Category Archives: Almaty

Embassy Day Update

We just got back from the US consulate and we are very happy to announce that we are finally coming home!  It’s hard to believe that we are 48 hours (plus the 11 hour time change) away from the end of this entire process!  We now have all of the documents necessary for Anika to become at US citizen — all she has to do is land in the United States.

The whole consulate process was actually interesting.  It turns out that the US consulate is on the 17th floor of a seventeen story office building that is otherwise non-descript (that is, it looks like all of the other high-rise buildings here in Almaty).  Security to get into the building is just as draconian as it is for getting on a flight.  Maybe a little more.  You can only bring one small container of liquid (e.g., a sippy cup), and you can’t bring in any recording devices, cell phones, etc.  We couldn’t bring in any bags whatsoever.  You go through a magnetometer, and have to check in with your passport.  You’re escorted by armed guard everywhere – to the elevator, from the elevator, down the hall.  The door to the waiting room was like a bank vault door, with two guards at the entrance.  All business is conducted through bulletproof glass windows and microphones, all under the pictures of the smirking Bush, the scowling Cheney, and the sinisterly squinting Condi Rice.  Truth be told, I’d rather see another picture of Nazurbaev.  But I digress.

Apparently all of the adoption interviews are conducted at the same time, so when we arrived, we saw about 6 other babies and their newly adoptive parents.  I chatted briefly with a woman had just adopted a little girl from Kyrgyzistan but had to come to Almaty because we don’t have a consulate in that country.

The whole thing took under an hour.  We filled in a one-page adoption survey where we were asked a number of “customer satisfaction” type questions, such as what agency we used, who our Almaty coordinator was, how much the process cost, how much travel cost, how much other expenses cost, did we have complaints or problems along the way, etc.  Then we went to a window and paid our fee for the visa, and waited to be called for our interview.

The interview was very brief – and more of an informational session than anything.  We were told that all of our paperwork was in order and that there weren’t any problems.  We signed a handful of documents: the I-600 petition, a certificate saying that we’d vaccinate her on our arrival home, and her visa application.  We were given Anika’s Kazakhstani passport with her US immigrant visa, her new Kazakhstani birth certificate, and a number of the original documents from her file.  We were also given a large brown sealed envelope that is to be hand-carried to the immigration office at her point of entry to the US.  We were congratulated by the consular officer and then sent on our way!

We made a stop at the KLM office on our way home and managed to change our flight to Friday morning, meaning that we’ll be back home by Friday evening!  Anika is clearly delighted, as we are.

Tomorrow we’ll get wrapped up – some last minute shopping, packing, and early to bed.  More soon!

Could we be getting out of here soon?

[Author’s note: Because I brought my fancy-shmancy MacBook Pro with me to Almaty, instead of the 4-year-old iBook that we had in Kostanai, I don’t have a modem, which means no in-room dial-up internet for me. There is WiFi in the hotel, but it’s by the hour, and the signal isn’t so great, so I’m posting three days worth of stuff in one magnum opus.]

Somehow, we all managed to get some sleep Sunday night, but by 5:30am Anika was up and ready to go. The timing was a little unfortunate, because we were told by Nikolai that we had an appointment for her medical exam at 10:00am, which meant that we had only 4 hours to get up, showered, fed, some play time, and then a nap in before we left. We knew that it was going to be a long day, and we really wanted to avoid a total meltdown which likely would’ve happened had she not gotten a morning nap. With some creative shift-work, we managed to accomplish all of this, and by 9:30am we were in Nikolai’s van and on our way.

We made a quick stop at a photo store to get an additional passport-sized picture of Anika for the medical examination form – apparently the passport photos that we struggled to get in Kostanai before we left in November, were too big. This time, Anika was much better in the car – after a 36 hour train ride, I can assume that she’s now used to moving vehicles. As a result, she was also much better with getting her picture taken. As opposed to November’s 25 attempts, this time it only took two quick pictures to get a good one.

From the photo store, we traveled through downtown Almaty to the International S.O.S. clinic. I am now quite familiar with this company – having called a couple of weeks ago in an attempt to help out a sick American Kostanai. They run a fairly modern clinic for tourists, ex-pats, and apparently, international adoptions. While sitting in the waiting area we met an extremely nice father-son pair who were there for their immigration exams. The father is a health economist who works for the CDC and lives in Atlanta, and his son is an extremely handsome, and extremely affable young man who goes to college at the University of Waterloo. It was quite amusing to hear this young Kazakhstani man speak English with a very clear Canadian accent. We chatted for a while while being shuttled between different stations. Anika had to have a quick blood test (a rapid HIV test, apparently required by the US government), vital signs (where she comes in at 72cm in length and 9kg fully clothed), and then a brief exam by a physician. It was a strange place for me to have my first experience of being a pediatrician standing by as he watched his child being examined by another physician. By the time she had her exam, it was nearly noon and Anika had had just about enough. She was completely asleep before we arrived home, which we converted in to her afternoon nap.

While she was asleep, I set out into town to pick up some additional supplies, and also to book Anika’s return flight home. We were told, prior to leaving this trip, that the infant airfare would be substantially cheaper if we bought it in Kazakhstan, and so I was hoping at some point to get to the KLM office to make sure that this was the case. You can imagine my pleasant surprise when I inadvertently came across the KLM office while randomly walking the streets. I ended up booking her flight and was very pleased to find that the fare was not the $800 or so that I was quoted in the US, but a rather fair $140! I also took the opportunity to ask that we be seated in the front bulkhead row, where the airline can provide a bassinet that clips on to the wall, potentially freeing our hands for a bit.

On the way home I stopped by at one of the outdoor food stands and ordered up two doner kebab sandwiches, and a container full of something that turned out to be rice, meat and red peppers, making for a very cheap (800TT) lunch for the two of us. By the time I arrived home, Anika was awake and so Julie and I switched off and she enjoyed her sandwich while I provided entertainment. Before long it was nap-time again – in the hopes of keeping her on the same schedule that she was at while in the baby house. This time it took a little more effort – she fussed for about 30 minutes but was asleep in under 10 minutes once I put her into the carrier and walked her around the room.

Oleg swung by the hotel around 3:30pm to help me fill out all of the paperwork needed for our petition to the US Consulate. None of it was particularly difficult, and we were finished in about 20 minutes. Once were were done, Oleg told me that he expected to file the paperwork today, to hear about our appointment time tomorrow, and that if all was in order, we’d have our consulate interview on Wednesday and at that point we’d receive all of Anika’s immigration documents. I asked him if that was all, and he said that yes, once that was done we were free to leave. I told him that our flight was booked for Sunday because we were told to expect an interview at the consulate on Friday. He was a little surprised by this and suggested that we try to change our flights.

This, of course, sounded like a mighty fine idea to me, and so if things go well on Wednesday, then I’m going to make a beeline for the KLM office and attempt to change our flights to Friday, meaning that we’ll be home two days ahead of schedule. It’s a good thing that we purchased the unrestricted and fully changeable tickets. I hope that there are seats available, because as much as we enjoy being here, we really want to start the work of getting Anika acclimated to life in Boston.

The rest of the evening was fairly uneventful: room service for dinner, a little playtime with Anika followed by a moderately long period of fussiness capped off by falling asleep (once again) in the carrier. I’m going to send a letter to the woman who invented this particular brand of carrier to ask her what the secret is, and also to thank her. Julie’s sleeping even as I finish writing this, and I’m going to spend the next couple of hours in the hotel lobby working on two lectures that I’m giving tomorrow. Hopefully tomorrow, since we have no “official business”, I’ll be able to snap some good photos of Anika.

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.

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.