My trip here was greatly helped by a daily journal Catherine Thode kept of her travels here a year ago and of course Susan Clegg's superlative website http://kazakhadoptivefamilies.com Although not a great deal has changed, here's an update for any families headed this way soon.
April 8, 2003 -- Finally, The Phone Call
After getting the call on April 8 that the invitation from the Kazakh government had been issued and I was free to travel to Kazakhstan, I called Nikolay to let him know I was finally coming (on a week's notice). He is clearly excited to come to America and be Nikolay Lee Kelly! I leave next Wed morning, Apr 16, stopping in Durham to drop off the orphanage gifts and medical supplies that Steve will bring later (I am limited to 72 (!) pounds of checked luggage for 4 weeks). I leave Durham Thursday AM and get to Pavlodar Sat morning at 6AM after TWO red-eyes in a row (and four more flights: Raleigh-Dulles-Frankfurt-Hannover-Pavlodar). It should be a pretty awful sight! Assuming the visa arrives on time, which is now due to be issued Tuesday. (Every day offers a new twist...)
Steve arrives in Pavlodar Apr 26 and will stay through the court date, which I hope is May 2, then he will go back to NC to finish law school (but that means Dad won't be able to join me on the trip after all). From there Nikolay and I take a three-hour plane ride to the former capital, Almaty, the Apple Capital of the World (where the US embassy is), for immigration processing and medical exams, shots, etc. We also hope to be the first visitors to two out of three geocaches in all of Kazakhstan, and maybe hide one of our own!
We hope to leave Almaty early (1:45 AM!) on the morning of May 9 for Frankfurt and then on to Durham, NC, for Steve's graduation from Duke Law School on May 10. Any delays mean we miss Steve's graduation. May 11 (Mother's Day!!!) we go to DC to get Nikolay registered at the embassy on Mon and Tues before getting home to Lake Tahoe via Reno late Tuesday May 13.
The area of Kazakhstan where we will be is 14 hours ahead of the west coast, so at 8AM on the west coast, it is 10PM in Pavlodar. The number at the hotel is 011-7-3182-320539, Room 6; I will be there each day between 5:30 and 6:00PM west coast time. Internet cafes will allow me to send messages periodically, and I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Tues-Sun, April 15-20 Getting Here, Getting Around
I am going to write this as the one long day it was. It was one of the more difficult trips I have had, but as with most things, you forget about all the difficulties once you are here. Suffice it to say I am here with the help of Senator Ensign's office, the luck of having been born in Canada (and thus possessing a Canadian passport), the Canadian embassy to the US, being able to speak German, and the Kazakhstan consulate in Frankfurt. Without all of their help I would still be camped out on the doorstep of the Kazakhstan embassy to the US on Easter weekend, or facing anti-demonstration tanks in the street outside the US consulate in Frankfurt. But that is a story for another day.
I arrived at 6AM this Saturday morning, April 19, on Air Kazakhstan flight Y9 216, a 4.5-hour trip from Hannover, Germany the second red-eye in a row since leaving Durham Thursday morning. I was asleep before the plane doors closed in Hannover and did not wake up till the pilot announced our landing (in Russian). Apparently I missed quite a party this flight leaves Germany once a week, on Friday night, to take workers home for the weekend. Sleeping was no doubt assisted by the fact that the back of my seat had one position - fully reclined. The attendants didn't seem to mind or care that the seat was not in its "full, upright and locked position," and I surely didn't either. No baggage police to tell you your bags needed to be stowed (although the German airport was very strict on size limitation). If there was a meal, which I doubt, I missed it. The aircraft was a Tupolev 154, which holds about 160 passengers. It my brief moments of consciousness it seemed airworthy enough, and one I would not mind flying again. Especially if I can get that same seat 28F.
Upon arriving in Pavlodar we were ushered into an anteroom of some kind with nothing in it but a scale. After about a half an hour, a customs official came into the room and began to take the windows off their hinges and pile them in the corner, at which point everyone rushed to the open window waving their baggage claim tickets and yelling to the baggage handlers outside which piece was theirs. Yes, we all got our bags pushed through the window to us. It was more entertaining to watch than to be in the middle of.
Finally to the exit door, the customs official pointed at my bag and asked something that was probably pertaining to the contents, so I just said "orphanage" in Russian and he waved me through. Baggage total: one 66-pound garment bag on wheels, one 6-pound Ikea tent/tunnel for the orphanage (thus kept to my 72-pound limit), one very heavy carryon which was small enough to fit underneath the seat on the Lufthansa flights (they did not care about the weight, just the size), and a briefcase. (For a detailed list of contents, see "What I Packed" elsewhere on Nikolay's website.)
It took an hour to unload 100 passengers and their bags, even as the only plane at the airport. Yackov Dvoretsky, the attorney handling the adoption here, was there to meet the plane personally at 7AM on a Saturday morning. The man is a tireless worker. He started out by telling me this is the first time a Kazakhstan visa had been processed with the intervention of a US senator's office and it apparently caused quite a stir. Anyway, I am here.
Yackov, as it turns out, is the reason we are all here. A barrister (like in the UK, a higher level of practice than a lawyer), it was apparently he who brought the case before the KZ Supreme Court to allow international adoptions in 1995. His uncle, who holds a doctorate degree in physics, is a member of Parliament. As they say over here, it's not what you know, it's who you know, and Yackov knows a lot of both.
The hotel was about a 20 min drive from the airport through some pretty desolate countryside in near-zero temperature but clear skies. Spring has just started to arrive in southern Siberia, which is where we are. And if anyone doubts that concrete is the world's most common construction material, they need look no further than Pavlodar. Upon seeing the Admira Hotel, also known as the Business Centre, my first ungracious thought about the decrepit, run-down structure was THERE IS NO WAY I AM STAYING HERE. That is another adoptive parent, Graham, in the photo, in front of the hotel. But as with most things here, external appearances are deceiving, and it was quite nice inside. Apparently this is where the party apparatchik used to stay when visiting in Russia's heyday, and the adoptive families seem to get the nicest rooms. More like small apartments, with large sitting rooms and a separate bedroom, Persian rugs on wood floors, a nice tiled bathroom with heated pipes for the towels, a refrigerator, a phone with a standard US-type RJ11 modular connection, and windows on two sides. You can see parts of the Irtush river about ¼ mile away. The bed is barely long enough for me at 5'8" and I have to sleep diagonally on it to be comfortable; Graham across the hall (and 6'5") says he sleeps on the very comfortable sofabed.
The water is a little rusty first thing in the morning but fine for showers. Although the windows have grilles and the external portions of the buildings look run down, the area seems quite safe to walk around and there is even an occasional jogger running along the river. The rooms are overheated here as they are everywhere - about a constant 80 degrees F - and no way to turn it down until spring, when the Central Heating Authority turns it off for the entire city. We just open the windows to cool things off. The hotel food is great; the cheese blintzes are terrific and plentiful, and there is laundry service. Altogether very comfortable, even for two weeks. I was not surprised to learn that when the orphanage kids see the hotel often think they have arrived in America!
Incidentally, the phone number of the hotel from the US is 011-7-3182-320539, fax 322196. Incoming callers need to ask for us by room number, not by name. Most adoptive families stay in the large rooms: #6 and #9. We worked out that I will be in the room each day from 7:30-8:00 AM local time, 5:30-6:00PM West Coast time, to be available for calls. Each agency has its families stay at different hotels for reasons that aren't clear to us, so families that don't have Yackov as facilitator will likely stay elsewhere.
Nikolay is in the Kachirie orphanage with the 4-7-year-olds, an hour away, and I don't get to see him till Monday when the director of the orphanage can be present. So after a shower and unpacking for a two-week stay, I had breakfast with a great couple from Texas, Traci and Graham, who have been here over two weeks (since April 2) and were beyond stir crazy on top of the excitement of just having adopted a nine-month-old boy, Dmitri Stefano Andrighetti Kunze. (They had come for a three-year-old but he was adopted before they arrived, which happens here all too often in the system of first-come, first-served.) They were going to pick up Dmitri that day to take him home from the local baby orphanage and hopefully on to Almaty the next day for final paperwork. Traci and Graham are the only other adoptive family here, but 19 others are on the way over the next couple of weeks.
While waiting to be picked up at 11:30 to go to the baby house, they walked with me down to the river and to the local stores so I could get money changed and find my way around, which was a big help. The currency, the tenge, is available only in Kazakhstan, and is about 152 tenge to the dollar no matter where you change your money. No commissions.
Traci and Graham invited me to come along to the baby orphanage with them, which turns out to be the same home one of our group's children is in (Ruslan, going home to the Robles). I got to videotape the whole event for the parents, who of course were thinking about everything except videotaping. It was a wonderful treat for me to be able to participate. I managed to get the caretakers on film scolding Traci for not having the "right" clothes with her (which consisted of a minimum of seven layers of clothing, not five), her "not knowing" how to take Dmitri's shirt off -- you name it, Traci could do nothing right by them, but she took it all in stride. Somewhere in the building were 100 children ages 0 to 4 but you could not hear a sound anywhere. Traci asked how that could be and was told "discipline." I only saw three children in our area of the building, including one child with fairly severe fetal alcohol syndrome, which is supposedly much less common here than in Russia due to the large Muslim population (47%).
Several very kind caretakers came to say goodbye to Dmitri and were clearly sad to see him go. The only "off" note of the day was learning that the passport machine was broken and not expected to be fixed until Thursday, so they will be here a week longer than they had planned as Dmitri needs a passport to travel. But right at the moment, they are so happy they don't care! Nikolay already has a passport from his travel last summer, so that won't be a problem for us, but there will no doubt be other challenges to overcome.
That afternoon Askhat joined us, a great guy who works for the local Boy Scouts and sort of babysits all of us here while Yackov gets work done. He is one of the unadvertised gems of the program and obviously has made a big impact on the families who have come to town (of which he remembers each in incredible detail). He is studying to be an interpreter and enjoys exchanges with Americans and soaking up the culture (!?). He accompanied us to a bookstore, to the Internet Cafe, to buy a heating coil so I can make hot chocolate in the room, and help Traci buy a week's worth of clothes and food for Dmitri (which lasted barely three days - the little guy is an eater!). Although I can manage OK in the stores (there is no tourism here and virtually no one speaks English), there is no doubt things go a lot faster when Askhat is along to translate. The stores are all in unmarked concrete structures and you have no idea from the outside what is inside, but the word "bazaar" comes to mind. Booth after booth of independent vendors selling everything from Friskies to cell phones to souvenirs to rugs, one after the other. Even the supermarket is run by separate vendors; buy milk here, juice there.
