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Friday, November 28, 2014

Partial Success, Partial Fail

It's been quite a week.  In the span of this week, we flew to the US and back, and then went directly back to work.  Good thing I adjust to new time zones so quickly!

Our original plan was to fly to Washington, DC and spend the night there.  The next morning, we were to take Amtrak to New York so Scott could be the best man in a wedding.  We planned to spend the night there, then take Amtrak back to DC the following morning so that Scott could present at a conference.  We would then have a day free of obligations in DC, then get back on a plane to Kazakhstan the following evening.  It was going to be a tight timeframe under the best of circumstances.  (Special note to any DC-area friends who may be reading this:  We would love to see you next time we're in the area without such a tight schedule encumbering us!).

Anyone who has traveled anywhere on a plane recently probably knows where I'm going with this.

Along with a colleague who was flying to the US for a conference, we headed to the Astana airport around 3 AM, after having pretty much stayed up that night.  Then, when it was close to time to board the flight, we got the dreaded announcement that our flight was cancelled.  No reason was given--it was just cancelled.

This set off hours of miserable circumstances, including having to collect stamped pieces of paper we had handed in upon going through passport control, standing in line for four hours waiting to see if we could be rebooked, and being accosted by a nutty stranger in the women's restroom (true story, by the way).  We were ultimately rebooked on an evening flight that was routed through Almaty initially.  That leg of the flight provided plenty of worries that are another story for another day.

We ultimately made it to the US more than 24 hours after we had originally planned, but couldn't make it to the wedding, which was so disappointing for us.  On the other hand, we did make it to the conference, which didn't seem like a sure thing while we were waiting in line for four hours to be rebooked.  So, at least we can claim a partial success.  I'm glad our next trip to the US will be longer than a few days so that airline shenanigans (probably) won't ruin too much.

Oh, and a public service announcement:  hold on to your boarding passes until you're completely done with your trip.  Our "rebooking" went so badly that not only was our trip back to Kazakhstan cancelled, but there was no record that we had actually traveled from Frankfurt to DC.  A very helpful agent assisted us in DC, but she needed the ticket numbers from our boarding passes as "proof" that we had flown from Frankfurt to DC in order to reissue us tickets for the way back.  There is a rather large part of me that wouldn't have been sorry to be have been stuck in DC for a while longer, but job responsibilities called, and in the end, it was probably better to get back here on schedule.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

At Least One Thing Is Easier Here

I've written about various difficulties living here, but I wanted to be fair and point out that at least one thing has proven to be easier in Kazakhstan than in the US:  replacing a watch battery!

I do remember a time when replacing a watch battery back home wasn't such a big deal.  I remember taking watches into drug stores and superstores and having the whole transaction completed in minutes, for not too much money.  At some point, the tide turned.  Were there some lawsuits over scratched watches that I just didn't know about at the time?  I remember my dismay the first time I tried to have a watch battery replaced in Target, only to be told that unless I purchased my watch there, they wouldn't help me.  I have had luck prying the backs off of some watches myself, but even then, I don't often find the correct replacement battery immediately.  I have had some success buying watch batteries from Amazon, but that means waiting for them to arrive, and I'm not very patient.

Anyway, when my watch battery died the other day, I thought replacing it might be easier here.  I've had watch batteries replaced in Syria and Turkey previously, and the process was quick and inexpensive.  I wrote in to a faculty forum to ask where I should go, and someone wrote in and recommended a shop in a local mall.  I'm glad I asked--this shop was small and tucked away near a set of restrooms.  I doubt I would have found it on my own.  Even with my extremely limited Russian,  I was able to communicate to the man working there what I needed.  About 3 minutes and 2000 tenge (or $11.05) later, I was on my way!  I am so happy when a simple errand turns out to be just that.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Another Post About Beads!

This post doesn't really have much to do with Kazakhstan, although it does feature a necklace that I completed in Kazakhstan.  As I believe I've mentioned elsewhere, it took quite a while for me to be reunited with all the beads I shipped over here.  I did bring the makings of a project to work on after this one because I knew I would want something to calm my nerves and keep me from fidgeting.  It took a while to complete this one because my job and various non-beady projects (like this blog!) keep me pretty busy, but here it is:

I have had those large, patterned rectangular beads in my stash for years, but it took me a long time to figure out how to use them.  I wanted to combine with with something else that looked bold, and eventually, I thought of a short strand of long, two-tone amethyst beads I purchased at a show years ago.  I ordinarily find stone chip beads difficult to work with, but in this case, I thought they would combine well with the somewhat irregular appearance of the long amethyst beads on the bottom strand of the necklace.  I made several beaded beads to complement the amethyst, some of which are two-holed beaded beads to keep the two strands of the necklace roughly parallel to each other.  I rounded this out with tiny Thai silver beads.

