It was exactly half a year ago, on January 23rd, that I packed all of my belongings in one 30-pound backpack and left New York City for a 7 month trip to Central Asia and India. I only had a slightest idea of what the trip would wind up being like and what exactly I’d be doing during all that time. I just knew that it was something that I had to try for myself, even if I couldn’t quite explain the reasons to others.
Low and behold, it’s now six months later and and I’m in the midst of doing my 2nd Kiva placement in Kyrgyzstan (after doing doing a Kiva Fellowship in Kyrgyzstan and then a another volunteer assignment in India). So, I figured that it would be a good time to stop and reflect on the experience and the lessons learned. With just four weeks left before heading back to the good, old U.S. of A, you definitely start to wonder about what this meant for you.
10 Lessons Learned About Life, Microfinance and the Universe (in no particular order):
On Patience: Things take time to work. Over the last 6 months, I started work in 3 different organizations (2 for Kiva and 1 was for an independent, non-Kiva placement but also in microfinance). The first few weeks in every place can feel slow and sometimes awkward, as you struggle to find your place within the organization and figure out what you can contribute. But then, the situation quickly changes and before you know it, you’re running around trying to handle everything on your plate. Patience really is a virtue.
On Fitting In: You can live, have a fulfilling job, make friends and form connections no matter where you are. It really amazes me that within a short time span of just two months, you can really start to feel very comfortable in a completely new setting. It’s been quite rewarding to gain this greater feeling of confidence and independence about being able to make it anywhere in the world.
On Assumptions: Your assumptions about the rest of the world are often wrong. I can’t even begin to describe the kind of assumptions I’ve had about Tajikistan or Central Asia in general before I went there. As I wrote previously in Is It Safe to Travel post, many places I’ve visited have a poor reputation in the Western media, but turn out to be very different in reality. And no, people don’t live in yurts in Kyrgyzstan or ride donkeys to work in Tajikistan.
On Poverty: Poverty is very different from country to country. In India, a poor person can be somebody living in the slums or on the street with all of their belongings in a box next to them. In Central Asia, a person considered to be in poverty can have a roof over their head, some livestock or a garden they can raise food from, and so on. In both cases, people are poor; in both cases, they are struggling for survival and the well-being of their families. But the context makes a difference. I remember reading a profile of a client in Central Asia who bought a cow or two, sold some milk, then bought a Mercedes-Benz (although, a used one) – doesn’t necessarily fit the typical stereotype of a poor person, right?
On Microfinance: I still remember how I learned about Kiva two years ago when I read the founder’s blog during one long night. I had this “ah-ha” moment – “Finally, I discovered the solution to poverty. It’s so simple!” When I embarked on the trip, I had a very “rose-colored” view of microfinance and the impact it has on the lives of the people. But, after spending this time in the microfinance environment, I’ve become a bit more pragmatic about this and have come to a realization that micro loans are not a solution to all of the world’s ills. It is a tool, however, and a powerful one at that. As another Kiva Fellow, Nemr Kanafani, has mentioned: “microfinance is about providing banking services to a segment of the population that has no access to it. Debt is a tool which, when available, can really empower someone.” But, like any tool, it’s only as good as a person who’s using it.
On Travel: Traveling with a purpose is more fulfilling. I’ve spent 6 months in 3 countries working for different organizations and I felt like I only scratched the top of the surface. But, I was also lucky to have an opportunity to take a month off to travel around South and Southeast Asia. While those four weeks was incredibly interesting and rewarding, I have to admit that I was looking forward to settling down in my next destination for a couple of months with a sense of purpose and a reason to be there.
On Language: Knowing a local language is priceless when you’re living somewhere new. I have to say that I’m very, very fortunate to know Russian, as it is a tremendous help in maximizing your time in Central Asia. Being able to easily communicate with the staff of the organization and the clients helps you form much stronger connections with them. It’s certainly interesting to hear when your colleagues say: “ti svoj” (you’re one of us)! :)
On Hospitality: If there is one thing that I would like to be able to take back with me to New York is the incredible, gracious hospitality that I’ve encountered during this time. As one of my colleagues have remarked – “people may sometimes have very little to offer, but you should know that no matter where you go, you will always get a lepeshka (bread), tea and a roof over your head.” Over these months, I’ve spent time in people’s homes and have been helped by total strangers and it’s amazing to realize that no matter where you are in the world, there is always a hand available to help you. I hope that I can pass this forward when I’m back in New York.
On Corruption: It’s a way of life for most and it exists because of a system that virtually makes it impossible to avoid it. When people are paid less than what they can survive on (e.g. police, doctors, teachers), bribes are the only way they can get the extra cash to provide for their families. But when the same corruption permeates every level of society, it creates true barriers for people to grow and succeed in their country. It’s not a merit system anymore – it’s the people with an uncle in the right place or a bigger bank account that “succeed.” Hell, if you can buy a post of a “minister” in the government for several tens of thousands of dollars, how well is that going to work for the general public?
On Privilege: At every organization I have joined, sooner or later, somebody asks the question: “So, you’re doing this for half a year and not getting paid for it. So, why are you doing it?” The truth is that financial compensation pales in comparison by what I got out of this fellowship in terms of non-material things – be it new perspectives on the world, new knowledge or even personal growth that I’ve achieved. Every time I meet with a client, or drive with my colleagues to another office, or even take a walk in the park in the evening – I have an enormous sense of appreciation for being able to be here to experience it.
These 10 lessons are only the beginning – there could be many more such lists.
Summing Up – Where a Kiva Fellowship Can Take You:
* including projected travel over the next 4 weeks
Number of Flights Taken: 25*
Countries Visited: 12 (Tajikistan, Turkey, India, Nepal, Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei, Thailand, Kyrgyzstan, *Kazakhstan, *United Arab Emirates)
Countries Lived/Worked In: Tajikistan, India, Kyrgyzstan
Onwards and upwards!