Almaty a big surprise

After we got settled in on the plane, the pilot informed the passengers that the flight to Almaty was going to be relatively short, again likely due to the strong tailwind: only 6 hours to travel the 3800 miles. Fortunately, I managed to get several hours of solid and uninterrupted sleep. Unfortunately, Julie didn’t, and this definitely factored into today’s events.

On arrival into Almaty, we herded into the immigration and customs area, were cleared by immigration easily, and went to wait for our bags. Within a few minutes we were approached by an American woman who asked if we were Sam and Julie, and introduced herself as part of a couple returning for their 2nd trip to adopt a child from Almaty. They had read our blog and had recognized us from the airport. We were introduced to another couple who where also here for their 2nd trip (for their second Kazakhstani adoption). While waiting for the bags, we swapped stories and exchanged phone numbers. As opposed to last time, where all of the families that we met were in the very first part of their adoption process and all dealing with the anxieties associated with the legal proceedings, this time it much more relaxing to meet other Americans since we were all further along in the process and as a group had a better understanding of what was going on.

We opted to completely (and legally) ignore customs this time thereby eliminating the horrible harassment that we received on our first trip, and within minutes spotted Nikolai who helped us get through the gauntlet of taxi drivers that lines the only way out of the baggage claim area. By the time we were out of the airport it was about 6am and it was still dark outside. It’s cold here, but no more so than Boston, and here there’s evidence of a recent snow. Because there was absolutely no traffic on the roads, we made it into town in relatively short order. Along the way, Nikolai told us (as best as he could with our limited Russian and his limited English), that there was a lot of snow in Kostanai and as a result, Anika and the head nurse weren’t flying but rather were coming by train. We had heard that the train from Kostanai to Almaty took two days, and so we asked Nikolai when he thought that Anika would arrive. Both of us just about fell over when he told us that she’d be arriving at 9:00 am! We had planned on taking Sunday and most of Monday to recover from the travel, gather up the various supplies that we’d need (diapers, food, stroller, etc.) and be ready to meet her at the airport tomorrow afternoon. Instead, we realized that we had just a few hours to get prepared.

We were at the Hotel Kazzhol by 6:30 and as we were pulling in, so was another van, which just so happened to contain the two other American couples that we had met at the airport. It turns out that not only are all of us staying in the same hotel, but all of us are on the same floor, within 10 doors of each other. We got into our rooms as quickly as possible, unpacked, and cleaned up. Because she had barely slept the entire time we’d been traveling, Julie was desperately in need of a nap, and so I ended up trekking out to the grocery store to stock up on baby items. Despite the gray skies and deserted streets, there was something very comforting about returning to Kazakhstan. It was nice to see familiar sights and feel comfortable in a place that it so obviously foreign to me.

The grocery store was fairly empty making me just about the only customer – this meant that I was asked (in Russian) if I needed help no less than a half-dozen times. Fortunately, I knew enough to be able to make people realize that I could get around just fine. Five thousand tenge later (in diapers, baby wipes, baby food, milk, juice, yogurt, and bottled water), I headed back but was waylaid by the woman making fresh bilinis just outside of the grocery store door. For 200TT, I ended up with a stack of piping hot bilinis just as my empty stomach was starting to make itself heard.

On returning to the hotel, Julie and I made quick work of the bilinis and decided to go out in search of breakfast – we didn’t realize, until we had walked around for 10 minutes – that there was a breakfast buffet included with our room. So we headed downstairs and settled in to enjoy a spread of eggs, various meats, fruit, and of course, instant coffee. I got up to get a second cup of coffee and was returning to the table when I noticed that Julie was no longer there. Not knowing what was going on, I put down my coffee and looked around and wouldn’t you know it – Oleg, Saule (the head nurse) and Anika were standing in the door from the hotel to the restaurant! Hardly the Hallmark-esque reunion scene that I pictured, but who cares!

Anika looked great, if not a little shell-shocked at both of us rushing up to her to say hello. It didn’t take too long for us to realize that she didn’t quite remember us the same way that remembered her. It was quite clear that she was still very attached to the caregivers at the Delphin House (and for good reason). I downed my cup of coffee and stuffed another bilini into my mouth and followed Julie and Saule upstairs. Once back at the the room, we unbundled Anika had a look at her — besides being all hot and sweaty form being bundled – she was also a little fragrant from the long, long train ride. We gave Saule two full suitcases for her return to Kostanai: one containing a bunch of baby clothes for the orphanage, and the other containing a bunch of the medical supplies that we had both gathered over the past month. We’re sending back spinal needles, bone marrow biopsy needles, stethoscopes, another BP cuff, boxes of suture material, children’s vitamins, antibiotics, and assorted surgical supplies. We asked Saule to please give anything that looks like it belongs in an operating room to Dr. Sultan at the Cancer Hospital, while everything else can be kept for the orphanage.

