Thursday, August 05, 2004

That strange world we live in

Here are two of the promised jokes about good ol' Heydar Aliyev.
1) Heydar is hanging out with his young son, Ilham, and is showing him a scrapbook of his glorious political career. He says 'Son, here's a picture of me with the head of the KGB. Here's another picture with me and the whole Politburo hanging out on the Black Sea. Yeah, Brezhnev and I were real chums, back in the day.' Heydar then shows some recent picutures from his political adventures in Azerbaijan.

Ilham is just amazed that his father is so influential and has rubbed shoulders with so many powerful people. In youthful exuberance, Ilham blurts out, 'some day, when I grow up, I want to be a politician, too! I want to be president of Azerbaijan, just like you!'

Heydar slams the scrapbook closed and looks indignantly at his son. Assuming his official voice, he chides 'My son, why would Azerbaijan need two presidents?'

This is particularly ironic when one considers Heydar's end. He was apparently too incapacitated to communicate with anyone when his son gained political support to run for president. Maybe Ilham learned a few lessons from Dad. I don't know what I'm implying.

2) After a long and full life of 'service,' it's time for Heydar to die. God tells the devil to go get Heydar, and take his soul down to hell. The devil complies, makes the necessary arrangements, and knocks on Heydar's office door. He walks in the oak-trimmed suite and tells Heydar that his time is up, it's time to die, and that he was there to take his soul to hell.

Heydar looks incredulously at the devil and says 'Just who do you think you are? Do you have an appointment? You can't talk to me that way, who sent you?'

The devil responds and says that he is the devil, and that Heydar made his appointment with him long ago.

Heydar gets even more infuriated and demands 'Who sent you?' The devil doesn't respond, but insists that Heydar come with him. Heydar refuses, and says 'That's it, buddy!' He promptly calls his guards and tosses the devil in jail.

The devil stays in jail for three whole days before some 'friends' of his are able to pay the bribe to get him out. The devil slinks back up to heaven to report to God. 'What happened?' God asks. 'I send you out to do a job, and you come back empty handed after having disappeared for three days!'

'I couldn't help it,' replies the devil. 'He had all these inconvenient questions, he wanted to know who sent me, and then he threw me in jail!'

'Wait a minute,' says God. 'You said he wanted to know who sent you... you didn't tell him, did you?'

Which just goes to show that even God is afraid of Heydar Aliyev.

Somehow, the punchlines are always a little funnier in the language they were told in. Or maybe I just don't have the gift for jokes. On another note, I found a really strange optical illusion for everyone's viewing pleasure. Really, really weird.

Wednesday, August 04, 2004

Penance for not blogging

It’s been so long since I posted a blog that I’ve almost forgotten how to do it. I apologize for this. There are lots of things to talk about every day. After two weeks, I’m pretty swamped. I’m just going to list a few brief things that I’ll maybe get a chance to discuss later.

1. Collecting data has taken some twists and turns. At the time of my last posting, I was leaving for the outer regions to survey about 150 clients. I entrusted the surveying of the remaining 200 clients in Baku to the local credit officers. They assured me that everything would work out just fine. So I spent the week collecting data with local credit officers and sleeping in old creaky beds throughout western Azerbaijan. I was amazed at how creative and accommodating the FINCA staff was in the outside regions.

When I returned to Baku, I found that the staff in the outside regions wasn’t the only group who had been ‘creative’ in the data collection process. The Baku staff presented me with a stack of about 175 completed questionnaires. As I sorted through them and entered the data, I became somewhat suspicious. It became apparent that at least some of the credit officers had taken responsibility to collect data because it’s obviously a little easier to invent statistics than to survey clients. It was kind of awkward explaining this problem to the staff, because they look at each other and go “who, me?” It must have been somebody else! Obviously no one will fess up to the offending questionnaires, though, so I just have to filter them out of the data set. I accept full responsibility for this problem. I new the risks that credit officers would have overactive imaginations, but I am genuinely trying to find the most effective method of gathering this data. In the future, we’ll have to provide for more oversight.

2. One might think that I’d be somewhat frustrated because I’ve gathered some biased data that I’ve got to carefully filter, now. I’ve been too busy with another project to give my biased data any more than a few passing thoughts. I’ve recently discovered that FINCA conducts at least two other clientele surveys in NIS countries that collect exactly the same data that I do. In addition, this data is collected every credit cycle, and there’s a veritable mine of it sitting on the back shelf of this office. While I’ve been out breaking my back trying to explain a questionnaire to clients in languages I don’t speak, at least half this data has been waiting unexplored in a back room.

It turns out that in order to approve clients for successive loans, FINCA conducts ‘business checks’ of every client before the respective loans are approved. I’ve spent the last week digging through old FINCA archives, and I’ve put together a small database of FINCA clients. I’m kind of pushed for time to get some creative solutions on the table before I finish the summer. FINCA plans on using something from this tool in Kyrgyzstan this December to implement in their office as they make a transfer to becoming a joint stock company. I’m not sure whether I’ll work on that project over there, or not, but just the thought of spending December at 10,000 feet in central Asia makes me shiver. Too bad I never learned how to ski in Utah… I hear Kyrgyzstan has some great resorts.

3. Updates on my Chechan friend. Tarlan has been living in my apartment, for the past week. He was arrested while I was away in the regions. As a side note, anyone traveling to the NIS should make certain to keep their passports on their person at all times. They don’t have a history of respecting civil rights, here, and police can search you for looking at them funny. My first missionary companion was literally strip searched in the St. Petersburg subway because he was dark-skinned, and looked like a terrorist. Anyway, Tarlan was arrested and tossed in the slammer because he had no documentation. It didn’t help that he was just paid and had $200 on him. They relieved him of this financial burden, as well as of another $150 which served as a bribe that his friend paid to get him out three days later. He was subsequently evicted from his apartment for delinquency on rent payments. I'm trying not to complain about my own financial difficulties.

4. Now for updates on the local political environment. This place is a fiasco, and no Americans know about it. My suspicion is that Uncle Sam actually works to keep it out of the media, because Baku is an up-and-coming oil powerhouse, and they want to keep things stable, here. I’m not much one for conspiracy theories, but here’s the story:

Once upon a time there was a kingdom called the ‘Soviet Union.’ The Union was ruled by a set of nobles called the ‘Communist Party’. The Communist Party was controlled by a council of regional princes. This council was called the ‘Polutburo’. The Politburo had the final say in everything that involved anything in the kingdom. One of these princes was from the fiefdom of Azerbaijan. He controlled everything in Azerbaijan from oil drilling to orange plantations to Caspian Sea caviar piracy. His name was Heydar Aliyev. Heydar was not just a Communist Party man, he was a real live party man. He was twice indicted for sexual assault, but was never brought to trial. He was the perfect ‘yes man’, an ideal lackey. But then the last king of the Union, Mikhail Gorbechev, got sick of Heydar’s shenanigans, and kicked him out of the Politburo.

Heydar spent a few years cursing Mikhail’s name and his policies that brought an end to the kingdom of the Union. Each cloud does have a silver lining, however. In Heydar’s case, the lining was red, green, and blue (the Azeri national colors). Heydar quickly took advantage of Azerbaijan’s new-found independence, pulled some strings from his old mafia, that is communist, connections, ran on an Azeri nationalist platform, and was elected ‘overwhelmingly’ as Azerbaijan’s first president.

