Next morning, I enter the club lounge for breakfast, and I realise I am the only woman around. I am standing out in my sunshine orange sweater among men dressed in black Armani suits. I feel like a canary among penguins. All eyes are on me suddenly. How odd.
There are Russian businessmen and American engineers. Suited Japanese officials and Chinese tycoons. Everyone comes to Almaty for technical work due to oil and mining. They all look alike in their serious predictable attires, talking in hushed tones discussing god knows what. I am obviously the odd one out. How often do you see a middle-aged Indian woman in such scenarios?
Having traveled alone since I was 17 years old, I am well versed with the breakfast buffets. Huge tables are lined with fruits, cereals, cheese, variety of bread and hot dishes. People are always rushing to fill their plates for morning dose of energy and free food.
But this buffet is strange. Tiny bite sized carved fruits are placed creatively in tiny white porcelain dishes. There are precisely 6 pieces of cheese and 8 pieces of croissant. Small counter is preparing hot egg dishes with beans and mushrooms. Small bowls of variety of cereals are placed neatly on the left of the buffet and the center table has small pieces of different types of bread and Danish pastry. It does not seem lavish but looks ok. One of the waiters informs me that food, especially fruits are very expensive in Almaty come winter. I can see how carefully they have calculated the numbers of guests and placed only what is exactly required. I munch on French bread with some cheese, gulping it down with hot mint tea. How I miss aloo paratha!
Life is indeed good on some days! I am not an engineer, or a software developer. I am just a feng shui consultant who was invited to pass by and fix the yin from the yang in some properties. I still can’t believe it that I am here. Who would have thought a middle-class Gujarati girl from Bombay with no money or connections would land this far?
My breakfast table overlooks the morning bumper-to-bumper traffic. Life on the road sucks everywhere in the morning traffic – Marine Drive in Mumbai or Sheikh Zayed Road in Dubai to Al Farabi Avenue in Almaty!
The day starts slow. Not many people know why I am here. My work is practically unknown in this part of the world. I have no idea if Kazakh people would be open to implementing feng shui in their homes. I mean buying a toy or a bedsheet that is made in China is much more palatable than inviting a chubby Indian woman into your home who claims to work with energies according to the Chinese science of feng shui. Most people are afraid of the non-tangible and so my work always takes time to bloom in a new country. It’s my first time here and I am told it may be a while before people book appointments. I am also told that may have no work. I pay no attention. Things always fall into place if they meant to. I am enjoying the sunshine from my lovely consulting room listening to old Kishore Kumar songs. Sunlight is trickling through my double-glazed windows warming up the ice-cold room while warming my heart and head.
Seeing snow around me still gives me a great high. Having lived in Dubai, Hong Kong and Bombay for most of my life, snow is as unique as a purple tulip to me. The first time I ever touched snow was in Switzerland on my first flight to Zurich when I was 19 years old. The feeling is still incomparable to anything I have ever experienced. And even now, when I touch the pristine white ball of joy, it takes me right back to the day when I landed in Switzerland for Christmas. Today everything looks bright white around me – from mountains to houses. It feels as if Almaty is wrapped in a white blanket sleeping peacefully.
After a few appointments here and there on day one something strange happens. I am told that my appointments are fully booked for next 11 days. One lady who I met has tweeted about me and boom; I have work. I had no idea Almaty had thriving social media scene.
How things change in life from moment to meoment!
Day in and day out the team is helping me cope with the sudden workload. Short lunches and dinner breaks, early morning appointments and no time to think. Work is thriving. And then it hits me. Underneath the glamorous exterior and polished shoes, people are the same everywhere.
The only time I step out in the city is at the end of the first working week on a Sunday for lunch with my friend Joe and his family. He is from Lebanon but has been living in Almaty for over a year now. After driving around, the city for a bit we stop at a small family run Italian restaurant that has a menu in Russian and also serve horse meat. Thankfully there are tons of vegetarian options and the food looks promising. The restaurant is filled with young couples and children with pink cheeks and large families.
Food is everywhere.
Pasta, pizza, bread, dips, sauces and of course Tiramisu!
Joe and his wife Stephanie drive me around Almaty after lunch. My so-called sightseeing moment after many days of working non-stop. The snow-capped mountains surrounding the city makes me feel that I am in Europe. However, the monoclonal houses give a feel that I am in China. It’s a mixed canvas. Huge government funded universities from the time of USSR are scattered everywhere. And then there is a large open Republic square with a tall statue. Like in all communist countries, this must be the place where the government propaganda was done. In an odd way it reminds me of Tiananmen Square in Beijing. There are huge public parks with lots of trees and benches. But every park has a statue of Stalin.
There are cameras scattered in many public places, some hidden and some very obvious. Parks have cameras. Malls have cameras. It’s like your every moved is recorded and a digital footprint of your life is being stored for future.
Almaty is a modern city with footprints of the past. People don’t smile much here because in the former USSR smiling was seen as sign of weakness. It’s a city that is still discovering its new identity and finding a rhythm. High-end brands have crept in. Apple and Samsung are finding their footings here. European clothes brands are available now. Many things have changed from USSR days. People are now open, there is more travel within and outside the country, and many jobs are created. Rich are still very rich, and poor are very poor. On the surface it all looks normal, acceptable and progressive.
And yet every time you stop at a traffic light, you know someone is watching you!
Goodbye Almaty! Until We meet again!