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Kazakhstan or Bust!
Sept. 9-26, 2001

The phone rang on Thursday, August 30, 2001. It was my wife.

"We got our travel date!" she exclaimed. "We're leaving on Sunday, September 9 and we're returning on September 26. Get ready."

Travel date? Ever since my wife and I began planning to pursue an international adoption, I'd been expecting this day. But now that we had our travel date, I panicked. We only had a few days to prepare - could I be ready? Could work go without me for the next three weeks? Should I take jeans? Just where the hell is Kazakhstan anyway? Where's my St. Christopher's medal???

For months, I'd been the picture of cool, calm, and collected while my wife had been spazzing out. But at this very moment, the roles reversed completely. She was ready. She was prepared. I in the meantime, had become Mr. Spazz.

But as September 9 approached, everything started coming together. We packed our bags. We arranged for our time off. We finished buying all the requisite gifts. The Kazak visas, our last bit of paperwork, arrived at the last minute. I looked at a map. I packed my Russian phrase book and a few Oreo cookies in my carry-on bag. You just never know if they have Oreos in Kazakhstan.

The next thing I knew, we were saying good-bye to my daughter and my parents on our way to the airport in anticipation our trip to Kazakhstan via Moscow.

The first glimpse we had of Robbie
taken from the orphanage video.

Twenty-nine hours, three plane flights, and a 200-mile drive later, we had arrived in Aktobe, the birthplace of our son, Robbie. The flight to Moscow was fine. We were met by our coordinator and joined the other two families who would be traveling with us. We had several hours to rest before proceeding to another Moscow area airport to board an evening flight to Orenburg, Russia. Our Kazak coordinator met us at the plane in Orenburg and drove us through the dead of night to the border, and then on to Aktobe, Kazakhstan.

The trip seemed long and grueling but went relatively smoothly. We really felt "out of our element" but learned very quickly to just "go with the flow." Once through the border, we arrived in Aktobe at 6 a.m., had a great breakfast at our host's apartment, and went to the hotel (two families stayed at the apartment and us at the hotel) for a little rest before heading over to the orphanage to meet six-month old Robbie.

We met Robbie on September 11, 2001. That evening (around 7 p.m. Aktobe time), we watched live on CNN the World Trade Center collapse and the Pentagon on fire. Being from the Washington, DC area, we were pretty shaken up and we wanted at that moment to be home with our eight-year old daughter. After two hours of frantic dialing, we were finally able to get through to family on the phone and that reassured us a great deal.

Little Robbie at the orphanage

Aktobe

The next morning we went back to the orphanage to see Robbie again. We visited every day for six days, two hours at a time, three times a day. Between the visits, we'd lunch at the coordinator's (Leila) home and go to the local market or shops. We would all go back to Leila's after the final visit of the day for dinner. She was absolutely wonderful and the food they provided was very, very good.

The orphanage was old but clean. The staff brought our babies to a parlor and we visited there. We did not see other children at the baby house. We did get a glimpse of where they slept and were impressed at the cleanliness of the place. The staff was very nice although it was sometimes difficult to communicate. The babies were in pretty good shape (no lice, no scabies, etc.).


Maddie, Missy, and Amy

P.J., Brandi, Indira with caregiver

 


Maddie and Robbie wearing
the first floor team uniform


Robbie, Maddie, and Indira
enjoying playtime
during one of the visits

A little girl named Maddie who was being adopted by another member of our traveling party lived in the same wing of the orphanage as Robbie and we all joked every day about them plotting their escape late into the nights. They often appeared in matching yellow sweatsuits. We decided the yellow sweats were the team uniform for that wing of the Bobek House.

Every day, it became more difficult to watch the kids carried back to their wings by the caregivers. The day we realized Robbie knew who we were was the day he craned his neck to look back and see where Kevin was. Everybody saw that and knew that we had bonded.

On Day 9, we went to the city courthouse for our adoption hearing. We were very nervous, but our translator (Zophia) and coordinators were with us every step of the way and briefed us on what to expect. Things went very smoothly for all three families. When we walked out of the Aktobe City Courthouse that day, we were all officially new parents, us for the second time. We were congratulated by the government officials and the orphanage doctor, who accompanied us to the hearings.


The Aktobe Courthouse

The next day, we all went for one final trip to the orphanage to pick up our kids. The staff was very happy for us but also very sad to say goodbye to the babies. When we walked out the door with them in our arms and set up for a final photo at the Bobek House, it was very emotional. We knew we needed to clearly document the place that they spent the first six months of their lives.


