A tribute to an inspiration

My last post about the freemasonry of the Central Asian road was largely inspired by a gentleman by the name of Taylor. I met Taylor 4 years ago in Singapore. At that time, he had just arrived from Rome. Yes it sounds pretty normal, except he did not arrive by plane. It took him 2 years, overland, through one heck of a hitchhiking journey (except for one leg across Afghanistan where he had to fly due to extreme safety concerns). He had hitchhiked cars, trucks, ice-cream vans, animals, basically anything that moved. When he told me he had done this from Rome to Singapore, I remarked “you are one crazy dude.”

We met at a local CS gathering, and of course he had plenty of stories to share. The most surprising thing I recall him telling me was that he had hitchhiked from the Botanical Gardens to Little India (2 locations in Singapore), and I did not believe him. I said that people in Singapore are too busy and careful to allow random hitchhikers on board their cars. He proved me wrong. Before we bid farewell that evening, Taylor issued me a challenge – “Baby steps my friend, begin by trying to stick your thumb out and hitchhike in your own country!”

The following day I tried to do that outside my apartment, to no avail. I was disappointed, but I guess it was a tiny victory as sticking that thumb out felt a lot more difficult and awkward than I thought it would be…

… 4 years on, I have since hitchhiked in Singapore, Myanmar, Indonesia and most recently Kyrgyzstan.

Today I received a note from a friend, telling me that Taylor had passed away last year. While travelling back home to Canada, he was hit by a truck in Africa. 6 years of his hitchhiking vagabondage across the world came to an abrupt end.

What exactly did we talk about that one random night in May of 2011? I honestly don’t remember much. However, I do recall how he inspired me to do something as simple as sticking my thumb out, and to let the road carry me home.

Through my travels, random encounters such as the one I had with Taylor inspired me in a small way, but grew to have such a large impact of my outlook in life. RIP Taylor!

To Taylor!

To Taylor!

Here’s his letter from 2012 and his couchsurfing profile.

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The freemasonry of the Central Asian road

“That is the freemasonry of the road, which obtains all over Central Asia, and to my mind, it is a very sound principle to go upon. It amounts to this: that you look upon every man as your friend, until he proves to be your enemy; whereas, the outcome of our much-vaunted civilisation in Europe is, that you look with suspicion upon every man you meet, until you have proved him to be your friend. There is an almost childlike trust and utter absence of suspicion displayed by these people, which is very refreshing after the stilted conventionalities and etiquette of Western Europe.” – Unknown author.

It was getting late in the day, and after getting quoted ridiculous prices by the taxis, we headed over to the Aftavazal to look for Makshrutka options from Osh back to Batken. One Mahstrutka driver was clearly not going to Batken town, but agreed to take us anyway. “I will drive you the rest of the distance from the final stop to Batken, don’t worry,” he said. For an extra 100som each, we happily agreed.

Except, things sometimes do not turn out as you have agreed. At the final stop about three hours away, he tell us that he has decided not to take us any further. He points us to another Mahstrutka going to Batken, but cautions us that we need an Uzbekistan visa because, of course, that route involves going through the Uzbek enclave towns. Why would we randomly have Uzbek visas? “ok good luck and good bye,” he mutters, and proceeds to walk away for his late lunch. We were about 100km away from Batken town, in the middle of nowhere, with little clue of what we could do.

Stuck in the middle of nowhere, somewhere in Central Asia.

Hitch-hike.

After a few unsuccessful flag-downs, one kind man picked us up in his rustic old Daewoo mini-van. “I am not going to Batken but I can take you a lot closer!” he remarked. So we hopped on, and after some time going at a top speed of about 50km/h (the van seriously sounded like it would fall apart any time), he drops us off at the sign that read “Batken 57”. Alright, 57km more for another kind soul to take us.

Riding in the Daewoo!

The second leg was a huge upgrade, when a Hyundai stopped for us. “I am going slightly further down on this road for about another 20km!” he said. We took it – every additional kilometre he will travel is an additional kilometre closer to our destination. We hopped on again and this ride went quick as it was a relatively modern car that actually managed to overtake other vehicles! 20km closer! Of course, he drops us off at his turn-off, and we were again in the middle of nowhere.

