Why the Oxbridge work culture is bullshit.

I want to write about something which is pretty close to my heart, but I’ve hesitated for a long time because, to be honest, I was worried that this whole post would sound like a humblebrag. Here goes.

I got a distinction this year in my master’s exams at Oxford, and I only revised around 4 hours a day.

I know, I sound like a total wanker. But I’m trying to make a serious point.

The culture at our ‘elite’ British universities instills us with a fear that unless we work ourselves to the point of exhaustion, burn ourselves out, and sacrifice our mental and physical health, we will not succeed. If you’re not sleep-deprived, caffeine-addicted, and pulling all-nighters, you’re doing it wrong. I experienced this at Cambridge, and again at Oxford. And this is bullshit.  

What I’m trying to say is that there is another way.

I know the workload can be huge. I know it can feel like we’re not smart enough, and that we’re not doing enough. But as students, we need to refuse to prioritize anything above our mental and physical wellbeing.

I learnt this lesson during a hard time in my life. It took an extreme situation for me to realise that burning myself out was no way to live. Sadly, I feel like this is what it takes for many students to come to a similar realisation.

Ten weeks before my Cambridge finals began, I was with my Dad in New Zealand as he lost his battle with pancreatic cancer. My sister and I were his primary caregivers for his last few days. Then I returned to England, and subsequently made the painful decision to end a long-term relationship. Because, you know, I figured things couldn’t get much worse. But I still graduated with a first three months later, and more importantly, didn’t have a breakdown. And I’m convinced that I managed this because these four words became my motto during this time:

Be kind to yourself.

I didn’t graduate in the top ten of my course because I was one of the ten smartest people. Just trust me. I was a pretty average student in my first and second year – in many senses of the word. Averaging low 2:1’s, too familiar with Cambridge’s terrible club scene, proud of my high alcohol tolerance, mainlining coffee, and resorting to emergency naps to get through the day. In fact, I felt distinctly below average a lot of the time. In first year I sometimes cried after supervisions, constantly felt inadequate, had to have ‘remedial’ Russian lessons, and generally wondered how the hell I’d managed to get into Cambridge. I also took the contraceptive pill back-to-back to ‘manage’ a hormone condition, because every time I took a week’s break, a black cloud would come over me, and I’d feel incapable of dealing with life. (Pro tip: don’t do this. Get help.)

Let’s fast forward to my final year. A year abroad in Russia and Kyrgyzstan had been a refreshing change, I’d learnt to adult a little better, and was taking better care of myself. I’d cut out most sugar and all caffeine from my diet to manage my hormones and a digestive condition (antibiotics, stress and Russian food had proved an unholy trinity), and was generally feeling like a more competent human. I had read Arianna Huffington’s book ‘Thrive’ during that year, which inspired me to prioritise my health and wellbeing. My Russian was much improved, which relieved some academic pressure, and it turned out that when I got 8 hours sleep a night and wasn’t hungover twice a week, I could actually get decent grades.

However, by February the stress of finals and my dissertation was mounting. I was worrying about grad jobs. My Dad had been given a year to live; chemotherapy hadn’t worked. My digestive system had all but ground to a halt and I was living on courgettes, carrots, chicken and rice to avoid the pain. And God knows when the last time was that I had actually had a period. I was trying to convince myself I was fine, but my body was telling me otherwise.

When I came back to Cambridge in March after my Dad’s death (that year he was given turned out to be a cruel two months), I remember wondering how the fuck I was going to cope with life. I was basically waiting, wondering when I would collapse in a heap. I knew I needed to finish my degree, so I just hung on to four words my lovely dietician had told me a few weeks before. “Be kind to yourself.” I resolved to do just that.

I saw the college counsellor and cried in front of him for an hour, every Tuesday. I stopped taking the pill, and worked to balance my hormones naturally through food and lifestyle. I practiced yoga three times a week, and ran twice. I cooked proper food for myself, made sure I always got my eight hours sleep, and made time to do nice things every day. I drank tea with friends. I cooked Sunday dinner for my favourite people. I sat in the college garden and read novels. I bought myself flowers. I never worked for more than six hours daily. I made a revision plan, stuck to it, and stayed calm. I prioritised my health and happiness.

And guess what? It worked. The breakdown never came, I was astounded when I got my results, and I graduated. 

This year, when exam season rolled around again for my master’s, I worried that without the trauma of a recently deceased parent, I wouldn’t be able to get good results. Don’t ask me to justify that logic. The whole exam situation was (admittedly happily) complicated by the fact that I was living in one small room with my new fiance, who had just moved from Australia to be with me. I had never lived with anyone full-time before, and this added pressure worried me.

But I decided trust my previous method and hope for the best. I made a revision plan and stuck to it. I started every morning with yoga, and attempted to meditate for 10 minutes. I ate lots of fruit and veg. I cut back on drinking (just don’t mention the boat club dinner) and continued my caffeine ban. Every day I would cut myself off from technology and distractions, and focus solidly on revision for 3-4 hours on the broken table in my shared living room. The rest of the time I dealt with my other commitments, enjoyed spending time with Charly, and probably spent too much time rowing and doing yoga. (Have I mentioned that I yoga?)  