Saying goodbye to The Baby House in Aktobe

When we got back to our coordinator's house, reality hit. And quickly. Each baby was cranky. They all wanted their diaper changed. They all wanted food. Then they didn't want food. Then they were tired. Then they weren't tired. Our first assignment was to really see what their schedule was going to be. Baby supplies were readily available in Aktobe. Our coordinator and interpreters helped us change money and shop whenever we needed to do so.

Our coordinators, interpreteres, and drivers in Aktobe were great. We are so thankful to them!

 


Together for one last evening with our friends in Aktobe

After a very nice dinner with all of those who helped us, we set out for the Aktobe Airport early the next morning. There we said good-bye to Leila, Zophia, and Sasha, our driver. And away we went onto the next leg of the journey - Almaty - where we would obtain visas and passports for the kids.

Almaty

Almaty is the former capital of Kazakhstan and is an upbeat and lively place. It's a pretty hip place with shopping, restaurants, a far cry for Aktobe, where the economy is much less sophisticated. And since the only appointment was at the U.S. Embassy, we had lots of bonding time with the kids. Not to mention time to shop and sightsee.


Family portrait in Almaty

Almaty is just beautiful. It lies in the southeast corner of Kazakhstan, just a mountain range away from northwest China and western Mongolia. Everywhere you look, you see gorgeous mountain backdrops, clear blue skies, and beautiful landscaped greenery. In addition, the history buff in me really enjoyed hearing the history of the independence of Kazakhstan and Almaty in particular.


A peaceful Independence Square

Jenna, our translator in Almaty, told the story of the final climactic student uprising at the site which is now known as Independence Square. She was six years old watching out of the window of her nearby apartment. The military came in and beat the students. She said she remembered watching bloodied students fleeing back from the Army. Then you notice beauty and serenity of the area, with blue skies and gorgeous mountain backdrops. It's hard to imagine this was the scene of a bloody battle that ended up as a momentous moment in Kazak history.

We also found that as we traveled around the country, we received many messages of condolences and sympathy from the Kazak people because of the tragedy back home. The sidewalk outside the embassy was covered with flowers and cards showing how the folks there felt. It was very comforting to us.

Moscow

After our business with the U.S. Embassy, we boarded a flight to Moscow. The Almaty Airport is under construction and procedures are very confining. We were very thankful for our interpreter Jenna, who was a godsend. She was terrific getting us through the VIP lounge and onto the plane. After a four-hour flight, we arrived in Moscow and were taken to the Marriott Tverskaya. The first thing you notice in Moscow is the traffic. We ran into traffic like I'd never seen before, and I've seen traffic in Washington, DC, Los Angeles, and Manhattan. This was unbelievable. There were so many cars vying for space on every street. Lane lines mean nothing in Moscow. You'd have to experience it to believe it.

We also found the one thing all had been craving since the day we left home. It has to be the biggest McDonald's anywhere with 30 cash registers and the place was packed. We all agreed it was probably the best Big Mac we'd ever eaten.


The real reason we came all the way to Moscow

Moscow was fascinating. Since we had the weekend before our visit to the Embassy, we did a lot of sightseeing all over town. We were able to see Moscow State University, the 1980 Olympic Stadium, the Yuri Gregarin Memorial, several Russian Orthodox churches, GUM Department Store, and of course, Red Square. What a thrill it was to walk the grounds I'd seen on television news so often. And we went to a great flea market in town for souvenirs.


In the middle of Red Square with Lenin's Tomb and the Kremlin behind us

After the weekend of sightseeing, souvenir-hunting, and a brief medical examinations for the babies, it was time to go to the U.S. Embassy in Moscow. When we walked through the gates and spoke with the Marines, we felt like we were back home. What a rush of excitement.

Business at the embassy went very smoothly. The new streamlined procedures really work. After a celebratory dinner at an Italian pizzeria, we all retired to our hotel to finish packing for the final leg of our journey.


Robbie and his dad stylin'
in traditional Russian and Kazak hats


Spending an afternoon shopping at a
flea market in Moscow with our translator, Tania.
Only one of the three kids lasted till the end,
so I think it's safe to say little Maddie
is the shopper of the group.

The next morning, we all met in the lobby and when the driver arrived, packed our bags into the back of the van for a trip to Sheremetyevo Airport. A couple of hours later, after several bag and passport checks (it was nice to see the extra security at international airports) we were flying back across the Atlantic on our way home. The 10-hour flight wasn't too bad. Rob slept a good part of it and was pretty happy most of the time. As a matter of fact, the plane had many adoptive families flying home.

