The three of us are absolutely exhausted after being awake for the past 36+ hours. So until I gather the energy to sum up the events of the past couple of days, I’ll let this one picture say it all. As you can imagine, we’re happier than words can express. Thanks for all of your support over the past couple of months. We are very happy to be home!
Things continue to go well here in Almaty. We are anxiously awaiting our interview at the US Consulate this afternoon. According to our Almaty coordinator, Oleg, everything is OK with the paperwork, meaning that if all goes well, we’ll have our walking papers before too long. I have decided that if there is enough time to make it to the KLM office this afternoon, I’m actually going to see if it is possible to get onto the Thursday morning flight. Despite the fact that this would mean rushing to get packed up and off to bed in time to wake up at 4:00 am (not a problem for Anika) tomorrow, it would be entirely worth it to get out of this hotel room and into our home.
Truth be told, for what this is, we’re actually very lucky. The hotel has a restaurant in the basement and the room service isn’t half bad (although you only get an English speaking person on the line about half the time). The location is also good: close to restaurants and stores. Plus we have two queen-sized beds, a bathtub (not Anika’s favorite, yet), and a crib with enough room to be able to walk around. However, as I mentioned before, the tiny fridge, no microwave or teapot, only sporadic internet access (one-time, one hour connection for 700TT), and the fact that Anika still requires 3 naps/day means that we’re stuck in the room for most of the day. We’ve been working hard to figure out her routine and her cues. We’ve definitely learned when she’s hungry, and that we had seriously underestimated how much food she could hold for the first couple of days. Now we know that she needs a substantial breakfast, a mid-morning snack, lunch, a mid-afternoon snack, and a substantial dinner in order to be happy. We definitely her good mood emerge once her belly is full.
Sleep-wise, we’ve managed to get her to sleep through the night, with occasional late-night arousals. Last night we got her to sleep around 7:00 and she stayed mostly asleep until about 6am. Then, to my surprise, she hung out in bed with us for about 45 minutes more before wanting to eat. I don’t think that’s so bad given that it’s only our 4th day with her. Figuring out the nap times when we have different things to do during the day is bit more of a challenge. For example, as I write this, we’re probably going to have to pack her up and leave in about an hour, but despite an hour’s walk around town and some quiet play, she’s standing in her crib pretending to be Galileo as launches every pacifier and toy over the side of the crib while happily babbling away at us. We’re hoping that she’ll sleep now so that she doesn’t lose it completely when we are traveling to and from the consulate (not that it isn’t entirely entertaining to listen to, and watch her, do all of these things). As I said, it would be worth it to get home as soon as possible, just so that we can begin to recover from the jet lag and get her on schedule.
She definitely seems to be re-attached to us. From the way that she’ll sit and stare out our faces as we hold her in the carrier, to the way that she stands at the crib and smiles back at us, and especially the way that she’ll crawl into our arms while we’re playing with her, it seems that she’s truly happy around us. This doesn’t mean that I think that she’s completely recovered from the separation from the orphanage and her regular caretakers, but I’m a lot less worried about her being comfortable with, and bonded to us as her parents. As promised, I finally had my hands free enough to get some good pictures of her in all of her glory.
