Saturday, December 31, 2016

Happy birthday to me!

My day started, unfortunately, around 4am when Zoltan had a nightmare. I managed to crawl back into my own bed an hour later. I did get to sleep until 8am, which is quite late in this house!  Opened birthday cards from the kids, made chocolate chip pancakes, and had a pretty normal morning.

We went ice skating and then back home for Terry to make my five hour duck for dinner. The duck was almost endangered - we couldn't find any in the stores - but the Allentown farmer's market came through for us and we brought dinner home from PA.

Happy new year to all, and happy birthday to me :-)

Friday, December 16, 2016

German Language training Part III

Structured Learning
It's been about 12 weeks.  We have switched teachers three times.  We had our first assessment - a miniature/friendlier version of the Final Exam.  It happened to occur during my nadir of confidence and performance. I still did OK.  I have learned a lot about myself as a learner - stuff that might have been useful in my 20 previous years of learning stuff in a structured environment (school, university, graduate school).

My German is painfully slow and riddled with false starts and errors.  But it is 12 mere weeks of knowledge and I am unabashedly proud of myself. And I still have 2/3 of the course to go!

Last week most of us got all switched up - classes broken up and scattered to the wind - so not only are we all adjusting to a new teacher but also to new classmates.  I think we are getting into a groove, though, and am looking forward to more Deutsch lernen.

Outside of Class Learning
Our fabulous au pair is introducing us to aspects of German culture. One of which is the importance of Saint Nicholas Day - December 6 - where she gave the kids fabulous monogrammed stockings with little treats inside them. And she bakes cookies. Which we shared with our classmates (yes, we properly attributed her).

Also, we went to the Christmas Market held at the German School in Potomac a couple of weekends ago.  The lines for gluhwein and crepes were way too long but Terry managed to snag himself some sausage and the kids got cotton candy. We didn't use a ton of German but could hear it spoken all around us (as well as, to be honest, a bunch of Russian). The kids decorated and then ate cookies, and they got to play at the school's playground to burn off steam.

Our fabulous au pair also hand wrote these amazing little booklets for the kids with some simple "Hi my name is ... do you want to play with me" type phrases, basic vocabulary, and great drawings throughout. We got them bound at Staples and hope they will survive a couple of years of heavy use.

Wir haben viel SpaƟ! 

Saturday, December 10, 2016

What I love about FSI

FSI is like a college campus on reunion weekend, every day.

Where else do you find so many adults with jeans and backpacks?  I'm guessing nowhere. Ditto for people talking about homework and tests in the hallway, or rushing to get to class on time or talk to the teacher.

At FSI we also often run into people from our past in the cafeteria (for some reason it mostly happens in the cafeteria). On Friday we had lunch with a friend from our first post, someone we haven't laid eyes upon in eight years, because I happened to walk past him.  He didn't know Terry and I were in the USA and we didn't know he was in training. It was his last day in town. This kind of thing happens all the time!

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

The kids' first (and only) advent calendar!

Jelly Bean Count-Down to Christmas Advent Calendar
I waited a little long, so they only arrived today. But my kids are getting the thrill of opening up a little door each day and finding a treat inside.

What's going on?

This year, the first night of Hanukkah falls on Christmas eve!  And Jelly Belly makes an advent calendar and although the bean is driving a sleigh and wears a red and white hat, there's sufficiently little Christmas reference that I'm comfortable with this.

Because it arrived late, they start with the 6th now and they will go back and open the first five during nights 2-6 of Hanukkah.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Rebel Girls

Good Night Stories For Rebel Girls
What a joy today to see the package at the door and find that Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls has finally arrived!  It was a Kickstarter campaign we backed, and the results are even better than I thought they would be.  Both of the kids are sporting "rebel girl" tattoos (Queen Elizabeth and Maud Stevens Wagner).  Alex has been holed up with the book so I haven't seen much of it but I noted all inhabited continents seem to be represented. The women are queens and inventors, ancient and current (one inventor was born in 1997!), and at least one pirate.  It's in encyclopedia form, with one page devoted to each Rebel, and I reminded Alex we can get books to learn more about the ones she's most interested in.

This week was a really great time to receive this book.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Parenting win

We try to strike a balance with the kids on unhealthy behaviors (screen time, junk food, etc). We don't want to completely deprive them, but  we talk to them about why we limit their exposure so (we hope) they have a foundation for making good choices when the choices are, eventually, up to them.

Tonight, in an effort to get the Halloween candy moving out of the house, we told the kids they could each have 10 pieces of their candy as an after dinner treat for good behavior. They did eat all 10 pieces, but then said they thought it was too much and they would prefer only five pieces next time.

Will do.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

German language training Part 2

Language training is still wonderful. I definitely speak German better now than I ever spoke Russian, even after banging my head against that language for years.

This week I wanted to say I was sad and realized we had never learned that word. So I also asked my teacher for the words for "excited, or thrilled, or delighted." He thought. He came up with a word that means "looking forward to something". Um, nope.  The conversation was almost exactly replicated with my au pair in the evening.

Apparently, Germans don't have words for extremes of emotion. I'm shocked, shocked I tell you.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

We've got more wheels!

... too many wheels, to be honest.

Right before we returned to post from R and R last year, we bought a cheap car for a cheap price. Then it sat for an entire year essentially untouched. Turns out, it didn't like that. I discovered during my roughly 700 mile trip round trip from Pennsylvania to Massachusetts that it burns oil at a much higher-than-normal rate (like, I had to check the oil every couple of hours). We had it checked out and tried a solution that might have fixed the problem without a large and costly repair.

It helped immensely, but it didn't work as well as we needed it to.

So then we were faced with a choice: keep the car and hope it passes Maryland emissions (or that we are able to get it waived in after paying a fee, something we never quite understood how it worked but several sources said was a real option);  or buy a different old crappy car for the year in the USA;  or buy a car we hope/think/believe we can ship to Germany.

In the end we bought a newish Mazda (the youngest car I have ever owned! Only 5 years old!) that we believe we can take with us and that will not embarrass us on the Autobahn.

We still haven't had an opportunity to return Terry's dad's car that we borrowed to him.  We can't get rid of the useless Prizm until we have the title in our hands, and it is in PA.  So now we sit with four cars parked in front of our house. The driveway fits one. The curb right in front of our house fits two. The last car is across the street. This is ridiculous.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

German language training, part I

We've been in class about 3 weeks now and settling into our routines and slowly developing some ability.  Some highlights include:

  • "Morgen morgen" means "tomorrow morning" although nobody says that (they would say "early tomorrow" - I forget the word for "early" but I much prefer this)
  • We've played the game of "hunt for the most consonants in a row." I am currently winning at five. The word I found was "Wortschatz" although I know it is frequent enough that it will come up again.
  • So many alliterative phrases!  One of my favorites of this week "Welche sprachen Sprechen Sie?" (What languages do you speak)
  • Direct quote from my teacher:  Fun can be German too!

Monday, September 19, 2016

We've got wheels!

This one is a good one. A really good one. Our car got packed up to head out of Astana about six weeks ago.  On Thursday afternoon it was delivered.  By Thursday evening it was registered, insured, plated and ready to go. We drove it to work Friday.

Let's hope this didn't use up all of our shipment good mojo.  We still have the most important shipment - HHE from post - yet to arrive.

