Discovering Africa


(After a two year blogging break, I have moved the band home to the United States, specifically to a neighborhood on Capitol Hill in Washington D.C. and started a new job based in DC where I support economic development, agricultural transformation and conserving the enviornment across Sub-Saharan Africa. Today, I send my first post from Kampala, Uganda).

In 1997, I was working as consultant at Price Waterhouse Coopers (PwC) in Washington D.C. in the government services practice.  I was assigned to the team that worked for the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) team and our job was to prepare “proposals,” for different USAID missions around the world that had put out “requests for assistance,” in sectors like Privatization, Micro Finance, and Water Sector Reform.  In the late 90s, USAID didn’t accept proposals by email, rather, proposals had to be delivered to the mission by mail to receive a time and date stamp that proved they met the deadline.  My job on one of these proposals for the USAID mission in Egypt was to “tailor” the resumes of our proposed staff to the requirements of the job.  Other team members wrote the technical proposal, explaining our approach to privatizing state owned assets in Egypt or the management plan for how PwC would insure quality oversight.  I also specialized in assembling these 200+ page books for final printing.  I was part of an elite group of young new employees who knew how to use the car-sized photocopying machines that could print double-sided and bind with a giant black plastic spiral–a huge step up from the bulky three-ring binder.   Today, the millennials play that role in the office knowing how to share Google calendars with staff inside and outside the firewall and can navigate the software to add a color printer when one of ours inevitably goes down.

When it was clear we weren’t going to make the deadline, the project manager offered me an opportunity of a lifetime.  “Amy, would you like to hand deliver the proposal to Cairo next Wednesday, the day before the deadline, we won’t finish early enough to send it DHL.”  Deliver a proposal I wondered, it sounded like delivering a pizza or a bag of Boston Chicken for that matter which had been my first paid job in high school.  I jumped at the chance to take this international flight and wondered where I would go after I made the delivery?  Should I take a cruise on the Nile, ride a camel around the pyramids, visit Luxor?  I realized this would be my one and only opportunity to travel internationally for work so I would have to run hard and fast. 

Having grown up in a decidedly upper-middle class family in Wheaton, Illinois, I am not sure where this scarcity mentality crept in or why I thought this would be my one and only international work experience.  Luckily, an older colleague sat me down and explained this would not be my one international flight, that there would be many many more.  I wasn’t sure she was right, but I suspended my disbelief, and delivered that pizza.

This morning, I am on my first work trip to Sub-Saharan Africa in what has been a two-decades long career in international development.  I reflect back on my concern that I would only take one international trip for work during my career. My colleague had been right.  I went on to spend seven years working for PwC, the UN, and USAID on financial sector reform in Bosnia, then became a career foreign service officer and spent three years working on agriculture and energy development in Pakistan, five years in Colombia on rural development, and most recently two years covering regional connectivity in Central Asia from Almaty, Kazakhstan.  I have become professionally fluent in Bosnian, Urdu, Spanish and Russian. My children were both born in a Colombian hospital. Fifty-some countries later, I am about to land in Entebbe, Uganda to spend a week working with colleagues and government representatives on national agriculture policies and then a week in Dakar, Senegal meeting the 100+ person team of USAID staff and contractors that work to reduce poverty by 20% in our target countries and to reduce the debilitating effects of malnutrition through our foreign assistance programs.  I guess you can never know, especially at age 24, how your career or life will unfold.

Getting assigned to a country in USAID is a bit like playing musical chairs.  I work in the area of economic growth and the environment, each year about fifty of the 250 of us, stand up from a proverbial seat, and everyone does a little professional jig, and then takes a new chair in one of the recently vacated seats.

I have been avoiding Africa my whole career.  I found a seat in Europe, South Asia, South America, and Central Asia, but never bid once on an assignment in Africa.  I have done advanced degrees in Human Rights and Democratization in South Eastern Europe and Public Policy in South Asia.  I have never taken a class on Africa.  In fact, only recently, have I started to read African memoirs like Trevor Noah’s, Born a Crime, Dayo Olopade’s Bright Continent and a novel by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Americanah.

Living as an expatriate in other countries I assumed I would stick out more as a white, blond, American woman in an African country than I would in the other places I have lived and worked.  While I did pass for a Slovenian in Bosnia, the Colombians, East-Asian Kazakhs, and South Asian Pakistanis all let me know within an hour of arrival that I couldn’t blend in and go by unnoticed.  Maybe I was intimidated by scale of the need in Africa.  We recently assessed which countries globally are most in need of food security assistance, and while Bangladesh and Haiti rank highly, more or less then next 18 are in sub-Saharan African.  Maybe I was kept away by some of the stereotypes about exposure to disease like Ebola, Yellow Fever, and HIV/AIDs that have crippled the continent.

Whatever the case, this plane is about to land in Entebbe, Uganda and I will spend my first week in Uganda with my boots on the ground.  As has been the case with every life experience I have lived, read, or studied, getting to know the reality and people first hand changes everything.

As I stood in line in Brussels, Belgium boarding this flight, I took in the passengers on the line.   Half the line was people who looked like me.  I don’t know if they were tourists, officials from international organizations, or researchers.  I am traveling with two female colleagues both in their mid-forties like me, and both who have also juggled heaven and earth to leave their three-and-four-year-old toddlers with a hodge podge of partners, nannies, and relatives needed for the global community of Jet Lagged Moms to be on the road for two weeks—my longest trip away from my cherubs. The other half looked like people I had seen before in DC—women getting their braids done on H street, young men in v-neck shirts and jeans carrying a heavy duffle bag of things they sell by the white house, older men in brightly colored ethnic shirts my like my African-American friends wear at Third Street Church of God during Black history month.

Before I land, here is my list of assumptions that I look forward to disproving over the next two weeks about life and work in Uganda and Senegal.

  1. I assume that on the continent, people won’t refer to Africa as a monolith, but will talk specifically about where they are from or the country or region in which they are working.
  2. I imagine it will be boiling hot and I will have packed all wrong.
  3. I imagine I will fall in love with the people we will meet on the field trips in rural Uganda and Senegal and return highly motivated to fight for every dollar of development assistance that is politically vulnerable these days in Washington.
  4. I wonder if I will drink beer out of a bucket like I once did on a safari in Zimbabwe.
  5. I will Skype with my kids every day
  6. I will read more reports and books during these two weeks than the rest of the year combined.
  7. I will learn the countries that constitute East and West Africa by heart (do you know them? Note to self, order wooden Montessori continent puzzles for the kids.)
  8. I will see many women wearing babies on their backs with multi-colored cloth.
  9. I will be more convinced than ever about the intersection of bio diversity, natural resource management, climate change and human development.
  10. I will spend a night dancing.

