Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Chicago is Wicked

Yes, we actually went to see Wicked Friday night in Chicago.  I am not really a big fan of plays ... I went to see "Phantom" once and my friends had built it up into this huge, life changing event, but when the last curtain fell, I was like, "Wha?  That's it?"  But, lemme tell you, "Wicked" was, like, totally awesome.  The sets were stunning eye candy, the singing phenomenal, the story hilarious ("But there's a goat on the lam!" was my favorite line).  I can't wait until they put Wicked on the road and they come to Charlotte.  It was just too ... too ... well, really good.

I actually made it to Chicago without incident (our reunions are usually fraught with missed flights, bad weather, etc.  Need I remind myself of the time returning from Minneapolis I had to sleep, literally, on the floor of the Detroit airport?)  I found two of our group of 7 and we cabbed it to the condo.  We walked to the Jewel (grocery store) and stocked up on noshes and wine.  Ordered in Chinese for dinner as we waited for the last of our group to arrive (Pattie).  We stayed up too late talking and reading magazines ... perfect!  The next day we spent at MiSpa on Michigan avenue -- very nice, but very slow.  They were so late in serving us our lunches that we were about to eat the sea shell scrub they were using on our feet.  But I have beautiful red toenails to show for it.  We dolled ourselves up that night for a nice dinner at an Italian restaurant that was decorated like Captain Nemo's ship, very trippy!  We then sprinted for the Ford Oriental Theater (it was a little farther away from the restaurant than we thought).  We found our seats, and almost immediately the lights went down. 

The next morning we got up around noon (isn't that what girls' weekends are all about?) and headed to the Navy Pier.  UGH ... don't go there.  Really, don't.  Avoid it at all costs.  Can you say MILLIONS of people?  Okay, the only redeeming thing about it was sitting on the end of the pier (with the millions of people behind us) and watching the boats go by on Lake Michigan.  It was a beautiful day, not too hot, cool breezes, sunshine.  And for a moment you could forget the teeming hordes of humanity.  We made our way up to the Magnificent Mile and did some shopping. Then as the sun went down, we went to the Hancock Building observatory.  Beautiful views of the city, but a little tricky for yours truly, who has a terrible fear of heights.  Let's just say I spent the whole time with my body plastered against the inner wall of the building.

The next day we spent browsing in all the little shops and boutiques in Bucktown ... very bohemian, hippy type area.  That night we had dinner at the Chicago Firehouse.  Excellent food.  What would a girls' weekend be, of course, without someone getting sick .. we lost two of our ladies to a stomach scourge. 

Unfortunately, all good things must come to an end.  Tara and I slipped out of the condo before 7 Monday morning and schlepped our stuff to the train for the airport.  She was going to O'Hare and I to Midway, so we hopped on our respective lines.  Unfortunately, I got on the wrong train -- Green instead of Orange.  Luckily I realized it after only one stop, so I just hopped off and got on the train going the other way.  No time was lot, thank goodness.  I thought it was going to be the usual transportation disaster.  I was home by noon to some children who were really glad to have their mom back.  I have been gone entirely too much this summer, and now I'm ready to put my mom hat back on.  School for three of them starts August 9th (ACK!) so we have to do some speed reading of our required summer books.  Uniform shopping ... school supplies ...  

MyCamera had died in Kazakhstan, so I'm relying on my girls to loan me their pictures.  Stay tuned! 

Chilling in Chicago

Forgive me, oh BLOG GODS* for stealing this picture from another blogging mom who also spent last week in Chicago.  This picture has meaning especially for my group of friends because Debi's** husband actually works for Target (pharmacy) and we all would have been falling to the ground dying of laughter if we had actually seen this sign.  We joked about Target all weekend, because like any lawyer or doctor at a party (Doc, I have this pain right here ...) Debi and her husband always get people complaining to them about things that happened to them at Target, as if they OWNED the darn place!  We always get chastised by Debi for shopping at some *other* store (which shall remain nameless, but which starts with the letters W&M)  Looking out the 24th floor of our condominium (*mom hates it when we say "condo") we could see Chicago's newest state of the art Target store.  But no ... we didn't actually shop at Target while in Chicago. 