Within about 10 minutes, Saule and Oleg were ready to go. We asked some final questions about her sleeping and feeding schedule, and then it was time to say goodbye. Anika was crying real tears, which made us both appreciate even more the depth of her feelings for the people who have done such a remarkable job of caring for her over the past 8-1/2 months. We have no doubt that she will grieve their loss at the same time that she learns to adjust to us, her new home, and an entirely new environment. It’s quite a challenge for a anyone to have to face, let alone a little baby, but I am confident that she’ll be up to it, and I hope that we’ll do a good job in assisting her.

Once Saule and Oleg left, we realized that all three of us were now completely out of sync, and that it was now time for everyone to start figuring out how to get back on schedule. The day ended up being a blur of very messy feedings, long bouts of consolation, and fragmented sleep. It’s much harder to take care of a baby when you don’t have the comforts of home or even our little apartment in Kostanai. We have no way of boiling water, no microwave, and only a very small refrigerator. Anika had to make the switch from regular hot meals to milk warmed under the hot water tap, and room-temperature baby food. At one point I ended up putting her in the baby carrier (which, by the way, she really seems to enjoy) and walking her around the hotel. I was on my second lap – across the second floor, down the stairs, around the lobby, up the stairs and across the second floor – when I ran into a couple with a little baby also in a baby carrier. It took about two seconds for each of us to realize that we were in the same situation, and before long we were being introduced to Dana and __ and their new baby Tanya. We chatted for a long while, with Anika staring intently at Tanya. it turns out that we saw Dana and her husband on the flight from Almaty to Kostanai way back at the end of September. They ended up adopting from a town outside of Konstanai and had a very, very different experience from ours. They stayed the entire time, meaning that they’ve been here for 9 weeks! Fortunately for them, they didn’t have to endure the separation and then re-orientation, but on the flip side, they sound like they’re really ready to get home.

By 6pm all three of us were fairly exhausted. We broke up the afternoon by taking a walk to a cafe near the supermarket that I visited this morning. Julie’s fatigue got the best of her appetite and so I was left to nibble on her chicken shashlik after filling my stomach with a bowl of lagman and a pot of tea. We also hit the grocery store again for some additional supplies (more bottled water, laundry detergent for hand-washing, and some more juice for Anika). For the most part, Anika was very quiet, watching everything intently as we walked down the streets and walked through the stores.

Once we got home, we decided that it would be best if all of us tried to get some sleep. With some work, we managed to get Anika to sleep in the crib that the hotel provided for the room, and then both of us were asleep by 7:30p. Anika was up once around 10:30p, and then managed to sleep the rest of the night through (if, by “rest of the night through” you mean until 5:30 in the morning).

I apologize for the lack of photos but between everything, my much beloved camera has been relegated to the camera bag in favor of my holding my much beloved little girl.

Amsterdam Part Deux

After a rush to get to the airport, a day in Amsterdam was the mini-vacation that we needed. Despite having been entirely packed by 3pm for a 7:10pm flight, we felt that we were still rushed for time, which is a sad commentary on Boston traffic. We called for a cab around 3:20p and after multiple calls and a small ulcer, one finally showed at 4:15pm No worries – i thought – we’ll be fine getting to Logan. Nearly an hour later, we found ourselves rushing once again. Fortunately, we were carrying fewer bags and far fewer pounds, so getting through the line and checked in was much less dramatic. We once again grabbed a quick dinner in the food court, and carted off towards the end of the terminal to join the crowd as it shoved its way onto the plane. Ah, the glories of air travel.

Once we were aboard and settled in, we realized that this was going to be a much faster flight owing to a very fast 70 mph tailwind. With only 6 hours flying time to Amsterdam, we both opted for some, shall we say, sleep assistance. Mine worked well. Julie, on the other hand, had a very fitful flight and was fairly well zombified by the time we reached Schiphol Airport (where it dawn at just about 7:30am). Since she wasn’t fit to explore yet, we headed back to the lounge chair lounge where Julie had an hours nap, and I had a coffee. Before too long, we were up and ready to head into town. Fortunately, the airport has storage lockers (which, personally, I thought were now relics of the pre-9/11 world), so we tucked everything away except for my camera some very expensive Euros, passed through immigration, grabbed some train tickets, and took off. There seemed to be far fewer American tourists milling around the train station since I was last here (1992!), probably owing to the horrendous weakness of our currency. The 15 minute train into town was about 7 Euros each ($10), but entirely worth it because it was a gorgeous sunny day and the city center was, as one would expect, full of fascinating things to see.

