First Class Travel, Kazakhstan Style
So we are back from our whirlwind tour of Almaty, Kazakhstan. It is a nice, rainy, relaxing day in Taraz, so we are taking the opportunity to recover from our two night train trips. Wednesday night at 10, our coordinators took us to the train station and put us on what appeared to be the “first class” section of one of the old Soviet trains. Of course, for this trip, the mythical “Spanish train” was not running. I am not sure that it ever runs in real life, it seems to be just a story that gets passed around by the locals to make us hope for better transportation. That being said, though, we were pleasantly surprised when we got on the train and found that our car was made up of only two-bed compartments that seemed much cleaner than our previous trip. Of course, as soon as we got on the train, we had to pass by a huge man that had really never invested in deodorant or soap of any kind, but that was a minor inconvenience when we entered our little compartment. It was decorated in a kind of 1940’s grandmother motif, probably because I think these trains have been around since then. It was actually clean and comfortable – go figure! (Well, except for the bathroom – it was still horrible and I got to maintain my status of having the largest bladder in the country, as I am never going to use that bathroom) The train attendant was a woman this time that was really very nice to us. Now that we are experts at our 6 or 8 Russian words that we use daily, it is almost like we are natives, so we were able to communicate primitively with her. She promised to make sure we got off on the right stop, which shouldn’t be hard, because it is the LAST stop for this train, but just to be sure. We all fell asleep pretty quickly because it was so late. Jacob and I shared our bunk with him on the inside part, just to make sure he didn’t roll off. At around 3 a.m., I was so glad to have cozied Jacob up that way, as the train car lurched hard with a sound that woke us up sounding like we had hit something big. Literally, Jeff and I almost fell out of our bunks, the train stopped so hard. We looked out the window and saw that we were in the middle of nowhere, in the middle of the night. The train then started lurching forward and then backwards, each time hitting something and stopping so hard we had to hold on to not get knocked out of bed. This happened over and over. Somehow Jacob managed to sleep through all of this, which was good, because I was starting to get a little panicked that we were going to have to get off the train in the middle of nowhere with no one that speaks English, in an area that our cell phone didn’t work. Luckily, though, whatever they were doing with the train worked, and in about 20 minutes we were moving again. Jeff and I were laughing about it later in the day thinking that maybe we had hit a cow or something, and the train driver just had to get it flat enough to keep moving over the tracks, hence the heavy back and forth motions. We will never know what happened, and we seemed to be the only one awake in the train car to even notice.
When we arrived in the Almaty station at 8:30 in the morning, we were prepared to wait a bit for our Almaty coordinator. This is the one that left my parents at the station when they came home. She had told our coordinator, Vera, to make sure that we waited for her this time. We just kept saying for her to actually be there on time. When we got off the train, we were pleasantly surprised to find her waiting right there at the right car for us. She really is a sweet girl, and this is her first time coordinating, so I guess we have to cut her some slack. We had arranged to have a hotel for the day in Almaty so that we could have a place to take a shower and get dressed before our US Embassy interview in the afternoon. We even thought that maybe we could get Jacob to take a little rest. She had warned us that all of the good hotels in Almaty were booked for some film festival, and that this one really wasn’t as nice. Those plans changed as soon as we drove up to the “hotel”. I use that term loosely, because it is better described as a sleaze-bag motel. Immediately we told her that we didn’t need more than an hour and a half to get ready. We didn’t know what exactly we would do with the rest of the day, but anything was better than this place. It did have shower and what looked like clean towels, but there was no way I going to let my precious son put his head on the bed to lay down. I have no idea what could have been growing there. I was so grateful that we had decided to bathe Jacob the night before, and that I had decided to wash my hair the night before. At first Jeff tried to convince me that it wasn’t that bad, but seriously, I think once his eyes got accustomed to the light, he really took a look around and agreed with me. We got cleaned up and went outside to wait for our coordinator, afraid to stay in the room and catch something awful.
