Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Rocking Chairs, Rocking Babies...

...Rock-a-bye, Rock of ages.

I hear this Dolly Parton song in my head around 2am when we're changing diapers & feeding the baby. We do have two rocking chairs in the house and they're frequently both in use in the evening.

From 2008 Patch Barracks

From 2008 Patch Barracks

From 2008 Patch Barracks

From 2008 Patch Barracks

Bob will be gone for over two weeks for work, and I'll admit I'm a bit apprehensive. Well, I'm only nervous about the two rough parts of the day.. The morning routine/breakfast/walk to school and the evening routine/dinner prep, eating, bathtime, bedtime. Evenings are especially rough as the littles (Vic, 18 mo. & Bailey, 1 mo.) tend to need to eat, bathe, and bedtime at the same time. When I tend to one, the other is crying. Both need one-on-one time for either bottle feeding (bailey) or story time (Vic), and typically the other one is wailing in the background. It's nuts I tell you. I keep telling myself.. Just keep smiling! Or rather, kick, paddle, breathe until you're swimming like a champ.

We spent Thanksgiving with good friends who insisted we not cook anything. Thank God! We're still getting our feet grounded with our newest Sims, so this was a great gift. My friend is an especially good cook, and tried out a bunch of yummy recipes on us. Yum! My waistline suffered a setback with all the good eats, but it'll come off in due time. I'll get the okay at month's end from my doctor to go back to the gym - can't wait!

Bailey is getting more cute, smiley, giggly and plump every day. I wasn't sure what to do with this little girl when I heard what we were having. Now, however, I'm really loving how different she is from her brothers... and that I get to dress her in cute outfits! Poor girl is losing her newborn hair, but only on the front half of her head. It takes away from her beauty, so when the camera comes out or we go outside, I try to keep a hat on her.

This past week I got in contact with another adoptive parent from Vic's Baby House. She was there adopting her son in Oct/Nov of '07 from the same room that Vic was in at the time. I emailed her asking if she happened to have any photos of Vic and boy were we lucky. Vic was good buddies with her son, and she had about 15 photos of Vic at around 6 or 7 months old. For an international adoptive parent, this is a treasured gift that we wouldn't normally have. These photos will most likely be the earliest photos we have of our beautiful little boy, and I am so very grateful.

Thursday, November 13, 2008


We've come up with some good nicknames for the kids over the past few months. I always wanted a cool nickname when I was young, and I guess I had one, but it was only suitable for my immediate family. So when I realized that our kids each had nicknames I got excited and thought I would share them with y'all.

From 2008 Patch Barracks

Jack, the oldest, is our Squad Leader for obvious reasons - his Uncle Jim gave him this nickname a while ago. It fits him well as he prefers his friends and siblings to willingly follow his lead, though this doesn't always happen. :o) I've also called him Cowboy for the longest time, but I have no idea why.. it just came out when he was a toddler.

From 2008 Patch Barracks

Vic is our Tank... He's built tough and rugged and lets nothing stand in his way - you should see how he walks! Chest puffed out, shoulders back, arms at the ready to clear a path. I need to get this kid on a soccer or football team pronto.

From 2008 Patch Barracks

Our littlest one, Bailey, is nicknamed Stretch. I have never known a baby, or grown adult for that matter, that stretches as much as she does. My word, no wonder why the last month of my pregnancy was so painful.. she was wiggling and stretching, rolling her head and arching her back the whole time. I really need to get a better photo of young Bailey. We have lots of video of her, but not many good photos of just her. Something to work on today!

From 2008 Patch Barracks

Here's a photo of the boys before our building's halloween party. Jack was Indiana Jones and Vic was a fuzzy bear. Both boys were very cute, and Vic loved wearing the bear hat - adorable!

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

More Milestones

First haircut.

Handsome, well-groomed young gentleman, with his Grandmother.

A leisurely stroll in the German countryside.

Bailey Elizabeth

We were blessed with our third child and first daughter, Bailey Elizabeth Sims, this morning at 3:00 AM.  Bailey was delivered by the staff at the Böblingen, Germany hospital.  She weighed 7 lbs, 14 oz, and measured 20.8 inches in length.  Fortunately, the delivery was routine in every respect, and the labor was mercifully short for Laura.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

100 days home!

From 2008 Patch Barracks

From 2008 Patch Barracks

Wow. 100 days ago Vic and I were sitting in the Almaty airport. It was a long wait in the middle of the night for our flight out of his birth country and on to his first home.

Vic has come so far in these past 100 days. Vic remains a cheerful, giggly, happy little boy who is completely in love with his daddy. He was this way when we met him at the end of April, yet he is even more so now, much more open. Bob, Jack and I are all three so incredibly taken by our smallest Sims. Just this evening when I had a 'date' with Jack at the grocery store, he mentioned that he already missed Vic as we were in the car heading home. Once in the door, Jack spent the next hour playing and giggling with his little brother. We are a very, very lucky family. I'm so glad I get to be mommy to these two sweet young men.

From 2008 Patch Barracks

From 2008 Patch Barracks

We spent Vic's 100th day home at a local science/discovery/fun house called Sensapolis. This place was amazing, expensive, yet lots of fun. Jack was all over the place with his little friend, Jimmy, so I have very few photos of him. He spent most of his time in a huge castle wearing a prince jacket.

From 2008 Patch Barracks

From 2008 Patch Barracks

From 2008 Patch Barracks

From 2008 Patch Barracks

Vic did great even though he didn't get his nap until around 3pm. This is a pretty big deal as he's a regular two-nap-a-day kid. I've been trying to get him into one nap a day, which works into my schedule much better, but it's tough on him.

From 2008 Patch Barracks

From 2008 Patch Barracks

From 2008 Patch Barracks

From 2008 Patch Barracks

From 2008 Patch Barracks

This week will be pretty busy.. Monday night Jack has his first Tiger Cub Scout meeting. Tuesday I have a Dr.'s appt. Wednesday morning I have a wives meeting to attend. Wednesday evening we have a slight schedule conflict... Our bible study meets at 6pm, and that's also the time that Bob's mom arrives at the Stuttgart airport. So... I think I'll take Jack to his bible study and attend the grown-up bible study myself. Bob will take Vic with him to the airport and pick up Grandma. Friday the ladies in our building are throwing me a baby shower for our soon-to-be little girl. Saturday is Jack's 6th birthday party at a local movie theater.

The one thing I'm trying to make sure doesn't happen this week is labor... is it nuts to completely refuse to have a baby? I'm having a *lot* of indicators that it may happen really, really soon, even though my due date isn't until October 31st. I'm just trying to hold on until Mom Sims gets here Wednesday night. Our joke around the house is that Bob can drop me off at the hospital on his way to the airport... as long as someone comes back for me. :o)

If I can make it another few weeks, that would be great! Long enough for Grandma and Vic to bond before I leave for the hospital, and enough time for the baby's lungs to get strong. Oh.. and enough time for me to get that baby room ready!! Hopefully photos of the room will be in the next post.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

What a life!

From 2008 Patch Barracks
Vic in his jammies laughing it up with mom. Notice all the drool! He's cutting two molars.

From 2008 Patch Barracks
Mr. Curious

Young Vic has been home 2 & 1/2 months now and doing very, very well. The sound of my oldest son doing something to make my youngest son roll with laughter is music to my ears. I enjoyed this blessed sound today after Vic's nap, Jack insisted that he go in first and visit with Vic before I came to get him.

So much has changed in the past few months...

- Our wildest dream of expanding our family has come true, and Vic is so much more than we imagined.
- My sweet Jack is now a big boy 1st grader. What happened? Where did the time go???
- Moved from our gorgeous 100+ year old German farmhouse into a modern on-post apartment.
- Oh yeah, and I'm pregnant. After Dr's said that it wouldn't happen without significant medical help.

What a difference a year makes. I won't go over all our tragic losses from 2007, as they are painful and too personal. Just know that as 2007 was all about darkness and repeated sudden losses, 2008 is all about life and happiness. Have you found that following great tragedy and loss comes great triumph and love? We have.

