Leaning precariously to one side, Paulette flung her bags on the conveyor belt for the final, transatlantic leg of this rapidly unraveling adventure. Her usual confidence, like her careful planning, lay shattered and strewn across last year’s landscape. Collapsing, at last, she ran down her mental checklist for the umpteenth time.
The return to U.S. soil must coincide with her Social Security deposit covering rent, a car for two days, groceries, and a modicum of indispensables to outfit her spartan space. From Central Asia, she’d skyped a landlord willing to guarantee a room for an American vagabond halfway around the world. Paulette was confident that it was the cheapest respectable room to be found anywhere in the nation via the Internet. Even better, it was within walking distance of everything essential, including the local YMCA pool to resume her sorely missed aqua therapy. Thanks to her recently acquired poverty, she qualified for low-income rates.
Conforming her body to the unyielding terminal seat, Paulette thumbed through photos on her phone, smiling at the portrait of everything she owned—whittled down to three luggage pieces—now in the care of Aeroflot.
Her mind was free at last to focus on happier times before her abrupt departure from the Pamir Mountains of Tajikistan.
* * *
As always, Paulette had delighted in the towering landscape. The Pamirs formed a jumbled knot at the convergence of massive mountain ranges, northern end of the Himalayas. Arriving with all the bursting life of spring, Paulette had hit the ground running: trekking to villages and brainstorming with elders while enjoying tea klatches with talented women to help develop more portable livelihoods beyond farming and shepherding. To this disaster specialist, a massive earthquake the previous year had revealed critical needs for such vulnerable populations. She’d determined to return, pitching in and helping these warm and welcoming people.
In the process, a loving Pamiri family embraced her. In gratitude, she’d painted an elaborate family tree (also helping her learn their tongue-tying names).
The uncle, whose house she stayed in, insisted she include herself. “But where are you? You are the little bird who flew into our family tree!”
To the treetop, she added a nesting bluebird.
Paulette spent more time near home as autumn floods made mountain trips more dangerous. She invented reasons to be outdoors. The whitewashed walls and sky-blue trim of traditional Pamiri homes sparkled between quaking golden leaves of pencil-thin aspens. Planted by parents for children, they would yield the lumber needed to build frameworks for their own homes someday. Life danced everywhere in these hard but resilient mountains.
Paulette secretly hoped to be able to spend the rest of her days here.
Unfortunately, illness and funding problems forced Paulette to overstay her visa. When she was healthy enough to turn herself in, she spent several days with the KGB and local foreign affairs officer—a formidable, gruff individual poured from the mold of Soviet superwomen. Her commanding presence overwhelmed her rigid, long-skirted uniform with overly wide epaulets. Paulette dubbed her The General. Going through Paulette’s belongings, The General came across a fading paper containing dozens of Tajik contacts. The General demanded that she call each one. After brief hellos, Paulette explained the situation and turned the phone over to her interrogator.
Friends and colleagues came to Paulette’s defense. The unfolding portrait of an American woman, braving treacherous terrain along the porous Afghan border to help total strangers, impressed even this battle-hardened soldier.
The General’s attitude reversed. She barked orders sending men scurrying from far ends of the building. Soon one entered with a restaurant lunch for Paulette. By then she’d spent over five hours in custody in this austere, cold installation. The General yanked a linen napkin from her subordinate’s grasp, tore off the price tag, and—with a flourish—pounded it into Paulette’s lap.
She ordered Paulette to dine on the surprisingly indulgent meal, smiling like a Cheshire cat, and making grandmotherly eating motions in case her Tajik was not understood.
Lunch ended. Work resumed. The law was clear. Paulette must leave. She’d overstayed her visa. By then, all involved wanted her to stay. Clinging to slim hope a grant might materialize, they suggested she wait in the Kyrgyz Republic, returning when the money arrived. They bid farewell like old friends hoping for a brighter day.
