Personal Journeys


January 25, 2004|By Special to the Sun

A Memorable Place

Pleasantly surprised in Central Asia

By Rebecca Ruggles


Last December, my sister announced her plan to adopt a toddler from Kazakhstan. As a single woman, she was limited in the countries that would accept her application. I volunteered to go with her, feeling that she would need a helping hand and knowing that I could gain brownie points as a selfless sister.

Appropriately, it took nine months before we actually traveled to Kazakhstan. This period became, for me, a time of increasing apprehension, along with excitement. Initially, I had said, "What-istan?" Our destination had not even been on my mental map of the world.

As I searched for travel guides, I found the lore on Central Asia very slim. Consequently, when the time came to go, I traveled with low expectations and more than a few fears. The 18-hour flight did not sound pleasant. I thought the country would be hostile toward Americans. In my mind's eye, I envisioned drab Soviet streets, barren marketplaces and few green places.

Almaty, the former capital of Kazakhstan, surprised me in all the best ways. From its dry mountain air and spectacular views of the Tian Shan mountains, to the tree-lined streets and stylishly dressed population, I felt myself to be in an Asian New York City or Italy.

Interspersed with a good measure of heavy-handed Soviet architecture were handsome monuments, 19th-century buildings, well-stocked stores and two exquisite Russian Orthodox cathedrals. The parks were full of flowers, and children swam in fountains as relaxed grandparents looked on.

The business of adopting a wonderful little girl took up most of our time. But my sister and I found moments to explore the city, riding the 20-cent trolleys and strolling in the parks. The national museum of Kazakh history boasts an authentic nomadic yurt, plus handsomely displayed native costumes, textiles and home furnishings. One Saturday afternoon, we explored the beautiful Alatau mountains, only a short ride from the city center.

There were also some wonderful moments of cultural disconnect. Sitting outside the Zenkov cathedral one Sunday morning after services, a kindly woman came up and offered my niece an apple. Then another person tried to offer us coins.

My sister and I looked around and realized that we were surrounded by alms seekers. Speaking English, carrying a camera and wearing our Sunday best did not seem to matter. We were seen as beggars because we were sitting in this particular spot on this particular day of the week.

The best moments, of course, took place at the "Baby House," where my 3-year-old niece gradually bonded with my sister, to the shared satisfaction of the staff and myself. But if the chance to be a tourist in Almaty were to come again, I would jump at it. This is a wonderful city.

Rebecca Ruggles lives in Baltimore.

My Best Shot

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The Cayman Islands, with soft white beaches, crystal water and 85-degree temperatures, are truly a paradise. Grand Cayman didn't have its first cruise ships visit until the late 1950s, but now, locals say, three to four cruise ships visit the island daily. About 40,000 people from 80 different nations populate the island, and it seems as though each wants to make your stay memorable. Our week at Grand Cayman seemed but a few days.

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