* Okay, apparently there is a huge book of Blog etiquette that I haven't been privy to, and please, please forgive me if I've broken one of its laws by posting this picture.  I mean, it's a public blog and there are no children in the picture whose privacy I have invaded.  It's just too funny and apropos of the weekend I just had.

**Not my sister Debi, although they spell their names the same way.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Melanie's Birthday Party

Some pictures of Melanie's birthday party today.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Summer Sensational Stress

Last week I did nothing.  No.  Thing.  I was an absolute jellyfish.  The laundry piled up, I caught up on my sleep, the kids ate peanut butter.  It was glorious.  This week I have been slapped with teaching Vacation Bible School (which in and of itself is a lot of fun) and preparing for my trip to Chicago this Thursday (what another trip?  What the --?) speech, sleepovers.  Blah blah blah.  Oh, and did I mention Melanie's birthday is today (HAPPY BIRTHDAY MELANIE!) and planning a party for Wednesday afternoon?  ACK!  Oh well, if you want to play you have to pay the fiddler, (or whatever).

While we were in Destin, we were invited by a business associate of David's to go on a cocktail cruise on their 56 foot cabin cruiser, along with all his family and children.  It was a lovely sunset cruise and the kids were all over the boat.  I won't go into the fact that this is NOT an every day occurence for us, and we were quite like country rubes coming to the big city for the first time (gosh dang, Jethro!  Look at that BOAT!)  We tried to be suave about it and not gush too much.  Let's just say that this man's brother will probably be the next governor of Alabama.  Nuff said.  They are really, really nice people though, and were so nice to send us this picture.  Guess Melanie still believes that taking a person's photograph will steal her soul. 

Did I mention that it is HOT here?  I suppose it's hot all over the place.  But thank goodness we have air conditioning.  Oh, is that a fever I feel coming on?



Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Trip to Kaz., Part 6



On Wednesday, after saying good-bye to our trusty team, now our good friends for life, Debi and I, with Jim, set out driving to Kokshetau.  Jim and his wife, Cindy, had adopted two babies from the maternity hospital there, and wanted to meet with Natalia, the chief doctor, and tour the hospital.  Friends of David’s and mine were there adopting twin girls, so I invited myself to go along with Jim.  It was a 2 hour drive to Kokshetau from Petro … in a nice van, but a really nasty driver who yelled at me for slamming the door too hard, and for letting a suitcase lean against the window.  I was afraid to touch anything!!  Luckily in Kokshetau we changed drivers.  After a very brief visit with Dave & Jeannie, our friends, we were off to the hospital.  Again, we were told to put on doctors’ coats for the tour … we saw some very tiny babies and older children, in the most grim of circumstances.  The hospital was more than adequate, I suppose, but dark and dingy.  I saw children as old as 8 or 9 lying on beds, no mothers to be seen anywhere.  It was quite depressing, but then I told myself this was all they knew …


We were handed off to another car for the 4 hour jaunt down the road to Astana.  The “frontier” of Kaz, as I call it, is just immense, and immense doesn’t seem to be adequate to describe its bigness.  Imagine about 10 Kansases lined up side by side … and you get an idea of how flat and infinite it seems.  Just grass … forever.  Occasionally a forest, but then back to more flat … grass, and maybe some crops growing here & there.  Lots of little reamshackle houses and a gas station popped up occasionally.  We got to experience a true Kaz. outhouse at a couple of the gas stations, but it couldn’t be helped.  Debi and I experienced more squatty potties on this trip … and have the strong thighs to show for it.  Having lived in Japan when we were younger, we fear no squatty potty but some of them were more horrendous than others.


The flight to Almaty was a true pleasure.  It was quite the polar opposite from the Yak 40 – a beautiful Boeing 737.  We even got a hot meal and coffee … no hard candy here!  Tired and bruised we fell into bed at the Almaty Hotel, our new abode for the next 36 hours or so.  Again, we found the air conditioner, but it was in the living room of our suite, and very little of the air managed to turn the corner into where the beds were.  I literally dragged my mattress into the living room and fell into a heap on the floor.  I didn’t care … I was cool.  My sweat glands were revolting in a big way  (and I mean the verb there, not the adjective.  Well, I hope so anyway).


