May 24th 2007
First Day in Kazakhstan
Waking up after just 4 ½ hours sleep was frustration since I was too tired to sleep, as strange as that sounds but the city was waking up so I did too. First, I thought, I’d enjoy a nice long hot shower…NEYT!!!!!! I stepped in to the phone booth shower only to realize there is no hot water. I’d heard that every once in a while that happened here but come on! Not on my first morning and when I really, really needed a hot shower. And this isn’t just cool water this is mountain snow feed water - ICE COLD. Great!!!! I couldn’t make myself stand under that so Mom kindly heated water in our mug in the microwave and I washed my hair in the sink. What a great way to start the day. Somehow we both managed to be ready at 11am as planned. Then 11:30 comes and goes and so does noon. Now I realize that I didn’t get Zina’s phone number and couldn’t use the phone in the room anyway, so we wait. Around 12:15 she calls to say that it is lunch time so we should go outside and on the corner is the “Chicken House.” Very good food and some one may speak English, you go. Okay …but do they take American dollars. Go next to the Chicken House and money exchanger will trade money. Then go eat and she will pick us up 1:30-2:00 to see the great city of Almaty. What happened to don’t open the door no matter what, until she came back for us? This should be interesting. So off we go for our first adventure in Kazakhstan – the Chicken House. But first money. Sure enough we get to the corner and there stands a large chicken sign and across another street I see a large dollar sign so we go to the money changer first. It is a very small entry room about the size of a bathroom with a guy behind a glass window with a little sliding tray. He pushes it out to you, then you put your very new American dollars on it (they must be new with no tares, marks or wrinkles on it) and he pulls it through. Then he holds it up to look at it and then runs it through this machine with a light on it and then counts out your pretty TENGE. The exchange rate today is 119 tenge to one American dollar. So there are bills in 200, 500, 1000 & 2000 tenge and their coins range from one tenge to 100 tenge. Yes, what would be a 100 dollar bill to us is a small coin to them. He asked me a couple of questions and I just smiled and shrug my shoulders. Out pops my tenge and we’re off. We soon discover that the Chicken House is not just a restaurant but a meat market as well. You walk into to see eggs in a case right in front of you and then about 20 refrigerated display cases of uncooked chicken prepared in every way imaginable. They were all neatly displayed and there was an employee behind each case ready to help. We walk up to stand in line at a couple of cases of cooked chicken pieces and chicken sandwiches. But then around another corner we see a beautiful bar and about 20 tables complete with a little fireplace (not burning as it’s about 75 degrees already). The waitresses are all young girls dressed in these really cute out fits with long aprons to the floor. They give us menus in English but the only thing that we could recognize was the Chicken Burger, so Mom order that and I asked for the Chicken Cheese Burger. But she said nyet, no cheese. Okay, the chicken burger it is. We asked for diet coke, no diet just light coke and a water. She said something in Russian I shook my head no, shrugged my shoulders and then she said “Gas, No Gas?” Since I hadn’t passed gas or burped I figured out that she ment in my water. They seem to like seltzer water a lot here but not me, so I ask for “no gas.” While we were waiting I noticed that a waiter was walking by with another tables order and he had a cigarette hanging out of his mouth. We are definitely not in America now. I haven’t seen customers smoking in a restaurant in years but I can’t remember the last time the wait staff could actually smoke while they waited on tables. I’d say a good third of the people we observed that day were smoking. Anyway, we were surprised when the meal came out with French fries and cole slaw and it looked like a veggie burger made with chicken. It wasn’t bad except the pickle slices tasted more like cucumbers. I was a little disappointed as I wanted to be a little more adventuresome on my first meal in Kazakhstan but at least neither of us got sick from it - so life is good.
On the way back to the apartment we stopped at little store that was actually under our apartment. Well we thought it was one store but quickly found out that it was probably about 10 very little shops ran by 10 different people. There was a shelf with booze on it, then jewelry next to it, then pots and pans, dishes etc, then a little bakery, across from that a display case with soap and shampoos behind the glass, then sodas and food items. Now this is shorter and thinner than one aisle in Safeway and there are individuals that at first we think just work in each “dept” but found out that they are individual owners and we have to pay for each item to that individual. We of course just started filling a hand basket but quickly were set straight on that. I can’t imagine how they make a living when each person probably has less than a hundred items to sell but I think we helped feed a couple of families with our 1800 tenge worth of purchases. By the way everyone was well dressed and the shop was relatively clean. So back we went to the apartment with our treasures.
