A tribute to the Road

I remember having a conversation with a friend many years ago, who reminded me how blessed we are for winning the birth-lottery in Southeast Asia. On the world map, if we were born inches away from Singapore in a country like Laos or Cambodia, our lives would have been completely different. I have been tremendously blessed.

As I turn 30 this year, it is timely to look back at the past decade of traveling the world, and the freemasonry of the road.

It all started in 2006. The males lucked out that year when it was announced that National Service was to be cut down to a 22-month stint. Between the end of our obligation and the start of college, what started out as a plan to do the Angkor Wat marathon turned out to be a two month sojourn around our backyard in beautiful Southeast Asia. My first backpacking experience, the travel bug bit, and I never looked back since.

[Sending well wishes to Andy and Joses!]

195857_19217921040_205_n.jpg

River at Kampot, Cambodia

In the winter of 2007, I had one of the richest study-abroad educational experiences in Salvador de Bahia under the guidance of Professor Luciano. This was also my first encounter with Capoeira, which is now a big part of my life.

[Sending well wishes to Prof Luciano, Michelle and all!]

1923702_24237656040_5977_n.jpg

My host family in Salvador de Bahia

1910180_23110276040_610_n.jpg

NYE – Wear white if you’re spending New Years in Brazil

Travels changed course in 2008 after I picked up Spanish during the summer in Middlebury – one of the best summers of my life in beautiful Vermont! This guy probably sums up the 7 semanas de locura, period.

[Sending well wishes to Harley, Katherine, Andres, Andres and all!]

1930413_48128591040_5611_n.jpg

#mostepic character Harley

During thanksgiving break of 2008 I took the chance to visit the crazy Masters-program students in Madrid/Barcelona, and finally got to put my Spanish to real use in Spain. I also got to see Gaudi and Calatrava’s work which I studied in Archi-101. It was breathtaking.

830_65036091040_2150_n.jpg

La Sagrada Familia, Barcelona

Winter of 2008 took me on a journey to learn about microfinance in Peru. We visited a rural village called Casa Blanca near Ica and finally understood the gaps and opportunities of microfinance in the field. I spent some time after that backpacking around inner Peru from Cusco to Lago Titikaka (where I also experienced the worst case of altitude sickness at Puno – 4000m. It is the feeling of having your head in your stomach, absolutely horrible).

[Sending well wishes to Allyson and Rhiannon!]

10399620_74119831040_820_n.jpg

Uros people of Lago Titikaka

10399620_74124991040_5148_n.jpg

Indescribable. It still feels like I was just there.

Winter of 2009 was a big window of opportunity to head down south again. We embarked on a month-long trip down to the end of the world – Ushuaia in Tierria del Fuego (trips to the Antarctica begin from here!). From there we worked out way northwards through Patagonia and western Argentina, witnessing some of the most amazing piece of nature’s artwork.

[Sending well wishes to Joyce and Jonathan who survived the longest of bus rides ever with me]

19171_312095876040_4329062_n.jpg

Torres Del Paine, Pantagonia Chile

19171_312096011040_5823393_n.jpg

36 hour bus rides across Mountain Passes like these

19171_312095686040_7635667_n.jpg

Rio de Janeiro – She is as crazy as it sounds

2010 was senior year, and that also meant the real world was calling. Before the final exam period, we took a week off to spend spring break in Puerto Rico, and it sure was rico! (too much rum)

[Sending well wishes to the Illini crew!]

26786_426867846040_5253959_n.jpg

the Caribbean sea!

After graduation, Dan and I stuffed all my belongings into my humble Eclipse, drove halfway across the country to Palo Alto. We survived 40-degree camping (we gave up after one night), tornado-warnings out in the Dakotas, Badlands National Park and 2 nights in Vegas.  Stanford plans changed course eventually, but the 2500-mile road trip itself was worth everything!

[Sending well wishes to Dan, and Vegas]

31427_450251626040_4334398_n.jpg

There is no other reason to drive to South Dakota

The transition back to Singapore was rough, and I had the travel bug to thank for tiding me through the bulk of those years.

In March of 2011 I found the most ridiculous flight tickets on Air Asia X – SGD$500RT from KL to Paris. Jumped on that flight, and spent two weeks from Paris to Granada and managed to visit Liz in Morocco for a few days. First time setting foot on the African continent!

[Sending well wishes to Hee Jeong, Liz!]