Kind soul no. 2

After many more rejections, a goods-delivery van stopped to take us on our final leg of the journey back to Batken. “We are going to Batken, hop on!” the driver shouted cheerfully. Oh thank you dear kindness of Central Asia! It was a van full of ladies and their wares from the weekly market in the town closest to Batken.

I am sitting next to all their goods at the back

We ride back to the Batken market and help them unload their supplies back to their respective stalls! Hitch-hike success! But of course, we were in Central Asia and a free ride back was never going to be just it. We were showered with more hospitality. The driver first proceeds to buy a bunch of snacks from the store, and then invites us back to his house to meet his family!

We drink tea, have snacks, watch Russian TV, and we comment that the preserved salad made by his wife was delicious. As we were about to leave, he hands me a full jar of the preserved salad. I profusely try to reject it but he says, “for health, you must take!” The hospitality of people in Central Asia just amazes me…

Very delicious jar of preserved vegetables

You receive a free ride from sticking your thumb out along the road in the middle of nowhere, get invited back to his home to dine with his whole family, and be given a parting gift of probably the one jar of preserved vegetables they have left in their household – the freemasonry of the road in Central Asia.

Start-ups in rural Tajikistan

“Start-ups” is currently a big buzz word all across the developed world – from San Francisco to Istanbul to Singapore, aspiring entrepreneurs are having a go at starting their next company hoping to make it big one day. Here in Tajikistan, there is also a wave of start-ups being created, driven by women who dream of creating a better life for their families.

In a small district outside the city of Khujand in Northern Tajikistan, I had the chance to meet with a very different kind of start-up business. The CEO/CTO/CFO of this one-man start-up is Mukaramjon, who is also a widowed mother of three boys. I meet her at her home – a modest abode with a small farming plot in the courtyard and two dairy cows in the cowshed.

Entrance to the next hottest start-up in rural Tajikistan!

Here in the poorest country in Central Asia, most men end up going to Russia as migrant workers, leaving the women behind to take care of the household. In the case of Mukaramjon, she lost her husband to a heart disease 5 years ago and is now the sole breadwinner for her family. Unlike most women who spend hours away from the house by toiling in the fields, Mukaramjon decided that she needed a source of income which she could derive at home so that she will be able to spend more time with her children.
With her Kiva loan, she was able to purchase material to start a domestic-business making traditional Tajik dolls and fabrics. She then sells her products to retail stalls at the local market. Margins are low at the equivalent of about $0.50-$0.80 per doll, but it provides her with a good income source to maintain the household. Mukaramjon’s mother-in-law also helps her in the business.
“On a good week when I don’t get distracted by other chores, I can make about 20 little dolls,” she shared.

Traditional Tajik dolls

Besides credit support through Kiva’s field parter IMON International, Mukaramjon also received special training from the National Association of Business Women of Tajikistan to develop her business plan. Currently, her weekly profits allow her to repay her loan and buy more material to increase production. While most other women involved in agriculture spend up to 10 hours in the field daily, Mukaramjon gets to spend most of her day at home with her three boys after they return from school.

“They are now at an age where they need a lot of guidance. All I want to do is to spend more time with my children, and provide them with opportunities for a better life,” she says.

Chief Product Designer/Engineer Mukaramjon and her mother!

The kind-hearted woman also spends two days a week teaching other girls how to sew traditional Tajik fabrics and dolls. When asked if she charges her students a fee, Mukaramjon remarked “No, I just want to teach them this art, and keep our tradition alive.” 

I have been extremely humbled by my encounter with Mukaramjon. Many Tajik women who choose to teach other girls how to sew charge up to $150 for a 6-month learning period. Despite her modest living conditions, Mukaramjon has chosen to educate the next generation in a traditional form of Tajik art for free.

This post first appeared on the Kiva Fellows Blog.

Hushbaht!

I am more than halfway through my Kiva Fellowship now, and have been really encouraged by the many Kiva borrowers I have met in the field. It is perhaps timely to take a moment to reflect on a few of them, and share their stories with you here! I am wearing a smile on my face as I titled this post Hushbaht, which means “Happy” in Tajik!

The family!