In the last days of Astana ...

[Oops, somehow this never got published....]

In the two weeks before packout we had excitement - some serious stuff, some less serious, some personal, some work-related.

We learned that the route we intended to fly - involving a first leg of Astana to Vienna - had been cancelled at the last minute about every other flight or perhaps even more often during the last two months, with increasing frequency, and would officially cease to exist the day after our intended flight. My orders had me stopping in Vienna, so to change my flights required all the bureaucracy and paperwork one might think accompanied something called "changing my orders." Presumably, as more and more Astana-ians discovered the fate of the Astana-Vienna leg they would also be working to change their flights, possibly making three seats unavailable on our intended day. Although I was a near-hysterical bundle of stress for about 4-5 days, that was all the time it took to get everything done and dusted, as my British friends say.

Terry has a family emergency that sent him back to the USA for about 10 days, arriving back in Astana 5 calendar days before packout.

My boss, who I adore and we have an excellent working relationship, had been on holiday and was meant to return for my last 2 weeks at work. After one and a half days in the office he had to fly back out and only returned about 15 hours before my departure - so although we got to say goodbye, we did not work together again.

On a positive, note, my successor arrived three weeks before my departure - overlap is an unheard-of blessing in the foreign service world.  A major event got scheduled for one of my days of packout and although I did have to devote endless time and energy to preparing the event, she was able to take over on the day.  Also, although it took longer than expected, I was eventually able to focus my time on handover rather than current issues while she worked on the issue of the day, and managed to get done everything absolutely necessary before heading out on my last day of work at a normal time.

And of course, nobody is indispensable, time marches on, and by the time our airplane hit cruising altitude the spaces we occupied in Astana had likely already been filled in with suitable replacements. 

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Language training

We are back at work, which means we are in language training. During the next several months our full time jobs plus off-time hobbies will be to learn German.  I can't stress enough how happy I am right now.  Unlike Russian, which I beat my head against for six years and didn't seem to get much for the effort, I am already learning a LOT and making notable progress in being able to talk to people about simple things (What is your name, where are you from, do you have children, etc).

We're also providing endless amusement to our lovely au pair, as we try out new words or ask her questions.

The commute just might kill us though. My desperate hope is that when the metro system is closer to operational level all these extra drivers will go back to riding the train. There should be a rule that if a person leaves his or her home at 6:30am there should be no traffic.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Hungry Harvest

A fellow foreign service officer posted something on Facebook about Hungry Harvest, which alerted us to this organization's existence. The gist is that they recover fruits and veggies that stores won't sell but that are perfectly good, and deliver a box of produce to your home on a weekly, or every two weeks, basis. One awesomeness is that they send an email the day before to let you know what's coming.

We got our first delivery this weekend and I should have taken photos.

Alex's comment was she likes Hungry Harvest because it's the only time in the summer I let her eat apples (we had a bunch of apples in the box. She could happily eat apples every day and apples as her only fruit; I say she needs greater diversity of nutrients. I also noted to her that it is no longer summer.)

Like a CSA, the random assortment of produce encourages us to try new foods or, if we are familiar with everything, try new recipes. Some peppers we hadn't had before, plus way more green peppers than normally enter my home and some enormous tomatoes meant we made homemade salsa. I will now put green peppers on our "never" list - yes, they even let you choose a select number of foods you either love and always want if they have, or foods you hate and never want to see. Six green peppers is a bit much for us, as only Terry likes them.

Tonight we cooked up the broccoli rabe that landed in our box and now Terry is dying for a road trip to DiNic's in Philly. I can't remember the last time I even saw broccoli rabe in a store.

Every last item in our boxes was completely appropriately edible, if a few veggies were not completely crisp (let them soak in water a bit and most veggies perk right up, worked marvels with the huge head of red leaf cabbage). And Terry didn't love the apples, although they were gobbled up by the rest of the family.

On the off chance someone in the Hungry Harvest service area is reading this and wants to try it out - use my name "Lynne Madnick" in the field where they ask whether someone recommended them to you and you and I will both get 50% off our next (your first) order. 

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Home Leave

The kids and I left Kazakhstan, most likely (but in this crazy world never say never) forever, on August 1.

it feels like a lifetime ago.  When we leave post it always feels like we had been there forever, that we left forever ago, that everything has changed. In the real world, it's been 31 days.

We have spent nights in three states. We have slept in six different homes as well as hotels. Children have spent time with every grandparent. We've been in the car too much, and at the cabin too little. I nearly started crying with joy in Whole Foods while loading my cart with non-dairy cheese, yogurt, ice cream and milk. Alex brought a cheese sandwich to school for lunch.

Nicole, our au pair, arrives at our house tomorrow. We start class next week.  The kids have reconnected with old friends and made some new ones. They start some after school activities in a few weeks. We have painted a lot more of the house than originally planned. We have fixed many things and many things remain to be fixed. We fixed up both kids' rooms to be awesome. Terry created another epic two-story UAB-box fort.

We're back!!!!

Thursday, August 4, 2016

The upgrade

Dear Business Class,

You've changed in the years since we hung out together regularly.  Mostly, for the better. Back in the day I could sleep in any airplane seat, but these days I truly appreciate that fold-flat feature. Sorry none of us slept any more than usual (1-2 hours) even with your full sized, comfy pillow, full sized, warm blanket, and, again, the fold flat.  The extra attention from staff; real plates, glasses, and cutlery; and fruit (twice, once as a snack and once with breakfast!!) were a huge hit. I'm a little embarrassed to mention how baffled the remote control for the TV made me, but seriously, there was nothing to indicate that little square was a motion sensor in addition to being a "select" button. The noise-cancelling headphones gave me an actual shock when I unknowingly put them on and the roar of the engine immediately ceased. I've never tried noise-cancelling headphones before, and didn't understand the hype.

There were three of us to upgrade, so I was relatively confident it wouldn't come through, and thought to my self it was probably for the best; for all my life advantages I never flew business class until I was an adult and maybe this was just one step too far towards creating pampered, jaded children/future adults.  But they were properly excited and thrilled with each feature, and the trip was so much more comfortable, and we came off the plane like slightly tired human being rather than stinky, grumpy zombies. I am now thinking we may need to do more of this!

Saturday, July 30, 2016

Happy Anniversary, once again we suck

It is 8:43pm. My mom and I were trying to arrange an online chat, and she was having so many problems with it I finally said don't worry, we're putting the kids to bed so no need to keep trying. She wrote back "Happy anniversary."


Terry and I were married 11 years ago today (can you even believe it has been so long??).  Apparently, we live the adage - it's the marriage, not the wedding. This is definitely the latest in the day we have ever gotten before remembering our anniversary, and it doesn't even count because neither of us remembered.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

More Mcguyver

In typical Soviet fashion, we received a message this afternoon from the kids' summer camp that tomorrow is the talent show/party and everyone should bring some food or drink to share.

We packed out earlier this week, so we have very close to nothing at all in the house both food- and implement-wise.

We do still have chocolate chips.

Each of the two tin foil pieces used to line the baking sheet used to house a loaf of bread in the freezer. They are both now completely destroyed and fit only for the bin.  There is no brown sugar in the mix. All the white flour is now gone, so the pancakes I planned to make to use up the maple syrup will have to be made with 100% whole wheat flour.