In the end, this exam term was the most chilled out term of the entire year.  My grades, it turned out, reflected that level of calm and control. Also (TMI ahead), my digestive issues are so, so much better than they used to be, and I’m actually starting to experience something which resembles a natural hormonal cycle, for the first time in my entire life. My anxiety levels are lower, and I managed not to kill my fiance. I’d call that an all-around win.

So, coming back to my point (when I’m on a roll, I tend to overshare; sorry): I’m not trying to make anyone feel bad for revising their ass off, reaching the end of term in an exhausted heap, or struggling with stress and anxiety. We all do the best we can, and I have so much respect for people who can function under stress levels that would crush me. I also acknowledge that some people have a lot more to deal with whilst at university than I did/do.

I’m just trying to make the point that by easing off the accelerator a little, showing ourselves some love and care, and trusting that our nurtured body and brain will do their thing, we can succeed, and be a little bit happier whilst doing it. We don’t have to buy into the idea that in order to do well at university, we have to work ourselves into the ground, and compromise our health.

Admittedly, for me the real test is going to be sticking to my resolve to look after myself when the pressures of Michaelmas term start to mount again.  But I’m going to try.

It sounds like a radical idea in Oxbridge, but it really shouldn’t be: We need to give ourselves permission to prioritise our well-being above our work.

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Beauty in the Worst Days

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The view from the house

I want to write about the beauty in the worst days. I have needed to write this for a long time. As catharsis, mainly. Also so that I don’t forget those precious last days. Two years later, it feels like the right time to let these words flow.

I’ll start at the end.

Dad had just died. It was the nighttime. Jo and I took a blanket and laid it on the dew-soaked grass, out on the front garden. We laid there in each other’s arms and looked up at the stars over the Hunua Gorge. The house was far enough from Auckland’s fiery glow for the stars to be spectacular. I don’t think we were still crying; maybe there were tears, but not sobs. We held each other and looked up. I don’t remember what we talked about, but I remember thinking how beautiful it was.

When I arrived, Dad was in bed, dozing. The light was dim in the room, and I slipped into the bed with him. He woke up and we talked for hours. At this stage he was still perfectly lucid: how thankful I am for that. We spoke for hours about our adventures, and how we loved each other. He told me he wasn’t afraid to die. I told him I forgave him for everything. We talked about how it might still be okay, he might get a bit better and he would be able to go to Matarangi at the weekend. There were no tears, no rage. We just talked about all the things we had to say. I told him I would be okay; I’d probably take that job, I’d get the tattoo, I promised to graduate and walk out there to get my certificate, thinking of him. I told him Jo would be okay, that Ashley and I would take care of her. The quiet acceptance, the peace of saying all the things we had to say, the shared knowledge of how much we cared for each other and what an amazing relationship we had had – it was beautiful to me.

Jonathan came the next day and we took Dad outside in the wheelchair. His last time outside. I saw him look up at the blue sky, the wind roaring through the tall trees behind the house, down at the lush view of the gorge. He took in the home he had helped to build. He was in the right place for the end of his story.

We were sat on the sofa, looking out at the gorge when Jo and Nan arrived. Dad was laid down, his head in my lap. I was playing him music and playing with his hair. We were waiting, we had been for two days. I think it was two days; they felt like an eternity. He was trying to hard to hang on. The truck pulled up, Jo got out and ran. She held him and cried. I had to leave, I was overcome. I’ve never seen so much sadness and so much love concentrated into one moment. It was one of the most intense, emotional scenes I’ve ever witnessed. Heartbreaking and beautiful.

We were helping Dad to sit up on the edge of the bed. I don’t recall why. It was one of the last days; his body was so heavy and slow. He was barely speaking by this point, sleeping most of the time. He leant forward and half fell on me, hugging me. It felt like it took every ounce of his energy. He didn’t say anything, but it said everything. It was our last hug.

I found the whole atmosphere of the house in those days strangely calm. It was like we were in a bubble. Dad was our only focus, that house on the hill was our entire universe. We were surrounded on all sides by fields, trees or bush. It was so peaceful. I think I felt peaceful too: I knew what we had to do; just be there, look after Dad, and love him. It was what would come afterwards that would scare me. I can’t put into words that atmosphere, how I experienced that time and space. There were so many intense emotions, it’s like the air was saturated, we moved as if through treacle, and time slowed down. I was barely sleeping, not eating much, but my body held out for me.

The last hours. I don’t remember exactly what happened that morning. Jo could tell it was near the end. She had seen people go before. She called me in. We all spent time with him alone, I think, but we were all together with him at the end. We talked about love. We burned lavender oil. We laid with him. I didn’t know what to expect, but he was just sleeping. His breaths became more and more spaced out. We told him it was okay to go; that we would look after each other. We hung on to each breath, holding our own in the spaces, until his last one.

Someone opened the window; I don’t know who. I imagined he was leaving. Afterwards, it seemed to me that his body was just so clearly the part that was left behind. The part that made him Dad wasn’t there anymore.

