понедельник, 31 мая 2010 г.

A Permanent Keepsake from Kazakhstan

This week, I turned 25, an as often happen as you get older, things began falling apart. On Tuesday, the day after my birthday, I ran to a shop near my college to get a quick snack of a samsa and some juice. Samsa’s are baked meat pastries and usually soft and doughy, but this particular samsa had been baked a little longer than usual and so was a little tougher than usual. Anyway, as I bet into my succulent brunch, I heard a crack and I realized that the front of my tooth was rolling around on my tongue. Now, do not fret friends, this was not an actual tooth, just a porcelin veneer. In fact, my two front teeth have not been real since in almost fifteen years. I originally broke my two front teeth at sailing camp when I was nine, and it was repaired by a small plastic bridge. However, when I was sixteen I was hit by a car, and the collision not only dislodged the bridge, but also broke even more of the tooth. Anyway, at this point it was decided to repair my teeth with a veneer that promised to be better looking and more durable. Still, everything breaks eventually, so it was not a huge surprise when the veneer cracked off during my lunch after nine years of faithful service. Anyway, what makes this episode worth writing about is not the break, but the repair. Normally when volunteers need to go to the dentist, we head to Almaty, but the NATEK conference will be here in Kyzylorda next week, and since I am one of the organizers, I did not have the time to go to Almaty for two or three days, or spend a combined 48 hours on a train so I decided to try to get it repaired here. So on Wednesday, I first went to a dentist recommended by the PC Medical Officer, it was also only a block away from my college. When I got there though, they said they did not have any glue to repair it so they sent me to another dentist’s office called Marzhan Tis. When I met the dentist he said that rather than glue the broken piece back on, they would have to replace the entire veneer/crown. Furthermore, because both teeth were done at the same time, both teeth would have to be replaced even though the second tooth was totally fine. I thought this made sense, so said go ahead. The dentist proceeded to then try to yank the veneer off and when that did not work, start drilling and sanding it off, all without the slightest bit of numbing agent. After awhile the dentist said that we should go to another room and consult with another dentist. This new dentist turned out to be barely older than I was and did not look it, which did not exactly fill me with confidence. He then suggested, or at least what I understood him to suggest was that they glue the broken shard back on and repair the second tooth with filling. Of course, my immediate and furious response was if you were going to glue the piece of the first tooth back on, why destroy the second, perfectly good veneer? As soon as he said that I got out of the chair and was about to head straight to Almaty on the next train, NATEK or no, but for better or worse the last train that would get me to Almaty before the end of the work day on Friday had already gone, so I went back in and talked to the dentist and he clarified and said that the young dentist had actually said that it would be one new crown and then filling to fix the other one. I said no, there would be two totally new crowns and he agreed. He then molded the teeth and told me I could come in the next day at three.

I was still pretty pissed off, so the next morning I went over with my counterpart to help translate some of the more technical jargon and asked them point blank why, if there was never going to be any gluing in the first place. The dentist said that I had misunderstood and that it was never the plan to glue the crown back on. Apparently, the reason they had sent me to the second dentist was not that they didn’t have the supplies, but that the doctors at the clinic were not experienced enough, and the doctor at Marzhan Tic was the best. I was definitely still skeptical, so I asked my counterpart if she could come with me. Unfortunately, she had to proctor an exam at three that day so we called the dentist and got the appointment moved to the next morning at nine.

I showed up bright and early at nine, and it turned out that I had nothing to worry about in the first place. The dentist really was the best in the city. He glued the crown back on then filed it down so it fit in my mouth perfectly. I have to admit that its not quite American workmanship. It still feels a bit like I am wearing a retainer sometimes, especially when I drink something very cold. Also, there is a little edge on the back, but over all I was super impressed, and it was by far the cheapest dental procedure that I have ever had. My faith smile was prepared and it restored my faith in Kazakh/socialized medicine. I would do it again, but hopefully, I won’t have to.

четверг, 4 марта 2010 г.

My Paper For Kimep

Here is the paper that I wrote for this months conference in Almaty. I hope you guys like it. As always, the opinions presented are my own, and not those of the Peace Corps or the US government.