From that time forward, Heydar found the new smaller kingdom of Azerbaijan to be much more to his taste. He was now the only big dog around, and didn’t seem to mind that the block had drastically reduced in size. Heydar reigned over some dark times in Azeri history. These included a war with Armenia that resulted in the Armenian occupation of a large part of Azeri territory, strict persecution (including public beatings) of opposing political parties, and massive inflation and economic instability. Heydar managed to maintain a positive outlook, though, and consequentially, everyone else did, as well. I was constantly amazed at the public support afforded the man. As I drove in outside regions, I observed villages and roads in obvious decay: roads were unpaved and crumbling; families lived in small concrete barracks. In spite of these limitations, the government could still afford to post large signs the size of US-interstate ads with smiling pictures of Heydar along with choice selections of his inspirational quotes.

When I was here last year, Heydar was getting old, and many were hoping that he would not run for another (unconstitutional) 3rd term. He was reported to be interred in a hospital in Chicago, and unable to campaign. He was, however, fully capable of endorsing his son’s (Illham) presidential candidacy. Heydar passed away peacefully in America before the election ever arrived. Last fall, election observers were up in arms as public beatings of opposing political groups continued, and large trucks of thugs drove around Baku stuffing ballot boxes at election time. To the wonderment of all, 99% of the electorate voted for Illham. So now we have a dynasty.

I’ve noticed, this summer, that the sign boards around the country have been updated. Illham now ubiquitously smiles at the Azeri populace, usually hand-in-hand with Pa. He even has a new website, and I took some pictures of the signs. I’ll post more, later, as well as some jokes that people tell in hushed tones about Heydar and his son.

5. I was able to find another good friend from last year. I went fishing last summer with a couple of super nice old Azeri guys in the small town of Imishli. I found one of them, and arranged to meet him. At the end of a tiring day, my friend pulled up in a battered old Volga sedan, and hopped out of the car. He came up to me, kissed me on both cheeks, and invited me over for dinner. I spent a wonderful evening with him and his family.

I wanted to include this thought because I really felt that this is a good man, and that he is a great representation of what a respectable religious Muslim man is supposed to be like. He reads the Q’uran every day, and keeps a small copy in his shirt pocket. His family obviously loves him, and I saw no indication that either his wife, daughters-in-law, or granddaughters feel oppressed by him in any way. Their service and respect for each other was obviously mutual. His perspective on family and gender roles is in many ways similar to my own, and I think that it would be very beneficial for Americans to better understand this. I hope that I don’t renege on my promises to keep in touch with him.

6. I am thoroughly enjoying myself, this summer, and I’ve been pondering the previous comments of an old high school friend who suggested, (and I quote): “I think you like the former Soviet Union because you have dark hair and can blend in with them.” While I can blend in with the Azeris, this is certainly not the case in Russia, or central Asia. This suggestion comes from someone who remembers how much I did not fit in when in High School. In all honesty, I can't quite figure out why I like traipsing about the former Soviet Union. I've tried to answer this question fairly candidly. Perhaps I have an affinity for the culture, or the language. It's also occurred to me that maybe I'm more of an oddity or celebrity in a foreign, less-developed country, and I like the attention. So although I hate to admit it, perhaps it's vanity.

There are other thoughts that I've wanted to get down, but I’m worn out, for now. I suppose this monster blog is my pennance for two weeks of no postings. I should be ready to come home, pretty soon. I think I’m getting a little tired of all the traipsing.

Monday, July 19, 2004

There and back again: a few stories about stories

I'm stuck in the Baku office, waiting to cruise on out to the border town of Imishli. It's great to have the new hobby of writing meandering blog postings during my limited free time. I'd recommend it to anyone. Part of the fun part is coming up with various names for postings, or the website, in general. I could rename this blogsite to 'why I do the funky things I do.' Perhaps I could call it 'Road Trips to Nowhere: da Return.' I'm probably the only one who chuckles at my jokes, anyway, so I shouldn't expend too much brain-time thinking about it. But there are always more fun stories to tell. Unfortunately, some things aren't for general public consumption, so you'll just have to ask me when I get back.
Anyway, I ran into my friend Tarlan, this weekend. I actually should admit that I've kind of been looking for him since my first day, here. I would go to the local basketball venues on the shore of the Caspian Sea at night to see if he was hoping it up with his buddies. Unfortunately, he was never there. I found him on Sunday at the little downtown Lutheran church where various non-denominational Christians meet for services. So Tarlan is one of my heroes, and I need to explain why. He's a year younger than me, and was born in Chechnya. For those who don't know, one might want to avoid being born in Chechnya for various reasons. Tarlan told me last year how when he turned eight years old, he went through the ritual where a boy becomes a man. The Chechans do this by putting an automatic rifle in a kid's hands, teach him how to shoot things with it, and tell him he's a warrior. Without making any cultural judgements, I must say that this is a tough way for a kid to grow up. Tarlan remembers when guerilla fighters knocked on his family's door and recruited his Father to join their ranks. He never saw his Dad again; he died in the war with the Russians, over a year later. His older brother abandoned him and his mother, and they were forced to flee their war-torn town when he was 14 years old. They came illegally to Baku, and Tarlan's mother died shortly thereafter, and he was left with no family, home, or even official living status in either his native country or country of residence. He was, essentially, dead to all the world. At about this time, he tells me that he became a little bitter and even angry with life in general. I can’t imagine why. Why would God let his Father and Mother die? They had been good Muslims, had tried to raise him the way they thought was right. Such were the thoughts that ran through his head.
I must point out, here, that I've heard a lot of sob stories in my life. There are lots of people who want to kind of feed off other people's pity; it's like priming the pump in preparation for solicitations for those things that life has robbed them of. Tarlan is no such person. He tells me these things without exaggerating or sugar coating his experiences. I ask, so he tells me straight. He says that during this time when he was feeling lonely and forgotten, he found some non-denominational Christians who took him under their wing, took him to Bible studies, and gave him a place to stay. Since then, he became a ‘reborn’ Christian, and very active in the local Christian community. Now he spends his time living with different friends, working various jobs, and just generally trying to improve himself. He does not imbibe in the normal societal ‘bads’ including alcohol, tobacco, or narcotics. He now speaks 6 languages like a native, including Azeri, Chechan, Russian, Turkish, and Dagestani. He’s worked for British Petroleum, ABC Computers, and various Internet Service Provider companies.
I’m not making a pitch for born-again Christianity in this blog, although I do see a lot of positive benefits in the lives of born-agains (Mormons are not even considered Christians by most people in the born-again flock). All I’m saying is that my friend can find real solutions to problems that would completely destroy the lives of most people. I really feel that this guy is a completely unique character who survives and succeeds because of his positive attitude, realistic view of the world, and ability to have faith in good things in spite of the bad that swirls around him.
My partner Kris and I met Tarlan last year when we sat in the back of one of the services at the Lutheran Church. After the service, a smiling young man walked up to us and introduced himself in perfect English and asked if we enjoyed the sermon. We spent that Sunday hanging out with Tarlan, and he showed us the best places to eat and relax. During our stay in Azerbaijan, we spent hours hanging out, playing hoops, going to the Turkish spas, and having religious discussions. I lost contact with him about 5 days before I left, and so was unable to maintain contact, over the last year, although I have thought of him rather often.
I went back to the Lutheran Church on Sunday, and was delighted to see my friend on the back row a few minutes before the sermon started. Tarlan was also excited to see me, and told me that this was only the second time he had attended this church in the last year since I saw him. He’s had a few more disappointments in his life, since then, but he’s still just as buoyant and good-natured, as ever. He even told me that he has all kinds of questions and a whole page of notes to talk with me about in the Book of Mormon (which he’s read 5 times, over the last year) that we left behind for him, but had no idea how to get a hold of me. If nothing else, I was excited to talk about those things, as if I was a young 19-year-old missionary, all over again.
So I’m sure I’ll have more to tell about him later, but that’s that, for now. What a guy.
Now, for work. The difference between our project in this office and that in Armenia is like describing the difference between driving a Lada (the local ‘automobile,’ made in Russia) and a Honda. Click here for a good picture of a Lada. The problem with driving a Lada is it’s made specifically for the local ‘needs.’ This doesn’t mean that it better fills the local needs, it just means that it falls apart ten times as fast if you don’t know how to drive it just right. Driving it just right means that, among other things, you drive around all pot-holes deeper than 3 inches and always keep your speed under 110kph. Even given these requirements, there are some things that you just can’t expect a Lada to do, given the ‘differences’ in the way it’s put together. The Honda, on the other hand, handles the potholes, and can generally get you to where you’re going as quickly as you need to.
I don’t want this to sound like unfair criticism, but I got really tired of the excuse “you don’t understand, we just can’t do that, here, the Armenian people are different.” Just because your road is not as smooth as you expected, doesn’t mean you can’t still get to where you’re going. It’s much easier to get to where you’re going with a dependable machine. This staff in Azerbaijan doesn’t imply that there are no pot-holes to get over, but they are very pro-active in proposing solutions to solve the cultural difficulties. The staff here actually told me that they would like to try two different alternatives to see which one is better. First of all, after training the credit officers to conduct the questionnaire, they will incorporate it into their regular credit meetings. The clients will take the questionnaire home with them, and be required to bring it to their repayment meeting, the following week, where the credit officers will check for completeness. They are confident that each officer will be able to collect 25 questionnaires in a week’s time. This is different than the Armenian office, because the Azeri office actually took time out for me to train them, they asked questions, and then each credit officer took upon him/herself the personal assignment to collect administer 25 questionnaires. If they do not prove successful, then we will organize a large meeting in a café, next week, and invite approximately 100 clients to complete the questionnaire. The credit officers asked me whether or not I would treat THEM to dinner in a café if they are able to complete the surveying themselves. I conceded this quicker, funner, and less expensive option. They all smiled.
When I told the country director, Jeff Flowers, about my promise to treat his staff to dinner, he was actually somewhat disgruntled. He told me to not encourage the staff to do their jobs piece-meal. They should just do their jobs without extra incentives because that’s what they get paid to do. I just feel happy working with people who agree that working with me is part of their job.
So I’m off to the regions. Take care, y’all. I might not get back to the computer until Friday. In that time, my little sister will head off on her mission. If any of you out there in Utah see her before Wednesday, giver her a big hug from me. 

