I wake up and can hardly believe we’ve already been here for two weeks. It’s been one ridiculous whirlwind of an experience so far – yet I think every day we are not only finding more of a groove but are finding ourselves more and more grateful for the opportunity to come here in the first place. Nine months ago I was presented with the opportunity to come out here and immediately refused. I had moved to England just two months before and because the original idea was to come to Kazakhstan for an entire year, I had considerable reservations, primarily because that it probably meant being away from my girlfriend for another year (whom I’d just left to study and get my Master’s in England). The doubters thought it wouldn’t work, and we can honestly both attest to the strain it put on the relationship. But after months of deliberating and considering our options for this summer and beyond, we were able to work out an arrangement where both of could come here. The yearlong internship was cut to a two-month stint and we managed to go together. Meg left her job as a nurse in New Hampshire to join me in England and now that we’re here, we couldn’t be happier that we were convinced to give it a go.
Aside from the simple decision to come, it took a great deal of financial support, which we are both forever indebted to the many who decided to contribute. And while their contributions deserve our many thanks, we want to show our appreciation to everyone who has supported us, not just on a financial basis, but on emotional grounds. While the reactions differed from a conservative “Wow, that’s adventurous!” to a more unmasked and honest “What are you nuts?!?”, we both feel blessed to have so many of you supporting our decision to go down this individual and relational path. Our hope is that you all understand how grateful we are, and although we could go on and on about our appreciation and the stories of people’s reactions, we really want to share our experiences with you!
As for the format, I have written a blog for St. Joe’s once before, when the basketball team ventured off to England in August of 2011. We plan to write and jot down our experiences on a weekly basis. We’ll do our best to keep it interesting. Meg and I will both give our perspectives on our experiences. Enjoy!
Sunday, June 8, 2014
Arrived in Almaty, KZ after traveling from London and making a connection in Instanbul. Working on zero sleep, we meet the Drive team, which consists of founders Damian and Grace Long, employed staff members Lisa and Ravshan Uraimov and local contributors, Zhomart and Luda.
View of the city from the mountains
One thing we noticed just from the drive from the airport: a lot of construction projects go unfinished. Kazakhstan is in this sort-of renovation process in which entire cities, namely Almaty and Astana, are being built back up as part of the Kazakhstan 2050 plan to join some of the world’s most economically stable countries. A new financial district with all-glass buildings, American-style malls that are treated almost like museums to some, and new apartment complexes seem to be springing up everywhere. However, money for a number of these projects end up falling short and throughout the city, buildings are half-constructed, left unmanned, leaving an ugly impression. It’s a strange mix and there is more to it, but I’ll leave it at that for now.
View of mountains from the village
Monday, June 9, 2014
After sleeping straight for 8 hours, I wake up at 5:30AM to watch the NBA Finals, Game 2. Ten hours ahead, the timing is actually perfect. Ravshan has NBA League Pass so we watch the game there. Hey, the heart wants what it wants.
Tuesday, June 10, 2014
First Drive practice. The language barrier is much harder than we thought, though the universal language of basketball helps a bit. Saying votak (“like this”) gives us the opportunity to demonstrate the action without needing to explain things verbally.
Later, I met up with a local Kazakh friend I originally met at Oxford Brookes. One of things that’s so great about the locals here is how friendly and excited they are to show off their national pride and home. He takes me with a couple of his friends up the nearby mountains that give us a gorgeous, yet foggy view of the city. I could go on but I’ll let the pictures do the talking.
Wednesday, June 11, 2014
Today Chris and I, along with other Drive staff, painted the lines on a basketball court in a local park. Drive has been working on fixing up the court all spring and it was great that we got to contribute. It was fun to get out in the community and kids were literally waiting for the paint to dry so they could play on the court! It should be noted that we had to basically follow Chris with a rag wiping up his mess (quite the sloppy painter). Apparently he never learned to color inside the lines.
Meg and Calvin painting lines
Chris painting lines
Thursday, June 12, 2014
Meg and I get some time to spend on our own, so we venture off to their newest mall, “Mega”. Decide to go out to eat at the one place where they have English menus. Afterwards, we have to find a way back to Lisa and Ravshan’s place, which is a bit outside the city. Here, if you need to get somewhere and don’t have a car, you take a taxi. By “taxi”, we really mean, “hitchhike”. You put your hand out by the side of the road and literally within 10 seconds, a car will pull over and pick you up. You tell them where you’re going, negotiate a price, and you’re on your way. Because most folks do not want to pay for gas, this is a viable way to offset the costs for them. The coolest part: you can basically get anywhere for no more than $4 or $5. And if the driver can speak any English at all, it is usually fun trying to get a conversation going and learn a bit about them. While some think of Americans as arrogant and want nothing to do with us, usually folks here will be really interested as to why we’re here and will be excited to practice their English with us.
