Friday, 26 August 2011

Kazakhstan - The first school visit

Aug 22-26

Hello everyone!

I mentioned previously that this is an unusual place to visit. Requiring letters of invitation and a knowledge of Russian would undoubtedly put many people off coming here on vacation. The reason I am here is work. It's been nine months since I last worked for financial gain - that is long enough. There are many reasons why I chose Kazakhstan, but I won't bore you with those here.

Well, I will with one reason - the school that I am working for. The Russian word for school is skola школа, pronounced sko-lah. I will be working as a teacher in a private school. Unlike Korea, there don't seem to be many schools with foreign teachers out here. An affiliate school was set up in the old capital, Almaty, in 20008, and has been deemed enough of a success for a new, bigger school to be opened in the capital. We open for the very first time next week.

Fun fact: Almaty, previously known as Alma-Ata, was the capital of Kazakhstan until 1997, when the status was bestowed upon Astana.

The school has installed the latest technology and has created excellent sporting amenities. It possesses a swimming pool - the water currently has a green tint, but i assume that will change - a sports hall, tennis courts and astroturf for football. Each room is fitted with an electronic smartboard, and email is the common communicative language throughout.

The school uses the National Curriculum from the UK. I will be teaching Year 6 - 10-year-olds who will turn 11 as the year progresses. As the school has initially opened as a primary school, these will be the oldest students. Due to the fees involved and the pre-requisite assessments, the initial intake is quite small. There are two Year 6 teachers, and each of us has thirteen children. Makes a change from the forty per class method used in Korea - I may actually learn some names!

The other difference is what I'm teaching. I won't be limited to English this time. Oh, no. I will be teaching English, Maths, Science and Humanities. Well, that's what I was told when I arrived. Turns out I will also be teaching Drama. On a Friday afternoon. The kids' last lesson of the week. I had Drama on a Friday afternoon once in school. I remember how hyper kids of that age are at this point, and how little they listen. Especially in Drama. But I'm sure it will be immense fun, and also better than teaching English at that time. All I have to do is familiarise myself with the material that I will be teaching - no easy task. But I'm working with very experienced people who are helping me every step of the way.

There are issues - the main one being that it isn't finished. It took until the Wednesday for me to be able to get into my classroom, and Wednesday afternoon for chairs and the plug to turn on the smartboard to arrive. At the time of writing we had no white board or display boards, and no laminator - so I won't show you my room just yet. Yet in spite of all of this, we are making good progress. I've been told the school in Almaty was half-finished when it opened, so everybody has done an excellent job here in Astana.

The school is fantastic, and the spirit of everyone involved is shining through in how much we are helping each other. We will be working over the weekend to ensure that the school is ready for the children. The excitement is growing for the opening of our new school, and once we have planned our first lessons and completed our displays we will be ready to rock their worlds.

Love you all


Monday, 22 August 2011

Kazakhstan - The first 24 hours

20-21 August

Hello everyone!

I'm in Kazakhstan now. Not in most people's top 10 destinations. I will explain everything in more detail over the coming weeks, but for now all you need to know is that I have a new job which has taken me to the relative backwater that is Central Asia.

Aside from a man in a mankini, I don’t know much about Kazakhstan, and I’m going to assume that you house a similar opinion. So in addition to my usual pattern of writing about my experiences, I am going to use this blog to embellish your knowledge about this country and the region. One way of doing this is to introduce a ‘fun fact’ during each blog. Here is your first:

Fun fact: Kazakhstan is the world’s largest landlocked country.

I will also try to learn some Russian, which is commonly spoken throughout Kazakhstan. I said that about Korea, but failed. Miserably. So in order to aid my learning I am going to include one Russian word each time I write, and will aim to link it to my blogging theme. The first is babushka Ъаъушка, pronounced BAH-boosh-kah, which I had heard of but didn’t know what it meant – grandmother. Think ajuma in Korean and you’re just about there.

Right then, to the first 24 hours. These are normally carnage, and this was no different. After a few visa issues – such as getting the visa on the Friday and flying on Saturday, collecting my passport at Heathrow – a small group of strangers jetted into the unknown via the German city of Frankfurt. Not many places fly directly to Kazakhstan. Not yet, anyway.

It’s difficult for me to describe how I felt at this point. I seemed to be in the calmest of moods – one of the girls described me as ‘horizontal’ for being so laidback about our journey and our future. Having a similar experience when I went to Korea has clearly helped me, but for a while on this day I felt a strange mixture of apathy, excitement and the inability to stop talking.

