Thursday, February 26, 2009

Skiing in Kazakhstan

Okay, to correct an earlier blog post, there are three things that I went to Kazakhstan for: to adopt our beautiful new daughter Sasha, to drink a bowl of Kumis, and to ski at Chimbulak. The last one being important to me since teaching skiing has become my winter gig and saying that I’ve skied in a former Soviet republic just makes me giggly for some reason.

Chimbulak is located in the Zaiysky Alatau mountain range about 25km south of Almaty. It also goes by the name Shymbulak or Чимбулак in Russian and Шымбұлақ in Kazak. The facility was much more modern than I was expecting. There weren’t any detachable high speed chairs, but they did have those obnoxious “hump-me” turnstiles. This ended up being a great thing because I only had to pay 600 tenge ($4) for each chair ride. The resort has about a 2000 foot vertical drop top to bottom, but I couldn’t make it to the top of the pass since that lift was closed. If you look at the map you’ll see that there was one main valley to ski in that has three chairlifts to take you all the way to the top. The trails are marked as beginner, confident, and professional.

And I have to admit that I felt very confident on the blues and that I felt very professional on the blacks and that there wasn’t a heck of a lot that scared me while skiing despite the best efforts of the signage. I mean that sign makes it look like skiing past it will result in death. But I did find the powder slightly more challenging then I am used to. Hold on, wait, let me explain that part. I only fell because I borrowed my… just let me… ugh give me a second.

I was lucky in the fact that my driver, Dim (d-ee-m), was a skier and had brought his equipment along. I tried to talk him into skiing with me but he insisted that he would stay at the bottom and that I was to use his skis. His foot size was only a half size smaller than mine and his skis were 168s, just like mine at home. With my feet shoved into his boots, I was on my way. The snow was a consistency that I wasn’t used to. It wasn’t fluffy like Utah or Colorado, or hard packed and fast like East coast snow, but was fast and grippy. It was super easy to get both edges to track but almost impossible to skid on them unless you really tried to. The snow was three days old yet there were no icy patches but the coverage was thinner in some parts than you’d expect in mid season.

The skiers here were much better than I was expecting. They were pretty comparable to skiers in Utah: good form, fast turners, and not a whole lot of snowplowers coming down fast. It didn’t look like most of them were into powder skiing since most of the professional trails were full of untracked pow. And being a good Utah native I had to taste the local cuisine of freshies. The snow was mildly light and floaty. Lighter than Sierra cement, but no where close to as fluffy as the fly away Utah variety. I took about 10 to 15 turns and released out of both skis tumbling head over heels. Ack, ack! Snow down my back! Yeah, yeah, I should have stayed centered more in my skis to keep the tips from submarining on me but I DID have a cold going on at the time and horrible cough and stuffy head and I was totally exhausted and my feet are a little too wide for these borrowed Nordica boots. I just knew you’d understand if I explained better.

And I felt a whole lot better after visiting the yurt on the top of lift two. It was made out of some kind of clear tarp and technically isn’t a yurt, but it’s close. A shot of my favorite Russian vodka got me to forget about my small mishap in my technique and I enjoyed my final descent down to meet Dim and have a Latte. A little warmness did my throat a whole lot of good.

The whole reason this resort is so modern, Dim explained to me, was that Nursultan Nazarbaev, the President of Kazakhstan, is a big time skier. Since Kaz’s independence in 1991 Nazarbaev has been doing what he can to keep the roads in good shape and support the surrounding infrastructure around the resort. Almaty even made an unsuccessful bid for the 2014 Winter Olympic Games and is mounting another one for the 2018 games. They’ve secured the 2011 Asia Games and part of the prep for that is the installation of a gondola that will take people from below and cut out 25 minutes of switchback driving.