With the addition of Vic and the pending arrival of the newest Sims, I realized that we needed life to become much, much more simple. My darling did the whole move just to make me happy, and we've been surprised at how easy life is now without a commute.

-The best for Bob: no traffic jams, he walks Jack to school then down the street to work.
-The best for me: The laundry room is *down the hall* from the bedrooms instead of two flights down the stairs in our old farmhouse. Plus, I don't feel so isolated anymore.

I must admit that I think of things to blog about every day, but find I feel like toast by the time I'm off the clock. I'm now 8 months pregnant with 8 weeks left - my due date is October 31st - and this is definitely making a dent in how much energy I have left at the end of the day. Excuses, excuses. The timing of this pregnancy is waaay off my preferred plan, but it is a very welcome gift we've been given.

Here is a quote I read on The NieNie Dialogues blog that may help me keep life in perspective.

"Author Anna Quindlen reminds us not to rush past the fleeting moments. She said: “The biggest mistake I made [as a parent] is the one that most of us make. . . . I did not live in the moment enough. This is particularly clear now that the moment is gone, captured only in photographs. There is one picture of [my three children] sitting in the grass on a quilt in the shadow of the swing set on a summer day, ages six, four, and one. And I wish I could remember what we ate, and what we talked about, and how they sounded, and how they looked when they slept that night. I wish I had not been in such a hurry to get on to the next thing: dinner, bath, book, bed. I wish I had treasured the doing a little more and the getting it done a little less”(Loud and Clear [2004], 10–11).

From 2008 Patch Barracks
Jack & Mom enjoying the "doing" of life more.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

3 Reasons Why Military Families are Well-Suited for Adoption

1. We have an unusually high tolerance for bureaucracy. Forms, notaries, arbitrary office hours, waiting rooms and sign-in sheets, stamps and control numbers -- we've seen it all, and have been living it for a career. After a few years, you just eventually grow numb to it all. Building a dossier isn't really that big of a deal. The process of clearing most CONUS installations prior to PCS is just as hard, if not more so.

2. We are used to having our personal fate decided by arbitrary and distant administrators. Promotions, assignments (moves), and school opportunities are routinely decided by anonymous boards or administrators far away, based on policies and requirements that are frequently shrouded in secret. Every three years or so, your family gets pulled to some new location -- all faithful servants of a personnel system designed during WWII. So, the whole notions of arcane dossier acceptance policies, nationally centralized adoption authorities, and esoteric quota systems all seem perfectly natural to us.

3. Unmatched system of social welfare. If you think your only qualification to be a parent is that you once (barely) completed Basic Training, have no fear. The vast array of DoD-sponsored social services that are part of you well-earned compensation. Here is a look at some of the offerings at our small local garrisons. Don't forget health care, legal services, after-school programs, recreational programs, youth sports, family-friendly dining facilities, regulated child care, and much more.

On a bit more serious note, I think military families might also tend to be more open to international or trans-racial adoptions, as well. Many of us have traveled or lived abroad extensively, and that will definitely change your perspectives on different peoples and cultures. From my personal experience, I will say with certainty that my own travel has dramatically increased my sympathies and sensitivities towards other cultures.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

First Five Days Home

We have made it through the first five days with Vic intact.

In fact, in keeping with our entire international adoption process defying most of our expectations, our initial adjustment as a family with Vic has been much easier than expected.

We've averaged one wake-up per night with Vic, but it hasn't been too painful. I change his diaper while Laura prepares a bottle, and he's asleep within five minutes or so. In short, he is sleeping very well. His appetite is also improving. He is just super-curious about everything, because his entire environment is very new to him. We are experienced believers in the Babywise method, so we are trying to establish a rigid schedule of two naps and an early bedtime every day.

I'm quickly learning that the homecoming did not mean an end to the arbitrary documentation process. It's acute for us because of our overseas military status. Here are some of the tasks we have been working towards:
  • Command sponsorship - began application on day of arrival, discovered we need to get EFMP screening. Travel over to clinic to discover EFMP requires and appointment with the doctor, and that requires DEERS enrollment. Check.
  • DEERS enrollment - completed Tuesday morning.
  • TRICARE (military health insurance) enrollment - completed Tuesday afternoon.
  • EFMP screening appointment - completed Tuesday morning (after DEERS enrollment).
  • SOFA certificate application - the SOFA certificate is essentially an unrestricted visa issued by the US military authorities here. Laura applied for it this morning at our local passport service. It's a bit unnerving, as they must send Vic's Kaz passport to Heidelberg. However, the SOFA certificate is what will supersede the 90-day visitor's Schengen visa that currently allows Vic into Germany.
Once his passport returns with the SOFA certificate, another potential headache looms. Vic's IR-3 visa, issued in Almaty by the US Embassy, is only good for six months. However, an IR-3 visa issued to adoptive parents employed overseas should be valid for the duration of the employment (source, PDF). The embassy knew this, but declared they could not print the correct, extended expiration date due to a "technical glitch". No, I'm not kidding, I couldn't make this up. So, it remains to be seen whether we'll have any success petitioning the Frankfurt Consulate for an extension.

If we are not successful, this means we have to get Vic back to the US before mid-December, when his current IR-3 visa expires, in order for him to get automatic US citizenship.

In other news, check out our first family picture below, taken just after our first Mass together this last Sunday.

Here's a quiz for our non-local readers to answer in this posting's comments: notice anything different about Laura in this photo, or earlier ones? Go ahead, guess away, and guess bold.

For our local friends: no spoilers!

Friday, June 20, 2008

Back Home

At the airport in Stuttgart, Germany, 9:10 AM this morning.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Thank You AAPA

I posted a slightly different version of this note to the Adoption for Americans Abroad forum. Randy Barlow and Ken Gardner of AAPA were our home study providers.
Many, many thanks to Randy Barlow, Ken Gardner, and Jane Santos of American Adoption Professionals Abroad for their tremendous support, encouragement, and assistance throughout my family's adoption journey.

My wife Laura and I recently adopted from Kazakhstan. As an overseas military family, we absolutely couldn't have done it without Randy and Team AAPA. After our year and a half of preparation, it felt really weird to stand in a judge's chambers in Karaganda and see Randy and Ken's original home study document sitting on the judge's desk.

To me, there was no greater endorsement of their work than the compliments the Kazakh judge payed. He stated that he wasn't going to read the entire contents of the home study aloud in court, because if he did, everyone would want to move to Germany and live with us in our house. Suffice it to say he was highly impressed with the quality and content of the home study document.

Randy also stood by us through some very painful (and arbitrary) USCIS immigration issues, and he bent over backwards to help us get the non-problem resolved. He also provided us with a lot of short-notice extras and advice that we needed along the way.

My wife Laura is in Almaty, Kazakhstan this week on trip #2, completing the immigration processing of our 12 m/o son Victor Hugo. If the respective Schengen and US visas are delivered as promised, she and Vic should be flying back here to Stuttgart on Friday morning.

Thank you again, Randy Barlow and Team AAPA, for helping us to grow our family. We will be in touch soon to schedule our first post-placement report.
Unrelated update: sorry about the problems with the Twitter updates on the left sidebar of this blog. I didn't realize the overlapping problem until someone pointed it out (thanks, Cookie!). I removed my own Twitter updates from this page, so you should be able to now enjoy Laura's unfettered.

I also added some links at the top for the reference-type articles on this site.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

German Visa Application: Das ist richtig!

Well, as you have seen by Laura's recent Twitter update, it appears that she had success with her meeting at the German Consulate today. She's applying for a visitor's (Schengen) visa, to allow Vic entry directly into Germany prior to travel to the US at a later date. While speaking with her by phone late today, it seems that the appointment and application went very well.

Laura even mentioned that the German consular officer was impressed with with the documentation that I had organized for Laura. Wow - in the world of international adoption, that's an enormous compliment for me, especially coming from a German. That's sort of like the Bishop telling me I'm a good Catholic, or General Petraeus telling me I'm a good Soldier.