Our last day was spent sightseeing in Almaty.  Our driver, Vitalik (who had been our driver in 2004) took us around from place to place … to buy an oriental rug, to the national museum, the Ramstore (to look at more amber) and finally Panfilov Park, where there is a behemoth of a war monument … I didn’t think Debi’s trip to Almaty would be complete with a visit to that.  It was sooo hot again, that by 3 in the afternoon, we collapsed back in our hotel room.  Aida came to meet us for dinner,and we were packed and ready to be picked up for the airport by 11 p.m.  Our flight left at 1:45, made a quick stop in Astana(who knew!!  We could have stayed there!) then we were off to Frankfurt.   We had to dash, OJ Simpson style, to the other end of the earth, er I mean, terminal to catch our flight to Munich.  In Munich (which by the way has a beautiful airport, as opposed to that abomination in Frankfurt) we grabbed some breakfast and were able to rest for a while.  The flight to Charlotte started out to be sardine city again, but a bunch of kids on a youth tour had been separated from each other, so we happily swapped with two girls who had bulk head seats.  We had hit the jackpot … our legs were free!!


And so, dear reader, I come to the end of my little travelogue.  It was a trip filled with aching muscles, sweat (did I mention the sweat??) and hard work, but every moment of it was enjoyable, thanks to a great group of people.  The smiles on the faces of the children as they played on their new playground were worth a million bucks … Debi can’t wait to go again next year …



 *** Post Script ... if anyone has been able to overcome their ADD and read the entire thing, thanks for following along.  We got home on Thursday, and left for a week in Florida on Saturday.  I am going through "coming back home" transition and am in somewhat of a fog.  I should be up & running shortly!

2005 Trip to Kaz., Part 5

I looked around hopefully for the hidden air conditioner in our new hotel.  It was hidden too well … I never found it.  Ha ha.  I did shell out a few tenge at a street market for a fan.  First night, when I put it together, there was a broken piece.  Second night:  I left it at the Baby House after taking it to the market for a replacement part.  Third night:  Finally used the fan.  Fourth night:  we left.  Sure got a lot of use out of that fan!  Actually sleeping with the windows open was okay, except for the kamikaze mosquitos that divebombed our ears all night.  How do they know where our ears are??


We had our work cut out for us at the Petro Baby House.  We weeded the entire play area and spread sand over the whole thing (twice!  The first sand wasn’t the right kind), and dug 36” holes for the swing set.  We had a power auger, which was fine and dandy for the first 6 inches.  Then we ran into sheets of rock and shale.  (I say ‘we’ collectively … meaning the men who actually operated the power auger).  Debi and I did tackle one hole with a long “breaker bar” which was a piece of rebar that weighed about 20 pounds, but when hoisted up and down helped break up the layers of rock.  Try doing this repeatedly for 4 hours straight (stopping from time to time to remove the bits of small rock from the hole) and see how YOUR arms feel afterwards!  No one could say we didn’t at least attempt to pull ourown weight!   And did I say that it rained off an on the whole time?  At least it wasn’t blazing hot; look at the bright side, I always say.


For three days in a row for lunch we hit the same shashlik guy (shashlik being Kazakh shishkebabs)  I do like shahslik, but after three days I had quite had my fill. 


By the time Debi’s suitcase was supposed to have appeared, no one seemed too disturbed by her wearing the same clothes three days in a row.  However SHE was a little perturbed and generally pissed off that no one seemed to care.  I took the bull by the horns and said very loudly that we NEEDED TO SEE ABOUT THE SUITCASE.  Kate rode with us out to the airport at the time the flight from Kokshetau was supposed to arrive, but we were about an hour early.  She need to get back to the baby house, so she left us sitting in the dingy gray concrete Soviet airport alone.  She did, however, arrange with a nice lady behind a counter to help us get a taxi back to the baby house.  When the plane landed we were praying every type of prayer we knew, from every religion known to man.  And it worked.  We whooped and hollered as the familiar black case with the lime green tags appeared in the doorway.  A quick change into fresh clothes for Debi, and we were back at the Baby House performing our duties.