Learning Together: Integrated Public Education in Kazakhstan

McKenzie Clark
Manshuk Mametova Humanitarian College, Kazakhstan
mck.clark@gmail.com


1. Introduction

It has been said, “variety is the spice of life.” In other words, difference and diversity make life worth living. In fact, for many countries, including Kazakhstan and the United States, a diverse population is fundamental to their success and development. However, while diversity is important, there must also be something that ties the various groups together lest there be conflict and strife. For the United States and other developed countries, this unifying force is an integrated public education system, and if Kazakhstan is serious about becoming one of the top fifty nations by 2030, it is time for it to follow their example. An integrated education system will help Kazakhstan to preserve its renowned atmosphere of inter-ethnic cooperation, assist in the creation of a national “Kazakhstani” identity, and give students the time an opportunity to study the additional subjects that are quickly becoming a necessity for success in a more competitive 21st century world.

2. Inter-Ethnic Cooperation

At first glance, the connection between the educational system and relations between ethnic groups might seem tenuous, but the truth is that having an integrated public educated system is vital to good inter-ethnic relations. After all, by its very definition, an integrated educational system is about bringing people from different groups together. Segregated schools, on the other hand, divide people. An integrated education system brings people together in two important ways, by forcing students from different groups to spend time together and by guaranteeing everyone an equal opportunity for education. Obvious? Perhaps. But the importance of these two methods for building bridges of friendship and cooperation across cultural and linguistic divides cannot be overstated.

It is an unfortunate tendency of human nature to crowd together with people like you and avoid those that are different . During ancient times, when the largest social units were tribes and city-states, such behavior kept us safe, but in a world of countries with large, multi-ethnic populations, the practice can lead to friction and discord. Thus, for peace and the health of the state, people from different groups occasionally need to be forced to spend time together so that they can get to know each other. Integrated education is one of the most effective methods for doing this because unlike other forms of forced togetherness, the “captive audience” is made up of young people. Adults are the proverbial “old dog.” They are set in their ways and it is difficult for them to digest new information, especially if that information goes against their established worldview. Children, on the other hand, are open-minded and impressionable . They have fewer established prejudices, and have no problem with changing their minds when presented with new information or experience. When children from different groups are educated together, they quickly form friendships across ethnic and cultural lines, and when these friendships are nurtured through years of common schooling, a diverse population becomes joined by bonds of affection and cooperation rather than divided by prejudice and distrust.

An even more important way that integrated schools bring people from different ethnic groups together is through its promise of an equal opportunity for education and success. A prime example of this comes from United States history. For the one hundred years between the end of the Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement, segregation between races was the law of the land. Blacks and whites ate at different restaurants, rode in different sections on buses and trains, and studied at different schools and universities . The schools were supposedly “separate but equal,” but that was hardly the case. In truth, schools for African Americans were almost always underfunded and overcrowded. This left many African-Americans undereducated and unable to compete with whites for highly skilled and well-paid work, marginalizing them politically and economically for decades. Fortunately, the United States Supreme Court eventually recognized that not only was the separate but equal doctrine not working, but that the separate facilities were inherently unequal, and ruled the entire concept unconstitutional , but America is still living down this shameful legacy. To be sure, Kazakhstan’s system of separate schools is not as plagued by racism and discrimination as America’s education system under Jim Crow, but “separate but equal” is still an oxymoron, and separate schools will always lead to discrimination and inequality. In theory, it might appear to be enlightened and culturally sensitive, but having separate schools for different ethnic groups quickly reduces segments of the population to second-class citizens. Inevitably, one type of school will get more or less funding due to political or social factors, or else students will receive different educations based on the cultural sympathies and interests of teachers and administrators until eventually Kazakhstan finds itself in the same situation that America found itself in 1963, with a divided and angry population .

It is doubtful that anyone can argue that educating the youth together is an effective method of bringing together a diverse population, but perhaps fans of Kazakhstan’s current educational system would claim that other methods of bringing the population together are just as effective. The existence of alternative methods is unquestionable, jury duty and military service are just two examples, but whether or not they are as effective as an integrated education system most certainly is. Although members of 150 different ethnic groups call Kazakhstan home, it would be an overstatement to claim that they really live together. For example, Kazakhs and Uzbeks live predominately in the southern part of Kazakhstan while Russians live predominately in the north . Furthermore, even when the populations are more mixed, like in the large urban areas of Almaty, Karaganda, or Astana, populations can still form their communities by living close together and going to the school for their ethnic or language group. Granted, Kazakhstan’s ethnic groups do get along well, especially in comparison with other former Soviet Republics, but isolationism and clannishness can lead to suspicion and conflict, especially during shifts of the status quo. Kazakhstan must be wary that as the population grows and shifts relationships between ethnic groups that were once cordial do not become strained. For that reason, it is crucial that Kazakhstan begin educating all of its young citizens in integrated schools regardless of their ethnicity. Only then will there be true bonds of friendship between groups that cannot be broken whenever it is no longer convenient.