Thursday, July 15, 2004

Azeri 'anecdotes'

So Azeris, Armenians, and Russians like to tell jokes, which they call 'funny anecdotes.' I head a couple good ones, today, which I'm going to tell for your reading pleasure. Then you can tell all your friends.

1) So a guy is sitting in the marketplace, selling an egg. His buddy walks up to him, steps on the egg, and says "hey, pal, what are you selling?" The disappointed entreprenuer says "nothing, now" and goes home.

2) A man is taking driving lessons, and his teacher suggests the following hypothetical situation: "You're driving your car up to an intersection, and a pretty young blond girl and an old woman cross the street in front of you. What do you hit?"

The student, eager to please, thinks for a minute, and says: "The girl."

The teacher says: "I'll ask you again, you're driving your car up to an intersection, and a pretty young blond girl and an old woman cross the street in front of you. What do you hit?"

The student, realizing that he must've got the wrong answer, says: "The old woman?"

The teacher responds: "Let's do this once more, you're driving your car up to an intersection, and a pretty young blond girl and an old woman cross the street in front of you. What do you hit?"

The student asks: "Which would YOU hit?"

"The brakes, buddy, the brakes."

3) So Azeris say that if something falls from the dinner table, guests are guaranteed to drop by. Once there was a man who was having dinner with his family, and his daughter drops a fork. As he picks the fork up, a knock sounds at the door, and in pop some relatives to enjoy part of their dinner. A few minutes later, his son drops some food on the floor. As soon as the mess is taken care of, the doorbell rings, and some friends from out of town walk in and ask to stay the night. A few minutes later, the man's baby falls out of his high-chair onto the floor. The man jumps out of his seat, puts his foot on the baby, and says: "No, don't pick him up, he DID NOT FALL, he's just taking a little nap... on the floor." Much to his dismay, the doorbell rings, and his neighbor pops his head in and says: "Hey... your parents dropped by to see you, but they're stuck in the elevator."

Bwaa ha ha ha ha...

Tuesday, July 13, 2004

The Road

So I arrived early this morning in the beautiful city of Baku. I hopped a mini-bus from Yerevan to Tbilisi. The ride was a perfect reminder to me of what not to do, if you can possibly avoid it. It's rather amazing to me that little isolated Armenia, surrounded by hostile neighbors, with one open border to a friendly country would not think to completely pave the road that leads to the capital of that friendly country. This pot-hole infested one-lane 'highway' turns a trip of under 200 miles into a 7-hour potential nightmare. Fortunately, I had a rather diverting conversation along the way. As I squished myself in with the hardy Armenian crowd, I heard a loud voice in English instructing someone to just set their things down under his feet, he wouldn't mind at all. I plopped down next to a good-natured Australian who was willing to talk with anyone about anything, as long as the language was English. 'Joshua' is an adventurous traveller who decided to take a year off of work to travel around the world. He's been at it for 6 months, now, and his trails have taken him through Cambodia, China, Nepal, India, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, Turkey, Georgia, and Armenia. That is one adventurous dude. We talked about the things going on in the countries where he's been, and then about where he's going to next. He's planning on spending a couple months in the States, so I left him my contact info for a stay in Utah. I figure that'll give me a good excuse to go down to see a few of our national parks, this fall. He should have a lot of fun if he doesn't mind spending time in a state where alcohol is more scarce than fascinating geological oddities. I couldn't help but snicker at how odd he looked and sounded as we were snuggled in with a van full of Armenians and Georgians. I rather enjoyed chatting with him, but couldn't help but think that if I find other cultures amusing, in a lot of ways they've got nothing on the strangeness of the English-speaking crowd.

