Friday, 23 April 2010

Dodging bullets and red plastic flashing wands

I absolutely love that after the government has shut down Blogger in kazakhstan, little ole me has managed to download some software that avoids this. It gives me an enormous sense of self-satisfaction, but equally, unfortunately reminds me that big brother is out there, and that big bully powers that be could actually really mess with our lives if they so chose. And so I had better be careful about what I say.

One thing that we were discussing the other day was how do people who do jobs that everyone mostly hates, cope with it. My husband works in audit. These guys are not exactly the most loved creatures on earth, and he has certainly been on the end of some hate vibes in his time. But actually, businesses have to be audited for a reason, and he tries to make these things happen in the least painful way possible for his clients - that way they get more referred consultancy work as well, ha ha ha. I don't think of auditing as being nearly as bad as, say, traffic warden. Or awkward beaurocrat who refuses to help you through the red tape. Or the person at the airport who insists on charging you for being half a kilo over your weight allowance, or the lady who worked for ServisAir and who once actually caused me and my toddler to miss our flight because she was so darned awkward.

Which brings me onto our local constabulary here in Almaty. Life has dramatically improved for us foreigners who are forced to drive around with yellow license plates on our cars (thus quickly identifying us as fast payers of "fines"). Previously, there would be a traffic policeman stationed every 500 metres or so around the city, stopping cars at random and extracting "fines" from the drivers. They have the right here to stop you for no reason. They can then demand to see the numerous bits of paper that you are legally required to carry with you in your car at all times. Some of these have to be renewed every month. There are approximately five documents which you must be able to show, we have a kind of plastic multi-pocket folder in which to display these things.

Policemen tend to be rather disappointed if you produce all the documents and they are all correct. They will usually ask for some kind of "fine" anyway, as previously mentioned in my posts here and here, and you really have to brave it out not to pay a fine. If you have transgressed and you do not have the required documents, then you will be truly fined. This, it seems, is best paid on the spot, no questions asked, no receipt required. If you do not do this in cash, then they confiscate your documents entirely and you have to go and find your way around a police station and then probably pay a "fine" to someone there to get your documents back, as well as a "fine" for your traffic-related sin. All very onerous if you come from a place where the vast majority of policemen are not bent.

And so, in a rather roundabout way, I am about to get onto what I meant to say. In about August last year, the Mayor of Almaty decreed that the traffic police could not stand on the side of the road and flag people down. This dramatically improved my state of mind when driving. It was such a relief not to have some guy with a red flashing wand, pulling me over at every opportunity to pay "fines". Instead, said the Mayor, the police would only be able to patrol the streets in their cars.

Cue: about 1000 extra police cars on the roads - it must have been boom time for the car dealers and the paint shops. And since it is now less easy to make a living from being a traffic cop, the fines that are dished out from the patrol cars are much higher than previously expected by the guys on the streets. The hit rate is lower so the cost has gone up. What previously might have cost you 2000 tenge (approx 14 dollars) will now cost you 5000 (approx 30). But, of course, you have to pay less of them altogether. Does this make it better than before? Certainly yes, in terms of day to day hassle. In terms of monetary cost, probably not!

Anyway, as we drove along to our new golf club the other day, we noticed as usual that the traffic flow was erratic to say the least. Everyone driving as fast as they possibly can in between the speed cameras, and then dramatically slowing down every time a police car hones into view. The behaviour is that of school kids playing up a crap teacher - you know, the kinds of teachers who end up with things stuck to the backs of their jackets because they are so unaware of what is going on behind them in class?

And the police here wear these huge, outrageously large hats (I will try to take a surreptitious photo in the next few days to show you), which makes them first of all, extremely easy to spot from a distance if you happen to be scanning the side of the road for trouble, and secondly, all the more tragic.

And as we drove along we were ruminating on what would make you decide to get a job in a role where a) everyone hates you and b) noone cares that you are there, in fact, they wish you weren't and c) when you do interact with your public and they sound like they are treating you respectfully, underneath it all they are really probably hating your guts.

And, how sad is it for a country when its law enforcement officers cause this kind of diatribe? (Answer, in case you had not guessed: very sad indeed). More on this later....