Meet Magruba, a 33-year old mother of four. Of all the homes I have visited, her home must have been one of the poorest. Walls of mud props up her humble abode in a rural village in the Istraravshan region. From the moment I met her till the time I left, she couldn’t stop smiling. Due to the lack of employment opportunities in this country, many Tajik men end up leaving for Russia to find work. Magruba’s husband is no exception, and this leaves her at home looking after her four children. She had taken out a loan to pay the school fees for her children, as well as to obtain school supplies for them. “The most important thing is for them to get a good education”, she remarked. I met her on a cold day in Spring, at mid-noon it was about 2C. Sitting in her mud-house, I was freezing despite having multiple layers on. Despite the cold and the lack of substantial living amenities, Nasiba continued to wear the largest smile on her face. “Hushbaht?” I asked. “Hushbaht!!” she replied.

Such a beautiful soul.

Meet Nasiba, a 45-year old mother of two. Like Magruba, she also lives in a modest home made of mud-walls. When she found out that her older son needed an medical procedure, she turned to the assistance of microfinance to help pay for the cost of the surgery. When I visited her at her home, she shared that her son has recovered quickly since the operation. Extremely thankful for the help of Kiva lenders from all over the world, she kept saying “Rahmat, rahmat”, which means thank you in Tajik. The small piece of garden outside their home laid bare in the cold, but she was full of optimism and exclaimed, “When it gets warmer, I will be able to grow tomatoes, carrots and potatoes!” “Hushbaht?” I asked. “Hushbaht!!” she replied.

Maksuda making Bulochkas!

Maksuda making Bulochkas!

Meet Maksuda, who already has 4 grandchildren but continues to work hard in life. She recently took out a Kiva loan to start a small pastry business. Most Tajik women bake bread in traditional mud ovens called “tanurs”. One would heat up the tanur with firewood, and when it gets sufficiently hot, stick the dough on the inner walls of the tanur and let the bread bake. However, you cannot bake pastries with a tanur. Maksuda used her loan to purchase a modern electric oven, and is now able to take orders of Bulochkas (pastry roll filled with jam). She makes US$1 for each kilogram of her pastries, and most orders come from neighbors and friends. When I asked her if she could sell it at a higher price, she explained that she would never want to make them pay so much for her pastries! Using milk from her cows and eggs from her chickens, together with flour from the market and her homemade apricot jam, Maksuda makes delicious Bulochkas with her simple electric oven. Of course, given the unstable flow of electricity, she has to wait for the right window of opportunity everyday to turn on the oven! “Hushbaht?” I asked. “Hushbaht!!” she replied.

I hope these stories give you an idea of how diverse microloans are in the developing world. From personal use to support family necessities, to medical emergencies and to start-up small businesses, the availability of microcredit in rural areas provides the much-needed support for many village folks. I was personally encouraged by how happy they were with how little they have – truly a big life lesson for all of us from the developed world.

And here is a final treat, the majesty of mountains in Central Asia!

    

The Anzob tunnel

This past week I had to go down to Dushanbe from Khujand. Its a relatively short 5 hour journey, except it involves crossing through a gigantic mountain range in the middle of Tajikistan.

The quickest way to go through a huge mountain is of course to go right through it. Tunnels are an engineering marvel, without which travel time for many people would been extended exponentially. Prior to the construction of the Anzob tunnel, travel and commerce between the two largest cities in Tajikistan were often disrupted each winter by frequent avalanches.

Of course, the construction of the tunnel (led by an Iranian consortium) was a great thing, but completing the tunnel would have been better. The Tajiks learned a big lesson: never work with the Iranians again. Most people here name it the “Tunnel of Death”, and here is what it looks like inside:

IMG_4585

So there is a tunnel, and by that I mean there is a 5km long hole through a giant block of mountain, but that is about it. Potential hazards at present include leaking ceilings, lack of drainage, zero ventilation, ditch sized potholes and to top it off, plenty of carbon monoxide. It is open though!

Driving through the tunnel was great, you enter one side and it is complete darkness for the next 5km, unless there is a vehicle coming from the opposite direction. No roadlines, no markers, just the silhouette of the cylinder. As a driver, you will have to swerve away from massive potholes, dodge construction equipment littered along the tunnel, and of course avoid oncoming traffic too. In case you are wondering, the stretch is littered with large equipment because construction is STILL underway, almost 10 years after it officially opened.

Needless to say, most of the other tunnels in Tajikistan today are safe and well-built because after the Anzob lessons, the Tajiks turned to the Chinese for help. Thank goodness!

Chinese-build tunnels. embellished with labels!

New Chinese-build tunnels. embellished with labels!