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.)

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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!

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First world problems.

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

This.

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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!

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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.