At some point in the next few days, Jo and I left the house for a walk. We made it a few hundred meters up the hill before deciding to sit on a stack of old wood by the container. It was a glorious day. Blue sky, hot sun. The green of the fields below us and the bush across the valley was soothing. I was struck for the thousandth time by the beauty of the place you had chosen to call home. A falcon appeared, soaring on thermals over the valley. It was the same falcon which Dad and I had seen several times earlier in the week whilst sat on the living room sofa, looking out over the gorge. The bird looked serene, and free. It made us think of you, Dad.

Malcolm’s pearls of wisdom: Happy Birthday, Dad.

dad-on-boatIts Dad’s birthday today. He’d be 58. He wouldn’t even be mad about getting ‘old’, getting close to 60 – as he’d say, why would anyone be pissed off about having lived another year? He wasn’t taking getting old for granted. As it turned out, he was right to do so.

I’ve been thinking about how to mark Dad’s birthday. My life is so full, I feel like I don’t take enough time to remember him. First of all, I figured out I could just go and have an awesome day in his memory (i.e. forget about my reading on post-Soviet economies). Then I got to thinking about what Dad would do*. This lead to reflection on what he taught me. I thought I’d share it. Writing about Dad seems to have become my way of dealing with grief.

My Dad was not what you would call a ‘conventional’ father figure. He wasn’t a figure of authority, he wasn’t ‘head of the home’. He wasn’t even what you would call ‘responsible’ – emigration, motorbikes, tattoos, parties, a casual weed habit. We used to joke that he wasn’t wise, because his wisdom teeth had never come through. And yet he is one of my greatest role models, because he did what he loved, lit up the lives of others, and found a good measure of peace whilst still on this planet.

Some of the things my wayward father taught me. (Goes without saying that I’m still working on much of this):

  1. “Don’t be so serious” I was an exceptionally serious child. He told this to me often.
  2. “Don’t be one of those people who walk around looking at the ground” – hold your head up: be proud of who you are and enjoy the moment.
  3. Don’t sacrifice your health for your career. Dad’s cancer diagnosis in 2007 was a wakeup call. He’d be jetting around NZ doing crazy hours for years, and thought the stress contributed to his sickness.  He took a step back, focussed on doing more of what he loved, and was far happier.
  4. Be an optimist. Dad saw the best in people, in situations – even in cancer. It made his life so much richer, right until the end.
  5. Cut as much stress from your life as you can. It makes you sick. It doesn’t benefit anyone.
  6. Friends can be like family. Take the time to cultivate friendships – He would just call friends for a chat when he was cruising on a long drive, make a much-loved colleague smile by stopping to chat about their weekend, probably give them some of his homemade jam.
  7. Be open. Not talking about things is the root of so much fear, so much misunderstanding. That’s why I speak about his death so frankly. Speaking openly brings you closer to people. (Although, Dad, that conversation about your ‘mojo’ during chemo was definitely TMI. That conversation on Waihiki Island about the ressemblance of mussells to the female anatomy was, however, hilarious)
  8. Do things for you. Ultimately, you are the one responsible for your life. And you only get one. If you are happy and fulfilled, you will bring so much more love and light to others.
  9. Be generous. With time, money and love. (But maybe get a pre-nup. A conclusion I’m drawing post-humously on his behalf.)
  10. Do things with love and enthusiasm. Dad squeezed so much joy from life – even at 56, he found it pretty damn exciting.
  11. “If you’re going to smoke weed, only smoke the good stuff”. Thanks for that one, Dad, I’ll bear it in mind.

I always thought you needed to dedicate your career and your life to changing the world in order to make a difference to this planet. However one thing which I realised after Dad’s death, speaking with his friends and colleagues, was that he changed the lives of so many people with his positivity, love, generosity and enthusiasm. I’d like to be like that.

Happy Birthday, Dad.

*I came to the conclusion his birthday would involve getting up at the crack of dawn, having a green tea whilst reading the newspaper, checking on his veg garden and then heading out on the boat to fish and dive. Hopefully the basis for a mean BBQ would be caught, which would be enjoyed with friends later, over a few beers and some ‘herbal tea’.

 

The last sense

I was laid in bed, falling to sleep, when it came back to me. That feeling when I was riding on Dad’s bike, sat behind him, and he would put his gloved hand on my knee as we cruised down an easy straight. A simple gesture. One that said, to me, I’m so happy you’re here. I’m so happy to be sharing this moment with you.

When I was riding in the passenger seat of his truck, Dad would often rest his hand on mine. No words necessary. I can remember those moments so clearly – the comforable purr of his beloved Landrover, or later, Holden; the green of the New Zealand landscape rolling past; some UB40, or Matchbox 20, or Bonjovi on the stereo. Then his palm on the back of my hand. Again, to me, it said, I’m so happy you’re here. I’m enjoying this moment with you. I love you.

I’m so grateful for those moments. I hope he knew how much that gesture meant to me.

I can remember his hands really clearly. Sometimes more clearly than his face – although I think that’s because its easier, less painful, to recall his hands than his face. I was fascinated by his hands when I was little.  Strong hands. Broad, shovel-like palms,  wide, flat nails. Rough skin. Browned by the New Zealand sun. Chewed skin next to his thumnails (a habit I appear to have inherited). Twisted copper bracelet on one wrist, chunky watch on the other.

