Life in the former Soviet Union

Following Gorbachev’s failed attempts to reform the Soviet Union towards social democracy in the late 1980s through the policies of perestroika and glasnost, the Union dissolved on 25 December 1991 into independent post-Soviet states. From the Union, 15 countries were eventually born – Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Estonia, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova, Russia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Ukraine and Uzbekistan. I am currently in Tajikistan as a Kiva Fellow, one of the poorest of the list.

20 years after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, most former Soviet States have achieved a GDP greater than what they had before 1991. Unfortunately, Tajikistan is not one of them. Having the most beautiful mountains and lakes in the world became both a blessing and a curse for Tajikistan, as only ~5% of the country is non-mountainous land that can be put to productive-use. Besides the hustle and bustle of little retail shops, local markets and eateries, the only sizable productive activities visible in the capital Dushanbe are the old Soviet power generation facilities and a cement factory. Old is an understatement; archaic may be a more apt description.

Old Soviet-style architecture

Old Soviet-style architecture

Being a Kiva Fellow in the field gives us unprecedented access to the people in the country we serve in. By “unprecedented”, I mean getting the chance to interact with people who a typical traveler does not get to meet. Through my work with Kiva here in Dushanbe, I have met a very diverse group of Tajik people, ranging from the farmer in the remote village to the one who returned home after completing college in the United States. The spectrum is extremely wide. However, one theme seems to resonate among the people – the common perspective that life in the former Soviet Union was so much better. Coming from the developed/capitalist world, this was a mind-blowing revelation.

An older gentleman sitting next to me in the office by the name of Ohid described life in the 80s to me: “…  everyone had access to good education and healthcare, food was affordable with stable prices, students had monthly stipends… we didn’t have a lot of money but we all had enough to live very comfortable lives.”

Another gentlemen remarked, “We could easily take a plane to Moscow for lunch, and return back in the evening!” Gone are those days.

Today, Tajikistan exists in a very different world. With high inflation and an economy vulnerable to external shocks, prices are high and extremely volatile. I have been in Dushanbe for 2 weeks and the USD:TJS exchange rate has gone up by nearly 5%. That’s 5% in 14 days… try to annualize that! Since a lot of the food is imported in especially during the winter season, prices at the local markets have also increased significantly. Eventually, the local Tajiks get hit the hardest. In countries like Tajikistan, one could argue that a centrally-planned state economy may not be a bad thing for the local people after all. Sure, it came with “evils” such as state control of investment and public ownership of production assets, but it also brought macroeconomic stability and negligible unemployment for the locals, especially since they have so little production potential to begin with.

Former Soviet-era train tracks now defunct

Defunct train tracks from the Soviet years

Growing up, textbooks have always described the failure of the Soviet system, which, to their credit, did eventually crumble. However, talking to people in Tajikistan who lived through the Soviet era, and getting a new perspective from them about how much they miss the stability of the yesteryears, had me thinking about what the “right” system is. Our lively discussion in the office ended with a somber question to me from Ohid, “What about America?”

“Many rich people but also many poor people, plus more than half a million homeless people’, I responded.

“In Tajikistan we have very poor people but at least everyone has a home”, Ohid remarked.

I sat back down in my chair, as his words lingered on in my mind.

Oppa-Tajik-style!

5 days later, I have decided that anything that I cannot comprehend shall be termed “Tajik style”. I explained this to some co-workers and they had a good laugh about it (with reference to Gangnam style, which of course was familiar across Tajikistan as well).

Here are some examples of “Tajik style”:

1. Prices – when I arrived at the Dushanbe airport at 3am, my new friend Adiba I met on the plane helped negotiate a price in Tajik with my taxi driver. “30 somoni!, you’re good”. I got into the car and when he dropped me off at my destination, he demanded 40 somoni. It was 4am, on a dark and quiet street. I lost the battle of the 10 somoni and figured, just great, Tajik style.

2. Traffic – private mini buses ply the streets of Dushanbe. You identify the routes by the number, put your hand out, and get on. Sounds pretty simple, but imagine hordes of people trying to get on and off the multiple minivans at the same location at the same time, you basically get traffic madness, Tajik style. On Tuesday, I witnessed a car driving against traffic (to avoid a jam going in his direction). Tajik style.

3. Documentation – visitors arriving in Tajikistan are required to register with the OVIR office upon arrival, where of course, the government siphons a little bit more of your dollars. When my local contact Nauvus tried to help register my passport, there was a tremendously long line. What do you do? Call someone, who knows someone, who knows someone, who knows someone sitting behind that counter, ask for a favor, and 3 “Tajik style” minutes later, my registration is complete!

