Please meet BBV Kazakhstan Ambassador Anna Cohen Miller who shares her Plan B summer plans in Nur-Sultan (formerly Astana), the capital Kazakhstan, as part of our series “Making Lemons Out of Lemonades”! A mother scholar living and working in Nur-Sultan as Assistant Professor within the Graduate School of Education and Co-Director of The Consortium of Gender Scholars at Nazarbayev University with her husband, a graphic designer, and their two children–an almost nine-year-old son and a daughter of five. Their travel plans in Kazakhstan, to Uzbekistan, Spain, the U.K., and the U.S. were all cast aside. Please join Anna who has developed a uniquely creative “out-of-the-box” staycation plan for her kids and feel yourself getting inspired!
Q. Please tell us a bit about your family.
A. Hello from Kazakhstan! Or, as our kids say to their local friends, salem (sah-lehm) in Kazakh, or Привет (pree-vee-et) in Russian. Thank you so much for the opportunity to share our lives in Central Asia. I’m Anna, I’m Sephardic (Spanish-Jewish), and grew up in the United States. A little over five years ago, I found an incredible opportunity to help develop a new university, Nazarbayev University, in what was formerly Astana, and recently renamed Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan. We moved from San Antonio, TX, where we lived for 10 years, with our then three-and-a-half-year-old and five-month-old for a new adventure in this plurilingual country in Central Asia.
Since then, we’ve been living on the university campus with faculty and staff from around the world. I have been teaching early childhood education, how to conduct research, and working to promote diversity and access within education. Our kids, now almost nine and five, have been surrounded by a growing set of families from various cultures, religions, and linguistic backgrounds. The kids understand a good amount of Russian and Kazakh—and we all speak English, and Spanish, which I’ve spoken to my kids since they were little.
Q.How has your locality dealt with Covid-19 and what restrictions are you currently facing?
A. The restrictions in Kazakhstan are changing daily. We had been in lockdown mode from the beginning of March, which meant that we were supposed to shelter in place except for going out to get groceries or for medical reasons. On-campus, there were strict regulations determining when and if you could leave home–only during certain hours with a mask and gloves and no visitors allowed.
Thanks to these measures, the country and campus reported very low numbers of cases. As the summer began, shopping centers, some public transportation, and other service sectors slowly started to open with set restrictions in place for wearing masks, gloves, and social distancing. Unfortunately, as positive cases of Covid-19 have recently increased, cities and the campus are going back into quarantine, at least temporarily. For us, since we have been staying only on campus since March, there aren’t a lot of major changes. However, household goods deliveries may be temporarily suspended and restaurants shut down.
Q. Did you have plans for this summer that you had to cancel or reschedule because of Covid-19? At this stage, have you been able to come up with any vacation plans including staycations? If so, please describe them and tell us what you are doing to make the summer special for your little ones given the circumstances?
A. Well, part of what we love about living in Central Asia is the opportunity to travel and learn more about other countries and cultures. But with Covid-19, Kazakhstan shut borders down at the beginning of March limiting or excluding travel. As a result, this has meant a major reshifting of our plans not only for the summer, but even prior to that in the spring when we had planned to travel internationally such as to the U.K., Spain, Uzbekistan, and the U.S.
Under normal conditions, we would plan outings throughout the city and country to explore the countryside and various unique features and events. It’s a stressful time and many people feel the sadness and pain of being far from family and friends, their regular routines upended, and seeing those they love facing extreme illness. Yet, we’re trying to focus on staying as positive as possible, being grateful for what we have (e.g., steady jobs, housing, and places to walk on campus) and trying to build in as many activities and ideas as possible that will encourage us to come together, laugh out the stress, and play.
With the continued health precautions, concerns, and restrictions, many families will be fully living and “stay-cation-ing” on campus for the summer, as well as integrating work. So, we’re trying to think creatively for ourselves and for other families on campus!
We’re making lists and coming up with ideas centered around time outdoors during the day and the feeling of doing something different that invokes the feeling of summer. Here’s what we have come with so far:
- Creating a travel-like adventure–Since our kids love packing their bags and preparing for a trip, we’re excited to make a pretend country to visit in the house and to “travel” to one of the wooden yurts on campus. They are like a small cabin but domed and reminiscent of the moveable structures of nomadic tribes of this region. We will pack the bags and travel there!
- Going on biking trips throughout the campus. We have a bike trailer, child seat, and kid bikes which make it possible to try out different ways to move around.
- Camping: We found an affordable pop-up tent that our kids love. Camping might happen indoors one week and another week in a remote area of campus, or just an early morning adventure. With a travel hammock, too, we can create an indoor or outdoor space that feels like a special treat, different from the typical daily routine.
- Planting a summer vegetable garden.
- Barbecuing with locally grown food, plus a treat of marshmallows, hard to find a few years ago but easily available now!
- Identifying and cataloging plants and animals we can find on campus. Right now, there are so many varied types of crickets and butterflies. It’s fascinating to discover and learn.
- Having a water gun fight, perhaps with homemade squirters created from water bottles with holes drilled in the tops, or with others, we may try to order for delivery.
- Creating obstacle courses and treasure hunts throughout campus. If this idea goes over well, perhaps other families on campus would also create their own and the shared adventures could be enjoyed at various times.
And then for the evenings, I’ve found it really useful to have a theme or focus for the kids (and the adults) to look forward to as a change of pace. Here are some of the ideas we’ve used or are thinking of for the summer:
- Movie night complete with popcorn.
- Pizza night, which is a full event if made from scratch.
- Karaoke night.
- Kids performance night.
- Story night with themed snacks.
- Indoor picnic night.
- Mini date night, where everyone takes turns spending 30 minutes with another person one-to-one.
This will be a very different summer for all of us. I’ve been lucky to have a chance to work with the university, which has been exceptionally open and responsive to ideas for creating a family-friendly campus. Now thanks to a barbecue area, hammocks, tented space near a playground, outdoor chess build and ping pong table, and soon to be a splash-pad and community garden, the possibilities for relaxing, having fun and enjoying a special summer–even if within a limited geographic space–are incredible! Hopefully, we can be an example to our kids and the community about finding creative solutions that bring in joy and playfulness even amidst unprecedented times.
This is the last in a series of Bébé Voyage series on Summer 2020 Plan B “Making Lemonade Out of Lemons.” Many thanks to all our amazing contributors whose plans–road trips, multigenerational reunions, and staycations–have brought inspiration and hope to our community during these challenging times. Whether they be in the U.S., Norway, France, Portugal, South Africa, or Kazakhstan, these plans illustrate that travel and adventure don’t have to take you thousands of miles away from home and that kids can experience unforgettable memories right even in their own backyard. We are waiting to hear from our contributors to see how their plans came through!
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