Wrap Up and Thank Yous

23 08 2009

After making a few brief stops in Kazakhstan and Dubai last week, I’ve finally made it home a week ago – home sweet home!

I thought that I’d be able to get another couple of posts about the last few weeks out once I’m back, but it feels quite different trying to write it back home in my apartment sitting on my chair – almost as if I’m writing about somebody else’s experiences.

However, I did want to wrap this up with a BIG BIG thank you to some people that have really made the trip what it was. It’s because of them that the last 7 months were so enjoyable and memorable.

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Umeda – for welcoming me to Tajikistan and making my two months there much more fun and enjoyable, for all the outings in Merve, for laughing at my jokes, for dealing with the government bureaucracy for me, and for providing another thing to look forward to back in NY.

Shirin – for conquering Varzob with me and for all the wonderful and encouraging feedback during the last 5 monhs.

Hamza – for making the 2,200km trip in the Pamirs a success. Best driver I’ve ever had a pleasure to work with.

Sujith – for being a great roommate in India, helping to take back the guesthouse from the “little friends”, and for sharing quite a bit about the Indian culture and way of life with me. Those evenings at the beach were definitely a highlight!

Tolik – for a hell of a trip through the South and Southeast Asia. Looking back at it, I’m still amazed how much we managed to pull off during that month. I’ve definitely developed a higher tolerance of risk as a result, although I’ll still show up for planes 2 hours before departure, rather than 20 minutes after. Great memories, indeed.

Nha Ja – teaching the art of massage in Chiang Mai, Thailand for a week. Those are the skills that I hope to put to good use, now that I’m back in NY.

Renat – for being one of the most inspiring and interesting colleagues I’ve had the pleasure of working with during this trip and for answering my never-ending questions at work. I’ve learned quite a bit from you. Till next time!

Saadat – for showing me Kyrgyzstan beyond what I’d ever be able to do on my own, for introducing me to family, friends and making it feel like home during the last two months.

Margarita – for opening up her home to me in Kazakhstan and for the Sunday pancakes :) This is CouchSurfing at its best.

Jenny – for answering Kiva questions at 4am in the morning, for putting me with such great organizations, and being the best MPM I’ve ever worked with :)

Thank you all! :)

Onwards and upwards.





Kyrgyzstan in Pictures: Fountains of Bishkek

31 07 2009

Bishkek is probably one of the greenest cities I’ve ever encounted. It’s peppered with parks – large and small – where families and couples come out, to enjoy the warm weather and have some ice cream. But, if parks themselves are not enough, it’s also home to dozens of fountains throughout the city that attract large crowds in the evenings.

In the center of the city, on the main square, they’ve recently built a set of singing fountains that can give the Bellagio in Vegas a run for its money. Synchronized to classical and national music, with multi-colored lights giving it a disco-effect, they draw thousands of people every night. And for a good reason – it is a beautiful sight.

See for yourselves:

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But to do the fountains their justice, it’s best to check out a short 30-second clip:

CLICK HERE TO VIEW VIDEO





Kyrgyzstan in Pictures: Milking the Horses

28 07 2009

Kyrgyzstan is well-known for several things – traditional yurts, horses on green pastures, and kymyz (horse’s milk). The latter is quite a favorite among the locals – the drink has almost magical powers, having the ability to cure all illnesses and give you superhuman strength. Not to mention, a buzz from its alcoholic qualities.

If you’re visiting Kyrgyzstan, sooner or later, you will have to give the drink a shot and see what it’s like for yourself. To me, the experience was similar to trying out sushi. The first time you try it, you think – “god, this thing is weird. Take it away!”. The second time, you go “hmm, maybe there is something to it.” And the third, well – I haven’t quite reached the third stage yet, but I’ve been told, that you start to like it.

This past weekend, I had the opportunity to come out to a jailoo – a green pasture where horses roam free and kymyz flows bountifully!

You'll find a handful of yurts on every jailoo. The locals live in them while watching over their horses. Beautiful backdrop, eh?

You'll find a handful of yurts on every jailoo. The locals live in them while watching over their horses. Beautiful backdrop, eh?

Dozens of horses are feeding on the pastures.

Dozens of horses are feeding on the pastures.

The jailoos are typically located near the rivers, such as this one (B&W for effect :))

The jailoos are typically located near the rivers, such as this one (B&W for effect :))

When you enter a yurt, you're immediately offered a traditional meal of bread and Kymyz.

When you enter a yurt, you're immediately offered a traditional meal of bread and Kymyz.

