Thursday, April 30, 2015

Observations from outside Kokshetau

Kazakhstan had a presidential election Sunday April 26. I was one of the embassy folks who participated as an election observer. I'm not going to talk about the work now (or, quite honestly, ever), but the general experience was definitely something to write home about.

The region I was assigned to was around a biggish town outside the oblast (state) capital of Kokshetau.  The train ride from Astana was 4.5 hours to Kokshetau, then about 30-90 minutes by car, depending on where exactly I was going, to get to these little villages.  I have now taken the train three times to cities within Kazakhstan and have to say I greatly enjoy the rides.  The train carriages I have been in so far have all been a series of 4 person compartments.  In each compartment are, essentially, bunk beds - sometimes fixed, sometimes that fold out of the wall. Each passenger is given a featherbed/mattress, pillow, linens and a blanket. Usually I stretch out and read or do work, and the rhythm of the train often lulls me into a catnap. In one ride in one of the fancy Spanish trains we were given little toiletry bags with soap, a comb, toothbrush and toothpaste, etc

It turned out that one of the villages we went to was where our driver had grown up.  To get there, you drive until the dirt road itself disappears, and then you follow tire tracks through fields.  He told us when he was young they would go to the disco in the nearby town - a good 20-30 minutes away by car - by horse. I should note I still considered him young, so his story can't be more than 10 years old. In retrospect, it probably took the same amount of time to travel by horse as the car couldn't exactly speed down the not-road.

Several times along the way our headway was slowed by cows or sheep crossing the road. I really wish I had gotten better photos.

Kazakhstani hospitality was in full bloom all day.  In nearly every polling station where we stopped, we were invited to sit for tea and something to eat. Also in nearly every polling station where we stopped, the commission members wanted to take photos with us.  I would not be surprised to learn we were the only non-Kazahstani people some of these villagers had ever met.  Although only hours from the capital city, it felt remarkably remote.  Chickens, ducks and geese wandered around, there were small garden plots around most homes, and most villagers seemed to have cows and/or sheep and/or horses. One of the villagers mentioned that everyone had a dog, and they were working animals not pets.

All in all it was a wonderful experience and a chance to see part of the country far from the main tourist attractions (although actually geographically pretty close to some tourist attractions - forests and lakes and resort type holidays.)

Friday, April 24, 2015

The most hilariously awful vacation ever

[it's been a grievously long time since my last post. Life hit hard. By life I mean work + bidding + work and more work. I see an end in sight now, at least I see a vacation soon enough. But it turns out this gem never got posted so here you are]

A few weeks ago [more than a month now] we went, with a whole passel of folks from the embassy, on an overnight trip to Borovoe.  We have been to Borovoe a couple of times and it is a treat. However, this trip was a disaster from the start.

First the hotel that had been booked cancelled all reservations with a week's notice and for no reason.
The second hotel apparently tried to cancel the reservations the night before. The poor coordinator of the trip nearly pulled all her hair out.
We are always early to everything, so between being early and the people who were late we ended up waiting 45 minutes in the embassy parking lot to caravan with the group. We're idiots. And because we waited so long, rather than scooting up there in just over 2 hours as we know we can, we had to do a pit stop on the way for a bathroom break. Except the bathroom was an outhouse and everything was all frozen. Alex is not cut out for third world life and let's just say it was a tough decision for her, attempting the frozen squatter or peeing her pants. (Let's just say I am happy with the decision she made).

When we arrived lunch was waiting. Except it was all full of dairy. And it was "impossible" to have anything else (nevermind the vegetarian in the group did manage to score a different meal) The only saving grace was that, being all Russian-y, the meal started with soup - that was safe for Alex to eat - and she was full by the end of it.  After having just spent 3.5 hours in the car we planned to stick close to the hotel and find something hill-like for sledding for the afternoon.

Somehow we ended up agreeing to join the group heading to the "ski resort" that had "good hills for sledding" and was "only 15 minutes away". Adding in getting lost time, it was more like 30 minutes.  Given we were already frustrated and car-ed out, every extra minute was a minute too much. And then we got there.  It was the saddest little place, one run that was barely downhill and a rope tow that made the rope tows of my youth look fancy.  The kids could sled if we gave a good push and had a relay of adults giving an extra nudge on the way "down". There was a group who had planned to go snowmobiling, as this "resort" advertised it.  There was one snowmobile. They took turns going on 10 minute rides.

At the hotel we were on the 4th floor, walk up, so we got some much needed exercise during the trip.  The room was large, I'll give that to them, but felt like it was crumbling under our feet.  The shower didn't drain.  They had to come back twice to bring extra towels for Alex and Zoltan.  They said they would bring a folding cot for one of the kids to sleep on - the other would have the couch - and that never happened.  When we tried to use the pool it took half an hour to find someone to take our money and bring towels (yes, again with the towels!).

