Friday, October 9, 2009

The Second Trip

No PC available the second time around - too much baby stuff to carry! So here is a compilation of the notes taken - it just took a while to get them on line.

July 28th – 29th, 2009 – Due to flight availability we flew from Detroit to Frankfurt Germany for our first leg, with an overnight stay there (in Waldorf). Beautiful day and country so we decided since we had almost the entire day to explore the small city; taking the train into Frankfurt would have been too taxing after the first batch of jet lag. Our travels found us visiting a small local park, with a lake, very crowded beach and a trail around the waterfront. It was atypical German beach, with tops optional. What we didn’t realize was that the back side of the lake (we found this out midway through the back track) was swim suit bottoms prohibited – the tops didn’t matter because the backside was all men! Use you imagination as to what we stumbled into. All I can say is that I was not expecting to see completely naked men striding out of the bushes as I walked with my wife. I was more uncomfortable that she – Sue even had the nerve to call me a prude!!!

July 30th, 2009 – On to Kazakhstan, or more importantly to my prudish moral conviction out of Germany! The flight in was smooth, we arrived about 11:00 PM in Astana the capital, and were met by a new driver - Rashu. We spoke with Marina on the cell and she told us we would be going to a hotel in Astana for the night, and that Rashu the next driver (forgive if I spell it wrong!) the driver would take us to Suchinsk the next day. Problem though, no appointment was made to meet with the baby house director to sign him out so it didn’t look like we were going to pick Danny up….She also told us we would get our itinerary the next morning by her over the telephone. He would be both our driver and interpreter. The hotel staff also supposedly spoke English but this too was in error, however between the un-named driver and our own experiences we now had enough experience to figure it out. The room came to $36 US and was huge; it was more like a suite.

July 31st, 2009 – Rashu was late, Marina was unavailable and we were panicking – we were supposed to go pick him up (6 hours round trip) and get back in time for a flight to Almaty that night. After remembering where we were, we put on our Kazak-caps and tried to relax. I took a walk about town while Sue got ready and found some wonderful parks. Rashu showed up late, but did show and that’s when we found out our interpreter did not speak English. Here we go – back in Kaz! Soon we were on the road.

It was an interesting ride as this was the first time we took it in the daylight. Astana appears to be on the steppes and as we travelled north we saw small dilapidated villages with residents set up alongside the highway selling piles of potatoes or melons every few hundred yards or so. The road was massive – about 4-5 lanes wide (each side) with no lane markings, so the few vehicles we did see drove wherever and at whatever speed they pleased. The steppes were mostly covered in maturing grain fields with small copses of birch.

About 2 hours along the journey the scenery changed to birch and pine forest, rolling hills and rock, then changed back to steppes after awhile. Soon the mountains of Borovoe are sighted in the distance and welcome (?) us back to Suschinsk.

To our relief Madina was there to meet us at the Baby house – she explained that they were all worried as they had not heard from us for days, apparently expecting us to pick him up earlier in the week – so much for no appointment. Oh, and there was no paperwork to sign either – welcome back. He was not sure who we were after such a long time away, but after looking at a photo we left and comparing our faces, he finally exclaimed Mama and Papa, apparently deciding we weren’t imposters after all.

After picking him up we were reunited with Valera who took up to a hotel outside of town this time. This time it was $80 for a room not nearly so nice and no way to cook anything. (we did talk them into breaking there rules and giving us a hot pot to boil water) We were outside of town, it rained for days and we had neither driver nor interpreter. Rashu did leave his phone for us to call Marina – but locked the keys so little did that help. We were stuck here until the next Monday – not sure why – and braved the mud, garbage, lack of sidewalks and camel dung to at least get him out of the room. I quickly remembered why you shouldn’t plug a 110 VAC fan into the 220VAC outlets there…thank goodness it was in the middle of a thunderstorm so the power outage when it self destructed was blamed on that. I’m glad they didn’t look in our smoke filled room, and don’t believe in smoke detectors in hotels! Luckily we had dehydrated food this time or we would’ve starved.

We were told our facilitator – Erken – was supposed to come Sunday night or Monday morning to get Danny’s visa stamp for the immigration department so he could leave the region.
It rained on and off all weekend so we fought our way into town along the muddy road (no sidewalks) to get out between deluges when we could. It was the same ole slum with less trash this time, we quickly remembered which streets not to go down so we would be free from being accosted by Muslim beggar’s children when we wouldn’t pony up some dough.