Proponents of the current system would also argue that Kazakhstan is not like America, and that its lawmakers and educators are impartial in regards to funding and standards. Even if that is the case though, there is still the problem of the grass always being greener on the other side of the fence. People will believe, accurately or not, that students at one type of school have it better than students at the other. By educating students together, regardless of ethnicity or first language, Kazakhstan can guarantee that lawmakers and educators make truly race-blind decisions regarding funding and standards and reject claims that one ethnic group or another is being marginalized. Furthermore, the equality of education that results from the integrated system will ensure that students from every ethnic group will be ready to work together equally for the development and success of Kazakhstan, a shared task that will bring the various peoples that make up the nation of Kazakhstan even closer together.

3. A Collective National Identity

For an American, one of the most curious things about Kazakhstan is the way that locals view themselves, particularly in terms of their nationality. In Kazakhstan, when a person introduces themselves they do not refer to themselves as Kazakhstani, but rather as Kazakh or Russian, etc. On the other hand, in the United States, Great Britain, and other developed nations, when people describe themselves, their ethnicity or heritage is secondary. No matter where our families hail from, we are all American, or British . To those who cherish their ancestral culture and individual heritage, such a concept might seem frightening, but the fact is that the sense of a collective national identity is the foundation of success for all developed nations. It is what has made America the richest and most powerful nation on the planet, and it is what keeps America strong and united even in the face of civil conflict, terrorism, war, or economic collapse. This national unity is created through an integrated education system by allowing the children of different groups to share in a significant experience. The bonding power of significant experiences cannot be denied, as any army veteran can attest, and though school is not the same thing as war, it can be equally transformative. Learning, suffering, and succeeding together changes people and unites them under a common identity. Educating the children of Kazakhstan together, regardless of language or culture, will make it so that their first bond of loyalty is not to the land and culture of their ancestors, but rather to the land of their birth and/or citizenship.

Critics of this idea undoubtedly worry that assimilation and unification would lead to a loss of culture and language, and perhaps they are right to be concerned. After all, in the United States, the process of becoming American has left many of us without the ability to speak ancestral languages, and only a faint understanding of older traditions. However, if one is vigilante, there is no reason that people cannot both be Kazakhstani and still retain their own language and traditions. After all, thousands of families in the United States, Great Britain, and other developed countries do just that. Kazakhstan has already gone through a similar process of unification once before to great success. Although the Kazakh Khanate dates from 1300s, the Kazakh nation, in modern parlance, is still a relatively recent . It is once again time for the people of Kazakhstan to break down barriers and join together for the greater good, for while there is no threat from a foreign invader, there is the equally perilous economic crisis to contend with. Kazakhstan is on its way to achieving its 2030 goals, and a similar collective sense of national identity will help the country succeed even faster. Just imagine what could be accomplished if the everyone was working together as Kazakhstanis, rather than as Russians, Kazakhs, or Uzbeks who just happen to be citizens of Kazakhstan.


4. More Subjects, A Brighter Future

The final reason for adopting an integrated system of education is a practical one. It will mean more time for the subjects like economics, computer science, and English that are vital for success in a 21st century economy. These classes often get the short shrift in Kazakhstan’s segregated education system because of the inordinate amount of time spent on language instruction. Kazakhstan’s plan for three official languages, Kazakh, Russian, and English, is a great one, but separating the groups by language and then teaching them the other language is inefficient and ineffective. For instance, while students at Russian schools have Kazakh class several times a week, this language instruction does them little good because they do not have the opportunity to practice it. After school, they play with their Russian-speaking friends, eat dinner with their Russian-speaking families, and quickly forget much of what they just learned. In contrast, language instruction in an integrated education would much more effective and efficient because students would learn the languages in class and from each other. This would save a lot of time on language instruction, especially at the basic level, time which could then be used to instruct students on subjects that they truly need. Furthermore, these new subjects could be taught in different languages, for example Computer Science in Russian, political science in Kazakh, and Economics in English, thus giving students useful language practice at the same time.