189759_10150173394391041_6820507_n.jpg

Don’t go to Paris alone.

That same year, Andy and I had the idea of during a re-trip together, and we spent some bromance time out in beautiful Yogyakarta.

461650_10150731762711041_1112312758_o.jpg

2012 was a pretty ridiculous year – almost like travel on crack. It was a combination of needing to escape the corporate life and plenty of cheap budget air tickets coupled with multiple long weekends. There was also the big trip to Mongolia which I took in-between jobs. It remains one of my top travel experiences till date, with the best story of a motorbike break-down and being helped out by the nomads in the middle of nowhere.

[Sending well wishes to David, Angeli, Sebastian and our Motorbike story, Johanna, Kim, Kyla, Cori, Kelly, Isabelle, Melanie, Leandre and how we survived the Russian Mafia, Steffen and Hannah, and the British couple I met in Sirigiya and later ran into 8 months later in Lago Atitlan, Guatemala… ]

480243_10151243490821041_882110199_n.jpg

Go to Mongolia if you have the chance

426605_10151162547461041_376070071_n.jpg

A beautiful country with beautiful souls – Sri Lanka

Photo 25-6-11 10 43 15 am.jpg

Dan’s first time in Asia

564829_10150872032821041_573534050_n.jpg

On this particular trip to Krabi we almost got murdered by Russian Mafia

2013 was an interesting change! I met Lysia, and found a life partner to share my travels with. I dragged her along to see Mount Bromo in Surabaya, kite-surf in Phuket and explore one of my favourite travel destinations till date – Guatemala, also where we met a god-send, Shelby 🙂

1238275_10151840227561041_1582923282_n.jpg

Antigua, Guatemala

Prior to our relocation to America, I also got to spend a week out in Myanmar with Ivan, again, one of the most authentic travel experiences I have had. First hitch-hiking experience!

[Sending well wishes to Ivan!]

1470360_10152049091641041_1230403148_n.jpg

Bagan, Myanmar

2014 was a lot of America. We love Austin, TX!!! Of course we filled it with more roadtrips that we could ever imagine, including a 20-hour roundtrip from Texas to Alberquerque and back, just to catch the hot-air balloon festival. We wrapped up the year in Mexico – beyond the drugs and border violence, Mexico is truly one of the most beautiful countries in the world.

[Sending well wishes to Shelby, Nick, Ben, Tristan and the Capoeira Luanda Austin Crew!]

In 2015 I got admitted into the Kiva Fellows program and relocated to Tajikistan! Central Asia is mountains-on-crack, and I loved every single bit of it. I also managed to visit Kyrgyzstan (visa free!) during my time out there, and captured two of my favorite photos, ever.

[Sending well wishes to KF26, the best housemates ever Anna and Emily, Joe who survived the longest hitch-hike ever across Kyrgyzstan with me, Bren, Luna/Lea/Floria and the house cat, Sonya/Ciaran and the longest snow trek to Altyn-Arashan]

11046781_10153104078591041_2633875498970636802_n

The beauty of the most remote of bus-stops, Kyrgyzstan

11069782_10153194119471041_1440476104949322193_n.jpg

Road to Murghab, middle of nowhere

En-route back to the US from Tajikistan, we had a little tete-a-tete in Turkey – a country which I didn’t think much of to start with but then just blew my mind as I started to find out more about its long history…

[Sending well wishes to Josh and Myri!]

File 20-9-16, 11 03 58 PM.jpeg

Sufi mystics – humankind is fascinating

Prior to our relocation back to Singapore, our final sojourn was to the enigmatic Cuba. We have always heard a lot about this little island, frozen in time mainly due to political backlash; but we got to experience a very special piece of history – travelling to Cuba was like visiting living museum.

[Sending well wishes to Jayce and Kawa!]

12366488_10153172300822027_6263189526270576073_n.jpg

Vinales, Cuba

We started off 2016 with a trip back to a country where Lysia spent a significant of time at during her college days – Japan! Overall a very unique society with loads of strange peeves, including the concept of capsule hotels, which was very, very strange.

12491954_10156406921095655_7022840537562887008_o.jpg

Our recent trip to The Philippines this past week marks the conclusion of my last decade of seeing the world since the first backpacking trip through Southeast Asia back in 2006. We were rewarded with the most beautiful of waters, and wonderful Filipino hospitality.

photo-23-12-16-2-25-07-pm

Coron, Palawan Islands

This year also marks my 30th year alive! What a blessing to be able to breathe and walk and BE ALIVE!