So, we remain hopeful that the Schengen visa will be ready for pickup on Thursday. Tomorrow, Laura has her interview with the US Embassy in Almaty. Best case, Vic's passport with the US IR-3 visa will be ready tomorrow evening, so she can then get the German visa inserted into the passport on Thursday morning. Our plan is for Vic to have both a German visitor's visa and the US IR-3 immigrant visa when he leaves Kazakhstan. The visitor's visa will get him through German Immigration, giving us 90 days to get his command sponsorship and SOFA certificate here locally.

A special thanks from us personally to Herr Andreas Schorle of the German Consulate in Almaty. We appreciate very much his email responsiveness, his clear instructions on exactly what documentation we needed to provide, and his understanding of our unusual situation. He is a refreshing find in the otherwise arbitrary and complicated immigration maze.

I started writing a post tonight describing what we've learned about immigrating an adopted child directly back into an overseas SOFA country, but I've decided to wait until I can organize my notes and references a bit better.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

What About the Dip-Tet, Bob?

Those of us following along with Laura's Twitter updates (see sidebar on left) are excited to see that she took custody of little Vic today, Father's Day, and had a relatively uneventful flight back to Almaty. What a great Father's Day gift for myself, and one full of special meaning for us. My own Dad, Vic's namesake, passed away unexpectedly a year ago. We flew to Kazakhstan to meet Vic on the one year anniversary of his death.

Gotcha Day and Father's Day, all at once.

Of course, Laura and I both tend to deal with the heavier or more stressful events in life with humor that is frequently totally inappropriate. Adoption is no exception for us. When I called Laura at her Almaty apartment tonight, her first words were, "we got ourselves a baby!" See, there is nothing about our adoption that we can't find some parallel to in the quirky Raising Arizona. In fact, we feel there's very little about marriage or children that can't somehow be linked, however abstractly, to Raising Arizona. Those of us who have seen the movie know, of course, that it isn't explicitly about adoption (at least, not adoption in the legal sense), but I'd still recommend it as worthy entertainment for anyone trying to adopt.

(Warning: below clip somewhat longish and NSFW)

This excerpt is a favorite scene from the movie. It captures all - the insecurity of new parenthood, the futility of measuring up to (unworthy) others, and the cruelty of infertility.

Juno is another excellent movie that IS explicitly about adoption (trailer), and much more recent. It's very entertaining, and it has a great message as well.

I'm praying and hoping that Laura's immigration processing goes well this week, as Laura must negotiate the many cheerful, helpful, and customer-service-oriented offices that guard national borders against the scourge of legally adopted children. She has double the administrative load of a typical international adoption. Recall that we must process both US and German immigration authorities, as we are Americans who live in Germany, and we are planning for Laura to travel directly back to home here in Germany. Even after she returns back here to Germany, we must then process a third and separate immigration authority of sorts - US Army Europe (USAREUR). Our experiences to date indicate that the USAREUR authorities make German immigration officers seem downright friendly - and yes, that's saying a lot.

I remain optimistic that Laura will handle all of this with ease. She's extraordinarily much better at persuading and negotiating than I am. My own track record over the last few weeks is illustrative. I've managed to get my virtual butt chewed via email by:
  • The chief of the aforementioned USAREUR office (I offered to share adoption immigration information with other families - whoops!)
  • My own agency's director (for inquiring about different travel options)
  • The VOLUNTEER leader of a VOLUNTEER organization (for a VOLUNTEER action I took as VOLUNTEER part of an organization, totally non-adoption related) - apparently, you no longer have to get paid to be abused by supervisors
So, it's probably for the best that I allowed Laura to travel alone and unafraid. She's well armed with every conceivable piece of documentation, including the highly coveted Verpflichtungserklärung. This is a sort of formal obligation affidavit that the German authorities issue after collecting a bunch of paperwork from us (to include 25€ worth of currency). It allows Laura to apply for a Schengen visa at the German consulate in Almaty.

Don't worry, I can't pronounce Verpflichtungserklärung either.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Hold on baby, Mama will be right there...

I'm leaving for the airport in a few minutes, but thought I'd share my itinerary..

Lufthansa flight 1357 Stuttgart to Frankfurt dep 11:15am arr 12:05
Lufthansa flight 648 Frankfurt to Almaty, Kazakhstan dep 1:20pm arr 11:50pm

Return flights are scheduled for June 21, Saturday next. Which is my brother's birthday!!! Big year for him, think he's turning 80. ;o)

My suitcase is ginormous and packed once again with diaper cream - all from donations that poured in while we were gone to Kaz on our first trip. We're also bringing goodies to our friends in Karaganda; good German coffee for our Peace Corp friend, scented hand sanitizer and people/fashion magazines to the interpreters.

Wish me luck next week during the embassy shuffle between the US & Germans. Knock wood that all goes as planned and we have no troubles bringing Vic home directly to Germany instead of going to the US immediately. Cross fingers, knock wood, and send good vibes to all the stone-faced paper shufflers.

I won't be bringing my laptop this time, so that means no new photos until I return with Little Bit. However, once I'm on the ground in Kazakhstan, I'll be sending twitter updates so you should be able to see where in the process Vic and I are at & how everything's going.

Gotta run. Baby's waiting. :D

Monday, June 2, 2008

Reader Writes: Sibling(s) Preparation?

Loyal reader Angela asks:
I have a broader question - what did you all do to prepare Jack for your departure and absence? How did you communicate with his while in-country? Did you have a set calling time? Skype? Anything you can share about this topic will be helpful - our son Luca is pretty close to Jack's age. We weren't sure whether we would take him or not and now are fairly sure he will stay home (GULP!).
Thanks for following the blog, and thanks especially for the insightful question.

We decided to leave Jack (age 5) at home mostly because (1) he's in a really good kindergarten program, although he still hasn't chosen between the Computer Science or the Pre-Med tracks, and (2) he's very close with his grandmother, so we had no worries entrusting him to her care.

I haven't really given much though to how we've prepared for this. More than anything, we've been very open and straightforward with him throughout the process. Laura bought him some recommended children's books on international adoption that we've read to him. It's tough to gauge exactly how much these helped, but Jack does have a very good understanding of what's going on. During our first trip, he told anyone who would listen that his parents were in Kazakhstan getting his baby brother.

The hardest part for him to grasp is probably typical for the age -- he just doesn't comprehend the scale of time. Tomorrow, next week, and next month just sort of all blur together -- basically, anything that isn't happening right now.

Leaving him at the airport for the first trip was admittedly a lot harder on Laura than it was for me. She's only been away from him for a weekend or so previously. I've had to spend an entire year away from both Laura and Jack due to my line of work. Sadly, separation is something you can practice, although the experience doesn't make it a lot feel any easier.

We've been pleasantly surprised at Jack's enthusiasm to date. He tells us how he's going to play with his little brother, and that he wants him to sleep in Jack's bedroom. However, as an older brother myself, I know that the honeymoon period will likely be very short-lived. As Jack succinctly put it, "I think we're going to need new toys." We've both tried to give him some heavy doses of one-on-one time as reassurances that, in spite of all the current new baby talk, he hasn't been forgotten. Last weekend was Legoland, and this weekend is a Dad-Lad camping trip (complete with guns and everything!).

Jack's grandmother was very good about calling our apartment in-country by standard telephone 2-3 times a week for us to chat with Jack. We could tell he was having a lot more fun with Grandma than he would be with us, so we found that very reassuring.

In short, I think the decision to leave or bring a sibling child is very personal and very dependent on many factors -- there is no single right or wrong answer. Regarding the process, we found that our 5 y/o could readily understand and support what we were doing. We were very comfortable being straightforward and honest with him. We are very fortunate that a grandparent was available, willing, and supportive enough to watch our son during our absence, and during Laura's second trip when I will be working.

We would certainly be interested in hearing from adoptive parents about sibling integration after the adoption. Specifically, what issues did you anticipate or not anticipate, and what techniques did you find that worked well or not-so-well?

Finally, an old joke that Laura and I re-cycled after our first trip...

Q: How many people can you fit on a Karaganda city bus?

A: Always one more!

