Monday, 30 March 2009

And the fabulous stuff

I have just read my blog, and realised that I have had a particularly negative spell, so it is about time that I jollied it up with some happier news. 

Last Thursday was possibly one of my favourite days in Almaty to date. 

We woke to the most crystal clear morning. The mountains were glistening in the early morning sun. The kids went to school. The nanny arrived 30 minutes early and at 9am I jumped in the car and went to pick up my friend. By 9.15 we were on the road to Chimbalak, chatting happily away. 

Got to Chim at 9.35, out of the car, carried our gear up to the top, ready to go at 9.45. Watched the avalanche control team (complete with medical officer and two sniffer dogs) set out on foot up the chair lift to hike the mountain and try and bring down the snow that the previous day's helicopter with dynamite had failed to move. 

The chair lift was not open for paying customers until 10 and some of the russians in the queue were finding this very frustrating. "Let us on, the snow is going to melt," pleaded one particularly impatient skier to the lovely lift operating ladies. 

My friend A and I finally got up the hill and enjoyed uninterrupted skiing in brilliant sunshine and warm mountain air for five hours. She still has the photos on her camera and when I get them I will post them. Absolutely cracking day. 

The law of three becomes the law of five

As previously mentioned on this blog, I have a theory that in certain places - places where things perhaps might not work as well as you might think they possibly could, which also tend to be less developed places - that there are always three things broken and/or awaiting repair in our house. It is almost impossible to break this cycle - as soon as one toilet is fixed, the sink starts to drip; you get the tap fixed and the front door stops shutting; the front door is repaired and your car breaks down, meanwhile the DVD player has gone on strike, then the food processor goes on the blip, the singing kettle blows its whistler into the bin and you accidentally throw it away... all these things have happened to me.

I am beginning to think that Kazakhstan may be a special place in more ways than the obvious. 

Could it be that Kazakhstan is the land of ... wait for it... five? 

Not being a religious person I, nonetheless, pray that this theory is rapidly disproved. 

But let me look at the recent facts: 

Having bought 200 pounds worth of toner for my printer to ensure supplies for some time, printer refuses to use the Cyan tank. Everything coming out pink. Cannot fix. 
Electric gates stop working (having half-opened but not quite wide enough for me to drive out to a meeting at school for which I was already cutting it fine, but ensuring that I was 15 minutes late by the time I had got the system onto manual) - htese have now been fixed, it took five grown men two hours. 
Get back from school and notice that the freezer has defrosted itself - or perhaps the door was left open, I am not sure. Then find that the fridge is also warm - broken. Have to cook several tonnes of meat before it goes off. 
DVD player refusing to play all but the 10-pack Tom & Jerry DVD set - how much more of that sound track can I stand? 
Working my way through 7th weekend of no husband (permanently in office) but with school friend staying over, so plenty of cooking etc, notice the sound of running water. Check bathroom for tap left running by children - no - then step in pool of cold greasy water streaming out of dish washer. Nine days and counting - time to fetch the marigolds! 
Computer loses all inbox messages (more than 5000 messages) - this is unfixable. 
Hand held blender whizzy bit falls out every time I use it. Burning my fingers to stuff it back in fifteen times to fully blend soups. 
Computer brain haemorrages and does its weird thing. 
Baby presses button on external security door which once again crashes down onto mosquito net and fuses the mechanism making it impossible to open or close mozzie door (we need to replace hinge mozzie net with sliding door). 

And so it goes on... 

The continuing love affair between Gail and her Mac

Oh, where to begin. What sin did I commit in a past life to deserve such technological trials now? Have I not suffered enough since in the two years since I bought my new macbook? Obviously not. 

On Friday, my lap top closed its web browser and told me that an unexpected error had occurred. This has happened before (it is not true that Macs do not crash - they do). When I re-opened the programme, I noticed that my normal home page did not open, it went straight to an Apple default page. And then I noticed that none of my book marks were in place. Then I closed that window and noticed that nothing remained on my desk top. And then, breathing faster than usual, I discovered that in fact, my computer had re-set itself to its factory settings. 