We landed at JFK at 3:50 p.m. on Wednesday, September 26 and raced through customs to meet our connecting flights. We bid a quick goodbye to our traveling companions, exchanging address and promising to keep in touch. When we arrived at BWI, Robbie met his grandfather for the first time and posed for pictures without complaint.



Home at last after 11 hours on planes


(My father, who took this photo, passed away recently, but spent more than four years with his youngest grandson, teaching him how to throw a baseball, playing board games, babysitting him...It makes me very happy to know how much my father loved his grandson...It makes me even more happy that Robbie still talks about Grandpa, especially how much he misses him. I've attached my favorite photo of the two of them below.)

 


Robbie with his grandfather, Christmas 2001

 

Home

We've been home more than six years now and he's all over the neighborhood with his buddies. He loves to play baseball all the time and has become a big fan of the Washington Nationals. He saw Alexander Ovechkin play AND score a goal in early February. He loves Star Wars and owns all six VHS movies.

He enjoyed our family cruise in 2005 and loved the the beaches in Miami Beach and Mexico. He loved our trip to Chicago (where he saw the Cubs play) in 2006, and his week at the beach in Hilton Head in 2007. He's doing very well in first grade and can't wait till next year because second graders get to go to the big playground during recess. He turns 7 soon and eagerly awaits his bowling birthday party.

 


Cubs vs. Cardinals, August 2006

He got to visit with Maddie and Indira over Memorial Day weekend, 2002. And he reunited with Leila, the coordinator from Aktobe, during the Frank Foundation 10-year Anniversary in Washington, D.C. in November 2002. He also got to see Maddie again this year, as her family came through our area. Seeing the two together again was very cool. It was as though they'd never been apart...


Maddie and Robbie four years later, May 2005

They got to spend a week together in the summer of 2006. Maddie told Robbie he was her boyfriend, which immediately grossed him out. But her family and ours think it'd be cool if they one day got married.

He's playing basketball and baseball now, and is a Cub Scout. He loves hockey and wants skating lessons this winter. He still adores his big sister and while he doesn't follow her around like he used to, he still loves to watch her softball and basketball games. As a high schooler now, she's into the social scene at the school's football games, but made a point of giving up hanging out with her friends during to come sit with him and watch the second half most weeks. And her friends come up and sit there too because they ALL think he's the cutest thing...


Robbie and Maddie (in background) check out
Indira's backyard, May 2002


Gracie, Robbie, and George hangin' in the
living room

 


"This stuff is pretty cool!"
Wendy and Robbie, January 2003

Wendy and Robbie enjoy Disneyworld
June 2003

 


Robbie and Dad, June 2003

 


Robbie jumps for joy at local baseball game
July 2004


Robbie and Wendy at
Natural Bridge, Virginia, July 2004

 


Robbie loves going to Washington Nationals games
but as you can see by his face, he also loves
ketchup, mustard, and nacho cheese, April 2005

 


Robbie and Wendy love the beautiful weather in
South Beach, August 2005.


Robbie enjoys the crystal clear waters of the
Gulf of Mexico while on vacation, August 2005

 


The kids pose outside Navy-Marine Corps Stadium
prior to a Navy football game, September 2005

A budding superstar, perhaps?

 


The little guy has a pretty nice right-handed swing!
May 2006


But he can also bring it from the left side
May 2006

 


Robbie and his sister in Washington, DC, 2007

 


Robbie at a Fall Festival, October 2007


Robbie and Mom

 

Miscellaneous Information

Dress code: It was okay to wear jeans. We dressed up for court.

Phone calls: AT&T phone card worked fine from all cities.

Baby supplies: Take some, but supplies are readily available.

Packing: Pack light, take a hot pot, take several types of bottle nipples, take zip lock and other plastic bags, add a couple of hangers or clothes lines. And (THIS IS VERY IMPORTANT) buy an adapter and converter.

Attitude: Be flexible, cooperative, and patient.

Child's medical exam: We used the Russian doctor, who was very nice and spoke English fluently.

Agency: World Child International in Silver Spring, MD - They did a great job and were very helpful throughout. Frank Foundation - They did an excellent job. We were in good hands the entire trip.

Contact us: sloangang02@msn.com

Post-adoption: Make sure your pediatrician is familiar with international adoption or willing to consult with the official recommendation that are out there at their disposal.