Monday, November 12, 2012

Life in Kazakhstan is a road less traveled and full of curves and obstacles!

Beth and I have been in Kazakhstan more than a month now and I still find myself wondering if I’m going to awake from a dream at any moment.  

When we boarded the plane in Richmond, Virginia on Oct. 2, 2012 it was with many emotions -- excitement to be heading back to the land and people that have captured our hearts, and a bit of anxiety about launching such an enormous project.  But we were off.

Thankfully, we made all of our connections in the U.S and in Turkey and after a two-day journey, we concluded an uneventful trip even making it through customs in Almaty without even a second glance our way as we walked out the main gates with all six of our trunks.    

Part of the decision-making on when to head back to Kazakhstan related to the wedding of a dear friend.  The wedding of Zarina and Damire on Oct 8th was beautiful.  It was a great joy and privilege to be able to share in their celebration last month and capture the special occasion digitally.  

This time in Taraz we don’t have the benefits of a large, established organization.  That means no car, no support staff and no house with western conveniences.  But it has been great to see the support we do have and to learn to live daily life like a typical Kazakh.  We are averaging 5 to7 miles of walking each day as we go to and from our daily tasks. This is good exercise, but more importantly, it has helped us build relationships.  There isn’t a day that goes by that we don’t run into someone we know during our walk.  It is touching to see the reactions of people as they realize we, as Americans, are walking and taking public transportation.  They also are getting some good laughs at our many misadventures as we try to learn our way around the city via bus.  Thankfully, complete strangers have shown us much kindness.  On a couple of occasions we have been totally surprised to find an English speaker in the most unusual places.  

We thought we had found a house to rent but the family later changed its mind.  We aren’t worried about this and trust the exact house we are to use will become available at precisely the right time.  We have several Kazakhs helping us with this and are grateful for their help.  

Arranging our visas has been its own adventure.  Our original visa was for 30 days.  One friend of ours who has an English language school was trying to invite us for another 60-day visa. As part of that, we would have volunteered at her school but a glitch in the law prevented that option.  

Another friend that Beth and I have known since 2000 is very excited about J127 Ranch.  She was the director of Ulan Orphanage for many years before moving to the Youth House as its director. She has many great connections and a real heart for the children. She knows their histories and heartaches.  When she heard we were having trouble getting our next visa she offered to invite us on a 60-day personal visa.  This application was submitted.  Since there was going to be a two-week gap between the two visas, we decided to head to Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan to get a 30-day tourist visa and then we will switch it to the 60-day personal invitation visa when the tourist visa expires.  

There is a bus that goes from Taraz to Bishkek.  A new law allows Americans to enter Kyrgyzstan without a visa but we weren’t sure the border crossing we would be using would accept us into Kyrgyzstan or would we need to fly into the country.  We took off on the afternoon bus for another of our many adventures on buses in Kazakhstan.  It was an older 15-passenger van (including the driver) with two seats on one side of the van, an aisle and a single seat on the other side.  The passenger seat tilted forward for passengers to enter the back of the van.  The aisle had what looked like trim bundled and piled in it, making walking a bit difficult.  Beth and I were among the last people to get into the van and so we stumbled our way to the back of it.  The seats were each elevated a bit as you moved toward the back, kind of like theater seats.  This made for good viewing out the front window.  Driving here in Kazakhstan is unlike anything you would experience in the states.  Passing a vehicle in front of you can be done even if multiple vehicles are come towards you.  Add into the mix herds of sheep, cattle and horses, horse and donkey powered carts, pedestrians walking and it is like a video game gone bad or an action packed movie with one of those crazy car chase scenes except this is real.  Beth said “All I need is pop corn and a soda an it would be like sitting in a movie theater!”  There is nothing to be done but sit back and enjoy the ride trusting the drivers and God.  We knew the general plan but most of the details we weren’t sure of so off we went into the unknown. 

John and Julie Wright who work in Tokmok, Kyrgyzstan doing great work caring for orphans and widows had agreed to host us during our time in Kyrgyzstan for which we were grateful.   