What have I learnt over this past decade?

  1. Hitchhiking is one of the best adventures in life, and a stranger is a friend you just haven’t met
  2. The more you travel, the more you will appreciate of the little things in life
  3. The more you explore, the richer you become

God knows where the next decade will take us all in life?  Whatever the route, thank you everyone for being part of my journey!

Advertisements

A 3-week social experiment

If you have been around the Internet lately, high profile sharing-economy type companies like Uber, Lyft, Instacart etc. should sound pretty familiar to you. This post isn’t about how insane their current valuations are, or about their amazing office-designs, but the one thing that actually helps them run – people who are willing to trade their time for money in the “sharing economy”.

In the increasingly “Uber for everything” world, we have seen everything from on-demand oil changes to in-home massages. We have arrived in the “future”. Today, you can turn on your phone, click on an app, and start working for a monetary return. Empowered by technology that basically does a very fundamental thing that helps markets run – connect demand with supply, instantaneously. Out of curiosity, I ran a 3-week social experiment where I signed up to drive for Lyft (giving someone a ride), Postmates (delivering food) and Instacart (delivering groceries) to (i) figure out how much one can actually make (ii) understand the last-mile customer experience in the “sharing economy”.

Everyone loves numbers, so let’s start with numbers:

Charts charts charts

Charts charts charts

Some brief conclusions (Again, these insights are specific to Austin in the month of October, and only represents one possible interpretation of reality):

  • It is difficult to breach the $25/hr barrier that most of these companies tout as an hourly minimum
  • Services that allow for the customers to tip is generally a better option to work for as there is potential for greater upside (note: Uber does not have a tip function)
  • If you consider cost of gas, the actual hourly wage could be 10-15% lower

Random notes: (i) The $44.22 average total hourly wage is the result of a supply acquisition promo which Lyft is currently offering in certain cities across the US. Use this promo code to be eligible for between $500-$1000 bonus(depending on your city) after giving 50 rides in the first 30 days! (ii) Instacartv2 is their latest revision to their payout structure which raises the average hourly wage by about $8

Money aside, the experience of working for these “sharing economy” companies is actually quite interesting. Through the 3-weeks, I got to interact with many customers that use these services. I now understand who they are, why they use these apps and basically how technology has improved lives (… in some cases solved first-world-problems). Here is a brief description of each of them:

Lyft

lyft-ridesharing

By far my favorite of the three, Lyft users are generally super friendly and are looking to interact with you (and not their smartphones) during their ride. It is common belief that Uber users tend to see their drivers as just a cab driver, while Lyft users tend to view the entire ecosystem as more of a community. From my limited experience, I tend to agree! Over the course of the Lyft rides I gave, I managed to learn about a range of topics including how to publish a book (from a novelist), the burlesque scene in Austin (from a, well, Burlesque dancer), how to detect skin cancer (from a dermatologist), how transgenders get their names changed in the eyes of the law (from a UT Law student), things to consider before applying to an MBA program (from a first year MBA student)… Beyond learning about the most random things (did I mention that the Burlesque dancer was specifically educating me about the plus-sized Burlesque scene, which is very, very interesting to say the least), you are also likely to start to discover nook and crannies of your own city – unknown restaurants, hidden bars, new neighborhoods etc…

Most importantly though, it is the use case for ride-sharing. Ride sharing does the critical thing of unlocking supply of available transportation at an affordable rate for others. In the case of a recent Lyft ride I gave to someone with a leg injury, we figured that in the world before Uber/Lyft, his only alternative was to take exorbitant taxi rides to get from work/school-home and vice versa.

Instacart

1200_20x_20630_20Instacart_20Share_20Banner_202

While Instacart sucked at compensating well, the interesting thing was the use-case for having groceries delivered to a customer. I cannot imagine paying money for someone to do my groceries and deliver them to me; I love grocery shopping, and I guess I have time that I can dedicate to this particular activity. However, through interactions with end-users, I guess I figured out that there are clearly others who disagree, and here are the various reasons why:

  1. Too busy – This applies especially to moms who have to take care of their young children, and going to get groceries could be a complete nightmare. Moms represent a sizable portion of the userbase.
  2. Too difficult – This applies to folks with disabilities/mobility challenges. When I delivered a bag of groceries to an old lady in a wheelchair, I had the AH-HA moment that made me believe in the power of technology again
  3. Too far – This generally applies to distance, especially for folks such as college students who do not own cars. The state of public transportation in the US is pretty dismal, and here is the gap that needs to be filled. The other interesting case is where a family who lives three hours away in Houston decided to order groceries for their daughter who goes to college in Austin to make sure that she was eating right. All this empowered by technology.