In the drive down the mountain I got a great view of the dam and the ice rink. The dam was made in the 60’s to prevent mudflows and landslides from destroying the city. Making large explosions in the mountains on either side created it. Many years ago there were mudslides that destroyed the entire city and so this stopped that from happening again. Not too long after it was completed, there was another slide and the dam (thing) showed that it was there for a good reason. For some reason there was a wedding couple standing on the top of it with their family all in tow with them. I’ll bet lots of people go here to get hitched because of the beautiful allegory of a dam being so much like love. Wait, that makes no sense. Fine, I guess they’re there for the view.

There is also an outdoor speed skating rink where many of the former Soviet Union athletes used to train. It looks like they are renovating at the moment since this is also where the gondola will start. The only thing I saw of the rink was the cool relief of two speed skater guys.

In the descent down the 12% graded road to Almaty it started snowing. I smelled a strange odor coming from the car and started sniffing to figure out what it was. “Wadka” my driver intoned at me while pointing ahead. “Oh vada” I replied pointing at the wet windshield. “No, vodka,” he enunciated back. Turns out that my driver and many people use a mix of cheap vodka and water as washer fluid. Guess that means there aren’t any open container laws here.

Back to the apartment for an exhausted nap and then on to the plane headed for home at 4:00am…

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Love of a sibling

Sam is quite the entrepreneur. He's always on a quest to make a buck from something and can often be found in the front yard with a folding table hawking his wares. Today he came home from school and decided to sell some of his excess toys in order to raise some funds for our trip on Sunday. After all, its in the mid fifties today and there are plenty of potential customers out enjoying the nice weather.

As I was pulling out the table from downstairs, I started to joke around a little with him.

Me: Hey so how much of a cut of your profits do I get for fetching the folding table?

Sam: Nothing! Well, maybe a dollar...

Me: 10%

Sam: No way! Well, we'll see how much I get first.

Me: I bet if you can sell your brother to do some chores for people you'll get quite a lot.

Sam: Dad, he wouldn't fit on my table.

Me: Good point.

So now he's outside selling his old Millennium Falcon and some transformers just so he can go to a foreign country to buy souvenirs that he'll bring home and probably sell in a few months to buy something else. At least he won't be begging me for Tenge.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Home again

Okay, I think I might be in withdrawal. My toilet flushes too quietly, people drive too slowly, my shower isn’t anywhere close to hot enough, and my mattress is soft like butter left out of the fridge too long. I had to put on an extra blanket because my usually pleasant 68 degree house is now an icily frigid 68 degree house. And in even better news, I tried on a pair of pants that were in the “I have a dream” part of the closet and they once again fit this fat body, well slightly less fat. Maybe I could market a Kumis and horse meat diet…

Welp, I guess now that I’m “home” I should be telling you about what a relief it is to be back around people who speak English. Seriously, I think I about cried when the flight attendant spoke to me in clear English and asked if I wanted an orange juice at 5 in the morning local time. It’s okay though. I think he just thought I was real attached to citrus fruit drinks. But hearing someone who was obviously from the US was a great feeling to know that I was getting back home to see the boys.

And it was great to get to see that they were happy healthy and largely intact. On the ride home from the airport, I was stroking Ben’s head and musing his hair and found a rather large lump on his head. When I asked him what happened he whispered “They told me not to tell you about that.” Turns out running in socks on wood floors can be hazardous to chairs in the general area. And to the little skulls that go crashing into them. But not to worry, the chair doesn’t even have a scratch.

I’m kind of disappointed in my boys in a way. We’ve gone eight straight years with out a visit to the emergency room for either of them. No stitches, no casts, no pins, plates, or any kind of surgery to speak of. It’s like I’ve failed them some how. I mean they’ve got a tree house in the back yard so we can’t be too far from that kind of stuff, right?

The 21st was a long day for me. I got up at 1am local time to get to the airport. Hopped on a few planes and crashed into my bed at home at 10:00pm local time 37 hours later without the calendar flipping a single page. Yeah. No wonder my eyes still feel blurry. In Denver I realized that jetlag has a nasty effect of turning off my foul language filters. I cursed at some poor payphone for not dialing the right number for me. Now I realize that I was the one to blame. If only I could apologize.

