Saturday, April 30, 2005

Escape from Alca-kaz

Sorry for the lack of posts. In a nutshell, I took the overnight train to Taraz Monday night and arrived in the early morning. Vera and Medet picked me up. They took me to Interlink Sara's apartment (she was in Paris for a conference and very kindly offered me her abode for my 12 hours in Taraz) where I slept a bit. Actually, I watched Napoleon Dynamite. Twice. Well, jetlag and a kickin' DVD will do that to you!

Vera and Medet picked me up around 10 a.m. and we then picked up Laura and Steve, who were in Taraz adopting a little girl. Then, off to Umit! When we got to Umit I went to the Director's office while someone was dispatched to get Alex. Miriamgul had one of the Mexican 'telenovelas' (soap operas) on FULL BLAST the whole time I was in her office. The Kazakhs dig the Western hemisphere--loudly! Alex was brought in and I don't know if he recognized me at first. We stayed for about an hour, walking around the grounds and talking with Steve and Laura. We caused a stir amongst the caregivers since they didn't think Alex was warm enough in the 75 degree weather. I had brought an outfit of long sleeve shirt, long pants, socks and hooded jacket. However the pants kept riding up and the socks kept slipping down, which exposed his calves to the elements (i.e., the sunshine and warm weather). They were sure he was going to catch the flu, I think. As we left Vera took some photos and movies of us walking out of the Umit gates. We went to dinner with Steve and Laura that night at King David, a Jewish restaurant.


A few hours later Alex and I were on the train back to Almaty. Vera, Medet and Slava's entire family (including granny!) were at the train station to see us off. More than one woman at the train station admonished me for not having Alex dressed warmly enough. They must have thought I had a deathwish, being in a sleeveless shirt. Alex did great on the train.

We arrived in Almaty around 10:30 a.m. Kate and Sam picked us up and we went to the hotel to rest then went to the SOS clinic for our 2:00 appointment, then back to the hotel. I was feeling woozy and later that afternoon got really sick. Flu-like. I fell into bed around 6 p.m. and thankfully Alex did, too. We have a prolific sleeper on our hands! I didn't get back up til about 6 a.m. as did he and not a peep out of him during that time. Thank heaven because I felt so awful I don't know if I could have done anything for him. So I decided I would do anything to get on the next flight to Frankfurt, where my mom was staying until Sunday. All I had to do was go to the US Embassy Thursday for my exit interview and arrange a German visa for Alex since he was traveling on a KZ passport.

Thursday a.m.--called coordinator to see about switching flights. She had phone numbers for Lufthansa and the German embassy, including the name of a woman at the embassy who could help expedite Alex's visa. Much running around and phone calls (no such thing as voicemail or multiple lines--if all lines are busy you just keep calling). Finally, after going from the German embassy to the Lufthansa office to the US embassy for my exit interview and back to the German embassy, WE DID IT!!! Such relief! Went back to the hotel to pack and rest in order to get to the airport for the flight to Frankfurt at 3:20 Friday morning.

Our flight to Frankfurt arrived early, and I wasn't sure if my mom had received the email that I would be coming early. Turned out, Jim had called Renate on her cell phone the previous afternoon as she and mom were strolling through Frankfurt. So about 15 minutes after I got out of German customs (they tried to stop me as I was coming out of the baggage area but I pretended I was French so I wouldn't have to go through formal immigration) mom & Renate appeared. I have never so happy to see two people in my life! We got to Renate's and I caught up on sleep by taking 2 naps, 3-4 hours each. The next day we took a Rhine River cruise (may as well live it up while we're here) and this morning we are on the way to the airport in a few hours. Alex has definitely been living it up--what could be better than having TWO grandmothers looking after you for a few days?! More later, from the USA!!!

Sunday, April 24, 2005

I'm Baaaaaaaaaaaaaaack!