I love moving.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Best. Packout. Ever.

11 boxes of air freight (65lb underweight) and 219 boxes of ship freight (almost 2000lb underweight) later, with a total of 6 suitcases and 4 carry-ons for 4 people, we have crossed a threshold.

Ten men came through my home like whirlwinds, like a finely choreographed dance, and packed, weighed, labeled, moved and paperwork'd all to finish at the same time. Did things get packed that shouldn't have? Sure, but in all cases it was our fault - we forgot to set those things aside. Is any of it critical?  Nope.

Our house now echoes with vast emptiness. Last night, our first night in pared-down surroundings, we went out to eat as at that time we hadn't unpacked the welcome kit. It will be interesting to see how the children entertain themselves with only the toys they had selected to bring in their suitcases (plus several bonus games I'd squirreled away)

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

I wrote a book!

Well, OK, not exactly. What I did do was write a chapter in a book. Still a pretty big deal to me (and, I'm sure, to my mom).

A Cup of Culture and a Pinch of Crisis is a compilation of stories about travel, foreign countries, and food - topics that many foreign service officers (myself firmly in this camp) sometimes get a little obsessive about.  I am so incredibly grateful to Tales From a Small Planet editors who invited me to join this group of much more accomplished writers, and give my my first, and perhaps not only, taste of publishing.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

We went to the beach today

Anyone who knows Astana geography knows there is no beach for a good 3 hours' drive. And I certainly did not drive 3 hours each way today to get to a beach. I took a gigantic shortcut.

Khan Shatyr looks like a half-falling down tent, created by famed architect Norman Foster.  It is, in fact, a shopping mall.   As a counterpoint to Dubai's indoor skiing, Astana boasts a beach on the top floor.  We had been meaning to check it out for almost the entire 23 months we have lived here and for one reason or another never made it.  Today, we rectified that.

The sand for the beach was imported from the Maldives.  The SkyBeach has two pool areas, one is a gently sloping beach-like wave pool, with two waterslides next to it (the slides drop off into a tiny pool that patrons are expected to quickly depart after splashing in).  The other pool has a lengthy sandy "shore" about 5 inches below water, but that is essentially a shelf and you abruptly enter the pool from there at full depth. This section of beach is also studded with a rainbow of rocks and pebbles.

The kids had the best time ever. We stayed way longer than I thought we would. They were so worn out tonight there was no talk of stretching bedtime just a little bit longer.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Breaking up is Hard to Do

... no, no, don't worry, Terry and I are fine.

With 5 weeks to go in my tour things are winding down. Many of my kids' friends - whose parents are often our friends - have started leaving for their summer holidays, only to return after we've left.  My kids spent the last couple of weeks bickering with their friends more often and some friendships ended on such terms that there was no goodbye. Cultural differences I used to think enriched out experiences, and even found endearing at times, are grating on my nerves and offending my sensibilities. We're starting a lot of sentences with "When we are in the USA..." and "When we get to Germany..."

We all know the end is nearing, and it is easier to say goodbye if we are also saying "good riddance."

It isn't you, Astana. It's us. 

Saturday, June 25, 2016


I had a business trip this week that required me to overnight in a hotel. 

This was sitting on a shelf above the mini-bar, right next to the complimentary bottle of water.

While this was not my room, my room's door was strikingly similar.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Finishing with Panache

Open apology to my mother's mah jjong and canasta groups - Sorry, my mother is going to be insufferable for the next week. I'm sure you have all had your turn as well.

Today was "Speech Day" at Haileybury, where award were given and speeches made. Alex, it turns out, won the academic excellence award for her class - she was the top student (pupil, as the British say). She accepted her award and medal in front of the assembled students (pupils) and parents.  For various logistical reasons, she was actually the very first child to receive her award.

Well done, Alex!

Sunday, June 12, 2016

The First Farewell

We have friends whose kids attend a school with a more Kazakhstani schedule. That means school's out!  They head home for the summer later this week. When they return to Astana in August we will be gone.  We had them over for brunch this morning. When we said goodbye we knew that we didn't know where or when in the world we'd ever meet again in person (but, thank you internet) but that it wasn't going to be in Astana.

The leave taking begins.


Wednesday, June 8, 2016


My kids bicker and fight. Yes, most siblings do, but mine always seem to take it up a notch. We've tried numerous solutions, involving both carrots and sticks (metaphorical, folks, metaphorical sticks) and not one thing ever worked.

Then we tried a points system.  They get a point for being kind or helpful to each other, for doing chores, eating unfavored dinners without complaint, and just generally helping us.  The get points taken away for being rude, for fighting, for complaining about chores. If they make it to 2 points by an appointed time each day (somewhere between the end of dinner and the start of getting-ready-for-bed) they get a treat/dessert. The size of the sweet is dependent on the number of points (4 points gets twice the treats of 2).  After 2 points they can trade points for extra allowance instead of dessert if they wish.

Not only has the fighting screeched to a near halt, but they are cooperative and, best of all, simply happier and more loving generally.  As these things become habit we'll raise the bar, but for now we are thrilled to realize we actually need to buy more candy because they are earning treats so many days in a row!

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

My quick trip home

One of the downsides of foreign service life is how often we miss our extended families' big moments. This time managed to be an exception - sort of. My nephew had his bar mitzvah last weekend. We are 20 hours of travel away, we return home within 2 months, and the kids have school.

So, I came alone and represented.

Best. Decision. Ever.

I don't get much jet lag, so the fact that I spent all of 5 days in the USA wasn't too bad. I have a Kindle so the 20-24 hours of travel didn't kill me (I did read 4 books!)  I ate spicy Thai food and Chipotle. I got some quality time with various family members and although we all wished the rest of my nuclear family could have been there, it was just easier. Also, I picked up a bunch of things that will see us through until we return to the USA (a pack of hot dogs, some cheddar, pig and turkey bacons, a box of blueberries, soy cheese shreds). 

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Kyrgyzstan Day IV: farewell to Issyk-Kul

On our fourth day we made the trek to Bishkek.  Our first stop was the honey stand we had passed on our way to the lake, where we bought a kilogram of our favorite type of thick white honey with a consistency reminiscent of marshmallow fluff, but with better flavor.

Our second stop was at Burana Tower, a major tourist spot seemingly near nothing.  It had been a minaret, and now provides a lovely view of the nearby landscape. The steps up the tower are startlingly steep and narrow;  none of the steps were wide enough for me to stand on it without my toes hanging off and I have tiny feet. It was also pitch dark in some parts that weren't close enough to a window. Terry got claustrophobic and we decided the climb would be too much for Zoltan so Alex and I forged ahead alone. Good decision too, Alex and I went down mostly on our rear ends, gingerly feeling for one step and then the next in the darkness.

Beside the minaret, there were ruins of three mausoleums, a souvenir shop where Zoltan bought a keychain and Alex bought a miniature whip, and an interesting "artifact path" for lack of a better descriptor, which made something of a U shape with one side a lane of balbals, one side a lane of petroglyphs and one side a lane of what looked like stone wheels. There were also wide open fields to run around in, some hills to climb, and all around loveliness.