This followed having spent three hours on the line to an Apple support guy called Ryan in Gateshead trying to sort out where all of the messages in my inbox had disappeared to on Thursday night and this was after a depressing internet chat with a lady called Carmen T on the apple website which went like this:

0.Hi, my name is Carmen T.. Welcome to Apple!

0.Gail Mowat: Hi there. I have a big problem with my mails. They have all gone away.

0.Carmen T.: Hello Gail

0.Carmen T.: are the mails gone from mobileme or your mac mail application

0.Gail Mowat: Mail application. I am not sure about the Mobile me since I did not get round to renewing my susbscrioption. Maybe you have cut me ff and they have gone?

0.Gail Mowat: I think it lapsed on march 9

0.Carmen T.: Gail the account gailmowat is inactive.

0.Carmen T.: that account didnt got renewed

0.Carmen T.: the account is closed

0.Carmen T.: therefore the mails are gone

0.Gail Mowat: Forever?

0.Carmen T.: Before the accounts get closed we recommend to our customers to backup all data

0.Gail Mowat: Noone told me that if I did not renew I woudl lose 3 years of emails?

0.Carmen T.: the mails are gone forever

When this did not help me to find them I called Apple in the UK again. After a long chat, he got me to delete a load of files, and then the brain haemmorage happened. 

So then I called them back and the man told me to take my computer to a shop to get it fixed. So I explained that I bought the machine in the UK, but then I moved to Korea where the hard drive failed and was replaced, but now I live in Kazakhstan where I would not be able to rely on the language or technical skills of the people in the shop, so I needed to try and sort it out over the phone. These kind of things take so long to sort out. 

I call them on Skype because being on the phone for the amount of time it takes to fix problems would probably cost as much as a new computer. But then whenever I have to restart the system to see if their suggested changes have worked, I am cut off from the advisor. And because of their system (and despite the fact that they all sit in the same office) you are never allowed to go back to the same person you spoke to before to finish sorting it out. It is like living in catch 22. 

I feel like my mother (as her children we all feel we have the right to call her a techno-spaz) who, after months of problems with her home PC finally took it to the shop where they discovered that she was running it with well over 100 viruses also working away! 

Husband says I can do the research and buy a new system this summer. Hurrah! The kids can have the ill mac, and I will get a new one. But should I stay maccie or go back to windows? I don't  know...

Wednesday, 25 March 2009

Keeping the faith with falcons

On our way to the Charyn Canyon recently, we stopped off at a "museum" in the middle of the steppe to see some eagles. I use the inverted commas for the word because if you compared this to the world's great museums, for example, the National History or the Victoria and Albert museums in London, you would be very hard pressed to justify its use. A more appropriate term might be hovel. Or I suppose if you were feeling kind, you might consider the word shack.

The centre is a place for tourists to view the mighty Kazakh eagles up close, look at some mangy dogs in cages along with their own excrement, pay some money and visit a rather dusty room of curiosities including things like a plastic key ring from London - it is quality stuff. 

We were traveling with a group of families from Almaty on our day trip, and it was striking how people's approaches to the museum differed. Having been hoodwinked into visiting a few of these educational establishments in my time (most notably a particularly horrific turtle and giant bat "museum" in Bali), my natural response to men in silly suits and scruffy signposts alluding to insightful premises is to drive on by.

But some of our party were really keen to get up and close to the birds so in we drove. Baktiyar, our driver, raised an eyebrow, parked the car and got out for a cigarette, chatting to two men in silly suits who appeared at the gates. They had most likely switched off the satellite TV, probably watching premier league football, thrown their Linkin Park T-shirts to the ground and jumped into their weird velvet "falconry" suits in time to magically appear as five expensive landcruiser type cars pulled in, their days wages now assured.

We all trooped in, past a small hawk tied by the leg with a length of fraying twine to a wooden pole. Further in, past the mini-Yurt tent (closed that day, but apparently you can have authentic Kazakh tea there sometimes), we found three large eagles tethered in the same way. One of them was making repeated and apparently distressed cries which noone seemed to  notice. The kids mooched about exploring until one of the men in the suits told them not to wander off in case they were attacked by a dog. 

