As my last day in Shymkent draws to a close I can’t report that I have done anything particularly special. I awoke lateish ate breakfast then went with Dinara to buy eggs and cake, after which I used said eggs to bake another cake fro Dinara’s 24th birthday which is today. For lunch Dinara, Nassima and I ate cake, drank red wine and toasted to Dinara’s birthday, health, future etc. I had an hours nap to sleep off some of the wine then went with Dinara and Gulnara to the Dinara café opposite Mega to celebrate her birthday with the rest of the team. For the first time in what seemed a very long while the whole team were together for a social event. We had rinks, tea, coke, sprite, beer and juice, a few had food, salad and chips, everyone got a chance to have some of my cake for once, we presented Dinara with her present, a Kazakh phrase book and a card and the whole evening was wrapped up by 7:30. Dinara and I went with Beth to the blue and yellow shop for her to buy the essential Kazakhstan chocolate and then the three of us walked back to Imram to get a box of chocolates for Nassima. As we walked I thought about how this would be the last time I would be walking these streets and seeing Shymkent. I have developed a certain affection for Shymkent despite its flaws in the same way I did for Harlow. I won’t be missing the pervy men who today decided to cluck, yes cluck, at Dinara and me as we passed their road works or the drunks, one of which was wearing a very short tight green zip up top today that exposed his stomach as he almost stumbled into me on the way home. But when I think on it I experience the same things in England. I am merely less threatened by it there because I know the language and social norms. I hoe to return to Kazakhstan and Shymkent one day though it won’t be for a number of years; maybe 2030. It would be nice to come in winter. There are things that I didn’t get to do. Visit all the bazaars, walk from себер to a park filled with giant sculptures covered in mosaic and onto a very soviet statue of a worker with a shovel triumphantly hoisting a book above his head which I had wanted to get a picture of and I never got to horse riding in the mountains. That I feel may be one of the greatest pulls. Our bus broke down on the way home so our money was returned and we flagged down a passing mashurtka.
Dinara cutting her birthday cake
Gulnara, Dinara and me with Nassima and her grandson
Tuesday 1st September
Leaving Nassima’s apartment was more emotional than I expected. I guess because it was all wrapped up in the end of the programme as well. It was worse leaving in the afternoon rather than the morning as we had done at Ilma’s. After packing I spent the rest of the day just reading, thinking about my life and friends back home and acutely worrying. Joe came to see us off at the station and there was a moments panic as Malika turned up late with the tickets just as the train was leaving. We are now on our way to Almaty. The train security guards are playing Ben’s guitar in the next cabin and Grace, Kate and I are working our way through a bottle of cognac.
Outside Nassima's apartment building waiting for the taxi
At the train station
Wednesday 2nd September
Despite my good cognac induced sleep on the train I arrived at the казжол (Kazhol) hotel this morning feeling tried and hungry. The rest of the team appeared to be in a similar state. At first I didn’t like the hotel with their seeming lack of organisation placing Olga, Sarah and I in a twin room then solving the problem by adding a camp bed (we later discovered that all the girls had been placed in rooms like this. Probably a money saving move by the British Council), pretentious coffee break tiny little appetisers of ham, fish and cheese on bread which did nothing to satisfy our hunger compared to the pastries we received during coffee breaks at the last place we stayed in Almaty and feeling out of place next to business men in their suits. However they redeemed themselves with lunch; greek salad, followed by Kazakh noodle soup and then chicken in a red wine and mushroom sauce with fried potatoes. We spent the day on our community debrief discussing the community of Shymkent, volunteer placements and CADs. The most interesting part for me was when we discussed impressions we had about Shymkent before we arrived that turned out to be myth. It was interesting because before we arrived the Kazakh volunteers had some very negative impressions, mostly relating to crime, which turned out to be myth whereas the UK volunteers had focused ore on the heat and their impression that Shymkent would be a desert with no greenery. Actually I can’t be sure of this Kazakh/UK divide as the comments were anonymous. I am just forming it from the few commentators who identified themselves and those that needed translation from Russian. Despite our tiredness after dinner which was not so enjoyable being apple, cheese and horsemeat salad followed by fish (which I did eat some of despite not liking fish. I am becoming a much less fussy eater as I age), we all walked the 15 minutes or so from the hotel to Nina’s home to celebrate our last night together. Dinara’s train is leaving tomorrow night and we UK people have to leave the hotel at 6am on Friday. We met Nina’s mum who is absolutely lovely and an amazing hostess providing us with compote to drink and a range of cooked dishes including plov that no one could eat because we were all so full. I managed to sample a little though. We played Sarah’s pub quiz then had to leave as soon as it finished, it being 11:30pm and we being very tired with more debriefing and a reception to face the next day. I was starting to get pretty grumpy. Sarah and I couldn’t be bothered to wait for everyone to stop faffing around and so we left for the hotel alone. We both commentated on how we felt so much more comfortable in Almaty. There is more street lighting for a start anxd we got much less, if any, attention for speaking English. Nonetheless we still encountered a couple of drunk Russian businessmen on our way who invited us back to their room to drink whiskey and still water.
