My flight over the Kazakhstan last Wednesday was more eventful than I wanted. Unfortunately, I booked a flight with a very short layover in London. If any delays happened on my DC to London leg of my flight, it would be problematic. With my luck, there were delays and I nearly missed my flight. With slow security checkpoints in Heathrow, I had to sprint across the terminal to catch my flight. I arrived at the gate three minutes before take off huffing and puffing while I showed the gate attendants my passport and plane ticket. On my flight, I was probably the only American. The flight was to Amritsar, India with a stop in Almaty, so everyone else on the plane was either Indian or Russian/Kazakh.

When I landed in Almaty that Thursday night, it was unclear whether Bill, the other Fulbright grantee, or another person was picking me up at the airport. Fortunately, Asiyat, an employee of the U.S. embassy, was there and eliminated my fears of being stuck at the airport with no ride. She drove me over to Katya’s (one of Bill’s local friends) flat where Bill was not present. I found out short afterward that he was caught up at another friend’s elaborate family dinner and couldn’t make it to the airport. He felt so bad for leaving me in a stranger’s apartment without him being there, but I told him not to worry about it. Katya was very hospitable and friendly, and I had no problems getting along with her. She prepared me some dinner and tea while I showered and put away my bags in my room.

The next few days, I met many of Bill’s local friends. It’s still hard for me to place names with faces. However, I am very grateful for all of their hospitality and friendliness. Bill and I moved from apartment to apartment as we followed his friends from one place to another. They showed me various nightclub/bar hotspots in the city and other key places of note in Almaty. On top of this, Bill and I took an afternoon to tour the famous Panfilov Park, a memorial to those who died in World War II. It was located not too far from Katya’s apartment. We also took an extensive tour of Almaty’s newly built metro system. It is still very small subway system with only seven stops and one line, but the stations are quite ornate and beautiful. Each had a theme that explained different aspects of Kazakhstan’s cultural and historical narrative.

I would  say my favorite place Bill’s friends took me was Kok Tebye, an amusement park up in the mountains. The place has roller coaster rides and typical American style carnival/arcade games. The most noteworthy aspect of this park is its spectacular view of the Almaty city skyline. At night, you can see all the buildings and streets light up. Although I tried to capture this view on my camera, it did not do the view justice.  My new Kazakh friends and I walked around the park and took pictures at various spots, including an unusual statue of the Beatles (see my Facebook album). The weekend was exhausting as I wandered from place to place, but I got a very good taste of life in Almaty.

Bill and I had a very informative in-country orientation at the U.S. Embassy Monday morning, and I am now aware of all the opportunities and potential impact I have in my city placement. It was very rewarding to know that the U.S. Embassy entrusts me to evaluate its American culture and English education programs and gives me the freedom to dabble into various english education initiatives and research during my 10 month grant. I look forward to getting my hands dirty and exploring my interests while in Ust Kamenogorsk.

Since Monday, I have been on my own in Almaty while Bill left for his placement in Shymkent and while my newly formed Kazakh friends were busy with their work schedules. I was afraid I would not know what to do with myself these past two days, but fortunately I have kept myself busy. The U.S. Embassy told me that there was a discussion section put on by American Corners (one of the State Department’s english education initiatives) and that I should check it out.

Yesterday, I walked into the library where this American Corners Discussion section was occurring and ended up leading the two hour discussion. I did not come prepared with any lesson plans, but I figured any informal and fluid discussion would be beneficial to the students. I started off the discussion by introducing myself and telling everyone to introduce themselves and state why they want to learn English. From this, I built off what people said and jumpstarted a discussion comparing American and Kazakh food for the first hour. After a short break, students began asking me about my education background, and this sparked a lively discussion about the American and Kazakh university system. There was even a debate between students over the future of Kazakhstan’s university system, and I was very pleased with how articulate people were with their points.

Today, one of Bill’s friends who is in English Teacher asked if I could sit in on her classes. Once again, this ended up being me leading an English discussion. The classes turned into informal question and answer sessions where students asked general questions about my background. From there, I built off side discussions about American culture and compared various aspects of American and Kazakh culture. In the five hours of discussions, I learned quite a bit about Kazakh food, the Kazakh political system, and students’ future aspirations and dreams.

These past two days gave me a taste of what I will be doing in Ust Kamenogorsk in the upcoming months, and I have so many ideas of what I want to do with my future students in the classroom. Despite jet lag and a stressful flight over to Almaty, this past week has been quite enjoyable.  Although I am excited to settle into my apartment and start working in Ust Kamenogorsk, I will definitely miss my new friends and experiences in Almaty. People thus far in this country have been very friendly and hospitable, and I am glad many are eager to learn more about American culture and English. Every person I have met has only said positive things about the United States and are very receptive when I explain certain aspects of American culture. I look forward to the months ahead, and I hope I can blog more often. My internet has not been very reliable in country, and Word Press does not always cooperate with Kazakh wireless internet.

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These last few weeks have been a whirlwind of hang outs and vacation with family and close friends. The goodbyes do not get easier no matter how many times you have to say them. Unfortunately, I have had to say many these past couple weeks. I’ve tried to keep them short because it breaks my heart when hugs linger and I know both of us might start getting a little teary-eyed. However, I know all of my close friends and family will be there when I get back.  I will “talk to them later” rather than saying “goodbye forever.”

For the second to last week of August one of my aunts rented out a very upscale lake house in Newfound Lake, New Hampshire for a week. A significant segment of my dad’s side of the family was up there to spend a few days. My dad, one of my cousins, and I pulled up to the lake house and realized it was the largest one on the hill. It had beautiful lookouts and plenty of rooms for all of us to sleep. The house overall was gorgeous and the view was spectacular. I remember looking out on one of the balconies during sunset and could not believe all of the colors in the sky and reflecting off the water. I tried taking a picture, but those moments cannot really be captured on camera.