 

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Letters to My Children: Happy Halloween Zadie (15 months)

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Sweet sweet Zadie,

Last week, you turned 15-months-old on Halloween.  You dressed up as Princess Leia, in this adorable felt wig, that you really didn’t want to wear and traipsed around Almaty with your brother who pulled off a very scary rendition of Darth Vader.  Despite my best efforts to keep you from sugar, you grabbed pieces of wrapped candy whenever you had a chance, digging into Santi’s Darth Vader bucket with your fist, gnawing on a wrapped chewy candy until one of your eight teeth bit through.  The only viable distraction was breastmilk and so Princess Leia had a night time Latte while her peers continued to binge.
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As we walked down the one street allocated for tricker treating in Almaty, your tiny little pink shoes lit the way sparkling with each step, I can hardly wait until you to have shoes that both sparkle and turn into instant roller skates.  Can’t we all wear those?  Can’t we all also ride scooters?
I have been dying to sit down and make the time to write you because 14 was a big month.  You changed, you grew up, your personality, and character are starting to break through.  My recollection is that Santi really hit this independent streak at 18 months, just before you were born.  From about 10-14 months you started speaking, just in an adorable tone, and with carefully chosen words.  I have written to you before I hope, that your first three words were Kaboom, Tickle and Cookoo.  Mary captured you on one of the nine-or-ten month-“You Are My Sunshine” videos saying “kaboom.”  From such an early age, you used all three of these words correctly in context–when something fell, when you wanted to tickle yourself, and when you wanted to play peek-a-boo.  I love thinking about what this tells us about who you will become.
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Your early signs, were “more,” and “all done” in the eleventh month.  Truthfully, I didn’t work on sign language as hard as much as I wanted to because I was working, and you didn’t seem as interested.  Just like you wanted to walk before you crawled, you wanted to get to the real words, not just use signs, as fast as possible.  In the 13th month you became a rapid signer of “Thank You.”  You are still quick to use it which people mistake for you blowing kisses.  And speaking of kisses, it is just today, that I saw you actually pucker and blow a kiss, versus just press your face and mouth against my face.  Nothing is cuter than watching you learn to pucker.  You added, “sleep,” “eat,” “book,” and “hurt” to your list of signs and you use them all sparingly.  My two favorites are “sleep” and “hurt” because you tell me occasionally that you want to sleep, and you get that if you bite me when you feed, that it hurts.  Santi is very funny about this, because he too prefers to signs these words rather than talk. It is like he is speaking your language.
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In the 14th month, you started to get a hang of the “Where is your nose, eyes, ears, mouth, and head?” game in both Russian and English.  It blows my mind to imagine you and Santi growing up speaking Russian to each other as your first languages.  You will both be in Russian language pre-school together, surrounded by Russian speaking kids, and Russian speaking baby sitters.  I even wondered recently, for the first time, in the year that we have lived here, if one day we might all learn Kazakh, if we might turn our home from primarily Russian speaking one, into a primarily Kazakh speaking place when we are all working and learning in Russian.  Alas, I digress.  (It should be noted for the record that when Mary–your primary English teacher–went back to work in St. Louis, I stopped speaking Spanish to Santi and really made an effort to speak English to the two of you.)
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I really understood at 14 months that you were picking up Russian.  Your first nursery rhyme is, “Гуси, гуси, га, га, га; йест хотити, да, да, да; хлеб са маслом; нет, нет, нет; а цчево….wаффлес.”  You sweetly began announcing to anyone who would listen when you needed to use the bathroom, “пакакала” “кака!”  But your favorite word last month and remains today is the Russian version of, “it fell,” “упала.”  You also like to say your friends names, like Eva, Aya, and Anouk.  You call me Mama, and Zhanara лала, and mostly you know who is which.  You also like to wave to strangers and say пака when I leave each morning.
In English, you started in month eleven with the basics, “Bye-bye,” “Hello,” “up-up-up,” “No” (that actually came earlier), and “stop.”  Recently you added “wow-wow” for “dog, car, water, mine, and hot.”  Is this interesting to you?  Do you get the point?  You are an early talker with an adorable sweet, soft, feminine voice.  It is precious to hear every single syllable.  And now at month 15, I am practically declaring it useless to write down your words.  I  know there is a difference between tracking what you produce on your own, which is what I have been listing above, and what you repeat when prompted, but now, in the first week of month 15, you are a parrot, you repeat absolutely everything.  Your mind is figuring out how to roll “Rs” when you say “Hello Maria,”  “You are working on hard sounds like S for your brother, and Zh, for your nanny, but you kill it with a thousand other sounds. I am including a few recordings for the record.
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You also started hitting this month.  You hit me and you mean it.  You hit me and seem to know that it is something I don’t want you to do.  You didn’t learn it from anyone at home or at school. It seems to be part of your 15-month-old self expression, that I am getting use to.
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You go to a music and art play group three times a week and make a craft each day.  It kills me they are so cute–like a dog made of two acorns, a fuschia bird, and a bouquet of flowers.  I dream of keeping them forever.  I try to come to class when I can, but tragically, I am usually working.  You go to a play group with friends on Tuesday morning, and will likely start Montessori when we return from the states in January with Aya, Leonardo, and Anouk–the whole play group seems to be taking that school over.  You will join Santi at Miraz when in the Fall when you are two.
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All in all, my darling Zadie, you are thriving, you are cautious, your eyes are alert.  I predict you will be a six.
With all my love,
Mama Lovejoy

Letters to my children: Dear Zadie (Happy First Birthday)

Dear Zadie,

We are back in Almaty after celebrating your first birthday in Santa Monica, California.  Mary and I pulled off a glorious celebration where you showed off your brilliance and beauty captured above and where your admirers wished you well on video below, words you can carry with you into your second, twenty-second, and ninety-second birthdays.

When I left the house, just now, to relax in a a nearby cafe and write you this letter you were sitting in my lap playing as we helped Santi take his mid-day nap.  We were sharing a few butter cookies, trying to chew quietly so as not to disturb your brother.  He did sit up once and say, “Mom, you eating a cookie?” You were double fisted grasping both cookies and alternating between feeding one to yourself and then feeding it to me and I had a mouth full. We laughed together.