Shymkent community map
Thursday 3rd September
Program debriefing today focusing on community development, counterparts and the future… My counterpart was mysteriously absent from the counterparts session which was both an annoyance, slightly sad and something of a relief as everyone knows we have not been the best of friends. I shared my fears during ‘the future’ session that I would not have the reunion that I hoped of with my friends. They have not stood still these six months. They have finished masters, got new jobs, left Essex and moved around the country; even left the country and we are all famously lazy and bad at keeping in touch. This bothers me as I think that through the programme I have learnt to value friendship more. Early evening was taken up by a reception with the British Council. I delivered a speech designed for the press about our CADs full of the facts and figures they had demanded at our initial press conference in Almaty. Unfortunately by the time I got around to delivering it, which was delayed by the arrival of several courses of food, I had had several glasses of red wine pressed on me by the British Council Director and the majority of the press had got bored and left. At 8:30pm we all said goodbye to Dinara while a frustrated ‘taxi’ driver looked on. Beth cried as they were close counterparts despite Dinara living with Gulnara and me for the last few weeks and Sarah cried as well, probably because Beth was crying. We then spent ages hanging around in the venue long after all the guests had left and another delicious Kazakh buffet cleared away, signing each others certificates, writing nice things about each other and generally prating about. Ben and Anne-Marie composed some new songs and a hench Russian security guard smelling of vodka joined in a game of slaps. At 11pm we retreated to one of the girls bedrooms to give Grace her birthday present. It was an hour early but we all have to be up stupidly early to be at the airport.
Friday 4th September
Said goodbye to the remaining Kazakhstani volunteers outside the hotel this morning. No one cried as I recall which was strange given the emotional sensitivity of our team although Nina nearly set everyone off with her extra long hugs. We arrived at Almaty airport around 6:30am where upon Kassym who had accompanied us announced that our plane had been delayed. As it was Kassym we all happily assumed that he was joking. Unfortunately this time he was not. The next 13 hours at Almaty airport were spent trying to sleep and being interrupted in this pursuit by a live band, complaining to BMI about not being given food or drink, searching for food we could buy with the vouchers they eventually gave us, finding we could only use them in the burger bar, then trying to vary our two meals of burgers and waiting while the one woman who was working there cooked our food. We read, called various parents, listened to music and Ben and Anne-Marie composed another song. Even when our flight was finally ready to check in the process was slow due to the luggage conveyor breaking down but after that everything happened in a hurry. We were rushed through passport control and boarding to save those that boarded the plane in Kyrgyzstan waiting around any longer. I hardly had any time to purchase duty free vodka with my remaining tenge. It was all very dramatic. A man from BMI came and found us in the boarding lounge to tell us that we should go straight to the gate to board the plane. When we departed from the lift at the gate we found it jammed with people but someone shouted “London?” at us and we pushed through the crowd waving our boarding passes above our heads shouting “London” in reply. We ran for the waiting bus and jumped aboard but Sarah was seconds too late and the bus doors closed before her. Our shouting and her hammering on the door finally persuaded the driver to reopen the doors and we headed for the plane. Once on board we waited nervously to see if Ali and Rory would make it onto the plane, delayed as they were by Rory’s refusal to jump the queue at passport control. They were the last to board. The flight was uneventful. We were served breakfast and lunch despite it being evening due to the planes delay and I got annoyed that despite my request the pilot did not say happy birthday to Grace who spent most of her 20th birthday in Almaty airport. We said our goodbyes to each other in the airport before heading through customs and greeting waiting friends and family or mum in my case.
And so was the end of Global Xchange. Though not truly. I can’t say that I always enjoyed myself there were a lot of good times. It is an experience I will certainly never forget. Nor will it let me go; with obligations to talk to Rotary Clubs, attend the returned volunteers weekend, promote Global Xchange and take action on a global issue I shall be thinking about GX for some time to come. I also sincerely hope to keep in touch with all the wonderful friends I have made. This sounds like a cheesy significant change story.