So here’s the status update. I leave to take the boys to meet their sister on Sunday. The passports are in the mail to get visa-ed and I have a huge list of gotta do’s that need attention before I go. Jamie and I are skypeing often enough that she doesn’t miss me too much and we have optimistically aimed at coming home right on St. Patrick’s Day. Soon we’ll be one big happy family of five. But for right now we’ll settle for having the boys on one side of the planet and the girls on the other. It is kind of cool to think that the sun never really sets on a member of the Morningstar family. Kind of like the British Empire. But without the tea. Or large impressive navy.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Day 32 - Going Dim

We just wanted you to know that if you don't hear much from us over the next few days, don't worry! Everything's going great here (with the exception of the pigeons outside of our apartment window who are, I believe, eying my gin rather suspiciously. Or maybe it's the potato chips. Either way, they better back off!) and we are loving our little girl more every day.

Steve left last night for Almaty where he is hopefully skiing today and finding me an awesome "I skied Kazakhstan" shirt and then he leaves for Utah tomorrow to pick up the boys. I'll likely be here alone for about a week until they come back, so we probably won't have much to post from this hemisphere for a few days.

We did have a few more food reviews for you:
  1. Paprika Pringles - surprisingly good
  2. Bacon Lays - ick.  Edible if you just think of them tasting like wierd BBQ chips
  3. 6% milk - Steve loves it.  You know about me and dairy, so I'm steering clear
  4. 5% yogurt - freaking awesome.  It's like eating strawberry-flavored whipped cream... which is probably basically what it is.
Prayer requests: Please join us in prayer that Steve and the kids can come to Kazakhstan really soon, that their bodies stay healthy and strong during travel, and that each leg of their journey is safe. For me, pray that I, likewise, will stay healthy and energetic and that I would treasure this time of getting to know Sasha one-on-one.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Day 31 - All about Sasha

It occurs to us that although you now know lots about the process of getting Sasha and the cuisine of Kazakhstan, we haven't told you very much about our little girl and her personality!

Sasha is a beautiful little girl (well, you know that from her photos!) and has all of the feistiness and spirit that you expect from a Morningstar. At first, with new people or situations she's a little shy. She likes to step back and just observe when something's unfamiliar and doesn't dive in and try to be the center of attention right away. Once she feels comfortable, she's very curious and likes to explore her new surroundings. She also gets talkative once she warms up, with a lot of babbling and even few words we can decipher.

She loves cuddles and likes being held a lot. And she loves tickles! She knows what she wants - that girl is stubborn when things don't go the way she thinks they're supposed to! And those are the traits that have made her resilient, enduring more change and difficulty in less than two years than most of us have seen in two decades.

Sasha had some trouble eating early in her life and as a result was really tiny up until the recent past - we couldn't believe it when the doctor gave us her medical records and she only weighed 14 pounds in October (14 months old)! It's hard to know why she was so tiny - some of it may have been because of less-than-perfect nutrition at the baby house, maybe the pneumonia before arriving at the baby house that had her hospitalized as a baby, but it also probably had something to do with the more liquid baby food served in the younger groups because now that she is in a group with adult food, she's growing like a weed!

Sasha has a cleft palate. That means that the top of her mouth didn't fully form in the womb. Sasha's cleft is through the soft and hard parts of the palate - if you feel the roof of your mouth, you can feel that in the front it's hard and in the back it's soft. Her cleft is through both of those parts, but doesn't extend into her gums, which is awesome because it should mean fewer surgeries to correct the cleft and doesn't seem to affect her teeth. It also doesn't affect her lip, so we shouldn't have to worry about plastic surgery either. Basically, if you look at the top of her mouth (like when she's laughing and throws her had back), you see her teeth and gums and then up into her sinuses. Ok, that makes it sound gross... it just looks like the top of her mouth is missing. But if you look at her from the outside, she's a totally healthy, beautiful little girl!