Of course, there are cases of the wealthy folks who are just too lazy, and can pay anyone to do anything for them. Story – I actually delivered a bag of toilet cleaning materials to a housecleaner for her to clean this huge mansion. So basically the owner on-demanded toilet cleaning materials to his cleaner, to clean his house.

Postmates

postmates

Postmates provides the highest potential for compensation because generally users tip very well based on typical food-delivery type rates. So if they ordered $50 worth of food, they are likely to leave the Postmate with a $5-10 tip, on top of the delivery fee. However, the Postmates service is very much your typical food delivery service, helping to unlock more revenue for restaurants who do not offer delivery. The craziest thing I found out is… COLLEGE STUDENTS forking out $20 for a sandwich ($10 sandwich, $10 delivery) delivered to their door.

Conclusion

What a learning experience! Of course, I got to walk away with some extra $$$ (especially with the Lyft promo which again rewards an additional $500-$1000 bonus after you give 50 rides within the first 30 days using this promo code), which will come in useful towards our next big travel adventure in Cuba. Most importantly though, I came to appreciate a little more of the world around me, learned random factoids and trivia about the people of my city, understood the challenges of hour-wage workers (+ how important tips are) and came to appreciate the helpful side (and in some cases… obnoxious users) of the Uber-for-everything world.

Lifehacks – Free food from Tech start-ups

Let’s face it, this whole start-up revolution is great. Now, you can have shavers sent to your mailbox monthly, 1-hour groceries brought to your doorstep, cleaners at the tap of a button, a licensed masseur throwing down a deep-tissue rub in your apartment on-demand… the list goes on.

I shall ignore the philosophical debate of whether such “innovation” is worth the incessant pursuit, or if we humans are just running out of ways to be productive and have to resort to building the next “uber for anything”. Well, first-world-problems do exist, and if solving one helps you make a profit, I guess why not? I am personally guilty of attempting to solve one of them myself in Singapore, gladly.

Venture Capital money is awesome. It is BIG, it is FREE and as a potential customer you have the right to make full use of this money, if you know how to work the system. Whether it is a free ride with Uber or free ride with Lyft (or free rideS depending on how creative you are in gaming the system), 2-hr home cleanings at subsidised rates of less than $10 an hour, or a bunch of free food delivered to your doorstep.

Yes, free food.

I am a huge fan of the bunch of new start-ups seeking to solve a very specific problem in the market – folks who long to make their own meals, but cannot afford the time to pick out different recipes and go grocery shopping for the unique items. Enter these start-ups, with the common tag line of “helping you get more lazy” “helping you eat and live better”. Here’s how it works in a nutshell:

Screen Shot 2015-09-24 at 7.07.48 PM

Most of all, I am a huge fan because they feed me for free. Back to VC money… one way of acquiring customers in a very competitive market is to put the product in your customers hand at a reduced cost, or no cost at all. This is exactly where the following start-ups come into the picture. They want to give you free food and recipes, at least for the first order. Let the millions of VC dollars do the job, think about it as the cash-rich Wall-street type companies doing good, by subsidising your first experience with these products. Well, if you do it in a disciplined fashion, you are guaranteed a month’s worth of free groceries (1 week each for the 4 companies below) delivered to your doorstep. By disciplined I mean, be very disciplined. The critical thing to do is to turn off the deliveries for the subsequent weeks after your first order (they will be turned on automatically for sure), and cancel your subscription after receiving your first order. Cancelling a subscription is not easy, as there will never be a direct link for you to do that; most of the time, you will need to email customer support to cancel your subscription. Hey, for a month’s worth of free/subsidised groceries with cool recipes and “feel good” photos sent to your doorstep, why not?

Of course, after you have tried the product, don’t be lazy. Google recipes, create shopping lists, go to the grocery store and live like a normal human being. Do not be fooled by these beautiful high-dev perfectly positioned photos, you are not eating photos.