4. Just strange – I was riding shotgun in my minivan ride today to the market, when suddenly I hear knocking on the door while we were at a red light. The driver in the taxi pulled up next to us and muttered a few sentences of Tajik. My driver proceeded to pass me a 20 somoni note, which I handed over through the window to the cab driver and got two 10 somoni notes from him in return. Ok no big deal – money exchange at the red light, Tajik style.

5. Silicon valley, Dushanbe. Tajik Style.

Photo 22-2-15 9 57 48 am

The truth is that nothing is really very well-defined in this country, every next 5 minutes can be a complete surprise. When they asked for Kiva Fellows to be comfortable with ambiguity and change, they really meant it!

+++

In this part of the world, corruption plagues many parts of the society, especially when there is government involved. Ever since the civil war ended in the late 90s, the people of Tajikistan have been very hopeful and optimistic of the prospect of peace, but corruption continues to haunt them everywhere. Nauvus commented “You know in Tajikistan, money can do anything. You can kill someone, pay the police, and get away with it!”. In Tajikistan, they say fear no one, except the police. Today, someone explained to me that a very successful businessman was jailed for 26 years after building the two fanciest towers in Dushanbe; the government simply found some way to get the police to find some fault with his company. Moral of the story? DO NOT BE TOO SUCCESSFUL in Tajikistan. It is hard to believe that in the poorest country in Central Asia, with a GDP per capita of ~$2000, you find fancy Porsches and Audis speeding down Rudaki Avenue, the main street on Dushanbe. “Family and friends of the President”, my friend remarked.

However, drawing back the curtains of corruption, you will find one of the most kind and hospitable people in the world in Tajikistan. On Thursday I met one of the Kiva borrowers who was taking out a loan to purchase new sewing equipment, and within 5 minutes I had been invited to her son’s birthday party (we thankfully declined as we had to get back to the office). This past week, everyone on the team I work with took turns to buy me lunch as I am the guest. Tajiks treat the concept of a “guest” in this country very seriously, and anything they can do to extend hospitality to a guest is of utmost importance. One would also observe a strong sense of community, camaraderie, and politeness in everyday Tajik interactions. In homes, markets, and even in the office, every morning people exchange handshakes and greetings of “As-salaam alaikum” (peace to you). There is a lot more to write about the people here, but I will probably leave that to the next post.

The Soviet-era apartment building

The Soviet-era apartment building

Food has been pretty good so far!

Food has been pretty good so far!

Photo 19-2-15 8 04 40 am (1)

HUMO, one of Kiva’s partners who I work with in Dushanbe

Going on a blind date with Central Asia

So Central Asia and I got off to a fantastic start! And by that, I meant we didn’t actually get to start. It felt like going on a blind date, and then having the person stand you up, indefinitely.

I am currently in St. Petersburg, Russia. I was only supposed to be here for a 1-hr transit, but this is turning to be a lot more fun than I had imagined. The previous flight from Moscow took off 2 hours late due to bad weather, and I ended up missing my last flight-leg to Dushanbe, Tajikistan. So I am sitting in the waiting room of Rossyia Airlines, and there are a lot of angry people around me. Actually, I do not know if they are angry, but they are speaking Russian and they just sound furious. Perhaps it is just Russian.

I am thankful for years of travel-training, that I could be this calm at this moment given the fact that I have only a 1-day Russian transit visa but I will end up having a 2-day transit (next flight only leaves tomorrow), and that my Tajik visa states my arrival as Tuesday but I will end up arriving on Wednesday. The line “Keep Clam and Travel on” comes to mind – thankfully I am quite zen about this mess right now.

I also had the privilege to be stuck in this horrible situation with a new friend who was on the same flight with me from New York! Now she has a crazy story – born and raised in the Tajik mountains, went to Columbia on a social-work scholarship, met a Trinidad-born wall street banker, got married, and now lives in New York. Imagine their family gatherings – an absolute melting pot of cultures and peoples. So Adiba has been a Godsend, helping with translations as we negotiate our situation with the airline. Sometimes in life you find yourself in the gloomiest of situations, and then out of nowhere this little light shines, and you go – “alright I am good”.