Somehow I made it to Almaty on time last night! All planes were delayed going into and out of Chicago (did Chi-Town not get the memo that there should be no snowy/freezing weather in late April??) but my flight to Frankfurt was the only one that was running on time. Thanks to everyone who was praying for that!!! Once I got to Frankfurt I ran to the ticket counter for a boarding pass and got to the gate as the flight to Almaty was boarding. Whew!

Going through customs at the Almaty airport was fast and easy. I told the agent that I had to declare the US$ I was bringing in and we went into the office. He noticed I was from Texas and all was well--stamp the form, talk about Texas and it's similarities to KZ (he said that north of Almaty looks like "Marlboro Country"--his term!) and I was off.

Marina and Sam met me at the airport. Marina gave me Alex's KZ passport (!) and my train tickets and got me set up at the hotel so I was able to crash just after midnight. I was up early--too early! They don't start serving breakfast until 7:30. I just got back from a walk around town and I must say that spring is the season to be in Almaty! When we were here in March it was still gray and kind of desolate. Now the trees have leaves, the grass is green and the flowers are blooming (thousands of tulips in all colors all over the place) and the whole city is really cheerful and bustling.

Train to Taraz tonight...

Saturday, March 26, 2005

Last Day

Today is our last day in Kazakhstan. We decided to go explore on our own and ended up going to Tsum, which is kind of like a mall. First floor is electronics--cell phones, gadgets, etc. At the cell phone kiosks they have lists displayed of all the cell phone numbers available and you can pick your number and they scratch it off the list. Kind of funny. The second floor of Tsum is mostly clothing and the third floor is souvenirs and housewares. So we did a little shopping and then continued on to the Green Bazaar, which is the big bazaar in town.

The bazaar was much like the one in Taraz but cleaner, not as dusty. As in Taraz you can find pretty much anything. We stumbled upon the meat pavilion again--same stuff: sheep heads, intestines, etc. You've seen one sheep head you've seen 'em all :) As we left the bazaar we caught a whiff of something wonderful: chocolate. We remembered that yesterday Katya told us that the biggest candy company in the country was located nearby so we followed our noses around a few blocks and dead ends until we found it. What fun! They have a candy shop attached to the factory and there was a line of about 20 Kazakhstanis waiting for their weekly purchase. They buy in bulk. I counted roughly 150+ different kinds of chocolates and candies plus about 20 kinds of cookies. Yum! We bought our share and continued on.

Our guidebook told about a restaurant called RVS (PBC in Russian) that plays on the kitsch factor of the Soviet era. So we walked all over the place trying to find it. After many wrong turns we were finally on the right street but couldn't locate the address so figured RVS had gone the way of the Communist party. As we were about to give up, what appeared before us but the restaurant. We went in and were greeted by a waitress. She asked us in Russian what we thought was how many in our party. We said, "Two." She said, "No." Hmmmmm...were they playing up the Soviet customer service? We tried again and asked, "Lunch?" She said, "No." Then she pantomimed "Smoking?" WE said, "No." So she pointed to the non-smoking room and gave us menus for the lunch that theorectically didn't exist. The restaurant was perfectly Soviet: you hear one thing (no lunch) but the reality is totally different (we had a salad and pizza). The interior was very retro: photos of Trotsky, Brezhnev, Stalin on the walls; busts of Lenin everywhere; Soviet style murals; waitresses in CCCP t-shirts. The menu was totally un-Soviet: pizza, salads, even vegetarian burritos. The waitresses give you Soviet reproduction postcards as souvenirs when you pay the bill. Fun!

We came back to the apartment and are finishing packing. The movie 'Bottle Rocket' was just on TV--one of my favorites AND shot in Dallas. Sam is going to pick us up at 1:30 a.m. to take us to the airport for our early morning flight. So I guess this is it for now! We'll be seeing all of you back in the US soon.

Friday, March 25, 2005


OK, here is our surprise--we went skiing today at Chimbulak! Well, Jim went skiing. I got a tiny bit down the mountain and gave up. More ski school required! Jim said it was icy, packed down and a lot of work to get down the mountain. After his run we turned in our skis but went up to the tippy top (3 chairlifts) and it was really beautiful. At the top were a few guys and an outdoor cafe (really a table with hot water for tea and some drinks) and they told us we should have the Kazakhstan cognac with Coke. We did and it was great. Then we rode the lifts all the way back down. Round trip: a little over an hour. Number of American, British or Scandinavian families: 5, at least.