Monday August 3rd, 2009
No Erken, but found out there was paperwork to be signed at the marriage office which we took care of in the afternoon, Danny was his usual charming self and blew kisses to the clerk. Once done we headed back to Astana with Rashu to catch a plane for Almaty.
We got a flat tire halfway there, and when I helped to change it found out that his stash of Vodka was hidden in the rubber raft in the trunk. Rubber boat, fishing gear and Vodka – this is a pretty cool kid after all!

Same scene with vendors along the road on the way back, we were able to take a roundabout route through the city and saw Astana was experiencing a great amount of new construction. It appears to be a rather progressive city with pretty progressive architecture. There were a lot of parks, green space and monuments – quite typical of a Kazakh city.

We were told that Marina would rebook the flight since we couldn’t over the weekend and because of the time difference Monday back to the US – typically it was not rebooked which I found out 10 minutes before check-in (Finally it was the start of business in the US so our travel agent fixed us up – thank goodness I took the precaution of checking with her!) Erken met us at the airport with some documents, but no visa stamp – we were told he would get it tomorrow and send to Marina in Almaty. Everything hinges on his efficiency so we cross our fingers. Next surprise – we owe $450 for the driver (No NOT in the travel guide) to take us the airport. Oh well, it’s only money…

Monday night flight to Astana – Hell above the earth!!!!!! The pilots flew the entire trip like they were fighter pilots evading enemy radar, the flight was fraught with thunderstorms (which they seemed to love to dive into) and LOTS of turbulence. Danny was plagued with nightmares and a painful ear infection so I spent the flight carrying him up and down the aisle of the plane. My sinus infection appeared at the same time – wonderful! When we finally landed (roughly) the passengers applauded and we finally began to understand why they always did that, they were happy to have survived another Kazak airline flight safely and be back on the ground.

Monday night - Tuesday early AM: We met Kate the interpreter and Leonid our driver at the airport and they quickly got us settled into an apartment overlooking the pedestrian mall (more on that later). All the transition finally was too much for Danny, he finally had is first and only major temper tantrum – he even ended up biting Sue in his uncontrolled rage. It lasted between and hour and an hour and a half. Better than most we understand.

We were told about the “zoom” store with the third floor full of souvenirs and braved that today, we finally ended up in the basement with vendors selling literally thousands of cell phones (most the same model!) No purchases this time – recon only.

Tuesday August 4, 2009 - We met with Marina today who gave us our itinerary and what to expect in Almaty. She had received the Visa stamp form Erken, whom we found had quit and got a new job although he was finishing our adoption processing.

Wednesday August 5, 2009 – began the day with a trip the Almaty zoo – plenty of animals but definitely not taken care of to American standards. Danny was only really interested in the birds, which are extremely large. We were supposed to meet with another American couple (John and Shannon) from Alaska at the zoo, but missed them by 10 minutes.

Went to the SOS clinic for Danny’s exit physical this afternoon, and was taken care of by a very nice British Doctor. He had to recheck his measurements and weight on the APGAR chart as he couldn’t believe the result – Danny was smack in the middle of where an American child would be of similar age which he said he had never seen with a child from an orphanage. Danny was really good until it was time to look in his mouth, finally we got it pried open and he was given a clean bill of health.

Thursday through Saturday Agust 8, 2009 - Almaty impressions: There are plenty of playgrounds throughout the city, many in large and beautiful parks. We must have visited them all many times over. We found out that a slide trumps a swing set every time for Danny, probably because they didn’t have any slides at the baby house. Panfilov Park seems to be one of our favorites, with children’s park, playground, and a large square around a 100+ year old Russian orthodox church which was extremely beautiful and put together with wooden pegs.

The inside was painted walls and ceiling much like what I would imagine the Sistine Chapel, and all the wood sculpture, murals, railing etc. are wonderfully ornate with gold filigree inlay. I can only imagine the quantity of gold inside that building!

When we visited the priest was performing baptisms.