Across the street I got some great bilingual children's books in English and Russian and a map of town. Prices are very inexpensive by US standards. A measuring tape was 10 cents, the heating coil 50 cents, a liter of juice $1. (But a bottle of Johnson's baby shampoo will set you back $2.) The measuring tape even had inches on one side and centimeters on the other, only to discover that the inches were so long that a foot measured about 10 actual inches long on the tape. Hey, what can you expect for a dime.
Bought 10 liters of water, plus milk, juice, yogurt, crackers and hot chocolate (of course) for about $8. But you really have to know where you are going, as all the stores are accessible through unmarked doors that you would never think to enter without someone there to show you.
Went back for a nap around 4:30 and did not wake up till 9:30. Had a great dinner of Russian salad: julienned ham, salami, cheese, vegetables -- and salmon in my room. $4.50. Stayed up till midnight studying my Russian tapes and watching BBC World and CNN (the only English language channels), then called it a day. Discovery Channel is here, too, but in Russian.
Up early for more blintzes (called "blini" here) and a walk to the new Russian Orthodox church nearby. It was Palm Sunday (Easter is celebrated a week later here) and I was intrigued to see how the day might be celebrated. The first thing that caught my attention was all the pussy-willows being sold on the street and carried into the church. Perhaps it is the only thing growing here at the moment, but nearly everyone was carrying them, either single branches or by the armful, into the packed church. I could not make it much farther than the entryway, so decided to return on a less crowded day.
Wandered over to one of two Internet cafés, where I had mixed success. (Note to families: of the two Internet cafes across the street from each other, one to the west (river side) seems to have a more stable 56K connection but runs on Windows 98, whereas the Internet cafe in te Flagman cafe across the street runs on Windows 2000.) They both have USB ports but no CD or Zip drives. If you bring a portable USB storage device or other attachments, be sure to bring the drivers, as both cafes are very nice about allowing you to use your equipment on their machines. I did not bring a laptop so I have not tried to connect to the Internet from the hotel, but I don't see why it wouldn't work.
The Internet cafe setup is more like a Kinko's than a café: one room, bare walls, about seven computer stations and desks, but definitely no café selling lattes to enjoy while you type The machines all ran well on Windows 98 on 56K connections (albeit in Russian, though you can change the screen to English). Unfortunately my email provider (Earthlink) no longer supports Internet Explorer 4 (which is what the Win98 machines were running on), IE5 is no longer available, and downloading IE6 crashed the machine, so I did not get access to my email that day. Instead wrote notes about the first days here, got a little work done, and left after about four hours of computer time.Total bill: $4.40.
Meandered back to the hotel, stopping to buy some more books and groceries along the way. Caught up with Traci and Graham and noted that Dmitri was now fully in charge of both their lives - quite an astonishment to them both, I imagine. We had dinner at the hotel as Askhat was suffering from severe allergies and Traci and Graham were not quite ready to venture out on the town with Dmitri. Ordered a gin and tonic and then immediately rethought it as drinking the local water (and the ice made from it) is not advisable, so it turned out to be just a glass of warm gin-flavored tonic. Mostly tried hard to be patient while looking forward to seeing Nikolay the next day, but didn't get to sleep till about 3.
Monday, April 21 -- Seeing Nikolay!
Woke up early, about 6, with way too much energy. Yackov had said he would call at 8:30 with the day's schedule, and in the meantime the blini were calling to me. Started to take a walk down to the river, but the winds were a little brisk so headed to town instead. More meandering, more groceries every day new sights to see. Went to Café Santos with Traci, near the new mosque (the largest in Kazakhstan, we are told), for some amazing hot chocolate Traci had discovered. That will definitely be a daily stop. Good thing it is a half-hour walk to get there! The cafe is the only thing here so far that has been so upscale that it seemed almost out of place -- more like Seattle than Kazakhstan.
Yackov called precisely at 8:30 to say our first appointment with the regional court was at 11, and then called at 10 to say it had been moved to 2:30 because their offices were moving that day and they could not get the computer set up before we got there. The 2:30 appointment lasted 10 minutes and consisted of several pleasant questions about summer camp, Nikolay, how was I going to care for him while I work, and was I able to deal with any disabilities he might have? This line of questioning was a bit of a surprise, as I thought officially the summer camp is not recognized and I was not to expect any questions about Nikolay directly, but... there was my original dossier in her hands, the first I had seen of it since sending it off to the embassy, complete with pictures of Nikolay. Then she said Nikolay looks a lot like me and expressed many nice wishes for the both of us in our new life. We then waited an hour in the hall for more papers to be signed somewhere, and finally at 3:45 we were off to the orphanage at Kachirie to see my little duck-eyes!
OK, so here is an embarrassing story on me. When I met with Yackov in Salt Lake City in January, I asked him what Nikolay's last name given to him at the orphanage, Chernochin, meant. He said "Duck Eyes." I was too startled to respond then, but it was really making me curious. Do orphanage kids not have enough problems without being given names like Duck Eyes?
So on the trip out to the orphanage at Kachirie I asked Yackov why he had been given a name like Duck Eyes. Yackov reminded me that Nikolay was a foundling and that the orphanage must have been struck by his big, beautiful, dark eyes. Oh, DARK eyes, not duck eyes! I have a lot of explaining to do to the family and I doubt my family is likely to let me live that one down.
It was about an hour's drive to the Kachirie orphanage (or 45 min if Yackov is driving), on a road running northwest from Pavlodar along a fairly barren stretch of road with the Ertis river frequently in sight. Just outside of Pavlodar, there was an oil refinery to the right, and just beyond it an old chemical weapons plant (Yackov thinks I am kidding about wanting to get a tour), and then not much of anything for a long ways. The two-lane road is not dirt, but it's probably pretty muddy in the winter. Right now, in April, it is full of potholes. With the snow finally melting, there are fires everywhere as the farmers clear last year's vegetation and the air is quite thick in places. We swerve a lot to avoid hitting cattle of every variety -- herded mostly by Kazakh women that look right out of a National Geographic Special -- in the road looking for any blade of grass they can find before being herded home in the evening.
Getting closer to Kachirie, we see some sort of police set-up on the left side of the road, looking somewhat like a permanent DUI check station. (All the officials in government are Kazakh, incidentally, including all police.) As we approach them, Yackov takes off his seat belt and waves congenially at the officers who don't wave back. He turns to say something to Svetlana, the new lawyer in his office who is in training to help with the adoptions and has come along to help out with paperwork today. (Yackov's wife, Anna, is five months pregnant and I have not met her yet.) I ask him why he took his seatbelt off and he says, "Because no one here uses seat belts, so if you pass them with a seat belt on, they think you are drunk and pull you over."
Finally we turn off into Kachirie. All the roads are now dirt and there are even more farm animals to dodge. It is ten minutes till 5PM and there is a judge to visit, fees to be paid, and paperwork to file to start my official two-week stay. As of December 2002, the government has become very strict about the mandatory two-week stay prior to the court date and there are no deviations allowed, not even for "summer camp kids". So although I had hoped for a court date two weeks after my Saturday, April 19, arrival, on May 2 (Dad's birthday), in fact it is going to probably be Monday, May 5, as the papers starting my official visit can't be filed until Monday. We drop off Svetlana who runs to get all the paperwork filed before 5 while Yackov takes me to the orphanage.
I had seen one picture of the orphanage but was not prepared for the simple environment these kids know as home, having first met them in San Jose. I cannot even imagine what a shock Safeway or Macy's or even a restaurant must have been for them last summer in comparison. And I don't mean this in any negative way; you can hear the sounds of happy children playing from a long distance away, and they have the most enormous playground I have ever seen. The contrast for an American is remarkable, even for one with a lot of travel experience throughout the world. Trying to find an example close to home, it reminds you somewhat of many areas in Mexico once you get out of the tourist areas, with a little Turkish/Oriental flavor and without the warm sunshine. I have no difficulty believing that there are no accommodations to be had in Kachirie!
As we approached the main building, Yackov said, "Now watch them all run out. They always do when they see my car coming." I asked him what it is he brings them that they always come running. His answer: "Hope." This picture of Yackov with the kids says it all.
The building is a long-rectangular two-story structure made of concrete, surrounded by a large playground full of the types of play equipment we all know from our childhood. Playhouses, swings, carousels, monkey bars - you name it - in very rusted but good working condition. The children could all be seen laughing and playing on the very far side of the grounds, under the watchful eye of three caretakers with their backs to us.
The building inside was dark but painted in shades of green and blue, and cheerfully decorated with potted plants, plastic flowers, and other decoration. The birthday of every child born in April was prominently posted in the entryway, along with a lot of pictures of kids playing near a pool, pouring buckets of cold water over their heads. Nikolay is one of them.
We turned the corner into the director's office as I am fumbling to get out a camera, expecting Nikolay to be called to the office, but too late. There's Nikolay, standing behind the director's desk, looking... what? Completely excited, terrified, thrilled, and frozen in place, all at once. Of course at that point I lost any pretense of social graces and without even saying hello to the director dropped all my bags and yelled "NIKOLAY!!!!!!!!" He ran up and gave me the biggest hug ever. A Hallmark moment that will be recorded forever in my mind and probably his and nowhere else. I still cry just to think about it.
I held him and hugged him for quite a few minutes. He is still light enough that I can pick him up with one arm and I told him all the Russian I could think of. "Hello, my son, how are you, have you been a good boy? We are going to America, what do you think about that?" He was as overwhelmed as I and did not have a lot to say, but the director said she had asked him this morning what he was looking forward to most and he reportedly said, "Mostly I would just like to go to America tomorrow." I guess I am not worried any longer about whether he wants to leave.
Finally composed enough to be polite, I introduced myself to the Director of the orphanage, Olga (they do not make the Americans fumble through the patronymics), who is delightful. There were lots of gifts of flowers in the office; when I asked, it was with no small amount of pride that she told me the flowers had arrived in honor of her having been there 17 years that day. I learned later that she has been over 30 years at the orphanage. I asked how many children had been adopted while she was Director, and she said 53. Not many, until you realize all the adoptions have been since 1995.
On Olga's desk was a scrapbook: Dinia's, not mine (Nikolay stayed with Dinia's family before I had him stay with me for three days last summer) and a few of the pictures I had sent Nikolay from last fall but not MY little scrapbook I had sent him of life at Tahoe. In the confusion of the moment I neglected to ask Olga where it was, and whether Nikolay knew it wasn't Dinia coming to get him, but me. Too late now!
I had brought a large Ikea play tent and tunnel as a gift for the orphanage, which seemed to go over well. Olga gamely help me put it together right there in her office while Nursulu (going home soon to the DeOcampos) went through all the items her family had sent for her, piece by piece, and Nikolay took pictures with my camera, just as he did last fall. He is absolutely fascinated by anything mechanical. Although Nikolay had not changed in any way that I could tell in seven months (which surprised me greatly), Nursulu had definitely grown and was more adorable than ever. Lots of smiles and thank-yous from both of them caught on videotape to take home to the DeOcampos. And an unprompted "thank you" in English from Nikolay who apparently remembers a few words from last summer. I notice Nikolay is still wearing the shoes I bought him last fall and a cap I had mailed him.