Then there was a 10 minute photo call for adults to hold an eagle while wearing a fur hat and get their photo taken. This was followed by a flight display. And this was where I really lost faith! 

Having recently been privileged enough to watch one of these mighty birds flying wild in the mountains near Almaty, hear it cry into the wind as it circled, rose and cruised in the thermal air, seeing these poor birds being treated as they were was just pathetic. The flight display consisted of the two men in suits wandering off through a hedge with the whole crowd of us following. Then all 21 of us stood in a line next to a drainage ditch while the men went and stood about 20 metres apart. One held the eagle, the other a small piece of meat. 
The 21 people all had their cameras trained on the bird. Suddenly it was released and in probably less than one second it flew the 20 metres across to the other guy and ate the meat. And that was the flight display. 

We picked our way back through the litter strewn wasteland to the museum, all comparing notes on whether we thought we had "got the shot"! Miraculously, with my crappy camera, I had pressed the button just before they released the bird, and by the time it clicked into action, I did indeed manage to capture the "majesty of flight"! ha ha. 

Before we left it was time to visit the dusty room of artefacts (which took approimately 45 seconds) then pay up our 20 dollars per family, and get back in the cars. 

Kazakhstan's tourism industry has a long way to go!

Friday, 20 March 2009

Unusual blockages

Having children definitely brings you into a world of strange situations. 

Today I was trying to print a recipe from the Children's BBC website for Sasha. We had plugged in the printer, loaded the paper, pressed to print and it whirled away. But nothing came out and then it told us there was no paper in the feeder. 

I reloaded the paper, pressed print again and the same thing happened. Strange. Looking to the feeder section, I could see these little grabby tooth type things sticking out which looked like part of the mechanism of the printer for picking up the paper and dragging it into the machine. I could see these teeth moving as the machine tried to take the paper so I put some paper between them to see if it would take it. 

Imagine my surprise when I discovered that the printer's paper loading teeth were in fact the plastic legs of a small toy antelope that had somehow worked its way into the printer. Ha ha. 

Thursday, 19 March 2009

World's 4th Worst Place to Work

So according to Business Week and a poor survey from some HR "specialists", we are living in the 4th worst place to work ... in the world! ha ha ha. 

We all mutter and grumble about life in Almaty from time to time, sure. But then again, who has not heard a Brit moaning about the National Health Service, or the bus services, or the cost of rail travel, or the state of the airports in the UK, or road rage attacks? Living life to the max is all about finding the best way to make life in good wherever you are in the world - it could be Thames Ditton or Timbuktu - there are some good things and some bad. 

Articles like this just mean that life gets better for those people who work for companies whose pay structure is related to perceived risk. 

The ridiculous thing about this article is that the author is so obviously jealous of people living in hardship postings and getting paid more than him! He is probably sitting in his cushty office in Hong Kong wishing he had the balls to live somewhere that he might get a chance of any hardship allowance, and wishing that the cost of living in Hong Kong wasn't so high! ha ha. 

Monday, 16 March 2009

Errant staff...

Our missing nanny has re-appeared. After one day of absence with no call, we phoned her daughter Gulya who did not know where she was and was surprised to hear that she had not come to work. Then we called her sister with whom she often stays the night - she also had no idea. So we called Gulya again who said she would go after work and try and find her and make sure she was OK. 

It was our daughter's birthday that day, so I was busy making our eight-year-old's request tea of macaroni cheese followed by apple and raspberry pie with cream. Then we took the new bike for a spin down the lane, and when we got back, Baktiyar the driver said he had called Gulya again and she was on her way to her mum's house to find out what was going on. This is after two days and I was beginning to think that perhaps she had had an accident. 

Then half way through the macaroni cheese we got a call to say that Allia would be coming to work the next day. 

So obviously she had not been very ill, or had a bad accident. 

Well, she came in the next day with Gulya in extremely sheepish fashion. Our soon-to-be 50 years old nanny had disgraced herself. Following Women's Day on March 8, she had been visited by an old school friend and some other people who had persuaded her to have, as the Scot's would put it, a wee dram.  And then another wee dram. And the following day she thought she was having kidney failure and was in a terrible state. As a muslim she does not normally drink at all, and frankly, she looked pretty rough as she re-appeared. 