While we were skiing, our driver, Sam, went to make a deal for us on a carpet we had seen yesterday. He got the price down a bit and we got the paperwork done and are the proud owners of a Kazakh carpet that will go in our living room. It will be a great souvenir, provided the airlines don't freak out about how much baggage we are going to try to get on the plane.

After skiing we came home to relax a bit then went out on a whirlwind sightseeing trip. Almaty is a great city and reminds me a lot of Paris, but without as much elegance and charm--too much Soviet concrete. There are lots of expats here--we seem to run into Americans around every corner.

We went to a fast food restaurant for dinner (think McDonald's but with chicken instead of burgers) and had to pay for ketchup, about 35 cents for a small portion. So I guess it is a good thing Sam stayed at home or his ketchup addiction would have bankrupted us!

Tomorrow we are going to go out sightseeing on our own, then pack up and get ready for our trip home.

Thursday, March 24, 2005

Morning in Almaty

Vera and Medet picked us up for the ride to the train station at 9:30 p.m. and we said good-bye with hopes that it will only be good-bye for now. I know I'll see them again in about a month. Jim will have to wait longer than that. We left Taraz with great memories, wonderful new friends, and the knowledge that Alex will be home with us in about a month. And that's what its all about.

We arrived in Almaty this morning after a 10 hour overnight train ride. How was the bathroom, you ask? Not the worst I've ever seen but also not my first choice. I used it once and as quickly as possible. For future Taraz-goers, the flush mechanism is a pedal on the floor next to the toilet. I would have never figured this out had the Petersons not told me. Overall, the train ride wasn't bad at all. We had an entire compartment (4 beds, 2 up/2 down) to ourselves and it was much large than the compartment in the Spanish train we took to Taraz three weeks ago. Of course, we gained space but lost the private bathroom.

Marina (Almaty coordinator) and Sam (driver--who speaks 7 languages!!) picked us up and whisked us off to a great apartment in the middle of everything. We have a large bedroom with a bay window, living room, bathroom with shower/tub and sink plus a separate toilet area and a large kitchen with a sunny breakfast nook. I can get used to this! Did I mention the washer? And the satellite TV? Yes, I saw Oprah today, briefly, for the first time in weeks. Not only that, when we got off the train around 9 a.m. Marina asked if we would like a little breakfast. We ended up at a cafe that had excellent blini (like crepes) with raspberry jam... and... drumroll... REAL COFFEE! And espresso! I thought Jim was going to weep on the spot. A delicious snack and only about a block away.

This afternoon we are going to do some sight-seeing and look for that elusive rug we are hoping to buy. Sam knows a good place to get them. Tomorrow we have big plans but I'm going to keep it a secret so watch for the post.

Almaty is a huge city and very modern, comparable to NYC, DC, Paris, etc. Quite a switch from our little haven of Taraz. More later...

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

World-Renowned Jazz Trio Becomes Quartet

After a long wait in a hot, stuffy room; a change of prosecutor; many questions about Jim's passport; and a flawless speech given by Jim in Russian, Alexander William has been pronounced the newest member of our family! We are of course beyond excited and can't wait to get him home.

We were asked the standard questions Why adoption? Why Kazakhstan? Why not the US? Are you able to support another child? And Jim's favorite, Do you have any criminal acts intended with this adoption? However, the longest amount of time was spent going over the minutiae of Jim's passport.

When we got it renewed in 2001 the agency put the wrong birth year on Jim's passport. We didn't do anything about it until we started going through the adoption process and realized we had to get it changed so that all dates would be accurate. I called the passport office about this and the way they handle mistakes is to have you mail your passport in so they can print out a sentence on the last page that says it has been amended to reflect the correct birth year. I'll be the first to admit it doesn't look at all official. The KZ judge noticed this and started asking a series of questions: Where was your passport issued? When was it issued? Why didn't you get a corrected passport? Why did you apply for this passport? How long are US passports valid? After sweating a few bullets over these questions Jim answered them as best he could and the judge seemed satisfied.