At breakfast the next morning Zoltan threw the most monstrous mighty fit.  I tremble for his teenage years.  That certainly wasn't anyone's fault, but it was in keeping with the tenor of the weekend. At that point we were mostly just done.  Knowing we needed to eat before getting on the road, we stopped at a cafe that looked open.  After unsuccessfully trying to order about half a dozen different things only to be told each time they were out we finally got one of each item they did have, and it was surprisingly good. Additionally surprising was the fact that the kids tried all the unfamiliar dishes without complaint and even each chose a favorite.

Lest it sound too complain-y, there were some highlights and fun times.  Conveniently located right next to our hotel room door was a comfortable couch, where Terry and I retreated when the kids went to sleep.  He had brought some bourbon and I had a brought some wine.  It was lovely.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Spring has sprung

Today we went outside. No gloves. No hats. No scarves. No snowpants. No heavy jackets. No long underwear. No boots. Sneakers, and fleeces over short sleeved shirts. Oh, how sweet it is.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Happy Nauryz!

On March 22, otherwise known as Nauryz in Kazakhstan and a few other countries, we went to see how they celebrate.  We had gotten some advice of where the celebrations would be and headed over there.  I was a little surprised that it wasn't more crowded, although it threatened and finally did rain.

There were the traditional swings
 Men handling eagles

Yurts - it appeared as though different groups/organizations each decorated a yurt and then the public was invited in to check it out. I so want a yurt. Terry says we have nowhere to put one. I don't see where logic fits into this conversation.

We popped inside for lunch and it was raining when we came out. We popped into Congress Hall for the exhibition but it seemed to be the same kind of market as any other day.  We did linger at the honey stall, though, and brought home some treats.

Monday, March 23, 2015

the best day ever

According to Alex, today was the best day ever. Started with pancakes.
Then a Kiwi Crate...

Woodpeckers pecking at a tree for bugs
... followed by an egg hunt (they even filled the eggs, I just hid them. Only two had special treats).
A movie, lunch, rest/nap time.
Then the epic bath, in our ridiculous tub.
No joke, there's room for 2 more in there
Homemade pizza for dinner, thankyouverymuch Vegan Essentials and Pouch delivering our packages expeditiously.
Dessert was a piece of freshly homemade bread, courtesy of Terry, slathered with the honey we bought yesterday that is seriously, legitimately, a treat. Almost marshmallow-y in its lightness and sweetness but with better flavor.

Oh and they got to to wear pajamas all day.
Yeah, it was a pretty good day.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Four Peas Online

Product DetailsWhen Alex started preschool at the tender age of 2.5 years old, my mother was quick to jump on this shopping opportunity.  "She needs a backpack."  Well, OK.  Mom did her research and showed me some options and we chose a cute little pack from Four Peas Online with few frills, an adorable monkey, and the option to personalize (bad opsec, yes we know. You are welcome to argue with my mother.)

Fast forward two years later. The backpack is still going strong. Zoltan is about to start detsky sad. My mother vetoes getting him a bag from Four Peas because she wants something that might actually wear out someday.

Fast forward three more years later.  After a few years of daily use, Alex started school and needed a bigger backpack.  The Four Peas backpack, still going strong, became the "restaurants and travel" bag (restaurants and travel are still several times a month so it isn't like the bag got mothballed). Now, however, the zipper doesn't work properly sometimes.  A zipper malfunction during a vacation led us to decide that it is time to replace it.  The fabric and stitching are still sturdy and could probably go another few years.

At the same time, Zoltan's other-brand backpack is also showing a few signs of wear, and it isn't quite big enough, and is a little too bulky.  My mother was thrilled to be allowed to buy two backpacks simultaneously and generously agreed to buy from Four Peas Online even though she knows she may not buy another bag for a while.

We just got the new bags.  The zipper seems more solid than the last bag.  Sorry, mom.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Happy birthday darling

Today is something like Terry's birthday. Although he downplays these annual displays we do at least normally get ourselves some good grub.  Unfortunately, our plans for tonight had to go on quick reshuffle when Alex complained this morning that she didn't feel so good and a quick zap with the new fun ear thermometer revealed 104. (I doubted so whipped out the old glass-and-something-not-mercury-anymore but it was right).

At least we'll still have pie.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Barcelona: Sagrada Familia

When asking for recommendations on Barcelona must-see spots, I received surprisingly varied replies on Sagrada Familia, ranging from "sublime" to "give it a skip".  With small children possessing small attention spans, any tourist site may stale after a mere half hour so you end up being judicious in your choices. Did I think my kids could manage 2 hours in a cathedral?  Did I think I would spend 2 hours in a cathedral?

And yet ...