Cleft palate is a pretty common birth defect, affecting around one in 600 births. There is a genetic component that makes a cleft more likely, and it can also be caused by prenatal exposure to drugs or alcohol or by maternal illness and the wrong time of the pregnancy. We'll never know what caused Sasha's cleft, but the good news is that clefts are very easily correctable through surgery. We've already been in contact with our pediatrician in Utah, and we'll go in for an appointment the first week we're back and then she'll start talking with the cranial-facial doctors up at Primary Children's Hospital in Salt Lake.

Short-term, we're really just looking at feeding and speech difficulties. The cleft means that Sasha has some trouble moving food around her mouth, so sometimes she needs to tilt or shake her head to get the food in the right place and sometimes the food comes out of her nose (which is still a ton less gross than baby spit up). She also needs a little extra time to eat, which is a hard thing to do in the baby house but easy when you have a family of your own! It also means that there are some sounds her mouth simply can't make, so we've focused on the sign language even more than we had anticipated so that her mouth isn't a barrier to her communication.

As we prepared for adoption, Steve and I grew more and more open to a special needs adoption. We knew that there are a lot of kids out there with conditions that, if they had been born in the States, would be no big deal, but because of those kids' circumstances may never get corrected. Over time (maybe that's why we had to wait so long for Sasha!) our hearts grew more and more ready for a kid who might have a few more hurdles to cross than your average bear.

This journey is full of surprises! A year ago we imagined that since we were open to any ethnicity and a girl up to 48 months, we would come home with a little Kazakh preschooler. And now here we are, halfway across the world, with a toddler who looks like she could have been born to us! Adoption has been an extraordinary adventure, and it's hard to believe that it's really all just beginning, that our life as a family of five is just at its start. A year from now, paperwork and court dates will be a distant memory and we'll be consumed with the day to day business (joys and trials!) of being a family. Wow. Sasha, we are so blessed to call you our daughter.

Prayer request: Please join us in prayer for our little girl. Pray that she will grow up with an intrinsic knowledge of the beauty and strength of her identity as a daughter of God and will come to accept his incredible gift of grace at an early age and every day after.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Happy 8th Birthday Sam!

We'll take a break from the Kazakhstan updates for a very important day - Samuel Isaac Morningstar's 8th birthday! Buddy, it's hard being on the other side of the world on such a big day - we are so proud of the kid you already are and the young man you're becoming. We pray that you are surrounded by love on your birthday and truly enjoy your special day. Oh, and we hope that there are lots of Legos to unwrap, too.

Sam had his party Monday so that everybody could participate - Poppop, Aunt Sandy, Uncle Mike, and Cousins Abby and Xave were in town in addition to the grandmas! Are you suspicious about all of the fun they're having while we're gone? Me too. I'm sure it makes the time pass quickly - we've been seeing photos of field trips, the Nickelcade, tubing at Soldier Hollow, McDonalds - it's a wonder they have energy left to Skype with us!

The party sounds great. Sam had trouble deciding on a theme, but before we left he had finally settled on Legos as the proper 8th birthday party theme.

They had a Lego pinata (Sam thought they should get the pull-string kind rather than whacking it apart in the living room. Mommy and Daddy are grateful), Lego-block cake (looked like a block, not made of), and played all sorts of cool games, such as "pin the stud on the Lego" and a relay race where they carried spoonfuls of Legos to their team and tried to make the tallest tower!

It sure sounds like a good time was had by all. Many thanks to the grandmas and assorted family for making Sam's birthday so special, and a very Happy Birthday to the coolest eight year old I know.

Prayer request: Please pray with us that Sam will know and feel our love today, that he'll have a wonderful day celebrating his birth, and that he will continue to grow into the man God designed him to be: courageous, thoughtful, smart, and with a special love for life lived to the fullest.