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Karaganda Map for Adoptive Families

In an earlier post, I had mentioned that I was putting together a Karaganda map that showed the location of key items of interest for us during our visit. Well, I have been working on it a bit more, and thought that there was only one location that might be too sensitive to publish -- that being the location of the apartment where we stayed, as will presumably future families.

View Larger Map

So, I removed the apartment location. It was located within walking distance of the end of the 01 bus line as shown on the map. All the other apartments used by families with our agency were all located in the downtown area, within walking distance of the City Mall and other key sites. Everything else on the map is public domain, so I'm comfortable with sharing it now.

The big lake feature near the central part of the map is the huge Karaganda park. It's possible to walk through this area from the baby house to the downtown area. The walk takes about 15-20 minutes, depending upon pace. It is a nice area to stroll and people watch, and to generally see a nice sample of the Karaganda population, especially when the weather is nice.

Be sure to read my previous post "Revealed: Karaganda's Eight Best Kept Secrets" for more information about some of these locations.

If there are any locations or features that readers would like to see added, please ask by commenting below. If I know where it is, or can find it, I'll add it!

Friday, May 30, 2008

Preparing for Trip #2

Laura spent most of today getting together all the documentation and shipping envelopes needed for her second visa application. This visa will allow her to enter Kazakhstan for her second trip.

You can share in our anxiety by following the visa application and (we hope) returning passport, with visa firmly attached, as they make their trips across the Atlantic. Check out these links:

Visa application (from Stuttgart to NYC via US Post Express Mail)
Visa and passport return (from NYC to Stuttgart via FedEx)

I spent a lot of time today researching the requirements to get Vic a Schengen visa so that he can come directly back into Germany with Laura, instead of going straight to the US. This used to be a simple process, but the US (not German) authorities here have made it considerably more difficult over the last two years. As I've posted previously, it's quite complicated, and unnecessarily so.

I accidentally found these neat little pins yesterday while searching for a book on Kazakhstan:

Kazakhstan - Friendship Pin

Laura ordered a few to give out as on-the-spot gifts during her second trip. I wish we had found them early enough for the first trip.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Reader Writes: Karaganda Expenses?

I got some excellent questions about expenses from one of our loyal readers today by private email. Since I had been intending to write about the topic at some point anyway, I thought these questions would be an excellent start.

I should point out in advance that Laura and I did our Kazakhstan adoption very much "on the cheap". We literally scrimped and saved and sold over the course of the last few years and (especially) our dossier preparation time in order to afford this adoption. We sold our shiny, still-newish 2003 Dodge Caravan and bough a tired, 1995 version of the same model instead. We are certainly not affluent by any means, and our lifestyle and expenditures while in country reflect this. In fact, I did not realize just how on the cheap our adoption was until we had been in Karaganda for a while, and saw what some of the other families (mostly those affiliated with other agencies) were spending on a daily basis.

Also, Laura and I have both traveled before to some fairly (ahem) "austere" places before, so we're probably more comfortable with the different lifestyle experienced in places like Karaganda. We're not exactly the Indiana Jones duo, but we have passports full of stamps, and we generally don't mind eating kabobs or roasted chickens or weird-looking vegetables for a while. We can stand a lower standard of living for a while without feeling compelled to recreate our own slice of American creature comforts. In all fairness, our little well-equipped apartment did help considerably. Of course, individual mileage and personal comfort zones will vary, and this can significantly impact your overall costs either way.
You'd said in a previous note that some of the info. you get from the agency is "slightly different" than the actual experience, so we were wondering if the actual costs (apt., food, drivers, etc...) were as accurate as depicted? For example, they say to figure on $100/day for housing, yet you lucked out and paid only $60. How much was the plane trip from Almaty to Astana? You also mention you used the .25 bus frequently--in the checklist they say to budget approx. $280/week for the driver.

We have the same agency as the writer. The prices quoted above are a little on the high side of what we spent in Karaganda during May of 2008. We spent $60/day for the apartment, $35/day for the driver, and $25/day for the interpreter. All of our agency's families in Karaganda were paying the same rate for these services, as I understand. Our agency's written guidelines required us to pay for the first 20 days of the interpreter and the driver, regardless of whether we thought we needed them or not. In hindsight, this is probably a wise policy. In fact, I would say that it makes sense to have both a driver and an interpreter daily for every day until court. Even though you may not need a driver or interpreter every day, there are just too many short-notice requirements and subtleties before your court date that you can't get caught short, as the consequences are just too dire. When you need transportation or an interpreter, you'll need them badly. You'll need to go to a notary who's only in her impossible-to-find office for the next 15 minutes. You'll have politically delicate moments with your child and the baby house staff. You'll need to buy plane tickets on short notice at a travel agency downtown.

We generally only used the bus when our driver wasn't available, or we didn't want to be tied to a schedule, such as in the afternoon or evening after our visitation.

After a successful court hearing, however, the climate changes for those who are able stay in country for the 15-day waiting (appeals) period. You could then conceivably opt out of having a driver or interpreter daily, if you feel comfortable on your own. Or, you could hire the interpreter part-time, perhaps two days a week. Whether you will need a driver or not after court depends largely on your location relative to the baby house, and how comfortable you are with using public transportation or walking the distance (possible from some apartment locations).

We ended up paying for 26 days of driver and interpreter, and 25 days of apartment lodging. This included our 15 day bonding period, waiting for court, the day of court, and the final day of gift-giving at the baby house and transportation to the airport. In hindsight, I don't think it would have been wise for us to settle for anything short of this. If we had stayed beyond court, then we could have easily gotten away without either the daily translator or driver.

You will also pay for your stay, driver, and airport pickup/drop off in Almaty on each end of the trip, as well. Almaty is much more expensive, perhaps by double. The agency recommendations apply.

We paid about $170 one-way, per-ticket for the flights between Almaty and Karaganda. We paid more for excess baggage fees, less on the trip back than the trip down. Again, the agency estimates for baggage overage fees are pretty accurate. I think it would be very difficult to avoid excess baggage fees on a trip like this, especially with "baby stuff" in tow. I like to think we packed ultra-light, lighter than most, with very few regrets, and we still had overage fees. Heck, I think we had more weight in books than we did clothes. You can pay for the excess baggage fee by credit card at the Almaty airport, but not in Karaganda on the return trip. The check-in procedures at Karaganda are fairly primitive and manual, so be sure you have some Tenge on hand to pay.

Other thoughts for those on a budget, mostly learned the hard way during our first trip:

Buy groceries and prepare your own meals as much as possible. The groceries are inexpensive and readily available. Your apartment will have adequate cooking facilities. Not great, but adequate. We tried to eat both breakfast and dinner at home most days. This will save you significantly over the course of your stay. Smaller grocery stores will have lower prices (but smaller selections) than the Ramstore.

We tried to avoid sit-down restaurants with table service. Most of these have the same prices that similar places would in the States -- expensive. IMHO, generally not worth it except for a few special events such as a group farewell dinner with other families, or similar.

Hotels are much more expensive than the apartments, with the additional expense of being less capability to prepare your own meals, thus even more expense.

One or two of the families we saw there would eat at different sit-down restaurants each day for lunch and dinner, sometimes treating their coordination staff as well. That had to leave a mark on the bank account. We found the reasonable and tasty Cafe Karaganda nearly every day for lunch. It had the added benefit of free wireless network access, so we saved further on network services. We would frequently treat our interpreter to lunch here as well. The few times we tried alternative locations for lunch, we regretted it -- expensive and mediocre food.

If required, durable items such as luggage, appliances, or strollers can generally be found reasonably priced at any of the smaller markets, such as the Shkolnik market (across street from babyhouse) or the busy one near the giant speaking billboard downtown. As expected, the City Mall has mall prices.