I actually finished this necklace once, but then had to take it apart and restring it because I accidentally made it too short the first time.  Oops.  I didn't want it to be a choker in the worst possible sense of the word!

I sometimes find it difficult to live someplace where new beads aren't readily accessible.  When I get an idea, I want to start working on it right away, not start sourcing some material.  On the other hand, though, maybe being away from obvious sources of new beads will help me to use some of the beads I've been hoarding for years and test out some of the ideas I've had in the back of my mind for a long time.  It'll be an interesting experiment.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

What Does "Adventure" Mean, Anyway?

We decided to have a few people over for dinner the other day.  I had fun thinking about the menu, but creating said menu is more challenging here than it would be back home.  There are certain ingredients we never see anywhere, and some that we see only occasionally.  Thus, while I had an idea of what I might make, the final menu decision had to wait until the day before when we went to the supermarket.

The week before, we finally broke down and bought a food processor.  I didn't necessarily think it was a top of the line model, but thought that it might open up some culinary possibilities for however long we live here.  Then, when we went to the supermarket, I found some very pretty fresh basil.  It became clear that pesto had to be part of the meal--I love it, and back home, I used to make it nearly ever week during the summer.

Our food processor turned out to be a multi-part apparatus.  It has a handle with a cord that could attach to (a) a whisk attachment, (b) a hand-held blender attachment, or ( c) a traditional food processor attachment.  I first tried the whisk attachment to cream some butter and sugar for a cake.  It moved so fast that it almost sent the bowl flying.  I decided to cream the butter and sugar with a spoon, but thought that maybe the whisk attachment would be useful in other contexts, like beating egg whites.

Then, once the cake was in the oven, it was time to tackle the pesto.  I put my basil, garlic, walnuts, olive oil, and some salt in the food processor.  Then, I attached the handle attachment, and pressed the on button. It created a nearly deafening noise that I couldn't escape because the machine wouldn't run without my physically holding the button down.  After a minute or so of destroying my hearing, I checked my pesto's progress.  And….practically nothing had happened!  The basil leaves looked somewhat squashed and bruised, but not at all pesto-like.  This was to say nothing of the garlic and walnuts, which were practically unscathed.

I thought maybe I had overloaded the food processor, so I divided my ingredients into two batches and tried processing half of them at a time.  Nothing.  I put all of them into a bowl, and tried using the hand-held blender attachment to process them.  Nothing, and it also turned out that the hand-held blender attachment refused to attach securely to the handle.

Cursing a blue streak, I finally resorted to using kitchen shears to cut up the basil into small pieces, and broke the walnuts into somewhat smaller pieces.  I related our tale of woe to our guests when I warned them about our very rustic pesto.  One of them asked, "Oh, did your food processor explode?"  It turned out that their first food processor here did, shooting a flame into the air in the process.  So, maybe I should count myself as lucky that my food processor did nothing more than (severely) irritate me.

I was thinking about this experience, though, and in a way, I think it's emblematic of our larger experience here.  The word "adventure" comes up a lot in relation to what Scott and I are doing here.  I had always thought of adventure as having a positive connotation, and to be fair, we have had a lot of positive experiences that could be counted as adventure.  However, for every time something really cool and photo-worthy happens, there are many more instances of us just trying to live our lives and do our jobs in a country where we don't speak the language and often fail to anticipate the obstacles that magically appear in our paths.  If we manage to avoid disaster, we'll probably walk away from this experience with a sense of resourcefulness and a renewed appreciation for the relative ease of our lives back home.  In the meantime, though, there will be days when we long for the mundane.

Monday, November 3, 2014

R.I.P. Tom Magliozzi

Any other Car Talk fans reading this?  I was so sad to read this morning about Tom Magliozzi's death.

One of my colleagues and I were discussing this, and we concluded that one thing that was amazing about Car Talk was that people like us who aren't that interested in cars enjoyed listening to it and could follow what Tom and Ray were saying.