Departing Burana we had a relatively short and uneventful trip to Bishkek, where we found the manager of our apartment rental with relative ease and got ourselves settled in the first housing where we'd stay more than one night. We had received an SMS the day before that the original apartment we'd chosen was having hot water problems and we would be in a different place only one block away. The apartment we were put into was a one bedroom (like the original) with pullout couch and a cot in the living room and 1.5 baths.  My only complaint would be the skimpy kitchen set (two sharp knives and no butter knives?) but otherwise it was perfect. Easy walking distance to many things, plenty of room for us and our luggage, everything worked (the wifi occasionally cut out for a bit but it wasn't too bad). 

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Kyrgyzstan Day III: Karakol and Petroglyphs

If you aren't going to experience nature, and between the rain and the chill we weren't, there isn't really much in Karakol.  When we got up we took a quick trip to the Dungan Mosque - a mosque built in the old method without using any nails, and also, curiously, built and painted to look like a Chinese pagoda.  The imam came out to greet us, ask where we were from and caution us that we were not allowed to go inside but could take photos.

Then it was a relatively direct road to Cholpan-Ata, the main tourist epicenter of the lake. We got to the town around lunchtime, then checked into our hotel, then headed out to the Petroglyph Museum.

"Museum" may be an overly generous term. It was a nearly deserted enormous field studded with rocks, some of which had little placards by them with some information about the petroglyph beside it. There was nobody around, but the gate was open, so we figured we would start looking around and presumably at some point someone would come by to charge us the admission fee.  We saw a guy on a horse in the distance, and waited a bit for him to come closer, but it turned out he was just a farmer and he went right past us out the gate with a young ram laying across the saddle in front of him.  We saw a small herd of horses, many of which were accompanied by a foal. And, eventually, a woman came up over a small hill to take our fee, ask us where we were from (for statistika, she said) and give us a bit of the lay of the land as well as the warning not to step on any of the stones. She seemed happy to be practicing some English, and bade us farewell after letting us know that about 70% of the glyphs depicted goats.

Due to the ominously dark sky and forecasted rain, we headed straight for the far end where a few balbals stood. then worked our way back to the entrance.  We had the kids scouting for signs, and then they had to find which rock had the picture carved into it, and guess what the picture was (some of the glyphs were better preserved than others).  The fresh air and open sky were the perfect antidote to too much time in the car.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Kyrgyzstan Day II: Southern Side of Issyk-Kul

The next day we headed out to go halfway around the lake. Early in the drive we pulled over in a canyon and had a great time exploring and climbing.  Of course it wasn't any of the several canyons mentioned in the tourist guides, but it was everything we were looking for.  We headed back to the car around the time the raindrops started falling.
We were already crawling so the rain didn't really slow us down, and in fact it came and went all day. The slightly larger town of Bokonbayevo allegedly had a tourist information center, and while wandering around the center of town looking for it we wandered into the town's May 9 Victory Day celebration. (May 9 is the day WWII ended in Europe and is celebrated in many countries.)  We had come to ask directions to an alleged highlight of the Issyk-kul area, Barskoon Waterfalls.  The lady at the tourist info center told us, in essence, "take the road out of town, but turn right instead of left, and keep going, you can't miss it." As we learned that night when reunited with internet, the waterfalls are an hour away from the town on a logging road - we were actually on the right road, which we didn't think at the time, but only went about 15 minutes down and turned around.

We also saw on our GPS the landmark of "Lenin Cutout" and decided it deserved a visit.  Alex and I scrambled most of the way up the hill while Zoltan stayed in the car and Terry took photos.

Unfortunately for us by the time we hit some of the "major" sights - only about an hour out of Karakol - we were drained, weary of sitting in the car, needing the bathroom and not wanting to potty behind a bush in the rain so we drove right by.  Sorry "fairytale canyon" and "7 bulls rocks," i am sure we will forever regret not checking you out.

On the other hand, it was a great relief to pull into the hotel and stretch out again.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Kyrgyzstan Day I: Kyzyl-Tuu


To be very frank, the pollution in Astana has driven us, on all previous holidays, to find refuge in the clean air of western Europe or the USA.  As we enter our last three months at post, we finally took our first (and last!) vacation within central Asia - Kyrgyzstan (or, as it prefers, the Kyrgyz Republic).

We rented a car and planned to spend several days driving the whole way around Lake Issyl-kul - a major tourist destination - with just a couple of days of Bishkek at the end.  Unfortunately for us, within our first hour on the road we got shaken down by a cop who didn't seem to understand that we were not going to go ahead and offer him a bribe.  He told us there would be a fine about 5-6 times, and we kept saying OK, what is the amount - turns out we missed the sign telling us we were entering a town, which requires an automatic drop in speed, so OK we recognize our culpability - and he kept exaggeratedly working on the paperwork for the fine.  After 45 miserably hot minutes he finally told us what the amount would be (and he wanted it in dollars, at which I basically pitched a fit and said no way, we have som and will pay in that).  The problem is we then felt compelled to stay well below any speed limit for the rest of the time, which put a huge pall on the trip and added hours of car time.

But on to the good stuff.  One of the main highlights of a trip around Issyk-kul is the stunning view. The mountains are always there, lower ones green and brown, behind them white tops rising above the clouds.  It was a while before I was able to tear my eyes away from the view.

The place where we rented the car also can arrange lodging and our first night I finally checked off the one item on my central Asia bucket list - sleep in a yurt!  The town of Kyzyl-Tuu is experiencing a resurgence of the craft of yurt making and the homestay place was essentially the yurt in the back yard of a family's home. They kept some chickens and a couple of cows. The back yard also hosted all the yurt making activity and we got to see the different phases of it, from stripping the bark off lengths of willow, to gently bending the willow poles into the frame and shanyrak, to the painting of each piece.

The yurt where we slept was surprisingly comfortable (the matting on the floor with a thick sheepskin layer was the most comfortable bed of our week).  Because it was right outside the home it was hooked up with electricity - a chandelier light overhead and a portable heater to ward off the near-freezing night air. The only downside was the darned neighborhood dogs barked all night, and when they finally silenced around 2:30am the rooster decided it was dawn. It wasn't.

For breakfast there were fresh eggs from the chickens, fresh bread, strawberry, raspberry and apricot preserves, and this delicious thick, creamy, slightly sour dairy spread that I have never tasted before and went wonderfully with the sweet sticky preserves.  We had heard rain in the forecast for the day so we wanted to get moving before it hit, and didn't linger long after breakfast.

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Spreading American Culture, Hockey Monkey style

The musical group The Zambonis, which we are not sure are even still together, put out this little gem some time in the last. It is a much-requested song among the kids.

Apparently, Zoltan has taught the song to his best friend, who happens to also be the only other American kid in class.  And today, he tells me, the two of them performed the song for their music class.

You're welcome.

Monday, May 2, 2016

Mission Accomplished

A couple of months after our arrival in St Petersburg the CLO organized a tour at a museum on Lake Ladoga. At the end of the tour the museum curator put together a little dinner, I wrote about it here, which included a wood burning samovar for our tea.  Ever since that day we have made it our mission to get one for the cabin.  The problem was the only ones we found in Russia were extraordinarily expensive and (to us) highly unattractive, so after four years we left the country empty handed.  Then we came to Kazakhstan, and one day in the fall last year we wandered around the central market (a huge bazaar massively misnamed, as it is located way out on the fringe of the city), looking for winter hats, and found one!  Because it was the end of the season they were out of the necessary chimney attachment, so we vowed to return when it would be available.