It was a little more difficult to see Nursulu than I had planned. She had only met me briefly at the airport and probably had no clue who I was. I had all these things to tell her from her family, and here I was with no one to translate. So I just sat down and told her in English all the things her family wanted her to know, and showed her all the things they sent her, and she seemed to understand the intent if not the words and was quite happy about it all. I will have to go back later when someone is available to translate to make sure she got it all; I am sorry I did not get much of it on film because I couldn't talk to her from behind a camera. II think the DeOcampos can be sure Nursulu knows she is well loved and that they are coming for her very soon. Then Nursulu carefully packed up all her gifts into a little bag and ran off, holding it very tightly!
While Nikolay and I were having fun, Yackov, Svetlana and Olga were elsewhere working hard on the endless paperwork that goes with the adoption. (The tedious dossiers appear to be only a small dent in the pile.) Nikolay discovered the portable Dictaphone I brought and had a lot of fun recording a poem and two songs into it. He then gave me a videotaped tour of the playground, where you will hear him call me "Mama" on tape (for only the second time). Unfortunately, although I got a lot on film, I got very little on the digital camera. I will have to fix that on the next trip.
It was 6PM and time to go; a long day for everyone. And with a simple "bye-bye, Mama" (in English) and a wave, Nikolay ran off to join his friends on the playground.
Tuesday, April 22 -- Catch-Up
Driving back to the orphanage yesterday, there were lots of questions from Svetlana and Yackov. How did my family feel about adopting Nikolay? What do my friends think of it? What other countries did I consider? Why Kazakhstan? What do I do in my free time in Pavlodar? How big a city do I live in? How is the air quality there? (How do you describe Lake Tahoe in anything but superlatives and how did I forget to bring a single picture of it in 72 pounds of luggage?)
In the cultural exchanges along the drive, I learned something that I know will be of interest to many of the families wondering how and which cultural ties to keep alive. On Nikolay's birth certificate, he is listed as being of Russian nationality, which surprised me as he was reportedly born in Pavlodar and has never been to Russia. Seeing "Russian" seemed as strange to me as it would to see "Irish" nationality on my birth certificate! Apparently a careful distinction is made here between nationality and citizenship. Nikolay is of Russian nationality, and Kazakh citizenship. Askhat, born here, is of Tartar nationality and of Kazakh citizenship. And those of Russian heritage who were born here largely refer to Kazakhs as "they," not "we." Nikolay and I are headed for Russian Heritage Camp in Colorado in June, where Russian adoptees gather once a year to keep up cultural ties, and it is helpful to have that understanding now.
Arriving back at the hotel, Askhat was ready to show us a Turkish restaurant not far from the hotel, Café Bospor, but Traci and Graham decided to pass so I got to take Askhat to dinner. It was a great meal, and about 8PM, when suddenly the lights went dark, the disco ball turned on, and undefinable Eastern European music started blaring from the corner. The guy at the adjacent table in a red muscle shirt and black pants got up and started doing a Chippendales routine for the benefit of his three female companions who could not seem to care less and in fact weren't even watching him. The gals behind the counter were another story - they were absolutely transfixed by watching this Patrick Swayzee wannabe, although whether they were transfixed with horror or glee I am not quite sure. When it was all over, he sauntered back over to his table, lit a cigarette and resumed eating his dinner. Askhat looked somewhere between surprised and embarrassed. I told him too bad Traci wasn't here as she's from Texas and would no doubt be throwing dollar bills at the guy. It was all in all quite hilarious although we think we are going to go back a little earlier in the evening next time to avoid the floor show.
Tuesday was a chance to get caught up on work, send files home, get Steve's ticket organized, and finally establish an email connection. (Apparently we do not get to go to the orphanage more than two or three times a week during our supposed "bonding" period!) Getting through 282 messages on a 56K connection is pretty slow going and I could not get through them all before Traci finally dragged me out of the Internet café for another chocolate infusion at Café Santos around 5.
After taking the long way home along the river on a nice spring evening, we went out for an early dinner at Asia -- Dmitri's first night on the town, -- and he was so good that people at adjacent tables were surprised to see there was even a baby at the table when we carried him out. (What exactly did they think Traci and Graham were doing underneath the table?) Traci declared Asia the best food yet, with great spaghetti and "real" calamari, high praise from an accomplished Italian-American cook (who was also born in Canada, incidentally). Total spent thus far for everything the first four days but the hotel room : $100. The hotel room is $64 a night, whether single or double, and you can charge it to a credit card.
Wednesday, April 23 -- Another Trip to the Orphanage
I was waiting in the street and ready to go when Yackov and Svetlana came by at nine for the second trip to the orphanage. After more paperwork and stops, we got to the orphanage about 10:30. This time a lot kids came running towards us from a different place and started asking me a lot of questions I couldn't understand. I managed to get one picture just before Yackov made a dash for the front door. Yackov later told me they were saying, "Are you coming for me?" "If not me, who are you coming for?" "Can I go to America with you?" I was suddenly thankful I didn't know enough Russian to have understood all that. Usually full of good humor, you could tell that despite all the great things Yackov has done here, it is still difficult for him to see so many left behind. There are reportedly 120,000 children in the Kazakhstan orphanages alone, which is a lot for a population of 15 million.and an indication of the difficult economic times faced here in Kazakhstan. The US in contrast has about 110,000 in foster care (we have no orphanages)..
There is a little office behind the caretaker's room where parents can have a little privacy with their child, and that is where we set up shop today, just Nikolay and me. I brought quite a few books, Marzipan and the camera, and a couple more small gifts for the orphanage (a poster of the English and Cyrillic alphabet, and a growth chart in both meters and feet where we confirmed Yackov is indeed 6'4"). After taking apart the entire contents of the bag, Nikolay was only interested in the camera and the cell phone, and in taking apart the battery if possible. This picture shows Nikolay trying to make calls and being disappointed that there was no cell reception in Kachirie, because he remembers it worked just fine in San Jose. You may all expect quite a few calls when we get home!
So we drew pictures instead. He drew an airplane, another airplane, and then (surprise) some miscellaneous letters (A, M, H, O, N) that did not mean anything but were meant to show me he was learning his letters (which I had was told he had not yet been taught, so this was a nice surprise indeed). The first four of those letters have Cyrillic counterparts and he could have been writing in English or Russian, but interestingly, N is not in the Cyrillic alphabet.
Then I asked him to draw a picture of himself, and he drew a colorful picture of a boy with a big smile (standing very close to the airplane). Next came an ambulance; I recall he was captivated by all ambulances and police cars last fall. I asked him to draw a picture of our house (of which he had seen pictures) and got a bright, three-dimensional (!) drawing of a yellow and orange house. I asked him to draw our cat, and he drew a yellow cat with a big smile. Finally he drew a red, yellow, brown and green flower and an orange boat on a blue lake, and then his attention was back to the camera. I don't know what a psychologist would say, but they look like the drawings of a fairly happy kid to me.
But all is not perfect, of course. When he picks up a book or the camera I can see he is trembling, and I assume it all must be pretty overwhelming for him. He has trouble looking at me or responding to me, almost like he is in denial that it is all finally happening, and he pretends to be firmly engrossed in his drawing. I am thinking that it must be hard to see me coming and going two or three times a week, and that things will settle down a bit after he leaves the orphanage and we can communicate a little better. That, or... he just thinks I am completely hopeless as I don't speak enough Russian to understand all that he says, and maybe he can make a break for it as soon as he lands in the US.
The room itself is a little bit of a museum for the orphanage, with pictures dating back to 1930 and showing caretakers dressed in white hats and uniforms pouring tea from a samovar. Many samples of delightful artwork the kids have created over the years were on display. A wall unit separates the caretaker's room from the private space for the parents on the other side. In the wall unit I was startled to see many - most - of the non-personal things I had sent Nikolay over the past months. I didn't mind that Nikolay did not have them himself. They were things like crayons and Legos and such for all the kids, but what the heck were they doing sitting unused on display? I learned later the games are indeed rotated out among the children, but always find their way back to this room at the end of the day.
Another short visit; we had to leave at noon, not to return until Friday. ("If I am here to bond with him, shouldn't I be at the orphanage every day?" "You bonded with him last summer." "If I bonded with him last summer, why do we stay two weeks?" And so on.) If I had pressed the issue I think I could have arranged to get to the orphanage every weekday, for the cost of hiring a taxi to take me out there (there are no cars or even bicycles for rent), but on Traci's advice I decided to pass up extra visits that weren't on the schedule. As Traci noted, the visits are a little too "structured" to be of much fun for anyone anyway, and they are more awkward than not with everyone too wound up to enjoy the experience on a daily basis. This time I got a big hug AND a kiss good-bye!
On the way back to the hotel I found out that no court will be held on Monday, May 5, and that we are scheduled for 10AM on Tuesday, May 6, for the final adoption proceedings. Then there are a lot of emigration papers to be processed, which if everything goes perfectly would mean we could leave for Almaty on Wednesday morning at 9AM for the medical visit and to process the US immigration papers before going home. (Pavlodar is one of the provinces that generally does not require the additional two-week stay after the court hearing.) But nothing -- repeat -- nothing goes perfectly here, and I am reminded that Traci and Graham and apparently about one hundred other families are stranded here at the moment without the ability to get a passport issued.
Back to the Internet café by 2 to sort out a mess with Steve's plane ticket over here and get a few other things done. A nice surprise -- found out our big grant to conduct clinical trials on our medical device was approved, so I have that to look forward to upon return (congratulations, everybody!!!). And best of all, my messages to you are getting through, Lynne is posting them, and in return I am getting LOTS of warm and wonderful emails from everywhere: friends, family, and past and prospective adoptive families I don't even know. THANK YOU - all of you - for all your warm wishes! It means more than you could know.
And to all of you with questions specific to Pavlodar and the kids here: I am tracking down answers as best I can and will respond to each of you individually. However, if the child is not part of Yackov's group, Yackov has no access to any information about them. I do know there have been some failed adoptions here recently which have resulted in efforts to accredit agencies and weed out those with less reputable practices, as (as Yackov puts it), one bad apple spoils it for all the rest. (See "Lessons Learned" on the home page.) I have been able to get permission to see the rest of the kids from our summer camp group and there was no problem taking pictures of them home to their families, but it is truly impossible to find out about anyone else not in our group and orphanage. The children older than 8, incidentally, are in a building adjacent to the Kachirie orphanage where Nikolay is, although I have not seen any of them yet. They are all released on their 18th birthday with $200, by which point there is not much of a future to look forward to for many of them.