Day 29 - Introducing Alexandra Grace Morningstar

We are so very proud to introduce you to
Alexandra Grace Morningstar
Born April 12, 2007
Karaganda, Kazakhstan
Welcomed to the Morningstar Family February 17, 2009

And I ask Him that with both feet planted firmly on love, you'll be able to take in with all Christians the extravagant dimensions of Christ's love. Reach out and experience the breadth! Test its length! Plumb the depths! Rise to the heights! Live full lives, full in the fullness of God.
Ephesians 3:18-19

Day 2 of court was easy peasy rice and cheesy. We just showed up; heard speeches from the doctor, social worker, and prosecutor; the judge read out the contents of our dossier and bada bing - we're parents!

We have updated many of our Kaz blog postings with photos of our amazing little girl. All postings with an asterisk in the title (*) have been updated, and you can check them out to see more photos of beautiful Alexandra (aka Sasha, Sashka, Shuri, Shurka, or my favorite nickname, Sanka). Enjoy them, she's a cutie!!!

Monday, February 16, 2009

Day 28 - Court, part 1

Today was court day... well, today was supposed to be court day... well, today was sort of court day. We were supposed to have court at 11, so we got all prettied up (and Steve looks great in the suit!) and got to the courthouse to find out that the judge was in some sort of special session for a criminal case and we were rescheduled for 4.

So, we came back to the apartment, ate PB&J, worked on the speeches some more (and boy am I tired of hearing Steve's speech. I'm sure he feels the same about mine), watched some Arrested Development, worked on our puzzle, and paced around the apartment. Then we got prettied up again and went to the courthouse. We didn't even get into the courtroom until 4:40 because our travel partners were scheduled for court at 3 (and they got a positive decision - hooray!!!).

We gave our speeches and they went awesome. Steve's was authoritative and fact-filled, mine was gushy about how much we love her, and they were truly perfect. Thank you so much for your prayers! Then the prosecutor asked us a few questions about who would stay home with Sestra, why we didn't have more biological children rather than adopting, and how the boys feel about having a sister.

It was all going really well, and we were done with our part of the proceedings when the judge said that we had to adjourn until tomorrow morning because he had to go back into the criminal case.

So, we go back tomorrow. The good news is that none of the delays have anything to do with us (like problems with our paperwork or something somebody has to research). Our part of the hearing should be basically done, now the judge will talk to the baby house doctor and go through our paperwork in the presence of everybody in the court. Of course, we'll post about our new Morningstar just as soon as we can!

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Day 27 - Fine Art*

*This post was updated with photos and additional info after adoption

Today was our single-visit day (we only get to visit once on Sundays), so we made the most of our two hours with our little girl! She's doing better and better at eating, which is awesome. For the first week or two, we really struggled to get all of her lunch into her (keep in mind, lunch is the biggest meal of the day - bread, soup, meat, veggies, potatoes or pasta, and juice - it's a lot of food to stuff in a little person!). But now that we've gotten to know each other better, she's off to the races and is eating so well for us and we're loving it.

Our two-hour visits are going so quickly now! I guess that after 48 of them, we're well into the swing of things. We poke our heads into the room, she comes running over to us with arms open wide, and the hug-fest begins! For the next two hours we play with her doll or stacking cups, usually blow up a balloon and chase it around the room, and read a few books (a few dozen times each). We dance together to the digital jangle of the toys playing two lines of such favorites as: Auld Lang Syne, the theme from Titanic, Happy Birthday, Unchained Melody, Greensleeves, and many others we cannot place. We practice climbing the stairs if it's not a busy day in the baby house. And we just enjoy being together and getting to know one another.

Our single-visit day left us with plenty of time this afternoon for a special shopping trip! A few days ago we went to a little art exhibit with Oxana (admission - 70 tg for locals, 200 for foreigners. Oh well, it was a buck forty well spent). The featured artist was Oleg Drozdov ( the husband of one of the baby house doctors. We had admired his work hanging in the baby house, so Oxana took us to the exhibit so that we could see more.