Recently, your favorite games have been: pretending to hand someone something, only to take it back once they touch it, placing said object in a cup and then trying to get it out, and grasping watches, remote controls, keys, and toothbrushes.  As we sat in the chair, you wanted to dip the butter cookie in my coffee cup like you see me do.  I am not sure when I think you will shake these bad habits of mine, but for today, I thought it was cute and let you dip your cookie in my coffee.  At some point you began to giggle and I slobbered you with kisses.  I kissed under you chin, I kissed your nose, your mouth, your eyes, your cheeks, your forehead and you howled with delight as you kissed me back with a big round “o” shaped set of lips.  The joy of my day is when we find that moment where time stops and you giggle.  Nothing imaginable compares.

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While we were in the states, you took your first trip to your great great grandmother’s cabin on Neebish Island–the famous Maggie Lovejoy.  It was my great pleasure to introduce you, one-year-old Z. Maggie Lovejoy II, to the original Maggie Lovejoy’s fishing pals and euchre partners. It seemed fitting that you decided to walk, to really go for it at the cabin.  You walked from Grandma Behling’s set of World Book Encyclopedia’s, to the cribbage table, and then back to the rocking chair Maggie upholstered in her 70’s.  You are stable on your feet, desperate to climb any ledge, step, stair, or slide available.

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I took you to the doctor here in Almaty for a round of vaccinations, yes I am vaccinating, and your one-year-wellness visit.  I was proud to report that your first words were kaboom, tickle, and coo-coo and that you say “Mom” knowingly. He confirmed that signed words count as real words so we can add your two favorite signs to your list of one year words–all done and more (with reference to milk). He encouraged us to transition to a sippy cup which you did this week and seem to get.  Our linguistic work is around teaching you body parts and committing myself to speaking exclusively English to you.  Our home is tri-lingual with Santi holding on to his Spanish and the babysitters speaking Russian.  My hope is that when we leave Almaty, the three of us will have a solid command of Russian.  Is that realistic by your second birthday?  I guess you will have as much Russian as Santi had Spanish.  I should work harder with you on on sign language now.  Gorbachev help me!

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I decided to wean you at night when we arrived two weeks ago.  Jet lagged, you rolled with it, and within two nights slept through the night in a pack-n-play in the office.  It is mind blowing how much better you sleep when you are a) not breastfeeding at night, b) not co-sleeping with me, and c) not sharing a room with your brother.  In nearly two weeks you have hardly woken in the night.  I miss seeing you in the wee hours of the morning as we cuddle in a chair, your precious check pressed against my flesh having a splash of nourishment and affection, but I have to admit, after nearly three years of interrupted sleep, it is nice.  For the first year you woke at least three times a night.  I was happy to do it.

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Before we broke for naps this morning, we had a complete play fest in the living room.  We sang your theme song, “Best of My Love,” in the kitchen into spatulas while you waved your arms and bounced.  We did the farm animal puzzle, read “Eight Little Monkeys,” and played catch.  Your favorite toy today was the stacking rings.  You have learned that I will come running if you grunt and so you use that effectively. When you wake up, we will head to Almaty’s famous Watermelon fest and enjoy a healthier snack with your brother.

The other detail I want to capture here and remember forever is that since we returned, when we meet at the table for breakfast or dinner and Santi initiates our family ritual of taking seven breaths before (or as) we start eating, you too join in.  You scrunch your nose and make sounded baby Ujai breaths.  When Santi puts his finger on his nose to start our round of gratitude, you too put your finger on your nose.  Not on the side, like we do, but smack in the middle.  As Santi shares his gratitude for “corn, chai, and mama,”  and I share my gratitude for “you, you, and you,”  I can’t help but wonder when you will join in the fun and tell us what opens your precious heart each day and leaves you feeling thankful.  Take your time getting there, we are in no rush.

Love,

Mama

P.S. Here is the first moment of your life on video.  This is certainly not for the faint of heart nor for my friends and relatives who still struggle with exposed-breast phobia.  Watching it again now, a year later, brings tears to my eyes.  You are an amazing, healthy, sweet, hilarious, delightful, smart, strong nearly 13-month-old girl today, and in this moment, you were just a fresh concoction of blood and chords and frankenstein-esque slabs of something.  I love you dearly.

Life Start Up Almaty, Kazakhstan 201: Ask for help.

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When I decided to have two children on my own, I was crystal clear about needing to do that in a village.  At the time, I was living in Bogota, Colombia and had spent two-and-a-half years building a village before I had to call on its magic to help me bring a child, and then a second, into the world.  Nearly three years later, starting my life over in Almaty, this time as a single mother of two, the number one rule still applies–ask for help.

When I arrived last week from the band’s US tour, I started sending emails, writing down phone numbers, and making play dates.  I wrote the moms in my apartment building and joined their afterwork playground get togethers, I joined the international women’s club play group and Friday night happy hours, and I started asking Santi’s Russian and Kazakh classmate’s parents to get together on the weekends.  Almaty has a deep and wide community of parents, and although when my partner lived here, I didn’t need to draw on it much, in Kazakhstan 2.0, it has become my life line.

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Anyone who comes to live in Almaty, with or without kids, with or without a partner raves about the single best reason to be here–the mountains.  We bike them, hike them, and camp in them when it is warm and ski, snowboard, and sled down them when it is cold.  I have fully committed to taking advantage of this last month of summer mountaineering and set out the call for help on Friday.  I asked everyone I know–at work, in play groups, and at Santi’s school if they wanted to go on a hike today.  I even asked single people to join me and then asked them if they would be willing to carry one of my kids on their back as we explored the 7200 foot Zaiilsky Alatau mountain range.

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Four families met at the foot of the Medeo valley  and took three gondola rides to the top.  None of us were dressed for the cold weather.  But we couldn’t pass up the opportunity to scramble to higher vistas.  Half the group peeled off early on and I was only able to continue when two dads offered to wear my kids on their backs.  The scrambling was too hard for my weak ankles just carrying my own weight.  I couldn’t have made it with a 20 or 30 lb kiddo on my back.  We almost made it to the top and the cacophony of Santi and Zadie’s wails convinced us all to set them down, have a midday feeding, and tip-toe our way back down.