We leave in just about three months. Time is drawing nigh. Today was the day.  We went back to the central market and got the samovar. It was everything we want and need.  Perhaps I can convince Terry to take a photo of it and post it.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

We have a match!

One of our grand plans for next year (no longer next year, but rather in about 4 months!) is to hire an au pair to give us more flexibility with traffic, snow days, and our study schedule.  We decided we would seek only German speakers, to get the kids a little familiar with the culture and language of where we're going, and helping us with our homework would certainly be an added boon! Because we're planners, we had decided April would be when we started the process.  For comparison, apparently most people start the process 2-3 months before they needed someone, and we were just shy of 5 months out. A few weeks ago Terry and I spent a large chunk of our free time crafting our "all about our family" letter, choosing photos to upload, answering all kinds of questions on the online questionnaires, reading au pair profiles, scouring advice from, and scheduling time to Skype with the au pair company people who had to vet us before we could be let loose on the unsuspecting young girls (and a few boys).  In the end we registered with two au pair companies to give us a broader range, although it turned out we would have done fine with only one as none of the au pairs we emailed to from the other agency ever wrote back to us.

It's only been about 10 days since we finished our paperwork and we just matched with an au pair!  I was really nervous because I didn't think we could possibly get so lucky, because she was only the second au pair we had an interview with. She seemed to have all the qualities we found most important, and she seemed such a good fit for us. We had her "meet" the kids tonight via Skype before we settled down to our conversation, as we figured we never hired a nanny who hadn't met the kids before, why would we start now?  Of course, we have had three out-of-the-ballpark amazing nannies so far, and one perfectly fine nanny who lacked the problems and dramas we have heard about from others, so we do seem to manage OK.  Two of the amazing nannies were only the second people we interviewed so I know it can happen so quickly.

When Alex wanted to be tucked in again after getting up to use the bathroom I told her the lady she met would take care of her next year while we were at work and she asked why we chose her.  I told her the main points, and she said it sounded good ... so I guess she's on board.

[note: I wrote this on Monday but was too nervous about jinxing things to post until she confirmed. She just did (within 10 minutes of being offered the match - the person at the company whose job it is to offer her our match was out Monday and Tuesday)]

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Leaving, on a jet plane ...

Well, not anytime soon, but it is for real now. I have orders and I have plane tickets. At this point it's just me and the kids, we don't know the details about what will happen with Terry (whether he leaves with us or 1-2 weeks later. He will leave Astana in August, that is for certain!)

With fewer than four months to go, everything seems funneled.  We base our meal planning on what is in our pantry we need to get through before departure day. we have stopped shopping in bulk and cancelled many a Subscribe and Save.  We're looking hard at anything we could donate: clothes, kitchen items, toys and although we've done one large load to the nuns, I plan to fill the car at least one more time.  Looking to sell the car. We try to keep the kids from buying things with their allowance, knowing we'll be moving them soon. Our last major allowance drawdown was when we convinced them to use their money to go visit the amusements at Khan Shatyr. We even let them buy themselves ice cream/sorbet at the end.  We have our bucket list of those things we figured we'd get around to doing, then never did - Khan Shatyr beach, you're on the agenda within the next couple of weeks!

At work we're looking forward to our successors, looking for time to prepare handover notes among regular work duties. Goodbyes are still a couple of months away, but there is that note of winding down.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Date Night

Our date night plans were pretty sedate, then a friend called who also had a babysitter that night and we changed our plans to meet up with them. With the rain and additional movements in the evening we ended up deciding to take the car rather than try to catch cabs throughout the night.

It all started innocently enough.  Babysitter came, we hopped in the car and headed to Shoreditch, a restaurant we'd been hearing about.  It does burgers and stir fry type stuff. We tried one of each. The burger: completely forgettable.  The Indian chicken and spinach over basmati ... it tasted just like Indian food!  It had spice, and the right kinds, and the right flavors, and did I mention my mouth felt a nice warm burn that endured after the food was eaten?  We were ecstatic. It was probably on par with your average strip mall Indian in the USA but here in Astana, that makes it the best in the country.  The restaurant was also really funky and adorable, with a hopscotch game in the front entryway and live music appropriate for a restaurant (i.e. not too loud and not too distracting).  It was completely booked but we had come early and had no qualms promising to be gone before the table's second act at 11pm (outside the USA we have found there is no turnover for tables - the one you book is the one you own all night long). Also, service was FAST.  We got an appetizer and our main course and easily could have come and gone within 45 minutes.

Dinner over, we headed to the bar where we were supposed to meet our friends. It's drizzling. Our windshield wipers refuse to kick on. We pull over a few times to squeegee off the front windshield. Terry keeps turning the wipers on hoping to make them work. The back wiper is working just fine. This is not cool.  The bar is in a more populated part of town from where we live, and it took a few swings around the block and a half-block distance to find parking, When we got there not only was every table reserved, but almost all of the bar seating. We found our friends squashed into the corner of the bar against the wall.  The music is deafening.  The beer is Corona.  We decide to split.

The final stop of the night, The Rock's, was the perfect pub.  Several British standards on tap as well as the bar's own brew. Although they were also fully booked, our friends ran into friends and we all piled into their generously large booth. A good night was had by all.  When we returned to the car the rain had stopped and visibility was 100%.  Just for fun on the way home Terry tried the windshield wipers to see what would happen.  I think we all know what happened.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Homeward Bound

Technically, they are home and no longer bounding.  Terry and the kids went to Berlin during the kids' spring holiday last week while I had to stay behind and work. I earnestly hope he will post some photos of their trip.

Not only did they explore a new city, but they got to spend significant quality time with dear friends who live there. I wish I could have been there too and missed them desperately - it is always harder to be left than to leave - but don't begrudge them their adventure.

Due to my status of stay-at-home-mom for most of the kids' younger years, I have experienced hundreds of hours of just me-and-them adventure. Although they were too young to remember most of it, I can remind them, show photos, talk about what we did.  I think it's important for each parent to develop these special, independent times with their children - both one-on-one and one-parent-all-children. In the hustle and bustle of daily life it's hard to work those moments in, especially in our two-working-parent current existence, where I never feel we spend enough time with the kids.  I'm so happy they had this trip, and I am ever so happy to have them back in the house!

Monday, March 21, 2016


We finally headed south as a family for the long weekend over Women's Day. Although Terry and I had both gotten to Almaty for work, nobody had gotten any leisure time there and the kids had never been.  We got to the hotel, checked in, and headed out for lunch. Zoltan pitched a fit which earned him a nap while Alex and I enjoyed the warm weather and playground only a few minutes' walk from the hotel. When she got bored I decided to check out the Ramstore (everything is better in Almaty). We soon learned one similarity between the former and current capital - some looong blocks that make destinations seem only a few minutes away on a map, but are actually a kilometer or more. We spent shockingly little time in the store, and had many rest stops on the way home. Recognizing Alex was likely exhausted from the trek, we decided to take advantage of the hotel pool - it was one of the main reasons we'd chosen the hotel. By the time we'd gotten showered and changed it was dinner time, then we were all pooped out from the early day and all the activity - even though we hadn't seen any of the sights yet.