One night after dinner we went strolling around Petro.  At one point we ended up in a park, supposedly to take a short cut back to our hotel.  We followed Jay like a bunch of  obedient scouts, until we ended up ankle deep in mud.  When my shoes came off every time I took a step, I lost it, laughing my head off.  I had to go find a quiet bush (ahem) with Debi standing guard.  When we emerged from the undergrowth, all the men were nowhere to be found.  It was getting dark, and strange Kazakh men were following us.  We had a few choice words to say about the fact that not only was chivalry dead, it was rotten and decomposing in its grave.  After finding our way back to the main drag, we ran into Jay, the ONLY man who came back to see what had happened to us.  He earned great big brownie points because of his rescue mission.


The opening day of the playground was quite an event.  The news media was there, with TV cameras and interviewing reporters.  Jay became a minor celebrity in the town, with people coming up to speak to him after they saw him on TV that night.  The children came out dressed in new clothes and played happily on the playground as we all watched.  All the hard work had been worth it … a thousand times over.  The BH director had a little “tea” for us … although I saw less tea and more vodka and champagne.  There were cakes and cookies and chocolates … and a lot of good will wafting around the room (though very little cool air).  We felt very loved and very satisfied at what we had accomplished.


We celebrated our last night in Petro at an authentic Russian restaurant.  There was a large party of about 20 folks at the other table.  They kept sending us bottles of vodka, and we would reciprocate.  Oh, and here's a bottle of cognac ... we sent them a bottle of pepper vodka.  And on and on it went.  We toasted them, they toasted us.  We danced ... the director of the orphanage where Serik had lived after the Baby House, Yuri, joined us for dinner.  He was a stereotypical Russian man, with heavy mustache and a twinkle in his eye.  I asked him to find my sister a nice Kazakh husband.  He replied, (all through Kate, of course) "I regret that I myself am already married; and unfortunately I was the last worthy man left in Kazakhstan!"  Yuri danced with Debi and me, and kissed our hands at the end like a perfect gentleman.  Debi stood up and told everyone what a magical, wonderful trip this had been.  I think I saw a little tear in her eye!

2006 Trip to Kaz., Part 4

Next day was a relaxation day … the men (and Kate – I think they were all hankering for a view of her in a bikini) all went off to Kapshagai, while Debi and I begged off and SLEPT IN.  (I mean, Kapshagai is just a lake…seen one, seen ‘em all and believe me, our old arthritic bodies needed a break).   In our air conditioned room!  We got up around 10 and walked to Ramstore, where we had a very good shishkebab lunch, and did some shopping.  Mom had sent us on a quest to find her some amber jewelry (amber being quite common in Kaz).   We walked to an internet café (which according to Dave was only a couple of blocks from the hotel; what he neglected to tell us was that one Kaz. Block is equal to about 10 US blocks) and shot off some more messages.  Went back to the room and took an AIR CONDITIONED nap after all of our power walking.   That night we were invited by the Kaz. staff of World Partners Adoption to eat dinner at an Uzbek restaurant … can’t remember the name (Al Alash?).  David and Quentin had been there the previous summer, so I had an idea of what we were in for:  belly dancers and Kazakh and Uzbek dancers, all in fancy national dress, and a high wire act.  A rock & roll band played after all that, and the patrons of the restaurant began a dance fest on the stage.  All of a sudden the music stopped:  a poor young lady on the dance floor was having a seizure.   