5. Conclusion

Like America, Kazakhstan’s diverse, multicultural population is one of its greatest assets. Ethnic and cultural diversity has made Kazakhstan much stronger, richer, and more interesting than it would have been if only one group was living within its borders. , Kazakhstan has done a great job in reconciling these groups, some of which hold antithetical ideas. However, if Kazakhstan is truly going to join the ranks of the world’s developed nations, it must do more. An integrated education system is essential to Kazakhstan’s continued success. Such a system will equally and effectively prepare students for work in the 21st century, as well as make sure that everyone can communicate with each other in any of Kazakhstan’s three official languages. Most importantly, the system of integrated education system will unite the people of Kazakhstan like never before. They will no longer split themselves along ethnic and linguistic lines, but consider themselves part of a single nation, and work toward the future together.

6. References
• Wikipedia Encyclopedia.
-“Cognitive Development. ”http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cognitive_development
-“Jim Crow Law.” http://www.en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jim-Crow-laws
-“African-American Civil Rights Movement (1955-1968).” Wikipedia Free Encyclopedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/African-American_Civil_Rights_Movement
-“Kazakhstan.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kazakhstan
• Supreme Court of the United States. Brown v. Board of Education 347 U.S. 483 (1954) (USSC+). May 1954.
• Petroski, Karen. Making sense of Nationality : the politics of irrationality in British and American prose, 1776-1850. http://app.cul.columbia.edu:8080/ac/handle/10022/AC:P:3508
• Koch, George. Fear of the Other. http://www.georgekoch.com/articles/Fear_of_the_Other.htm

четверг, 18 февраля 2010 г.

Still Learning New Things

In a way, it is nice to know that even after two and a half years that Kazakh culture still has plenty of things that can stymie and frustrate me. Recently, in my third year course we watched the film, Definitely, Maybe, in which a father tells his daughter in a long and involved way how he came to meet and fall in love with her mother, and I thought that a fun assignment would be for my students to bring in their own stories of how their parents met. Next week however, only two of my students had talked to their parents. I went to talk to my counterpart about this assuming that once again my students had collectively flaked on an assignment for my class, but it turned out that while that might have been the case for some students, for the most part the assignment was a flop due to a cultural misunderstanding. As it turns out, asking your parents how they met is considered very shameful and embarrassing, so my students decided that not doing my homework assignment was better than getting a severe tongue lashing at home. That said, while I can see why they did not want to do the assignment, I still do not understand why it is such a big deal to ask how your folks met. For most people the first encounter is rather innocuous, in a class, or at work, or maybe a party, and even the more exciting first encounters, such as a group hike at Mt. McKinley or a bride-knapping, would not even rate a PG if they were turned into a lifetime movie. After all, it is not like you are asking about the moment of your conception.

This episode made me realize just how many cultural mores in both in Kazakhstan and in the rest of the world are rooted in the fear of embarrassment, and how troubling that is in several ways. It seems to me that when regulating our behavior, we usually think about how we will be perceived by other people, rather than whether or not that behavior might be hurtful to another person. In other words, we are polite because we do not want people to spread bad rumors about us, not because we want to make the other person feel comfortable and taken care of. A change in perspective would not make a huge practical difference; most things that are considered bad taste and certainly those behaviors that are cross-culturally taboo would remain so. Still, I many cultural mores that serve only to inhibit and have no impact on the feelings of others or the functioning of society might pass away. I doubt that such a shift in the cultural paradigm will ever happen. Our sense of shame has been ingrained in us for millennia by our religious traditions and societies, and too many people have too much to lose in such a radical change. Still, one can hope. The world would be a better place if people did things out of a sense of compassion and empathy rather than just for appearance’s sake.

воскресенье, 7 февраля 2010 г.

I'm Back

So, while the length of my absence was mostly due to my laziness and inability to find much new to comment on, at least 40% of the blame needs to be placed on the fact that Kazakhstan blocked Blogger! Anyway, I now have a hotspot shield which allows me to access Blogger and Hulu.com to boot, so I will be back to posting and watching American television again in no time.

воскресенье, 13 декабря 2009 г.

