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Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Team Knee Defender

Did anyone else see this story about the two airplane passengers who got into a tiff over rights to legroom vs. rights to recline a seat?  The pilot actually diverted the flight and had the two offending passengers removed.

This story really struck a chord with me.  On the very slim chance that anyone who doesn't know me is reading this, I'm 5'11" with most of my height concentrated in my legs.  Legroom is always an issue for me on flights.  Personally, I seldom recline my seat because I don't want the person behind me to feel as violently cranky as I do from being practically pinned in their seat.

Cool travel gadget - Knee Defender - as small as a house keyAlso, I didn't even know about this Knee Defender gadget!  I certainly could have used one on the (completely miserable) Washington to Istanbul leg of our trip to Kazakhstan.  I notice from reading some of the coverage that the inventor of this device is even taller than I am.  I applaud his ingenuity--obviously, the airlines don't care about our plight, so someone had to do something.

In case it's not obvious, for this particular news story, I am much more sympathetic to the passenger who was using Knee Defender than I am to the other passenger who threw water in his face.  But in the end, I really blame the airlines.  I truly believe that if they are going to pack us all in like sardines, then they should install non-reclining seats.  I think everyone who has been forced into any situation with random strangers knows that we cannot depend on people just using common courtesy.

Any thoughts?  How can we collectively solve the problem of legroom vs. reclining?

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Sunday Outing

We went out with a few colleagues this morning to tour around town.  None of us had had a lot of time to sightsee, since we were all attending multiple orientation sessions and writing syllabi.  We headed downtown by bus, and then walked to Bayterek Tower.  We bought tickets to go to the top.  It reminded me a lot of Seattle's Space Needle, in that you had to take elevators to the top, and then got a great view of the surrounding area.

From afar

Up close
Inside, at the top

View from the top--colors came out sort of muted for some reason

After that, we tried out an Italian restaurant for lunch, and started walking in the direction of the famous mall Khan Shatyr.  Malls and shopping centers have really proliferated here (as some of you might have guessed from some of my previous posts).  Khan Shatyr is particularly famous because it is shaped like a yurt.  It also contains an indoor beach and an amusement park.

Khan Shatyr from some distance

Fake flower display outside of Khan Shatyr.  I had never seen displays like these prior to moving to Kazakhstan.

Inside Khan Shatyr, looking up

Looking at Khan Shatyr's amusement park

American hotdogs in Astana

It was a very hot day (according to the weather on my phone, it got up to 100 F), so we all decided we'd had enough walking around after that.  It was a fun outing, though.  Our housing is pretty isolated from the rest of the city, which is a shame, since the downtown seems pretty pleasant.  It's good to get out to remind ourselves that there really is a city out there, not just a massive construction site that happens to contain our offices.  Here are a couple more random pictures from today:

Landscaping near Bayterek Tower

I think we all agreed that we didn't want to up to the top of the building on the right!

Saturday Evening Stroll

On Saturday, my department gathered for dinner at a local Central Asian restaurant.  We took a walk afterwards.  Here are a few pictures I took:

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Wired Differently

Our apartment is wired differently, that is.

This post is an open plea for suggestions, as much as anything else.  Scott and I are not experts on electricity, and our apartment is giving us plenty to ponder and speculate on.

When we moved out here, we brought a few electronic devices, some of which had built in voltage converters, and some of which did not.  We also brought three separate voltage converters.  As I said, we are not experts, so we've been using the separate voltage converters with any electronic device we weren't sure about, which in this case includes a desktop computer, phone chargers, electric toothbrush chargers, and a camera battery charger.

Last night, we were watching Netflix on our desktop computer when the computer suddenly shut itself off with no warning.  We hadn't lost power, and the power strip it was plugged into (via the voltage converter) was still working.  We tried to turn the computer back on, but no luck.  The voltage converter was quite warm, but not hot enough to burn our fingers or to start melting.  We switched voltage converters, and the computer was able to be turned on again.

So, we don't really understand what is going on here.  We lugged three (relatively heavy) voltage converters out here precisely to avoid these sorts of problems.  Was the first voltage converter we used with the desktop computer defective?  Or did it overheat and shut itself off as a safety mechanism?  Is it safe to attempt using that particular voltage converter again?