At the far end of the park is the war memorial park for the Great Patriotic War (WW2) although there were also memorials for Afghanistan and the revolution. The statues were awesome – both in design and size.
In the center is the everlasting flame for those that have died in service to their country – people still heap flowers after Mass around the flame for loved ones after over 60 years. Kazakh culture is very routed in their history and they are very proud and protective of it.

Panfilov Park is quite the community gathering place on Saturday evening – impromptu jam sessions with bongos and cultural instruments, dancing, ping pong tournaments (very big in Kaz), old men playing chess, carriage rides, karaoke with TVs and stereos sitting on park benches, etc.
Arbot street (just outside our window), the pedestrian mall, is busy with people and artists at all time of the day and night, although even with public drinking we saw no drunks or rowdiness. Many musicians play for change thrown in their open cases; violin, guitar, traditional instruments, and even a saxophone. The streets are lined both with vendors and especially local artists paintings for sale, hundreds of them and all very good. The “zoom” store is at the end of the mall – crazy busy but eventually we braved it for some souvenirs of his birthplace.

We met another couple form Anchorage Alaska, John and Shannon Lee, and spent a fair amount of time with them just enjoying another American’s company and spoken English! They adopted a one year old boy from Aqtobe with a cleft palette. Because of their circumstances they have been in country 4 months already, and have spent most of it traveling to other regions. They are more adventurous than we are – but then again they are Alaskans!

Sunday August 9th - We were treated to a Shusli (derived from the wood usedto cook on which grows only on the steppes of Kazakhstan we are told) Shiskabob by Marina and Leonid (Driver and BBQ cook extraordinaire!) along a river in the foothills of the mountains. We were joined by John, Shannon, Demetri (their son) and two other ladies (form Philly and NJ) one of which was adopting a daughter from the same baby house and group as Demetri. Everything was terrific although we were extremely exhausted by the end of the day chasing Danny away from the food, the river, the rocks, the trash, the food, the river, - you get the idea! Sue was called upon to give medical aid (although it was simply consultation) to an old guy who had too much to drink (alcohol) and not enough water and had passed out.

Monday August 10th – We visited the State historical museum while The Lee’s went to the embassy. It was a very nice museum with a large qty of artifacts, but no English translation. Apparently a very old civilization, culture and country. Their view of history is a bit different than ours though, one English translation told how one of their generals fought at and saved Ft Ticonderoga in the revolutionary war! There were no photos allowed inside though.

Danny is having good days and bad days – he is still having nightmares but not as frequently.

Tuesday August 11th – Finally our visit to the US embassy today! It was not what we expected by any stretch of the imagination. The embassy is in a large bank on the upper floor, guarded by Kazakhs (not marines?) The entire exit interview lasted less than five minutes – and they didn’t want any of our stack of notarized and apostilled documents either.

We came and went in one of their frequent violent but short lasting thunder storms; by the time we were back to the apartment it was sunny again. By evening we were back at Panfilov Park at the playground and feeding the pigeons, but had to rush back to give Marina a copy of one of the court documents.

Wednesday August 12th – 1AM – Flight left at 2:55AM to Frankfurt. Danny charmed us through the passport control and security checkpoints no problem. The flight was smooth but Danny had frequent nightmares and an ear infection that kept us hopping trying to soothe him – walking the aisles mainly. The flight to Chicago also smooth, now he is more awake so instead of soothing him we have to keep him busy and corralled! He did charm us into a business class upgrade though – thank the good lord and his cuteness! Even so the 9 ½ hour flight was exhausting. We arrived in Chicago mid-day expecting a two wait to get him immagrationalized (my word), in fact it took again less than 5 minutes – one stamp in his passport on the immigration visa and a welcome to the US and he was done – Daniel Helsel, US citizen! We skirted the 5 hour layover and went standby on an earlier flight and by 6PM he was in his new home.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

It's official - He's all ours!

Finally home! Sorry for the interval in the blog entries, but there’s not much connection at 36,000 feet and then there was the jet lag…

Update – Court went perfect on the 17th, apparently our report to the Judge covered all the bases with only a handful of follow up questions asked, and all of these were in the initial report anyway. After a couple of paperwork stops, we were given the evening off until 11:00 when it was time to leave for the airport in Astana. We were able to visit Danny for a half hour to say good-bye (for now), then cooled our heels until Erken came to pick us up.