I Get all of My Clothes at Weddings


I love Kazakh weddings. Not only are they are beautiful celebrations of love with lots of delicious food and vodka, but it also where I have gotten a lot of my clothing. It is a custom in Kazakhstan for the family to give presents to the various guests, usually the party favors are things like scarves, towels, the traditional Kazakh hat, but sometimes the swag includes dress shirts. For some reason, during gift distribution, I always end up with the shirts. In fact, the situation recently was so dire that I almost went to the bazaar last week to buy a couple. Fortunately however, my boss’ son got married last night and I was able to score two new ones, saving myself at least 4000 tenge. At first, I was worried, and a little offended, that I was getting the shirts because people thought I was not properly dressed, but now I am just grateful. The fact of the matter is that thanks in part to Peace Corps horrible advice in regards to what to wear in Kazakhstan, I did need a makeover. Furthermore, hand-washing really does a number on your clothes, so most of the shirts I brought from America are getting tired, and the shirts that I first got here in Kazakhstan have long since disintegrated. In fact, I know these two probably won’t last till May, and seeing that I will be here until next August, I will just have to hope that another acquaintance gets married in the new future. Kutti Bolsin!

воскресенье, 6 декабря 2009 г.

A Trip To Aral



Work at PDI got off to a roaring start this year. Not only are we are beginning to prepare a methodology booklet for English teachers, and I have already been to a seminar in Aralsk. Aralsk used to be on the shores of the Aral Sea, but over the last thirty years overuse by farmers in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan has caused the sea to shrink dramatically, and all that is left of Aralsk’s former status as a seaside town is an abandoned harbor. Still, I have to say that I was pretty impressed with Aralsk, probably because books like Apples are From Kazakhstan made Aralsk sound like an incredibly depressed hovel. Instead, I found a charming little village, though I will admit that the tales of environmental degradation were no exaggeration. The fishing industry is long gone, but the town continues to plug along, and people are still finding ways to make money off the sea, either as tour guides for foreign tourists or working with one of the several NGOs associated with the Aral Sea reclamation Project.


The school where I gave my seminar was located right next to the former harbor and was very nice. The teachers that work there, including one of my former students, spoke very good English, and the students I saw during a question and answer question were very attentive and intelligent. In fact, though I was still a recovering from bad train food, the Aral seminar was probably one of my best because the teachers were so cooperative.


However though the people of Aralsk are doing just fine, the loss of the Aral Sea has not been without consequences. The air is incredibly dry, as if the atmosphere has not gotten used to the fact that it cannot just draw moisture from the water whenever it wants anymore. I drank water like crazy to make up for this, but I was still mildly dehydrated for much of the time I was there. I guess that over time you adapt to this to this problem, as I did not see any of them guzzling water, but it would be challenge for any PCV that got sent there. That said, physical challenges aside, Aralsk might be a great site. It is a rather far from the city, but the right volunteer, someone adventurous and totally independent would have a great time there. There are more than enough challenges to keep them busy with projects for two years. I know that I would be the one up for it, but I think that I will mention it to Alma when we do site development, lord knows they could use a volunteer, and it would definitely be one of the most interesting sites in Kazakhstan.

воскресенье, 16 августа 2009 г.

Summer Vacation-Part Two: The United Kingdom

The trip from Amsterdam to the United Kingdom was an adventure in itself. In my effort to save money I bought one round trip ticket from KLM between Almaty and Amsterdam and another roundtrip ticket from Ryanair between Amsterdam and Great Britain. This money saving tactic worked like a charm, but there was the downside that Ryanair flights do not fly out of the Amsterdam Airport, they fly out of Eindhoven, which is almost on the other side of the Netherlands. This was not a huge problem though because given how small the Netherlands, Eindhoven was still only two hours away by train. Unfortunately, my plane left at nine, and given the fact that the trams did not start until 6:30 and the first train was at 7:15, I decided to leave for Eindhoven the night before and try to sleep at the airport. However, when I got to Eindhoven at 11:30 that night, it turned out that the airport was already closed and that they did not let you sleep stay the night inside anyway. I was then told that I was not allowed to sleep inside the train station, but that it would be perfectly fine for me to sleep outside. The benches outside the station were hardly sleeping material, and it was actually pretty cold even though it was late June, so I prepared myself for a long night. As luck would have it though, the Netherlands gives out lots of free newspapers and I was able to bunker down in one of those little metal boxes. It wasn’t the best night sleep I have ever had, but I still managed to get about four hours of sleep, and I was ready to go when the first bus to the airport pulled up at six. After the adventures of getting to the airport, the actual flight and getting into London was a piece of cake. Still, a new hiccup presented itself upon my arrival in London. My mother had booked us a room at the Royal National Hotel, which was part of a string of hotels that all had a similar name and were all located in the general area of Russell Square. Luckily, I found the correct hotel on the first try, and I actually beat my mother there by several hours. I decided to make good use of this time and quickly headed to my own personal Mecca, the Oxford Street Apple Store. I was in dire need of a Macintosh Holiday, not only because there are no Apple Stores in Kazakhstan, but also because my computer battery and charger were about to totally give up the ghost. Finally, my mom arrived at around twelve and after checking into our room zipped to a nearby pub for a pint and some authentic fish and chips before jetlag totally overcame us.