Having never been to Amsterdam, Julie didn’t realize was a great city it is, and how beautiful it is, between the diversity of the buildings, the canals, and the hoards of cyclists.

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Being in the city center, close to Central Station, and with only a limited amount of time, we didn’t have the chance to really explore too much.

Of course, we saw and smelled the omnipresent “coffeehouses”.

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We passed a store with some very interesting sculptures in the window of small people mauling each other.

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And after only a couple of turns, we inadvertently found ourselves in the Red Light District (where, in case you were wondering, pimping is forbidden).

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Being here made me remember a story on NPR that I heard recently about how the red-light district is actually shrinking away due to rising rents and increasing development in the city center. I suppose that this quintessentially Amsterdamian feature will become a sacrifice to the never-ending appetite of real estate developers, much like the rural features that use to be a part of so many American cities.

We ended up grabbing lunch instead of breakfast, given the hour, and chose the first place that wouldn’t cause either of us to inadvertently fail a urine tox screen, which just so happened to be a small Italian restaurant. I had a very good pizza with anchovies, and Julie had a very good pasta dish with chicken and mushrooms. We were amused by a group of three young (and seemingly intoxicated) women from Limerick, Ireland as they cajoled the restaurant owner, and after one of them showed me the Hebrew letters tattooed across her back, we decided that it was time to move on.

We spent the rest of the early afternoon poking into stores, and looking for interesting things. I found a number of scenes that made for good pictures, most notably a group of 6 young people trying to hoist a bed up to a 3rd floor window.

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Looking up, I noticed that most of the buildings had fixtures at the tops for pulley systems since the doors and stairways are often too narrow to allow for sofas and beds to be carried up directly. There was an abundance of stores with smoked and dried fish treats, but I decided to abstain today. We wandered through Chinatown and its window after window of non-headless roasted ducks, passed a garbage bin with a graffiti sticker based Nick Nolte’s most recent mug shot, saw a candelabra encased in wax drippings inside the front window of a restaurant, and spotted a very neat frieze over the doorway of a church. Before long we decided to head back – Julie was tired, and neither of us were in the mood to be rushed for another flight.

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We used our remaining time at the airport to head over to the KLM ticket office to find out about the fare for Anika’s flight home. We’ve decided (rightly or wrongly, you’ll find out in a week) to not purchase her a separate seat, but rather to carry her on our laps for the two flights home. The main reason is that it would’ve cost nearly $4000 extra – which would be the cost of a nearly last-minute one-way trip from Almaty to Boston. There are many things that I’ll spend money on to avoid unnecessary pain, suffering, and discomfort, but somehow I could manage to rationalize trading 12 long hours for saving that much money. In any case, we were told that it would actually be cheaper to buy Anika’s ticket here in Almaty, so we’ll have this on our to-do list this week.

Before long we were in Terminal D, once again sitting in a room full of people from Kazakhstan with a few obvious Americans interspersed, and once again anxiously awaiting our arrival!

Day 0: We’re Outta Here!

Once again we’re furiously packing, both clothes (for 3 people!) and medical supplies for donation.  We’ll be on this evening’s flight to Amsterdam, and tomorrow we’ll have a 12 hour layover which means that we’ll be taking a trip into town to enjoy some fine Dutch fare.  Pictures and stories to come as we await our reunion with Anika.

Day -2: Shower

Thanks to everyone from the Julie’s group who threw us a lovely baby shower last night. We are very grateful for all of the lovely gifts. Here are some nice pictures:

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It has become abundantly clear to us that Anika will need to change clothes at least two or three times a day in order for her to explore the full range of her wardrobe.

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We received our final instructions from our agency today, and we were both thrilled to hear that Anika will be arriving in Almaty around 5pm on December 2nd.

Satchel and Milo are apparently quite anxious for her to arrive:

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Day -8: Thanksgiving

Today is Thanksgiving Day here, and Julie and I decided to spend a quiet day at home. Since we’ve been married (now going on 8 years), we’ve spent almost of our holidays as just the two of us. Part of the reason for this has been my job: being on-service or on-call has made it historically difficult for me to leave town during residency or fellowship. Part of the reason, though, has also been our preferences. We’ve both found something nice in having the city empty itself of people around a holiday. Fewer crowds, less traffic, less noise, and no pressure – all of these qualities make the cities we’ve lived in change character almost overnight. Chicago would turn from a big city to a small city, and Boston somehow turns from a small city into a reasonable-sized town on the holiday day itself.