This was one of the more alarming electrical happenings in our apartment, but we have noticed other odd things, as well.  For one thing, our phones, which took hours to fully charge in the US, charge very quickly here via the voltage converter.  Another thing is that both the desktop computer (which we plug in via the separate voltage converter) and the laptop (which has its own voltage converter) vibrate when they are plugged in.  Again, not being experts, we're not sure if we should be concerned about that.

We already know there are some problems with the electrical wiring here.  One of the bulbs in a ceiling light fixture shorted out all of the ceiling lights twice in the first week we were here.  An electrician came twice, and from what we can tell, decided that the "solution" to the problem was to remove the offending bulb.  It's true that we haven't shorted anything out since the, but it makes me wonder what else is going on.

It also makes me pretty cranky, to be honest, because I used US electronic devices in both Damascus and Jerusalem in housing that was not at all luxurious and never had any reason for concern.  Recently built apartments should have wiring at least as good as an old house in Damascus or several decades old crummy dorms in Jerusalem.

Anyway, if anyone who reads this blog has any ideas or suggestions to share, I would be most grateful!

And…here is a picture from a recent walk, completely unrelated to our electricity woes.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Our Digs: The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly

I had originally planned to systematically take pictures of our apartment here, and show the internet at large every room.  However, as so often happens, life intervened.  We moved in here in the wee hours of the morning when we arrived, and dropped all of our bags on the floor.  We haven't really been able to put all of our stuff away for a number of reasons, and I'm too lazy to try to move the clutter around from room to room to take pictures.  So, there will be a few pictures at the end of this post, but I may have to save comprehensive picture taking for another time, if ever.

Our apartment here is a one-bedroom apartment.  Probably the best thing I can say about it is is that it's nearly free (we pay a hefty security deposit and utilities, but no monthly rent).  I recognize that free rent is a pretty decent virtue for the place to have, but at the same time, it's far from being ideal.  Over the course of our marriage, we've lived in some places that were better, and some places that were worse.  Anyway, I'll take our current home piece by piece, and talk about the various pluses and minuses it has:

The Building
  • On campus, so ridiculously short commute.
  • Houses many of our colleagues, so it's easy to meet up with people.
  • Has a nice looking gym, and will have a mini market, salon, and pharmacy at some yet to be determined time in the future.
  • Has receptionists who speak English and are able to help out with certain basic errands and transactions.
  • The close proximity to our offices means you never feel like you're away from work.
  • Campus is pretty isolated from the downtown area.
  • I hope this doesn't happen, but there is serious potential for people to get tired of seeing each other all the time.
Our Apartment
  • Came equipped with some furniture, appliances, and housewares, so we don't have to buy everything.
  • Has hardwood floors and small area rugs (rather than wall-to-wall carpeting, which I think is an allergen trap).
  • Floor plan is relatively spacious.
  • Has a hotel-like feel to it, right down to the brown and beige decor (with wildly colorful prints on the wall to provide contrast….I guess)
  • Probably better suited for one person than for two.  Closet space and general storage space isn't really enough to meet our needs. Also, it came with only one desk, even though we're both employed, and will both need to get work done.
  • Electricity is sketchy.  In our first couple of days, one bulb in a ceiling light fixture shorted out all of the ceiling lights.  One of those times, the glass part of the bulb actually popped off.
  • Has only one bedroom.
  • Has lots of storage space.
  • Easy-to-clean tiled floor.
  • Much of the storage space is so high up that even I (at 5'11") have trouble reaching it.
Living Room
  • Has large window.
  • Fairly spacious.
  • Reasonably comfortable chair and loveseat.
  • No bookshelves (who would have ever predicted that professors and instructors might want those?)
  • Loveseat is not large enough to sprawl out on.
  • View from above mentioned large window is mostly of construction projects.
  • Appliances seem to be extremely modern, much more so than any I had in the US.  
  • Stove is of the flat-top variety, so I don't have to clean under burners (ugh).
  • Lots of cabinets.
  • Freezer is below the fridge, and is organized by drawers, so there is little chance of cold food falling on my feet when I open the door.
  • We have access to an electric dryer, as we have a combination washer/dryer machine.
  • Stove is operated by touch screen, so it is easy to turn burners on and off inadvertently.
  • Washer/dryer machine has a bewildering array of options, all of which are in Russian.  (A Russian-speaking wife of a colleague kindly came to our apartment to explain them all to me).
  • While we technically do have a dryer, I'm not convinced that it saves much time over hanging our clothes on the drying rack.
  • Sink is extremely small.
  • Fairly spacious.
  • Has two nightstands with drawers (I've actually never had a nightstand with drawers, and I really like the one here!).
  • Has a padded headboard (I've never had a headboard, either).
  • Has a separate storage area, where our suitcases and various housekeeping supplies live.
  • Mattress feels like a rack of torture.
  • Closet space is not enough for two people's clothes.
  • Like in the entry way, some of the storage space is so high up that it is almost unusable.
  • We have hot water (and therefore hot showers) again after nearly two weeks of doing without.
  • Roomy medicine cabinet.
  • Bathtub has really high sides.  If I fall down and hurt my knee (which is unfortunately pretty likely at some point), I'm not sure how I'll get in and out.
  • Toilet bowl is evil.  I'll just leave it at that.
I've written enough that maybe it would have been worth it to move the clutter from room to room to take pictures.  Oh well!  Here are a few pictures:

Kitchen shot!  The magnets on the fridge came in the most recent box we received from our shipment.

The washer/dryer with the array of options in Russian.  The center knob is apparently reflective enough to take selfies.

Two of the wildly colorful prints.  Just to clarify, we did not choose these.

This wildly colorful print is of downtown Astana.  If you look closely at the left side of the print, you can see a crane, so it's pretty realistic.

This water pump is the latest addition to our household goods here.  The idea is that we can order large, heavy bottles of water, and then fit this pump over the top so we don't have to try to pour when it's really heavy.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Dark Bloom Challenge

Today's post will have very little to do with Kazakhstan.  Don't worry, though--I'm sure I'll have more (mis)adventures soon to write about.  Today's post has to do with BEADS which I think must be nearly as fun anyway.

While we were still in the United States, Andrew Thornton announced his Dark Bloom Challenge.  Andrew has created many of these fun challenges in the past.  In essence, he creates a limited number of kits which include a good number of beads in a certain color palette, finding(s), stringing material, and a mystery component.  The mystery component this time was a lovely purple polymer clay coin pendant, which you can see here.  Each participant can use as much or as little of the kit as they want, and then everyone who wants to shares their creations.

When Andrew announced this kit, I loved the fact that he included so much purple.  Also, I thought I could use a distraction from the stress of an international move.  This was true up to a point.  As anyone who has ever moved anywhere knows, almost everything takes longer than you think it will.  As a result, I wasn't able to put as much thought into the planning of my creation as I would have liked.  I'm very pleased with the end result, but I didn't incorporate as many beads from the kit as I would have liked.  When Andrew emailed me and the other participants about an "extension" for our projects, I thought I might be able to remedy that by creating a second piece.  I came up with an idea in my mind for a beautiful bracelet, which I was really excited to make.  But--wouldn't you know it--the beads from my own stash that I needed to complete it turned out to be in a box that hasn't arrived yet.  Interestingly, there seems to be very little correlation between shipping dates and arrival dates for my boxes.  We shipped over a two week period; the last box I shipped arrived yesterday, whereas the first one is apparently still traveling the world or chilling in the customs office.

I made a necklace for my creation.  I started by beading a length of spiral rope stitch using vintage purple and gray seed beads from my collection.  I then made a sort of two-hole beaded bead using peyote stitch to divide the beaded rope into two sections and create a u-shaped space to hang the polymer clay mystery component.  After than, I created a beaded bail for the mystery component.  Finally, I attached the clasp (which came from the kit), and embellished the beaded rope using small glass beads from the kit and some of my own seed beads.

Here are a couple of pictures.  I apologize that the picture quality isn't great.  The light box which I would normally use to take pictures of my jewelry is currently in my childhood bedroom.  It's rather large, even when folded up, but I may try to fit it into a bag and bring it back here with me when I'm home next.  I took pictures on my windowsill, hoping that the natural light would help, but, well, you'll see...

My necklace!

Close-up of the mystery component polymer clay pendant
Update:  I didn't have this information yesterday due to the time difference between the US and Kazakhstan, but here are the links for the other participants:

Andrew Thornton, Laurel Ross, Alison Herrington, Geri Colgrove, Crystal Lombardo Farrell

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Taking Buses and Shopping in Town

On Sunday, a very kind colleague who is originally from Russia invited me and Scott to check out some of the shopping around town with her.  It was great--we went to two malls and a bazaar.  Plus, we took our first buses that weren't provided by the university.  Here, the drivers just drive--they don't take money or give out tickets.  When you get on the bus, you sit down (or go find something to hold on to), and someone comes around to collect your money and give you a ticket.  That person can even give back change, at least to a certain point.