The next morning was pretty busy because we had to run a few errands around London before we got on the train headed to Newcastle, but we still managed to easily make the 1:30 northbound train. Now, before anyone asks, “why the hell did go to Newcastle?” the answer is simple, Hadrian’s Wall. I hiked about a quarter of Hadrian’s Wall when I was studying abroad in London, and I had wanted to do more of it for quite awhile, and my mother decided that she would like to join me on this excursion. Even though Hadrian’s Wall was the main reason we went to Newcastle, we did not head out on the hike right away. Our delay to get to the wall was kind of an accident, but it worked out well just the same. It turned out that there was only one daily bus that left from Newcastle to go to Hadrian’s Wall, and by the time we got to the city from our rather distant bed and breakfast on the first day it had already left! Not to be discouraged, we quickly decided that if we could not go west that day, then we would go east. Thus, we headed out to Segedunum, the ruins of an old Roman fort and the easternmost point on Hadrian’s Wall.

The museum at Segedunum was a little kid-focused for my taste, but all of the exhibits were entertaining, informative, and accurate. We walked around the ruins for a bit, but the wall line had long since been covered up by Newcastle’s development and there was little to see or follow. It was this point that my mother looked at my shoes, said that they would not do at all, and decided that we should head to an outdoor store posthaste. In my defense, I thought my running shoes were perfectly fine seeing as how I had been running around the steppe in them for the last two years, but my mother was on the warpath. As usual, her concerns were well founded. My running shoes were not waterproof, and when the weather turned grey and misty the next day I was glad to have the Gortex hiking shoes that we bought.

Properly kitted out, we got up early the next day so to catch the bus. We decided to hike the section of the Wall between Housesteads and Hillcastle because I had previously hiked the section between Hexam and Housesteads, and also because has some of the best ruins of the whole trail. Of course, there is a very good reason that the ruins on that section of the wall are in such good condition; it is extremely hilly. In fact, in some areas between Housesteads and Hillcastle, it would seem that the wall was built strictly to mark the border of Roman Territory, as the hills are so steep that it would have been impossible for enemy armies to even approach the wall, much less attempt to scale it. We set off at a good pace, but at lunch time it turned out that we still had five miles to go until the Roman Army Museum where we could catch the bus back to Newcastle. Mom decided that she would walk along the road or else she would never make it on time, but I decided I would finish this section on the wall. It was hard going, and I was running in many places, but I managed to get to bus stop just a few minutes after my mom and just in time to catch the bus.

The next day we were a little sore for a lot of walking, and we decided that Newcastle was not the best base of operations anyway, so we decided to head to Carlisle. Like Newcastle, Carlisle was an interesting city in its own right, with very nice cathedral and a castle that is also a current military base that is built from stones that used to be part of Hadrian’s Wall. The day after, we headed back to the Wall, this time planning to take the bus out to the very end of the Wall at Bowness and walk back to Carlisle. In many ways this walk was much easier than the one from Housesteads. Unlike the other section, the wall path between Bowness and Carlisle was rather flat, but the walk was also five miles longer than our last one, and it was also pretty buggy in some places. We were able to gather a second wind and third wind with some ice cream and then with a couple of pints and tuna fish sandwiches, but even with that by the time we got back to Carlisle at six were dragging. We had walked 17 miles in about seven hours.