If we don’t leave until Friday, then I’ll go and visit the Almaty Postgraduate Medical Institute tomorrow. Yesterday I had a fascinating (and unexpectedly long) visit at the Scientific Center of Pediatrics and Children’s Surgery. The trip was arranged by Dr. Azhar Nugamanova who works for the ZdravPlus project, which is a medical assistance project organized through USAID. The hospital was outside of Almaty in what looked like a poorer residential district. I was picked up by a USAID driver and the trip took about 45 minutes. On arrival, I was greeted by Dr. Alzhan Salpynova, who is one of the hospital’s pediatric gastroenterologists. She had fairly good command of English, and served as my translator and guide for the trip. After dropping off my bag and coat in the physician workroom (a very small office with 4 desks and a couple of computers), I was told that the head of the hematology department was busy and was offered a tour of the hospital. Much to my surprise, the hospital was less modern than I expected, but not surprisingly, I was told that it was “undergoing renovation”, which is what I’ve been told about every other hospital that I’ve visited here. I was shown a number of wards, including the hematology ward. In Kazakhstan, the hematologists treat malignancies of the blood and bone marrow (leukemia) as well as non-malignant conditions (aplastic anemia, ITP, hemoglobinopathies, etc.). This is different than in the US where oncologists treat leukemia. The ward I was shown was pretty big, and very crowded. Between the two hematology wards, they had the capability of holding about 40-50 patients – the entire hospital has about 250 beds. Most of the rooms on the hematology ward were doubles or triples, with beds for the parents along with beds for the children. There were a small number of laminar-flow isolation rooms. Interestingly, there was a community dining area, as opposed to the in-room dining that is standard in the US. I was also shown their activity room which was well-equipped and very crowded. Outside in the hall I came across a group of boys who were playing with a miniature pool table. Theirs was the one and only picture that I took (with the boys’ permission) during my time at the hospital since I ended up being busy talking to so many people.
This hospital is one of two pediatric hematology centers in Kazakhstan that is equipped to treat children with leukemia. As such, children from all over the country, as well as from nearby countries, will come and stay for the duration of their therapy, which can sometimes be many months time. This facility sees about 80 new diagnoses of leukemia per year, and about 600 new patients per year (all blood disorders combined). The government covers the cost of both the hospitalization, the medications, and the transportation. Parents (usually the patient’s mothers) stay in the hospital with their children. Kids with leukemia who complete their induction therapy and go on to receive outpatient treatment can be cared for by pediatric hematologists in the larger towns and cities in their home region (oblast). I asked about the numbers of pediatric hematologists/oncologists in the smaller cities and towns, and was told that while there weren’t enough, there was some available in the larger regions. With regard to solid tumor patients, I was told that children with solid tumors are cared for at a different hospital in Almaty.
Kids with acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) here are treated according to the German BFM protocol. When I enquired about survival rates, they told me that their 5 year survival rates were about 70-75%. For acute myeloid leukemia (AML), their survival rates are only about 50%, but this rate is higher than I expected given the more intense chemotherapy required, and the fact that AML patients are at much higher risk for relapse. Right now there is no capability for either autologous or allogeneic stem cell transplantation, but I was told they hope to have this capability in the next year or two. From what I understood, doctors here will often travel to other countries to learn these techniques – for transplant, they will probably go to Israel to learn.
I was subsequently taken to the radiology department where I was introduced to their “CT doctor” and shown the CT scanner (Toshiba). I was told that in the new hospital building that’s being constructed, they’ll have a new CT scanner (Philips) with a digital imaging system instead of their current film-based system. They also told me that when this new building opened in 2009, they would also have an MRI machine as well. From radiology we next went to the neonatal ICU where, pleasantly, conditions were much better than in Kostanai. There were a number of brand new isolettes and ventilators, and I was told that this hospital had the ability to support premature infants as small as 600 grams. Surprisingly, I was told that in the near future, Kazakhstan will adhere to WHO guidelines and attempt to resuscitate and save premature infants as young as 22 weeks gestation. While I didn’t have a chance to see them, the hospital also has wards for gastroenterology, trauma (including burns), general surgery, and two “reanimation” units (ICUs). Alzhan, my guide, took me to meet her mentor, Dr. Mashkeev, clearly one of the senior doctors in the hospital. Both doctors are very interested in celiac disease and are looking for any international collaborators to assist with their research and the care of their patients. They peppered me with questions about celiac disease, which is about as far from pediatric brain tumors as you can go, and as such I felt bad that I had little to tell them about what was available in the US in terms of diagnosis.
Before long, it was time for me to give my talk. For reasons that remain unclear to me, of the topics that I offered to speak on (based on the previous tumor boards and talks that I’ve given over the past few years), they asked to hear about Langerhans Cell Histiocytosis (LCH), an uncommon disease that is only somewhat like cancer (it’s an interesting disease where a certain type of immune cell proliferates in bone or skin). I had a chance to describe the current treatment protocol that we use for treating this disease, and despite the fact that this hospital sees only 3-5 cases per year, they seemed very interested based on the half-hour long question and answer session that followed the talk. From what I gathered, one of the bigger problems here is the limited laboratory capabilities. While they have CT and ultrasound imaging, doing cytogenetics and immunohistochemistry is a problem due to lack of access to specialized reagents. Hopefully, when I get back to the US, I’ll be able to dig around and see if there’s any assistance to be offered by companies that make some of the antibodies used for diagnosing this disease in tissue sections.
