Kazakhstan Visit, Issue 4

New Yorker cover: 23 July 2012On 23 July 2012, the New Yorker’s cover showed a scene which relects our fear of becoming disconnected through our connectedness: a family portrait on a beautiful seaside resort – with each individual deeply engrossed in a mobile device, seemingly oblivious of each other and their surroundings. We’re still grappling with the role and etiquette of mobile devices in our connected society, as Scott Adams parodies in this Dilbert cartoon.

The New Yorker cover plays on a common fear that ubiquitously connected mobile devices are, in fact, making us less social; that it can tear away at the fabric of our society if we let it go unchecked.

Of course, we can today connect with people that we never would have been able to reach before.

At the moment, I’m working in a country where I don’t speak either of the main languages (Russian and Kazakh). Very few of the people we’ve met can speak English. The students whom we lecture seem to understand enough English so that we get by with lots of diagrams, maths and some interpretation in between. Our meetings with faculty are interpreted, always with the aid of an undergraduate student who studied English.

Still, we quite often find ourselves without an interpreter, in a country that’s very foreign to us. The last time I had an experience like this, was when I visited Beijing and Wuhan in 2005. I was armed with a small phrasebook, I memorised some Mandarin vocabulary and useful sentences, and I could count up to 10. It was hopeless. My mobile phone, an old Ericsson clamshell, only helped me to phone home when I felt too lonely. I was completely disconnected from the people around me.

Google Translate screenshotForward to Karaganda, Kazakhstan: present day. Our guide, Murat, doesn’t speak more than ten words of English. It doesn’t matter. My smartphone has become our voices. We blurt out sentences at each other in our native languages, laugh at the other party’s incomprehension, then someone calls “translate!” and the phone is passed to him. The Google Translate app does the to and fro between English and Russian – sometimes perfectly accurate; sometimes a bizarre ramble.

Our phones have become deeply personal objects, and sharing and exchanging the device almost creates a sense of personal connection. In shops, restaurants and at the university, strangers smile when you try to communicate something using the phone, and playfully join in to type a response in Russian for translation. And we get our thoughts across.

It’s incredible to me that we are able to connect with people that, only a few years ago, would effectively have been deaf and mute to us. More than that: we’re connecting with people with very different languages, and hence very different backgrounds – exactly the type of people I feel is worth getting to know.

Perhaps mobile devices are tearing away at the fabric of society. But if the fabric of society is sewn together by languages and cultures that stitch us into our familiar prejudices, I say: tear away.

Kazakhstan Visit, Issue 3

Today was down to business with our hosts at the Karaganda State Technical University. Although we came prepared to give lectures, it turns out that the other main reason for our invitation was to explore collaboration opportunities. Most of the day was spent in meetings with professors, the dean and a quick talk with the vice-rector, trying to identify areas in which Stellenbosch (Engineering) and KSTU’s research interests overlap.

The Kazakhstan universities seem to find themselves in the same difficulty as South African universities had a decade or two ago: after a long period of relative isolation (but strong ties to local industry, and a strong engineering culture), the Bologna Process is placing increasing pressure on universities to produce research outputs. This is a very difficult transition to make for a university which focuses mostly on education and industry collaboration. However, Stellenbosch University (certainly E&E Engineering) found itself in a similar situation in the late nineties; it’s only over the past decade that we really started increasing our research productivity

So there seems to be an interesting common ground. I’m struck by many similarities in South Africa and Kazakhstan’s development over the past two decades, and am looking forward to see how things develop over the rest of the visit. I’ve also realised that South African universities have a piece of capital we shouldn’t underestimate: our command of English in a world where the language is the lingua franca of research.

Kazakhstan Visit, Issue 2

I surrendered my passport today.

Any seasoned traveller knows:

  1. Never let someone take your passport.
  2. Stay out of trouble, and never disobey local laws.

So if it turns out that local laws require you to surrender your passport to the police for the duration of your stay, that’s a bit of a conundrum. But the lady organising the exchange was very friendly and reassuring about this, so let’s hope for the best.

I find Kazakhstan a wonderfully friendly place, and the people are relaxed and pleasant. Some parts are super-modern, especially the capital, Astana – don’t these pictures look like something out of the future? But some things harken back to a soviet history that I find strangely appealing. How weird to be inside one of the “ystergordyn” states, with sturdy soviet-era apartment blocks, policemen with extravagantly sloped visored hats, and with a passport somewhere in police custody! There’s a registration card inside my passport that must be stamped by my host city’s officials. I’m not allowed to travel without permission to leave, and my card must be stamped at any next destination (at least that’s how I understand it).

My impression of the old juxtaposed with cutting-edge modernity shares more with South Africa than I expected. Our first visit to the University confirmed this – everything is modernised and renovated beautifully, but there’s a counterpoint of legacy technology, tradition, and a fair amount of future shock.

I’ll tell you more next time. Coenrad and I have grown embarassingly fond of their fatty horsemeat sausages, which is a popular national food. I have some ideas for improving boerewors when I come back (although I suspect some retailers may have beat me to it without telling us).

Anyway, if I get stuck here because I can’t get my passport back, I’m at least sure I’ll eat well…


Kazakhstan Visit, Issue 1

My good colleague Prof Coenrad Fourie and I were recently invited for a short trip as visiting professors to the Karaganda State Technical University in Kazakhstan. This has already been a very unique experience, and I’ll try to do a few short posts over the next couple of weeks to journal some of this.

If, like me, you knew nothing of Kazakhstan: first some background. (And just to get it out of the way, no, the country does not feature in a movie that might be your only exposure to the word “Kazakhstan”. Different countries,  in fact.) Kazakhstan is the world’s ninth largest country, and is nestled in a southern alcove of the Russian border, with China to the east, and doing a pinky-shake with Mongolia (have a look). Most of the people are Kazakh, which means they largely stem from the Turkic hordes like the Huns. The ancient Silk Road which connected the Orient and the Occident of the old world, ran through Kazakhstan.

Travelling is part of my job (remind me to write about the reasons for this some time, will you?) but this particular trip was trickier than usual, because South Africans can’t easily obtain visas for Kazakhstan before travelling – there’s no Kazakhstan consulate in South Africa. Consulates in other countries told us that it would be illegal to try to obtain a visa by sending our passports by courier. So we had to travel to our destination without a visa, but with lots and lots of documentation, including a document from their Foreign Affairs ministry with a “visa support number” as reference, and a letter from our own embassy in Kazakhstan.

It’s a bit nerve-racking to travel 22 hours by plane without knowing whether you’ll be let into your destination country. It turned out that the final border entry (where we got our visas issued at Almaty airport) was much easier than getting onto planes at your departure points, where carriers check your documents before issuing a boarding pass. At Delhi airport, an official disappeared with our passports and supporting documents for more than an hour before letting us out of what seemed like a little passenger containment area.

Fortunately, we arrived in our destination country safe and sound. A visit to one of the modernest cities I’ve ever seen, a meal of horsemeat, a 3-hour roadtrip in the dead of night, Google’s babel fish and a mind-boggling tour of a post-soviet city later, we’re finally in Karaganda. But more about this in the next post!

Switch to our mobile site