Her daughter, sister and everyone was thoroughly fed up with her.  And then she told me what had happened, and I have to admit, if she hadn't looked so pathetically ill, I would have been almost laughing at the ridiculousness of it all. As it was I was still pissed off with her for causing us all worry, causing Gulya inconvenience and causing me total disruption of two days of plans. If it wasn't nearly the end of the ski season, I would have possibly sacked her on the spot, but I don't have anyone lined up to take over from her. And she looked so genuinely repentent and sorry for being such an idiot, promising that nothing would ever happen like this again and begging for forgiveness, that I didn't.

I did, however, ask our Saturday lady who comes to look after Connie if we are heading up to the slopes, if she was interested in working for us. She isn't as she has other days with other people and I think likes the variety (or we don't pay enough, not sure). But she has friends, and lots of our mates' nannies have friends so I suppose it would be easy to replace her. 

My husband thinks I am mad not to have given her the boot. As far as he is concerned she has totally written herself out of the script. But our nanny in Thailand had to odd bad time too (especially around bank holiday weekends when she just could not be arsed to come in afterwards), but overall was a good person and we stuck with her. I am not sure. I think we will give her one last chance, and if she does anything else totally stupid then I will let her go. 

She has come in today (Monday) again talking about how totally sorry she is, and that the whole weekend she got grief from her family for being such a moron. She has offered to work the three day spring bank holiday to make up for her time she unofficially took off, which I am happy to take since the kids have Monday off school and we will try to catch the last runs at Chimbulak before the snow melts. 

Blooming nora!

Sunday, 15 March 2009

Packing list for day out

Today husband was once again in the office, so Mighty L and I decided to go back to Akbulak ski resort with some other friends. I had already agreed to go, and thought that B and Sasha could ski the baby slope with our friends' learner-skier son, I could hang around the bottom with Connie and a sledge, and idle the day away in the fresh air. Then Mighty L decided to come too, and so we gathered our kit and kids (reminds me of kith and kin..) and set off. 

It was only when we were packing up at the end of the day, and the storage capacity of our large car was being tested, that I decided to make a list of everything we had had to take with us. Nothing was unused! 

So, for one woman, two children (girls) and a toddler (also girl) for four hours only, we had to pack 46 items as listed below: 

3 pairs skis
3 pairs poles
3 pairs gloves
2 balaclavas
1 neck warmer
2 helmets
2 pairs goggles
1 pair sunglasses
1 hat
3 pairs gloves
3 jackets
3 pairs salopettes
1 baby snow suit
1 pair adult snow shoes
1 pair baby snow boots
1 camera
1 baby bottle with milk
1 small box dried apricots and biscuits
1 box apple juice
1 pack wipes
3 nappies (should have taken nappy sack, many poos!)
1 baby back pack
1 small pushchair (if baby not in it, very good carrying device for all the other clobber)
1 sit on sledge
4 bum sledges
3 pairs ski boots

And if you count each pair of things as two items (since you cannot ski with only one ski boot so you have to remember to bring both!) it comes to 86 items packed for our excursion! Bloody hell! And then remembered on the way back! 

And that was just for me. The Mighty L had all her own clobber! 

It was a really good day though. 

Thursday, 12 March 2009

Our local canyon

Just 200kms from Almaty is a "mini" Grand Canyon. Called the Charyn Canyon, this fab feature apparently stretches for 80kms across the steppe and on Sunday myself, the girls and five other carloads all set off to explore the first kilometer of it inside the national park. 

As a first trip, this was a good fact finding mission and confirmed that the canyon is a pretty impressive place to visit, easy to find and will definitely be amazing to camp in during the summer. 

Come back Allia - the snow is melting!

It snowed all of the last long weekend, and Tuesday was a stunning morning of clear skies, the glorious mountains running majestically along the side of Almaty, a magnificent back drop to all our errands and movements. From the city you could even see the chair lift lines running up with hill at Chimbulak, the ski resort. 