Sign outside the “Mega” mall
Fountains and mountains
Saturday and Sunday, June 14 and 15, 2014
A 3 v 3 tournament took place outside one of the city’s major malls. We had four or five teams representing Drive in a number of different divisions. I played in the adult male division with Damian, Zhomart, an their friend and General Manager of a professional basketball club (BK Astana), Nikoli. In the adult female division, Meg played with Luda, her sister, and another friend of theirs. While Saturday was about 95 and muggy, Sunday it poured all morning. We played through the rain, and four of our teams ended up making it to the championship game. All four teams lost, coming in 2nd place. Regardless, each team was recognized on a massive stage and because Snickers sponsored the tournament, each team received an entire box full of their delicious candy bars. Not even a little mad about it.
A lot of Drive kids were there for the championship and it was a joy playing in front of them and getting high fives and maladietz’s (“Good job!”) after the game. As I mentioned before, speaking through the universal language of basketball has allowed us to connect with these kids without actually verbally communicating with them. It’s a weird sensation being able to do so through such a simple game and a smile.
Meg and her team
Chris and his team
All 2nd place finishers
Tuesday, June 17, 2014
During our third Drive practice, Meg and I were tasked to run our own station on defensive positioning. Using Meg as key demonstrator, we taught basic English terms and proper footwork. Playing “Coach says”, we used our newly taught English vocabulary to test the kids’ listening skills. They fed off our energy, and even though we had very little Russian at our disposal, we were able to communicate again through our actions, which was both encouraging and enlightening. It’s amazing what not having a common language forces you to do in order to get a point across.
Wednesday, June 18, 2014
Along with Chris and I, a great guy named Calvin (he’s from Boston) is here for a short-term experience with Drive as well. Today, the three of us got to experience a Kazakhstan Bizarre. It’s an open market with basically everything you could possibly think of, from fruits, veggies, and meat to jewelry, shoes, and household goods. Prices are posted but negotiating is possible as well. The Drive team wanted to really throw us out there and get us speaking and interacting with locals. Although our Russian leaves something to be desired, it was so much fun. So many people and smells and food and kids running around. Definitely a lively place! Chris loves trying to barter with people, where I would probably give them just about anything they asked for (this drives Chris crazy). Food quality is significantly better at the Bizarre and so are the prices. It was fun, lively, and cheap! We will definitely be going back.
Differences and Observations
- Traffic here is absurd. If you thought Massachusetts’s drivers were lunatics, please come visit Almaty. Traffic laws basically don’t exist. Many folks are colorblind to the lines that mark the roads, if there are lines at all, and passing people isn’t just for the highways – if there’s a will, there’s a way, and these folks take it to heart.
- During the first practice, we set up the classic 3 v 2, 3 v 2 game which every kid loves. While one kid was on defense, his phone (which was in his pocket, nonetheless) rang and he had no qualms picking it up on the spot. He continued to play defense while talking away! He can’t be older than 12.
- In the middle of a major intersection, a car had broken down, and the driver promptly got out and started doing maintenance on it right there and then. And I don’t mean he opened the hood and took a peak. He got his tools out and laid underneath the car to fix the problem. That didn’t slow traffic down at all.
- Smog is a huge issue here. Everyone has a car (this is a major shift – a decade ago almost nobody did. Now, traffic is nearly unbearable. More on car transporation and traffic later). That, and there is no real concern for the environment. Every afternoon the air quality is less than ideal and many people wear masks to protect themselves.
- Drove by a car completely flipped on its head. Seemed as if everyone was alright, but there were about 10-12 guys standing around it, clearly tossing ideas around as to how to get the thing flipped back properly on its wheel-side.
- The mountains here are absolutely beautiful. They run parallel to the city and depending on the weather, can be seen from anywhere. Pictures just don’t do them justice.
- Even though there is a very apparent language barrier, when we arrive at practice, all of the kids rush to shake Chris and I’s hands. They are so appreciative and happy to have us there. It is very humbling.
We can’t wait to share more of our time here with you soon. More to come for sure!
Chris & Meg