When I was little, and Dad visited us, I wanted to hold his hand constantly. I guess I probably carried on doing this longer than most little girls do with their Dads. The few weeks a year when we were in the same country were so precious that I couldn’t bear to have even a few centimetres of distance between us. My small, freckled hand in his broad, tanned one felt so reassuring.

I miss that feeling.

Touch is the last sense that goes, apparently. That offers some small comfort to those of us who were there for somebody’s last moments. Even when they can no longer see us, or hear us, they can feel our hands in theirs. It comforts me that this gesture, which always meant so much to me, was the last thing I was able to give to Dad.

The Grief-Box

Tonight I came across a photo of Dad on my phone that I had never seen before. Seeing that smile unexpectedly was like receiving a wonderful surprise, an electric shock and a punch in the stomach all at the same time.

I look at photos of Dad sometimes (is this normal behaviour?) but they are always the same ones – comfortingly familiar. This new image was different: the precious gift of a new image of Dad when all I have are old memories, worn smooth with replaying them in my head. In a split second, I experienced the same emotions as when I dream of him: joy that he’s here again, and the crushing realistion that he isn’t.

I use Dad’s old phone (after mine took one to many tumbles into a toilet/onto a tiled floor) and after moving some photos around, this one popped up in my Instagram app gallery from somewhere in the depths the device’s memory. I didn’t know it existed. He’s on form – spatula in hand, wearing a stupid novelty apron, manning the BBQ and smiling like he doesn’t have a care in the world. He looks really well – tanned, a smattering of stubble, and his face a little fuller and his hair a little longer than before the cancer came back and he did his second round of chemotherapy. I don’t know when exactly it was taken; probably a couple of years ago.

I’ll write frankly, because I feel like I need to articulate my thoughts to try and make sense of them. Maybe they will seem crazy, maybe they will seem overly analytical, maybe they will seem cold. Maybe you’ve experienced grief, and you’ll relate to what I’m about to write, maybe not. I have a feeling that grief is an intensely personal experience, and nobody experiences it in the same way.

Grief. That’s what comes, after the person has left. As a concept, it fascinates me (you’ll see); yet the idea of personally experiencing it terrified me. I couldn’t imagine coming to terms with the fact that Dad had gone. I thought it would crush me. I thought the pain would be unbearable.

It wasn’t unbearable. I’m still here. Dad died, I held it together, made it though two funerals, two elegies, and within a few weeks was back at university. I revised, passed my exams, celebrated, and put on my gown and graduated, less than 3 months after Dad’s funeral. On one hand, I’m proud of my strength. On the other hand, I feel really fucking terrible that I managed to do all that just a few months after watching my Dad die. What kind of cold, robotic human does that make me?

There’s no doubt in my mind that I simply adored him. I may have had a somewhat unconventional, long-distance relationship with my wayward father, but we couldn’t have been closer if he lived next door. So after his death, after doing all the necessary things in survival mode, I expected a tsumani of grief. I waited for the incoming deluge, absolutely terrified of my own feelings. It didn’t come. I remember speaking to my counsellor about this (God bless Newnham College and their counselling service), asking where it was. He said, effectively, that sometimes after the earthquake, there is no tsumani. The pain which we experience after a loved one’s death, isn’t relative to how much we loved them.

Of course, I experienced pain. There were moments alone back in my room at university, particularly in those first weeks, where in a moment it would just hit me. Unable to breathe. But they were fleeting. I still experience those moments occasionally, up until present day. A couple of months ago, walking to the beach in France, I came over the crest of a dune and just burst into tears when I saw the beach. It was so beautiful, Dad would have loved it (he loved the sea), and that sudden realisation struck right to my core. That I couldn’t share it with him, that he wouldn’t ever see a beach again.

Looking back, I wonder if it was my fear of my own mind and my own feelings that unwittingly tamed my grief. I was so afraid of it that I packed it away in a box without properly examining it, and shoved it away to one side in my brain (this is how I imagine it worked, okay). Sure, I spent plenty of time aftewards looking at the box, wondering what was inside it, knowing that it existed, but being too afraid to open it, dust off the contents and lay them out. I had my grief-box, but I was doing okay.

In the subsequent weeks and months I preferred to open other scary boxes, rather than deal with the scariest one of all. Boxes labelled “work to graduate with a first”, “end a long-term relationship” and my favourite one, “figure out what the f- are you going to do with your life”. I was (am) really good at distracting myself with these kind of boxes.

Sometimes, I opened that box marked “Grief” by accident. Okay, even occasionally on purpose, when my curiousity got the better of me. A photo, a memory, an occasion where he was missed. I opened that box for a little while. Indulged in the bittersweet pain that is remembering a loved one, all the while remembering you won’t see them ever again. Then hastily closed it, before things got out of hand. Shoved it back in the corner. No. Let’s not go there. You haven’t got the time to have a breakdown right now. Distract yourself with a different box.