We expressed an interest in purchasing a piece or two to bring home with us, so our hosts arranged for us to visit his studio to browse. It was so cool! We picked out a painting to hang over our mantel (the larger one he's holding) and then two smaller ones to give to Sestra someday. We are so grateful to have this little piece of Kazakhstan to bring home with us.

Snow removal
I have been fascinated with snow removal here in Karaganda. I admit it, I'm a little obsessed. My favorite part is that most of the residential snow removal is done using reed brooms (basically they look like bundles of sticks). This makes sense, since they don't seem to get more than an inch or two of snow at any given time, so it's easier to sweep away than to shovel. Actually, these brooms are also used indoors for a quick sweep-up instead of vacuuming - we saw the hotel staff at the Old Windmill use them often.

When shoveling, some folks use snow shovels like you find in the States, but most use either metal garden shovels or wooden home-made ones. Here's a photo of the snow removal equipment in the entrance of the Russian Orthodox church (Steve and Oxana just love it when I stop to take pictures of closets). Cool, eh?

And here's a picture of one of the caretakers clearing the plaza outside of the church. Wow, I wouldn't want to have to shovel that every day!

The streets are cleared using front-end loaders or an army of workers in orange vests with shovels. The snow is piled up along the side of the street and then a machine with a little conveyer belt comes along and scoops up the snow and deposits it into a dump truck. The snow is then trucked out of the city.

It's a very different system than we see in Utah - no giant snowplows, no salt on the roads, and the sidewalks are always snow-covered. But it works for Kazakhstan!

Prayer request: At the time of this posting, we only have 3 hours until court begins! Thank you for all of your prayers and well wishes, and the same requests from yesterday remain - that our words would be wise, papers would be in order, and that the ones hearing and seeing both would recognize our love and capacity to provide for our daughter.

Day 26 - A Valentine's Walk in the Park*

*This post was updated with photos and additional info after adoption

Our Valentine's Day morning was simply beautiful. Every once in a while, the frost clings to the trees and it is just the most magical thing. Here are a few of my favorite frosty morning photos:
Trees over the sidewalk
A close-up of the frost on branches
A frosty tree against the blue morning sky

Karaganda has a large central park that we hadn't yet fully explored, so we decided to celebrate Valentine's Day with a romantic stroll.

Folks celebrate Valentine's Day here much like in the States - we saw girls carrying flowers and there were chocolates and cards for sale at all of the local stores. We even saw a few hearts-and-flowers billboards with professions of love on them!

Our Valentine's Day was low-key - two fabulous visits to the baby house to play with our little girl, PB&J sandwiches for lunch, and a walk in the park. A lovely day with the person I love best in the world. Here are a few choice shots from our afternoon:
This is the main entrance to the park. Snazzy, eh?
Here's Jamie on one of the pretty little bridges entering the park. The bridges actually go over the hot water pipes, so it's prettier if you just crop out the pipes and focus on the bridge and trees :)
This is the ferris wheel in the park - there's a little amusement park with rides and food stands, although the only thing open this time of year was the cotton candy stand! We didn't get any, but that was a whole lot of cotton candy for 100 tengue (70 cents)
This is a beautiful small Russian Orthodox church on the edge of the park. Oxana said that it was constructed without a single nail, log cabin style.
There's a big pond in the center of the park. In the summer, they must have paddleboats, but they're beached now and the pond is used for ice skating and ATV rides!

We are getting really excited about court. There's still the lingering panic that everything is going to go wrong and we won't be approved, but we know that's just paranoia talking. Most of the time, we're just really excited to be so close to the decision that makes our little girl a Morningstar. We're studying up on the court speeches, wrapping gifts for the folks we owe so much to (baby house workers, doctors, and the fantastic WPA staff in Karaganda), and enjoying this calm before the storm that is three children.

Sasha started using two new signs - "more" and "all done"! Is our kid brilliant or what?