We were definitely sleep-deprived and hungry, so we went for a very early lunch at a restaurant called “The American Grill”, where we had eaten on our first day in Almaty. Since we have now found out that it is literally the only place in Kazakhstan that serves quesadillas and chicken nuggets, two of Jacob’s staple meals, we knew we had to go back. We were not disappointed, and I know I enjoyed that meal more than just about any meal I have had since being gone. It actually made my mind start dreaming about McDonald’s and salads from Paradise Bakery. Ah salad…..there is no lettuce in Kazakhstan, and even if there was we couldn’t eat it because it would have been washed in the tap water. I have never craved salad like I have been lately. But I digress…. During the day, our Taraz coordinator, Vera, kept calling and checking up on us. I think she was worried we were going to get stuck at the train station, or not picked up on time for the embassy. No pressure on our Almaty coordinator, huh? I was so glad that she did, though, as we did not want anything to go wrong for this day. After lunch, we still had a lot of time to kill, so our coordinator asked us if we wanted to go for coffee. Jeff told her about my barista work in the hotel room and she said that she knew a good coffee place for us. We were both thinking, “yeah right – Nescafe instant coffee does not qualify as a good cup of coffee”. We were so gratefully wrong – they DO have coffee houses in Kazakhstan. They don’t exist in Taraz, but in the cosmopolitan city of Almaty, they most certainly do. We both got cappuccinos, and I swear, it was the best cup of coffee I have ever had, or at least the most appreciated. We both just savored the foam and the great strong coffee like never before – it was really wonderful. Oh how I miss Starbucks…..But I digress again….
After coffee, it was time to go to the embassy. We were very nervous because we thought we were going to have to show all kinds of documents and have a long interview about processing our daughter’s visa and immigration to the United States. Boy, were we surprised when the entire process took no more than 20 minutes. Most of that time was time to be escorted by security to the 17th floor where the processing takes place. We turned in our “Orphan Processing” paperwork, paid for our daughter’s visa, and then a very nice woman explained to us all about the airline security changes. She gave us a nicely printed page showing that we can now bring a little hand gel on board. Then she said congratulations and told us that when our daughter steps foot on US soil when she gets off the plane at LAX, that she will be a United States citizen. That was it – no drum roll, no hard questions, no sweat, no stress. We didn’t even have to raise our right hand or anything. After everything we have been through, it was actually kind of a let down, but I’ll take it!
We celebrated by walking across the street to the big shopping center in Almaty called Ramstore. It is actually a three story mall with a huge grocery store attached to it. On the bottom floor, they have a food court with some slightly American food, and even have a Baskin Robbins. We did a little shopping and ate an early dinner, followed by ice cream. Jacob had a chance to sit down and watch the ice skating rink that they have in the center of the little mall while he played with a new little toy he had gotten at the huge grocery store. After that, our coordinator picked us up and took us to the train station to wait for our train back to Taraz. This one left around 6, so it was still light out. We had the same train car and another two-seater compartment, which was great. We fired up the dvd player and watched “The Polar Express” while the train moved towards our Kazakhstan home. We thought that Jacob would fall asleep for the night, but unfortunately, the electrical system was a little off in the train. By a little off, I mean that all of the other compartments were able to turn the lights off and get some sleep. Ours stayed on at full blast and wouldn’t turn off for anything. This kept Jacob up, and us, and we were all really tired. Finally, around 10, we were able to communicate with the lady that secures the train car and she went up the front of the train and turned off the main light switch. By this time, though, Jacob was a little delirious, and it took a while to actually get to sleep. Once we did, though we all slept hard until our train came back to the Taraz station at 4:30 this morning. It was so nice to see the smiling faces of Vera and Medet waiting for us.
This morning we tried to get Jacob to go back to sleep as soon as we got back in the room, but no luck. We all showered early and got ready, and were definitely the first ones in the dining room when the restaurant opened at 7:30. We went for a little walk in the light rain, and then back to our room for an early nap. Jeff and Jacob are still asleep – they needed it! This afternoon we will go to the orphanage and bring our gifts for all of our daughter’s caregivers and the orphanage director. We are definitely on the final stretch. I am even thinking about packing up everything that we won’t be needing for the next three days – we are so ready to come home, we can almost taste it. We still have one big step before we get there, and that is our final court hearing. Please pray that all goes well on Monday morning at court so that we are able to get in a car for a very long (7 hour) drive to the airport, followed by about 20 hours of flying to finally get home. We really miss Amber and Mitchell so much – it was great to get to talk to them when we got back to the hotel this morning. We will be with you soon! I also want to say Happy Anniversary to my parents. Yesterday they were married 38 years – pretty impressive! We love you guys!