In addition, given our busy weeks, an entire weekday at home to ourselves seems almost decadent. Since today is really the last holiday that we’ll ever have as “just the two of us” (which is now absolutely fine with us), we figured that it was occasion to stay home with the cats, cook up a big turkey, relax, and take time to be consciously and deeply thankful for all that we have.

Had someone told me a year ago that my life would change this profoundly, and this suddenly, and in such a positive direction in one year’s time, I would’ve raised my one raisable eyebrow to cast a semi-cynical glance. So much for my being able to predict outcomes. Today Julie and I are both extremely thankful for so many rewards: an astonishingly beautiful, healthy, and amazing new daughter, wonderful new friends on the other side of the world, new friends from here who we met on the other side of the world, an entirely new set of experiences and a new perspective on the world, a renewed sense of purpose, and a new avenue into which to channel our efforts on behalf of children and children’s health. Ultimately all of these add up to a new and exciting direction for our lives, but as individuals and as a couple.

Today we’ll be enjoying a fine bottle of (non-Moldovan) red wine, a turkey that was actually labeled “turkey” at the time of its purchase, a full array of spices in our food (as opposed to only salt, lemon and dill), and American jazz (as opposed to Russian pop). We’ll actually mash/grind some of today’s dinner up and store it in the freezer for Anika so that she can enjoy some leftover turkey (a Blackman/McNeill family favorite) when she returns. But fresh in our minds will be the fact that we were just as happy in our tiny 5th floor Kostanai walkup with too much heat and not enough cold water, drinking 200 tenge Moldovan wine, eating a chicken from the East Side market seasoned with butter, lemon and dill, and cooked in bottled water, while Russian pop music videos ran on the TV – since all that really mattered to us there, and all that really matters to us now, is that we are together and that we have Anika in our lives.

So here’s what we ended up with for dinner. We did the best that we could to make it feel as if Anika was here with us.

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Satchel attempted to make us feel better by offering to pull up a chair to help us with dinner. Milo was more interested in dessert (that’s a pumpkin cheesecake in case you were wondering).

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A couple of little items: for those who, like me, are a little nervous about the responsibility of carving a turkey that your spouse spent hours preparing, the New York Times has come to the rescue. There was a wonderful article on the art of turkey carving, with accompanying video featuring Ray Venezia, the meat director of Fairway Markets in NYC. I watched the video once, and then followed the method and ended up with pretty much every last bit of turkey on the serving plate. The secret, it seems, is being like a surgeon and cutting with the tip of the knife along the natural tissue planes, while retracting with your free hand (without an instrument). It worked like a charm!

There’s also this nice video from the Washington Post. Who knew that these two wonderful liberal-leaning papers would have these great how-to-be-good-carnivore guides!

We are also thankful for Tam and Sal, who spent their Thanksgiving Day in a very cold Kostanai. They supplied us with a couple of new pictures of Anika. They also took a very cute one of Anika with their soon-to-be-daughter, Ailya, who we remember very fondly from our visits to the Delphin House.

I’m also grateful to NPR’s Neal Conan on Talk of the Nation for a ’shout-out’ to (an innocently mispronounced) Anika that went out over the airwaves.

I’ll close with a ‘found items’ relating to the subject of being thankful. I recently came across a remarkable story about a professor of computer-science at Carnegie Mellon University named Randy Pausch, a 46-year-old man and father to three children who recently gave what he called his “last lecture”, having been recently diagnosed with metastatic pancreatic cancer. This remarkable lecture can be seen in its entirety by clicking here (via Carnegie-Mellon) or here (via Google). You can read some of the pieces written about this story here, here, here, and here. You may want to pull up a comfortable chair and a leftover turkey sandwich to watch the lecture – it’s almost two hours long.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Sam, Julie and Anika

Day -9 (for trip number 2): Bad Hair Day

So I guess that my plan to not post to the blog until we left for Almaty has to be put on hold.

This morning brought two notes from Kazakhstan: the first from Jenny and John, who we met while in Kostanai. They’re adopting Roxana – a beautiful little girl, who is in the same room/group as Anika. They are real troopers and are staying for the entire time – 8+ weeks. As a result, they are now getting to experience winter in Kostanai. Fortunately (for us), Jenny is a terrific photographer and has been sending updates on Anika. Today’s note ended with this: “Anika is doing great! She is definitely ready for your return. She needs someone to comb her hair.”.