Nearly penniless, Paulette now struggled to stay alive in the Kyrgyz capital of Bishkek. Teaching English at a small school provided money for food. Not much more.
Shedding 30 stubborn pounds in the process was a much-needed encouragement.
Additionally, she stayed in a comfortable room, thanks to the owners of a home-turned-hostel. The elderly couple had permitted her to stay for a pittance in exchange for working at their B&B. Paulette enjoyed her alcove window overlooking the parade of Eurasian tourists, locals, and children at play on winding, cobblestone lanes.
She grew fond of her orange-haired hostess, while Ivanna delighted in training an eager apprentice. Preparing for Christmas, she taught Paulette the art of pounding cabbage into sauerkraut using a wooden mallet and large bucket. Pulling Paulette into a tight hug, Ivanna’s voice dropped to a conspiratorial whisper:
“Exploitation of bourgeoise American!”
They laughed over the irony and a fresh cup of coffee. Both had matured in the somber era of the Cold War, such moments unimaginable. With her captive American audience, Ivanna delighted in recalling more prosperous Soviet days when she could afford the luxury of being a pediatrician instead of innkeeper for wealthy foreigners.
Better than a guest, Paulette became family here as well. How she savored the aroma and warmth of coffee and conversation in the kitchen! Each morning, she squirreled away morsels of sausage, bread, and cheese for an evening meal. She added her concoction made from the cheapest of foods: a salad of grated carrots, raisins, and walnuts marinated in a freshly mashed orange-apricot puree. Her only hot food the rest of the day came via steaming water from her bathroom sink. Besides obligatory choi, green or black loose tea, Paulette experimented with softening gretchka in hot, salted water until blossoming soft and white like popped corn giving it an exquisite nutty crunch and flavor.
These inventions, born of necessity, crafted Paulette’s solitary Christmas into a stellar event. Even better were rare treats for dessert which glistened on the candlelit table. A traditional red and green scarf had magically transformed her desk into a holiday centerpiece. Precious medovik honey cakes and chocolates danced with vodka usually reserved for medicating aching joints from tumbles on icy sidewalks.
Coddling a stuffed belly for the first time in months, Paulette relaxed into an afternoon of painting in her new media: gouache. She’d scoured the city for a cheap, professional set. This cross between watercolors and acrylics became a therapeutic outlet to immortalize precious Pamiri adventures suddenly ripped away. Outside Paulette’s window, warbling birds decorated the trees, flapped their wings, and cheered her on.
It gave her joy to present Ivanna with a gift to grace the guesthouse: a painting of the family’s favorite hiking mountain.
It’d been a most memorable Christmas.
The new year had come. The grant had not. Paulette had faced the inevitable return to a very expensive America.
* * *
It seemed as if the endless ocean below was washing away her life.
All the family she knew and cherished—who cherished her—were in Central Asia.
Incredibly, she had no one in her homeland.
She smiled at the family tree photo as it cycled through her phone. Yes, that was home. They were family. Not blood. Just love.
However, for the foreseeable future, she could not return home.
Remembrances had been soaring with the planes taking her further and further away on this 26-hour marathon of flights. She could always lose herself in the wonder of flying. But it would soon end. Paulette could no longer hold back tears.
The plane dropped with a jolt onto American soil, plummeting her into austere reality.
In stark contrast, the passengers broke into applause for the flight crew. It’s what Europeans do. Normally Paulette would join in this delightful civility. Not today.
“They carry on so,” she thought to herself, “Reveling in frivolous travels, squandering so much money needed so desperately in so many other places, bragging and caroling like magpies at dawn.”
Paulette sunk into her reverie, gazing at the bluebird in the photo. Few creations could lift her spirit like birds.
The plane was nearly empty now. Squaring her shoulders, regaining her mental wings, she yanked her backpack down from the overhead bin and trudged off the plane. Despite limping into the terminal—limitations befitting her 66 years—Paulette began strategizing her soaring return to her adopted home, perched on the roof of the world.