Plated

Plated

Blue Apron

Blue Apron

Green Chef

Green Chef

Hello Fresh

Hello Fresh

Do you have more start-up hacks to share?

I get fascinated by technology, again.

I must admit, sometimes I get annoyed by technology. In recent years, fascinating apps like Uber and AirBnB were created to plug huge gaps in the market, but do we really need another app to connect me to someone who would do my laundry?

I have yet to get on the Twitter bandwagon, and Lysia calls me a tech-dinosaur for refusing to use Snapchat as well. Mostly because I noticed how I unknowingly allowed Facebook to integrate itself into my life, and that I could really avoid racking up more daily “screen-time” by staying away from both Twitter and Snapchat.

… and then I came across Periscope, which was bought by Twitter for a reported $100 million earlier this year. (granted, I am a few months late but hey I spent the bulk of Spring in a country called Tajikistan where getting updated on the latest apps were probably the last thing in my daily priority list, which included figuring out how to stay warm without heating.)

unnamed

After downloading Periscope last night, I decided to explore the app “for a few minutes”, but ending spending an entire hour on it. A shady description of Periscope could read like such “twitter meets chat roulette”, or the layman description as quoted on Periscope “discovering the world through someone else’s eyes”. Here’s a detailed description of the app on Wired. The UI is fascinating, because the first thing you see is a giant world map, with live feeds buzzing from countries all over – Brazil, Russia, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia… You have the ability to “teleport” to another country, right there, through the lenses of someone else’s smartphone. #mindblown

Granted, many of the feeds were completely random nonsense – this one guy was just reading out user comments for a good 10 minutes, another was petting her cat, and you can imagine other potential abuses of Periscope (go figure). But it also has the ability for folks to broadcast live events from concerts, to World Cup matches, the Olympics, and the list goes on. Last night I watched a morning prayer session take place in Indonesia, and because the smartphone is often recorded from a very “intimate” point of view, I literally felt like I was there, except I was lying on my bed in Austin, TX. Just a couple of minutes ago I witnessed the Dalai Lama celebrate his birthday at the Global Compassion Summit, LIVE! It is one thing to see video footage retrospectively through the TV, Youtube etc., but a whole other experience to witness it live; and wow, we can do it on our smartphones. How awesome is it that we live in the 21st century!

Another beautiful use-case of Periscope is for the aspiring polyglots out there. One of the first continents I zoomed into when I opened the app was South America. I was immediately getting live feeds of people “periscoping” in Spanish, and exchanging comments with the community in Spanish. It was a great resource for learning, as you start “interacting” with native speakers, listening to the language through the voyeuristic use of the app. Brownie points for interesting live feeds, including a random guy that taught me that Rosario, where he was periscoping from, is the birth-place of the legendary Messi.

I plan to Periscope my Capoeira class tonight, and hope to see how the community responds!

Crazy? It’s all about perspectives.

Yesterday’s New York Times article called it “A most dangerous game” – Calcio Storico, a centuries-old competition in Florence with very few rules and the sort of human wreckage generally associated with gladiators. 

A.k.a. THIS:

4888

The ball is somewhere (else) on the pitch.

The game-play is quite simple. Two teams, one ball. Get the ball to the opponents goal line and you score. The only twist is, there are literally no rules. So from the picture above you see neither a ball nor a goal line, but just members from opposing teams having a jolly good time giving each other a good wallop. This video will give you an idea of the madness of the game.

As I was reading through the NYT article, I got reminded of Buzkashi. I attended a Buzkashi competition in Tajikistan back in March this year, and back then I thought I saw one of the most ridiculous games in my life. Here’s a pictorial recap on my Exposure post. In a nutshell: 400 horsemen, 1 dead goat carcass. The objective is to score points by dragging the carcass to the goal. No rules. This is what the carnage looks like, and yes it resembles a Mongolian battle scene from the 14th century:

Banzai meets Harakiri

Banzai meets Harakiri

To the Florentine Italians – “wow, Buzkashi is just complete madness!!!”

To the Tajik Buzkashi riders – “wow, Calcio Storico is just complete madness!!!”

To us – “these people are all mad.”

Our perspectives are largely shaped by our environment growing up, and go on to eventually define how we look and understand the world around us. From my perspective, both Buzkashi and Calcio Storico are simply priceless traces of history that continues to get preserved by the bold sportsmen over hundreds of years. Yes, it is madness, but heck, they may consider the modern man working 40 years of his life towards that corner-office a very, very insane thing as well.