That’s exactly what happened today, when I found that photo. Dad’s smile. BAM, that box fell open.  Fuck. The millions of times those happy blue eyes looked at me that way. The fact that I won’t see that smile again. How, in those last days I spent with Dad, he didn’t look like that anymore. I had to look away, throw the phone down. It made it too real, and reminded me of a rawness and pain that I prefer to ignore. Quick, close the box.

Except this time, I realised exactly what I was doing. My grief is very real, it’s just that I prefer to leave it set aside. I back away from it.

It’s not that I refuse to aknowledge my memories of Dad. I think of him often; every day. I usually aproach a memory or thought from afar, and circle gradually closer to it, thinking of him, remembering him. But when I start to get too close, when things get too painful, I back away.

I’m almost relieved to realise that I am in fact a human being after all. I am grieving, I do have pain – it’s just that I have developed some kind of coping mechanism.

Who knows if I’ll ever get around to unpacking that box. I’m not sure I’ll ever have the courage to tip the contents out onto the floor and just sit amongst them, absorbing the fact that Dad is really gone. I’m still scared that would be too much to handle. Maybe it’ll work differently; I’ll take one memory out a time and experience the happiness and the pain little by little.

I’m still far from ready. Take today, for example. I found that photo, and what did I do? I prefered to analyse my grieving process, rather than sit with my pain and just remember Dad. I closed the box again.

Dad BBQ

 

 

 

 

 

Hello again.

Over two years have passed since I unceremoniously dropped this blog in the middle of my trip to Kyrgyzstan. I’m not sure exactly why I’ve decided to pick it up again, other than a small niggling voice in the back of my head compelling me to write.

A lot has happened since May 2014. I loved my time in Kyrgyzstan; an interesting job and weekends spent hiking and exploring a tiny part of the vast country. I returned to the UK and spent that summer interning for an ethical investment fund before spending 4 weeks travelling all around Kenya, meeting social entrepreneurs. I returned to Kitezh in Russia for a month before making my way back to Cambridge for final year. It was a pretty exciting year abroad, all in all.

My final year at university wasn’t half a ride. I felt like I was really hitting my stride academically, I was really enjoying Cambridge. Then Dad went and fell off his garden shed roof, and whilst checking him over they found a rather nasty tumour had taken root in his pancreas and spread to his liver. I spent a couple of weeks in January with him – he was as positive and full of life as ever, determined to beat the cancer, despite the odds. In March we rushed to New Zealand to be by his side, and within 5 days he was gone. Perhaps I’ll write more about that time, and the grief in the subsequent year and a half. I’m still not sure how I managed not to fall apart – I thought losing Dad would flatten me.

Just weeks afterwards, I made decision to end my relationship of over two years. It was the right decision, but it was still incredibly painful. Somehow I returned to Cambridge, got my head down, and thanks to a combination of supportive and lovely family, friends and teachers, and making it my priority to take bloody good care of bewildered soul and stressed-out body, I managed to graduate. With results I would have been more than proud of in any given situation.

The post-graduation meltdown I was expecting never came. However, belwilderment about my future did, and that sense of uncertainty has stayed with me since. I turned down a graduate scheme because it just wasn’t me, and have lead a borderline nomadic existence ever since. Life has been unpredictable since I graduated, and I’ve learnt a lot of lessons. I had nothing concrete planned after graduating, but things just happened to come along. And in true Emma style, I grabbed any exciting opportunity that came my way.

I went back to Kenya, I worked in London, I went to New Zealand to clear my head and clear Dad’s house, I went to Australia (on Dad’s airmiles) and fell in love with a boy and the country. I went to Fiji  and dived with sharks (thanks again for those airmiles Dad) . I came back to the UK in December, found out I was unemployed in January, discovered a whole new level of love when I became an aunty in February, and decided to move to France in March. I’m still in Bordeaux now – a four month trip became six months, and I don’t really want to leave (but don’t worry, mum, I will).

I’ve stopped trying to plan my life too far in advance. I think you can probably appreciate why, having just read the above. Over the last two years I’ve imagined and re-imagined what my future life and career might look like so many times that I’ve quite literally lost count. All I know now is that I’m meant to be going to Oxford for my masters in October, and that will probably happen.

There you go. You’re caught up now. When I put it like that, the last couple of years have been pretty hectic. No wonder I’m dealing with waves of uncertainty and anxiety. Don’t get me wrong though – the last two years have bought much joy, adventure and self-discovery too. I consider myself very lucky, blessed, to be living the life I do:

Throughout all this uncertainty,  the adventuring and pain, I feel like I’ve had some kind of invisible safety net. Like God/the Universe, or whatever you want to call it, has my back. Whenever I’ve been close to breaking down or I’ve encountered a big problem (no money/house/job/plan), and I’ve been worrying, worrying – something, or someone, turns up in the right place and right time. And it’s all okay again. This going to sound a bit woo-woo to some, I’m sure, but I’m learning to trust my journey. Trust that it’s all going to be okay. Maybe even better than okay!

I’m not sure exactly what I’ll write about from here on out. I don’t have a set agenda. My grief, maybe, which I’m still trying to make sense of. A bit about my travels. Something about how I’ve been learning to take better care of myself, and work through some interesting health issues. Perhaps about what it feels like to be 24 and figuring out what kind of life you want to build. That’s a recurring theme!