Next morning:  Petro!  We had to be downstairs and ready to go around 7:00 for our 9:00 flight.  It was weird seeing the Almaty airport in the daylight; all arriving and departing international flights pass through in the middle of the night.  We made our way through security and boarded a bus which took us to our plane:  a Yaklov 40 .. an ancient Soviet plane that looked as if it had been flying since the Revolution in 1917.  (Okay, maybe I’m exaggerating).  We had heard all about this joy ride from adoptive parents who had journeyed north before us.  They didn’t call it a “Yak” for nothing, and I’m not talking about the big furry kind with horns.  We boarded the plane from under the tail, and they shoved the suitcases in after us.  I had a brief flash of a small plane that had crashed once in Charlotte because of the uneven distribution of the luggage.  Hmm.  Well, all I could do is think, well, if I’m gonna go, better that it be in a dramatic fashion than boring old “die in your bed at 90”.  When I say they shoved the bags, they literally shoved them.  In fact, the flight attendant had to stand up in the rear the whole time, because they had to shove suitcases into the seats.  There wasn’t any more room for Debi’s suitcase.  It was left behind, with promises that it would be flown to Petro in two days.  Yeah right, Debi thought.  Bye bye suitcase, it’s been nice knowing you.


While they were doing all of this luggage gymnastics, the rest of us were sitting on the plane, sweltering, and it wasn’t a nice fancy Swedish sauna either.  It was horrible.  Good thing I got over that claustrophobia thing.  The other folks on the plane, Kazakhs of every shape and size, were probably really curious about us aliens, but they kept their fears to themselves.  Finally the pilot got on the plane through a side door in the front, followed by two other crew.  Someone passed a basket filled with hard candy (for our ears?) and we were off.  We gained altitude verrrry slowly, and I looked at Dave, who is a pilot, for reassurance.  The worried look on his face wasn’t very reassuring.  I just closed my eyes and prayed.  All that luggage weight must be bringing us down … for sure.


But of course you know that we didn’t crash or I wouldn’t be sitting here writing about it.  We made it to Kokshetau, our first stop, without event … I even managed to doze a little bit, only to wake up to the realization that my left arm was frozen solid.  (well, not really).  Let’s just say that the inside walls of the plane were covered with frost.  Quite a switch from the heat we had endured earlier.  As soon as we got off the plane a small truck arrived and started pulling the tires off the plane.  We thought they looked a little bald.  Funny thing was, though, that the new ones were just as bald. 


We waited at the (ancient, nondescript, crumbling gray concrete, Soviet) terminal for about an hour, then were herded back outside.  An olive-green truck towed the plane to us, and back on we went.  The luggage had been rearranged somewhat, so I felt a little better about weight distribution.  We landed in Petro, around 3:00 in the afternoon, realizing that we hadn’t eaten lunch, and the Snickers’ bar I had had for breakfast was long gone.  (What did I expect, an omelet on the plane?  HA!)   At our hotel, the Almaty, we sat down to a huge lunch that had been prepared for us, we thought as a ‘welcome’ to all you lovely American humanitarian philanthropists here to Build Our Children a Playground.  We came back to earth when they presented us a bill! 

2006 Trip to Kaz., Part 3

Outside the Ramstore we ran into Jay … a dead-on Bill Clinton lookalike, (with a matching gregarious personality) and his sons Justin and Ian, and Timur, who had been adopted from Petropavlovsk, (our stop next week).   We fell in love with little “Tima” and how he would bat his eyelashes and say, “You’re so cute!  You’re a princessa!”   Also there was Barry and his 10 year old son Serik, also from Petropavlovsk.  Completing our group was Sasha … a Kyrgyz man who used to be a driver for WPA in Almaty.  He and his wife had won the immigration lottery and had emigrated to the US.  They live in Pennsylvania and Sasha works for Jay. 


We packed ourselves into our little limo (small van) and were off to Esik.  It’s about an hour’s drive (mostly through the outskirts of Almaty and its traffic .. oy!) but the scenery is just beautiful.  Huge snow capped mountains loomed in the distance, with miles and miles of flat grassy plains at their feet.  We pulled up to the Baby House, where we found … a mess!  The location where the playground was to be built was not ready.  The BH director had decided to build the area up a few feet, and was in the process of having a retaining wall built around it.  Since it was all being done by hand, and it was possibly a couple of months away from being finished, we were in a pretty awkward position.  It was decided that we would put the playground together (and the swing set) and they would move it later.