After the talk, I had a long visit with Dr. Kulyan Omarovna, who is the director of pediatric hematology. We spoke at length about the treatment modalities available here, the types of diseases they see, and the directions they want to go in the future. Then, to my surprise, she ended up presenting me data from three very challenging clinical leukemia cases, seeing my opinion. One of the patients – a 15 year-old girl from the southern region of Kazakhstan who has been impossible to diagnose over the past month of her hospitalization – sounded to me like like she needed a bone marrow biopsy to make a definitive diagnosis. You can imagine, then, how shocked I was when Dr. Omarovna asked me if I wouldn’t mind doing the biopsy on the patient myself. She even went so far as to bring me the needles and the anesthesiologist! Having been previously told that it was not possible for me to see/treat patients here (not that I would’ve minded doing it), I demurred as best I could, and was ultimately saved by the anesthesiologist who told me that since the patient had already eaten, it wouldn’t be possible to anesthetize her until much later. I sincerely wish that I had better command of Russian, because there clearly is a great deal of need her for additional expertise and assistance with some of the more difficult cases. Nevertheless, I told detailed notes on all of the cases and told Dr. Omarovna that I would contact the leukemia experts at my program and see if they had any advice to offer, and then relay that information to her by e-mail.
By the time I got out of there, it was nearly 2:30pm and I still had a long car ride back. By the time I got to the hotel, I’d been gone for 6 hours, meaning that Julie had been single-handedly taking care of everything for that entire time. When I got to the room, I could tell that she needed some relief. She must’ve really had her hands full, because I learned later that after ordering room service she inadvertently gave the waiter a 2000TT tip (about $16) instead of a 200TT tip (about $1.50) for her 1000TT lunch.
For the afternoon, we packed Anika into the carrier and took her for a walk, and then fed her and took the post-meal good mood as an opportunity for us to head down to the restaurant for an early dinner. It’s amazing how quickly we’ve gone from the dinner-reservations-for-8pm couple to the alone-in-the-restaurant-at-6:00pm family in 4 days. Nonetheless, Anika was in a great mood during dinner, and we both managed to eat a proper meal and have a much-needed drink. We were happy to eat in the bar area but were moved by the hostess to the main dining room because the bar area because the bar area could be a little cold and was “not good for baby”. At dinner, we realized that Anika was beginning to understand the concept of gravity as she began to purposefully launch her toys onto the floor with obvious delight. Afterwards we decided to try the bottle/book/bath/bed routine, leaving out the bottle and the book for now. She wasn’t particularly thrilled about the bath, but she tolerated it, and once she was fed, washed and changed, she was feeling good and we enjoyed her playfulness and managed to get her to sleep in short order.
The next installment will hopefully be stories of packing our suitcases, or even better, will come from Schiphol Airport as we begin to make our way home.
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.
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”.
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.
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!
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.
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!
8000+ miles later and we are finally home. Immigration and customs were a breeze. Apparently 15 pounds of Kazakhstani chocolate and a liter of vodka isn’t exactly a national security threat.
It was wonderful to see our home, our cats and our neighbors. We’re both exhausted and are going to try to turn in, in hopes or resetting our body clocks.
I may post one or two last entries to the blog with photos or stories that we didn’t have a chance to include, and then take a break until we hear news on the end of the ‘appeal period’ and our plans for our return trip to Almaty to pick up Anika and bring her home.
It is a little after 12pm here and Julie is practicing her Russian.
All in all I’d characterize the last 36 hours as entirely surreal. Even though it is now Saturday, it feels like the same day that we left. Sleep has been irregular and unsettled and caffeine has been scarce, which means that my hippocampus has not been functioning as per normal. So please forgive me with the straightforward accounting of the past day’s events. I must simply begin at the beginning because my brain is still reeling and laying things out in a linear timeline is the only way I’ll be able to remember the details enough to provide adequate commentary.