So when I got to Tbilisi, I found the prettiest city that I've yet seen on my trip. Unfortunately, I couldn't really take any picutures, because I spent only one night there. We then hopped a little prop-powered plane for Baku. So Baku is a delightful city. I felt that I really gained an affinity for the culture and the FINCA office staff, last year, and I felt it quickly renewed when we arrived at the office, this morning. The extremely emotional security-guard who was prone to get misty-eyed whenever I talked with him last year grabbed my hand, and wouldn't let go as he shook it again, and again, and again. And again. This is the guy that I felt like I really dogged last year when I told him "sure, we'll go swimming in the Caspian sea with you... sometime." I arrived at the office the weekend before we were to leave to the grief stricken face of our security guard who sadly told me that he waited all weekend for us to call, and had realized that we didn't really want to go with him. He renewed his invitations, today, and I've got to make sure to follow-up, this time.

Aside from that, people keep asking me about the welfare of my partner from last year, Kris Johnson. I tell them that Kris got married and has a real live job, now, where he actually makes real live money. The next logical question is why I am not married and making real live money. I don't really know the answers to these questions, and so I quickly change the subject to the weather. That topic isn't necessarily safe, either, because they ask me where the weather is nicer: in Armenia or Azerbaijan. 'Weather is nice everywhere,' I tell them. That's not unlike the question that I hear by the second day in EVERY SINGLE country this summer: "So what do you think of our women, here? Do you think they're pretty?" I can't think of a better way to incur the wrath of the natives than to slight the beauty of their young ladies. So I tell them the truth: "Of course they're pretty. I think they're pretty everywhere." This is not quite satisfying, though, because they then always ask me "Sure, they're all pretty, but where are they prettiest?" Since my momma raised me properly, I cannot tell a lie, and so I confidently inform them that I like Americans best, because we all prefer our own, right? Everyone has agreed to this response except for the Armenians who would tell me: "Nope, we like the Russian girls best, because they come from Siberia where it's snowy and they're white, white, white." I have nothing to say to that, so I laughed uncomfortably and changed the subject. That just goes to show that if you can't talk about the seemingly benign topics of work, the weather, or women, then you might as well just keep your mouth shut.

So Azerbaijan should be a delight to work with. I've already met with the country director, and he's excited about the project. That's a sure sign that it's going to work out, as opposed to some other country directors who seem rather distracted and suggest that I just direct all questions to the credit officers. Sincerity is so hard to fake, isn't it (no... this really IS my sincere voice)?

Well, it's getting late, so I've got to go. I'd just like to let y'all know out there, that I thoroughly enjoy getting your correspondance, and I try to respond as quickly as time permits in order to keep in touch. I've always felt that it's not necessarily the things you do that make life memorable, it's the people that you do them with, and the relationships that you build along the way. Thanks y'all, for keeping in touch. If I haven't responded in a while, send me a harshly worded email, and I'll get back to you with all due humility, as soon as possible. I will use my sincere voice.

Friday, July 09, 2004

Farewell to Armenia

Well, I've spent about two and a half weeks here, now, and feel that I'm ready to go. I was almost resigned to the fact that the Armenia project would turn out to be somewhat of a failure. Far be it from me to have a defeatest attitude, but after almost two weeks' work, we had well under half of our target sample met. Well, we had an emergency damage-control meeting on Wednesday with the local staff. After getting dressed down pretty well by the local staff for my unreasonably high expectations, we changed our strategy, a little bit. Nigina and I hit the local bazars, and walked around personally to where the clients work. We dropped off our questionnaires, and came back later to collect them. We were able to survey significantly more clients using this method, and then the questionnaires that we handed out on previous days started flowing in. As I sit writing this blog, I have a stack of 302 completed questionnaires sitting on the table in front of me. Things usually work out pretty well, if you honestly give them your best shot. In spite of the mistakes that we initially made, we gave this project our best work, and we were able to be successful. I've now got a full weekend of data entry and analysis to be ready for a presentation, first thing in the morning on Monday. We'll then hop on a bus for Tbilisi at 11am. We'll spend the night in Georgia, and fly out early the next morning to Baku.

I wish that I had some fun stories to tell about Armenia. The truth is, I've spent my time in offices morning to night since I've been here. The office staff hasn't quite endeared itself to me the way the Tajik staff did, but I realize this is partially because things are so busy here that few people really have time for small talk or to get to know the American. I have spent a bit of time talking to a FINCA employee in the individual loan department named Suren. I've been to lunch with him a few times, and travelled to a few outlying regions with him. He's a somewhat reserved and thoughtful guy who I can relate to pretty well (I'm flattering myself to suggest that I might have a degree of reservation or thoughtfulness...).

I was mainly thinking about a conversation that I had with him, the other day, as we sat munching some mystery meat 'hamburgers' in Yerevan's proud adaption of McDonald's called 'Queenburger.' Suren has been a little curious about Mormons and what-not, as I've explained my experience with the Russian language and my associated missionary work. Like all Armenians, Suren is very proud of the ancient history of his culture. For the last 2000 years, this history has been closely associated with the Armenian Apostolic Church. This church has provided a uniting and distinguishing influence on the Armenian nation that most definitely served in preserving the culture from disintegration over the centuries. Like many Armenians, Suren is worried about the invasion of dynamic foreign churches, such as mine, that might have a destructive influence on Armenia.

This got me to thinking about what it is that makes cultures unified, and what provides culture. I have no doubt that the Armenian church has been a focal point for Armenian culture for centuries. I could be influenced by good old-fashioned American libertarianism with this thought, but I have a feeling that Armenians should be proud of their ancient christian faith because they consistently chose to keep it in spite of the pressure of Islam around them. For one reason or another, Armenians believed that it was important for them to remain christian.

Now there is all kinds of proposed legislation in Armenia, as well as other countries in this part of the world to stem the tide of non-traditional proselyting religions. There are two main things about this sort of legislation that bug me:
1) Is a religion that has to rely on state enforcement really in a position to have a positive influence on its members' morality? If a religion believes that they have the mandate of God, should they not believe that this mandate will stand for itself in the market of ideas created by other faiths?
2) Where, exactly, is the principle behind restricting religious worship? Will a government argue that they can suggest that it's dangerous for society for people to believe a certain way? Perhaps they'll suggest that it's dangerous for people to talk about religion. I honestly don't see how someone can provide the moral justification for doing this; sure they can strong-arm citizens into behaving a certain way, or they can restrict the entry of foreign religious proselyters. These are merely bully-tactics, and I don't see the principle that governments apply to back them up.

Anyway, I talked about this with Suren. He agreed that even though there might be no philosophical motivation behind certain laws, need demands that some sacrifices be made to protect Armenian culture from potential marauders. I suppose that's ultimately a suggestion that ends justify means, and I don't think that's ever the case. Some people make the same suggestion with American domestic and foreign policies. I don't agree with them, either, but it's hard to argue that things will just work themselves out alright if you impose a policy with the correct underlying principle, and not worry your little heads about all the various 'what ifs.' It seems to me that such thinking usually creates more problems than anticipated, because policies whose only principle is self-preservation are ironically, often groundless and self-destructive.

Anyway, I have a tendency to get up on a soapbox, but I'm always willing to listen to intelligent arguments suggesting that I'm wrong. I think I'm going to miss Armenia, and I feel a little disappointed that I haven't seen as much of it as I thought I would. I can tell my Armenian friends, now, that I've seen their country, and it is as beautiful as advertised.