We were very lucky to adopt from Karaganda. I didn't know it when we traveled, but the cost of living there for prospective adoptive parents was generally very cheap. We would have almost certainly went bankrupt adopting from Almaty.
Laura--you mention getting there on the 13th and the 14th he's yours. How long is the actual trip? We were thinking a week or slightly longer--but it sounds as though maybe just a day or so?? We too, are hoping to be granted permission that only one of us returns to collect our little one, but understand that it's not typical.
The second trip takes a few days due to immigration processing. Laura's will take a few days longer because we have twice the immigration burden -- because we live in Germany, we must get both the US IR-3 visa and a German national visa. Yes, it's complicated, and unnecessarily so. At any rate, Laura's tentative trip schedule currently looks something like this:

13 Jun: Flight to Almaty
14 Jun: Flight to Karaganda
15 Jun: Return flight to Almaty
16 Jun: Medical in Almaty
17 Jun: Registration
18 Jun: US Embassy
19-20 Jun: German Embassy
21 Jun: Flight to Stuttgart via Frankfurt

I don't think you'll have any problems with only one parent returning for the second trip. As I previously mentioned, our case is a bit more complicated than most, thus the initial reluctance on the part of the in-country staff.

Finally, I really appreciate the questions from our readers. These help me better organize some of the thoughts that I'd like to write about anyways.

What else would you like to know about adopting in Karaganda?

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Return Date!!!

This just in... :o) I return to Kaz on June 13th, arrive in Karaganda on the 14th, and then he's all ours!! We've only been home 3 days and it's been so hard on us already. I feel like there is a huge chunk missing out of my life without my youngest here. We're in limbo... or at least we were until our stateside coordinator emailed our return dates & itinerary this evening. WAHOO!!!

I can't WAIT to hold my baby again. Can't wait to give him a good bath. Can't wait to rock him to sleep - even if he cries and cries, which he might. It's all part of parenting, enjoying the good & fun, while managing the rough and tough parts. We want so badly to have him here, and now that we have dates so soon, I'm just on cloud nine. Ten, even.

I'm so stinkin' excited I can't think straight. So, here are some more photos from our last day in Kaz.

Us with driver Sasha in Karaganda Airport.

Us with our pint-sized interpreter Julia in Karaganda Airport.

Have you ever seen Reno 911? This guy to the right of Bob is the Russian/Kazakh version of Junior from the show. He kept us smiling the whole way to Almaty. :o)

Monday, May 26, 2008

This is going to hurt me more than it will hurt you..

How many times did I hear that as a child? This kept running through my head on our last day with Vic before leaving for home. Though this certainly isn't punishment (as was what normally followed above statement) Bob and I are sure that this temporary separation is much more difficult on us than on Vic.

Bob teaching Vic about RJ-11 phone jacks.

We spent about 3.5 weeks with our littlest son, Vic, and will spend approx. 3.5 weeks without him. Just enough time for him to call us mama and dada, and now just enough time to forget about us.. maybe. Okay, he hasn't exactly _said_ mama yet, but he does give me kisses.. close enough in my book. Fortunately, we're not leaving him in a scary environment; the baby house is all that he knows. He's been in Room 5 for about 3 months (the 9-12 month old babies), and he's comfortable there. He's fed, changed, sleeps well, and has a little time to play - all the basics he needs. We're the ones feeling like we left a major part of ourselves behind.

Today is day 4 of our 15 day appeals period... a time when our hearts could be forever shattered and I pray will speed by without a problem. Once the 15 day appeals period is over, the court decision previously granted will become final and Victor Hugo Sims will forever be ours. If you are a praying person, or even if you're not, please put in a few good words for us and Vic. Pray that there will be no appeal to our adoption decree, that the time will just fly by, that Vic won't be too confused and sad without us there, and that I will be able to return at the earliest possible time (3 weeks from now) to bring home my precious son.

Laura, Vic & Bob in our last photo before leaving. Think Vic knows something is up.

The last morning in Karaganda was crazy, hectic, and very emotional. Although I didn't cry in court while giving my speech, I cried like a baby when leaving our Vic. My last words to him (& Bob's too) were "I love you, son. We'll _always_ come back for you". Our schedule that last morning in Karaganda went something like this...

- Wake up around 6:30, which is easy to do since the sun comes up at 5AM!
- Pack, eat and get ready for last visit.
- Clean the apartment, take out trash (Bob).
- Wonder what that sudden foul odor is in the apartment that smells a lot like goat poop (Laura).
- Run outside and rid shoes of goat poop picked up at the trash bin (Bob). Re-Sweep & Mop floors clean of goat poop (Laura).
- 10:00 Visit with Vic, give gifts to the baby house staff and coordination team.
- 10:30 Say goodbye to our son for an unknown amount of time and head for airport.
- Fly to Almaty and run into three couples we know from our baby house at the in-country staff office - Todd, Lisa & baby Tatiana; Pancho & Scott with Deanna & Valen; and the couple from Hawaii (sorry! can't remember names, only saw them for a few hours) who adopted Leko from Vic's room.

Our flight from Almaty to Frankfurt left at 3:30AM - ouch! Fortunately we were on the same flight as two families from our baby house which helped pass the time as we waited to board. Once in flight, the lights went out and thankfully nearly everyone on board went to sleep. We didn't see the other two families until after we had deplaned and were in the Frankfurt terminal. Bob and I really hope to see them again and promised to keep in touch. It was just amazing to see all the girls with their families as they looked so dramatically different than when they lived at the baby house. I'm amazed and relieved at how much good a bath and 24hour love can do for kids - they just thrive!

Three Karaganda adoptive families: we've just arrived at the Frankfurt Terminal and are saying our goodbyes. Todd & Lisa Henke with Tatiana, Pancho & Scott with Deanna and Valen, Bob & Laura.

We thought our flight from Frankfurt to Stuttgart was uneventful, however we've just discovered that Bob left his passport in the seat-back pocket. Whoops! Honestly, there are so many stamps in both of our passports that it's time to get new ones, so I'm trying to tell him not to sweat it. Bob and I have done so much tourist travel since they were issued in 2000 that there isn't much space left for stamps. He'll contact our passport office tomorrow (Tuesday) to cancel the passport number and have a new one issued. The good news is that since he won't be returning on the 2nd trip, we don't have to be in a panic to get a replacement quickly.

Home again with Grandma (Glenda), Laura, Bob & Jack.

It was sooo good to see our Jack again when we arrived in Stuttgart. Above is a photo of us all at the airport in Stuttgart. Jack picked out the outfit himself! Note the superman wristlets and bouquet of flowers. :o)

We went straight from the airport to our favorite breakfast spot, Bakerei Schill in Denkendorf. Yum!! I think that once we got home, our chief problem has been trying to fight the urge to lounge in our oh-so-comfortable bed. My goodness we have it good here. Our house is warm and inviting, we're surrounded by our beloved family, the fridge & pantry are full of tasty treats, we can brush teeth with the tap water, and we have the world's most comfortable bed. Oh my goodness have we missed being home.

Speaking of that comfy bed... I'm heading for it. I'll post tomorrow about today's shenanigans along with photos.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Our Day in Court

The court proceeding today was a very familiar experience to any reasonably good, practicing Catholic (like myself): very formal, robes and uniforms, flags and seals. Shut up, sit down, stand up, recognize authority, recite a speech, sit down again, listen to a lecture, stand up again. We were really surprised at the apparent effectiveness of our speeches, so I'll reprint them here for posterity's sake, as well as to provide an example for future families to reference.

I have to say that Laura and I were both extremely tense beforehand. Even though we both recognized that this would be largely judicial theater, we still had a single subjective judge who could either approve or disapprove the entire adoption, with no realistic opportunity for appeal. Our lead coordinator, for all her phenomenal expertise and professionalism, was over-the-top worried about several issues. In particular, she didn't really understand our military lifestyle, or us living abroad in Germany as US citizens. For all I know, she thinks I live in a quonset hut with a bunch of other guys, and that I only see my family for a few minutes through a chain-link fence for a few minutes each weekend. You know, just like the (Russian) movies. So, over the last few weeks, we absorbed quite a bit of self-inflicted worry and agnst.