I have so many memories of Car Talk...listening to it while running errands with my family when I was a kid, sending away for their "Drive Now, Talk Later" bumper sticker when cell phones became popular, having it as a comforting constant when I moved around as an adult.

Tom, along with Ray, made the world a better place by helping people solve practical problems and bringing much-needed humor to what were sometimes very frustrating situations for the callers.

You can read Tom's obituary here and listen to some audio clips here.

Let's Talk About the Weather!

We've been having  very dense fog in Astana off and on for the past few days.  I wish I'd taken my camera when we were out and about on Sunday but, well, I didn't.  Here is a picture taken from our apartment window:

Compare it to this picture, taken from our apartment on a clear day:

Oh, yeah, and we had what I consider to be an unreasonable amount of snow last week.  I went to a Halloween party festooned with paper snowflakes, in an attempt to have costumes imitating life.  Fortunately, a good amount of it melted this week, but I realize that at a certain point, the snow will be here to stay for several months.  Shudder….

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Almaty, Part 4

We had almost a full day in Almaty that day because our train didn't leave for Astana until the early evening.  We decided to make that our museum day.  After a leisurely breakfast, we headed for the Central State Museum.

The Central State Museum had interesting collections of all sorts of stuff.  The exhibits started with fossils, and ended with relics from the fairly recent past.  Unfortunately, photography was not allowed.  Also unfortunately, there was very little English signage aside from "Don't touch, please!" so I had to fill in the gaps with my own imagination.

One of my favorite exhibits was the one with traditional dress and jewelry.  The jewelry tended to be large, heavy looking, and ornate.  There were what appeared to be rings with two shanks.  I loved the concept, although it seems that wearing one would somewhat limit hand motion.  I also enjoyed an exhibit of gifts given to President Nazarbayev by foreign dignitaries.  I was entertained to see that Yasser Arafat had included a keffiyeh as part of his gift on a visit.

We had the somewhat unfortunate luck of competing for viewing space with a loud group of teenagers who appeared to be at the museum as part of a school trip.  One of them decided to demonstrate his English proficiency by going up to one of our friends and unloading a string of swear words and a racial epithet.  I hope these were not words that were included in his school's English curriculum.

We had Chinese food for lunch, and then headed to the Museum of Kazakh Musical Instruments.  In addition to the obvious large collection of traditional instruments, there was a great exhibit with a large interactive screen where you could pick as few or as many instruments as you wanted to hear what they sounded like separately and together.

Museum of Kazakh Musical Instruments

We walked around Panfilov Park some more and looked at the WWII monument.

At that point, it was about time to think about heading to the train station.  We went to a bakery to buy some snacks to take with us, since nobody was so impressed with the dining car cuisine that they felt the need to eat it again.

Once we got to the train station, we noticed a lot of people selling large apples.  Our tour guide had told us about those the day before, so we were very curious.  Unfortunately, they only wanted to sell large buckets full.  While we were pondering the idea of hauling an awkward amount of large apples to Astana, our Russian teacher appeared!  It was fun to see her unexpectedly, and it also turned out that she wanted some apples.  She talked to the apple vendor for us and we ended up splitting a bucket of apples between her, our friends with whom we traveled, and us.

The train ride back wasn't terribly restful, but all of us felt that we slept better on the way back to Astana than we did on the trip down.  Maybe the trip to Almaty accustomed us to motion and odd noises while we were sleeping?  Before trying our luck actually sleeping, we played card games and battle ship.  I'm amazed that we managed not to lose any of the pegs from the battle ship game!

Our final impression was that Almaty was a much more livable city than Astana.  Part of this had to do with location, of course.  Our hotel in Almaty was fairly centrally located, and we were able to walk to cafes, restaurants, and sites.  We would probably enjoy Astana more if we lived downtown, rather than on an isolated compound.  The other issue, of course, is that Astana is still a young capital and a work in progress.  I've heard from people who have been here longer that Astana's amenities have increased over the years.  (Astana will never have mountains, however!).  Here are a couple final Almaty pictures:

My thoughts exactly!  Let's pretend that I captured the entire "y" at the end of Almaty, and did not capture a stranger who was also taking a photo.

A very elaborate doorway to a store with assorted imported stuff from France.

I remember the Hard Rock Cafe t-shirts my classmates used to wear in the '80's.  I had no idea the chain was in Almaty, too.  We did not go in.

An entertaining artful rendition of Astana which we saw in Almaty.  It seemed pretty inaccurate to us, aside form the Bayterek Tower.