Wednesday, 21 April 2010

Adaptation to life as six

For those readers who have popped over to BBB expecting an interesting anecdote, you had better come back in a couple of days. The last few have been too hectic for me to blog, and so I am once again writing things down more to remember them for my own benefit and because my memory is worse than shit right now, than to recount a wickedly hilarious tale, or solemn, thought-provoking idea. Sorry! Will try to become more of an interesting person again soon, but for the time being I am an over-tired new mum, adapting to life with a new baby and three other people around and also to being back in this strange corner of the world.

The baby is now seven weeks old. She slept last night for 11 hours. It is great that she seems pretty content with life, but is behaving so easily that both husband and I have at times been slightly worried that there is something wrong with her. She does cry if she is hungry and stuff, but most of the time she is just happy to be around, waggles her fingers and looks around (mainly to the right). The smiles have started, and I must say, are heart-meltingly cute, as are the gurgles and baby talk that accompanies them.

Our toddler is a dynamo – constant talking, constant movement and a worrying tendency towards control freak! Ha ha. She has always been pretty seriously into self preservation and has never liked to take risks which is a relief after our second child who is a total nutter and has no idea. Having the next one be so careful about everything is quite a contrast. However, since I am quite slap dash, having to deal with a little girl who screeches “It’s not right” incessantly if one thread of her cotton socks is not exactly aligned on her foot is quite a trial at times. Though when she insists on putting the lego away herself before she gets out another toy I do not complain! I am currently trying to persuade her to use the loo since I object to having to buy two sizes of nappy and frankly find it depressing to have a production-line set up for nappy changing with one small, one big waiting to have their arses wiped. The toddler is easily capable, but has developed a fear of falling into the bowl and is plain refusing to cooperate. She will occasionally go if in the presence of younger children that she wants to show off to, but as a favour to mum and dad she is not interested.

Older kids are back at school so the house is pretty quiet for the days. I am trying to be more organized and get supper prepared in advance, organize my shopping better, waste less food and generally run a tight ship. And I have finally started to deal with the numerous boxes of stored items that I never really properly unpacked when we moved to Kazakhstan and which are now mentally taunting me with their disorganized state. I have isolated these boxes in one room now, and next week, I will impose my will on them and throw away a ton of clutter. Hurrah!

It has been quite a mental adjustment coming back to the Stan, and re-entering expat life after such a long stint in the UK. I feel as though I am starting all over again. It is one thing having a few weeks away in the summer, but having been away for so long, and having settled into such a comfortable little corner of the world with the family for weeks on end, the Kaz world feels distinctly odd. This is probably because it is pretty, darned, freakishly odd! Things here work in their own special ways. 

I am already dreading the summer exodus of numerous people, followed by the autumn “friend-shopping” weeks. Lots of people will leave this year, there will be those we expect, those who have been keeping it secret and who suddenly up sticks and head off, and those whose circumstances suddenly change and have a mad panic to get out. I know my eldest daughter will be losing at least one very good friend, and possibly two. She does not know this yet. The second daughter will be bereft if one of her mates goes – they might, we don’t know yet. And I haven’t counted up yet, but  there are a couple of people who I suspect might be off, and it just doesn’t bear thinking about.

I keep promising to improve my Russian and it is slowly increasing in vocabulary and style since coming back (it is much worse than when I left). I have used my text book a couple of times while breastfeeding, but more often than not, I forget to bring it with me when I sit down to feed, and it sits and taunts me from the other side of the room. Our fantastic nanny is doing her best to get the toddler to respond in Russian as well, and is much better at talking out loud to narrate every action, but it will take time and the toddler is resisting at the moment. She has taken to using a “baby” voice for many communications which is a bad sign – she is pissed off at the lesser attention she gets because of the new baby, and also slightly annoyed that her nanny doesn’t understand her every word – the only person who does is me, and that is a pure function of time spent in her company for the last two years. 

The only way to create a "normal" life here will be if I can master Russian language, and so I am trying to start a Russian language "baby" group with a friend who is Russian and generally re-double my efforts at more than just "getting by" in the local lingo. Watch this space...

Thursday, 15 April 2010

Desperation Breeds Success or Big Beluga Sneaks Past Censors

The authorities here in Kazakhstan have decided that the best way to avoid people writing horrid things about their nasty, corrupt habits is to block the free flow of information by censoring what is published on the internet.