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I felt brave, resourceful, and happy each step of the way.

In fact, when we made it down the mountain and both kids were dead asleep in the car seats, I went to the local Sports-R-Us and got completely outfitted for camping.

I am looking for takers?  Anyone want to car camp this weekend with me and a few remarkable kids?

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Working Mother, Will Travel–Trying to make sense of it all.

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It is 8:42 a.m. on Thursday, July 2nd. I am on a flight from Dushanbe to Almaty on Tragic Air as we affectionately call it. I have been writing you, some daily, some monthly, for seven straight months about this neighborhood in Central Asia I call home. Do you know which country Dushanbe is in? Do you know if Almaty is a capital city? Does it matter?

It is 8:42 a.m. on Thursday July 2nd and I am writing you from a plane flying over the snow capped Pamir Mountains that spill into Afghanistan, Pakistan, and China. Out this window, I see countless 14,000-foot peaks.   This is the terrain that Chinese truckers traverse daily as they haul $2.4 billion dollars worth of t-shirts, construction material, and spare parts from the Western Chinese border to the capital of Tajikistan—I gave it away, did you get the clue? (Dushanbe is the capital of Tajikistan). The trucks return empty, or almost empty I should say. In the course of a year, the Tajiks do export $100 million dollars worth of cherries, apricots and lemons back to the Chinese border post. Their Eastern neighbors need food products and a growing Chinese middle class cares about fruits and vegetables grown naturally, purely, free of chemicals. The Tajiks have a 25 to one negative trade balance with this neighbor. As a diplomat at the Chinese embassy told me yesterday over green tea, Tajikistan is a dead end, a double land locked country fenced in by mountains on one side and angry neighbors on the other.

  
The airport is full of 21-year-old young men in loosely fitting faded Carrera jeans, Chinese plain t-shirts, and knock off sneakers. Their dark eyes are filled with the promise of making money in Moscow. They board the plane that leaves after mine. They have dark unwashed hair, tanned skin, and a few golden-capped teeth. They aren’t playing a video game or watching a You Tube video on their cell phones nor reading a novel. They are poor and poorly educated, there only aspiration when they finished 11-th grade was to move to Russia like all of their classmates had done for years before and their families expected them to do. Out of the 100 young men emigrating today, 97 will go to Moscow, two will head to Kazakhstan, and one is heading much further away. Nearly all end up doing construction and sending home some portion of their salary to keep their large family afloat. Back home their grandparents, parents, remaining four siblings, as well as their uncle’s family all tend a small plot of land leased to them by the government where they grow apricots, orange lemons and sweet melon. The sweetest I have ever tasted. The kind that invites you to eat a large bowl of juicy, pale yellow, goodness and ask for a second and third serving. The amount of money they send home is shrinking fast. In fact, the collective amount the 600,000 Tajik guest workers sent home this quarter, compared the same quarter last year shrunk by 87%. An alarming statistic when you realize that half the country’s GDP comes from this single source.   A sobering fact when you realize the all the jibber jabber on CNN about falling oil prices and the crash of the ruble and Russia’s self imposed sanctions and the war in Ukraine actually means that the lad sitting across from me in the airport can only send home $13 dollars this month, instead of the $100 dollars he sent home last year at the same time.

The Russians don’t need Tajik workers like we need the Latinos in the United States. Although, I can’t help but see the parallels as I wade through the crowd of family members sending them off: mothers with more gold teeth dressed in shalwar khameeze, with sequenced brightly colored hijabs, and babies in their arms, younger brothers aspiring to follow in their older brothers footsteps, and grandfathers who long for Soviet times.   The Russians can open and close the valve on this flow of unemployed young men at will and they do. Recently they put half of this work force on a black list, banning them from either re-entering Russia which had the perverse effect of forcing 290,000 of them to stay and forgo the opportunity to come home once a year and share a bowl of melon with their younger siblings under an Apricot tree. Russia has imposed a language and culture test on aspiring guest workers, in addition to taxing their low wages, and managing their foreign and economic policy in such a way that that $100 becomes $13. It isn’t sure it wants the Tajiks sweepers, at least not without something in return. Russia has its own problems.

Russia is attempting to recreate a block of former Soviet countries around an economic and customs union. Did your eyes just glaze over? When I asked you this week if you knew what the Eurasian Economic Union was did you pause and try to answer the question or just keep reading? How could I get your attention? If I said, the Russians are trying to recreate the Soviet Union, would you hear me? Does that reach you? It isn’t exactly true, but they have created a union like the European Union in the former Soviet sphere—a space where people and goods and services can flow freely without having to cross borders. You get it right? No visas, no work permits, no crippling wait times for your truck of produce at the border, common legislation, a common currency? (Did you say a common currency? Yes, I did, but that was just to see if you were still reading. This is one of the ways the European Union and the Eurasian Economic Union are different).

The members of the Russian Union include Belarus, Russia, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan and they have their heart set on expanding it. Tajikistan is a ripe target. Russia can play hardball with Tajikistan by forcing them to join and thus allowing these young men to continue to come and earn $13 a month, or they can build the new Berlin wall at the Tajik/Kyrgyz border and leave them out to dry, like the Tajiks Apricots. Did you know that 6% of the world’s dried apricots come from Tajikistan and 45% of that supply goes to Russian markets. If Russia cuts off the flow of young men from Dushanbe to Moscow and no longer invites them to sweep their construction sites, (their version of work in our fields or kitchens), and then stops buying their apricots, Tajikistan just might collapse into a failed state.

Who cares you ask? Almost no one. The Chinese need oil and gas, land, food and eventually more middle class markets to buy their stuff, so the Chinese care more than anyone else in the region. The block of nations that want to see a stable Afghanistan and a shrinking ISIS care because this is a nation made up of Muslims. Muslims who practice more than any of their nominally Islamic neighbors. Yesterday, in a meeting with our implementing partners, the local man who leads our women’s empowerment project (don’t ask) greeted me by placing his right hand on his heart and saying, “Es elam elakum.” I naturally responded “Va elekum eslam.” Tajikistan gives its people four days off to celebrate Eid after the month of fasting we are currently in. (Did you know it is Ramadan now?) But as compared to Sarajevo and Islamabad, where I was invited to fast with my colleagues at the office, to pray in our cubicles at noon, to eat the fig at sundown when we collectively broke the fast, and to have iftar with their families, no one invites me into these circles here in Dushanbe. In fact, in Kazakhstan, another former Soviet somewhat Islam practicing state, the enlightened authoritarian ruler Nazarbayev doesn’t grant his people a national holiday during Eid. This is no small symbolic gesture. I can’t tell you about Kazakhstan though, it will confuse you. I must stick to the script. It is 9:37 a.m. on Thursday, July 2nd, I am on a plane, surrounded by snow capped mountains. The peaks are lower, in the 8-10,000 foot range, and my plane is filled includes ethnically dressed Tajik women in rows filled with small children, there are covered with sparkling, light weight, head coverings and mouths full of golden capped teeth and a few young men, without cell phones, looking for work.