The next morning we woke raring to go.  We walked to the cable car to Kok-Tobe. Unbeknownst to us, its repairs had only been completed the week before and it had only just re-opened. The cable car ride was a blast, as we knew it would be.  The brass Beatles statues up on the top, the majestic mountains as backdrop, and the unfortunate view of smog climbing up the mountain were all noteworthy.  We stopped for a snack, gave the kids some time on the amusement rides, and checked out the very sad small zoo (there were domesticated animals and birds who seemed to be doing just fine but a few of the traditionally wild animals really seemed to want to go home). Lunch at cafe Nedelka, which had been recommended to us, was nice although Terry kept arguing to stop at the "real American diner" next door instead - they had free coffee all day (presumably they meant refills) so it must have been legit. We then hopped a taxi to what we thought was the Mega that housed a science museum (like in St Petersburg, I assume) but it was the wrong Mega and by then we were all tired and grumpy and it was time to go back for a rest.  Dinner was at VietCafe and very tasty - definitely hit all the right spots!

When we got back to the hotel we noticed Alex was warm. I chalked it up to being run all around all day and made everyone promise to sleep as late as possible the next day.

The next morning she was clearly ill.  I was grateful that we always travel with children's Motrin (They can now manage the chewable kind! This is huge!) Zoltan was perfectly healthy though, and bouncing off the walls, so I took him to the little playground at the hotel.  Then the bigger playground he missed the first day when he was napping.  Then the hotel pool.  Lunch, a short nap in an effort to keep everyone else healthy, then it was time to head toward the airport (or so we thought).  The traffic Terry and I were used to was non-existent (it was a holiday not a work day) and there was no line anywhere at the airport. We left the hotel a solid hour, hour and a half earlier than needed. Hurrah for the tablets!

The trip home was relatively noneventful. The next day Alex and I went to the embassy doc and learned she had strep throat. That was way less fun, and meant our Women's Day was spent in the apartment reading, watching TV and playing games. Inside. Not bad, but not what we had planned.

* note: if Terry ever looks at the photos we took there he may post a few. Check back someday!

Thursday, March 17, 2016

A yellow plum

This week the market was particularly exciting.

Since October, fruit has been pretty predictable. Apples, pears, oranges, mandarin (clementines), pomegranate, bananas. Sometimes grapes, although they are usually the large globe grapes with all the annoying seeds (yes I am American and appreciate my convenience, in this case seedless grapes).

But this week there were plums. I bought four yellow plums at $1.00 each and considered it a good deal.  I was so rapturous the kids were begging to have one of the precious few. Of course I acquiesced.

Saturday, March 12, 2016

National Museum of the Republic of Kazakhstan

As we stare at our last few months, we realized there are many things in Astana we'd been holding off on checking out. But now there's no reason to keep waiting. A few weeks ago we had some days off and decided to spend some time at the "new" museum - it opened just before we arrived in 2014.

We were quite happily surprised, as we'd been warned that it wasn't much.  We spent the extra 1000 tenge for a visit to the gold rooms, and spent the bulk of our time there.  The rooms have a number of artifacts including a reproduction of the "Golden Man" (photo of something similar, if not actually him, to the left).  They provide headphones that play in English, Russian and Kazakh. The kids loved the interactive screens that gave more detailed information about various items that were in the rooms, for example Zoltan spent time flicking between screens of various weaponry and then we'd walk around and find some of the examples.

We made sure to get to the main entrance in time to watch the golden eagle soar to the sounds of ... well I'm not sure what the music was, but it sounded majestic and Kazkh and suited the mood.  I'll be honest, it wasn't as impressive as the golden peacock at the Hermitage, but it was worth seeing.

It didn't take too long for the kids to be just done, and it was lunch time anyway. We probably didn't even see half the halls in the museum, but will definitely make a return trip later when the weather is better (it is a bit too far to ask the kids to walk all bundled in snow gear, but would be a perfect distance when we pull out bikes or scooters).

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Lesser known milestones

In child raising there are the obvious milestones we celebrate as they inch closer towards independence:  when they can walk, dress themselves, use the potty themselves, strap their own seat belts, read.  Then there are the lesser-considered: when they move from bath to shower, then to shower on their own, when they can be trusted to get themselves from the bus up the driveway and into the apartment building by themselves.  We recently hit upon another one - when they can take tablet medicine rather than liquid. It had only really become relevant to us in terms of travel, but wow it has really opened things up for us! Throwing  Zantac into the bag rather than the liquid ranitidine syrup, or chewable ibuprofen rather than liquid ... it is no less of a milestone and one we greatly celebrate.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Carry-on only weekend

The other day Terry and I had what I've started calling "a spirited discussion" about how much travel is actually likely when we get to Frankfurt. I have visions of the four of us, backpacks in place, jumping on trains and jumping off a few hours later in other countries.  He believes the type of luggage-heavy travel we've been doing the last 7 or so years is our permanent fate.

So, I found an easy way to test my hypothesis:  we were in Almaty this weekend, three-days-two-nights, carry-ons only.  Each of the bags we chose to carry fit under the seats in front of us, even if they did not ultimately rest there.  We carried the usual clothing and toiletries, books, toys, games and electronics (yes, we had paper and Kindle books), plus Alex and Zoltan each carried a blanket and stuffed animal.  In addition, as it was below freezing in Astana but hit the 60's during the day in Almaty, we all wore warm jackets and I carried three fleeces in my bag - mine, Alex's and Zoltan's. We even had a bit of spare clothing for the "you-never-know" type incidents children are famous for (no, Zoltan, we will never forget when you were three and fell into the water in Lithuania and had to borrow our friend's daughter's leggings). We did not have spare shoes, which became an issue when we realized the sneakers Alex was wearing were not only impractical but actually would start to bother her feet after a time.  Of course, that just meant more time in Almaty's many adorable cafes!

Of course, as they kids age they will wear bigger clothing and need bigger bags. But they will also be able to shoulder bigger bags full of their bigger stuff.  I call it a win.

Monday, March 7, 2016


Astana does boast a few decent restaurants.  We hadn't found anything to write home about, though, until now.  I am so grateful for friends who held a birthday dinner at 514, which gave me the chance to first - know of its existence and second - try it out.

The name 514 comes from the Montreal ZIP code, and I now have it muddled in my mind but the chef and/or owner have connections to the city. The interior gives a definite "we're not in Central Asia" vibe with pulsating music, black walls, crystal chandeliers and fake trees lit up in white Christmas lights.  But what we really care about is the food.


The bread that comes to the table is freshly made, slightly grilled, and accompanied with an oil and vinegar dipping tray.  Terry ordered a "chicken salad" starter, which was a lovely lineup of roasted veggies with some roasted chicken pieces mixed among them.  He then continued onto the burger which was enormous and messy but he reported very tasty.  My main was in my mind the highlight of the entire restaurant:  slow cooked beef ribs. It is hard enough to get beef ribs in the USA; to have something so tender, so falling-off-the-bone, and so well sauced would have made my day in Washington.

The only downside as I see it is that they only have two desserts on offer each night and they are not often anything overly exciting. Tasty, sure, but lacking the wow factor of the savory food.

Sunday, February 28, 2016

... but there's a secondary argument

... there is such a thing as too polluted.  We have days here where the pollution may not be China-bad (although we'd never know, there's no monitors in the city) but bad enough to see and to smell and to require any time outdoors kept to the bare minimum.