Here is the English translation of the speech Jim gave in Russian:

"During the bonding period we have come to love this sweet little boy. We have decided to adopt a child and very much love this boy and hope to adopt this sweet child. We are placing our future into your hands. Thank you very much for your very careful consideration of our case".

Whereupon the judge asked Jim where he had learned Russian. After the pressure was off I joked with Jim that he should have asked the judge in response "Where did YOU learn Russian?"

We left the courtroom for a few minutes so the judge could render his decision. We all filed back into the courtroom and the judge pronounced us parents of Alex. Woohooooo! We couldn't be happier.

Tonight is the train ride back to Almaty. We are looking forward to coming home but also sad to leave this wonderful town, baby Alex (temporarily), and all our new friends.

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Kazakhstan - Mountains = Texas

Today was Nauryz. We started with a brief visit to the town square to see all the preparations. It is kind of like our State Fair in that many local businesses come out and exhibit their wares, there are lots of amusements for the kids and there is plenty of food. In fact, except for the mountains, Kazakhstan is very much like Texas: lots of wide open spaces, cows, horses. Here is more proof:

The first time we went to the square he had horns (the bull, not Jim). I guess someone got gored so they took the horns off. Later in the afternoon there were about 20 kids using the bull and its air cushions as a bouncehouse. Thankfully the bull wasn't in motion at the time.

We then went to see Alex who gets more and more excited each time Vera appears in his room because he knows that she is going to bring him to those strange people who talk funny (us). The nannies in Alex's room have told Vera that the whole orphanage is abuzz and in awe of Jim since he gave such a heartfelt and eloquent toast at the Nauryz party held at the baby house Saturday. They say that I am a little shy. They think Alex is a very fortunate baby to have such a loving and kind father--and I think so, too.

After our visit, we made another trip to the Russian Orthodox church for more photos, then back to the hotel. Slava's family came over and we walked around the Nauryz festival and sat down for lunch in a cafe. The weather was perfect so we sat outside and at manty (delicious! just like chines potstickers) and shashlik. We were having a good time talking when Jim slipped away to pull the classic 'Pop' maneuver of settling the tab with the waitress before the bill even gets to the table. He also asked the waitress to add an ice cream to the tab before paying since Zhenya (the youngest daugther) had been wanting one. It was really cute to see her eyes light up when the waitress brought her the dish of ice cream. She was looking all around trying to figure out who had sent it over to our table for her. When we were ready to go, Jim told Slava (via Ulia) that he had already paid. They must have thought that he was joking so Slava went to pay the waitress only to find out that you don't mess with Texas.

This was our last time to see Slava's family before leaving Taraz so we had a sad goodbye. Ulia gave us an envelope that contained their contact information as well as a very sweet letter expressing how much it had meant to her and her family to spend time with us. The feelings are mutual and we told them that we will come back to Taraz with Sam and Alex (and Natalia and Kevin) in the future.

We came back to the hotel to relax and then headed over to the Petersons for dinner. There is a Kazakh family on the 4th floor of their apartment building who works for Interlink and she had offered to cook for the Petersons so they had her make the traditional Kazakh dish bishbarmak. It was very tasty. Sholpan even made the horse sausage from scratch over the weekend and made the noodles from scratch as well, rolling them out of the Peterson's kitchen table. It was very delicious and we ate it Kazakh-style: with our fingers. Very good, even though I skipped over the sheep fat. I'm sure it is delicious, I'm just not quite to that point yet.

Tomorrow at 3:00 is our final court hearing and the judge will decide if we will indeed be Alex's parents. We will visit Alex in the morning and then prepare for that. Jim has almost perfected the parts of his speech that he wants to give
in Russian. So pray that it all turns out OK!