Sunday, July 04, 2004

Our Independence Day

Yeah, I know it's been a week since I submitted a post, but I've kind of felt a dearth of inspiration, lately, and I have't wanted to get boring. I mean wordy. I mean... well, I'm sure there are lows that even I wouldn't want to sink to.

So anyway, yesterday was Independence Day, and coincidentally, today is Constitution Day in Armenia, so I get a 3-day weekend. I feel almost like a traitor in saying this, but I'd rather be working, today; there is so much to do, and I leave for Baku on Friday. I've travelled a lot with credit officers to various towns, lately, and have learned a little bit more about Armenians. I don't have any specific stories to tell, but I have been struck by how old this proud culture is. I think that in a lot of ways, their history and current political situation mirrors the Jewish nation. The Armenians are an ethnic group that can trace its history back literally thousands of years. They claim that they are direct descendents from Noah who supposedly landed his Ark on nearby Ararat after the great flood in the Bible. I smile to myself when people tell me that they are Noah's direct descendents, and feel tempted to ask them if perhaps I might have an ancestral connection to one of the monkeys that survived on his boat.

In all seriousness, though, there is a fair amount of historical evidence to suggest that Ararat is the actual place referred to in the Bible. The Armenians have a fairly tragic history, as they have been scattered and driven by various empires and conquerers for centuries. They suffered a horrifying period of genocide in the early 1900's at the hands of the Turks when millions of Armenians were killed. This explains the huge Armenian diaspora. Less than 50% of the world's population of Armenians actually lives in Armenia. It seems to me that this has something to do with their current border disbutes. Stalin infamously arbitrarily set most of the boundaries of the various republics within the Soviet Union, splitting most ethnic groups into various parts. When the Soviet Union fell, Armenians in western Azerbaijan began to lobby for reunification with Armenia. After a lot of ethnic conflict and bloody skirmishes that no one can quite agree about who started, the two little countries went to war. When the smoke cleared, Armenia was occupying the native Armenian regions, in addition to a good chunk of Azerbaijan proper.

I'm always curious as to what Armenians think about the occupation and current border disputes. It's interesting that most Armenians are as quick to defend the intentions and actions of their own country as Americans are about a current conflict in a country not so far away. The Azeris deserved it, they say. They are very close to the Turks, who have a history of hating Armenians. They have a greedy government that is willing to do anything. If Armenia didn't invade, they'd regret it in the future. And on and on.

It's hard for me to know who is right in situations like this, and I honestly don't know what to think. I talked to one Armenian credit officer who had the best response that I've yet heard to my questions about the conflict. He told me that although he hates to admit it, the Armenians are at fault. He said "sure, there was genocide, and nobody really wants to admit it. Sure, that particular region was historically Armenia. It has not been Armenia for over a generation, though, and it was the Armenians who decided that they couldn't get along in there, and decided to invade." He told me that he's just ashamed that his country are the occupiers of another sovereign country. I don't know how analagous this is to the US situation in Iraq, but I do know that there are always many reasons for conflicts, and we tend to over-simplify them in our own favor. I feel that it's worthwhile to think about such things on the national holiday representing my country's idealogical birth.

Anyway, I'll get off my soapbox, because I admit that I really don't know what I'm talking about. We've only received a handful of questionnaires back, and I'm beginning to get a little more worried. I have a total of about 90 completed questionnaires in hand, with three more working days to collect them. Some miracles will have to occur to hit our target of 350. The fault is mine, I think I kind of wimped out when the office staff suggested that we hand them out. I had doubts, but I gave in, anyway. I think that the way to salvage the situation will be to do a partial analysis of the data for the country report, and explain why the project was less than successful. The staff never felt any urgency to assist with the data collection, so I need to give them an idea of how this data will help FINCA. At the latest, I'll provide updates before I leave on Friday.

Monday, June 28, 2004

Pushing forward

It's Tuesday morning and the rain is falling in Yerevan. This country gets a lot of precipitation for being as treeless as it is. People tell me that there are few trees because most of them were chopped down and used for firewood during the winters of the early 90s when the city had no electricity. I can't imagine what kind of misery that brought.

There's so much to write about that it's hard to know where to begin. I went to a concert, last evening. One of the things that I really love about former Soviet states is that you can get in to an orchestra concert, ballet, or opera for literally pennies. Last night's event cost about $1.70, and it was a wonderful showcase of music by Sibelius, Tchaikovsky, and a modern Armenian composer whose daughter was the featured pianist. The event was attended by lots of important looking people, but the big celebrity was the Catholicos of the Armenian Orthodox Church (analagous to the Pope for the Roman Catholics). I walked up to the Catholicos' attending priest at the reception after the concert and asked if I could meet his holiness. I was told that his holiness was occupied talking with some important people. I told him that I could wait. Five minutes later, he quickly left the room. I felt a little disppointed, but realize that important people are indeed busy, and that I am not important. I comforted myself with the thought that maybe he saw me and got scared.

I went to a local bazar, yesterday, to hand out my questionnaire. We have formally adopted this method of implementing the questionnaire. I'm a little worried, because we've got to hand out over 400 questionnaires before we'll get a single one of them back. This is kind of setting us up for a little bit of trouble should people decide to stiff us. All I can do is cross that bridge when I come to it. In the mean-time, I'll also try to get as many people as possible to fill out the questionnaire on the spot. I'm frankly a little nervous about the way things are working out in Armenia. I don't want to say that the local staff here is uncooperative, but they are definitely busier and therefore not as easy to work with as they were in Tajikistan. I realize that the program is much larger, out here, and that credit-officers are pretty strapped for time. I also know that the only way we will not get our sample size covered would be because people are not properly motivated. It's interesting how very large problems can be that merely involve effective communication with people. It's very difficult for me to motivate the clients, which is why the project lives and dies by the support of the credit officers, who are the figures of authority for the clients. It seems that I have to enlist the support of the credit officers one by one. I realize why leadership is so important, because if I could enlist the support of the main person in charge, direction would follow from there. I think that I have been ineffective in communicating the needs for this project with the leadership, because they seem somewhat reluctant to engage the support of the credit officers, who are therefore obviously reluctant to engage the clients. They credit officer with whom I went yesterday is now on board, because I was able to talk with him about the project, and he was able to see that it is important and doable. He is now going to pass out the questionnaire himself to his clients, today, while I stay in the city. That's just one credit officer of many, though. I've always felt that I'm not a great leader in that it's hard for me to unite people to get large group tasks done. It's obviously a lot easier to take responsibility oneself, and say 'to heck with other people.' Not a lot would get done if everyone felt that way though. I also realize that leaders are made, not born. Although I've always felt a little bit reluctant to step into the limelight to organize and motivate people, I'm feeling more and more a desire to become better at it. See all the wonderful things I'm learning as an intern?

There are also some things I'd like to get down about recent Armenian history which will clarify experiences both here and in Azerbaijan. According to the CIA worldbook, Armenia currently occupies 16% of Azeri territory. This is a result of ethnic friction that occurred in Armenian dominated parts of Western Azerbaijan at the end the 1980s. While it may seem that Armenia technically won that battle, the problem is still festering, and Armenia is turning out to be the big loser. Azerbaijan's close ally, Turkey, has imposed an economic embargo, and therefore most of Armenia's borders are closed. I don't really know what the differences are that caused bloody territorial disbutes to break out here in the Caucasus and Central Asia, as opposed to the Baltics where the Estonians, Latvians, and Lithuanians get along remarkably well. It's definitely a great way to shoot your country in the foot, creating problems that could well last for generations. When I travel to Azerbaijan, next month, I'll have to take a train north through Georgia, and then go back down south to Azerbaijan to get around the close border. I look forward to seeing Georgia and its capital, Tbilisi. These three little Caucasus countries are all very ancient and unique, and there's a lot more I'd like to learn about them.