I had asked who cares if Tajikistan falls off a cliff. I think the average American considers Central Asia the last stop on planet earth, and only important as it relates to its neighbors. It is the new front line of the Russian periphery, one small garden plot for China to pave on its bullet train to access European markets—who is going to buy all of these plastic Chinese toys—and a recruiting ground for ISIS. Wait, did you say ISIS? Yes, I did.

Don’t you know that Russian is the third most commonly spoken language in the ISIS command structure? Don’t you know that the Tajik head of special forces recently abandoned his post and family and moved to ISIS-ville posting videos about jihad that caused the dictator in Tajikistan to turn off all social media sites for a few days? Don’t you wonder if the Tajik’s president is framed and hanging on the front of the plane like the Turkmen’s portrait is on Turkmen air? No you don’t.

  
What interests you is this boy, who stared at me and my breasts in the airport a half hour ago. My jugs of milk jiggled in the massage chair that is one of my favorite treats at local airports—he couldn’t help but notice. For a relatively expensive $3, you can sit in an incredible chair that hardly gets used and get a fabulous massage, two fist like balls dig into your lower back and workout all of that working mother induced stress. I am not in loosely flowing shalwar khameeze that hides my curves and shape, like his cousins, sisters, classmates, and mother. I am in Gap jeans, Victoria Secret underwear, and an Old Navy t-shirt—all made in China. This boy seems to have few choices. Should his aspiration be to get a job sweeping construction sites in Russia, where he can drink bottles of vodka with his friends and visit strip clubs each weekend? Should some sense of duty, ideology, desperation, provoke him to follow the Tajik official who left his post and pursue a higher calling with ISIS? Should he get a loan and open up a motel on the 15 hour mountain road for Chinese truckers who take medium-sized trucks packed with light bulbs and toilet paper for Dushanbe and cash in on what is an endless and growing stream of trade across Tajikistan from China to Europe and Iran? Or should he learn advanced pruning techniques for the apricot orchards and stay home? What would you do?

Working Mother, Will Travel—Tashkent, Uzbekistan

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After traversing time and space to spend a week in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan with the kids, surrounded by gigantic marble buildings, gold plated statues, and ubiquitous portraits of the President, I have a new appreciation for the differences between a completely closed police state, that is often compared to North Korea, and a very closed police state that is Tashkent, Uzbekistan. In Turkmenistan, my Facebook and Blogger accounts were blocked, I spoke with high school students whose trips were canceled by the security forces at the airport to participate in Junior Achievement competitions, and if I asked an official their opinion on the countries Economic Development strategy beyond the platitude of quintupling exports by 2020, I was told he would have to ask his superior what the answer was and get back to me. Apparently, the President personally signs all checks above $5000 in Turkmenistan.

Working there, I felt like I had propelled myself into another galaxy, where it was normal that the former President renamed the days of the week after his family members and erected a gold statue of himself that turned with the sun. Most surprising, was my colleague’s defense of the status quo and his intention to stay in the country even though he and his family could emigrate if they wanted. After four days, it felt normal to drive past the 15 story marble Ministry of Education building that they build in the form of an open book with flowing pages or the 20 story Ministry of Health building constructed in the shape of a lung if viewed from above. Between meetings, I stripped down in their marble bathrooms and pumped when I was gone for more than three hours. I returned each night to Santi and Zadie who had spent the week playing in marble pools and marble fountains and having long lunches in their dueling high chairs with a local nanny. I loved having breakfast together each morning, I loved strapping them on my chest and back to double carry them to a market in the hot evenings to buy dried apricots and almonds, and I loved that we got to co-sleep and feed on demand at night. The price tag was high: Santi’s airplane ticket, full time childcare in the hotel, and the invisible cost of having to juggle my children, breast pump, and extra suitcase full of trucks, books, and a potty while also having serious conversation with the Ambassador, my mentor, and our staff. But it was worth it, and if I were made of money, like the Turkmen President seems to be, I would do it again.

But my point here, is to say, I spun the globe, and landed in neighboring Uzbekistan this week, also a police state, also a massive human rights violator, according to many NGOs even worse than Turkmenistan, a country that is also playing the isolationist card and opting out of the World Trade Organization or the Eurasian Economic Union and found it to be more open and relaxed. The little things mattered.

Yes, Karimov, the president has been in power over twenty years since independence, but many people here look at the instability in the neighboring Kyrgyzstan with its revolutions and meaningful elections and conclude, “That is too much democracy.”

Yes, I saw an 8×11 framed picture of a younger Karimov on a side table in a government office, but it was hardly the surprise of seeing the Turkmen President’s portrait hanging on both sides of the dividers at the front of the plane or even. The streets were packed with people of all ages smoking cigarettes, selling currency, and trading Uzbek pottery, rugs, and ceramics. It felt like something important, lively, even fun was around the corner. Uzbek pop stars beamed into local cafes on the TV screen, crowding out their Russian competitors. Georgian restaurants were packed with families signing along with old men playing guitars. And if you were going to visit me in Central Asia, the one place I am told I should take you is to the historic Moghul cities of Samarkand, Bohara, and Khiva who inspired the design the Taj Mahal. I liked Uzbekistan. What I didn’t like was being away from the kids. This was our longest separation ever.

Maria agreed to woman the fort this week and shuttle Santi to and from his Russian language Kazakh pre-school. I caved and let Zadie drink formula, unable to leave the 100-ounce stash in the freezer before I left after a week of travel in Thailand. I was gone from my little tweety birds for three nights and four days. I missed their precious smiles and baby soft skin. We Skyped each day when she had them both contained in the car and could wedge herself in the back seat between the car seats and give me the update on how Zadie slept and Santi’s latest observations. “Mama coming home?” He asked. Santi’s school continued their usual shenanigans, “Santi’s face is red. We think he needs his hair cut.” Or “Santi has bug bites from Thailand, he should stay home until they heal.” It was sweet to see them, but not nearly enough. My new threshold for work trips will be two nights.