Why I feel compelled to share this, I’m not exactly sure. I just know that throughout the last bonkers 24 months, hearing other people’s stories has helped me a lot. Maybe sharing my thoughts will do the same for someone else, who knows? If nothing else, writing helps me to make sense of my kaleidoscope thoughts.

 

 

 

Yurt life

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I’ve survived my second week here in Kyrgyzstan and am still very much enjoying experiencing this wonderful country. My choice of the ‘survived’ I feel is justified, having discovered this weekend that my horse allergy is has grown rather more severe since the last time I encountered an equine. God bless Piriton. But lets not skip ahead.

After a very tiresome 3 day week (honestly, why do they even bother asking people to work this week?) Friday was Victory Day across the former USSR, a national holiday and a day of military parades, orange and black ribbons, and lots of pride in the achievements of the former Soviet Union.  I sadly missed the main parade in downtown Bishkek, but wandered over to Victory Square in time to enjoy the relaxed, celebratory atmosphere. Children played on tanks and posed for photos, crooners sang war songs on a little stage, cadets in uniforms were marching with flags, and flowers were being laid at the war memorial and handed out to wheelchair-bound veterans, weighted down with medals. It was a blisteringly hot day and families walked  around enjoying ice creams and soaking up the holiday mood. It was an interesting contrast to our very British Remembrance Sunday, a much more solemn and reflective affair. It seems to be much more about celebrating victory than remembering those who sacrificed themselves .

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I didn’t linger too long as on Friday I had to make my way to Kochkor, a small town 3 hours from Bishkek, the base for my hiking adventure on Saturday. For just 3 measly pounds I got a place in a 7 seater taxi, where I was befriended by a lovely Kyrgyz women who pointed out sights along the way, and a man who thought it was hilarious to speak to me in Kyrgyz, when I clearly didn’t understand a word. We shared a bottle of the rather odd national drink, which I think was jarma – a delightful blend of fermented grains (think kvass) and dairy products. Fizzy, salty and… interesting.

The drive was beautiful, and only briefly interrupted by a flat tyre. Kyrgyzstan is around 90% mountains, a fact which only becomes obvious once you leave Bishkek. Here they seem to possess the full spectrum of mountains – there are towering snow-capped mountains, so high they can be mistaken for clouds at a glance; rocky arid, brown mountiains; smooth, red hills reminiscent of mini ayre’s rocks, and green, rolling hills like the highlands of Scotland. I think we passed every kind during our three hour drive.

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During  my first night in Kochkor was looked after by a chatty, smiley host at a little guesthouse in the town. She delighted in telling me all about her assorted children and grandchildren, and feeding me up with delicious salad and manti (big meat ravioli). On a wander around town after dinner I stumbled upon a rarity in the former USSR – a statue of Lenin.

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The next morning I set off into the hills with my guide, Al Akhat. He turned out to be an absolute delight and really made the trip for me. He was a self-confessed chatterbox and I really enjoyed hiking with him whilst nattering away to him in Russian about everything from Ukrainian politics  to Kyrgyz customs. He was an ambitious guy, with a degree in mathematics and architecture. He had spent time as an itinerant worker in Moscow to earn money, and is now balancing working as a guide alongside studying English, so he can save up money and prepare to go and study in the US. A very hardworking and inspirational character!

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Our first day was all uphill, and it was hard, hot but rewarding work. The views were breathtaking from the very beginning and only got better, with snow sprinkled mountains surrounding us on all sides. We saw lots of marmots, and of course plenty of sheep, cows and horses which were being hearded by local shepherds on horseback. Turns out that horses are both transport and dinner here!

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We had lunch of delicious freshly caught fish from the river at a shepherd’s yurt, before the last push up a steep slope of scree to the mountain lakes. It seemed strange after 6 hours hiking in 30 degree heat to find ice-covered lakes, but there they were, and very beautiful too.

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We spent that night staying at the yurt with the shepherd’s family. As the sun set we watched the farmer, sat on horseback, coral his sheep into their stonewall pen. His wife waved a staff to count them and their chubby-cheeked little toddler squealed with delight nearby.

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We enjoyed a dinner of freshly baked bread, and lamb and potato soup in the yurt, whilst warmed by the wood burner. Although it was hot during the day, the temperature plunged at night. We shared the yurt another tourist and his guide who had ridden up the valley on horseback. It was lovely to chat with him about his travelling experiences in Kyrgyzstan, but the presence of these riders in the yurt posed quite a problem for me. The fact that the yurt was surrounded by horses, was transported up the mountain on horses, and was probably partly made from horse hair somewhere didn’t help either. It turns out that my mild allergy to horses has got significantly worse in my last few horse-free years, and I had to resort to a piriton overdose to ease my wheezing enough so that I could fall asleep. The next morning, after an wheezy, itchy night’s sleep, one of the guides glanced at me alarmingly and told me that I looked terrible. I think my bloodshot eyes scared him – cheers for the compliment mate.