Saturday, June 26, 2004

Religious freedom in Ukraine

Today's post is going to be a short one. I'll have more to say on Monday. I just ran across a FANTASTIC speech given by Elder Russell M. Nelson, an apostle in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, last month in Ukraine about religious freedom. Those of you who know me well might be aware that I spent the last two summers working with the Ukrainian Association of Researchers of Religion and Religious Studies Department of the Institute of Philosophy of the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine. I know that title is quite a mouthful, and the speech is kind of long, as well, but it's worth your time. I can't quite explain how much the things he says here affect me, but they reach pretty deep into my core feelings of the need for tolerance, freedom, and understanding in everyone's search to become the people we want to be. I'm glad there are people out there like Elder Nelson who are not just more eloquent than I, but who apply the principles they preach in ways that I need to do better in, as well.

Friday, June 25, 2004


Well, my dear friends, I made it safely in to Armenia, and have spent the last two days surveying clients, again. I hope that I will be forgiven for only talking about my work, and nothing of the culture or countryside, because frankly, I haven't seen anything of Armenia except for the inside of builidngs, yet. I did travel to a little village, today, to survey some clients, and saw some beautiful mountains and wildflowers in the distance, but that was about it. I did not walk around that little town very much, because I got food poisoning, yesterday, and spent most of the night in unmentionable unpleasantries. Today has brought little relief, and I've been kept going on immodium tablets, water, and bananas. I feel bad that as a result, my cultural sensibilities have somewhat declined, but I'm sure I'll get over it.

The thought has struck me that by the time I've finished doing this in five countries, I might never have a desire to conduct another survey again in my life. The tedious nature of this process keeps driving me to investigate new and better ways to survey clients. It is obvious that the Armenians can deal with the somewhat abstract ideas of approximating family income and expenses a bit better than those in Tajikistan. Armenian clients are able to ususally complete the questionnaire in roughly half the time of Tajiks, and they all speak Russian, as well, which enables me to personally explain things to them. I was, in fact, kidding when I stated two posts ago that I've mastered the Tajik language. I don't have a clue. Anyway, although the time to complete the questionnaire is less of an obstacle than in Tajikistan, clients are very reluctant to spend any time at all away from their businesses to actually do it. Even the idea of inviting them to a large meeting at a nice cafe has turned out to be rather distasteful to them. We developed that method last year in Azerbaijan, because we grew concerned that people would have the same concerns about leaving their businesses. We figured that we needed to provide them with a good incentive to spend some time giving us feedback, so we invited clients to a nice cafe or restaurant for tea and cookies. That is not working, here, and I'm realizing that every country is quite different, and requires a different method of administering our tool. So we've decided that we'll hand out the questionnaires, and collect them either at their businesses, or the following week when they come to pay their loans off. I'm worried that this may introduce bias into the data set, because only a part of the clients will return the questionnaire. Therefore, it seems that we need to come up with a way of providing them with an incentive to return the questionnaire. I'm not sure of the best way to do that, but I'm sure something will come to mind. Comments or suggestions from my limited readership might be very helpful, as well.

That's about all the news for the day. After reading several sub-standard novels, over the past few weeks, I've hit on a slightly more interesting one. I'm about a quarter into Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand. It's kind of interesting, but sometimes way too philosophical and simplified. She is a huge voice in the world of libertarians, but so far she's only been successful in deadening some of my libertarian sensibilities. Such a process might also be a natural outcome of spending as much time as I do in the NGO industry. Nevertheless, I still like to flatter myself for an independent thinker, and will probably continue to tell NGO-folks that their programs should be privatized. That discussion is for later, though.

Wednesday, June 23, 2004

Anchors away

As I write this post, I'm sitting in the Moscow Domoyedovo airport. I've got a little bit of extra time, because the flight to Yerevan from Moscow that we booked turned out to be full. The little travel agent in Dushanbe was only able to reserve our seats, which lasted for 24 hours. I was not informed of this, and the reservations were made last Thursday. Hopefully I won't be in Moscow for very long, but I might not be able to fly out until tomorrow. If that turns out to be the case, I'll get to go hang out in the downtown, and maybe even get to go see Uncle Lenin, again. That would be fun. It's kind of neat how travelling outside the USA is never quite as simple as I've grown accustomed to at home. I'm sure things will work out.

I left Dushanbe early this morning, and feel a little sad that I was unable to spend more time with the local staff, there. They definitely have a special group of people, and I feel confident that they will be more than moderately successful, as they get the new program off the ground, there. My presentation to the office staff went pretty well, I think, although I had not thought through it as much as I would have liked. It seems to me that the most important part of the country staff presentation is to provide some information that will prove practical in their service of their clients. In addition, I want to begin to enlist their support for future similar analyses that will hopefully be carried out without the aid of a Washington researcher. The country director is much more supportive than I imagined he would be, so I could find myself heading out to Tajikistan again, sometime in the not-so-distant future.

Well, that's about it. The roubles are flowing by the minute at this computer, here.

Monday, June 21, 2004

A weekend in the hills

I spent my second weekend hanging out with the Office Manager from the FINCA staff. His name is Mumin, a pretty cool guy who just finished his degree in computer science at the University of Colorado in Boulder. He says that he feels really out of place, here, because he's become Americanized, so he wants to hang out with an American. That's cool for me, but he found out that I'm not quite like the Americans he's used to. First, we went 'clubbing' on Friday night. Now, I'm not much of a clubber, even when I'm hanging out with teetotaling Mormons in Utah, so it was really unique for me to spend the evening with a bunch of sloshed muslims in Tajikistan. It's actually surprisingly difficult to get away with the explanation that "I don't drink" out here, because theoretically, no one else does, either! My buddy Mumin was thouroughly slathered when he started explaining to me that he doesn't really know how to meet girls if he's not drunk. I tried to get him to explain to me the social implications behind this, but I forgot that people don't feel particularly philosophical when they've been boozing. I suppose that's maybe my answer. Who wants to wax philosophical, anyway, when you're meeting girls? That must be MY problem.

Anyway, Mumin is a great person, and I could see that he was actually feeling a little self-conscious of his and everyone else's drinking. The next day, I went with Mumin and his buddies up the canyon to spend a Saturday on the river. These guys are all from the same clan called 'Kosonee' that actually is originally from Tashkent, up in Uzbekistan. They are Tajiks, however. A lot of the cosmopolitan city-dwellers in this part of the world have historically been Tajiks, who are ethnic Persians. These guys claim close kinship with the Iranians. The nomads of central Asia are the Uzbeks, Kyrgyz, Kazaks, and Turkmens. Their languages are all Turkish-based, but ethnically they are closest to the ancient Monguls. So they live out in the wilds. Anyway, Mumin and his four buddies and I took off for the hills. They have all known each other their whole lives; I understand that Kosonees always treat each other like intimate family relations. This can become a little bit akward when the family gets large, as I found out later. I was impressed with Mumin, while his pals were getting all good and liquoured, he didn't drink a drop. So we had a barbecue, made some kebabs, swam around in the super-cold water, and did some hiking. Pictures are posted on my other page.