Last entry I left off at the hotel outside of the airport in Almaty. I took a couple of pictures of the room to illustrate the sparseness and will upload these shortly. The fact that it was 16,000 tenge (at 121 tenge to the dollar) bordered on criminal, but what were we to do. Oleg and his friend Nikolai met us at the airport, rescued us from the surly customs officer, and plopped us into this hotel to allow us to rest prior to our flight to Kostanai. Elevators are as scarce a commodity as potable water here, and so plopped is exactly the sound that we made after carrying all of our bags (about 100kg between the two of us) up to the fourth floor.
We managed to get a little sleep in, and a lukewarm shower, before taking some time to repack our bags. I had been warned in advance that the intracountry flights don’t allow for much carry-on baggage, so we needed to condense things to allow for only the most valuable items in our two backpacks (laptops, important papers, camera, Cipro) and the rest into the checked luggage. Once at the airport we checked in pretty easily – the woman at the counter spoke enough English to help us with our baggage fees (330 tenge/kg x 46 kg). We had enough time to sit at the bar in the terminal to have a cup of coffee and a small snack. It took about 2 minutes for someone sitting next to me to start talking and ask to practice his English. I was later told that this will not be the first time, and that it gets tedious after a while. As tedious, I’m sure, as it is for people here who have to listen to us struggle with Russian.
One interesting observation about boarding the flight to Kostanai has to do with the remarkable ethnic diversity of this country. Because Almaty is in the southeast corner of the country, much closer to China, Mongolia, and Uzbekistan, the people have striking Asian features. Kostanai, however, is in the north central part of the country, not more than a few hundred miles south of the Russian border. Thus, it was quite noticeable that everyone on the bus to the plane looked more Caucasian/Slavic.
Our flight to Kostanai was on a 1980s era Soviet jetliner. The plane was parked on the tarmac about a 1/2-mile from the terminal and we loaded through the rear (emergency) exit. For reasons entirely unclear, they started the tail-mounted jet engine while we were boarding. As I stood there, fingers in ears, all I could remember was an elementary school lesson about the logarithmic nature of the Decibel scale, where jet engines were rated at something like 120 or 140dB, at the very top end, and capable of causing pain. Trust me – it’s true.
The plane looked and smelled like it was 30 years old. The seats were capable of collapsing forward like dominos, and when upright were spaced much closer together than even the worst of American coach-class flights. Nevertheless, the crew was impeccably dressed and managed to serve tea from a silver pot mid-flight. Julie and I managed to score a bulkhead row to ourselves, and slept for a good part of the ride. Lunch was spartan, at best. Cold meat, cold smoked salmon, tea, bread. Edible but not pleasurable. Truth be told, I was much more interested in surviving than eating.
The scenery between Almaty and Kostanai was equally spartan – vast flat plains with almost no geographic features that we could see with the exception of several very large lakes. There were very few signs of large cities or towns. All in all, it reinforced what we already knew: Kazakhstan is a vast, sparsely populated country. Once within 30 minutes of landing we saw a great deal of farmland – we were subsequently told that Kostanai is very much an agricultural center focused mostly on wheat farming. Our translator/coordinator here told us that the wheat in Kostanai is the best in the world – “Better than Canada!” she said, enthusiastically. When I naively asked if that meant that the bread here was very good, she said, “Bread? No. Vodka. Excellent vodka.” Ok, then. Vodka it is.
Arriving in Kostanai was far less traumatic than arriving in Almaty. There were no customs or immigrations officials to clear. We picked up our bags and Zhanat met us at the airport with our driver and another helper. We made introductions during the drive into the city and peppered Zhanat with questions about the town and life here. I couldn’t help but notice several very large billboards of the president of Kazakhstan, including one of him holding a large sheaf of wheat. I wanted to ask about him and whether or not there was the same Soviet-type cult of personality surrounding, but figured that it might be best to wait a few weeks (or longer) before bringing up politics.