I did keep pumping, filling empty Nestle water bottles, now that I am out of those precious Medella double zip locks that hold about 10 oz a piece. And after I showed the Uzbek security official my breast pump, my diplomatic passport, and pictures of Zadie (on his request), he let me take the milk back to Almaty, Kazakhstan, my home for the next two years.

Working Mother–Will Travel (to Thailand)

   
                                       
Dear Santiago and Zadie,
If someone had asked me before I took my current job, if I wanted a regional position with 50% travel. I would have said no. If someone had pressed further and asked if I wanted to travel for work with two breastfeeding babies ages two and under, I would have said no more emphatically. In fact this whole fictitious conversation reminds me of two very real moments that happened in my early 30s, I am 42-years-old now.  
I remember when I returned to the states after my first overseas gig in Bosnia. I was contemplating if I should look for another job in international development or stay state side for a season. I had lunch with a mentor from Price Waterhouse Coopers. I had recently turned thirty, my whole life was still before me. Sitting across from one another in an upscale Arlington bistro we ate grilled chicken salads with sparkling water. She shared her big news with me and I almost choked on my chicken, “I am going to have a baby on my own.” It was the early 2000s, gobbling another bite of chicken breast I congratulated her and thought, “poor girl, that will never be me.” Not long after I met another woman from the company, happil married and with a new born. She didn’t want to put her career on hold so she traveled with her mother-in-law to far flung places with her baby in tow. “Poor girl,” I thought. “I would never do that.”
Maybe the point of this letter is be careful of what you judge or say no to.  
We just finished work related travel to Colombia, the U.S., Germany, the U.K., Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, UAE, Turkey, and Thailand. That is eleven countries in Zadie’s ten month life. I both had children on my own, and travel with them for work. Be careful what you don’t wish for.
Our best trip so far was tagging along an excursion to the Huan Hin beach after another work stint in a hotel this week. Setting up the double cribbed, double high chaired, traveling potty, hotel room nanny gig has become old hat. The wild card is what we do when the conference ends.
I am so proud of you. With Santi walking confidently all the way to our gate, mastering stairs, and navigating airport terminal conveyer belts I get weepy wondering if his early years are coming to a close. He doesn’t even wear diapers when we browse the night markets, instead, boldly able to tell me when he needs to go,?we whisk him into the bushes, a dive bathroom, or the nearest gas station. And Zadie, you can sit up in a high chair with no safety strap, feed your morning glory and mildly seasoned chicken and daringly lean off the side of the pool into my arms. You pull yourself up and shuffle around any pool side table, pack-n-play or bed edge. You are both mobile.
Is there room in the band for a third? It would mean a bigger airport taxicab.
While we still prefer to travel stroller free and head to the markets with your limbs dangling from our chest and back, last night as we finished our obligatory Thai shopping trip we let Santi lead the way marching through the throngs of tourists in search of his favorite trinket: a new beach take, a shiny shark balloon, or his real favorite, a container of sweetened peanuts. Maria and I stuffed our back packs with elephant snow globes, sun dresses, and $3 sunglasses.
Santi, you are so done with Asian delight with your big green eyes, be it in Delhi, Istanbul, or Bangkok. “No! You can’t pinch my cheeks, lift me up, or have your picture taken with me.” You communicate in any language. You have the perfect glare which lets all unassuming tourists know you mean business and will not be posing in their pictures as the well-wishers make bunny ears next to your head.
Zadie on the other hand is still a charmer. The Thais were always surprised to see you gnawing on a squid leg, chomping on fried kale, of fisting a swathe of vermicelli noodles. And when they oohed and asahed, you sat up straighter, flashed your winning smile and your two bottom teeth and offered them a bite of whatever was in your hand.
We found a restaurant we loved and ate their three nights in a row–a family style Thai corner store with a line that wrapped around the block. No one seemed to mind when we line jumped with two babies, sat at a table with strangers, and hustled in two high chairs from the ice cream store next door. Why is Thai food so good? How is it possible to eat morning, noon, and might and never tire of the lime, lemongrass, oyster sauce and chile flavors? 
There may be a lot of great places to visit in the world, but the band’s favorite is Thailand. People are calmer, eating spicy street food is a national past time, hotels cater to children with kiddie pools on the beach, and a daily massage is affordable.
Last night we hit an open air massage stand and had the kinks in our backs and necks worked out from carrying you. I sipped a Thai ice coffee occasionally when I looked up to make sure Zadie was still climbing up and over and between Maria and I and that Santi was still content chomping on banana candies in our little hut.
Thailand, we will miss you. But we will be back. We did the calculations at dinner last night: how long could we park ourselves on an island with two little ones. Answer: one month. How long could we park the kids with their cousins and enjoy Thailand with out our lead singer and drummer? Answer: one week.
How long would it take me to accept another regional travel job, like one based in Usaid/Bangkok, with two little kids as a single mother by choice? Not as long as it takes me to crack open mangosteen, rambutan, or coconut. 
My all time best vacations pre band were in Thailand–practicing vippasana with orange robed monks, learning Ashtanga at yoga Thailand, and getting pummeled by the famous Thai masseuses on the beaches of Koh Pangnan. And my best post work, mini vacation, with the gang has also been in Thailand. Next job, make Thailand home!
Kap-khun-Ka!

Working Mom; Will Travel TURKMENISTAN part two.