Our first task was to separate the two playgrounds.  One was being loaded onto a truck for Petropavlovsk (okay, Petro from now on .. too hard to type!)  We had to be really careful not to send a stray piece to Petro – a 4 hour plane trip to the far north -- so we took our time laying everything out.  We wasted no time getting started putting things together.  More sweating .. and add sunburn this time.  We knocked off about 5:00 or so. Debi and I met Aida for dinner at Mad Murphy’s Pub.  This was another place David and I had been to back in 2001, where lots of expatriates and foreigners like to go. 


Next morning … early to rise.  Off to Esik again.  Debi and I helped build the swingset with Jay and his sons.  I was a little put out when Jay started calling us “girls” but his personality really grew on us after a while.  We pretty much finished everything that day.  Since we weren’t setting anything in concrete, we didn’t have to dig holes or anything like that.  On the way back to Almaty we stopped at a fruit stand and bought some cherries.  Unfortunately they looked a lot prettier than they tasted.  That night we had dinner at the City restaurant, near Tsum (a large department store).  We did some quick souvenir shopping at Tsum but it was hot hot hot inside.  I never thought anything could interfere with my will to shop, but the heat certainly did.  And did I say crowded?  It was unbearable.


Next day was the “opening ceremony” and tour of the BH.  We put on surgical masks and doctors’ coats to prevent spreading any germs.  We were taken to the infants’ room, where five impossibly tiny newborns lay wrapped like little burritos in bassinets against the wall.  They looked like they weren’t done cooking yet!  They were all sleeping … not a peep from any of them.  We went to the older childrens’ room next, where they were napping, but I saw a few heads pop up from their cribs to see who these strangers were.


Outside was a beautiful picnic laid out on several oriental carpets under a tree.  There was a light breeze, so it was very pleasant … we had vodka, wine, plov (rice pilaf with meat), and the BH staff made lots of toasts.  After eating, we sat around sharing photo albums, and I think a couple of us dozed off. 


Back in Almaty, after a quick shower, we drove up to Medeo, the ice skating rink in the foothills of the Tien Shan Mountains.  There is a ski resort higher up, called Chimbulak, but we found that the road was closed.  Some of our group deposited themselves at a Yurt restaurant with a cold beer, and the rest of us set out to climb the 1000 step staircase to the top of the Medeo Dam … purportedly a dam to prevent avalanches from inundating Almaty, definitely not to dam up water, as there isn’t any behind the dam.  But it makes a good lookout with a panoramic view of Almaty’s environs and the steppe to the north.  I said that we “set out” to climb the steps … well, that was a half lie, as some of *who shall remain nameless* only made it up 500 steps.  Well, if you count the 500 going back down, we did go on 1000 steps.  Micah, who was, as I said, 15 and in excellent shape, SPRINTED up the steps.  We followed, grumbling at him for showing off.  Our legs vibrating and aching, we made it back to the yurt restaurant where we had a delicious dinner of monte (little meat dumplings) bishparmak (horse stew … I know, I know, sorry but it’s a national delicacy.  We didn’t want to be rude) and bauersake (fried bread).  It was a feast.

2006 Trip to Kaz, Part 2

After collecting our luggage, we went through the glass doors and a crowd of taxi drivers trying to get our business.  I looked around a bit, and found Emil, who had been our driver in 2004 when we adopted Melanie.  We were loaded up and on our way in no time.  As we drove through the dark streets, Emil pointed out that there was a police officer standing every 20 feet on the side of the road, around the clock.  There was an international summit taking place in Kaz., and security was tight.  The cops (who often looked like they were hardly 14 years old) were standing facing away from the street, as if to keep anyone from leaping out of the bushes and ambushing a passing car. 


Our hotel, the Grand Eurasia, was a pretty decent place … brand new, apparently built with the help of the Chinese.  All the instructions in the room were in Chinese.  I noticed a small “appliance” on top of the wardrobe, curious … and I found a small remote control, which turned on the appliance, which was an AIR CONDITIONER a creature as rare as a unicorn in Kazakhstan!!  I turned it down to the arctic frost setting, and we slept happily under our coverlets.