The Airport in Astana is very modern, with signs and announcements made in both Russian and English, everything went smooth as we headed out on the 15 hour (actual flying time – not counting layovers) travel back home. We aren’t sure what was more tired, our bodies or our butts!!

So now we are back at home waiting for the next trip to bring him home. At this point it looks like we’ll travel the 18th of July and be home up to 2 weeks later. First we fly into Astana, and then take the 6 hour round trip car ride to pick him up from Sucinsk. Our next stop is a plane to Almaty for the US Embassy (about 1 ½ to 2 hours). This trip is all US Embassy stuff so should be a piece of cake.

Then… it will be 17 hours of flying time plus layovers with a 2 year old. Pray for us!

Our next entry likely won’t be until we return near the 1st of August, so stay tuned.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Happy Birthday to me!!!!

June 14th, 2009 - It’s a warm, partly sunny day here in Sucinsk, Kazakhstan. Daniel was in a great mood this morning and it’s my 44th Birthday! After awakening to a hand-drawn card by my wonderfully talented wife that has captured the essence of our trip here, we spent the morning with our boy, then to my surprise our translator and driver made it even better by presenting me with birthday gifts from Kazakhstan: A beautiful picture made from the local birch trees, a big box of really tasty chocolates…and… a bottle of Kazakhstan Vodka! Oh, it will be a really happy birthday now!!!!

This afternoon we are planning to slip our chains and venture out to the ruins of an old W.W. II German POW camp…not quite the same as climbing a mountain (Something that has become a tradition for Sue and me on my birthday) but those of you that know my love of military history know it is close. That is, as long as I can resist the Vodka’s siren song as it sits here by my elbow…

We only get to visit Danny one more day (tomorrow) before court, then a quick goodbye with him on Wednesday before we head back to Astana to fly home early the next morning. Now for some parting thoughts in case this is our last entry before leaving:

Things we’d never thought we’d say:
Great, there’s camel poop (or use your imagination!) on the stroller wheels again.
I like the Mushroom soup flavored Lay’s potato chips better than the Shish-kabob ones… and my favorite – what flavor are they depicting on the package????
This Snicker’s bar tastes like ….. I’m not eating any more chocolate – you finish it. (That was before they gave me the good stuff!)
Look honey, there’s a FOUR legged dog!
Let’s save the last Mac-n-cheese for a special occasion.
I’m looking forward to airline food.
It’s right there on the shelf next to the canned horse meat…
What flavor is that supposed to be? (the label says bacon, but the picture doesn’t seem to match)

Things we thought we’d never have to experience:
Getting busted by the national park trash collectors because we didn’t have our papers…at the top of the mountain we just climbed… where our translator and driver had to come claim us….
Stepping around the goat being milked on the sidewalk
Having my head wound taken care of by an American Veterinarian instead of their doctors, and damned happy about it!!!
Three layers of clothing and a stocking cap for our child on an almost 80 degree day (not OUR choice!)
Snow on Memorial Day
Buying “Gifts” for the court officials consisting of toad prosperity statues (Not our choice either – we’re waiting to see if our translator is setting us up for a jail sentence)
Buying court “gifts” the same place they sell water bongs and heroin incense – cheap too! 3000 Tenge (about 20 US$) for a large beautifully crafted model. (Not that I’d know!!!!)
Getting out of being shaken down by the criminals posing as cops because we didn’t speak the language (Russian), how were we supposed to know what they wanted???
Being afraid to eat the chocolate – see above

Things we miss or look forward to:
Standing under a hot shower – for a long time
Eating raw produce (Salads baby, yeah!!!!)
McDonalds – with American beef (and being sure it’s really beef)
Not having to boil our drinking water
One stop shopping – “sorry, no eggs again.”
Not watching where you step so as not to impale yourself on broken beer bottles or hypodermic syringes
English language!!!!!!!!

All for now!