  Zadie visited Turkmenistan this week, her tenth country, in her tenth month of life. Turkmenistan is a former Soviet Republic bordering Iran, Uzbekistan, and Afghanistan in Middle Earth, our new term for Central Asia. She was undeterred by the President’s ban on Facebook and Blogger, his propensity for blocking citizens departure from the country for cultural and educational exchanges, and the complete absence of opposition parties or independent media. Her good Turkmen friend Serdar, who helped smuggle breast milk through the Astana, Kazakhstan airport for her a few months back was our host. As he said before when faced with the option of having a horse sandwich, “Turkmen don’t eat our friends.” She felt safe knowing she would be with him.    She did register a complaint with me noting that when Santi was her age he got to visit the Galápagos Islands and that spending a week in a hotel with a new nanny in Ashgabat hardly compared to island hoping between penguin, seal, and rare bird habitats with me. Complaint noted.    Santi remains unfazed by the constant travel, being woken up at midnight to travel to the airport in his dinosaur pajamas seems normal to this young man. Training a new Russian speaking nanny in his preferences for breakfast croissants, sauce less pasta, and unfettered access to her cell phone is old hat. He finds ourigamarole amusing.    This old gal is less adventuresome and daring as the little kids are, but will nonetheless keep the merry-go-round spinning as she learns the nuances and broad trends of the Turkmenistan, embracing her regional economic development job, while slowly transitioning from stay-at-home-sabbaticaled-mom to full time traveling diplomat with two kids in tow.    One of my American hosts, a mother of two as well, saw me lugging my well-disguised black briefcase/medella breast pump every day to every meeting and commented in a marble elevator, “I quit with my first at nine months, and after four months with my second. It was just too hard to pump and work.” I empathized with her decision wondering how long I would keep up this circus show myself: darting in and out of bathrooms to fill bottles of milk for my little tweety bird, having to stand at the counter and pump in nothing more than my nylons, heels and a nursing bra because my work dress didn’t have a gaping v- neck, displaying the contents of my faux briefcase (tubing, shields, and a battery pack), every time I had to open my satchel for a pen or business card. The answer this week is one more day, one more week, one more trip to Turkmenistan. As for next week, we will all have to wait and see.  

Working Mother; Will Travel–TURKMENISTAN, a former republic of the USSR

  
I review the entry requirements for tonight’s 1:00 a.m. flight to Ashgabat, Turkmenistan: a letter of invitation from the government, three pass port photos of me and the kids, $25 to pay a driver in USD. My giant suitcase lays on the floor packed with Zadie’s onesies, Santi’s days-of-the-week underwear and my work heels. Am I crazy? Have I completely lost my mind?  

  
At least I ponder that thought as I march the band to the most remote corner of Middle Earth, as we have affectionately come to call Central Asia.

This week Maria will stay behind and work in Almaty while I take the gaggle to a country often compared with North Korea. The adjectives used to describe the country include closed, weird, and grand. It is built of marble and infamous for a former President who built a golden statue of himself that rotated with the sun. Santi, Zadie, and I have decided to see for ourselves what Turkmenistan is all about.

  
Ashgabat or bust!

Letters To My Children: Dear Santiago and Zadie (10 and 30 months)

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My Dear Sweethearts–

Today is June 6th, 2015.  We moved from Bogotá to St. Louis to Almaty six months ago today.  Santi, you had just turned two-years-old and you Zadie were the ripe young age of four months.  Flash ahead six months and you find us settled in our new home in Almaty–paint on the walls, kids outfitted in age appropriate clothes, with toys for each developmental stage, and a system for laundry, cooking, cleaning and child care.  At least once a week, I think to write you each a letter, and I fear six months have passed since I dedicated my daily writing time to you.  Where do I begin?

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Zadie, when we got here you were still a baby, just beginning to roll over, plump from four months of feeding on demand, baby-wearing, and co-sleeping and still in that early blob stage of life.  A lot has changed.  First, you began to sit up in a really firm, sturdy, confident way.  Next, you figured out how to crawl, it mostly began with a back-and-forth rocking motion from sitting with one foot flat on the ground and that knee in the air and rocking forward on to your hands and then back, like you were getting ready to take off and changing your mind.   For a few weeks you did the shovel crawl.  Meaning, you would scoot along on one knee and foot, like you might imagine a baby crawling, and shoved yourself with your foot, knee not hitting the ground, on the other side.  This lasted for the better part of the ninth month and here in month ten you are an able crawler, moving across the living room, around the kitchen, into the front hall at your own will. But lets face it, you don’t really plan on spending much time crawling.

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Every bit of energy expenditure you have, you put towards standing up, pulling yourself up, and closing the gap between crawling and walking.  Just this morning you pulled yourself up on the legs of Santi’s high chair and then walked around pushing it, like a Fisher Price walker.   You can swing from one support to another, like from a leg of a stool to the handles on the kitchen drawers and keep making your way across the kitchen.  You can take a step, some times two, on your own, and you know when you need to descend and sit. This morning, you were on the go, while I supervised for two hours and only lost your balance once. It was when you fell backwards from a seated posture, not in your daring swinging, hanging, pulling thrusts towards joining the world of walkers.  You like to play catch with the basketball, you are fascinated by the four animals on the wooden puzzle (cow, sheep, duck, and pig).  You clap. Maybe the most telling thing about you, sweet little lovely precious brilliant daughter, is that your first word was “Kaboom!” (By comparison, Santi’s first word, was “No.”)  We learned early on that when a kid falls, not to say, “Are you okay? Did you get hurt?” Rather to just smile and proudly say, “Kaboom!” You have not only learned to say it and repeat it, but of course it really seems like you understand the meaning.  Sadly, we haven’t been teaching you sign language.  Except for one word, which we really wish Santi would learn, “Share.” I too was the second child and had to find my way in the world while the early pots of energy went to another sibling.  You look like a tough, confident, giggly, delightful, gorgeous, little girl who knows how to get what she wants.  Growing into your first birthday is so different with a sibling than Santi’s experience.  He approached one with me at home, Kelly, Angelica, Sophie, his friends at gymnastics, Gloria, and the Colombian birds and flowers–all wonderful, but without a sibling.  You are closing in on your first birthday with me at work, Santi pulling every yellow Lego, orange pick-up truck, or Melissa and Doug wooden clapper out of your large hands and Maria making sure your every need is met all day long.  She has cut back more and more over these months on the hours of help she wants in her day because you are just such a joy to be with, easy, absolutely lovejoy.  (Ha, I meant to write absolutely lovely and autocorrect wrote your name instead.) The two of you start each day with a run through First President’s Park in Almaty, she gives you a bottle of my breast milk, which you guzzle in the stroller after the run.  This makes us both very happy because your transition to the bottle, when I went back to work, in the thick of a Kazakh winter was bumpy.  You reverse cycled, you didn’t want the bottle, you lost weight, dropping to the bottom quarter of weight for your age.  Those are all just memories now.  When I see you and Maria head out with your gear, she takes an extra-large thermos of hot water to heat the bottle.  Something about this detail captures how much she loves you. I never had to think through how to feed you with a bottle, for obvious reasons.  But Maria has had this privilege in a few different contexts.  While I wasn’t working during Santi’s first year, I am back at work now.  Work is a wonderful expression of who I am in the world and I can’t wait to see how you choose to invest your talents and interests in the world as you grow into your calling.  I recently left you overnight with Maria for the first time, on my 42nd birthday when I went to work in Astana.  Prior to that you joined me on a few work trips to Ost-Kaminogorsk and the capital of Kazakhstan, but not this time.  We all felt like you and Maria could pull it off.  She slept with you in our queen size bed, which by the way is only big enough for two people of any age, and followed a similar routine.  Before you guys went to bed, she set up a camping station next with the thermos of hot water, the pre-prepared bottle, and whatever other props she needed to be completely ready to meet your late night needs.  I know you do other things each day while I work as well, she sends me photos and videos: you go to play dates, hang from the bars in the park, ride the train, and have ladies lunches.  I tell her all the time, you are thriving, and I am so happy that the two of you are bonding so well.