Not much luck with errands despite Askhat's able assistance. First a stop at the post office where I actually got to experience that oft-reported uniquely Russian ritual of being in one line for 20 minutes, being ignored for several more, then being told to go to another line and repeat the process, only to be sent back to the first line 20 minutes later! Auuggghh. I was trying to send a one-pound package to the US, but declined when I learned it would be $50 to get it there within 10 days. For that, I can Fedex it there, and I will tomorrow. Not much luck with the Air Kazakhstan office here, either: no fax, no computer connection, no ability to make reservations or pay for a ticket, so I went back to the hotel and faxed (!) my reservation to the same Air Kazakhstan ticket counter in Hannover, Germany that has been so efficient from the outset.
Finally had a great dinner with Askhat at Anatalia, thankfully sans floor show but with great music entertainment from a talented local who is a friend of Askhat's. Askhat came over directly from his afternoon with the Boy Scouts and I have to get a picture of him in his scout outfit for all the families who have been asking about him. He has more American flags than badges! Every moment I think he is about to run and help a babushka across the street. There is a chance he will be over this summer to interpret for the summer camp program in Utah and he is so very excited about it.
It's 1:30 AM and I am finally caught up on all the details I am anxious to send home. I will be first in line at the Internet café when it opens tomorrow! I am having a GREAT time.
Wednesday, April 23 -- Another Trip to the Orphanage
I try to bring a little something to the orphanage each visit, and today it is a kilo of mandarin oranges I found in town. The visits with Nikolay at the orphanage seem to be a little stressful for Nikolay; he won't look at me much at all, and you can see a million things racing through that little head. I have read enough on adoption and attachment over the last few months not to be concerned or even take it personally -- building trust takes time. (As Steve later points out, no one tells him to put that big grin on his face when the caretakers tell him to give me a kiss goodbye.) He is also at that in-between age, too old for the bonding time at the baby house, and too young to understand why all the coming and going and why can't we just go HOME. He is too jumpy to sit down and read or draw, so I try to make the visit brief so he can get back to playing, which is, after all, what any six-year-old wants to be doing.
Maybe a word about what to wear to the orphanage is in order. Everyone has a different opinion on this topic, of course, but my approach is to dress as well as possible -- if for no other reason than out of respect for our hosts at the orphanage. The workers are impeccably dressed even just to care for children all day long. I wore a long black skirt the first day, and nicer attire than I ever wear at home for each subsequent visit. Not only is the effort appreciated, you also tend to blend into the background more that way, and are less of a target for pickpockets. The two families that followed did likewise, and we were offered tours of the facility and the chance to take extensive photos and videotape of the orphanage (although no close-ups of children we did not know), opportunities which we came to learn were not the norm. It may just be a coincidence, but having seen the pride the caretakers take in their charges, you can see the high expectations they have of their prospective parents (particularly American ones). The jeans have not left my hotel room, even to wander around town, because I think blending in as much as possible is essential for the safety of a single woman traveling overseas. They may be able to tell I am not from here, but from the number of people that come up and speak to me in Russian, it seems clear they don't think I am an American. That is just fine for these turbulent times.
Having said that, getting pictures of the other children in the orphanage -- or even information about any children I am not personally acquainted with -- is virtually impossible, in part due to all the recent disrupted adoptions and efforts to get a better system back on track. By the end of my stay here, over half the families here will go home with different children than they came for, which has been very trying on all parties. It has been very distressing for many families to lose a child they are on their way to adopt, particularly with the completely avoidable four-month delays incurred at the embassy in Washington that would allow many of them to get here that much sooner. We have come to realize that despite referrals and summer camp and all kinds of assurances, at the end of the day the system is truly first-come, first-served, period. The only consolation, and it is a small one, is that sometimes it is the birth families themselves that come to reclaim a child they had asked the orphanage to care for a few months (hence the six-month wait to ensure true abandonment). As the families here are finding out, there are many thousands of wonderful kids in the system here for them to meet personally and take home. And the one single determinant of success in adoption among the families here thus far has been direct communication with Yackov, if nothing other than to tell him our arrival date and the names of the children we hope to adopt.
We have also come to learn that it is true that there are some in government here who are quite opposed to Kazakh children being adopted internationally -- but we find out it is primarily those of Kazakh heritage they are opposed to seeing adopted, not those of Russian or other heritage. In town we find an elementary school that has segregated its pupils by ethnicity (which we hear is not always the case but is apparently quite common), and less mixing of ethnic groups than we might have expected, except among teenagers. Everybody, however, is very nice to us and very accommodating with what must be some very strange American ways. (Driving to the orphanage, Colleen asks the cab driver to stop for so many pictures of horses, sheep and goats along the way that I finally ask Askhat to tell the driver Colleen is a veterinarian. Askhat responds, "I think he understands.")
Money has been very easy to exchange; the bank across the street from the hotel has the best rates, and is open till 7PM six days a week. But they are serious about lunch breaks, even in the largest banks; Graham entered one bank five minutes before lunch was over, and a guard actually pulled a gun on him. (There are armed guards in every bank.) Most shopping malls have a change booth also, and the rate is within 1 tenge of 152 to the dollar everywhere you go. I tried an ATM machine, of which there are quite a few, but they are somewhat hidden. Had no problem getting funds with my Bank of America check card (you get tenge, of course, not dollars), but another bank (USAA) did not allow a withdrawal. Wiring funds here is not difficult, as some have learned in their extended stay. For those who do online banking, I discovered that many US bank sites do not support anything less than Internet 5.0 and above, which is not available at some of the Internet cafes.
What does not work is making transfers online. I tried to do that at the Internet café, with no success. Steve said someone back at USAA Bank is looking at a screen and seeing someone is trying to transfer funds from a non-secure computer in an Internet café in Kazakhstan and is just laughing his head off.
Traci and I head for our afternoon chocolate break at Café Santos, and she tells me of their experience with the Hallmark channel who has been filming them for their series on adoption. Apparently filming has been going on for months, and the social worker and a cameraman even came to Pavlodar with them to film the final steps. This is one story I can't wait to see! You will hear the story of the 3 ½-year-old they originally intended to adopt, but who was adopted before they could get here, and how they ended up with nine-month-old Dmitri instead. Walking around town with tall, glamorous, very Italian-American Traci is like having Sophia Loren at your side to do grocery shopping, and I enjoy her tremendously. We sure have had a lot of good times and laughs here.
Thursday, April 24 -- The Faces of Kazakhstan
Woke up to the smell of smoke! The vegetation all around the hotel is being burned off, and when the wind is just right it comes right through my open windows. Graham and I realize that if there really were a fire in the hotel, that none of us would be able to get out of our rooms due to the heavy grillwork. Not a cheery thought. But then Dad called to check in on things, and gave me an update on the home front.
Walking down to the Internet café, we come upon a group of Kazakh kindergarteners out for a walk in the park. I ask if we can take pictures and the kids go crazy seeing themselves in the digital camera. The Kazakhs are really a beautiful people. As I can't take many pictures out at the orphanage, particularly of other kids there, here is a sampling of some of the faces we saw in town.
That afternoon, Askhat accompanies me to the Air Kazakhstan office to check on Steve's reservations. It is a lovely spring day and I am down to a T-shirt, while everyone else in sight is down to three layers. Inside the Air Kaz office, it is at least 95 degrees with the central heating still on full bore, and I stand there motionless with rivers of sweat running down my face. I can't even think or hear what is being said, and we both have to go outside and cool off a couple of times before we can finish even a simple transaction. Once thermally regulated again, we walked around a new section of town and ended up at Classic Pizza, about a mile south of our hotel. Marvelous, authentic, thin-crust Italian pizza and cold Pavlodar beer. Wonderful.
Headed back to the Internet café until 9, then back to the hotel via the river walk. It is 9:30 and light enough that cars still don't have headlights turned on. It is a beautiful, warm spring evening, and lots of people are out enjoying the fine weather. At 10PM Traci and Graham get the call -- the passport machine is fixed.
Friday, April 25 - Nikolay's History
Bad news for Traci and Graham today -- the passport machine was fixed late last night and the passport has been issued, but Almaty has no record of the INS (now BCIS) approving Dmitri's immigration to the US. A quick check of the paperwork confirms that San Antonio was instructed to keep the confirmation there instead of forwarding it to Almaty. Parents are dispatched to San Antonio to ask the BCIS to please cable the approval to Almaty immediately. (The BCIS throughout the US provides no telephone access, and all requests have to be done in person.) Note to families: before you go, check your I-171H form and be sure the box is checked to have the INS approval forwarded to the US embassy in Almaty, and then email the embassy to confirm they have received it. See the embassy website for contact information.
Then a trip to the orphanage to see Nikolay and have a chat with Olga. I bring a ball for Nursulu and toy police cars for Renat, Murat, and Temirlan (who I still have not seen). I come prepared with my long list of questions to ask the caretakers obtained from the EEAC website. I turn on the Dictaphone and ask Olga to tell me about Nikolay. This is what I learn, in Olga's words.
Nikolay is very sociable. He is in a group of 13 children (9 boys, 4 girls) who take good care of one another. He is now in preschool and would have gone to first grade here this fall. He knows all the letters of the (Cyrillic) alphabet and can read and distinguish between vowels and consonants. He knows his shapes and numbers, and he studies Kazakh language also. He is definitely ready for first grade in the fall. There is nothing to worry about regarding his health and mental development. He has three classes in the morning of 40 minutes each. Math, reading, music, etc. I am free to take his school copybooks home with me. Also a toy he might want to take with him.
He has been here for two years. He is very good at reciting poems and singing songs. He draws very well. He loves to ride bicycles. He is very technical. He loves pets and pets love him. He does a special exercise where he pours cold water from a bucket over himself (is he ever going to like Tahoe!) All the children take complete care of themselves -- do their beds, dress and undress themselves, brush their teeth -- and are good about chores. [In fact, later when I looked around for Nikolay's clothes in the hotel, I finally found them folded up and back in the drawer.]
Nikolay has not been involved in any sports competitions but he loves to take part in all sports activities in his age group. But it's mini-basketball, mini-soccer, etc. He is well coordinated. He likes to lift weights (!). Regarding foods, he eats everything: juice, potatoes, gulasch. He does not care for milk or tea with milk. [He subsequently polished off a liter of milk so now even that is covered.] Give him whatever healthy foods he likes but please control the amount. The kids will tend to eat quite a lot at first unless you control the portions. His main meal is at midday, with a treat each day at 4PM (usually chocolate).
His daily schedule:
8:00Wake up 8:15Physical exercise and brush teeth
11:00 Juice break
12:15 Lunch, wash hands and face
1:00Nap 3:00Play outside 3:45Snack 4:00School, then a walk 7:15Dinner 8:00Bath (more like wash hands and feet), then to bed.