When we got to the border crossing, everyone exited the bus, taking their packages and personal belongings with them.  Upon entering the passport control Beth called John to let him know where we were.  (Our phone would not work once we crossed into Kyrgyzstan.)  Due to poor reception, Beth had to talk louder than normal, making everyone in the building aware that we were foreigners and Americans at that.  We could hear the guards say something about the tourists.  We hadn’t wanted to be in the back of all the other people on our bus but that is what ended up happening.  We weren’t sure if the bus would wait for us even though we had paid for the whole trip.  When it was my turn to present my passport I was pleasantly surprised by an English speaking Kazakh.  He was very pleasant and within a few minutes we both had passed through Kazakhstan’s side of the border.  We exited a door and then went to a window on the Kyrgyzstan side.  Again, we were surprised to hear a Kyrgyz saying, “Good Evening,” in perfect English.  And as easy as that we were across the border with all of our required stamps.  Then, we were off to find our bus.  

It was dark by then and there were lots of people, cars, buses, trucks, and taxi drivers offering a ride on the left side of the path and vendors selling various things lining the right side.  I needed a bathroom and something to drink since, by then, it was past   7 p.m. and we had left our house at 3 p.m to begin our travels.  Wondering if we had missed the bus, we wandered down the path a bit.  One of the other women on the van saw us looking lost and spoke to us, thankfully.  She then pointed down a side alley where we spied a sign for toilet.  Beth graciously let me go first and as I headed down this alley way a small boy on a bike greeted me, talking a mile a minute oblivious to the fact I had no clue what he was saying.  He rode his bike in circles around me as I walked.  In Kazakhstan it is common to pay a small price to use a toilet.  This includes a bit of toilet paper that you pick up when you pay.  I paid my money to use the toilet to a young girl and, at this young boy’s insistence, I followed him down a path past some parked cars, a very large dog on a very large chain, then down a narrow path around a faucet and trough of water that had spilled over making the path very muddy,  Through some trees then a turn to the right to what was obviously an area being renovated.  The young boy showed me which bathroom was for women and explained - in detail - not to step on the wet cement but to walk on the board.  Even though I didn’t understand a word of his language I knew what he was saying and from the small footprint already in the cement, it looked like my young friend had already learned from experience what happens when you step in wet cement.    

While I was traveling to the “restroom” – in reality, a fancy outhouse - Beth chatted with one of the three other women on the bus.  When I got back, Beth took off about the time the two other women showed up.  They were also traveling to Tokmok so we decided we would get a taxi together for the journey between Bishkek and Tokmok - about an hour’s drive.  It turned out these two women were Dungan.  It was a great blessing to have them join us as we negotiated the city of Bishkek and secured a taxi.  The ride was uneventful but my heart sighed in relief as we pulled up to the “bus station” to see John Wright sitting on the back of his car with the hatch open (he had told us he would do this to help us find him in the dark).  

Our time in Bishkek was above and beyond any expectation I could have had.  John and Julie and their two grown daughters welcomed us with open arms.  We were able to participate with two different delegations from Canada, see a small bit of the great work being done there and gleaned a bit of their wisdom in the process.  Be sure to check out their website to see the great work they are doing –  

I could go on and on sharing about the many different happenings here in Central Asia.  The central theme is the children.  Life is hard for the average person and family.   Without the stable foundation of a family to help the children navigate life, the ones without stable families or any family at all have little hope.  

The mountains before us on the great adventure that is J127 Ranch are high and the path before us is full of unknowns.  It is not for the faint of heart.  Perseverance, patience and persistence are what we need to continue forward.  My heart aches for the children.  When we were visiting Ulan Orphanage this past Friday, the staff had just found out the orphanage would close December 1.  Some of the children will transfer to Saramoldaeva Orphanage.  There are so many unknowns.  One worker at Ulan said 10 caregivers will keep their jobs and move to Saramoldaeva but another worker said only three were transferring.  A few workers we spoke with said they didn’t know what would happen or that they weren’t transferring.  It was obvious the director had been crying and we saw tears on several other staff members’ faces.  What a sad day for them. But then I looked at all of the children.  Their already unstable lives were being turned upside down once again.   

There isn’t one comfort I’ve left or one discomfort I now live with that I wouldn’t endure to keep moving forward – to keep persevering and patiently hoping and believing a door will open so J127 Ranch can open doors for these precious children.   

Thank you all who have joined the community of people who are committed to ENGAGE with one another and the children in ways that ENRICH each of our lives so we are all EMPOWERED to be who we were uniquely created to be.  

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