Kazakhstan is currently 5 hours ahead of the UK (6 in winter), and 3 hours behind Korea. We landed late at night, at which point the excitement began to stir from deep within. A lengthy visa check, a baggage collection and then we’re through to meet the VIPs from our school, and through to Astana, the capital city and my new home. The airport itself? Quite small, but just like any other. Well, from the inside at least. The exterior is dominated by a large blue dome.

We were all piled on a bus and were driven to our respective apartments. Again, I’ll show ‘n’ tell that aspect of my life in future blogs, but I will state that I’m very, very happy. The drive was particularly fascinating. Everywhere we looked, and every turn we took, showcased a unique building or spectacular architecture. Oh, and an advert for our school on a giant billboard.

After a short sleep due to jetlag and excitement, I awoke the next day and was taken to one of these unique buildings. It is called the Khan Shatyr. As you can see, it is a giant tent. The amazing aspect of this place is not visible, though will become more noticeable in the winter. This is because the temperature inside is constantly maintained at 25’C, irrespective of conditions outside of the tent. It houses shops as diverse as Kaz Press and Debenhams, a monorail, a bungee ride and a beach. I will talk about the beach when we use it – unfortunately we weren’t allowed a sneak peak for free.

Whilst we were gazing at this strangest of designs – a man was later seen at the top of the tent and seemed poised to abseil down – I had my mind on other things. My key had inexplicably become stuck in my lock on the outside of my door, and refused to budge. Knowing that you needed to use a fob to enter at the ground level, I was confident enough to leave it to be fixed at a later juncture in the day. For a while I seemed destined to spend my second night sleeping in someone else’s apartment, but the landlady’s assistant managed to free the key. I didn’t see him do this, and have no idea how.

So, first impressions. The city seems quite quiet, though it was a Sunday. I have only encountered one local unconnected with the school, and she didn’t seem overly friendly. She is my nextdoor neighbour, quite an old lady, and slammed the door in my face when I asked her to help me with the key problem. Twice. People don’t like you taking photos of baked beans in a supermarket. The temperature is pleasant, and my colleagues all seem friendly and fascinating. Vodka is cheaper than a tub of Pringles. Taxis are everywhere but cannot be seen – they just look like normal cars driving down the street.

In sum, my first 24 hours were mad. Mad, in the best possible way. Maybe Sacha should have visited before ripping on this place – it seems like he couldn’t have got it more wrong.

Love you all


Monday, 1 August 2011

England - The first stroll on Brighton Pier

July 11-13

Hello everyone!

Returning to the mainland, we had one more place to visit before driving up to the capital. Of all of our major destinations, this was the one place I had never been to before. We were heading from the Isle of Wight to the seaside city of Brighton. Brighton, infamously and historically known as the destination where King George IV apparently went with his mistress, and more commonly known now as the gay capital of the United Kingdom.

There is undoubtedly a gay scene and influence to Brighton, but it is not as extravagant or noticeable as one may expect. I'm sure my opinion would be different if I had rocked up here during the pride parade in August. Quirky advertising posters were prevalent in shops and cafes, and the occasionally flamboyant man would prance past, but Brighton is really just like any other city.

As with most seaside towns and cities in Britain, the main attraction of Brighton is its pier. The Palace Pier opened in 1899, and a place where one would expect to be within a hubbub of vibrant activity. Not in the evening, it seems. The end of the pier was empty and eerily quiet, reminiscent of a ghost town in the Wild Wild West. No rides running down here, though the indoor gambling area was an illuminated cacophony of jangling coins and special effects.

Even without gambling all of your money away - we spent a bit trying to win Smurfette to give Papa Smith some company - Brighton is a very expensive place, partly due to its proximity to the capital. Our budget was tight even before having to fork out £65 a night for a guesthouse with uneven floors. This meant that we decided against visiting the other big attraction, the Royal Pavilion. It is, however, a lovely city to walk around, and The Lanes in particular maintain an eccentric charm.

A little bit further down the coast are another natural wonder of the British coastline. The cliffs in this part of the country are composed primarily of soft, white chalk. The most famous collection are at Dover, but there is an equally impressive set a short drive east of Brighton known as the Seven Sisters. After fighting through a brisk wind as we walked along the unprotected Country Park we got our first glimpse of the cliffs.

They are known as the Seven Sisters due to the number of cliffs in close proximity to one another. Though the view is initially impressive, the more spectacular views are obtained from the tops of the cliffs themselves. It was with a slight degree of trepidation that we scaled the first of the steep slopes. The view is something to behold, though your breath is taken away in equal measure by the wind whipping up as you creep towards the edge.

From the bright, brash lights of the pier to the quiet charm of the lanes, Brighton has plenty of positives as a short holiday destination. It has a youthful, spiky edge, yet also maintains a traditional and vintage Victorian aura. We had a thoroughly enjoyable time in this most cosmopolitan of cities.

Love you all