It didn’t take long for us to arrive in the city center, which is where our apartment is located. The city is fairly featureless compared to Boston: lots of similar-appearing Soviet-style apartment buildings with stores at the first floor. I didn’t see a lot of monuments or distinctive architecture, but then we’ve seen very little so far. Our building looks, honestly, like a housing project, although I’m told that all of the apartments are privately owned. Naturally we’re on the top floor (with no elevator), and so yesterday’s exercise was accomplished by simply getting into the apartment.
Our accommodations are comfortable but minimalist. One very small bedroom (pink), one very small bathroom, a small eat-in kitchen with a gas stove, refrigerator and microwave, a foyer with large closet and a TV room with a couch and easy chair. There’s a front porch that overlooks the main street in Kostanai, and that’s pretty much it. Oh. The door. It’s like something out of 1970s New York City with multiple locks, deadbolts, etc. And it’s like a blast door – 100% steel.
We spend part of the early evening unpacking everything – once we had all of the gifts and medical supplies out, it was clear that it truly did compose about 1/3 of our luggage. It’ll be nice not to have to bring any of it back with us. We again cleaned up some and Zhanat took us to the larger grocery store (called, conveniently, Gros) to stock up. The store was only a short drive, during which time we were shown some of the restaurants that have menus in English. Pulling into the parking lot at Gros was a treat: the outside of the store was lit in purple neon and the parking lot was packed with people hanging out. I was once again amazed with the virus-like pervasiveness of hip-hop music, which blasted out of several cars. Zhanat took us through the store and we found many of the basics: bread, sausage, cheese, eggs, and lots of bottled water. There was an entire wall of canned fish products, which mean that I won’t die of malnutrition.
Not surprisingly, the alcohol section was huge. At least 3 full aisles that ran the length of the store. Zhanat recommended a cheap bottle of “cleaning vodka” for brushing one’s teeth. She also happily recommended a high-quality bottle for drinking. We found a reasonable selection of French wines, and I picked up a bottle of Moldovan red wine for about 400 tenge ($3). There’s quite a good selection of beers (whether or not they’re good, is another matter). At the checkout, we scored a Gros frequent buyer card. We certainly wouldn’t want to miss out on any of the bargains, right?
Returning to the apartment we noticed that the entryway had absolutely no lights on, but we could easily see the outlines of 5 or 6 people hanging out and smoking. Zhanat suggest that we only speak Russian on the way in, which I didn’t find particular reassuring. That blast door looks a lot friendlier now. We managed to get in and put up the groceries. Zhanat had picked up an Internet Card for us – it’s pre-paid, dial-up internet, much like a phone card you’d buy in the store. We had a meal of pasta, sausage and peas (Julie) and pasta with mackerel (Sam) and nearly polished off that bottle of French Syrah. We flipped through the TV channels – a few videos on MTV.ru and a dubbed episode of MythBusters on the Discovery Channel. Of course, at that point I was a little tipsy from the combination of wine and sleep deprivation, so it seemed entertaining enough. We squeezed into the very small bed and were out in no time.
Zhanat had predicted that we’d probably sleep very late and offered to pick us up today around 2p or 3p. We told her that we didn’t think that we’d be asleep that long, but she was quite prescient – we woke up at nearly 11:00 am, which is extremely unusual for us. Our big victory for the day was getting the internet connection to work, and with that I feel much less disconnected than yesterday.
Because it is the weekend and the Baby House is not fully staffed, we have the day off to shop and see the city. Zhanat wants us to buy a SIM card for our cell phone so that we’ll be able to call her (and her us). She is very protective and doesn’t want us off wandering the streets on our own – I think that this is partly because of safety concerns and partly because she doesn’t want us to get lost and have to rescue us in the middle of the night. She’s quite funny and clearly well-intentioned, practical, and experienced. We’re lucky to have her, and I think that she’ll be a great resource.
So that’s where we stand right now. I know that this is a rather long and probably boring exposition, but as I mentioned, I hope to document as much as possible because memories fade and stories get lost, and one day many years from now, I hope to be able to share as many details as possible when our child asks us how in the world she ended up with us.