Shout out to the air purifiers and the Wii.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

No such thing as too cold

There is a Russian saying "There's no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing." Between four years in St Petersburg and two in Astana, we have acclimatized to the cold.  Washington DC school and government closings are a source of humor while overseas and frustration when home.

For those who don't fully understand, here is an example from yesterday.  In the courtyard of our apartment complex exists an enormous snow mound, with peaks and valleys, with the highest points  being 10-15 feet high. The kids wanted to play on it.  It was about -8 Celsius, or about 17 Fahrenheit.  We stayed out for about one and a half hours.  At one point, I watched two men walk outside a cafe to smoke and talk. They were out for about 20 minutes.  No coat, no hat, no scarf, no gloves.  One man even had his sleeves rolled up.

Now that's what I'm talking about!

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Happy Valentine's Day

We are the least romantic people in the world. Our Valentine's Day began with cold cereal and my gift to the family - not making them come with me to the market while I buy the weeks' fruit and vegetables.  The kids made a million hearts and put them up around the house, so at least we're festive. After lunch and naps, though, I took Zoltan ice skating at Alau, and Terry took Alex cross country skiing in Pyramid Park.  Now homemade soup is bubbling on the stove, and the fresh rustic bread is cooling on the rack.  This is the life!

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

The new Barys arena

Oh, new hockey arena!  I want so badly to love you unconditionally. Let's face it, compared to the ghetto dump of the old arena, your building is hands down an improvement. Sufficient lighting, cleanliness ... even separate waste receptacles for recycling and garbage. The arena is lovely, the seating offers much better views of the ice and the action than the old arena. Nice touch that the goals light up when a puck goes in, it helps avoid confusion. The food services seemed to be the same not-great food but in larger, cleaner facilities. I can't really complain, though, as two hot dogs, two juice boxes, a Snickers bar, tea, water, and a soda cost about $7-8. Serving the tea in insulated paper cups is certainly an improvement from the plastic Dixie cups that melted and spilled from the boiling water. I'm not in love with the three men's restrooms for every one women's but in truth the line was one of the shortest at a sporting event anywhere so maybe they did do their research on that one. The bouncy castle is another nice touch, and we sent the kids in when the game was over while we waited for the crowd to die down so we could get our car and go home.

And that's the thing. When you build a brand new building from scratch in the middle of the steppe, relatively far from most other things and with acres of empty land all around ... how the hell do you not build a parking lot? In case you didn't notice, there is no metro, tram, El, or other train-type public transit in this city, and the buses aren't exactly the most numerous or convenient. How do you expect people to get to the games?  Shunting us off to the parking lot of the football (soccer) arena across the four lane divided road, which itself has insufficient parking, is not a welcoming experience and may play some small role in the number of empty seats. Not to mention the absurd volume of traffic trying to get to the game - given the distance and the time it took to get there, we could have just as easily walked.

Sunday, January 31, 2016

Allowance, foreign-service style

One thing that gets tricky for a foreign service family living in a country with a volatile currency is the subject of allowance. In the 18 months or so we've been at post, the local current had devalued 100% (meaning if it took 100 tenge to make a dollar when we arrived, it now takes 200 tenge). We probably should have denominated their allowances in dollars from the start, but tenge is the currency in which they can spend their money, and when you live overseas you want to live in the local currency as much as possible - converting every transaction in your head to dollars is exhausting and is one more thing that prevents you from actually living where you live (unless of course your country uses dollars; some do.)

So we finally caved. The kids are now allowanced in dollars, received at whatever the exchange rate is on payday.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Winter Break: Thailand

After the running around in Cambodia, we had a week in Thailand to do beach-pool-beach. We chose Koh Samui and split the week between two different parts of the island - one more touristy and one quieter. The first place we stayed was across the street and down a little path to the beach, and the part of the beach immediately in front was very very rocky. Hurt-the-feet rocky. On our first day we stupidly didn't wander too far and it turned out we could have gotten away from the rocks within a 5 minute walk. The surf was also a bit strong, and there were tiny jellyfish although they seemed harmless enough.

On our second day we went to visit Grandmother and Grandfather, two rock formations so named because they resemble, um, girl and boy parts. Grandfather was impossible to miss; we weren't 100% sure if what we thought was Grandmother really was. The kids got bored of the rocks real fast, but there was a tiny little beach sheltered by the rocks and they had a blast playing in the waves. We also had our first taste of Leonardo ice cream and sorbet. 10 flavors of ice cream, 20 flavors of sorbet! Alex was in heaven. They were generous with the tastes, and the (owner? manager?) some Italian guy told us all about their process and how they need 7 kilos of lychee to make 2 quarts of sorbet and how they chose the right variety of mango for the mango sorbet. We got passion fruit and mango, kids got coconut (or was it banana?)

On our second day we also met the family in the room next to ours, who had kids about our kids' ages and were at the end of their stay so gave us some good tips. They said there was the night market in Bophut, the fishing village, and it was supposed to be the best night market so they recommended we see it. An exorbitantly expensive taxi ride later - the island is way bigger than I thought - we did. We ate dinner at The Address, a restaurant that was just a random choice but was so good we ended up taking another exorbitantly expensive taxi ride back at the end of our time in Koh Samui to dine there once again. The kids' meals came with ice cream, which Alex of course couldn't have, so we were happy to discover another branch of Leonardo and got her sorted with amazing sorbet.

We rose early the third day to try to catch the sunrise on the beach. On the fourth day we moved to what was the nicest hotel of the trip, save the ungrounded hot water heater in the shower that made Terry's first short a shocker. The kids' room had a full bathroom too, so thereafter we just all showered in there. The sand was so soft, and the beach as calm as a lake. The hotel had kayaks to borrow and the kids each got pretty good at maneuvering on their own (yes even Zoltan).

We tried all four types of mangoes at the grocery store. We brought home three pineapples and 8 mangoes. We ate our weight in mango with sticky rice. We went out for Japanese food (had we known about Cafe Momo at the time perhaps we wouldn't have bothered).

And by the end, we were ready to come out of the heat and return to the snow.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016


I have never, in my adult life, been this sick for this long. I am now rethinking my previously reasonable reasons for not getting the flu shot. Four days at home! If I'm not better tomorrow I don't even know what I'll do.

Friday, January 22, 2016

Cambodia: Sunrise at Angkor Wat

We debated whether it was worth waking up so early to see the sun rise over Angkor Wat. You never know day to day what the sunrise will be like, and if it is  foggy/cloudy then you're just SOL.  Then we thought, "we are never ever coming back here" and we also thought "we brought the kids' headlamps, they will get a kick out of roaming around in the dark" and decided to do it. The hotel packed a box breakfast and at 5am we headed out with hundreds if not thousands of other tourists.

Terry didn't like any of the photos so we won't be showing you sunrise over Angkor Wat.

After the sun rose, we took one last trip to the kids' early favorite, Bantei Kdei. They were way less into it this time (of course! Kids!) but we got a few cool photos.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Cambodia: Silk workshop

On our second-to-last day we went on a tour of a silk workshop. It was pretty exciting for me because the larger project of preserving traditional artisanal craftwork and providing good jobs for Cambodians was a EU project.  There is a beautiful store selling the products of these artisans, and some information about the background and current projects. Some of these young craftspeople do restoration work on ancient buildings (presumably mostly the stone workers), some design and create art for major hotels, government buildings and other high end outlets. Most of the object d'art in the shop were beyond our price point!