Imagine my dismay upon returning to Kazakhstan to find that my blog was blocked, and access to all other blogs using Blogger were also unavailable. I hoped for a few days that the people who were telling me this terrible news were just doing something stupid on their computers, but they were right. And good old Reuters has now added some more information about it here.

The reason for the censorship, I heard, was that some guy, who has already fled the country, was apparently uploading lots of incriminating and highly detailed information about the ruling family's finances onto the web, which did not cast the powers that be in a very favourable light. They did not like this. And as a result, approximately four million users of the internet in Kazakhstan have had their right to roam freely on the World Wide Web assaulted with a crude blocking mechanism.

I do not wish to find that my husband's visa is not renewed as a result of what I write on this blog, so I will not elaborate on some of the juicier rumours of corruption and dictatorship that I have heard since coming to live here. But it makes my blood boil that the authorities can do this. It is creepy to think that the government is snooping so openly about on the internet, and a crime against democracy that this action has been taken. Our internet speed is incredibly slow here, and the blooming servers here stop working abut 10 times a day anyway, so we already put up with a lot of crap just to be on line. When they start telling us what we can and can't look at on the web, it really wrankles (rankles? wrangles? What is that word anyway????).

So after a day of downloading various bits and bobs, I am now using a proxy server to open and edit my blog. I hope it continues to work. I must admit to a certain delight in having been able to get around this annoying blockage by myself. I think I may also even be able to download Dr Who as a result of my travails which would be utterly amazing, and will surely earn me a term's worth of hard work from my eldest daughter if I use an episode a week to encourage her scholarly efforts!

Saturday, 3 April 2010

The Beloved V Dub'ya

Last Easter Sunday we enjoyed a boozy lamb roast lunch with various friends. It was a fun fun day - lots of red wine, a huge Easter Egg hunt for the kids, and by the end of the day and the fourth or fifth bottle of claret it had become apparent that we 'needed' to buy ourselves a vintage camper van. Within a month, we had found and purchased said item, the era of our family having our own wheels in the UK was born as we took to the motorway at 50mph in the "Custard Cruiser" (of which I will post a picture when I have worked out how to disguise the reg plate).

And our first summer of love was fantastic - we cruised up to Scotland, over to Newcastle, ferried into Holland, Amsterdam, Belgium, Epernay, Paris, Brittany and home. The Custard Cruiser rocked! We loved it: camping, driving, going to the beach, putting our pop top up in pouring rain and making cheese on toast rescuing numerous wet British National Trust days out.

But VW Campers are surely fair weather friends! They do NOT like winter, or damp. They are especially not fond of warmish sea mists, spring drizzle, being stored in a barn without a de-humidifier.

Coming back in the dark, cold, damp month of January I went to get Custard from its storage point in deepest, darkest Dorset. It did not want to start. We fiddled about with WD40 oil spray, pushed the motor out of the shed into the sun light to try and dry the motor out. Eventually, jump started the motor off my Dad's car and he took it round the block, before driving it back to Bournemouth.

The van still rocks - this is for sure. When Custard is going, there is no more relaxing a vehicle to drive. You cannot drive too fast, you never get thrown around when cornering (because you can never take a corner too fast), it is comfortable and fun, with lots of space and storage for beachy items like spades, buckets, wind breaks and lots of other fab additions: golf clubs, ping pong sets, skateboards, roller blades, tarpaulins, dijon mustard (you never know when this will come in handy), spare wellies etc.

But it just doesn't always start these days. There is apparently a "knack" to it, according to my husband. This is a knack I have just not managed to pick up, and have instead become adept at bending over a nine-month pregnant bump and more recently, extremely tender tits, to clip the jump leads onto the battery and then jump the beast into life off another car. Our toddler now shrieks with excitement every time the camper starts, shouting "Custard started! Custard started!", then whooping with delight and performing a mini-victory dance while holding both thumbs up with a triumphal air!

one, two, three, four...

Let's face it, having four kids is a lot. I know some people even have more - my hat is off to them - but most people have less and if you are a one-er or a two-er, or even have stopped as a three-er then read on, because you will probably send your husband off for a vasectomy immediately. As a total newcomer to the four kids game, I am a total learner, just 30 days in. The difference between having two school-age kids and venturing into another one with our number three was child's play compared to going from three to four with the third still only just two.