I also received a nice note relaying a message from Professor Kulyan Omarovna of the Almaty Pediatric Research Institute. Apparently I will be delivering two lectures while in Almaty: one on thrombophilias (disorders that cause an increase in blood clotting) and one on a disease caused Langerhans cell histiocytosis. I will also be discussing our clinical protocols for testing/treating these conditions. This will be a real treat for me, and I’m hoping that they will provide me with a translator capable of handling all of the medical terminology. Looks like I’ll be bringing a jacket and tie to Almaty after all.

Officially Official!

We were very pleased today to receive word from Zhanat that she has in hand, a fully stamped, certified, and absolutely finalized copy of our court decree. The mandatory 15-day appeal period is now over, and Anika is officially ours. While we were both confident that everything would go smoothly, it was wonderful to see this in writing (or electrons, I suppose, to be more specific). Tomorrow, Zhanat will begin working in earnest on getting Anika her new birth certificate, and then a passport and visa.

From what we understand, everything is still on track for us to leave next Friday. I never imagined that I’d be so happy to return to any place that wasn’t home. Believe it or not, I was so homesick for something Russian that I ended up wandering down to the Russian Village, down in Washington Square. It was an absolute joy to once again browse the aisles of a Russian grocery. I ended up buying a 2-liter bottle of квас (pronounced “kvass”), some breaded and fried headless fish snack, some ikra for Julie, some Russian chocolate, and some good Russian rye bread. I also managed to find карбонат (carbonat: Russian smoked pork), which made me very happy. Plus, hearing Russian spoken again made me feel a lot closer to Kazakhstan than I have in a couple of weeks.

We received our new visas in the mail, and are starting once again to gather up the things that we’re going to pack. We have a bunch of extra baby clothes that we’ll send back to the Delphin Baby House, along with a big stack of medical supplies. This time, we also need to bring clothes for Anika for the week, along with baby supplies.

Provided that nothing exciting happens over the next week, I will be taking a break from the blog until Friday, November 30th, when I’ll start on the last chapter of this adventure in earnest. Until then, I’ll refer you to a wonderful story by Eric Weiner, who writes for Slate Magazine, which details his 2005 trip to Kazakhstan to adopt a little girl.

Counting down (again) …

Who would have thought that I would be so excited by the arrival of paperwork via FedEx! Once again I found myself filling out visa applications for travel to Kazakhstan. I also gave the ‘ol credit card a workout this by purchasing round-trip tickets to Almaty, and once again our passports are at the Kazakhstan Consulate in New York awaiting visas. If all continues to go smoothly, we’ll be in Amsterdam two weeks from today, and in Almaty shortly thereafter.

Last night we went out to celebrate because, according to our calculations, as of 6pm on Friday, November 16th, the 15-day appeal period finished, meaning that the judge’s adoption order is official. From what we understand, all that remains is for Zhanat to get Anika a new birth certificate, a Kazakhstan passport and visa for travel to the US. Once that is all in place, she’ll be bundled up and flown from Kostanai to Almaty where we will meet her and take custody of her. She’ll need a medical examination in Almaty and then a trip to the US consulate for preparation of her documents for immigration to the US, and then we’ll fly home.

This morning, we awoke to an email message from a couple who recently arrived in Kostanai to adopt a little girl out of the same group that Anika is in. They told us that Anika is doing great – that she’s able to walk when holding on to someone’s hands, is babbling, smiling and laughing. We also got some new pictures, which made our day!

Officially: “Boss of All Kids In The Room”

When Julie and I were in Kostanai visiting Anika, it was clear that the queen bee of the room was a little girl named Nikita (not her real name). She was a couple of months older, absolutely beautiful, and full of energy. She would stand in the crib with a big grin on her face – both teeth shining – surveying her domain. When placed in a walker, she would practically run over to where the food in an attempt to grab and extra snack. Whenever Julie was feeding Anika, I always took the chance to visit Nikita and make her laugh and smile.

Well, Nikita went home with her parents last week, and from the reports that we’re getting from Kostanai, it seems that Anika has now been named “Boss of All Kids In The Room”. We’re told from Jeff and Bonnie and John and Jenny, who are wrapping up their trips, that Anika’s motor skills are improving each day and that she continues to thrive. We’re thrilled that they continue to send us such good updates and pictures. Here’s Anika from earlier today (KZ time):

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smiling baby on the grass

Do You Think She Really Misses Us?

Another great picture of Anika today, courtesy of Jenny and John. We just heard that we’ll be leaving to bring her home in about 3 weeks. More details as things begin to firm up.

(p.s.: We’ll work on her fashion sense once she’s back home …)

Toddler With Arms Outstretched ca. 2002

Toddler With Arms Outstretched ca. 2002