Nikolay has no known allergies. He rarely gets sick, and when they do get sick here, it is usually with a high temperature and the children are then kept in a special room under special care. She is very glad that he finally found his family and that "seeing you and studying information about you, I have no concerns about adopting him or Nikolay's future. You will not face any problems with him. You made a very good choice. He has suffered a lot and deserves happiness now. You will be very happy with him."
There is only one surprise, but it is a big one. A "foundling" here is a child of any age that is found or abandoned, not just an infant. Nikolay (and other children among the group here) are "foundlings" -- sometimes abandoned at birth, but sometimes not until they are quite a bit older. That one took my breath away, as I thought I understood from his caretaker last summer that Nikolay had been at the orphanage since birth. (Something might have gotten lost in translation, but I also know that in this culture, what you are told and what actually happened can be very different things.) I asked then how do we know his actual birthday, and I was shown his original birth certificate, complete with his birth mother's name on it. Abandoning children here is so commonplace that children are generally left with their birth certificate with no repercussions to the parents. Still, I cannot imagine how difficult the circumstances must have been that led to his being abandoned, or what his memories of those early years must be and the consequences thereof.
I am surprised to learn that it is not common to take the older children back to the hotel during our two-week bonding period, and that it is in fact quite against government rules to do so. If there is one change I would like to see, it would be to allow at least the older children to come into town for a few days at a time to get to know their new families under less stressful circumstances.
After discussion with Olga, I decide not to adopt a second child this trip (although as Olga put it, "one child is not a family" and it will be "very helpful for Nikolay to share his life with a sister or brother. That will be very important for him.") She hopes Nikolay and I will return in two or three years for a younger sister for Nikolay, and she says I will be surprised how well he will take care of her. I may not have room in the house for two children of different genders, and it may be a boy instead, but right now it feels just fine to think about coming back in a couple of years after Nikolay gets settled in. Olga said it would be wonderful to have Nikolay back for a visit, and that no child has come back yet for a visit. The first child ever adopted from the orphanage, in 1995, turns 18 this summer and has asked to celebrate her birthday in Pavlodar, and the orphanage is greatly looking forward to her visit.
I ask what we can do after our return to the US, and Olga says the best we can do for them is to call periodically as we have been, just to say how Nikolay is doing in school, how well he is bonding to his new family, and anything you can think of that we can do to better prepare the children here. She also says to call if we have any problems at all.
Saturday/Sunday, April 26-27 -- Spring Cleaning in Pavlodar
I have been here a week already! Steve arrives on the flight I arrived on a week ago, and we are there at 6:30AM to meet him.
It is spring cleaning day in Pavlodar, and the whole town (young and old alike) are out in force. Participation is mandatory, but everyone is having a good time. They are sweeping streets, burning vegetation, and painting everything in bright colors. The cold and windy winters here are so harsh that it really takes a toll on the structures here, and there is a lot of painting to do.
Saturday is a big wedding day in Pavlodar, and there are lot happening all over town. In the parks, in bank lobbies, down by the river. There is one wedding trying to share space with the rehearsals for the May 1 celebrations. Everyone looks pretty happy, and we wonder how many of these involve the Kazakh ritual of wife-stealing whereby a man kidnaps a woman he wants to marry (reportedly with some collusion), and all that is left for the parents is to negotiate ransom and a wedding. Askhat confirms this is indeed accepted and legal practice, but that it is mostly limited to the Caucasians (as in those who live in the Caucasus mountains).
Colleen and Sarah arrived Saturday afternoon, and Annie Laurie on Sunday. Colleen lives in Costa Mesa with her husband and two children, and is here to adopt Marat from the summer camp program. Marat turned 10 on Saturday, and is in the same compound at Kachirie with Nikolay, but in the building across the way with the kids over 8 years old. Colleen is herself adopted, and has been home schooling her children the last six years with considerable success (at least as measured by standardized tests and parental satisfaction). The best news I get from Colleen is that Colleen is here without her husband. Apparently the requirement that both parents be present for court is not uniformly interpreted throughout Kazakhstan, and Pavlodar courts do not require it if there is good reason for a spouse to remain at home (i.e., other children at home, another on the way, self-employment). After hearing the travails of Traci and Graham, this will be welcome news indeed for some of the families, for whom having both parents be gone from home and work was going to be an exceptional hardship.
Sarah is here to adopt three unrelated kids from camp last summer, ages 10, 11 and 12. This is great news for a lot of families, because very recently families were suddenly not allowed to adopt even two unrelated children in Kazakhstan. Both Sarah and Colleen say they would not have believed you had you told them this time last year that they would be adopting children a year later, from Kazakhstan or anywhere else. As with nearly all the summer camp parents, neither had any thoughts beyond hosting an overseas visitor for four weeks.
Annie Laurie is 23, with a two-year-old and a newly-adopted infant from Cambodia at home in Utah. Annie Laurie is also 7½ months pregnant, and is here to adopt eight-month-old infants. That's five kids under age two in diapers, folks. I get weak in the knees just thinking about it.
I have been working on learning Russian before getting here to help communicate with Nikolay, and although I didn't get nearly as far as I would have liked, I am often the one the group calls on when they need help buying something in town or more toilet paper for their room (even though I told them that most of what they hear me say translates to "I don't know," "I don't understand," and "I don't speak Russian"!). I highly recommend anyone coming over get comfortable with the Cyrillic alphabet and at least a few common phrases; the Russian Phrasebook from Lonely Planet with its phonetic spelling of common phrases has been indispensable, and the Oxford Russian mini-dictionary also (if you know the Cyrillic alphabet. I looked into a lot of language tapes and courses, and would have ideally loved to go to a one-week immersion course in St. Petersburg before coming here, but did not get enough advance notice for that to happen this trip. Of the tapes I reviewed, the best so far have been the four-CD set from Oxford University Press called Take Off in Russian. (It comes in tapes, too, but the CD's are easier to skip around with. They are also hard to find; I got mine through Amazon.com.) If you can get through the first two CDs, I think you will be able to handle pretty much any situation that comes up here.
On the other hand, if your goal is mostly just to talk with your children, the best resource by far is the tape and book called "Adopting From Russia" made by Teresa Kelleher. You can order it through Susan Clegg's site, or email Teresa directly at Adopttlc@aol.com. Teresa has also made counterpart books for China (Mandarin) and Latin America.
Monday, April 28 - Fourth Visit to the Orphanage
Traci and Graham's parents are successful; Dmitri's immigration approval is now in Almaty, and they hope to leave for Almaty on the 9AM flight tomorrow morning. All our families seem to know of their plight and are asking for daily updates; from the emails and phone calls, we all start to get a sense of how much our families are adopting these kids right along with us, and we are all incredibly grateful!
Yackov comes to get us at 2:30 and the six of us pile into his Peugot 406 which Yackov bought in Azerbaijan and drove hundreds of kilometers back to Pavlodar over non-existent roads, which is quite another story. On the way to Kachirie, Colleen in the front seat is excited by all that she sees -- including snow. At this point we good-naturedly start to point out bicycles and grass and telephone poles that she might want to videotape also (knowing full well that we will all be jealous of her 2,000 pictures when she gets home). Then she entertains all of us some more when Yackov tells us a friend from Florida took Yackov to this place called Hooters and Colleen tries to explain politely what "hooters" are - and Yackov acts as though he has no idea what she is talking about, while we are laughing uncontrollably in the back seat. So now we tell Colleen she is a "hoot" to travel with. It is Colleen's first trip outside the North American continent and I have no doubt it is the first of many.
This is the first time Sarah and Colleen have seen their children since summer camp, and it is fun to be along with them. All their paperwork in town takes a while to process, of course, and we don't get there till late in the day and have only 20 minutes for their first visit. The four of them are summoned from various places in the compound, and so they come in one at a time to great reunions, while Nikolay and Steve and I take it all in (and Nikolay tries to get into their presents). Colleen worries that Marat will be mad that it took her too long to get her, but she need not have worried. Steve gets a picture of Marat running to see Colleen, and this picture of Marat's happiness does not do the moment justice. And another bonus: the look on Olga's face when she sees the ecstasy on her kids' faces when they first see their parents walk in the door will absolutely melt your heart.
We drop off four rolls of film for Colleen (it is her third day here) and pick them up an hour later. (The photo shop Askhat recommended is in the Flagman, where passport photos are about 40 cents each if you need them.) Sure enough, there are some nice ones there and she offers me the duplicates. She gives me a picture I had asked her to take of a local man pumping water from a well into what we would call a milk can, which is how most of the city gets its water. There is another picture of the current group at breakfast -- Traci, Graham, Steve, Colleen, Sarah, and Annie Laurie. And a great one of Steve showing the local kids pictures of themselves on the digital camera after he takes pictures of them. Dinner of lamb shishkebabs at Café Bosphor.
Back at the hotel, we meet Tom and Mindy from Kentucky who arrived this afternoon. They are adopting from the baby house and they look as disoriented as we all did when we first arrived. Two nights on a plane is pretty tough!
Tuesday, April 29 -- Shopping
Woke up to.snow! And the central heating turned off for the season, too! Welcome to spring in Siberia. But I can't complain, the weather has been marvelous. It isn't always; this picture of a thermometer near the hotel registers 50 plus to 50 minus centigrade -- that's -58F to 122F up here at 52 degrees latitude (which is about what Fairbanks is). But even that spread isn't enough range; Askhat confirms that the temperature did reach 52C two summers ago, and that the summers are hot, dry and very buggy and the winters bitterly cold. Life here is mostly one extreme or the other, apparently, with a couple of very pleasant weeks in late April/early May (now) and again late September/early October. When I asked him how he finds out what tomorrow's weather will be, Ashkat responded, "The sunset tells a lot." For the rest of us, you can go to www.weather.com, and simply type in Pavlodar where it says "type in city or US zip code"! I find out that it has snowed ten feet in the last ten days at home, and suddenly it feels pretty good to be in Siberia after all.
Found Yackov and Traci and Graham at breakfast instead of at the airport -- still no passport, so they could not go to Almaty this morning. Where the passport is, no one seems to know. A month is a long time to be in a hotel room, and a great trip is wearing thin for them. And the snow means no trip to the orphanage for us.
So we decided to get some shopping out of the way. Here is a picture of Colleen and me outside the hotel, where it was 70 degrees this time yesterday. Took Colleen to the Internet Café where we sent home pictures of the great reunion she had with Marat. We had a big laugh with Colleen when she relayed how her brother had sent her an email with some mildly "adult-themed" attachments which she forwarded to her husband -- and her husband then inadvertently forwarded to their entire church group. Colleen then sent out an apology to the entire church group, which we told her guaranteed they would now all be sure to be checking the earlier attachments. Fortunately or not for us, the Internet connection is so slow that the files took forever to open and Colleen still is not sure what they all contain, but we saw enough of one called kamasutracake.jpg to understand why she apologized to her church group!