However, court today was just fantastic. We wrote our speeches last night, and rehearsed saying them over and over until we knew them verbatim (more or less) without referencing notes. We filed into the judge's chambers (not a courtroom) this afternoon after stewing in the waiting area for a while. We were joined by our lawyer, a social worker, a doctor representing the baby house, and our phenomenal interpreter Oxana. Around the judge's desk sat the (uniformed) prosecutor and a legal secretary writing the transcript.

After a few preliminaries, we were asked if we would like to make any statements. I stood up and made mine, and was then followed by Laura -- transcripts are below. We would pause after each sentence, allowing Oxana to translate. Apparently, our speeches and our delivery of them really hit the mark. Afterwards, the judge just seemed in such a great mood, as he cracked several jokes. We didn't get asked any tough questions, which really surprised us. It just seemed to set the tone for a very smooth remainder of the proceedings.

I had a second (much shorter) speech planned as well, basically thanking everyone for showing up, and the Ministry of Education for inviting us, the baby house for their tremendous care and love, and to the people of Kazakhstan for their warmth and generosity. However, due in part to my own misunderstanding of where we were in the proceedings, I basically skipped this entire part.

Laura's made her speech after mine. I was really impressed with Laura's delivery and poise. I have the better part of 15 years of experience at trying to sound like I know what I'm talking about in front of other people, so there's a lot of things about public speaking that I take for credit. I'm certainly no expert myself, but Laura did impressively well.

Our room's doctor, Dr. Love, made a statement on behalf of the baby house staff that really sealed it for us. Finally, we felt like all that we'd done during our stay really paid off. She spoke warmly of our performance as parents, how we'd showed affection and attention to all the kids (not just our own), and how we'd organized a large donation drive to raise needed goods for the baby house. We were quite humbled and impressed by Dr. Love's strong recommendation and validation.

The judge tells us all to go out to the waiting area and cool our heels while he deliberates. We do, and our whole team is high-fiving and carrying on like the home team just won the Superbowl. They are so confident that this is in the bag, that everyone takes off (!) except for Oxana, our interpreter. After a few minutes, we get called back in, and the judge reads the formal verdict, that approves the adoption. Apparently, we didn't react strongly enough, so he motions to us that now is the time to celebrate with a "yahoo!" hand motion (not kidding).

I ask if I can shake his hand, and I do. He gives me a very long and meaningful handshake, as he tells me that he was a Ensign of Submarines in the Soviet Navy. I allow a joke and tell him that I am too tall to work on submarines, which makes him chuckle. We're about to leave, and then he asks us all to sit down in his chamber.

This is the point where the entire proceedings take a slight but completely unexpected detour from anything we'd expected. He proceeds to give us a very glowing review of our speeches, and discusses at length the importance of balancing both the professional and personal life. Oxana said later that she'd never seen anything like this. He even joked that he'd like to share a beer with us, but couldn't, as it would be considered corruption. Again, not kidding.

After having been through this today, if there is any advice that I could offer other families following in my footsteps, it would be to take the speech seriously. In our case, because we put a lot of thought and work into it, it made the rest of the proceedings easy.

Other thoughts, especially for those who will travel down this road behind us:

I tried to be flattering and respectful in an honest way, without sounding ingratiating or superficial. Thus, my comments about the quality of baby house care and the fairness of the legal system.

I erred on the side of formality, simplicity, and drama. In my case, the only ears that mattered were a wise old man with many years of experience in law, bureaucracy, and procedure.

Everything you do at the baby house during the bonding period is watched and judged, and can be used to your favor (or not) during court. It paid off big for us. As a Dad with a few years of experience, I just can't pass up other kids at an orphanage without reaching out to them in some way, even if they aren't my own. I always tried to calm crying babies, or get down on my knees and enthusiastically high-five all the pre-school-aged kids when I saw them outside. Those were the real heart-breakers, old enough to know who parents are, and that some have them and some don't. One out of a group would always point to me and say, "Papa!"

My coordinator insisted that I put in the bit about a deployment to Iraq or Afghanistan being highly unlikely. I didn't really want to, but I relented due to my coordinator's experience. Saying that it is highly unlikely that I'll deploy is something I certainly can't promise with any degree of certainty. To be perfectly blunt, it's a bullshit thing to say, and the judge (as a former military officer himself) recognized it as that. He laughed out loud, and rightfully so. In hindsight, it is the only part that I wish I'd left out.

I tried to use the speech to answer potential questions before they got asked. Family background? Check. Job description? Check. Why adopt? Check. Why Kaz? Check.

Again, I just can't say enough about how easy the proceedings seemed relative to our expectations. We'd heard so many stories about mean judges, tough questions, and scary proceedings. We are so thankful that our experience defied our expectations.

Bob's Court Speech

Good afternoon, Your Honor. My name is Bob Sims, and this is my wife Laura. We have a 5 year old biological son, Jack, who is back home with his grandmother right now.

My great grandfather was a farmer all of his life, and his son was an electrician. His son, my father, was a police officer for many years, and then after much education had a second career as a university professor. I grew up in Texas, as part of a large and loving family that worked very hard to give me both opportunity and responsibility.

For 15 years, I have been both a husband, and a US Army officer. I have a university degree, with special training and certifications as a Computer Network Manager. I currently work at a large NATO headquarters in Stuttgart, Germany. My job is in a technical facility, and is not in any way espcially dangerous. My work as a Major is primarily with civilian contracted technicians. I do not anticipate moving in the near future, and a mission for me to either Iraq or Afghanistan is highly unlikely. My pay and compensation is over $__K USD per year, and this includes a large housing allowance. We currently have a long-term lease on a large, 4-bedroom house near Stuttgart.

I have always dreamed of sharing the opportunity and responsibility that I have with my children. Our son Jack was born in Germany 5 years ago. However, since then, the doctors have told us that we cannot have any more children biologically. We would like to adopt from Kazakhstan because of the internationally-recognized high quality of baby house care, and the high standards of fairness in the legal process.

Thanks to the invitation of the Ministry of Education, and the loving care of the baby house staff, our dreams became reality with the little boy we met there, Stanislav Firstov. We fell in love with him at first sight. He is very strong and bright, and healthy, and he is very quick to smile and laugh. We know that he will be a perfect fit into our family and our hearts. Already, his grandparents, and aunts and uncles and cousins, and his older brother look forward to meeting him. My son's great-grandfather turns 100 years old this year, and I would like very much to give him another grandson.

In closing, I have the greatest admiration and respect for both your position and your wisdom. I come before you to humbly and respectfully ask that you grant this adoption request, as I cannot imagine life without this wonderful little boy, who I already consider as my own son.

Your Honor, I thank you very much for your time.

Laura's Court Speech

I am Laura Sims, 37 years old, and have been married to Bob for 15 years. We have one biological child, Jack, who is now 5 years old and in Kindergarten. Before having our son Jack, I trained and worked as a dental assistant. We are fortunate that my husband earns a very comfortable income which allows me to stay home and be a full time mother.

After the birth of our son, my husband and I tried for 5 years to have another child. Our doctors have told us that it is not medically possible for me to have more biological children. Our son Jack has asked us many times about when he can have a little brother. Jack is very happy that we have found Stanislav and is eager to teach him everything he knows.

When we met Stanislav, my husband and I felt an immediate connection to him. He is a very happy, well adjusted, curious child and we believe that he will fit perfectly into our family. Stanislav has the same beautiful blue eyes as our son Jack and has the same blond hair as Bob's sister. He smiles a lot and laughs often with us.

Stas is also very easy to calm down when he is upset. He prefers that I calm him when he is upset and wants to go to me when he is tired. During play time, Stas likes to laugh and play chase with Bob and practice his walking while holding Bob's hands. During our bonding time, we fell in love with his sweet personality and talk of Stanislav with pride as if he were already our son.

This child is the answer to our many prayers over the years. I dream of him every night and hope that you will let us be his parents. I very much would like to adopt this child and I cannot imagine my life without him.

Verdict: Approved!

Court is over, the judge approved our application to adopt little Vic in a very formal court hearing. We both made speeches that apparently went over very well. I'm normally pretty modest about our accomplishments, but frankly, we knocked this one out of the proverbial ball park. All of our work and preparation over the last year, and especially the last few months and weeks, all came together nicely right there in the judge's chambers. We couldn't have asked for it to be any easier.