Whether you like it or not, you're expected to drink the whole bowl. The hosts will make sure of that.

Whether you like it or not, you're expected to drink the whole bowl. The hosts will make sure of that.

Fortunately, looks like Coca-Cola is getting in the Kymyz business, so look for it on shelves of your favorite supermarkets.

Fortunately, looks like Coca-Cola is getting in the Kymyz business, so look for it on shelves of your favorite supermarkets.

The road back over a mountain pass.

The road back over a mountain pass.

We spent the weekend at the house of the local chief of police, who was kind enough to send us back to Bishkek in a police car (well, they were going there anyway).

We spent the weekend at the house of the local chief of police, who was kind enough to send us back to Bishkek in a police car (well, they were going there anyway).

The ride was complete with sirens, running the red lights, and going 150 miles an hour... well, not quite that :) But it was still quite an experience!

The ride was complete with sirens, running the red lights, and going 150 miles an hour... well, not quite that :) But it was still quite an experience!

Interestingly enough, check out what it says on the side of the car: “Gift from the people of the USA.” I only wonder – if it's a gift from Uncle Sam, why it is a Volkswagen and not a Ford or a GM? :)

Interestingly enough, check out what it says on the side of the car: “Gift from the people of the USA.” I only wonder – if it's a gift from Uncle Sam, why it is a Volkswagen and not a Ford or a GM? :)





Six Months Later: 10 Lessons Learned About Life, Microfinance and the Universe

23 07 2009

Going full circle. Ferris Wheel in Cholpon-Ata, Issyk-Kul Lake Region, Kyrgyyzstan

Going full circle. Ferris Wheel in Bosteri, Issyk-Kul Lake Region, Kyrgyzstan

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):

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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?

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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)! :)

  8. 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.

  9. 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?

  10. 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!





Hollywood Comes to Kyrgyzstan

11 07 2009

Have you ever dreamed of being a movie star,” my colleague at work asked.

I guess when a question like this is posed, you know it’s going to be an unusual day.

As it turned out, a pair of filmmakers from Brazil were shooting a documentary on microfinance and the impact it has on the lives of clients. Their plan was to travel the globe for 10 months and record clients, loan officers, and other microfinance specialists in every place they come through. After visiting Russia and several other countries, they were coming to Kyrgyzstan and turned to our organization to help them with the logistics.

On a 1-day notice, it was arranged for them to meet and interview several of our clients and staff members in the Issyk-Kul region (about 4 hours away from Bishkek). My colleague, Renat, was organizing the whole project and was supposed to accompany them for a couple of days. He asked if I wanted to come along to observe and help with the translation.

Never passing on a chance to do a bit of travelling (especially for free!), I jumped at the offer. It seemed like a perfect opportunity to see a few new places in Kyrgyzstan, get to interact with micro-finance clients, and see the process of shooting a documentary first-hand. I think that’s the best thing about this job – completely random experiences that present themselves that you’d never get to do otherwise. So, the bags were packed and we were off the next day.

Day 1 – The Road North

We picked up Angelika and Gustavo, the brazilian filmmakers, in the early morning from their hotel and headed to a town called Balykchi, which starts at the Issyk-Kul lake. The lake, actually, deserves a post all of its own. It’s the 2nd largest alpine lake in the world – 182km in length and 60km in width. It has over 118 rivers flow into it and 0 that flow out. It is immensely popular among the Kyrgyz people. I think that every local that I meet asks me if I visited the lake yet and, when I say no, they insist that I must before I leave.

Although the lake itself is a big tourist attraction, Balychki itself was pretty dead. After the fall of the USSR, virtually all of its industrial base collapsed. There are very few job opportunities here, so a huge number of people leave to look for work elsewhere. It looks pretty deserted at times with abandoned buildings and your typical Soviet architecture.

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A typical neighborhood.

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Buildings seem to be placed randomly on this giant concrete area. No playgrounds, grass or trees nearby.

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Abandoned building - there are many of them all over the city.

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The first day, the filmmakers wanted to interview several loan officers and a credit manager. We arrived to the regional branch to set everything up.

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Regional Branch Office in Balykchi

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The Film Set - pretty glamorous, eh?

The actual shooting was done in the yard in order to take advantage of the better lighting. The staff was pretty excited to take part in this project and jokes were flying about them winding up in Hollywood, as a result.