Figuring stuff out at the Rossiya Airlines office

Figuring stuff out at the Rossiya Airlines office

On a random side note, here are four Russian stereotypes I observed at the Moscow airport earlier today:

  1. The first person I saw wore a t-shirt that said (in font size 50) – MY DAD WILL KILL YOU. Enough said.
  2. 9 of 10 people had very stoic faces. I wish they smiled more! Maybe it is the environment of a very chaotic airport. Or perhaps it is just Russia.
  3. The men wear square hats with ear-flaps and ladies wear a ton of fur. The Russian fashion industry must kill a lot of animals.
  4. The guy sitting next to me on the plane reeked of Vodka. I believe he bathed in Vodka before boarding the flight.

Is there McDonalds in Tajikistan?

The modern-day multi-national corporation is quite a fascinating behemoth. How did a lone McDonald restaurant that started in San Bernadino in 1948 grow to have a presence in almost 120 countries around the world today? The quality of the food is questionable, and the many horrible criticisms are the least bit flattering, but scaling to 120 countries is a pretty significant feat I must say. As I am about to get on a plane across the Atlantic, the first question that comes to mind is – is there McDonalds in Tajikistan?

Just kidding – that isn’t what I am most curious about at this point of time. But really, is there? I will soon find out.

McDonalds aside, what is Tajikistan really all about? In the past few months, I have held back all temptation to search “Tajikistan” on Google Images. For a country made up of more than 90% of mountains, it is highly likely that I will end up seeing an image of a mountain appear anyway. Who are the people? What do they eat? What are their dreams?

Almost a decade ago, I embarked on my first 8-week sojourn into Southeast Asia with my very first travel buddies Andy and Joses, and 10 years later I find myself getting ready for a solo sojourn into a very, very, VERY different part of the world. Travelling is a wonderful privilege, and one which I hold dearly to. This time round, it involves travelling with a Kiva workplan, and I am excited to see what kind of serendipitous situations I will find myself in! I was told that getting into the country at immigration involves some vague form of bribery – I will have to hone my negotiation skills for sure…

A year ago when Lysia and I moved to Austin, we very effectively packed everything we needed for our lives in one suitcase and a backpack each. This time round, I am reminded again of just how little we actually need in life – clothes, books and a big open mind to go experience the world around us.

Life zipped up again!

Life zipped up again!

 

This is it – I am off on my 30-hour long journey to a land of Tajikistan!

TL;DR: T-1 week

T-1 week. Finally got the visas, a step closer to field deployment in Tajikistan!

+++

2 weeks ago, the 26th class of Kiva fellows completed our week-long training at Kiva’s HQ in San Francisco. It was overall a very inspiring week – meeting individuals from all walks of life across different corners of the globe, gathering to share Kiva’s mission of connecting people through micro-lending to alleviate poverty across the world. Most of us will leave our jobs to embark on 4-month long volunteer stints with Kiva, serving as their field Fellows. From Samoa to Vietnam, Kenya to Tajikistan, and even in the continental United States where Kiva Zip is now being launched.

IMG_9468 (1)

Here’s to the crazy ones!

It is T-1 week to my field deployment, and here are some things to be thankful for!

1. My Indiegogo campaign has been successfully funded! I have been tremendously blessed by the support of family and friends from near and afar. This journey would not be possible without you! A big thank you from the bottom of my heart to the following people: Ophelia Wong, Gaurav Nath, Melvin Mok, Francisco Erize, Min Xuan, Ting Wee, Tony Cecchin, Jonathan Lim, Desmond Tan, Lisandro Tsai, Wesley Sng, Vickrem V, Lee Li Kian, Mom/Dad, Brother, Grandma, Tristan, Steve Seo, Jeremy Au, Jeff Cai, Brandon Perdido, Cynthia Wong, Michelle Eack, Raghav C, Matt Kogan, Yi Sung, Andrew Chapello, Jill Chen, Janet Lee, Emily Johannsen, Sean Xie, Jing Li, Amelia Sevilla, Danielle Moushon, Jing Yi. Uncle Ong. Dan Cecchin. YQ Teo.