The 17 miles took a lot of both of us, especially my mother, so the next day when we were considering our options we decided on a lark to head up to Edinburgh. It turned out to be the perfect time to make a visit. Edinburgh was having a “heat wave” so the weather was actually very nice, and it did not rain once while we were there. Let me digress for the moment on the idea of a British heat wave. For the British, anything above 35 degrees Celsius is the summer is somehow intolerably painful and the only relief is drinking gallons of water, walking around in as little clothing as possible, and generally just lounging around. This is fine, I enjoy hanging around at the park in board shorts and flip-flops as much as the next guy, and I carry my water bottle wherever I go, but they really need to put their pain into perspective. No offense guys, but until you spend go to Kyzylorda Kazakhstan in the summer where the temperature is regularly over 40 and cultural expectations dictate you wear long pants whenever you leave the house, I really do not think you can complain that much about the heat. To be totally honest, the heat wave in Scotland felt like a beautiful Kyzylorda spring. I loved it. Anyway, the weather was not the only nice surprise about our trip to Scotland. It turned out that we had arrived right in the middle of graduation exercises for the University of Edinburgh and the Queen was currently staying at Hollyrood House. Thus, we had the privilege of seeing for two whole days, thousands of Scots walking around in their best Highland gear. There were kilts everywhere! We spent our time in Edinburgh productively, visiting Edinburgh Castle, the national galleries, and even the Scotch Whiskey Tour. The Scotch Whiskey tour, besides being delicious was absolutely fascinating. For example, I had no idea that Scotch Whiskey production was divided into four different regions, each with its own distinct smell and flavor. Still, I think the most fun thing I did while I was on summer vacation, was go back to school. Even though I still I have a year left in my Peace Corps service, I have begun to think about what I will do after I leave Kazakhstan, and one of the options I had been looking at was the Cultural Studies Department at the University of Edinburgh. I decided that since I was in the city it would make sense to try to track down the person in charge of the program in order to ask a few more questions and possibly snag an impromptu interview. It took some doing because the department was moving from one building to another and no one knew where the department actually was, but I eventually tracked down the head of the department. She was very nice, and we had a great conversation. It turned out that we had esoteric artistic interests in common. While I am obsessed with comic books, she is an expert in graffiti. She really sparked my interest in the program and at the end she said, “I look forward to seeing you in 2010.” Needless to say, I have spent the rest of the summer working my butt off to get into that program.

As much fun as we had in the north of England and in Scotland, it was eventually time to head back to London. My mother was not the only relative who had traveled thousands of miles to see me. My aunt, only recently recovered from hip surgery, had also decided to come to England for a visit. She was already in the hotel and rested up by the time we got back to London, so as soon as we got ourselves cleaned up, it was time to head out again. After dinner, Tia decided, even though I warned her about it, that she wanted to go see the London Eye. Now I know that it looks absolutely stunning in all of those photographs, and maybe if you have 10 people and cocktails with you, it might be a good time, but otherwise I do not see why anyone would want to spend forty dollars for a ferris wheel ride that takes forever and only goes around once. Still, we headed down to Westminster to check it out, and to her credit, Tia realized that it was not worth it as soon as she saw how lame it was. The next day, our first full day in London we headed back down to the river to go to the Tate Britain and the Tate Modern. The Tate Britain was just as much fun as the last time I went, although they had moved several things around. Among the changes, they had moved several works by JMW Turner into a different hall in order to compare it with the work of a more modern artist. I could see what they were trying to do, but it just did not work. The modern artist was working with color and light and was not trying to evoke a certain subject or form. On the other hand, even though Turner’s work, especially the work made toward the end of his career was increasingly impressionistic and abstract, he was still trying to evoke certain subjects and forms. After the Tate Britain we got on the ferryboat that took us to the Tate Modern. We looked around for a while, but all of us were worn out by a full morning at the Tate Britain so we spent most of the afternoon relaxing with lots of other Londoners in the sunshine just outside. The other art museums we tackled on this trip were the National Gallery and the National Portrait Gallery. I had already been to both before, too, but both are so full of art you would probably need to spend a full week in each one to properly see everything. While I like both museums a lot, I think my favorite is the National Portrait Gallery, if only because it is much easier to get around. In both museums, paintings are organized in chronological order, but in the National gallery, the floor plan is so convoluted that you can be looking at 16th century art and then step into the next room and suddenly be looking at 18th century art. It is a good thing they give you a map.