On Tuesday I had lots to do. Bike shopping, groceries, trips to the bank (I finally have my own cash card after only 7 months of having to ask husband for cash as and when required) and so, despite numerous calls and texts from friends up the hill telling me how fabulous the snow was, I didn't go. 

On Wednesday I packed my napsack, put on my ski long johns and was ready to leave as soon as the nanny arrived. But 9 o'clock came and went and no sign. And she didn't turn up. Couldn't be contacted by phone. Did not call. Strange. 

All day long people called me from the slopes telling me how perfect the conditions were. Meanwhile, down in town, Connie and I made a chicken casserole and felt quite bored. 

And today again she is missing, so we have called Gulya, her daughter, who also doesn't know what has happened to her. A mystery. I hope she is OK, and that she comes back tomorrow so that I will not miss the rest of the ski season thru lack of nanny care. The temperatures are rising and every day missed is a day lost - agh! 

Birthday surprise

Our eldest daughter is eight today. It feels like more than eight years since she was born in Brazil, 5 countries ago - blimey!

We bought her a new bike, super snazzy with gears and everything. I visited several shops to obtain said bike. The first place, Limpopo, does not sell bikes until April. The second place is called Robinson and had been recommended as an outdoorsy type of place. It is a bizarre fishing shop stacked full of rods and nets, and bizarrely fronted with two full size sets of armour which you have to pass to get in. The armour stands just in front of a scuba diving section, so you feel as if you are walking into some kooky S&M store! They don't sell bikes, but I did discover that I could buy a smaller tent than the one I found on the internet in the UK the other day for only four times its European price - I must bear that in mind for later...

At the next shop they had a choice of one new (but scratched) bike, coming in at an extortionate 35000 tenge (I think that is a lot for a kids bike but perhaps I am not in touch with the cost of these things), and since there was no choice and it was scratched, I did not buy it. Moving on, I tried Dinamo which has the atmosphere of a failing government-run department store. It has a very patchy and rather sad selection of things to buy - lots of boxing gloves, a smattering of chinese-made ice skates, and some dance wear. They had two bikes of the kind that might be donated to an orphanage and had obviously been manufactured in about 1980. And one gleaming blue and white number which was also around the 40000 tenge mark. 

Finally I tried Extreme sports near our house which is a dark little place selling some new and some used ski and snow board gear. It smells of sweaty shoes and the two young men who run it obviously only wash when they start to really smell, but they were nice and helpful and had four bikes of the right size to choose from.  So I bought one, and this morning Beatriz was presented with her bike which is the perfect size and has a speedometer on the handlebars and she was completely delighted. Job done!

She even managed to look surprised, despite her younger sisters big mouth efforts after swimming the other day:

"Bia, you know why Mummy hasn't bought you your present yet?"
"No, why?"
"Because they didn't have any bikes for sale!"

Well done Big Mouth. I called Sasha to me, and explained that she might have just blown any surprise for the birthday girl. 
"Mmm," she said, "Perhaps she will forget?" she hopefully suggested. 

Tuesday, 10 March 2009

Oasis of Englishness

Our new school is so embryonic. Everything is being done for the first time and in many ways it is still finding its feet. 

Our very british headmaster (who has never worked in a foreign environment before) is still gamely making every effort to ensure that Haileybury Almaty is an Oasis of Englishness in Kazakhstan, despite the totally blank looks he receives from local parents. 

Our valentines evening was one step at bridging the cultural divide. The headmaster's weekly letter is another way of increasing communication between the school and its public. 

This week's letter was a classic, touching on lots of aspects of school life including our fledgling inter-school sporting competitions and British school uniform rules: 

Inter Schools Darts Competition

Last week witnessed the School’s first ‘home’ sporting fixture: the Swimming Gala. Next Wednesday will be the first ‘away’ sporting fixture, when the School’s Darts Coach, Aldiar Nurgaziev, takes the School Darts team to School Number: 94, on the corner of streets Satpaev and Gagarin, to take part in a competition. 

Plea to All Fathers

Several boys from Year 6 to Year 9 had to replace their ties this week because they were damaged. However, they could not put them on because they did not know how to tie a tie! Could all Fathers please check to make sure their son knows how to put on a tie! Thanks