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Santi, are you impatient, do you think it is time I tell the world a little about you, is it hard to be second now.  What if you were third?  Can you imagine?  Where do I begin?  Six months ago you were two. I can hardly remember what that was like.  I guess you were still primarily speaking Spanish.  The bulk of your first two years were spent with Gloria, Kelly, and me.  And then we moved to Russian speaking Kazakhstan.  You didn’t flinch, didn’t miss a bit, and quickly began throwing around your language skills with the words you learned from some of your early baby sitters: Regina, Bahrit, and Nadija.  Your favorite word, and your first word, in both English and Russian was, “Niyet.” You also transitioned to living in an English-speaking household from Russian, and gained a highly educated, very devoted, primary care-taking, in home English speaker.  You and Maria began to figure out just what your relationship would be as we moved here.  My first memory of the two of you doing your own things is going to the St. Louis Zoo and shopping for bigger pants.  My God, where do I begin?

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First, she is a professor, so she gladly engages you on everything from how to make pancakes, to doing laundry, and techniques to dry your hair that upset you less.  This resulted in your instant command of and preference for the English language. If you end up as an English language writer, you will have her to thank. Not long after we arrived in dead of winter, and Maria was lugging you and Zadie around on her back and chest in Yak Tracks, you left Spanish in the dust, and began speaking in four word sentences. “I would like water, please.” “May I please have that apple?” and now to more complex thoughts, “I do not like the sun.” “Zadie, don’t take my toy!” “I do not want to wear jeans.” As all the literature says, Maria’s consistent, never changing, use of college level English with you in engaging ways means you are highly verbal in English.  She also insisted on please and thank you, spoon and fork, and less whining. Growing up in so many places with so many people has shaped you into a young man who is very skilled at getting his needs met, though non-verbal communication.  You have quickly transitioned into English fluency and are holding your own at school in Russian.  I am trying to keep your Spanish alive when it is just us, Aunt Kari thinks this is disastrous as I speak pigeon Spanish, but I just can’t let it go.  This morning you said, “Me gustaria bajar porfavor.” And walking home from school yesterday, “Me gustaria una piedra blanca.”  I am sticking to Spanish when it is just us.  Mary sticks to English, the language of the band is English, and nine hours a day at school you function completely in Russian. What else would you want to read about as a grown man as you reread these letters and raise your children?  You needed more structure and Maria helped us provide it.  While you co-slept in Bogotá or had your own mattress on the floor in Almaty, or your own double bed in St. Louis what you really longed for and made the difference in your life was a full on crib, with all four sides on.  You didn’t sleep through the night until we gave this to you.  Like all the books say, you feel safe with the known, clear, consistent limits.  For the record, lets say you slept through the night at around 27 months.  I never once let you cry it out.  Nor would I.

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We potty trained you in warm weather Bogotá going diaper free at home for three days, then four months from 18-24 months.  It worked.  You had an over 75% hit rate from the immediate get go through our move here.  But we somehow lost the transition from bare-assed in warm weather to using a potty on your own when it was winter and you were in multiple layers of clothes and a snow suit.  Our first two months here were a shit show.  Don’t repeat that word please.  But we had trouble getting our whole rigmarole set up in the dregs of winter, unable to speak Russian, trying to figure out what kind of school or day care we wanted for you, what kind of help we needed at home, while also adjusting to my regional work schedule.  No joke, we went on a zillion trips.  The first of which was in our first months when you got ROTAVIRUS, did I mention I hadn’t vaccinated you and used to belong to the delayed vaccination camp.  (You are caught up now).  We had to be medivaced to London, you were fine by the time we got there–system be damned–and we had a great time taking you and Zadie to your first musical The Wind and the Willows, your first Dinosaur exhibit, and to that famous London toy store.  You look just as charming in front of the Taj Mahal in Shalwar as you do in front of the Blue Mosque in Istanbul in jeans.

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When we weren’t traveling, you have been in school. You love it, you cried for about five minutes the first day, when you started at 26 months.  And you have never looked back, you run to meet your classmates each morning on the school playground after the doctor takes your temperature, still entranced by little houses and little kitchens and your passion for making coffee, pasta, chai, and eggs.  You do calisthenics each morning at nine with the kids that includes a little “If you are happy and you know it,“routine.  The teachers don’t accept anyone in diapers after two, so even if it was just to bring you to school in the winter in a diaper they say, “No, way.” They put all the kids on the potty every hour, and shower them after they poop.  Each kid has his own potty, his own hand and butt towel, and his own locker and his own bed for nap time.  It is a bit shi shi for me, with drivers waiting for kids in Bentleys and kids wearing designer suits, but this school is right next to the office which means I get to wear you to and from work.  It is worth every penny of its over priced tuition.

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You love to play the drums, you are reading to yourself more and more, living in Almaty has meant you are a part of a tribe of kids, usually about 15 of them ages eight and under and you just love it.  You are extrovert.  Lately, I think you are a four–very sensitive–like your mother.  One of the cutest things you do is stand in front of Zadie and say, “Come, come.” This morning as I watched you ride the red bull and Zadie ride the red fire truck I just thought, who will the third be?  Where will he or she come from?  Tomorrow we will visit an orphanage.  Americans can’t adopt here, but I have no reason to believe we are just a band of four.

In sum, I love you both dearly.  I am sorry I haven’t written more lately.  The good news is we have lots of photos and videos to make up for it.

Love, Mom

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