Prayer requests: Our lives and minds are totally consumed by court right now, and we sure appreciate all prayers for Monday's hearing. Pray for our speeches, that we will be able to articulate our love for our daughter and our ability to provide for her. Pray for all of the paperwork, that t's are crossed and i's dotted and that there are no more paperwork snags to hold up the process. But most importantly, pray for hearts - that the judge and everyone in the courtroom understands that Sasha is already a part of our family and comes to a quick legal decision confirming that!

Friday, February 13, 2009

Day 25 - Kumis at a local dive*

*This post was updated with photos and additional info after adoption

Here's another entry to add to the culinary experience file. There are two things that I came to Kazakhstan for. To adopt our daughter, and to try kumis. Kumis is a local drink that is made by fermenting mare's milk. Neigh. It's mildly alcoholic (only 3% alcohol content) but not enough to get you too giddy. Well, I suppose if you drank enough of it.

We saw bottles of it in the grocery store, but Oxana said it isn't as good as what we could find else where. She claimed that the restaurant across the street would have the best we could easily find. The only way to get real good kumis this time of year would be to drive out to a place in the steppe (boondocks) and it would take too long. We decided it'd be better to try out the restaurant. Then she mentioned it's a place that they don't usually take tourists. Ok, now we're interested.

The restaurant we were going to was pretty hometown. Locals eat there often and there really isn't much on the menu that we would be familiar with. Think Callies Café (for you Utahns) or Harry's Lunch (Westminster-ites) or Mel's Diner (kiss my grits!) This meant that we HAD to go now. We aren't the type who'd pass up a great cultural experience like this.

The inside was nice but very cold. No one must want the heat on I guess. No English menus (surprise) but Natasha (our coordinator) and Oxana both joined us. So Jamie ordered some perogie like thingys and I got two of these large pastries filled with a meat, cabbage, and onion mixture, kind of like a greasy calzone. We ordered our kumis and waited patiently for our meal.

Our server returned and plunked a bottle on the table. It was just like the one at the grocery store! Well, we were in this far and there was no turning back now. We poured our bowls and readied ourselves to taste. Smell the bouquet, swirl to examine color, and take a tasting sip...

The smell reminded me of flowers on the roadside (when I was a kid I believe we referred to them as "skunk plants") and the color was a pleasant mother of pearl oyster white (great, now I'm thinking of seafood, that's a great sign). The first sip descended quite easily without trying to come back out, so I decided it was safe to take another. It rolled along the tongue in a pleasant and leisurely manner that allowed its full flavor to unveil itself. Quaffable... maybe a little young.

And really, it wasn't as bad as I thought it might be. It was like a runny sour yogurt soup with a just a smackering of buzzy fizzy to it. It wasn't nasty salty like the other stuff I tried (eww) and kind of had a pleasant finish to it. Texture wise it wasn't chunky like I expected it be, but rather smooth and mellow. It went well with my meat turnover (beef, maybe? Maybe not) but, I doubt I'll be bringing home any bottles to share with anyone. Jamie said she liked it too, but I think she preferred her cup of tea.

Jamie: Today we combined two new experiences for Sasha- stair climbing and shoes. Yeah, we like to live large. She's doing really well in her little boots and has gotten over her initially wobbliness. She climbed all 11 stairs three times today while holding our hands for stability - I bet that girl's going to sleep well tonight.

Prayer request: It's time to practice those court speeches! Our speeches have been written for about a week, but now it's time to get serious about memorizing them and being ready to present about ourselves in court. I know it sounds silly given all of the other big stuff going on, but please pray with us that we will be able to memorize our speeches and present about ourselves and our family in a compelling way.

Day 24 - About Botakoz*

*This post was updated with photos and additional info after adoption

We also thought we should tell you a little about the baby house. Our little girl lives in the Botakoz baby house, which means "little camel's eye" in Kazakh. Because of their long lashes, camels' eyes are thought to be very beautiful, so this is a very nice name even though it might sound odd to our ears.