Zina came right around 1:30 and we were off for site seeing of this “most famous city.” She was very proud of her city and she took us up the mountain to see where the 2011 Winter Olympics will be held. There was a lot of construction along the way since they need to improve and widen their roads if the whole city doesn’t just shut down do to traffic. It was no more than a half an hour drive until we were in the national park with very pretty trees and a brook tumbling down the mountain. We stopped at an overlook so we could see the ice rink from above which was very impressive and learned more about the area. But what I found a little disturbing was this man dressed in a bear skin suit. Now don’t visualize a cute bear costume like Yogi or Smokey the Bear but a small man with a real bear skin complete with the actual head with the bear's eyes and teeth. It was like he picked up a bear skin rug and put it on then added fur to the front to complete the outfit. A family with a young girl drove up and he walked up to her and growled. I was ready to run but she just smiled like it was Mickey Mouse. He also had this beautiful live hawk tethered to a park bench and you could have your picture taken with them for a fee. I did get a picture of the hawk but just couldn’t get past the bear.
Now on our way down the mountain still in the national park, we had to swerve around cows in the road and we saw loose horses on the hills. Zina said that rich people are allowed to let their livestock run around in the park so they could eat the grass. She said that the cows just knew to go home at night. How do they know people aren’t just going to round them up and take them? Beats me but I think they’d better do something else with them during the Olympics or they may have a few dead cows on their hands. Overall it was a pleasant trip.
On the way back we stopped at the mall to get a Nursat card so I can use the internet and a few other things. Flora the coordinator, called and I guess was mad at Zina for taking us site seeing since Zina hung up and started crying. Of course, we had no idea what happened but I think Flora is definitely a tough lady to work for and wants everyone to do things her way. I told Zina that we could certainly skip the mall but she said no that she was going to take care of us and we’d see Flora later. So we countinued on and then walked to an “electric store.” For us it would have been like a very small appliance department at Sears or some store like that. But they also had hair dryers, electric woks, razors, just about anything that you have to plug in. Now their plugs are round with two prongs not flat like ours. We have to use converters to use any of our electrical products both because of the plug and the fact that they use 220 electricity. I thought my curling iron was dual wattage but I was clearly wrong since it didn't work this morning and that was why we stopped there. They have one of everything on the display floor but you have to ask someone to write you up a slip then you go pay for it with someone else. Then you call the first person back to go get the product from the back and then they bring it up to you and take it out and plug it and show you how it works. Then they pack it back up for you and stamp your receipt because someone checks it on your way out. Zina told me everything has a 3 year guarantee so I can bring it back anytime. There were a good 20 people waiting to help you so no looking for a person in an orange vest like at home but I wonder if they work on commission? I’ll have to ask Zina. We then walked back to the apartment which was only a few blocks away. Apparently the driver had been sent to get Flora. It seems that not many people get their drivers license so they either take a bus or taxi or have a driver. Nether Flora nor Zina drive and they don’t want to either. I can’t blame them as I’m not sure I’d want to get behind the wheel here. Apparently it takes about 6 months of “schooling” to get your license and costs quit a bit. They drive like I’ve never seen before and I’ve lived in Panama where the largest vehicle rules the road (thank goodness our family had a station wagon so we only had to give way to the buses), the Philippians where they have lots of small tuk-tuks mingle with cars and South Korea where there are more scooters than cars but none of them drive as dangerously as they do here. They claim to have laws but I certainly haven’t seen any evidence of that. They also park on the sidewalks or next to the curb or diagonally into the curb without any lines for spaces. The strangest thing is that about ¾ of the cars have the steering wheel on the left side of the car like in the US but a good ¼ of the cars have it on the right side. I asked Zina about it and she said the new Prime Minister at first tried to band all right driver side cars but there were too many protests. So now anyone who already has one can keep it but no new right handed cars can be made or imported into the country. She said the car we will have in Aktau will be a right handed car. What fun!!!