2. After some nervous-waiting, I finally got my visas to both Tajikistan and Russia! Getting to Dushanbe is pretty challenging. I am flying Austin-NY-Moscow-St Petersburg-Dushanbe. I am trying not to think about the total flight time but let’s just say it is pretty long. The strange thing about Russia is, as long as your itinerary involves any domestic flight (ie. Moscow-St Petersburg), you need to apply for a formal transit visa. So I had 3 weeks to obtain 2 visas, and boy was that a nerve-wrecking process. I had to send my passport via airmail to the Tajikistan embassy in Washington for the first ($160 for a hand written visa… really?), and then had Lysia drive my passport down to the Russia embassy in Houston for the latter. Thankfully, both visas were successfully issued so I am this bit closer to Tajikistan.

visa

The strangest looking visas I currently have in my passport

3. My wonderful life partner Lysia! She has been a tremendous pillar of support and encouragement throughout this process! and her big sacrifice, for agreeing to let me embark on this Fellowship though it meant we had to be apart for some time. You are the best, Lysh!

l

Life partners!

3 signs you’re ready to settle down.

I am a very fortunate man. On Christmas day of 2014, right next to that white looking dome in the middle of San Cristobal de Las Casas, Lysia accepted my proposal and we got engaged.

San-Cristobal-de-las-Casas-3175

In the past month, I have had a few people ask me – “how do you know you found the right person to settle down with?”. Just last week, my colleague from Mexico city was very curious when she found out that I was engaged – “You’re so young! How did you make such a big decision?”. Strangely enough, I found it really easy to answer these questions. Ask me a whole year ago, and I would have had to think really hard about it… So here are 3 signs I learnt in the past year that you’re ready to settle down:

#1 – When you realize that 2 is better than 1

Growing up, I have always been a very independent person. I had a big ego, made most big decisions on my own, latched onto solo-travelling, and basically loved being a “1”. Not being responsible to anyone (except maybe family), and mostly embracing the freedom of having only to answer to myself. Life was never too complicated. When I first started dating Lysia, I became increasingly nervous when I realized that I had become both responsible TO her and FOR her. Decisions were twice as difficult to make as I could no longer just think about myself. However, through the process of figuring out what works for the BOTH of us, we became increasingly sensitive of each others’ needs, and slowly came to be less selfish about life in general. Once you get pass that point, you start to realize how wonderful it is to have 1+1, someone else that you can share your treasured moments in life, someone else to have your back in all situations, and mostly someone else who probably loves you as much as you do yourself. At that point, you would understand that dependence actually feels as good, or even better, than the independence you had before.

#2 – When sacrifice feels good, no sorry, Great!

Following #1, being in a committed relationship means giving up some of you and giving that to the other person. It could be the independence, it could be a former habit, or even a dream career. When you are ready to put your partner before all that, in other words, sacrifice some of you, I believe you are ready to get married. More importantly, though sacrifice comes with some sort of a negative connotation, in the case I am describing here, the sacrifice is sweet. You will come to realize that nothing is more important in your life than this person you are with. If you’re ready to put him/her before your own priorities, you’re ready. You desire for their happiness, and you are thankful each day to wake up to their smiling face. For those who are interested, Timothy Keller has a few great chapters devoted to this in his book titled the Meaning of Marriage. I highly recommend it.

#3 –  When you convince yourself that there is no ONE person out there for you

This is a controversial point, and even Lysia and I have differing views on this. I am going to share my view here which, of course, makes a whole lot of sense to me. Modern culture would have you believe that everyone has a soul-mate, which I disagree. There are about 6 billion people in the world today – let us assume male and female are spilt equally. Now, out of the 3 billion, let us assume further that only 1 billion are in your age bracket. If only 1 in a MILLION people are suitable for you, that is still 1000 potential life partners you will have. Picking just one is a function of time, place, and chance! So you trudge on in life and meet the first, didn’t really work out and you go on to the second… same story happens and you go on to the third… theoretically this could repeat for a long, long time because there are about 1000 of them for you to go through (in our example above). You can most definitely move on to the next, and the next, and the next, but theoretically you can continue “moving on to the next” your entire life. In my opinion, the moment you find one partner that you are so comfortable with, and the above 2 signs of dependence and sacrifice are checked, I say go for it! The ONE person/soul-mate you long for really does not exist because there are more than a thousand of them out there. However, be thankful that the right nexus of space, time, location and chance has allowed both of you to be in union at the same moment. He or she is the ONE for THIS MOMENT in life.

There is no #4, but let me just say that the most important thing is for us to stick to our word through life, which in itself is a long, long journey. This could happen to any couple – moments where we run out of “love” for each other, and even to the extreme of developing some form of “hatred”, God forbid! However, we all need to remember and abide by the one important decision we made when #1, #2 and #3 clicked for us, and when shitty moments surface, think of just three reasons why you first loved your partner, and I promise things will look a lot sweeter.