Did a little shopping on the way home for socks and a tie for Guido aka Nikolay -- sorry, white socks and a black suit just will not do -- and found an even larger mall right across the street from the Internet Café than the one we visited last week (the one that was so far away we all still have blisters from getting there)! For the families coming over, it is another Tsum (or Zum) store like the one we have been told about in Almaty with the wonderful Kazakh items to take home, but this one is not quite as large and is more oriented to local residents. The same items are also far less expensive here. We found some very nice presents to take home (here are two pictures of the stores we liked inside Tsum), although Askhat warned us to save some purchases for another store. (We also found out the correct spelling is Askhat, not Ashkat as is widely reported. "Think ask and hat," as he explained -- easy!) Had such a good time with the Kazakh artifacts that we went back to the hotel, dropped the first bags of goodies off, and went back for more! Here are pictures of a few things we bought.
Since there is no way to describe how to find the second store with local items to take home for presents, here is a picture of it. Go in the unmarked white door that the two woman are emerging from, and go left once you are inside. Here is a picture of Colleen and Askhat dressing up in Kazakh wear in the store so we could take their picture; we told Askhat whatever they are paying him, it is not enough.
There are a lot of book stores, including a few with a good selection of English-Russian texts, fairy tales, and reference materials. This is the one with the best selection overall, very close to the hotel. It also had a few tapes and CDs with Russian children's songs and poems.
To help Nikolay keep his Russian, I find DVDs and videotapes of a few of his favorite movies in Russian: Shrek, Ice Age, Mulan, 101 Dalmations, and a couple more. They are all about $5 apiece. I have to be sure to get ones that are NTSC-compatible to be read on US machines; if you buy PAL format, they need to be converted once you get home.
There is a toy store close to the hotel, but a much better one a little farther away. (To reach it, called Children's World in Russian, go left at the first light past the Internet cafes, and it is one block on the right.) It has the largest selection of baby food as well as nice toys, shoes and clothes for children up to age 10 or so. Traci got a pair of (probably counterfeit, but very good) Nike sandals for Dmitri ($4) and I got very nice socks (50 cents) and underwear (40 cents) for Nikolay. Also found a great little scrapbook for a six-year-old boy, since a baby album won't be of much use to him; it is filled with sports pictures, the kinds of things he likes to do (soccer, bicycling, swimming), and room to put pictures of him doing the same thing. Colleen fritzed her curling iron (and singed her hair) on the local wattage, and found an almost identical replacement in the mall for $1.30. Most families wish they had brought less in the way of toiletries and clothes, and just bought them here instead.
A word about toys. The orphanage has a lot of donated toys, many of which came from the stores in town, probably from other visiting families like us. A suggestion: if you bring toys to the orphanage, bring the best quality ones you can find. Not only do they get used pretty hard out there, it will also avoid hours of frustration with toys that are so poorly constructed that they should probably just be tossed. Nikolay spent a very frustrating hour trying to put together an airplane from Lego-knockoffs that looked great on the box but did not fit together properly. Same with yo-yos that did not work, puzzles that did not fit, cars that fell apart.
Even many US-made items are less expensive here than at home. A roll of Kodak 200 film, 36 prints, is under $3. The Flagman building has the Kodak Express office most families here use to develop film, but no developing film onto CDs that we have found yet. This is also the place to get extra passport photos, for about 40 cents apiece. One of the other families is delighted to find Marlboros are 50 cents a pack. My favorite European brands, like Nivea and Labello, are in plentiful supply. Bought a suit for Nikolay to wear home from the orphanage (a suit is more than is necessary, but we were told he should dress very well and it is after all a pretty special occasion!); the suit, shirt, belt, tie and two pairs of shoes were $40. The waist and hem alterations were done in another booth for $2.25 -- done in an hour, and beautifully sewn at that.
Back at the hotel, STILL no passport for Dmitri, and with the holidays this Thursday and Friday, this probably means another week delay in getting home for Traci and Graham. The passports are now officially lost with those of two other families similarly stranded in Almaty. There is a tracking system to locate them, but as they say, it is a rather antiquated tracking system that can only tell where the passports are once they show up. Traci and Graham are taking it better than I would be at this point, and Yackov feels so bad about all the delays that he has offered several times to pay all their expenses for the extra stay (which they refused but Yackov paid anyway). Colleen and I find a baby album (in Russian) to take to Traci to bide the time, and a bottle of red wine for them both. Steve and Traci, both being half-Italian, are hitting it off well and keeping spirits up for each other while entertaining all the rest of us with their Italian good humor. We all feel for them - Traci says she was having a great time at this point in her stay, too, but now it is time to go home. Yackov seems very distressed about it all. So far this does not affect our schedule to get home, but we have no room for delays if we want to make it home for Steve's graduation.
Wednesday, April 30 -- Fifth Trip to the Orphanage
Today there are four of us to go to the orphanage, plus Svetlana the lawyer and Lena the translator, so Yackov hires two cars and drivers to take us all out there. Lena and Svetlana have to brief Colleen and Sarah in one car, so Steve and I get the other car to ourselves, which makes for a lot of pictures along the way (including pictures of Colleen in the other car). Along the way, our car breaks down, gets fixed quickly, and we are on our way again. Gasoline is 30 tenge to the liter, or about 80 cents a gallon.
The older kids are having a great time with Colleen and Sarah in the building across the way, but Nikolay is too young to know the difference between a week and a day, or why all this is taking so long. He is pretty distracted by it all and wishes only to go home. At Olga's request, Nikolay gives us a tour of the entire facility, which we caught on videotape, and he shows me a picture of his bed. It is one of 12 beds in the room, all perfectly made. The entire facility is much more comfortable and charming than we had been led to believe, at least in comparison to others we have read and heard about elsewhere in the world, and we continue to be impressed with the pride Olga takes in her job here and the care she takes of these kids.
We try to make the visit fun but brief, and Nikolay helps Steve fix a couple of toys and learn to use a yo-yo till it is time to go at 12:30.
Thursday, May 1 -- It's May Day in Pavlodar!
There is celebration in the air, and the mood is festive. The fountains are turned on, lights are up, and even the Internet café closes at 7PM. The official name of the holiday is Day of Unity of the Nationalities of Kazakhstan. The shows we have been watching them practice all week begin for real at 10AM, with the most amazing assortment of performances -- schoolchildren doing ethnic dances, babushkas singing folk songs, and even a Manhattan Transfer-like quartet in tuxedos and evening gowns singing Misty and Chattanooga Choo-Choo in heavily accented Russian. They're good, too, and I have it all on tape.
Vendors are everywhere, selling toys, food, everything imaginable -- even pony rides and amusement park rides. Children everywhere! Steve suddenly notes that in a week we have not heard a single child cry, which amazes us -- particularly in the midst of so many things going on to attract their attention.
We meet up with Askhat at 5PM, who looks absolutely miserable from his spring allergies. We all give him our OTC supply of antihistamine, because he is desperate for anything at this point and the local product is clearly not working. (My allergies, in contrast, are much better here than at home.) Twelve hours later he is back to his wonderful self again, and we promise to send him more allergy medicine next April.
Although there is a "pharmacy" every 100 feet or so, there is nothing like the over-the-counter items we are used to at home. Between all the families we are pretty well stocked with Neosporin, children's Tylenol, antihistamine, and children's vitamins, most of which were intended for the orphanage but some of which will get used by us. I brought a lot, but wish I had brought more. For example, I brought two Costco-size jars of children's vitamins for the orphanage, 300 tablets each -- and then realize that in an orphanage with 103 children, it will be used up in less than a week.
Everyone's health seems pretty good thus far. Some came without any immunizations at all; at the other extreme, I got shots for measles, mumps, rubella, diptheria, tetanus, persussis, pneumococcal virus, influenza, and hepatitis A and B. (Start those last two several months before you leave.) We all drink bottled water, no tap water. Some have ice cubes in their drinks (I am not one of them, but those that do don't seem to be experiencing any ill effects -- yet). There is no problem showering or brushing teeth with the water, although the iron content is high -- particularly today, with the fountains turned on and obviously some disruption to the local water lines.
The local Pavlodar beer is a light, flavorful ale that is the first choice of many at dinner, but bottled water is plentiful and readily available. The local grocery store carries some French red wines which seem to be the best we have found, for about $10. There are plenty of oranges, apricots, bananas and apples to be found, for a dollar a pound or so -- but that's relatively expensive here. (The small salads for dinner are often as expensive as the main meat dish!) We really enjoy the contrast in worlds here -- as in this picture where each individual item is weighed and priced on an electronic scale with a digital readoutand then the individual items are totaled on an abacus!
Personal safety is very good here -- much better than in many US cities, and I am sure much better than in many other parts of Kazakhstan. Kazakhstan is 47% Muslim, and the largest mosque in the country is here, but religion is not fervently observed and Islam does not have a major role in politics. We are on a first-name basis with the hotel staff, and feel very comfortable with the safety of items in our room. I am sure petty theft must occur, but I am not aware of anything that has occurred to any of the families here in Pavlodar, past or present. Almaty, where we head next, is a bigger town and a bigger challenge. We just try to blend into the crowd by wearing dark clothes and scarves...or at least not stick out too obviously. But it is easy to tell we are not locals.
For his last dinner in town, Steve chooses Asia -- the closest to the hotel, but still the best we have found (and we are having fun looking!). (Other favorite choices have been Antalia, Classic Pizza, and wherever Ashkat takes us -- and the food at our hotel is very good, too. The borsch is wonderful.) Steve chooses the plate of "assorted Kazakh meats," which I warn him (why do I bother) that it is just a euphemism for horse. Sure enough, the waitress wants to be sure he knows, too, and she starts imitating riding a horse and pointing to his plate. (Sorry, Lynnie!) But that's not all -- there's beef tongue, too! I decline, telling Steve I don't care for anything that is tasting me while I am tasting it, so he puts the tongue up to his lips and strokes his moustache with it. When I ask him what he is doing, he says "Licking my lips."
Steve has sturgeon, I have chicken cordon bleu, and we share a bottle of French red wine ($3). Total cost for dinner: $14. Interestingly, despite these very reasonable (to us) costs, the restaurants are apparently quite profitable; some of the nicest cars in town we are told are being driven by restaurant owners.
That evening, Joe and Donna arrive from Pennsylvania. Donna is a public health nurse at the federal prison in Allenwood, where Stephen and I worked on a project once. Small world. Between the passport fiasco, all the families here (and more on the way), and his getting ready to leave for the US himself, Yackov is now in serious overdrive, and he sends Askhat to meet them at the airport. We hear Askhat singing in the hallway, "Americans here, Americans there, Americans everywhere. I like it!" We can tell the antihistamine is working!