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We headed back down the valley to Kochkor the next morning as the shepherd released his livestock. A wave of sheep and goats seemed to follow us down the valley. It was a lot easier heading back down the valley than going up it, and before I knew it, we were back in Kochkor. After thanking my guide profusely for his lovely company, I enjoyed a feast of beshbarmak at a local guesthouse. This is a famous national dish of noodles with lamb meat and broth, and it was delicious!

That evening upon returning to Bishkek, I was met by the unexpected news that I had to move out of my flat. Apparently the baby of one of my roommate’s relatives had fallen ill, and they needed to stay in my room whilst the child attended treatments at the nearby hospital. My alarm was short-lived as thankfully my apologetic roommates had found me another place to stay. Within a few hours I was settling in at a little flat with two other Kyrgyz sisters on the other side of town, within walking distance of work. A rather unexpected end to a very eventful weekend!

It remains to be seen what it will be like living at my new place, but at least it’s a chance to meet some new people. The thought of a daily commute that doesn’t involve mashrutka buses is also welcome! To be fair, I was feeling so zen after such a beautiful weekend that I really didn’t mind moving in the slightest.

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My first week – markets, mountains and marshrutkas

Well, I’ve been in Kyrgyzstan for just over a week now, and I’m happy to report that things are going well!  The weather is glorious, people are proving to be friendly, and I still marvel at the mountains every day. Due to a ridiculous amount of bank holidays in May, last week I only worked 4 days, and this week is a 3 day week, which is giving me plenty of time to explore Bishkek and the surrounding area.

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Transport of kings…

I’m grappling with my poor sense of direction and slowly getting to know the city. Most mashrutka bus rides end in relative success, although on my first day going to work on my own, I managed to get completely lost, ended up taking two different buses, and wandering around for an hour in the drizzle before finally getting to work and hour and a half late. I think my colleagues expected it, as nobody batted an eyelid! For those of you unacquainted with mashrutkas (lucky, lucky you), they are a very soviet form of public transport, which I have encountered so far in Russia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan. Battered little minibuses hurtle around the city, rammed with people sitting and standing. You have to look for one with your number on the front, flag it down, give the driver your 10som (10p) and then squeeze in. You have to shout to the driver when you want to get off, but as no stops are marked, it is understandably quite difficult for a foreigner not to get lost, especially if you don’t know what the place where you are going looks like! I have found a savior though, in the form of an app called bus.kg, which tells you which bus number to take, depending on where you are and where you want to go. I highly recommend it to anyone planning on travelling here!

Work at the NGO got off to a bit of a slow start this week. Nobody quite seemed to know what to do with me as the person meant to be responsible for me had quit suddenly. However, things have started to look up, and towards the end of the week I got given a great project, proof reading and editing an important tender for a worldwide organization.

On my numerous days off I have been exploring the city and trying to master the marshrutka system. One of my favourite places so far has to be Osh bazaar. It’s a sprawling market in the north of the city, with everything from the more traditional stalls of babushkas selling spices and dried fruit, mountains of fruit and veg, and carts of freshly baked breads, to dens of fake raybans and nike trainers. I scored some convincing vans shoes for 8GPB, and a pair of what my friends would fondly call ‘ethnic’ trousers for a couple of pounds. Of course, being a lover of cooking, I also stocked up on fresh veg and an array of spices. A bag of paprika for 10p certainly beats Sainsburys’ prices! It’s a testament to how much my Russian has come on that I was able to navigate all this with minimal confusion. God bless Kitezh and all those hours in the kitchen for perfecting my food and spice vocabulary!

For the typical tourist there admittedly seems to be little to do in the city itself, aside from wandering around, shopping and visiting cafes. I imagine life would be tricky here for a non Russian/Kyrgyz speaker, although probably not impossible. There are a few good museums which I am going to save for a rainy day, and lots of interesting monuments to be found around Chui prospect, the main street. The central square, Ala-too, is very impressive, with imposing government buildings flanking an open square of fountains and flags. The city itself is dusty, chaotic, and for the most part a little shabby, but also very green. There are plenty of little parks and most streets are lined with trees. Lots of building is going on on the outskirts – in my area, Djal, plenty of flats are going up in what seems to be a house-building boom.

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Traipsing the city, I found some time to try the local cuisine. At the very nice ‘Manti bar’, I sampled a delicious spinach salad and a local dish, manti. These are little parcels of minced beef or mutton in thin dough, which are steamed. They are a bit like a giant version of pelmeni, for those familiar with Russian cuisine, and they were very tasty! At an Arabic style café, where patrons sit on the pretty terrace on raised benches, with their legs crossed under the table, I tried a juicy chicken shashlik (kebab) cooked in the tandir oven.

A tasty tandoor shashlik

A tasty tandoor shashlik

Street tandoor oven

Street tandoor oven

 

On Sunday, I took the opportunity to get out of the hectic city with a local hiking club, the Trekking Union of Kyrgyzstan (tuk.kg). For a ridiculously cheap 3 pounds, I got a minibus ride to and from the city, and a day’s wonderful hiking with a group and two guides. We trekked up the valley ‘Birbulak’, following the stream as the valley narrowed and the terrain changed from open pasture to scrub, and then to a steep sided rocky passage. Beautiful flowering trees turned the valley sides pink in places, and a rainbow of pebbles crunched under our feet as we jumped to and fro across the creek. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky and the temperatures soared to around 30 degrees. There were plenty of opportunities to chat with fellow hikers, which is always good when you’re new to a city by yourself, and I made some new friends.