When we were ready to leave, we found out that a bill was due for the space that we used for our little barbecue. Apparently the owner of the little lodge where we were at is also from the Kosonee clan, and all these guys assumed that everything would be free. It was not. He laid a bill down for about $15. Each of the guys looked nervously at each other. Except for Mumin, they are all out of work, and make about $10-20 per month. So I good naturedly dropped some money on the table, and we left. Little did I know that they felt a serious breach in guest-relations had occurred. A couple miles out of the canyon, we pulled in to a little run-down road-side cafe. It turned out that the owner of this cafe is also a good old Kosonee boy, and they were not going to get stiffed twice. They sat down with their good buddy, told him of their shame and my hungry stomach (without consulting me), and began ordering meat. The guy couldn't help but look a little uncomfortable, as he thought of the fact that the only 6 hungry guys were going to consume the only food he had prepared the entire day. They were speaking rapidly in Tajik, and although I have easily mastered the 'official' Tajik language during my 10-day stay here, the oddities of the Kosonee dialect continue to ellude me. So I was staring at them stupidly as the conversation got heated. Little did I know that it was all on my account. They finally settled the problem, the host went into the kitchen, came out with a large plate of meat, and set it in front of me. I was expected to eat every last scrap of this freshly roasted beef, along with several large, flat pieces of bread, before we could leave.

Of course, I protested. "I'm not a big meat-eater," I informed them. This, apprently was rather too obvious, and the main reason they didn't bring me a large plate of carrot sticks. "But I just ate 3 kebabs, not half an hour ago." This also wasn't sufficient, because I had paid for them. "How about we all share?" Nope, that wasn't going to fly, either. So I ate the meat, and everyone was happy, except for me and the cafe owner. I suppose we all have to make sacrifices for our friends.

So enough of that. I spent most of the day today working on processing my data. Tomorrow I'm going to present it to the office staff. I'm trying to make it as interesting as possible, because I really want some good feedback. Things are looking up that I'll be able to work more with Tajikistan in the future, on this project. The country director is very supportive of the project, and I think we'll be able to work something out if we can just get a little funding from FINCA for it. Well, I'm about done, for the day. It's getting late, and the security guard here is looking at me kind of funny, wondering why I'm here until 7pm every night. I'm not really sure why. Maybe if I got drunk once in a while, I could get some girls....

Thursday, June 17, 2004

A few thoughts on the natives

One of the reasons I really enjoy the kind of internship that I'm doing is because I get to interact with and try to understand cultures that are very foreign to me. It almost seems, at times, that the more foreign a culture is, the more curious I am about it. People who have grown up in different parts of the world just seem to do things that make absolutely no sense to me. A wise man once said that "You'll understand people better if you assume that people's behavior is rational, at least from their point of view. Try to see what they see." I've had a few thoughts, lately, about things out here that are very different from what I would expect, with my limited American background. Since I've got no one to tell these thoughts to around here, and I assume I've got a captive audience, I'll list a few:

1. Today, a group finished answering a questionnaire surprisingly fast. All, that is, except for the man who indicated that he had the most education in the group (one question asks them to tell how many years of education they have received). Watching this man agonize over the questionnaire for almost an hour, I became thouroughly convinced that he possesses almost no critical thinking skills. It seemed that he fundamentally did not know how to read a question, consider the options, and write down a correct answer. These are my conclusions, at this point. While I could have misjudged the guy, the credit officer who helped conduct this questionnaire suggested to me that in Tajikistan, the most qualified people aren't necessarily the ones in the universities. Apparently, there's a good chance that this particular university student has never spent any time in the university, but merely pays off his professors to obtain grades and a diploma. It makes sense, too, because he's the only breadwinner in a family of six, and if he figures that he can afford the bribes for a diploma, and come out ahead, then he does it.

2. Speaking of bribes, I have noticed before that policemen outside the US like to stop and hassle drivers for the sole reason to pad their incomes, a little bit. It goes way overboard in Tadjikistan, though, as there is quite literally a police officer standing on every street corner and intersection. These representatives of Dushanbe's finest stop cars at random, and the only way to get them off your back is to subtley slap a little somethin-somethin extra into their hand as you shake it. My humble driver, Talib, has demonstrated this several times, as we've driven around, over the past week. Some drivers take it to new heights, however, by pre-empting and getting real buddy-buddy with the coppers. I had another driver who specifically went out of his way on Tuesday to buy cold drinks for the men in blue. When he drives around the city, he happily honks and waves at all of his police-friends. I'm certainly not criticizing the system, here, because it seems that Tajiks are some of the most courteous drivers in the world, and they actually follow the rules. Since the unusually ubiquitous police don't need any reason to pull someone over, the drivers don't seem to want to provide them with additional excuses.

3. I have not yet met a FINCA client who keeps enough of a family budget to know how much they spend on food in a week or month. This is not particularly surprising, I suppose, in a poorer country where families live from day to day. What is surprising, however, is that every single client can immediately tell me how much their home is worth. At first glance this may not seem remarkable. It is, however, rather interesting. For many reasons, it has been suggested that housing in this country cannot be reflective of family wealth. This is because it is not liquid, the banking industry is too underdeveloped to allow families to use it for collateral. Most families were provided with their residences by the old Soviet government decades ago, or they live in small villages with clans that have occupied that area for generations. All of this should suggest that there is essentially no housing market, and that families don't necessarily move into domiciles whose value is commensurate with their income. How then can a person know that their home will fetch $15,000-45,000 on a non-existent market? Furthermore, how can a family that makes $50 per month sit on a piece of capital as large as $20,000 and still not afford to send their children to college for a mere couple hundred dollars a year? Finally, why is it that people immediately quote the value of their residence in dollars, as opposed to the local currency? It's almost as if they're assuming that I'm suggesting to them that I'm interested in buying their home! I don't yet have an answer to these questions, but I'm still thinking.

4. On a lighter note, my sister Anna recently forwarded me a great e-article on Russian culture. Since I am a great forwarder of fascinating internet literature, I figured that this one was too much fun to pass up.

That's all for now.

Wednesday, June 16, 2004

Hog Heaven

One of today's thoughts is going to be an excerpt from The Jungle by Upton Sinclair. I've taken to spending my free time reading, lately, because the city of Dushanbe is very small, and I've pretty much seen the whole thing. Aside from processing my data set, I have nothing much else to do at night but to snuggle down with a good book. So here's a little snippet about a wonderful place. (If you would like to read this or other good old classic novels for free in the same way that I do, go here.)