The baby house is home to kiddos from birth to four years of age, after which time they move to one of the orphanages for older kids. There are eight groups (rooms) in the baby house, with around 12 kids per group, organized roughly by age, for a total of around 100 kids.

Each group has two caregivers at all times - for babies it's a nurse and a nanny and then for toddlers (like our little girl) it's a preschool teacher and nanny. These women are amazing. They have so many kids to take care of, bottoms to wipe, and mouths to feed and yet they know each child individually and clearly make the time to give each one individual attention and love. Caregivers work 12-hour shifts, and at night there's one caregiver in the room while they sleep.

In addition to the caregivers, there are several full-time doctors and nurses, a speech therapist, a massage therapist, a music teacher, 3 or 4 psychologists who come in and out of the room throughout the day to work with the kids. There's a kitchen downstairs and the kids eat all of their meals in the big group room, which is basically their whole world.

Each group has a bedroom with cribs for babies or beds for toddlers and then a large group room, which is where they spend the vast majority of their days (eating, playing, etc). There's also a bathroom where they have their potty time and an entry room where the caregivers leave their jackets and things and where adoptive parents play with our children.

Right now there are about seven families in the baby house in various stages of adoption. You can see that the shoe room (the entry room where we change into our slippers) gets pretty crowded! We and our travel partners are the only ones from the States right now and I think there's also a German family and several from Belgium. Most of the families tend to visit in the younger rooms (most are adopting kids between 7 and 12 months - 7 months is the youngest age for international adoption from Kazakhstan) so we don't see them too often.

Every kid deserves a home and loving family, but Bokatoz is a pretty great place for those little ones who are still waiting for their family to walk through the door. It is cheerful and loving and we are so grateful to the place and people who have cared for our daughter for as long as she can remember.

This morning we had the opportunity to see a special program put on by the two older groups. They do these little programs for holidays and once per season to celebrate the children born in that season. It was adorable. They all paraded into the music room in their finest party garb - bows in hair, brightly colored shirts, yellow and black polka dot ties - and won our hearts with their fabulous singing and dancing. The plot was a little challenging to follow, but it went something like this: Sing a song, teacher dressed as snowman comes in, sing a song, teacher dressed as rabbit comes in (we're assuming this was some sort of winter to spring transition), sing a song, teacher dressed as wolf comes in (not sure about this part, we're guessing they just had a cool wolf costume in the store room and wanted to use it), wolf chases rabbit, wolf scared away by children, sing a song.

Now we get to the best part - the special musical numbers. The first was three sweet little girls doing a little "Russian doll" dance complete with kerchiefs. Next came our favorite number, five kids dancing to (and we are not making this up) Can't Touch This. Yes, they had a choreographed MC Hammer number in the baby house. Then the cake came out for all of the kids with recent birthdays, we sang a birthday song, and then it was a massive dance party to Russian techno! Yeah, it was clearly our best morning visit yet. Sash was too young to participate (it was the older kids), but she loved watching those preschoolers sing and dance and was clapping along with all of us by the end!

Sasha was clearly inspired by the whole experience, because during our afternoon visit she invented a new dancing game. Our room-mates have a little toy that's kind of like a See and Say - push on the plastic farm animal and it makes the animal's noise or plays a little song. Sestra would push the buttons until she got a song to play and then come to us with both of her hands outstretched. It took us a couple of tries, but eventually we caught on that she was trying to get us to dance with her (we're a little slow on the uptake)! It was a great game and we all enjoyed taking turns dancing and playing DJ.

Prayer request: We are so excited to be so close to becoming a family! Please pray for our little one's transition from the baby house. Pray that we can comfort her when she misses Botakoz, the only home she can remember, that she adjusts quickly to the rhythms of life with us, and that she understands with stunning clarity the special love that we have for her as her mom and dad and the unique relationship of a family.


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