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Local wildlife

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Creek hopping

Hiking Birbulak valley

Hiking Birbulak valley

Many people had told me that the landscape and nature is the best thing Kyrgyzstan has to offer, and it seems to me that they’re right. I can’t wait to get out and explore some more of the country – I’ve got an overnight trek and a stay in a yurt planned for next weekend. Its been a while since I’ve hiked and my days of Duke of Edinburgh and World Challenge are far behind me – however I’ve got a taste for it again, and I think Kyrgyzstan will get me hooked!

Me looking my finest!

Me looking my finest!

That’s all for now. Until I’ve got some tales of some new adventures,  пока!

 

 

A change of plan – to Kyrgyzstan!

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View from my new home

I’m writing this post from Bishkek, the captial of Kyrgyzstan, which is probably a good indicator of the fact that a lot has changed since I last posted, and my plans have been turned on their head. But I’ll come to that later. First, allow me to recap my last month or so in Kitezh.  

The snow eventually melted and spring came. I enjoyed a few wondrous runs in the watery sunshine,  splashing through muddy puddles, before winter decided he wanted a second go, and we woke up to an unexpected 20cm of snow.
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Kitezh thawed out quickly the second time, with the spring role play game starting with players ankle-deep in snow, yet running around in t-shirts by the end of the weekend.   March was a busy month,  which saw me further perfecting my soup-making (and fish filleting, veg chopping and salad making) skills in the kitchen, and doing lots of baking with the children, before I took over the kindergarten for 10 days when the usual teacher went away on holiday. Knowing I was soon heading home to replenish my bag of craft materials, I went mad crafting with the kids, and each day they went home laden with paper garlands, cardboard creatures or feathery collages. I may have had even more fun than them!  

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Spring?

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March was also a sad month as I had to wave goodbye to some good friends. A Russian and a Ukrainian volunteer, visiting since December, both reached the end of their time in Kitezh. We had really bonded and spent many a hilarious evening hanging out in lebedinsky house with other volunteers and Kitezhans, have a good old girly natter or watching terrible rom-coms. Departures were marked with an obligatory shashlik roast on the campfire, a couple of glasses of our beloved (but terrible) soviet champagne, and many toasts to friendship. Sadly all good things must come to an end, but I felt very blessed by these frienships, and they’ll hopefully be continued during visits to Bryansk in Russia and Zaporozhie in Ukraine!  
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One major highlight of the last few weeks was the role play game. Every holiday Kitezh hosts ome of these games, the longest being 2 weeks in the summer, which welcomes over 100 players. The spring game is a more modest affair, with 30 visitors,  but was still great fun. It was based on 15th century Russian history, and a battle for the throne of Prince of Moscow between an uncle and two nephews. It involved glorious amounts of dressing up, running around fulfilling quests,  and epic (foam) sword fight battles. I started off watching from the sidelines, taking notes and photos for my year abroad project, but by the end of the last day I was muddy, exhilarated, slightly battered, and about 8 costume changes deep. Improvisng everything from a distraught mother to  vagabond gypsy and a court nanny was a good test of my Russian!
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  The role play game marked my last weekend in Kitezh, and then I spent a further 8 days in Russian, playing tourist in Moscow and St Petersburg with my mum and her partner. We feasted on Georgian food and wine, marvelled at cathedrals, went inside the Kremlin, explored markets and visited the Hermitage along with a few other museums and galleries. The Hermitage is stunningly beautiful of course, and impressive,  but none of the art is Russian.The Russian State Museum in St Petersburg has to be my all time favourite as its artwork tells the story of Russian history, and I’ve studied quite a few of the paintings. I think Rob’s favourite was the wonderful Cosmonaut museum, whilst mum enjoyed admiring the dresses and carriages of the empresses in the Kremlin Armoury.  

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Fulfilling sterotypes at the vodka museum

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Marvelling at the metro

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View over the Hermitage from St Isaac's cathedral

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Stunning monument over the Cosmonaut museum

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Cheeky peek inside the Kremlin

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The sitting room of our rather snazzy hired banya!

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Church of the saviour in St Petersburg

I was during this little jaunt that I suddenly learnt that my visa situation was more complicated than I thought it was. To cut a (very) long story short, I found out that I couldn’t return to Russia until July. I returned to the UK with no idea what to do next, and a very heavy heart not to be returning to Kitezh anytime soon.   Happily, I called on my wonderful network of Russianist friends for advice,  and ended up applying for an internship at an NGO in Kyrgyzstan, which I was accepted for. So here I am! Previous to applying for my internship,  I thought I knew 2 things about Kyrgyzstan.
1. People speak Russian there.
2. Its not where Borat is set, but it is situated somewhere near there, right?  

You can imagine that things can only move forward from here. I’ll let you know how I get on!