I have to admit that when I first got the call – or rather the tweet – to participate as a trainer in a tech forum in Almaty, Kazakhstan, I was hesitant. It wasn’t a very popular or known place and to be honest, I wasn’t sure I wanted this to be my re-entry (after 7 years) into international training workshops and business travel. Today, after having come back from a 5-day trip to Almaty, I can tell you that if you ever get the opportunity to go to such a tech forum, GO WITH YOUR EYES CLOSED!
Thanks to Kalsoom Lakhani and Nighat Daad, who are Tech Forum alumni and who encouraged me to go, I had the best time ever – both during the training sessions and during the cultural immersion into a former Soviet state.
Just the fact that we had arrived in Almaty on time and in one piece was miraculous in and of itself. There were 3 trainers from Karachi (including myself) and our journey was rife with complications even before the travel started. Hounded by visa issues and terrorism threats, we were unsure of going until we actually landed in Almaty!
The approach to Almaty airport set the tone for our trip – a lush green peaceful basin surrounded in part by a snow-capped mountainous terrain. At the airport we were met by Tristram Perry – the master orchestrator of the entire Tech Forum Central Asia 3 (TFCA3). Tristram is the Public Affairs Officer at the US Consulate General in Almaty, Kazakhstan. He, along with Dinara Karkabayeva (Grants Coordinator / Administrative Assistant at the US Consulate Almaty) put together an awesome program of technical training combined with cultural immersion.
Right after landing we were treated to an evening reception at the home of the USAID Director’s house along with all of the U.S. Central Asia Ambassadors and Deputy Assistant Secretary Fatema Sumar.
The next morning – June 13th – began a series of sightseeing and networking events designed to get the trainers and participants comfortable with one another and also tuned in to the city of Almaty (formerly Alma-Ata in Russian, which means Father of Apples). Our day started with a trainer’s briefing and technical sound check, moved on to lunch, followed by a ride in a cable car up the highest point of the city to a hill called Kok-Tobe (literally Green Hill).
Next we had dinner with Macon Philips – Coordinator, Bureau of International Information Programs, followed by a huge reception at the BarFly – the bar located at the top-most 26th Floor of the hotel we were staying in, Hotel Kazakhstan. It was at this reception that trainers, participants and organizers got to meld and mingle and understand each other better. And in hindsight, I can say that this was a brilliant strategy by the organizers as it allowed everyone to get to know each other in a casual setting before moving on to the formal training sessions. For my part, it helped me tailor my entire presentation to the specific audience that I was presenting to. So in that way, it was a great 2-way learning opportunity!
The first day of training started bright and early at 8am. KIMEP – the Kazakhstan Institute of Management Economics and Strategic Research – played host to the Tech Forum. The trainings were being conducted on varied tech topics – from App Development, to Online Security to Video Production and Data Analytics. Alongside these, there were also intense sessions on marketing for technology – topics included Blogging, Campaign Marketing, Content Marketing, Crowdsourcing, Digital Media, Project Planning and Storytelling and more. These were followed by sessions on Grant Writing and Project Funding.
This year’s Tech Forum’s focus was on Women & Technology, hence the heavy contingent of female trainers present at the event! The trainers themselves were from a variety of Central Asian countries, including Pakistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, India, Indonesia, as well as from the USA and UK.
The participants hailed mostly from Central Asian countries. They had to fill out comprehensive forms about what they hoped to learn and achieve via the Tech Forum to be eligible for participation.
What was perhaps most interesting about this trip, was the inclusion of cultural activities alongside the technical trainings. As soon as Day 1 of training was over, a bunch of us headed to the Abay Opera House to watch a ballet performance of “Red Giselle”. This was easily one of the highlights of the trip for me. Not ever having seen ballet before, and not sure what to expect, I was blown away by the intensity of the dance and the feelings it evoked. It was mesmerizing to watch dancers perform with such precision and emotion!
Day 2 of our training session commenced and what was most noticeable for me was the enthusiastic participation of the trainees. They were asking questions, being comfortable with the program, and in general tweeting and instagramming their responses, which was great feedback both for the trainers as well as the organizers!
Day 2 wrapped up with dinner at a stunning Uzbek restaurant called The Alasha, up in the mountains, complete with dancing and tight-rope performances. It was quite a treat!
All in all, I would say that Almaty is a great mutli-ethinic city where you’d be understood better if you spoke Urdu or Persian or even Arabic (due to geographic proximity) rather than English. Even though Kazakhstan is muslim majority, the predominant culture seems an interesting amalgamation of the modern West and Soviet-era communism. The people are fiercely loyal, super helpful and fun-loving!
I want to extend my heartfelt thanks to Tristram, Dinara, Maria, Saule, Gauhar, Ainura, Aigerem, Olga, Stanley and so many more helpful people who made this trip so much fun and so memorable for us! Thank you and see you all soon!
p.s. For more great pics of the event, view the official flickr account: https://www.flickr.com/photos/tfca2012/ and also see the awesome pics by Aulia Halimatussadiah here: https://www.flickr.com/photos/salsabeela/sets/72157645252634805/