But I digress.

The shop sponsors a tour of the silk factory, about 20 minutes away in a more rural setting. There. we saw everything.  We first visited the silkworms, from tiny little worms, to the bigger fatter ones engorging themselves on mulberry leaves, to the more lethargic ones starting to spin their cocoons.

I had no idea silk came from the discarded cocoons of the silk worm. But they do. So when the worms become butterflies and bust out of their cocoons, the cocoons are gathered and the process begins.  First a whole batch of them are boiled. The lady working with the raw silk (outer layer) waved a brush-looking-thing in the boiling water and you could see a few strands catching on it, which were threaded into the first round of spinning. Turns out the local raw silk is a stunning rich golden yellow color.  Fine silk is a slightly (slightly!) more muted yellow.  After the raw silk is drawn off the cocoon, another person does the same process  - boiling and gathering strands to combine into thread - with the fine silk.

The next step is spinning the thread.  One of my favorite things in the shop was the repurposed bike parts. They used the pedal, chain and wheel.  The pedal was the hand crank, and the tire rim held the new thread. Although we didn't get to see the dyeing, there was a display about how the all-natural colorants they used were derived.

The final step is weaving. The looms are huge and impressive.  We saw simple one-color scarves as well as more complex designs. The whole tour definitely made me appreciate, and want to go buy, silk (and of  course this is the point of the whole thing. That's OK.) 

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Thai customer service

When our flight from Astana arrived in Bangkok, there was a lady holding a sign with our names at the gate. She said there was some issue with some paperwork, and she escorted us to a Bangkok Air desk (getting us front-of-the-line service at a few points), waited while the paperwork was sorted out, and escorted us to our gate. We arrived with about 15 minutes to go until boarding and never would have made it without her.

 When we arrived at Koh Samui airport ready to fly home, there was a lady waiting for us outside at the curb of the airport. Turns out we had a very tight connection in Bangkok, so she was waiting just in case we came early enough to get us onto the earlier flight so we'd be sure to make the connection. The flight was full but they were saving 4 seats for us just in case. She ushered us at lightening speed through the check-in desk, security, and off to the flight which departed about 20 minutes after we got to the gate.  It turned out, given the amount of time we had in Bangkok, that if we had gotten on the planned flight we would have had about 20 minutes to get from one end of the airport to the other to catch our plane.  And you know what? With the last minute seating for 4 of us, they actually had us sitting 2 and 2. No 6 year old alone across the plane from his parents.

U.S. carrier airlines: You have a LOT to learn from the Thai carriers.

If only they flew more places we go!

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Cambodia: Bees Unlimited

Our fourth day was definitely the highlight of the trip.  This tour company, Bees Unlimited, had been recommended on some blog, I forget which, and served an unforgettable slice of Cambodian life.  Although the company's origins appear to have been about exploring the flora and fauna related to Cambodia's migratory rafter bees, there is also a wonderful general tour.

As the family had been sick the day before, we forced some toast down everyone's throats before the 7am pickup, even though we knew we were being brought to the local market for breakfast. I tried to taste as many things as possible, but was just too full to get it all down. I did have some delicious coconut milk-tapioca soup with bananas and something else sweet in it to start. Also jackfruit and longan, and sugarcane juice (served in a baggie with a straw, like 20 years ago when I live in Singapore. That was a pretty cool flashback. You haven't drunk a beer until you've drunk it in a baggie from a straw). There was a breakfast I can't remember but it included fried lily pad greens (or some kind of water plant green. It was surprisingly delicious).  Towards the end we tried these fried rice balls with banana. We wandered around the market. This part would have probably been a highlight for a smaller group, but as it was we were 9 people - our family of four and another family of 5 - and the market was crowded, so we could rarely hear what Dani had to tell us about this or that, and we often got caught behind a traffic jam of humanity and had to scramble to sight and catch up with the group. We finally had to tell him we were all done and it was time to move on.

From the market we jumped into our two tuk-tuks and headed into the country. Our first stop was to watch women weaving baskets. Mothers teach their daughters and this is one of the crafts that appears to still be alive. After watching all the different ways people used baskets during our time in Cambodia, we were inspired to want to buy more of our own (I never would have thought to use a basket as a colander! but of course once you see it you say "duh"). From there we visited a Buddhist temple with the brightest color scheme I have ever experienced in a place of worship.  The paintings all over the walls depicted stories from Buddha's life - some I knew, some I didn't. The kids played a game of finding the unusually-colored people (usually blue - Vishnu - or green - not sure who that was).

Palm sugar is a local product.  It starts with syrup. Making syrup is similar to maple syrup - tap the tree, gather the thin, slightly sweet/sticky sap, and boil it forever and a day until it reduces. When it does, it is the consistency of honey. Then they do something to the syrup to dry it into sugar. We went to two different places to see different stages of the process.  The kids were thrilled to have a taste of the thick syrup and wanted to go back for more again and again.

One lady we visited was a cupping practitioner and Terry gamely agreed to have it done. She would "rinse" a glass jar with a flame, then place it on his back to create a suction. It is meant to pull toxins out of the body. It left a massive set of circular red/brown marks on his back - I told him he looked like he had just gotten out of the Matrix. The wife of the other family also got it done. While they lay with the cups we played with the three-week-old puppies.

The kids became bored and cranky after a time, so Dani pulled another trick out of his sleeve. Many (most? all?) tuk-tuk drivers keep hammocks in their vehicle and while waiting for the client (tourist) will sling it across the vehicle and take a nap. So we slung the hammock and the kids got to ride in the hammock while we went from place to place, and if they wanted we'd let them sit out one or another sight and hang out there. They perked up quite a bit with this treat.

We also visited a blacksmith, and a two families who participated in different steps in making rice noodles.  The noodle process is fascinating, they first grind the rice into something like a powder. mix with water to make a paste, then there is this huge contraption to knead the rice dough. When well kneaded, it is then taken across the street to the place that turns it into noodles.  We were able to taste some fresh rice noodles minutes after being made. Yum!

One elderly lady we visited makes incense by hand. She takes bark from a particular tree, and mixes it with an herb or two, waters it into paste and rolls it out onto the sticks to make incense.  She makes two different scents, that's it, and it's all natural, and she sells them out of her home. People know she makes the incense and they come to buy it. We bought some and Alex has been begging to stick some in her room.  Dani explained that this is a traditional craft that is not being preserved - obvious by the lack of youngsters around her, common at many of the other places, learning the process.

Although we were still largely full from the market, we made a bit of room for lunch. For me the bet part was this thin pancake that Dani said was essentially just rice flour, water, and turmeric but it tasted much better than that.

Our last stop was to visit the monkeys. Dani had developed a relationship with one in particular who would (and did) climb up on him, and us, and perch on shoulders or on top of heads. He had brought things to feed them, peanuts and lotus seed pods. The monkeys were careless eaters so a few times I was able to rescue a half-eaten pod and hand out more lotus seeds to the kids. They liked the older, bigger monkeys better as they took the food more civilly - the younger monkeys just grabbed. Of course, we adults noted the bigger monkeys had the leisure of civility, as they often chased smaller monkeys away from the food.

On that high note we headed home for some much needed rest and time by the pool.