The next morning, Emil met us at 9:00 for our four hour drive to Taldy Korgan.  We stopped at a grocery store to stock up on supplies, and then were off.  As I wrote in my 2004 travelogue, the landscape quickly turned to flat, featureless grassland that went on for a couple of hours.  It was mind numbing (and butt numbing for all the bumps we hit on the road).  Just when we didn’t think our bodies could take any more beating, we hit rocky, craggy mountains which we wound around in for another hour or so.  Then, over a rise in the road, Taldy came into view: a green oasis in the middle of the dusty brown mountains with curiously tall green trees in neat rows.  (I remembered that the town of Taldy Korgan was named after these trees.  Even David, with his masters’ degree in forestry couldn’t tell what kind of tree they were).


Emil took us right away to Aida’s mother’s apartment, where we had stayed back in 2004.  I ran into the building and met Aida, where we hugged each other like long-lost sisters.  Zhenya, her mother, had prepared borscht and a plethora of other delicious dishes.  We sat in the sweltering apartment, where Zhenya and Aida’s sister toasted us with cognac, in between wiping their faces with a handkerchief.  Somehow the heat didn’t seem as heavy after drinking a little alcohol.  After we finished, we set out for the Baby House.  I felt like I was in the Twilight Zone as we drove up the familiar drive.  We met with the director, who offered us tea and cookies.  (Hot tea!  Do I have any sweat  left in my body??)  Through Aida, we talked about Karina (Melanie) and how she is doing.  We gave her a photo album.  She seemed pleased that we had come … I wanted so badly to see Melanie’s old room, but Madame kept saying the children were sleeping.  It wasn’t until we discussed donating money towards a new lawn mower (“hay cutter” as they call it in Kaz!) that she suggested we visit Melanie’s group.  Not that it was a bribe or anything, but she did seem a lot more eager to take me upstairs after that. 


Up the blue staircase with the child-height railing we went.  Through the windows I could see the playground that David and Quentin had helped build last summer.  Through a door, and into the “Sparrow” room (as the group was called) we went.  The children were sitting on their potties, having just woken up from their naps.  All the little boys had their heads cleanly shaved, and there were several shiny little heads.  I recognized two of the little ones who had been there with Melanie:  Maddi (who we called Dumbo because of his ears, SHAME on us!) and Sukhail, the little “Uzbek boy” as the caregivers called him.  They hadn’t changed much, other than being a taller.  It was so sad to think of them still there.   The caregivers were new to me … they seemed to be wondering what we were doing there.


We made a quick stop at Aida’s apartment … then back to Zhenya’s house for goodbyes.  Aida was driving back to Almaty with us in her car, so we set out convoy-style.  We hit a huge traffic jam as we passed by Kapshagai .. a large man-made  reservoir which apparently is “the” weekend vacation spot in the area.  Everyone and his brother was trying to get back to Almaty on a Sunday night.  We rolled into the hotel after 11:00 and fell into our (air conditioned!) beds.


Early the next morning, I found Jim and the others in the hotel restaurant having breakfast.  We made introductions … hello to Dave N., with whom David (my David) had traveled on the first playground trip back in 2003 .. his son Micah, and his business associate Rick.  Also with them was Kate … a beautiful young Kazakh woman who works for Dave in California.   Some of the other folks were staying in apartments, and we would hook up with them later in the morning.  We made a quick stop at the Ramstore (big grocery store) for water and stuff for lunch, since Esik was pretty much off the beaten track, and there were no McDonalds’ there. 

2006 Trip to Kaz, Part 1

After a short flight to Dulles, complete with comedian flight attendant ("Please put your tray tables and seat backs in their upright and uncomfortable position") I found Debi’s gate.  Her flight wasn’t due to arrive for two hours, so I settled down, plugged in my iPod and waited.  When she got off the plane, Debi looked like she was about to throw up!  She is not a traveler … her last passport expired in 1976.  This was a HUGE undertaking for her, going to Kazakhstan.  We grabbed a Subway sandwich and wandered down to where our outgoing flight was.  It was at the end of a crowded hallway, and we found two empty seats to eat our sandwiches and hunker down until boarding time. 