I'm working on a longer post while the ideas are still fresh in my mind, but I just wanted to share the news.

What's next? Well, there is a 15 day appeal period that we must endure, while Vic remains in the baby house. We will return to Almaty tomorrow, and then back to Stuttgart, while we wait. After the appeal period ends, we will return to Karaganda to pick him up and bring him to Almaty for (my favorite) immigration processing, and then back home, finally, to Stuttgart.

In reality, the wait will probably be longer then two weeks for us. Realistically, the wait will be closer to 3-4 weeks due to additional time we must wait for the authorities to issue his birth certificate and passport.

Since events here are fairly fluid, and our net access spotty, I'll start posting updates via cell phone text messages (SMS) to Twitter, a service that merges blogging and SMS services in a really interesting way. Check out my Twitter updates over on the left sidebar. See? You never have to leave this website -- pretty neat. Here's an outstanding tutorial, if you'd like to learn more about how to integrate this with your cell phone as well.

We'll still make regular blog posts, of course, but Twitter allows us to post here as well when we're away from a computer.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Hurry Up and Wait

Bad news: our gas stove is out of propane.

Good news: we have court late tomorrow afternoon. Please continue to pray for our success. We finished writing and rehearsing our court speeches tonight. If we're successful, I'll share mine here.

More good news: We're currently scheduled to fly to Almaty on Friday. We have a red-eye flight from Almaty to Stuttgart (via Frankfurt) early on Saturday morning.

As with all things in-country, the long-awaited news of our court appointment has set off a flurry of last-minute scheduling, ticketing, money changing, and gift buying.

Kazakhstan has really grown on me, and of course it's going to be very hard to say goodbye to little Vic for a few weeks, but we're also really looking forward to getting back home to see the free-range boy.

Yesterday, we spent most of the remainder of our hand-carried donation money from the US military community in Stuttgart on a new and sorely-needed washing machine for the orphanage. Pictures and a better press release to follow soon, if I can get my act together.

Tomorrow: morning visit at baby house, a little shopping, a little more rehearsal, then change into our Sunday best, then to court.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Top Ten Signs You've Been in Karaganda Too Long

Speaking of numbered lists, apologies to David Letterman, and thanks to Laura for the creative inspiration and assist...

Top Ten Signs You've Been in Karaganda Too Long

10. You can't function in the morning until you've ingested 20 minutes worth of second-hand cigarette smoke.

9. (Ladies only) Thigh muscles no longer sore from 'hovering'.

8. You have worn the magnetic strip off of at least one ATM card.

7. The baby house gives you your own office space, and asks you to conduct orientation briefings for newly arrived PAPs.

6. You no longer flinch when confronted with near-death experiences in or near a moving vehicle.

5. The internet cafe gives out your cell phone number to locals with technical support problems.

4. Your hands no longer have fingerprints due to repeated, clumsy attempts at lighting a gas stove.

3. Old Kazakh women peek into your grocery bag and ask where you got those fantastic-looking beets and turnips.

2. Just prior to your court date, the Baby House Director puts her arm around your shoulder, gives you a sympathetic hug, and offers you a chocolate candy.

1. Ramstore entrance guard greets you by name with a big smile and a fist-bump.

I'd be interested in hearing other suggested signs from our visitors, as well.

Revealed: Karaganda's Eight Best Kept Secrets

After being here for three weeks, I thought I'd share my thoughts on the best kept secrets for adoptive families that we've encountered during our stay here. These are items of mostly routine interest that I knew little or nothing of prior to traveling here. Please note that these are highly subjective, and are current only as of the time of this posting. The availability of these resources may change or disappear over time, so of course, individual mileage may vary. Apply large grains of salt as needed. I've listed these in rough reverse order of importance to us.

8. ATM machines. Widely available throughout Karaganda. Key locations for us included the Shkolnik market (across from baby house) and City Mall (machine behind bank center just inside main entrance). We preferred the convenience of ATM withdrawals over the better exchange rates offered by trusted money changers. This also helped us conserve our hard-won uncirculated currency.

7. Internet access. Nursat pre-paid dial up service is very slow, but generally reliable and inexpensive. We used it primarily for text-only email, and did most of our web browsing and photo uploading over wireless at the Cafe Karaganda. The Hotel Cosmonaut and the Oriental-motif restaurant near the park lake both have free wireless networks, as well. We bought Nursat cards at the Shkolnik market directly across from the baby house. Be sure your modem has a built-in modem, as many newer models do not. If not, external USB modems are available inexpensively. Also bring a long (20'-30') phone extension cable, as your apartment's phone jack may be a long way from where you want to use your computer. For increased web browsing performance over dial-up, you can also turn off image loading in your web browser (Internet Explorer or Mozilla Firefox).

6. City buses. We find the buses to be a very safe and economical means of transport after hours, when our driver isn't available. The 01 (not 1) bus runs between the baby house (Shkolnik stop) all the way to the City Mall (exit bus when you see tall blue office building on the right). Cost on 01 bus is a mere 30 tenge (about $0.25) per person, per one-way trip. Ask your interpreter for routes and other tips. Typically, you sit down on the bus first and then pay a "conductor" who will collect payment once the bus is rolling, with no ticket issued. Paying in exact change is preferred. Using paper currency on the bus is OK, although it would probably be bad form to use a bill larger than 200 tenge. Be prepared to pass other commuters' fares forward, and change back.

5. Local cell phones. Cellular service can be had for peanuts if you bring an (important!) unlocked GSM cell phone handset from the states. A new SIM card will get you a Kazakh phone number and a few starter minutes of service for about $10 USD in tenge. You can buy additional units of prepaid service starting at $5 for the smallest increment (500). We found this pay-as-you-go service very useful for minor coordinations with our local staff. If you are comfortable with text (SMS) messaging, then your minutes will stretch even further. I wouldn't recommended using a pre-paid phone for international calls, as you will burn up your minutes quickly. We did have success in sending text messages internationally (format number as "+[country code][cell number]"). Don't forget to keep track of your original SIM card so that you'll have service when you return stateside.

4. Grocery stores. Groceries here are generally very plentiful, inexpensive, and fresh. Ramstore is a large, western-style grocery store located in the City Mall. They accept VISA/MC credit cards. Purchase their inexpensive membership card for a few tenge during the first visit for savings over time. Although the in-country staff will tend to steer you to the larger stores for convenience, when the staff is off-duty, don't hesitate to use smaller local stores (they're everywhere) for necessities. The aforementioned Shkolnik market is especially convenient. Staples like bottled water (in 5L bottles), butter, bread, juice, and common vegetables are very inexpensive. Specialty items and processed foods generally cost more than expected. If you like deli foods, I would recommend buying salami-style sausage in 200g increments and cheese in 100g increments. This will give you enough for 1-2 days of sandwiches or snacks without it going bad. Good grocery store bets: fresh pizza (Ramstore bakery); whole roasted chicken or pretzel-pizzas (deli counters); fresh loaves of bread (available anywhere); yogurt (many varieties); and milk or juice in 1L boxes. We really liked the fresh lavash bread, which is like a large flour tortilla and is great for many uses in your own kitchen: fajitas, tacos, baked into corn chips, or sandwich wraps. When the Ramstore is out of it, you can also get fresh lavash made on-the-spot by asking nicely at the Cafe Karaganda.

3. Shkolnik market. This is a very small shopping center located directly across the street from the baby house. Shkolnik consists of many small stalls crowded together within a larger building, but you can get just about anything you need -- from groceries to tools to clothes to hardware to cell phone minutes to small appliances. There is a well-stocked baby store in the back, and an ATM machine out front. Strangely, the in-country staff rarely points us to Shkolnik, but we've discovered they have just about anything and everything, to include pet turtles and goldfish! No English spoken, so be unafraid but polite and be prepared to use your best pointy-talky communication skills.

