Entry 1

A street scene in Almaty, Kazakhstan’s bustling commercial capital

My wife, Sharon, and I arrive at Kazakhstan’s Almaty Airport late at night, bleary eyed and nervous. We are not traveling light. Our luggage is brimming with a few dozen toys, cheesy Miami T-shirts and hats, and other Florida schlock—gifts for the kids and staff at the orphanage. And, oh yes, enough cash to buy a Toyota. We feel more like money launderers than future parents. But that is, in fact, why we have traveled halfway around the world to this former Soviet republic: We have come for our daughter.

Stepping off the plane, our nostrils are immediately assaulted by the acrid, slightly sweet smell of pollution. Eau de Third World. Outside the customs hall, our driver, a muscular Russian named Dima, is holding a sign with my name on it. For security reasons, we have been told to ask him for the “secret password,” which he promptly provides. This adds to the impression that we are here in Kazakhstan to pick up a pound of heroin—or perhaps a secret microfilm—not a child.

In the morning, we go to meet the Sisters. These are the three Kazakh women who will try to complete our adoption. Thus far, the Sisters have remained a mysterious, almost mythical, force in our lives. Our U.S. adoption agency always speaks of them in hushed, reverent tones. (“The Sisters say this; the Sisters say that.”)

Sharon consults the Lonely Planet guide

As we drive to our appointment with them, we get our first look at Almaty in daylight. The avenues are wide and tree-lined. This, combined with the streetcars and the outdoor cafes, makes Almaty seem more like a European city than a Central Asian one. In fact, thanks to oil money, Kazakhstan is the richest of the Stans. The streets here are clogged with designer stores and fleets of silver Mercedes driven by thick-necked Russians—the kind of people you don’t ask what they do for a living. There’s plenty of grittiness, too: old ladies selling apples the size of your head, young men in leather jackets hanging out, looking like trouble. Almaty, in other words, is an oil boomtown.

We arrive at a nondescript, unmarked office, where we meet Gulbanu, the public face of the Sisters. She is nicer, softer than I had expected. We sit in a conference room where she tells us (and two other adopting couples) that “the situation in Almaty is difficult.” She lingers on the word “dif-fi-cult,” elongating it so that it fills the entire room and hangs in the air. We knew the process was rocky, but we thought the “difficulties” had been sorted out days ago. Otherwise, why are we here? We start to wonder, not for the first time, whether this adoption is going to happen. The problem, we learn, is that the Ministry of Education won’t allow us to visit the baby house. Never, by the way, call them orphanages. Always baby houses.

A Kazakh woman plays the dombra, a traditional instrument

The delay is partly bureaucratic but also symbolic of a deeper problem. International adoption here is controversial, a rallying cry for Kazakh nationalists. Lately, that cry has grown louder as Kazakhstan has grown richer. Rich countries don’t “give away” their children to Americans, only poor ones like Colombia do. Or so the thinking goes.

The adoption business is like no other. Can you imagine a company that charged you tens of thousands of dollars for its services and then inflicted constant delays on you, all the while withholding the reasons for those delays? You would demand a full refund. Maybe file a complaint with the Better Business Bureau. But this is a franchise built on love and greed, in which proportions I can’t really say.

Construction cranes are everywhere

We do some shopping then head back to the apartment, where we wait for the Call, a promised update from the Sisters. Finally, the Call comes early Friday evening. It is bad news disguised as good news.

“You have an appointment with the Ministry of Education on Monday,” one of the Sisters’ minions says.

“Good,” I say. “What time is the appointment?”

“We don’t have a time yet,” says the minion.

Finally, after some prodding, she admits the “appointment” may not happen at all. “They want you to wait,” says the minion. Why and for how long? She does not say.

*Correction, Dec. 22: Because of an editing oversight, an earlier version of this piece did not specify that the events in this Diary took place in September, not in December as the dateline suggests.