Monday, April 02, 2007

Our Weekend in Almaty

It was a relaxing weekend here in Almaty. Although there are so many things to see and do in this capital city, we made the decision to just lay low and ride out the last few days until we are able to leave and take our baby home. I know that many of you are going to ask about the culture here and the different sights around the city, but I have to be honest and say that we did everything at an arm’s length. This whole process of becoming parents for the first time coupled with the adoption process itself is so much to take in that we gave up trying to take the city in. It is just too much.

Saturday we took a trip down to the local farmer’s market. This looked much like the farmer’s market back at home, only on a much grander scale. Rows upon rows of flowers, spices, nuts, fruits and vegetables on perfect display lined the stands as different vendors shouted out to passers-by in Russian. Even vendors working at the same booth were competing for customers, shouting out prices in an attempt to under-cut the next guy. We stopped at a booth when a man from Tajikistan asked us if we were from “America?” When we told him yes, he came back with “New York?” – That is one thing about this place…it is so far on the other side of the world that the only concept they have of the US is New York City. Jerret ended up buying three oranges from the guy and we continued on through the market.

At the very far end of the market was the exact reason I refuse to eat at some of the restaurants in foreign countries. There, in the open air, with no refrigeration involved and for all the world to see, was the meat market. Racks hanging with sides of pork, beef, lamb (and I’m sure some horse was in there too), stood in the background of tables filled with butchered meat. We walked the length of the meat tables, which spanned the entire warehouse, and watched as vendors worked using various hand tools ranging from hatchets to hammers – things we would typically use on a home repair project. Near the end of the row a young girl stood organizing the days goods – lamb’s head and beef livers – and waited for the next customer to make a purchase.

At the table on the very end an older lady with her head wrapped in a white scarf worked intently, stuffing unidentifiable chunks of meat into sausage casings. We were amazed to see that she did not make any attempt to chop or grind the meat up, or even mix it with any seasonings. I tried to take a picture of her as she worked, but she stopped me, yelling something in Russian and waving her finger back in forth in front of her face. Whatever she was making was beyond us and it would have to stay that way. Directly across from her table was a small room that contained two bathtubs filled to the brim with pig intestines, which were being cleaned for their role in the mystery sausage preparation. (See pic)

Outside of the main warehouse was a bazaar where locals set up booths and sold everything from clothes to power tools to laundry soap. We passed many of the clothing booths where customers stripped down right in the middle of the aisle trying clothes on. If the booth had enough workers, it was sometimes one person’s job to hold up a towel or sheet in an effort to shield the customer. Many “booths” were actually random sections of the sidewalk where locals laid down a sheet to mark their spot and filled it with various odds and ends. Most of these areas contained such random goods that it appeared as though the people were selling their only worldly possessions. This intrigued us, and this area became the place we did the majority of our shopping.

The weather turned bitter cold in the short time we shopped, and I didn’t have a coat with me so we decided to head back to our hotel. On the way back we saw an elderly woman crying on the street, wailing out loud and crossing herself over and over again. From the window of our cab we saw three women begging in the street and one girl who looked to be about 8 or 9. Each of them would just walk up to the car windows and stare or point to their mouths asking for food. One lady held her crying baby in her arms and presented him to each car that passed. I told Jerret she must have been pinching him or something to make him cry that hard because that baby looked like he was in pain. I saw a lot of people give her money.

We stayed in for dinner that night and ordered pizza from room service. It looked well-enough like pizza from back home, but definitely didn’t taste the same.

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