Now for the big meeting with Flora. It seems she will be coming to the apartment to meet us and tell us what will be happening. I go to answer the door and there stands a very Russian looking 67 year old woman - I know her age because she told me soon into our conversation. It seems she’s very proud of her age and how she looks – she's about 5 feet tall and weighs around 300 lbs. She gives me a big hug while speaking rapid Russian – boy is this going to be interesting – with Zina being much more formal as she stands translating for Flora. She first asks “How is the apartment? Are you comfortable?” so of course I say yes. I hate to start out with a lie but that’s better then offending her in the first minute we meet, right? She explains the process of adoption in Kazakhstan and then apologizes for the last delay with the judge but better to wait for the good judge than get the bad one. She said we would be leaving tomorrow evening on the 7pm flight to Aktau so no go to the Baby House until Friday morning but that the girl I was coming for was still there waiting for me and didn’t I think she was beautiful with her dimples and chubby cheeks. I explained that I hadn’t seen a picture of any child but did she mean the 10 month old girl I had heard about 2 months ago. Da Da of course, she sent the picture & medical information to Svetlana (the country coordinator for KZ) months ago when they invited me to come over to adopt her. Since I had been begging for pictures & information on the children and didn’t even know that one had been “chosen” for me I was extremely surprised. I asked if she had a picture of her but of course not…we would meet her on Friday. I asked if I would seeing other babies as well? She said I could but this was the baby for me that I will like her very much and she is healthy baby. Okay, but then would it be possible for me to adopt a 2-3 year old boy as well? Erin my states side coordinator said that she had asked if it was possible. At first she said Nyet, Nyet but when I brought up the 18 month old foundling boy she said well Da that I could take both children as she would like to see the foundling have a good home. She seemed to have a soft spot for him. Now where talking. I really want two children since I don’t want to have an only child. I feel so blessed to have my siblings and as an older single mom I want my kids to have someone to share life with and grow old with. My hope has always been to find two children on this trip, so I wouldn’t have to go through all this again. This was great news.
Next Flora explained that she had had troubles recently with families not paying everything they should and that it almost stopped my adoption. Pause…okay this is clearly my clue to get the money out. So I explained that of course I would be paying all the fees expected of me promptly and that I’d like to pay the country fee and first 3 weeks of the “team fee” which covers the cost of the driver, the car & gas, the interpreter and of course Flora’s fee as the coordinator. That got a smile out of her and I showed her the paperwork I had which included the breakdown of fees as I understood them. With Zina reading the form to her and a few more questions we worked out what I was to pay right then and I gave her many crisp new one hundred American dollar bills. I was actually relieved to have some of the money out of my hands so this was more than fine with me. She gave me a big smile and said “I” take you to dinner now – which is kinda funny since it will be my hundred dollar bills that will be paying for that dinner I’m sure.
Anyway, we’re outta there and she asked if we liked Chinese food. Sure but going to Kazakhstan to have your first real meal there be Chinese food just seems wrong but clearly she’s in charge. Luckily there was so much traffic that she ending up taking us to this very nice traditional Russian restaurant. This time the driver came in to eat with us (he’s waited in the car all day so far) as well as Zina, Flora, Mom & myself. It was a very elegant eating room with linen on the tables and china and glass stemware. Even though it was about 6:30 there was only one couple eating besides us. Zina explained that they normally don’t eat until around 9pm. The waitress in a traditional old time Russian out fit with a long lacy apron gave Mom & I the only English menu they had but it was as large a as a photo album with a velvet cover and gold trim on the edges of each thick cardboard page and there were about 20 pages. This sucker was heavy! Flora asked what meat we wanted as meat is the most important part of any meal in Kazakhstan and even the babies eat meat as soon as possible. So Mom got this really cool meat pancake dish that was a thin pancake with a thin layer of meat then another pancake etc. It was about 3 inches tall with a good 12 or more layers of meat & pancakes (more like crapes really) with sour cream on top. It was amazing! I had a chicken dish that had a smashed down boneless breast of chicken then a layer of finely chopped mushrooms and then another breast of chicken on top of that smothered in this sweet cheese sauce. Also very tasty. We all had shared a tossed “chefs” salad and bread prior to the meat being served. Flora and the driver both had the pancake meat dish that Mom had plus a whole other lamb stew dish. They weren’t kidding about eating a lot of meat. They must have been full because no dessert was offered and we were bummed since we saw a tray of great looking sweets go by. Over all it was a very nice meal but poor Zina didn’t get to eat much since anytime Flora talked she’d have to stop eating to translate and Flora talked a lot. We went out to the car and got in but Flora said something to Zina who then explained that she was going to walk to catch a bus home and that they would drop us off at the apartment. Tomorrow we would leave at five for the airport but she would call us in the morning to see if we needed anything. I think Flora was still punishing Zina for taking us out today without asking her but we obviously couldn’t do anything about it. So they dropped us off in our alley with a “goot by” and a wave. What a day!!!! We went home and crashed since jet lag was definitely catching up with us.
I promise my write ups won’t be as long for each day but I want to keep a detailed account for Alexis when she grows up. I plan on printing this out and making it into a book of how we became a family. So I’ll probably do a short version of the day first and then go into greater detail. Thanks for your patience.