Of course, even after 233 years of independence, no American can go to Britain without going to as many castles and palaces and possible, and we were no exception. In fact, we went had to split our royal excursions into two days. On the first day, we headed down to Buckingham Palace, and even though you can only visit the main part of the palace in the autumn, we still got a chance to see the apartments that contains much of the royal family’s china and art, as well as the royal stables. There were no horses on display that day, but there were certainly plenty of carriages and cars for whatever the occasion. The second “royal day” was just for Tia and me because mom decided had not seen quite enough of the Tate Modern the first time. With the day to ourselves, Tia and I decided to head to Windsor Castle, another of the royal residences that I had never been to before. My aunt still does not walk very well, so we planned a reasonably light day for ourselves, just the royal apartments and St. George’s Chapel. The tour of the Royal Apartments was one of the stranger touring experiences I have ever had. Unlike in other museums, or castles for that matter, you cannot just wander from room to room as you please, you have to stay on a set course, and you have to move at a pretty quick pace because there are 500 people right behind you. Even though we felt like mice in a crowded maze, we had a great time in the Apartments. Every room was special and unique and had seen some pivotal moment in history. My favorite room was the King’s Apartment. The King’s apartment was fascinating not because of what it was, but because of what it was not. Although there was a bed, night table, etc, the King never actually slept there. Rather, it was where he held meetings with his closest advisors while getting dressed. In the olden days access to the King was fairly straightforward. The closer you were to the King, the more privy you were to even his most private affairs. Thus, it was considered a real privilege to be able to watch the King get dressed or use the bathroom. I also enjoyed the hall dedicated to the defeat of Napoleon which was filled with portraits of the various world leaders of the time, including a couple of popes, who had come together to defeat Napoleon. After going through the apartments we had a short break where we treated ourselves to Prince Charles’ ice cream. It was quite delicious if a little expensive, but I was pleased to read that Prince Charles only uses fresh fruit for flavoring, and his dairy cows are not fed any antibiotics animal byproducts. After ice cream we headed down the hill to St. George’s Chapel. The chapel is apparently still used for formal services of the Knights of the order of St. George, but more importantly, it is also the final resting place of several Kings and Queens, including Charles I, the Royal Martyr, and George the VI and Elizabeth, the parents of the current monarch.

On the third to last day of our trip, my mother and aunt went to Brighton, but I stayed in London in order to track down the Fulbright Commission and to go to the British Museum. I admit that I was a bit bummed to miss Brighton, but I just had to do those two things. The hunt for the Fulbright commission ended somewhat anticlimactically. It was a Friday morning, but apparently everyone was at some meeting, and so though it had taken me 45 minutes to find the place, I was only there for 15 minutes. Still, it was not a total loss. They had left a young American woman there, and she was very helpful in answering all of my questions and helping me to navigate their rather confusing website. After the Fulbright adventure I headed to the British Museum. I zipped by the Elgin Marbles again, but then headed to a new show they had up about Commemorative Coins. Unlike most commemorative coins though, these coins were no made to celebrate but to denigrate. The coins dated from the 1600s and made fun of people as diverse as the Lord Protector, George W. Bush, and Tony Blair. The last couple of days in Britain I must admit were not the most fun. First off, Tia left to head back to the U.S., and then the fresh air of London finally got to me and I developed an allergy infection. I had left my antibiotics in Kazakhstan, and when I went to try to get some at NHS they said that it sounded as if I had Swine Flu and kicked me out the door. That night, mom’s old friend Pru came down from Oxford for dinner. We had a great time, but I felt kind of bad because I had been under the weather the last time I saw her as well. Just like last time however, a good meal and her company got me feeling better, although I was still a little a little under the weather when I headed back to Kazakhstan. The last day in London was hard. Our planes did not leave till almost five in the afternoon so we had plenty of time to pack and have a good lunch, but all too soon it was time to head to the airport. We were flying out of different airports, Mom out of Heathrow and myself out of Stanstead, so we had to awkwardly say our goodbyes on the tube. I do not know about Mom, but saying good-bye was almost as hard that time as when I left for Kazakhstan the first time. At least this time, I know that I will probably see her again in six months rather than two years. I have to say that this summer vacation was probably one of the best ever. I know that I might have gone somewhere a little more exotic like India or Turkey, but I am glad that I went to Europe instead. This summer I really needed to reconnect with my folks and figure out my future, especially since I am staying for a third year. That said, three weeks just was not enough time, but with any luck I will be back in Britain by next September! I hope everyone else had a great summer and good luck on the coming school year. We are going to need it.