For the families on the way over: we asked, and Yackov assures us that his absence will not delay anything for the families on the way over. He does not have a confirmed departure date, but he is trying to leave in about two weeks to set up the summer camp program himself to be sure things go better than they did last summer. In his absence, Svetlana will do all the legal work, and Lena the translations. Svetlana is terrific -- she just started working for Yackov this week after 10 years as a prosecutor, and the lady means business. She also loves these kids and has two of her own.
The passport problems are resolving for Traci and Graham and the 100 or so other stranded families, but now the flights out of Almaty are running very full. I would very much like to keep our current reservations out of Almaty and not become two of the stranded ourselves. Seeing how busy Yackov is, I make a list for him of everything that has to be done in the next five days and by when in order for us to get out of here on schedule next Wednesday. When we leave here, we are done with our business in Kazakhstan, and have only to deal with the US immigration paperwork in Almaty before we leave for home on Friday, May 9. I also call Almaty to make the required doctor's appointment on Wednesday afternoon, and email the US embassy in Almaty and confirm they have our exit interview scheduled for Thursday. Having it all on paper seems to help, and everything (thus far) goes exactly as planned. But we won't get to see and personally thank the consular chief in Almaty, Sara Craig, who has been so helpful to all of the adopting families -- she is on maternity leave.
Friday, May 2 -- The Sights and Architecture of Pavlodar
I am really going to miss breakfasts here at the hotel. In addition to the blini, many of us enjoy various forms of hot cereal, called kasha, as well as omelets, ravioli, and other delights. To call "kasha" oatmeal or cream of wheat does not to justice to the marvelous flavors, but that is what it is most similar to.
Steve and I walked about eight miles today, enjoying the nice weather and all the sights of Pavlodar, a city of about 500,000. (It was reportedly about one million in 1991, but there has been a steady exodus since.) There is some very unusual architecture here, so I took a lot of pictures of town for the architects in the family (my brother Bren and his wife Kerry, who live in London). Tell me what you think of these, Bren and Kerry! Steve was intrigued by the elaborate iron work in many fences throughout town, carefully fashioned from scrap metal and ends cut from metal finishing processes.
Steve's flight to Hannover left at 5PM; he is headed home to graduate, and we hope to be there for it. He had a great time and says he would happily come back again.
Saturday, May 3 -- Catch-Up Day
Two weeks have gone by so quickly! The supplies are starting to run out, which is another sign that court is now only three days away. This is my day to catch up on my travel journal, which I didn't realize so many people were reading until I started to get behind and got a lot of anxious emails. Thanks to all of you for your warm wishes and many emails -- we are all enjoying them tremendously. To make the task even more pleasant, Annie Laurie next door has found a piano, and I can hear her playing wonderful classical music right outside the door.
Believe it or not, Traci and Graham are still here -- "Bitter Traci, not Fun Traci," as she laughingly describes her mood about the predicament. On Wednesday a police officer was dispatched to find the missing passports (that of Dmitri's and two other children, similarly stranded in Almaty). Sure enough, the officer found the missing passports buried in someone's outboxbut not being authorized to bring them back, he didn't. Thursday was a big holiday and no one from the police force was available to drive the passports back to Pavlodar, so Traci and Graham could then get on a plane and take the other passports to Almaty. (And yes, no one but the police were allowed to transport the passports.) Friday the passports finally made it to Pavlodar, where no one was authorized to open the package and thus still more hours of waiting, but eventually Yackov triumphantly arrives at the hotel with passports in hand, to a standing ovation by all of us in the restaurant and lots of hugs and kisses from Traci.
But the passport still needs to be stamped by the chief of police, who tells Yackov to bring them back Saturday morning at 9. Traci and Graham make their 15th change in airplane reservations and will leave for Almaty tomorrow morning at nine (they hope). Nikolay are on the same flight on Wednesday (we hope). Traci and I have a last chocolate together in Pavlodar (she hopes) at Café Santos and then head to the Internet café for more messaging till we shut it down at 7PM.
That night, Mom and Ron call to catch up on the latest as my text is now many days behind.
Sunday, May 4 -- A Great Day at Kachirie
Lynnie, my personal websister, calls on my way out the door to Kachirie to let me know the latest from home. Lynne, I forgot to tell you the TP here is just like the good paper mache stuff from our years in Germany and I am bringing home a roll JUST FOR YOU.
I am going in a taxi with Colleen and Askhat, who is coming to see Kachirie for the first time. We are going on a Sunday because last Thursday was the May 1 holiday, so officially or otherwise, Friday and Sunday work days were switched so everyone in Kazakhstan could have a three-day weekend, and everyone is back at work today just as though it is Monday.
The trip to Kachirie is somehow getting longer each time, but it will be great to see Nikolay and tell him TWO MORE DAYS! On the way, the cab driver stops at one of the elaborate roadside markers where he says his aunt and the drunk driver who killed her are buried 10 feet from one another. He pays his respects, and then takes a 10-minute cigarette break. By now we have figured out that she really isn't his aunt, but hey, it makes for a good story. Ashkat brings along some tapes of Tartar music for us to enjoy, which is lovely.
Arriving at the orphanage, Olga asks another child to go get Nikolay, and he mistakenly tells another child his mom is waiting for him in Olga's office. The look on this poor little guy's face when he realizes he has no mom in Olga's office was heartbreaking, and we feel so awful for him.
Nikolay is finally found, and he seems in a particularly good mood today. He still won't directly look at me again for about a half an hour, but finally gives in to relentless tickling and my whispering "Two more days!!!" in his ear over and over. Olga reports that each morning when she checks on his group, he asks if today is the day he goes to America. Somewhere along the line, I can't say just when, he is suddenly for the first time looking AT ME for longer than a quick glance, and the contrast is as delightful as it is startling after all this time. Baby steps!
Then the orphanage nurse comes in with the disposable suture guns I had brought over as a gift for the orphanage, and the moment I feared happens -- she asks me how to use it. I lamely mumble the instructions Dad had given to me when I thought he was going to be there to demonstrate, as I had never seen one used before. No good, she still is not quite sure what to do with it. I suggest they trade the suture guns to another orphanage for something they could use better, but the nurse would have none of it -- she definitely wants them, she just wants to be sure how to use them properly. So what else was there to do -- I took the suture gun and stapled myself in the arm, and suddenly realized I just mutilated myself in front of the orphanage director who was supposed to be testifying on my behalf in two days regarding my fitness to be a mother. I look over at Colleen, who has turned pale from seeing a metal staple in my arm and has for the first time on the trip completely forgotten to take any pictures. Askhat is looking somewhere between amused and alarmed, Olga is laughing (quite hard, actually), and the nurse is saying, OK, now I get it, so how do you take it out? I say, "Um, I call my dad," and they laugh even harder because they thought I was joking.
Looking in the bag I see there is no staple remover, nor one on her desk, but it seems like a stout pair of scissors should do the trick. They do, but without the proper staple remover, I do not let on that the staple definitely hurts more on the way out than on the way in! I do not hear the end of it from Colleen, and the story seems to get more elaborate with each retelling. So there you have it -- my version of my attempt to undermine my own adoption right there in front of Olga. That's my story and I am sticking to it.
When things have calmed down a bit, we ask what sorts of things the orphanage needs most. Her answer: Children's Tylenol (cough and cold medicine), balls, toys, and especially shoes. Shoes? I have noticed Nikolay is wearing the same pair of shoes I bought him last fall, and Colleen says same with Marat. We ask if there is a way to find out the children's shoe sizes, and ten minutes later we are handed a detailed list of how many children in Nikolay's and Marat's age group are girls (sandals) and boys (sneakers), and their exact sizes. Colleen and I realize we are going to be shopping for 33 pairs of shoes this Sunday afternoon and that the Internet café will unfortunately have to wait another day as it closes early today.
At his family's request, we ask about Renat's shoe size, and are given a cut-out of his shoeprint to take home to the Bautista family where they can make a match in US measurements. We had not realized the shoes were so high on their list or priorities until we saw how much exercise and activity these kids are involved with.
Then because we asked for the shoe size, we get a visit with Renat, who looks great but won't smile for the camera. We watch Olga get out some dental floss and realize that using it on them is a trick she has to get the children to show some teeth! We finally cajole a smile from Renat, and tell him is parents are coming very soon (which they are). I will get to take pictures of Marat and Temirlan on Tuesday after court for their families.
Then Marat and Nikolay are sent off to play in the next room, and Olga invites the three of us to have coffee and biscuits with her in her office. What a treat! We find out she has been to see some of the families in Portland two years ago, and will be going again to Utah this summer where summer camp will be held. Colleen gets a chance to ask her questions of Olga as I did on Friday, and we all have a great time. Askhat is soaking it all in and he says watching all this, his heart is "very full."
Colleen asks about a little girl, Renata, from summer camp 2001 (yes, two years ago) whose parents' dossier is finally in the country. Olga says Renata has moved on to the orphanage for the older children over 12, Pechany, which we pass on our way back to Pavlodar. She says we are welcome to stop in and check on Renata, and calls ahead to let them know we are coming. Colleen thinks this can't be the same girl as Renata is only 8, but now they are expecting us, so we decide to go with some trepidation.
I am vague on the details, but Pechany was the orphanage where three warders killed four caretakers and two other warders about a year ago. We had heard it is where the toughest behavior problems are dealt with, and we are alarmed that a little 8-year-old girl has been sent there. The family coming to adopt her does not seem to know that she is not at Kachirie.
Colleen realizes that a casual question has now probably elevated to a sensitive situation, and that we have probably made a bad move here in asking to go visit, but Olga has called ahead and said to go, so now we pretty much have to follow through. We say goodbye to the kids -- Nikolay is clearly on cloud nine, and now it is Marat's turn to be upset with the comings and goings. Marat walks Colleen to the car, closes the door for her, runs over to his play group, and bursts into tears. Colleen has now gotten all the good out of the visits also.
I have a hard time writing about Pechany, even several days after the visit. The visit there was the most disturbing event of the entire trip. We found a very well cared for facility that looked a lot like a boarding school, and a few kids wandering the grounds. The taxi generated a lot of interest, and there was nothing to stop the kids from exiting the grounds to take a closer look. The interior was cheerfully institutional, and again that eerie sensation of no sounds despite presumably many children present. We had a nice visit with Renata, who we gathered was sent to Pechany to be with her older brother, and who is clearly the youngest person we saw there. The staff, as with the other orphanages, were most cordial and we felt very welcome.
But on leaving our brief visit with Renata to leave a present from her family and take a couple of pictures, we notice the formerly empty halls were now filled with children, sitting, standing -- all intently watching us, every move, every word between Colleen and me. They seem friendly, curious, shy, healthy, and not one was Kazakh. At age 18, each will be released with $200 to return to, as one caretaker described it, the life that led to their being in an orphanage in the first place. The problem is compounded by the evident discrimination against those not of Kazakh heritage, which has been commonplace among the former Soviet satellite countries. I have no words to describe the feeling of seeing all these great children who never got a chance to be adopted and the dismal future that awaits most of them, and Colleen and I immediately start wondering what can be done to give these kids some opportunity for a better life. Can they come to the US to be au pairs, to attend college, to find work and new citizenship? The visit still haunts me days later.