2. Cafe Karaganda. Our favorite lunch spot, located just across the street from the City Mall, has a very friendly staff ("English-curious", if not proficient), decent food at good prices, non-smoking environment, clean restrooms (complete with toilet seats!), warm international scene, and free wireless internet access. Best bets for food: cheeseburgers with fries; pizza (either veggie Margarita pizza, or salami-combo); rice with meat; chicken with vegetables; or fried (or scrambled) eggs with wurst and cheese (not on menu, just look up "eggs" or "breakfast" in your phrasebook to order). If you ask nicely, the staff will make fresh lavash bread to-go, albeit costing more (but still cheap, and tastier) than Ramstore.

1. Kazakh people. By being just slightly extroverted and a whole lot lucky, Laura and I were able to meet several locals socially outside of the adoption process. We found them to be very humorous, polite, warm, hospitable, and intensely curious about America and Americans. This runs counter to much of the "official" adoption travel information and many stereotypes. They suffered my clumsy communications attempts with grace and ease. I was careful not to reveal anything potentially compromising to our process, in keeping with our agency's guidelines. I also took care to avoid clearly intoxicated people (of whom there are many), although not always with success (see Laura's previous post). To be perfectly blunt, our few interactions with people outside of the highly-charged and emotionally-draining adoption process as been a source of enormous comfort and stress-relief for us, and a great opportunity for us to learn about our son's birth country.

Happy Birthday Vic!!

Today was a red letter day! Our (soon-to-be) little one turned one year old
today, my how time flies. :) It seems like only 3 weeks ago we met, wait, it has only 3 weeks.

Vic was in a great mood as always, and very active. I did one or two So-Big's with him and he started doing it on his own, much to our amusement. His favorite method was to have a teething ring in each hand when he raised them over his head. He's also started giving me the cute look; head tucked into his shoulder and with a sweet smile. *So sweet*

In honor of Vic's first birthday, we bought a small cake for the caregivers to enjoy during the kids nap time. We weren't allowed to do any sort of party for him, but I'm sure there will be one big shindig when he gets home. His big brother has already agreed to help him with the birthday cake and "teach" him how to blow the candles out.

We're on our 7th day after bonding, and hope to go to court this week. No word yet on when, we're just hoping it comes soon. I've read countless times how difficult this process is, but it's hard to understand until one goes through the mind-numbing monotony. Even more difficult, for us at least, is being away from our son Jack. A very dear friend emailed a photo of him this past Saturday, and we both were having a hard time of it. He looks so grown up, we're missing out on his day-to-day shenanigans, we had nothing to do with the great smile that was on his face.. etc. I tell Bob that we're stuck between two boys, one that we can't bear to leave, and the other that we can't live without.

Bob and I are definitely feeling the groundhog day effect and are ready to get home. To combat the doldrums, we invited a friend over for dinner last night. On the menu was soft-tacos with pico-de-gallo, and Bob's world famous artichoke bruschetta. Mexican-Italian Fusion if you will. We had a great time with our friend, then Bob walked him back to the bus stop to catch the last shuttle of the night.

Around the time Bob was due back from the bus stop, I got a knock on the door - the 'Shave & a haircut, two bits' knock (Bob's description:). I thought it was Bob and opened the door... whoops. Our immediate neighbor was there pantomiming that she needed to borrow matches. No biggie, I thought. I was oh so wrong.. She was overly friendly, and quite obviously drunk. After she sang all verses of a German Friendship song, she went back to her apartment. Hoo-boy.

When Bob got back, I asked him to answer the door when she returned our lighter. I was *hoping* that my tall, manly husband would keep her from coming in the apartment again. No such luck; she brought back-up. Pushing past Bob came three very inebriated women bearing fruit, candies, pistachios, a half-empty bottle of Vodka and some Kazakh Cognac.

It was funny for a little while, and Bob _really_ enjoyed the Cognac, but by
10:30, I pulled the plug. These Kazakh Golden Girls, or perhaps Whirling Dervishes, weren't going anywhere soon. So, I took our cell phone to the back room and called our interpreter/landlord. She in turn called her mother, who lives upstairs, and had her come down to shoo the ladies out.

By now one lady was at my sink doing the dinner dishes, another was spilling Vodka and pistaschios all over the place, and the third was busy with her cell phone calling all their kids to come over. The personification of 'Out of Hand'. Our interpreter's mother came in and in a calm manner explained that the time difference between the US and Kazakhstan is very great; that these Americanskis like to go to bed early and it was time to go home now. Brilliant! They bought it!! The Kaz Golden Girls picked up their stuff and left. I gave Oxana's mom a big hug and we both thanked her very much for her help. Whew! Not quite a Rick Steves moment, but not the same old night either.

Tomorrow we think our coordinator will let us purchase needed baby house items with the remaining half of our monetary donations. More to follow.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Karaganda Mapping and Other Ramblings

From Wikipedia:
Nurken Abdirov (Kazakh: Нуркен Абдиров) was a Kazakh pilot who served for the Soviet Union in World War II, and was killed in the Battle of Stalingrad. Abdirov is a legendary figure in his hometown of Karaganda, Kazakhstan. According to local history, when Abdirov's plane was disabled by enemy fire, he and gunner Aleksandr Komissarov heroically steered his descent to crash into a column of German tanks, sacrificing his own life to destroy his enemy.
Yesterday, I started working on a Google Map that details all of the key locations and landmarks that have been important to us during our visit here. I'm a bit reluctant to post the map here directly to the blog, as it has some locations that some might find a bit private -- the baby house, our apartment, and so forth. However, if there are any families who are pending travel to Karaganda for adoption, just contact us privately and I'll share it with you. Same goes for any previous Karaganda families.

We're still waiting on a court date. As with most everything else this trip, I expect it will be "hurry up and wait." In the meantime, just about every kid and adult we know here is suffering from some type of head cold. I'm hoping mine clears soon.

Tonight we made our most adventurous meal yet -- chicken fajitas. The results were outstanding, if I do say so myself. Laura found a single package of Ortega fajitas seasoning mix at the Ramstore, a large grocery store. For tortillas, we substituted a locally-available flat bread called lavash. It turns out that lavash makes a better tortilla than most store-bought varieties back home. We also found some canned sliced jalepenos, so Laura combined them with fresh bell peppers, cilantro, and tomatoes for some yummy pico de gallo.

We've taken the city bus several times now between the downtown area and our apartment when our driver is off-duty. It's pretty simple as we never have to change buses, we never have to wait long (it runs every 5 minutes or so), and it is incredibly cheap -- about the equivalent of $0.25 US per person, per trip. It definitely makes for some interesting conversation and people-watching, as well. We made a trip after dark last night in which a congenial young Kazakh man, who already spoke reasonably good English, solicited us for formal English lessons. Suffice it to say that city bus rides out to our apartment's part of town after dark would probably make the "Not Recommended" section of our agency's travel literature.

So, Laura meets this nice and serious young guy at the Cafe Karaganda, our favorite lunch spot. He's prior Army, a two-time Iraq war combat vet, now living and working here as a Peace Corps volunteer. He's a super nice and sharp gentleman. Laura tells him that my little sister, who lives in Oregon, has been interested in the Peace Corps for some time, so she does a brief email introduction. A few days later, my sister sends us a message exclaiming that there is "good news from my recruiter! All my application materials are in, and I have the opportunity to 'put my name in the hat' for a couple different programs in Spring 2009."

No, I'm not making this up. I couldn't make up a better story if I tried. We meet some dude in the Cafe Karaganda while here visiting the baby house, and before I can think twice about it, my sister is running off to join the Peace Corps -- her current assignment "exciting opportunities" include Morocco, Vanuatu, or Palau. Once again, I guess we should pay closer attention to the agency travel literature. In particular, the part about not talking to strangers you might encounter outside of the adoption process. Oh well, at least there are Ryanair flights between Hahn (near Frankfurt) and both Marrakesh and Fes (Morocco), so there's a reasonably good chance that I might see my little sister again one day.

On a final note, I'm working on a longer post about tips for living here temporarily in Karaganda. Please stay tuned -- until then, you may want to consider reading Dr. Sam Blackman's perspectives from his previous life in Konstanai.