I didn't take too many pictures because I was afraid the locals might think I was strange (I say that as if that's the only reason the locals might think I'm strange--ha!), but I will post a few at the end.

We headed out first in the direction of Artyum Bazaar, in the old part of Astana.  The bus ride there was longish and hot, so instead of going to the bazaar first, we went inside a small mall to cool off, eat ice cream, and see what sorts of stores they had.  It was a nice mall, complete with a supermarket.  Probably because of its proximity to the bazaar, it was surrounded by booths, including booths with really delicious smelling food!  I'll probably try my luck eating there at some point, but that sort of food might not be the best thing to have at the beginning of my stay here.

After that, we crossed the street to Artyum Bazaar, which is an indoor, multi-floor bazaar.  The first floor had mostly fruits and vegetables.  I'll have to go back and buy more because they mostly looked much better than what I've seen in the supermarkets.

I don't remember if we saw every floor or not, but at least some of the upper floors had mostly housewares.  The upper floors were very well organized, with each store being assigned a number and signs pointing visitors in the direction of different number blocks.  A major victory there was getting a second key made for our apartment.  Even though there are two of us, our apartment management gave us only one key to share, and told us to get a second one made somewhere.  Our colleague translated the transaction for us, and now we don't have to share a key anymore!

Another useful thing we got there was a dish drainer rack.  Our kitchen has a set up I've never seen before anywhere else--a small sink next to an elevated, flat surface with a drain.  I had hoped that we might not need a separate dish drainer rack, but we really did--we had been stacking the dishes on top of each other on that flat surface, and they weren't getting dry.

After the bazaar, we went to a local mall called Kerouen (spelling here is pretty approximate).  It was fancier than the first mall we went to.  It even had some American brand stores, like Reebok.  Our main purpose in going there was to try out a French cafe in the food court.  It was very good--we bought three pastries to split and some coffee and tea.  The food court also had a Turkish restaurant, an Indian restaurant, at least one Japanese restaurant, and a KFC (which I have no interest in trying!).  The bottom floor of this mall had a very nice grocery and housewares store--I even found a specialty coat hanger for organizing scarves.  I had been regretting not bringing the one I was using in the US--it probably sounds silly, but I've found it very useful.

It was a fun and useful afternoon.  Maybe Scott and I will feel more comfortable taking the buses by ourselves when we feel like exploring more.

First floor of Artyum Bazaar

On one of the upper floors of Artyum Bazaar

Food court in Kerouen Mall

Bayterekh Tower, as seen near Kerouen Mall

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Food Shopping in Astana, So Far

As people who know me are very much aware, my life revolves around eating.  Every time we move anywhere, restocking the kitchen is a priority for me.  With our move over here, the business of restocking was both more pressing (we couldn't move with large quantities of nonperishable foods or most of our kitchen wares) and more difficult (we moved to a completely new place where we don't speak the language or know our way around).

Maybe about 12 hours after our arrival in Astana, a couple of kind university TA's arranged for us and some other new arrivals to be taken shopping.  On that trip, we all exchanged money, got cell phones (or SIM cards for the phones we brought from home), and went grocery shopping.  The grocery trip was a great start, but the van we all rode in was close to capacity even before the shopping trip.  I think we all maximized the space available, but for us, at least, the provisions we bought didn't last too long.  There were some other problems, having to do with available kitchen wares, too.  For instance, I bought pasta and realized after the fact that I had nothing to strain it with.

It didn't take too long for me to start worrying about our food situation.  We had been told that one of the dorm buildings had a small store, so we went to check it out.  It had mostly junk food, but it did have some important things like bottled water and milk.

The next thing that happened was that someone mentioned offhand that you could order groceries over the internet.  We asked around, and ultimately placed an order with a company called Astykzhan.  Since we don't speak Russian, we used Google Chrome and had it translate the pages.  I was prepared for something to go wrong, but it actually worked pretty well.  We sprung for rush delivery the first time (both to see if it would work and because we were pretty short of food in the apartment), and the delivery man arrived within the four hour time frame that was promised.  We paid cash at the door.  The main problems were lack of selection for certain items, inability to see produce before buying, and having to buy many items by the kilo.  (I'm curious if the two of us can get through a kilo of cheese before it spoils!).  On the whole, though, it was a useful service, and one that we will probably use a lot, especially in the winter.