We call from the outskirts of Pavlodar to find out that the passport has indeed been stamped and delivered -- along with one of the two passports that Traci and Graham are to take to Almaty. They are going to Almaty anyway, and the other family's agency will just have to keep working the issue in Pavlodar. We are starving for Classic Pizza, but we have to see them off at the hotel first; life here will definitely not be the same without them! I get videotape of Traci's last words as the car door shut -- "See, people really do leave here." A Hallmark moment.
It's now 3PM and we have not eaten since breakfast, so we head for Classic Pizza for a quick bite. Askhat, Colleen and I make a run for the shoe stores, but those with the largest selection close at 5PM on Sunday, so we will have to try again tomorrow as we did not have much luck with the smaller stores.
Coming back to the hotel, we hear the Soyuz just landed not far away and that the cosmonauts are now in Astana, some 280 miles from here. So I imagine a few of you are seeing Kazakhstan in the nightly news tonight! We also see the number of SARS cases is now over 6,000, as opposed to 1,500 when I left, and we hear that many adoptive families are stranded in China and/or have to go home without their children as a result.
Askhat stops by to say he is going with Yackov and Svetlana to Astana tomorrow so they can both be trained on how to process all the adoption forms in Astana in Yackov's absence -- beginning with mine tomorrow. He is clearly excited about getting involved in this end of the business! Yackov is leaving the new families in very good hands, and he is doing a great job of training them.
Monday, May 5 -- The Last Day as a Non-Parent
Today was the last day to catch up on all the things I didn't get to do in these two weeks that have gone by so quickly. Last round of shopping for presents, Internet café till 2PM, picked up some Legos for Nikolay's trip home, and of course the 33 pairs of shoes with Colleen which we found at a great store in the Artur mall, Bimbo's. My half of the shoes came to $110. Had chocolate (of course) with Belinda at Café Santos, a friend of Tony and Michelle's who lives in Pavlodar. Enjoyed a three-hour dinner and everyone wished me well on my last day as a non-parent.
Tuesday, May 6 -- Gotcha Day!
I slept well, but dreamt that my cousins kept passing Nikolay among themselves and I could not find him. Each time I went to pick him up, he had moved on to another cousin!
Yackov came to get me at 8AM for our 9:30 court date, which did not start until 11. We stopped by the orphanage to leave Nikolay's suit with him; here is a picture of him with suit in hand. It was excitedly tense in Olga's office, and the court delay did not help. We collected some beautiful cards that the staff and some of his friends had made up for him -- very special indeed!
Court (here's the courthouse) lasted perhaps half an hour, and I could see Yackov pacing in the yard outside the window. All these adoptions, and he still paces for each one, I am sure! It was Svetlana's first appearance, and she did a great job.
Leaving the orphanage on Sunday, I had asked Olga what I could bring that might make the parting a little easier for all to handle. Ice cream is always a treat, she suggested. How many to bring? "About 150." Gulp! Off Yackov and I went to find 150 ice cream cones and brought them back to the orphanage, where they were quickly distributed. I walked around filming the kids eating ice cream in their various play groups and you could honestly have heard a pin drop in the building. All except for a little boy named Pyetska, who was crying uncontrollably that his best friend Kolya was leaving. Olga and several caretakers gathered at the door to say goodbye to Nikolay, who will clearly be missed.
The first meltdown happened immediately upon arriving at the hotel. On the way home I had mentioned to Nikolay that I had heard he loves to ride a bicycle, which was great because he had a bicycle waiting at home for him. Upon reaching the hotel, he searched my room and then Traci and Graham's, then completely broke down sobbing. We got Askhat on the phone to translate and I could not make any sense of it at all. Askhat confirmed that Nikolay thought he was home and was distraught that there was no promised bicycle to be found.
Askhat came over and good-naturedly allowed me to film the two of them telling each other stories for a half an hour down by the river before going to Classic Pizza for a last dinner in Pavlodar.
Wednesday, May 7 -- Leaving Pavlodar
Our last blissful meal at the hotel. I will miss these great breakfasts!!
At 10AM we finalize his visa and mine, visit with the notary, and make arrangements for the 3PM flight to Almaty. Nikolay, Ashkat and I make one last long hot trip to Café Santos, only to find it closed for spring cleaning. Bought Nikolay a pair of pants for the visit to the embassy as everything I had brought is too large for him; he is a solid size 4, despite being almost seven years old. We also buy a toy car for the airplane ride, which breaks before we get to the airport.
Nikolay spends every driving moment looking out the window, totally absorbed in it all. I can only imagine what he must be seeing and thinking. Yackov gets his stamped passport and meets us at the airport for a final farewell.
At the airport I get charged an additional $50 for excess baggage over our combined total limit of 44 pounds (20 kg (44 lb) per adult passenger, and kids under 8 fly free domestically, so no 10 kg luggage allowance for him). They included the carryon baggage in the 20 kg total. Ah, well.
At Yackov's request, his associates Max and Sergei meet us at the airport and maneuver us around the somewhat aggressive cab drivers that remind me a lot of Athens. This would be a lot less fun to negotiate if we arrived at 2AM as many families do instead of 4PM. I can understand why many who arrive are unnerved by all those cab drivers swarming around, wanting to take your bags, but they are fine as long as you don't give them your luggage or your business.
There is not much to do this late in the day but check into the hotel and get dinner. Max takes us to a favorite Korean restaurant, and I am surprised how much of the exotic foods Nikolay eats and enjoys.
Thursday, May 8 -- Appointments in Almaty
Nikolay finally gets a good night's sleep -- nine hours. He screams at having to take a shower; I am not sure what the facilities are at the orphanage, but I am reasonably confident there are no showers or flushing toilets. I have to explain that he does not have to put the toilet paper in the garbage, and that it really is OK to flush it down the toilet. He resists this idea for a couple of days. His bad case of athlete's foot is also improving with consistent application of Tinactin.
At 8:45 we are at the embassy, papers in hand, hoping that because tomorrow is a holiday that the powers that be will expedite our paperwork and have it done in a day instead of 24 hours. We are in luck, they will, and we are told to return at 4 PM for our final interview. We almost create an international incident when Nikolay, fascinated with guns, comes up behind one of the embassy security guards to take a very close look at his machine gun.
Off to the SOS Clinic for the medical exam required for US entry. His ears are almost completely plugged, he is 3 feet 7 inches tall, and the nurse believes he weighs 15 kg (33 lbs). I have checked his weight elsewhere and think he is closer to 40 pounds, but he is light any way you look at it. The Russian nurse shows Nikolay an eye chart and asks him if he can read the alphabet for his eye test, to which Nikolay responds "Yes, I know my alphabet, but that is English and I don't know English." The physician says his tuberculosis history is "very strange" and orders a chest x-ray. After consulting with the senior physician, the conclusion is Nikolay has never had TB despite having been treated for it twice in a sanitarium. Total cost of the exam with x-ray: $100. (The results are confirmed upon returning to the US.)
At 4PM we return for the final exit interview, which consists mostly of waiting in a comfortable waiting area with a lot of others while our papers are being processed. The fee is $335, US cash only. We did it, with a lot of help from everybody! We go to Baskin and Robbins to celebrate. It was eight months ago today that I put Nikolay on the plane in San Jose for Kazakhstan, and what a long eight months it has been.
Then out to the airport to finalize the airplane tickets home tomorrow, to the Zum bazaar where everything we saw in Pavlodar is here but at much higher cost, and a nice dinner near the downtown market on outdoor picnic tables, enjoying a lovely spring evening in Almaty. I wished I could have stayed longer and seen more, as it seems like a delightful place to be. San Francisco, with the Grand Tetons for a backdrop. Pretty impressive! "Stranded on the Silk Road," a recommended guide to Almaty, is available at Zum, but it is somewhat outdated and there are newer guides available. No time for the geocaches, unfortunately.
Friday, May 9 -- The Long Flight Home
It is a short night; we are up at 1AM, and Max and Sergei come to get us at 1:45 for our 4:30 flight. The service is impressive; I get the impression Yackov wants to make sure absolutely nothing goes wrong for our trip, even on the way out the door! Max gets paid in tenge: $25 for each run to the airport, and $10 an hour for seven hours of running around to the various appointments.
We use our remaining tenge to buy up several bars of Kazakh chocolate at the bar near the airport gate -- absolutely delicious. Some of them even make it home for the gifts they were originally intended to be. The flights home to Frankfurt and on to Washington Dulles are uneventful; of the various things I brought for Nikolay to pass the time, the only one he wants is the Sony CD player and the CDs of Russian and English children's songs. I could have saved several pounds of carry-on right there! He listens to them for hours, is intensely interested in everything about the airplane, and finally sleeps well without the help of Dramamine or anything else. The most memorable moment of the flight was on the ground, when the Lufthansa pilot showed Nikolay around the cockpit and let him turn on several switches, then left to get something to eat when the second pilot returned. Nikolay then returned to the cockpit to visit the new pilot and managed to turn on several of the same switches again before the horrified pilot was able to tackle him.
In Frankfurt I invested $30 for the two of us to spend four hours in the City Club lounge, which was well worth the investment. It is basically an airline lounge open to the public. It was quiet, and there were lots of newspapers, two other children to play with, email to check, and snacks to eat. The time went by quickly. Somewhere in the airport there are also showers to rent by the hour but we did not try that. After Nikolay was gone too long in the men's room, however, I asked a male security guard to check on him. He came out laughing, saying Nikolay was just fine, he was washing his hands in the urinal.
Finally reaching Washington Dulles at 1:30 in the afternoon, it was 12:30 AM in Almaty and we had been en route for almost 24 hours with many more to go. Just past passport control, we were ushered into the INS office (now BCIS) where Nikolay's Kazakh passport was taken and stamped with his IR-3 visa, thus instantly becoming America's newest citizen. The sealed paperwork from the embassy was turned over to the BCIS, and we now wait for several months for it to be processed. Until then I have no legal document with his new name, Nikolay Lee Kelly. The strong recommendation to readopt upon returning to the US stems from the fact that although our children are US citizens upon landing on US soil, there is no document to prove that.
After a long eight-hour wait at Dulles, we flew at 9:30 PM to Raleigh-Durham just in time for Steve's graduation the next day. Nikolay was great the whole trip, but finally collapsed just as we were boarding the last flight. I would not have imagined it possible that we would be here, but here we are! 22 days after I left the US to go get him after an eight-month absence, Nikolay Lee Kelly is finally home.