Have you witnessed Calcio Storico? How was it?

First world problems.

Someone asked me last week, “so what’s one of the biggest differences you see being back in America now?”

This.

shoprite_albany_glutenfree_organic_aisle

We are bombarded with such a bounty of choices in the first world, and we often forget how blessed we are regarding the decisions we have to make. We do not make decisions about whether we will have water, but what kind of water we will have – tap, bottled, gas, flavored, spring, vitamin… and the list goes on. We do not make decisions about whether we will have food, but what kind of food we will have – Thai, Mexican, Asian-fusion, fast-food, organic, gluten-free… and the list goes on. And… I just came from a place where people do not get sufficient vegetables over the winter as they cannot afford to import them into the country. What is the biggest difference? Abundance, and we have no idea that we are living in this plenitude of stuff. It is healthy to remind ourselves every one in a while how blessed we are for living in the developed world.

I was browsing Facebook last week and this caught my eye, and how true the revelation – It is difficult to truly understand how much abundance we have, and may this be a reminder to all of us!

Picture1

100 days later, 5 lessons learnt about life, microfinance and the world

I’ve come to the end of my Kiva Fellowship, and as challenging as it was living in a country like Tajikistan, this priceless life experience has been tremendously humbling. Here are some concluding thoughts from me, as I draw the velvet curtains to this chapter.

1. People are good, and the Media can really upset your view of the world

What we consume via the Media on our TV screens often has a huge influence on our views of the world. When I was first told I would be sent to Tajikistan for my Kiva Fellowship, I too, like many friends and family, had assumed that it would be a dangerous place mostly because it was a country that bordered Afghanistan. The truth is that for many, an initial perception of Tajikistan could be shaped by an initial perception of Afghanistan (or the middle east/central asia in general) which would be sadly shaped by the behemoth called the media.

In 2013, Mehdi Hasan, political editor of the Huffington Post, delivered a well-argued rhetoric during the Oxford debates, supporting Islam as a religion of peace. I spent almost 100% of my waking hours over the past 100 days with Muslim people – Muslim colleagues, friends, neighbors. During my time in Tajikistan, I met some of the nicest, most hospitable and kind-hearted people I have ever come across in my life.  I travelled to the Afghan border, met Afghan people, and experienced genuine kindness from them. Cyclists I have met who journeyed from Europe through Asia also described Iran as the highlight of their trip from being showered with hospitality as if they were family. If I were to tell you that Iranians, Tajiks and Afghans are some of the nicest people on this planet, you have to believe me. I am a strong proponent that one must experience a place for yourself in order to draw your own conclusions – the media is one big boo-boo. Sadly, because of the media, most people of our generation will grow up thinking of a bipolar world where there is peaceful guys, and the Muslim extremists. This rift will only continue to widen.

Pendjikent

2. Wealth is not defined by $$

This is something that must have been repeated countless times, but I am writing this down not only to share with you but also to remind myself of this fact – wealth is not defined by the digits in your bank account. Tajikistan is the poorest country in Central Asia, but from what I have seen, she is also the richest country in the world – her beauty, her history, her people.

Tajiks are extremely rich in their generosity towards others. First a stranger, I would almost immediately attain the “title” of guest after a quick conversation, and proceed to be given the best things they had. Whatever little they had, they would share. If they had nothing to share, they would extend an invitation for me to return the following week so that they could somehow treat me to something. We barely know each other, but the wealth of generosity overflows from their hearts.

I remember approaching a particular rural village – simple, modest, pretty dilapidated. It was a freezing day in early Spring, the garden was still struggling to recover from the bitter winter that had just passed. When I met the Kiva client, she wore the biggest smile on her face, the joys of life beaming from her face. Her family had so little that she had to take a out a loan to purchase school supplies for her four children. She hosted me with a cup of tea, and continued to wear the smile on her face as she explained the difficulties of village life to me. “husbaht!” she would exclaim repeatedly – to be happy with life, that is the most important in all circumstances. Right at that moment, I was reminded about how wealthy she was in her mind and spirit, despite the most modest of living conditions.

