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.