The actual process of interviewing was quite interesting. Angelika – the interviewer – was a psychologist by profession, so the questions tried to really dig deep and approach the interviewee from multiple angles. She would ask the questions in English, which I would translate them to the interviewee, listen to the answer (which would sometimes be several minutes long), and then would attempt to translate the response back into English.

I have to admit that it proved to be quite challenging. I figured that thinking and speaking in two languages simultaneously is difficult, but I didn’t realize just how much. Having to remember a 5-minute answer and then translating it into English from memory wasn’t easy. After this, I have even a greater respect for interpreters (you know who you are :)) and the work they do.

After completing three interviews, it was already past 8pm, so we decided to call it a night and continue our work tomorrow. We put up the guests in the company’s guesthouse, while my colleague and I set out to find a place to spend a night ourselves. There were several “hotels” around, but it always amuses me how different they are from the ones in the West. This particular “gostinica” was basically several apartments in a regular building:

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Entrance to our "hotel".

Not very well advertised :)

Not very well advertised :)


Day 2 – Talking to the Clients

The following morning, we set out to another town – Kochkor – to visit a couple of clients and interview them.

The lonely road

The lonely road

Gustavo, the cameraman, taking in the surroundings.

Gustavo, the cameraman, taking in the surroundings.

Kochkor office of Mol Bulak, right next to their competitor – Kompanion. I find it interesting that they seem to follow the same model as the fast food joints – wherever a McDonalds opens, a Burger King will soon follow. Same appears to be happening here.

Kochkor office of Mol Bulak, right next to their competitor – Kompanion. I find it interesting that they seem to follow the same model as the fast food joints – wherever a McDonalds opens, a Burger King will soon follow. Same appears to be happening here.

Throughout the day, we interviewed three clients – an artisan producing national rugs, a woodwork shop owner, and a family running a cookie baking business. Each interview was over an hour and offered fascinating insights into the lives of these inspiring business owners. It was much more detailed than any other interviews I’ve done for Kiva in the past, so it showed many more dimensions to the client.

The one that I’d like to share with you was the last one – a husband and wife who opened up their own cookie baking “bakery”. She used to be an accountant, he ran his own small business. But eventually, they took out a small loan, added their own savings, and started their own bakery. Within a year, they were able to expand pretty well and currently employ 7 people.

Here are some shots:

This is where the magic happens. The owner dreams of buying a specialized baking machine, but that costs over $1,500, so that will have to wait. Meantime, they make do with 5 regular ovens.

This is where the magic happens. The owner dreams of buying a specialized baking machine, but that costs over $1,500, so that will have to wait. Meantime, they make do with 5 regular ovens.

Two of their employees getting started on the shift.

Two of their employees getting started on the shift.

Mixing the eggs. The cookies are made of all natural ingredients.

Mixing the eggs. The cookies are made of all natural ingredients.

The other room of the house has been converted into the packing area. All of the cookies are gently packed into boxes before being driven to Bishkek for sale.

The other room of the house has been converted into the packing area. All of the cookies are gently packed into boxes before being driven to Bishkek for sale.

They taste as good as they look.

They taste as good as they look.

The baking is done during the night, so the employees typically start at 5pm and finish in the early morning. Their salary is about 3,000 – 4,000 soms per month ($70-95), but they seem to be quite happy to be employed at all. In this town, jobs are scarce and this is considered a decent wage.

Husband and wife that started the business. They both work about 18 hours a day – as they have to oversee the process and make the 8-hour trip to the capital every 2 days to distribute the cookies and purchase additional materials.

Husband and wife that started the business. They both work about 18 hours a day – as they have to oversee the process and make the 8-hour trip to the capital every 2 days to distribute the cookies and purchase additional materials.

There was something special about this particular business. Although you could see that it was hard work for everybody involved, people seemed relatively happy and optimistic about the future. The owner himself was brimming with energy, so you couldn’t help but get infected with it.

The filmmakers got what they came for and we returned back to Bishkek late at night. It was definitely a great work-trip. And the best thing is that there is another 3-day trip to the South of the country that starts on Monday.

The whole team enjoying a quick dinner. Gustavo, the cameraman; David – previous Kiva Fellow who is currently serving 2 years in Kyrgyzstan in the Peace Corps, waitress, Angelika – the filmmaker; and Renat – credit manager at Mol Bulak.

The whole team enjoying a quick dinner. Gustavo, the cameraman; David – previous Kiva Fellow who is currently serving 2 years in Kyrgyzstan in the Peace Corps, waitress, Angelika – the filmmaker; and Renat – credit manager at Mol Bulak.








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