On the plane, we found we had two seats together on one side.  Sleep was out of the question due to sardine can conditions, so we listened to my iPod, and watched a movie (which one, I forget!)  We landed in Amsterdam at early o’clock .. probably about 6:30.  It was close to 8 before we made contact with out Bed & Breakfast host, Joop (pronounced Jope – like Rope) due to the intricacies of using a cell phone in Europe.  All those extra numbers that you’re magically supposed to know about.  Hmph.   Joop was a scruffy older man, typical Dutchman with a wrinkled rain coat and a shock of long white hair.  He drove us in his rickety old Volvo to our home away from home in Amsterdam.  Strewn with garden tools and trash, we wondered if the car’s transmission would last long enough to get us to our destination!  But arrive we did.  Our luggage was unloaded, and Joop informed us that our room wouldn’t be ready until 10 a.m.  So he took us to a little café where we had a huge breakfast of eggs, bread, cheese, and coffee.  We sat and watched the people go by 90 miles an hour on their BICYCLES … apparently it is the no. 1 mode of transportation in Amsterdam.  We saw moms with babies in the front and on the back of their bikes … zooming around corners at breakneck speed.  Bikes were stacked outside of apartments 3-4 deep.  We knew that if we even tried to ride a bike in Amsterdam we would be dead in minutes. 


Joop drove us around the city to orient ourselves, then due to some translation snafu, informed us that our room wouldn’t be available until NOON.  We were tired, sleep deprived, grimy and PISSED OFF.  Joop plunked us down on a canal tour of the city, and said, see ya!  We almost fell asleep during the slow, meandering tour with the monotone narration in three different languages.   I was too tired and disoriented to figure out how to ride the tram, so we hailed a taxi and went to the B&B, prepared to wrestle Joop to the ground to get our room.  Lucky for him, it was ready, and we collapsed into a deep sleep for most of the afternoon.


We woke up about 6 hours later, and showered for dinner.  We set out walking along the main drag near the B&B, past charming row houses covered with flowers.  We had a fabulous meal at an upscale restaurant Joop had recommended.  I think I had lamb chops … and they were either really really good, or I was really really hungry.  I think a bit of both.  Strangely enough, we went right to sleep that night and slept all night.  The jet lag had won.


The next day we set out with clean bodies and renewed, rested spirits.  We found an internet café and shot a message home, then set out to find the Anne Frank House (note:  prounounced Ahnn-uh Frahnk – who knew that all these years I’ve pronounced it like she was from Texas!)  We even had the courage to figure out the tram system, which is really quite easy when you’ve had enough sleep!  We toured the house .. and got a whole new perspective on the book and her life in hiding.  I had read the book as a young girl, but didn’t absorb it at all.  I bought another copy and just inhaled it.  If you’ve ever read the book, read it again.


We went to the Van Gogh museum, where they were having a special exhibition on Rembrandt and Carvaggio.  It was very crowded and HOT.  Thus began our two week sweat fest, for we were to see very little of Mr. Air Conditioner in the coming days.  That night we ate dinner at an Indonesian restaurant, again recommended by Joop, and again a Home Run.  The food was delectable, and brought back a lot of my memories of Singapore when I was in high school. 


We had to be at the airport early the next morning for our flight to Almaty.  Joop again drove us to Schiphol airport in his clanky Volvo.  After some friendly handshakeswith Joop, we were off.  The demographics of our flight here became quite different from the groups of teenagers on aEuropean vacation, and elderly folks who finally get the children off the payroll and get to see Europe at long last.  Here we were surrounded by stocky, square faced Asian men in business suits with pointy-toed shoes; and beautiful Asian women with adorable, chubby babies.  We spotted groups of  American geologists traveling to Central Asia to develop the oil and gas industry there (okay I read the business cards on their briefcases.  I’m nosy).  Our 6 hour flight was unremarkable … more movies, more bad airplane food.  We arrived in Almaty near midnight, and immediately started sweating again!  It’s amazing how much heat a heavy backpack can produce in a non-airconditioned airport!  (Note:  I asked someone in Kaz later why they had such an aversion to air conditioning.  The reply: it will make you sick!  Imagine my horror at seeing a fully operational air conditioner in many of the cars we rode in in Kaz, but the driver refused to use it, since he might get sick.  Gee, should we sickly Americans take a hint from the Kazakhs?)