Today, we tried another venue for food shopping.  The university runs a weekly bus to a large store called Metro, and we decided to go today.  I think the best way to describe it is something like a mix between Costco and maybe a Target.  Size wise, it more closely resembled a Costco, but you could buy most items in non-bulk sizes, like at a Target.  Interestingly, we had to get a membership card there, but it was free.  I'm guessing that its purpose is to track what people are buying, much like club cards in the US.  Shopping there took a good chunk out of the day, so I don't want to go every week, but it'll be particularly useful in the beginning.  We were able to get some necessary housewares (coat hangers, a power strip, plastic food containers, etc), in addition to some groceries. 

We're hoping to explore more soon and go to smaller stores and bazaars for some of our food, but between trying to settle in and preparing for classes, we haven't had the chance just yet.  Since this is a long term stay, though, I'm sure we'll get around to it in time.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

And More Pictures!

We got a city bus tour as part of our orientation yesterday.  It will take me quite a lot of time to remember what is what, but I'll share some more pictures with fairly minimal information.  My initial impressions of Astana are that it is a very clean city (I didn't see any litter anywhere), and that it's still very much a work in progress (lots and lots of construction).

This is from a new park.

Palace of Peace and Reconciliation

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

A Picture Post!

I'm going to post a few pictures today, with the caveat that I didn't really know what I was photographing a good part of the time.  Yesterday brought some frustrations, namely internet problems, our ceiling lights shorting out twice, and a lack of hot water for possibly the next couple of weeks.  However, it also brought a picnic, and with that, a chance to leave campus.  A couple of these were taken at the park where the picnic was held, a few from the bus, and one from our apartment window.

Synagogue, as photographed from the park

I was interested in getting the flower displays here, but there is an awful lot of bus in the way.

View from our apartment window.  Notice all the construction going on.

Sundial at park

Monday, August 4, 2014

Things We've Accomplished in Kazakhstan So Far

I'm happy to report that we arrived in Kazakhstan safely!  Our eight(!) checked items even arrived with us.  The trip over was eventful in its own way, and may get its own post in time, but not today.  We're feeling fairly lost and disoriented right now, living in a country we've never visited with a language we don't speak, so I wanted to focus on the positive and write about some of the things we've accomplished here so far.

1.  Changed Money:  Math has never been my strong point, so I'm still struggling to convert tenge into dollars in my mind.

2.  Got our cell phones more or less in working order:  This was a multi-step process.  We decided to use the phones we'd been using in the US after we terminated our Verizon contract.  The Verizon employee who "helped" me terminate the contract told me the phones were already unlocked, and fortunately, that turned out to be true.  We were taken yesterday to get SIM cards put in.  We had to be told how to make calls--we needed to dial a prefix before the number, which, of course, we didn't know.  Then today, a very kind university employee helped us set up the data on our phones.  All that's left is figuring out voicemail!

3.  Bought some very basic supplies for our apartment:  These are truly basic, but worth something.  Our apartment comes equipped, but only on a pretty basic level.  For instance, I bought pasta yesterday, thinking that was a good staple food, only to realize today that I have nothing to strain it with.  There will be a lot of scrambled eggs and cheese omelets in our future until our kitchen is more up to par.

4.  Ordered a large bottle of water for the apartment:  We don't want to have to tote bottled water around every day.  Apparently, you can order a large bottle of water and then have it refilled on an as needed basis.

5.  Got university ID's:  A good thing to have.

6.  Turned in most of our reimbursement paperwork:  We were given a shipping allowance, but had to pay the money up front, to be reimbursed later.  This turned out to be a sizable amount of money, and I'll be happy to get it back (that might merit its own celebratory post later on).

7.  Picked up some of the boxes we shipped over here:  The good news is that some of our boxes have already arrived.  The bad news is that we haven't even been able to completely unpack our suitcases due to a lack of coat hangers in the apartment, so the addition of more stuff is mostly creating clutter and chaos right now.

So that's where we are so far!   I hope to post pictures of something sometime soon.  Maybe I can post some apartment pictures if I can shuffle some of the suitcases and boxes around.