Blending of religions in Chiapas

We´re currently in the state of Chiapas in the middle of our backpacking journey through Mexico. Mexico deserves an entire post in itself – a fascinating land blending rich meso-america ancient history, magical towns preserved from the time of the Spanish conquest, beautiful beaches, delicious street food and the nicest people you will ever encounter. Yes, there is probably a ton of ongoing drug-related troubles, but one has to look beyond that to truly appreciate the beauty of this massive country.

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From San Cristobal de la Casas where we are currently based for a couple of days, we took a side trip out to San Juan Chamula today, a smaller mountain town just 10km north. It is a recommended trip to witness an age-old tradition which is still being kept alive, in today´s world of Facebook, Twitter and all that technology-jazz. San Juan Chamula looks like any other remote mountain town as you drive into the centro, but the mystical practices happen inside their main church – Templo de San Juan Chamula.

You have to enter the doors of the church to realize that there is something strange about this mountain town. Inside the dark and smoky chapel, there are neither pews nor altars. Instead, you find statues of Saints enclosed in glass cases lined along the interior walls. On the marble floor pine leaves lie alongside indigenous women chanting prayers in the old Mayan language. I wish I could share pictures, but photography was strictly prohibited by the locals (by strict I mean you could get locked-up). As a protest against the Spanish inquisition, people of San Juan Chamula refused to adopt Catholicism, and instead continued to hang on to their traditional Mayan roots. The end product is a mix of Catholicism and Mayan beliefs, manifested in one of the strangest churches you will ever set foot in.

Chickens are sacrificed in front of the Saints in order to cure diseases, offerings of Mezcal or Pox (types of Mexican alcohol) and sweet beverages are made to the Saints, with hundreds of candles that represent a connection to the Otherworld. We were very fortunate to witness an intercessory procession, where a lady raised the chicken over an infant´s head, “adsorbing” the sickness, then “expelling” it by twisting the neck of the chicken in the sacrifice. No blood was involved, but you get the picture. (here is a Youtube link from someone who must have used some sort of a hidden camera) The Mayans and their descendants have ingeniously adopted Catholicism to make it work for them, despite having to live under the rule of the Spaniards. This reminded me of something I witnessed while I was in Salvador de Bahia 7 years ago – the Brazillian religion named Candomble, which began when African slaves had to mask their Orixas (gods) behind the Saints in order to continue practicing their traditional religious beliefs right under the nose of their Portuguese masters.

Outside the church, a massive Cross stands erected – but it is not a cross that represents the death of Jesus, but one for the local people to connect to the Mayan gods “in the sky”. The four points of the Mayan cross represents the Sun, the Earth, the Moon and the people. The culture at San Juan Chamula – the only place in Mexico where the religious essence is neither Catholic nor Mayan, but a fascinating blend of Catholic beliefs held together by an indigenous core.

How fascinating is this world that we live in?

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Microfinance and Kiva

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I first came across the concept of microfinance and the non-profit company Kiva back in 2008. I was in my junior year at that time, and it had been a fascinating semester learning about microlending, rural entrepreneurship and the subsistence marketplace. It is a fairly simple idea – people living in impoverished nations often lack access to traditional sources of funding (ie. a bank). Microfinance institutions exist to fill this gap – by providing small loans to the rural poor, small businesses (think village shop acquiring additional sundries, farmer buying fertilisers etc.) are provided with support needed for their operations. The Nobel-peace prize winning Grameen Bank is one of the most successful examples of microfinance that exists today. Since its inception, it has made more than $10b worth of loans, at a >95% repayment rate.

Back then, since I had my contractual obligation to the Singapore government, journeying further into this field was not possible. I kept my experiences as a memory and reminder: one day I will find an opportunity to explore the field of microfinance and witness if and how it works on the ground. Perhaps, I could even contribute my skills to this sector?

2010.

I stared at my computer screen and saw that Kiva had launched a program where they send Fellows out into the field to be their eyes and ears on the ground. Fellows work with field partners to increase transparency and adoption of technology at local microfinance institutions, and documenting how rural entrepreneurs are using loans to improve their lives on behalf of the Kiva community. I looked at the list of countries… Bolivia, East Timor, Vietnam, Kosovo, and the type of work Fellows were doing out in the field – meaningful, first-hand experiences with the inner-workings of microfinance. Would I ever qualify to become a Kiva Fellow?

2013.

This happened. It was epic, I redeemed my freedom and moved back to the US.

2014.

For months, Kiva kept coming up as a recurring thought in my mind. But, am I ready to trade my comfortable life in Austin for four unpaid months out in the field, away from family and friends, with people speaking a language I don’t understand? Will I even make it through their selection and interview process? In September of this year I applied, went through the selection process and was eventually offered a Kiva Fellowship in November! “By the way…”, they said, “… we’re sending you to Tajikistan”.

Tajikistan.

To be honest, I had to pull out Google maps to figure out where the country lies. In my mind, Central Asia seems to still be a mystical post-Soviet region little-known to the rest of the world. Who are the people of Tajikistan? What do they speak there? What is the main industry? What will loans go to support in a country where more than 90% of the territory is made out of mountains?

My fellowship with Kiva in Tajikistan begin two months from today, but really, the journey has already begun.

One of the very few sources of literature about Tajikistan available

Got hold of one of the very few sources of literature about Tajikistan available!

 

Shoutout to Lysia Tan, the most supportive life partner in the world I can ever ask for!

