drive. I suddenly looked up and we were already there at the near empty airport. It was a relief to board the plane. The flight itself was uneventful with plenty of food, drink, and movies to entertain us. I drifted in and out of sleep, letting the “History of Rome” podcast entertain and lull me to sleep as needed. 

After 60 hours of international travel in one week, I have had my fill for the year. I love an international trip, but that’s enough for me. A close and incredibly thoughtful friend picked us up from the airport in DC. We put on our masks, rolled the car windows down on a chilly March evening, and headed for our hotel. That was March 26.

There is always an adjustment period on either side of time overseas. This one was largely spent inside doing yoga, watching TV, or going on long walks. A few weeks in, we bought a new car, which significantly opened up our world, particularly to parks and trails just a short drive away.

Walking on Theodore Roosevelt Island

We’ve been particularly careful this past month to isolate, since we’re heading up to New York soon to visit A’s family who have a couple at-risk members. After about two weeks of family time, we’ll head back down to the DC area for a year. Then we’ll be moving to Morocco, ETA August 2021. I’m looking forward to settling in here for a bit.

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