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?


shannon said...

I'm convinced that you and I should rewrite the white binder and/or write a little white paper on Karaganda for Jim :)

LOVE your posts, really love the pictures with Vic ... what a wonderful family!

We're still following along!


Mark and Melanie said...

Hi guys---
Thank you SO much for answering our million questions. We too, are budgeting down to the last tenge and boy---it really adds up! This has been tremendously helpful (and reassuring!). Keep the info. coming!

Melanie and Mark

dnd82001 said...

Thank you so much for taking the time to share all this info with your follow bloggers.

Our agency only adopts out of Karaganda so that is where we will be heading. Having such info is certainly helpful and like the rest of the Kaz adoption world we are spending alot and would like to cut costs down if/whenever possible so this does help.

Look forward to any more tips/advice you might want to share with us.


Bob Sims said...

All, thanks for the kind remarks...

@Shannon: thanks, just trying to pay forward your own kindness.

@Mark: the agency estimates are fairly accurate for the basic services (room/driver/interpreter), although perhaps quoted a little high for Karaganda. I guess it's better to expect the worst, and then be pleasantly surprised if things work out better.

However, as noted, you can see significant savings in food and creature comforts.

@dnd82001: Karaganda is really a great place to adopt from, IMHO. It might not be the fastest, but it certainly has to be one of the most consistent. Karaganda has just about everything you could need, and much cheaper than a bigger city (Almaty).

Angela said...


Thanks so much for the information on minimizing expenses.

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 all of this - the info about expenses and your speeches especially.


Bob Sims said...

@Angela, congrats, your question gets its own post!