Kiva Fellows Program

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When I was applying for the Kiva Fellows Program, it wasn’t particularly easy getting detailed information about the whole application and interview process. For the sake of anyone interested in being a Kiva Fellow in the future, I hope Google’s SEO will bring you to this page.

If you’re reading this, I assume that you already know about the Fellowship and what it entails. For further details, please refer to the KFP site. Three Fellowship classes are shipped out a year, consisting of 25-30 Fellows each. The exact dates are updated regularly on this page

Also, if you’re trying to figure out if you have the right profile Kiva is looking for, this extract from Kiva’s website pretty much sums it up:

Kiva encourages applicants with substantial cross-cultural immersion experience and backgrounds in business, finance, international development, community engagement, outreach, and consulting to apply. As the program expands, there are many diverse kinds of Kiva Fellows. Not only does the fellowship vary in where the fellows serve, but also in the nature of their work. That said, Kiva has accepted applicants with a wide range of backgrounds and experiences: MBAs, film-makers, professionals transitioning careers, lawyers, public policy researchers, consultants, financial planners, firefighters, engineers and former US soldiers are among the program alumni. Ages range from the minimum of 21 through 60+ years old.

Entire process, in a nutshell:

  • Round 1 – Get your supporting documents ready and submit an online application. Take this very seriously, as the rigor of the process is comparable to a full-time job application. You want to have a solid resume, personal statements and strong references. Make sure you are clear about the job requirements, and what you will be getting yourself into. This may include things like showering with bucket, communication through only charades and hanging up a mosquito net. After this point, folks in Kiva HQ will be screening through applications and selecting second-round candidates
  • Round 2 – If you make it through round one, the second round will be an interview with Kiva Fellow alumni. Having been through the program, ex-Kiva Fellows will recognize what it takes to be out alone in the field. Be prepared to talk about why you want to become a Kiva Fellow, and how your experiences thus far makes you a solid candidate for the program. Include examples of spontaneous problem-solving, initiative-taking and most importantly cross-cultural experiences (essential skillset for every Kiva Fellow).
  • Round 3 – If you make it through round two, the third round will be an interview with the Kiva staff. I believe the key thing to articulate here will be any international experiences, and occasions where you showed leadership initiatives. Be prepared to fully explain your perspective of what the role of a Kiva Fellow is, as they would want to know that you are fully cognizant of the responsibilities out in the field. Questions may also be more behavioral in nature. Such a question could look like this – “If you conduct a Borrower Verification and find out that he/she is using the loans to pay off medical bills for a sick family member instead of the original intention, what would you do?” Also, I highly encourage you to remain open to whatever they throw your way – for example, “Are you willing to serve as a Kiva Fellow in (insert country that makes you nervous)?” Honestly though, I think a Kiva Fellow should be open to anything at all because out in the field, every day is a surprise. 

Once you make it through all 3 rounds, it is placement time! While Kiva takes into account your preferences, note that they also have to send Fellows into regions which need urgent attention. Like I said, it’s all a big surprise and you have to keep an open mind. Personally, I expected to get placed in a Latin-America country, but ended up getting sent to Tajikistan. Great. I don’t speak Tajik/Russian, and know little about Central Asia; but hey, I can’t even pronouce TAK-jee-ki-STAHN correctly – it has to be an amazing experience.

It is also important to note that the Fellowship is an unpaid stint, which means you have to figure out your own way to raise the funds required for the duration of the program. Depending on where your starting location is, flights in and out of San Francisco (training) + field location, visas, immunization etc. could add up – so do your research before-hand and have an idea of where you will be getting the required funds.

Here’s the FAQ of the Kiva Fellows Program. If you’re applying, all the best! Also, feel free to contact me (KF26, Tajikistan) if you have any questions. It is always helpful to talk to someone!

+ shoutout to Robert Luchsinger (KF 22/23) for being a great help through the process!

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London: Fascinating blend of antiquity and modernity

The oldest pub in the City of London

The oldest pub in the City of London

When we think of major cities in the world, New York, London and Paris often comes to mind. I had the chance to first visit New York back in 2008, and Paris in 2011, but not London. In my head, London was this… modern (old?) European city, Queen’s abode… I actually had very little idea of what London really is.

I had the opportunity to visit London last month, and she blew my mind.

The layers (literally) of history in this city, including roads buried underneath dating back to the time of the Romans, were fascinating. When you stand in the middle of the old City of London, you are literally setting foot on historic greatness. I must admit that I have been pretty ignorant to European history all these years, and it was interesting to learn that London originated from Roman Londinium around AD50 and grew to become the commercial center for the Roman Empire. Back in the days, imagine the volume of trade flowing through this one tiny spot in Britain – silk, tea, sugar and all the precious goods from the Silk Road.

And then you walk down to the River Thames and stare across the body of water into the Eye of Sauron – the towering Shard representing the modern world, all 87 storeys of it. I won’t go on to describe modernity – you should have a pretty good idea of that.

Random quirky things:

1. The Wedding Cake, as we know it today, originated from one man in the City of London. Inspired by the spire of a building in the old City of London, he produced a layered cake and presented it as a gift to ask for a hand in marriage. The birth of a tradition.

2. The Lord Mayor of London who governs the merchant guilds in the old City of London still exists as a function today. This sounds ridiculous but the Queen of England  actually needs to seek permission to enter the Old City of London from the Lord Mayor. At her entrance, the Lord Mayor presents a sword to her (presumably relenting his power to her), before she steps into the Old City. The last time this happened during Margaret Thetcher’s funeral, the Lord Mayor tripped and almost took off the Queen’s head … apparently the sword was too heavy for him!