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Still surviving

For those of you still following this blog, here is another entry. We will be going to court next Wednesday, and on Tuesday, we will go to have our hair done and be prepped by our facilitators here on what to do. (Apparently Eric’s growing 70’s hairstyle won’t cut it for court.) Actually Eric is having his hair cut, Sue is chicken-she has seen some of the styles on the street.
Our last real hike was last weekend up our little mountain here in town. It allowed us to get some nice panoramic views of the nearby lake and of the town below.
Most of our bonding time with Daniel has been fun, however, we are finding out about 2 year old attitude as well! How crazy is it to jump into parenthood during the terrible twos? He has been shuffled back to his original group now that the remodeling is over, so just finding him (!) and adjusting to his new time schedule has been a new challenge. He seems accepting to change, provided it is done slowly. We will need to gradually introduce him to change and not throw too much at him once we are home to continue to ease his adjustment from a Russian-speaking orphanage to an American home.

That’s all for now. . . .

Friday, June 5, 2009

Court date set!

Great news – we finally have our court date – June 17th. We’re flying the heck out of dodge at 4:50 am the next morning after a midnight run back to Astana, no sleep for a while! The first stop in Frankfurt (if there is time) is McD’s!!!!!!! Daniel will stay at the orphanage until we return around mid July to finish the US Embassy paperwork, etc.

The news from the orphanage is the same, we walk around the same old blocks twice a day to the point that the mongrel dogs no longer even bother to bark at us. Danny is getting almost as bored with the routine as we are. I’m starting to understand what animals at a zoo feel like! (He still loves his swing though.)

We took an “excursion” yesterday to their most famous national parks – Borovoe. Beautiful country with mountains and lakes, and were even provided with a guide for the trip who is a local secondary school teacher (teaches Russian). We got a much greater understanding of their culture and history, specifically why all peoples (Muslim and Christian or whatever) get along here – that’s a huge part of their culture with strong historical precedents. We also got to see the president of Kazakhstan’s retreat – well sort of – we saw his fence and guard houses! It was kind of like Camp David but not nearly as secretive or extravagant. We took lots of photos which you’ll have to hit us up to see when we get back. We’ll post a couple of “teasers” now. Yesterday was our translator, Medina’s, birthday as well, so we took our driver, translator and guide out to a Kazakhstan lunch. It was really good!! Actually the plov (a rice, meat and vegetable mixture) that we all ate is actually Uzbekistani according to Medina, which explains the taste and digestibility!

That’s it for now. It is time for our nightly movie.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Bonding Period over!!!!!

Day 14 of our voluntary captivity. Today is our last official bonding day. Now we submit papers to the court and wait….and wait…and continue to visit Daniel in the orphanage. It’s been a rainy couple of days so the sidewalks are once again quagmires and it has limited our mobility, but the sun is out now and has lifted our spirits.
Danny’s group finally moved into their remodeled room today – which in itself is an interesting story. Danny had previously started bonding with another couple a few months ago, who found out upon their arrival here that the woman was unexpectedly pregnant! They chose to stop the bonding, gave all their gifts (we may have already wrote about this…) and donated the rest of the program money for remodeling of the orphanage – thus Danny’s group’s new room compliments of his previous aborted adoption.

As we are starting the legal process now, our entries will be further apart since we will be occupied with other matters.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Children's Protection Day

Today was Kazakhstan’s national holiday celebrating children, roughly translated to Children’s Protection Day. We were treated to a special show featuring many of Danny’s group. (The easiest one to point out is the only little girl) The children sang, danced, recited and played games with the teachers (in costume). Many of the dances were to (we presume!) their cultural folk songs.
We didn’t understand hardly any of it, but it was fun just the same and will be an important addition to his life book. Danny seemed to enjoy it as well and clapped along with the tunes, and was rewarded at the end with a bag of sandbox (beach to us!) toys and a really messy chocolate covered sandwich cookie.
It is customary to give your children gifts or in this case their care-givers. We presented the orphanage director with a box of Russian Bonbons for the staff (I don’t know how it made it 2 days in the refrigerator untouched!) which he seemed to be genuinely surprised and pleased to receive. We'll see tomorrow after he opens the card which we signed in cyrillic if we did it right...
Danny is showing off his new pair of shades (and American attitude!) in this photo.

It’s been raining and will continue to do so for a few days. The mud here is terrible so even if it stops for a bit it is not too inviting to venture out. Still stir crazy in our apartment – today Eric tried to cheat Sue out of her turn to wash dishes for something to do – unsuccessfully. Tomorrow is the last official bonding day – then it’s waiting for the court date which could be a few weeks out. We’ll see…