We spent our days swimming at the private beach near our lake house and kayaking around the lake. Kayaking was probably my favorite part of the trip. As I kayaked, I stopped from paddling to look at my surroundings and took in everything from the scenery. The houses up on hills in the distance, the sun peaking across the sky, and the sea of green foliage in the forests all were within my frame of reference. I closed my eyes for brief moments and took in everything. Newfound Lake is hands down one of the prettiest places I have ever seen.

On top of taking in time at the lake, my dad took my cousin and I on a mini road trip around New Hampshire to show the places where he grew up. Although I have seen all these places multiple times, my cousin who came up with us from Virginia had not. We walked around Phillips Exeter Academy where my dad went to prep school, and my cousin couldn’t believe that this campus was  a high school. With a multi-billion dollar endowment, it’s no surprise Exeter looks the way it does. After that, we drove through my dad’s hometown of Nashua, NH and he pointed out various landmarks from his childhood. Each stop in Nashua, NH came with amusing stories and a link to my paternal family’s past. The next day, I selfishly made my dad and cousin from Virginia take a day trip up to Hanover, NH so that I could pay a visit to Dartmouth. The school reminds me of William and Mary in that it’s nestled in a small, sleepy, and quaint town. We walked around the main parts of campus and took pictures at some noteworthy buildings, my favorite of course being the TDX House.

This past weekend, I decided to take my version of homecoming down to William and Mary to say my last goodbyes to everyone on campus. Every moment was spent grabbing a meal with people, updating each other about life in people’s apartments or dorm rooms, and getting drinks at the local bars. I was proud of myself for fitting in everyone I wanted to see into this short weekend visit.

A few people I really wanted to see were members of the Russian faculty. They provided a lot of support with recommendations and advice during the Fulbright application process and after I accepted my grant. I needed to give them a proper goodbye. Some of them never cease to make life interesting. One of my professors, Sasha, I visited in class and intended to just say hi. However, he decided to make my visit a teaching moment and had me stand in front of the class and explain my Fulbright grant and Kazakhstan in Russian. After that, each student asked me a question in Russian and I had to answer them back in Russian. I have not spoken the language in nearly three months, and the exercise made me realize that I need to brush up on my speaking skills while in KZ. This moment brought back  fun and amusing memories of language classes and Sasha’s unique style of teaching.

I realize this post is quite long and props to anyone who took the time to read through everything. These past few weeks have made me sentimental about my life in America. However, I am ready to embark on this new Fulbright adventure and write the first few paragraphs of the next chapter of my life. I’m spending the next two days packing my life for the next year into a few suitcases and then flying out. I will write again when I’m on the other side of the world!

Welcome to my Blog! I cannot believe that in a few short weeks I will be flying out to Kazakhstan! September 5th to be exact. The summer has definitely flown by, and it has finally dawned on me that I am not returning to school in the fall. Instead, I am jet setting out to Central Asia without any idea of what to expect. When I tell people my post-graduation plan is to spend a year in Kazakhstan teaching English, they give me a puzzled look because a) they have never even heard of the place or b) they wonder why on earth of all the places to travel I would pick KZ. Well, my answer is why not?

In college, I took many Russian history, culture, and language classes that all focused primarily on the Russian Federation. Most of my knowledge and understanding of Central Asia is from the vantage point of Russia. During my studies in college, I never really looked into region until I studied abroad in St. Petersburg, Russia. My host mother in Russia was a 60-year-old woman who lived by herself along with her old cat in a small high rise apartment. The first question I asked her while sitting on the couch in her kitchen was “Where were you born?” Turns out she was born in Kazakhstan (which was then part of the USSR) in the 1940s when the war broke out. She and her family are ethnically Russian, but remain scattered between St. Petersburg and Kazakhstan. Over the course of my six week study abroad, I learned bits and pieces about this country as I tried to translate in my head her stories about her past. She spoke in rapid Russian and at the time it was very difficult to pick up all the details of her stories. However, from what I did understand I got a better grasp of life in the Soviet Union versus life in post-Soviet Russia and Kazakhstan. These small anecdotes made me curious about Central Asia. By the time I decided to apply for a Fulbright, I knew I wanted to take this as an opportunity to explore that part of the former Soviet Union.

I would not say I am an expert in Central Asian or Kazakh politics, history, and culture. This summer I have spent my time doing what I can to familiarize myself with the region. I recently watched the BBC series “Welcome to the Stans” where each 45 minute episode was devoted to a different country in Central Asia. The International Relations nerd inside me got really excited when they discussed all the geo-politics in Central Asia! I have also looked through Foreign Policy, the Economist, BBC, and other sources to understand the politics and economics behind the country. No amount of reading though will prepare me adequately for what to expect while in KZ. I’ve also been trying to keep up my Russian this summer by watching Russian TV and movies along with listening to my favorite trashy Russian pop songs. I know four years of studying Russian in college will not be enough to converse fluently with Kazakhs. The best way to understand Kazakhstan is to dive head first into the country. Along the way, I know I will make a complete fool out of myself as I make numerous cultural gaffes in front of locals and fail at times to communicate with others with my limited Russian. But good stories aren’t made from all the times things went smoothly. It’s the moments you mess up you’ll remember and laugh about later.

These next few weeks will be spent saying goodbye to close friends and family and attempting to pack my life into a few suitcases. Normally, I am a horrible procrastinator when it comes to packing, but this time I am trying to stick to a schedule. Hopefully it goes well, and I am not scrambling around my house trying to find things the night before I fly out.