It is actually like having two families - the rounds of meals and clothes washing is phenomenal and even worse, we are on two sizes of nappies - ugh! All to be coped with on a steady stream of broken night's sleep which  is not actually much to do with the new baby - she is a pretty good sleeper. But with other kids around, someone always wakes up at some point.

When the baby was 7 days old we did our first trip to a supermarket with all the kids and I spent the whole time counting them. Two trolleys: one with baby in car seat, one for food, one toddler in the trolley, oh no, she wants to get out and walk with her sisters, back in the trolley, one, two, three, four, one, two .... where is the toddler? I have parked the food trolley, where did I leave the trolley with the baby in it? One, two, three, four... back in the van, please girls. Quick! Quick!

We will soon be used to our enlarged size, the mass of children swarming around us wherever we go. And I expect that it won't be long before we are sitting on our balcony of an evening with a cold beer and remembering the crazy days of having a young family, worrying about what they are getting up to at university, or on holiday with their friends, and will be missing their noise, kookiness and general mayhem. I suppose I want to write it all down, because I know that these small details will be long-forgotten in the mists of time if I don't.

Friday, 2 April 2010


Considering that for the last ten years I have either been pregnant or breastfeeding, and we have had four children in that time, you might think that the addition of Number Four would present little difficulty. But it is amazing how little you remember between babies, and the long-term effect of preg-head and nappy-brain (both scientifically-proven results of hormonal fluctuations, don't you know) seems to be that in between children, you largely forget most of your skills in the child-rearing arena.

Take breastfeeding, for example. First time round we lived in Brazil and were the first of all our friends to have kids. There was no advice or support at all. We had the baby in hospital, had a lesson on bathing a new born, and were then sent home to our apartment to muddle along as best we could. Best we could resulted in some serious nipple damage and a fairly serious case of mastitis within two weeks of being at home. Not to mention total exhaustion and serious questioning of our decision to have children at all on my part.

This is now nine whole years and three children later and so I expected to simply have the baby, pop her carefully on the boob (using all my powers of motherly skill, and remembering all the crucial elements of breastfeeding which, if you make a mistake one time, can result in days of pain, tenderness and/or infection) and away I would go.

I am not sure if the left boob (which has taken the worst beating over time) is now so devoid of sensation for all the scar tissue that has built up, that I am unable to detect a bad latch resulting in the nip being sucked to within half a centimetre of being totally removed, or if it is just that it can take a while to get back into the swing of things.

Fortunately, this time, we have been in the UK. Not only does a midwife come and visit you at home more or less any time you want it when you get home for two weeks, but my mother is just up the road and has been helping me out. Also, there are legions of breast feeding advisers who will come and visit you to help you, and then phone and check your progress every day. The support is legendary, and absolutely amazing compared to most other places. Some girls I know here complain that the breast feeding lobby has become almost nazi in its desire not to let people put their babies on bottles. From my own point of view, I agree that breast feeding is the most healthy thing for you and your baby, so I want to do it first of all from a long-term health point of view. But more practically, I know that breastfeeding is definitely the safest and easiest way to feed your baby if you live in a place like Kazakhstan. If we want to go on trips as a family, or hike into the mountains, or go and stay in out of the way places which we will do once we finally get back to our home in the Stan, we will only be able to do that if I am feeding the baby naturally. There will be no facilities to keep things clean if I were to switch to bottles and we would be limited in what we could do. Also, the chances of the supermarkets stocking a reliable supply of formula are nil. Even with our toddler, when she was still having formula, she would regularly have to drink the wrong formula for her age and stage, since the correct type would be unavailable in all stores Almaty-wide.

And this thought has kept me going this time through the bleeding nipples and breast infection which once again has marked the first few days of a new family member. It is now four weeks since our baby arrived and I am still having issues with the left side. The will to succeed in this has been seriously tested, but with our visas now coming through to return to Kazakhstan, I will simply have to grit my teeth and keep going. Keep your fingers crossed for me that there is no return of the creeping redness that signifies the onset of mastitis, and that this darned left nip settles down and stops hurting all the time.