Well … we’re here.
As our flight was approaching Almaty, I was riveted to the FlightTracker screen in the back of the seat in front of me showing our path from the Netherlands, across the Baltic States, over Russia, and then southeast across Kazakhstan. To see names like Tashkent, Bukkhara, and Karachi on the screen reinforced just how far away from home we really are. As the plane was getting ready to touch down, I turned to Julie and told her that never in my wildest dreams did I envision something like this in our future together.
This entry will be essentially devoid of photographs because as the plane was approaching the airport the flight crew came on and was very clear in their instructions that photograph of, in, or around the airport is forbidden.
We managed to clear immigration with no hassle. The Almaty airport is small and underwhelming. There was a gentleman from Dallas in our line who was genuinely surprised when I immediately recognized his accent as being from Texas. Besides – it was the logical conclusion. There’s oil in Kazakhstan, and where there’s oil there are likely to be Texans. We spotted at least two other couples here for adoption. Clearly we’re not hard to miss.
Once through immigration, we gathered our bags and dutifully filled out our customs declarations. We were told in advance to declare everything of value, especially your currency, otherwise we’d have a hard time getting these things out of the country again. Once we had everything gathered, we could’ve easily walked out without getting these forms stamped (thereby risking hellfire on our attempt to leave the coutnry), but instead, like good rule-following citizens that we are, we walked into the Red Zone for customs. We stood by and watched as the customs officer harassed one American couple. I missed it, but Julie told me that as this couple was leaving, the woman told her to “just threaten to call the US Embassy”.
When we got into the room the officer asked for our document from the Ministry of Foreign affairs indicating our invitation to come to Kazakhstan for adoption. Of course, this is not a document that we were or are supposed to be provided with. He proceeded to tell us how bad adoption was for Kazakhstan because these are Kazakstani children and not American children. He told us that without this document that we’d have to stay in “their room” at the airport for a week. Fortunately, we carry a detailed list of everyone’s emergency contact numbers. We just didn’t expect to have to use it so soon. We called Oleg, our escort in Almaty, and he sent Nikolai who somehow (in Russian) convinced the customs officer to stamp and certify our declaration form and let us enter the country. We were told later that the customs officer wanted money.
I’ve known from my reading up on this process, and from the various Kazakhstan adoption groups, that international adoption is not popular. It was quite the reality check to have this sentiment be our welcome to Kazakhstan. I hope that it doesn’t set the tone for the entire trip, but I suspect that this will not be the last time that we hear someone make us aware of their opinions on what we’re doing here.
We’re now checked into a hotel that is literally 500 feet from the airport. Julie’s trying to take a nap. I’m hoping that the adrenaline surge that’s fueling my typing will abate and that I’ll be able to get a few hours sleep. Outside you can hear every plane taking off, which makes for interesting “white noise”.
Julie just poked her head up and asked me if I had written about how nice our flight was. Since I haven’t, I will do so here:
Put simply, if US air carriers operated with even 50% of the efficiency, professionalism, and courtesy of KLM, we’d be lucky. I’m fairly certain that this was just about the nicest flight that I’ve ever taken – and we flew coach! The seat back entertainment system had language lessons in it, and we were both able to learn a bunch of new Russian vocabulary words and I was able to refresh my memory on how to count in Russian. Maybe I’ll use that re-discovered skill to try to count some sheep.
The next missive will hopefully come from the comforts of our apartment in Kostanai.
Take home message: we love KLM.
We enjoyed a very pleasant flight crew, good beer and wine, a delicious seafood risotto, in-flight Russian lessons, and a strangely hypnotic FlightTracker system.
Next stop: Almaty, Kazakhstan.
We had a lot of time on our hands … so we did a little exploring:
Big sculpture …
Julie sending her first Blackberry message!
The lounge area (where we camped out for most of the time and caught some zzzzs.
Our flight to Almaty is listed (the ONLY flight to Almaty):
From the KLM museum of airline posters:
Julie journaling …
Outside one of the bathrooms were two large display cases of miniature toilets (don’t ask). I took a bunch of photos which I’ll post later …