When we bought the tickets [on Terry's Smartphone standing 3 feet from the ticket taker, rushing through to just get ourselves inside] we accidentally bought a ticket to go up the tower an hour later. Oh well, we figured the add-on cost wasn't much so if we didn't make it, no harm done. Instead, we scoured every inch of the inside, marvelling at the stained glass and how beautifully it contrasted with the mostly plain stone walls.  We popped outside for some sunshine and took in the stonework on the facade.  One of the things I found so fascinating was that many different styles were used, yet in my eye it all worked.  Also, to be honest, I found it a highlight that the carving itself was the adornment without paint or gilding.

The kids enjoyed checking out the schoolhouse Gaudi built for the children of the workmen. Alex did several of the math problems left on the board and we pointed out how sparse the yard was - no playground?!?

When we realized the hour had slipped away we went to find the tower for our trip and discovered Zoltan couldn't come (FYI, children under 6 not permitted. It was clear on the web site, so says the attendant at the elevator. Not clear enough that we noticed it!) Alex and I went up in one shift, then Terry went on his own while I took the kids outside to each their sandwiches.  Terry would have taken longer up there but he ran out of room on the SD card so couldn't take any more photos. After lunch we finished exploring and then headed to the playground we could see from the tower.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Barcelona: Montjuic Castle

One thing to know about travelling to Barcelona in February: a lot of stuff is closed. No magic fountain, no cable cars, no Tibidabo. In some ways it makes things easier, not quite so much to decide between in our few short days.  On Tuesday we decided to see what we could find in Montjuic Park, which appeared from our map to host about a dozen museums and tourist sites.

We chose Montjuic Castle for the first (and as it turned out only) stop.  It is mostly a ruin, just the walls really, but the views are stunning.  Looking out over the sea one direction and what seemed to be all of Barcelona city the other direction, one could easily see why a fortress was placed here.  When we got to the top the kids commandeered a turret and happily played with their toys while I soaked up some sunshine and Terry took photos.

When we tired of the views we decided to wander the park and see what else there was to see.  When cutting through some greenery we saw this

Why don't more people take advantage of hills by building a slide right into it?  It is the shortest and safest way to get a kid from point A (high) to point B (low).  They had a blast going up and down, and when it was time to continue on Terry and I also popped on for the ride down.  And of course a few short meters along the path we came to a playground with a cafe next to it. Sadly, the cafe was not open or we could have sipped cappuccino and nibbled on something and been very refined while the kids acted like wild savages.

We could have continued on, but with the cafe closed and us not having enough snacks in our bags and being a no-nap day we were all getting grumpy so we cut it short and headed back.  There's a mall by the metro so we jumped in for some late touristy lunch, then decided to see if the mall had a grocery store (common in Europe. Why don't we do this in the U.S.?)  Yup, so we got a few things we needed then noticed a "bio store" (bio = organic).  I found my beloved Oatly milk that I discovered in Malta and grabbed some soy milk yogurt - what a treat! Should have gotten more as Alex ate hers then half of mine.  On the way home from the metro we stopped in the little grocery store/tourist goods store right by the metro and picked up a few bottles of wine. We did not buy the 1 Euro wine but seriously considered it.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Barcelona: Park Guell

Bright and early Monday morning we got to La Boqueria to gather the produce for the week.  We wandered the stalls, the family sans moi tasted jamon and bought some cryovac'd packs that don't need to be refrigerated for 2 months (thus easy to get home), kids and I got amazing fresh juices and we loaded up on fruit for the week .... that we ate by Wednesday. I had threatened to prohibit Alex from eating any apples during the trip because apples are the one fruit she eats regularly, but Terry pointed out they are shipped/stored better in Spain and are thus better apples so we did get a few kilograms of them too.  We got 2 kilos of strawberries, a kilo of cherries and of yellow plums, plus oranges, clementines, a mango, apples.

With our load we had to go directly home, and it was time for lunch and nap anyway.

After nap we hit our first real tourist site: Park Guell.  The kids had a blast playing hide and seek among the columns, I was entranced by the mosaics, Terry took photos of the spring flowers.  There is a building you can go into, I am not sure exactly what is inside, but by the time we thought of it the line was 45 minutes long so we bagged it and headed toward the metro while looking for a place for dinner.  Not finding any by the time we were within a block or so of the metro, and noticing a playground in what was essentially a median strip, we let the kids go while we searched online for a restaurant that would be open at 6pm (once again thankful for the local SIM cards and frustrated with Barcelona schedule. Look, I love me a siesta as much as anyone, but in Malta everything was closed 1-4pm. This I can work with. In Barcelona everything is closed 4-8pm. Ugh.)

We had a place in mind but walked past the crowded place we planned to go to the night before and as I'd hoped it more open on a Monday night than a Sunday.  Tapas, very abbreviated menu.  Delicious.  Steak, patatas bravas, fish, pork. They had a house brewed beer so we tried that. We ate well in Barcelona.