Glorious beauty

Glorious beauty

3. There is a certain wonder about ordered chaos in the developing world

For those who have spent time in Third World countries, you will understand what I mean by “ordered chaos”. Let me draw a reference to traffic, something which is not only unique to Tajikistan, but in common across the world from Mumbai to Ho Chi Minh City. Traffic has to be one of the most fascinating things in this country, and how it actually functions is a daily miracle.

A red traffic light means – hey take a quick peek to check and if you do not see oncoming traffic, gas it! White line markers creating 2 lanes on the road means – who cares about lines? let’s squeeze as many vehicles as we can within the available tarmac space! A minibus stop means – if the existing bus stop space is already occupied by a minibus, pull up right beside it and create your own bus stop in the middle of the road! Direction of traffic? What direction of traffic? Drive against traffic if you need to avoid a stretch of congestion! Last but not least, the horn. God bless the inventor of the horn. The cacophony of car horns at Tajik road junctions at rush hour can send you straight to a mental institution. All that being said, the system works, and people get around!

It is quite amazing that a natural form of order develops within the chaos – people expect the pandemonium, become more tolerant (despite the occasional squabbles) with each one another, get better at driving in order to avoid accidents, and learn to make things work, somehow! This is also the magic of the ordered chaos in the developing world – people learn to hustle, adapt and make things work.

Tons of people and traffic in peaceful coexistence

Tons of people and traffic in peaceful coexistence

4. Microfinance helps, but isn’t a silver bullet to alleviate poverty

Muhammad Yunus won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006 for founding the Grameen Bank and pioneering the concepts of microcredit. Soon after, microfinance steadily took off and is now deeply entrenched in many parts of the developing world. Credit is something that we take for granted in the developed world, but can be life-changing for the rural poor. Credit creates opportunity, when managed properly; and this opportunity is exactly the tool needed to alleviate poverty worldwide. However, despite being such a simple concept, microfinance is not easy to operationalize in the field.

Bringing financial services to rural areas come at a significant cost, which translates into sizeable interest rates for the clients. Sadly, it is a double-edged sword, especially for those who do not know how to manage their finances. Fortunately, many of the Kiva clients I visited in Tajikistan received some form of education from their credit officers, which reduces risk of default due to client negligence. I am also glad that over-indebtedness is something that Kiva consistently tracks, but for some microfinance clients in general, the cycle of debt ends up becoming a plague in their lives. It will take innovative ideas and the persistent efforts of new social-enterprises that weave in auxiliary services in addition to credit, to increase the effectiveness of microfinance. Some of Kiva’s partners including the One Acre Fund and Proximity Designs are doing exactly that, and they help us keep alive the dream of a promising future for microcredit.

Kiva borrower Marhabo and her grandson

Kiva borrower Marhabo and her grandson

5. Life isn’t a race, take time to pause and ponder

We are wired to work, work hard and work fast. In the rhythm of our work-lives, we find ourselves consumed by our work and the ability to work anytime, anywhere. Unfortunately, many of us forget this – Our days are long, but the decades are short. Next year I turn 30, and it seemed like yesterday when I turned 20.

When I made the decision to take four months off work to volunteer as a Kiva Fellow, some people exclaimed, “wow! that is a really long time! how is that going to affect your career?” “You’ve only worked four years, and you already want to take a sabbatical?” Well, I didn’t know how the decision would affect my career. Honestly, I did think that people only took sabbaticals after working for decades. However, you will never know what tomorrow brings, and living life with no regrets is probably the best thing you could do for yourself. I first came to know about Kiva in 2008, and then about the Kiva Fellows program in 2011. For three years the thought of applying for the program lingered on in my mind, and just as there were plenty of reasons to apply, there were always 101 reasons to not do it too. Thinking back, even when I was preparing to leave, there was significant apprehension lurking…

Four months later, here is what I learnt: Taking a meaningful sabbatical is refreshing and teaches you a whole lot about yourself. Not only does it allow you to recharge, it also gives you the opportunity to contribute to causes larger than yourself for an extend period of time. The truth is, “meaningful” or not, try to take time off to do something completely different from your daily routine. Find work through wooofing, go live on a boat, heck go on a tuk-tuk race across India! If you are looking to put your professional skills to good use during your sabbatical, there are many options available! Applying to go abroad with the Kiva Fellows program is one, but I am sure you will be able to find some in your own backyard too. You will never look back years later and regret taking time to pause, breath, think and hopefully touch the lives of others along that short journey.

You will find beauty in the most unexpected places

You will find beauty in the most unexpected places