"One could not stand and watch very long without becoming philosophical, without beginning to deal in symbols and similes, and to hear the hog squeal of the universe. Was it permitted to believe that there was nowhere upon the earth, or above the earth, a heaven for hogs, where they were requited for all this suffering? Each one of these hogs was a separate creature. Some were white hogs, some were black; some were brown, some were spotted; some were old, some young; some were long and lean, some were monstrous. And each of them had an individuality of his own, a will of his own, a hope and a heart's desire; each was full of self- confidence, of self-importance, and a sense of dignity. And trusting and strong in faith he had gone about his business, the while a black shadow hung over him and a horrid Fate waited in his pathway. Now suddenly it had swooped upon him, and had seized him by the leg. Relentless, remorseless, it was; all his protests, his screams, were nothing to it-- it did its cruel will with him, as if his wishes, his feelings, had simply no existence at all; it cut his throat and watched him gasp out his life. And now was one to believe that there was nowhere a god of hogs, to whom this hog personality was precious, to whom these hog squeals and agonies had a meaning? Who would take this hog into his arms and comfort him, reward him for his work well done, and show him the meaning of his sacrifice? Perhaps some glimpse of all this was in the thoughts of our humble-minded Jurgis, as he turned to go on with the rest of the party, and muttered: "Dieve--but I'm glad I'm not a hog!""

After nearly finishing the novel, I think I can correctly interpret Sinclair's not-so-subtle irony. Ultimately, both hogs and people end up the same way: meat.

Monday, June 14, 2004

Updates in Dushanbe

Assessing clients started, today. It's interesting how my brain only seems to remember the really enjoyable things that I've done, and I somehow always manage to filter out the not-so-fun stuff. I remember how much I learned, last summer, when I worked for FINCA, and how much I wanted to develop our data set and improve the tool. I conveniently forgot, however, how exceedingly obnoxious it can be to administer a 4-page questionnaire to fairly uneducated people. Nagina and I surveyed 4 groups with five clients in each group, today, and it took us approximately a whole hour for each group. I realize that I can be a naturally impatient person, so I have to take a deep breath, sit down, and read every question out loud, explain, and give endless hypothetical examples. Today, for example, I spent over twenty minutes explaining the difference between daily gross revenue and profit. After 20 minutes of examples, everyone nodded their heads, wrote down their numbers, and profits still exceeded revenue. It's also interesting to realize that in spite of all the many hours my partners and I put into making the questionnaire as explicit as possible, I can still find all kinds of things that can use improvement.

We're not really pressed for time, right now, because Tajikistan has a clientele of only about 200, because they started operation in January. I am concerned, however, that other country programs are going to be almost impossible to finish in just two weeks. Additional problems will arise in Azerbaijan and Kyrgyzstan, where we'll train a few local college students to gather this data in the future. When I first thought of returning to the NIS to work with FINCA, I had hoped that the training of local college students to gather data over time would occur in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. The FINCA programs are brand new in these countries, and the clienteles are small enough to institute not just a new policy for collecting client data, but a new culture that encourages transparency and oversight. It will be very difficult to institute a program in Kyrgyzstan that requires clients to be regularly assessed. They have over 25,000 clients in that program and over 200 office staff. I talked with the Tajikistan country director, Adam Blanco, about this problem over the weekend, and he agrees that Tajikistan would be the place to institute longitudinal client assessment. He has just recently joined FINCA from the for-profit banking industry. He agrees that gathering additional client data would be imperative if FINCA programs are going to become self-sustaining by gaining access to expanded investor capital. I'm hoping to work something out with him before this is all finished. We'll see how that goes.

I'm not sure all the stuff in the preceeding paragraph makes sense; I haven't explained most of this stuff in depth, yet, but I'm sure it'll become clear with future posts. Anyway, we go back to Kurgantyube tomorrow, and hopefully will be able to meet with approximatley 40 clients. I forgot to mention that things are going a little slower here in Tajikistan because we are not able to invite women clients to come to large group meetings at cafes where we can assess them 100 at a time. There is a stigma in this traditional Islamic society against women going to cafes or restaurants by themselves without their husbands. That's why we have to meet with the groups individually. We're making headway, though, and I'm pretty sure I'll remember this as 'fun' a couple months from now. I did get to go up to see the mountains over the weekend. This is a beautiful country. I posted a few more pictures in my folder to the left. I haven't put too many on there because they take a long time to upload with this slow connection.

That is all.

Friday, June 11, 2004

Consider the Lilies...

Well, the title of this post is in honor of my younger sister Anna's recent mission call. I apologize to those out there who are not members of my religion, but this one is just too good to pass up. It occurs to me that if our Heavenly Father cares about the welfare and beauty of the flowers growing throughout the world, then He definitely worries about a wonderful young aspiring sister missionary. I can't imagine the chances that Anna would get called to serve in the same mission where I served, but there you have it. She'll enter the MTC on July 28 for the Russia St. Petersburg mission, almost exactly 3 years after I returned home. Unfortunately, I won't see her for quite a while, as she'll be gone by the time I return home. She'll be in pretty good hands, though. That's all for now. I hope I didn't spoil Anna's announcement for anyone.

Thursday, June 10, 2004

Welcome to Tajikistan

I hopped off a plane at 4:30, this morning, but my brain had absolutely no idea what time it really was. I feel like the last few days have been quite a blur. I came to Dushanbe via Paris, London, Munich, and Istanbul. The layover was quite nice, in London. I was able to spend a day with my old friend, Jeanette Lyman, who's now a student at Oxford. She showed me around that ancient little town, and I even got to see the dining hall where they filmed the Harry Potter movies at Hogwarts. It was good to chat with Jeanette; she was the first person who ever told me about micro-credit back when we were in Ukraine shortly after my mission. I've learned a thing or two, since that time, and we chatted about my opinions that the micro-finance industry should be privatized to take advantage of venture capital markets. Apparently, Oxford is a bastion of Marxist thought (who'd have known that the term is not yet universally considered an oxymoron?), so Jeanette has promised to find me a good Marxist critique of micro-finance. I'm excited.

So anyway, back to Tajikistan. I leave tomorrow for a small town in the mountains. Apparently, the FINCA program in Tajikistan received its funding from USAID under the conditions that they would focus on the more embattled parts of the country. The idea, as I understand it, is to encourage stability by investing in a region. That seems like it could be a logical plan. FINCA has only been in Tajikistan for about 6 months, and ninety percent of the clientele are located in the community of Kurgantyube, an area of extreme ethnic conflict. We'll meet with the office staff, there, and book a venue to meet with the clients when we return, next week. I use the term 'we,' because I have pseudo-partner named Nigina, a native Tajik who recently graduated from a social work program at Washington University in St. Louis. I'm not sure how much of the project she'll work with me on, but it's nice to have some assistance.

So that's the news. I'll post some pictures as soon as I take them.

Friday, June 04, 2004

Our Nation's Capital

I'm in Washington DC, now, and things are looking up. I've got four out of six visas squared away, and I've been pleasantly surprised with the accommodations afforded me by the officials, there. I spent no more than 5 minutes at the Armenian embassy. I regret my sarcastic remarks from my previous posting.

I leave for Tajikistan, on Monday, now. I'll have about a day layover in Heathrow, London. I'm looking forward to seeing a little bit of the capital where my ancestors came from. For the time being, I'll spend the next few days in Washington. I'm looking forward to seeing the new World War II museum, as well as some of the Smithsonians.

I spent some time walking around alone, last night, and I couldn't help but think that people live very differently in Washington as opposed to Provo, Utah. That may sound like a no-brainer, but I was struck with how individuals' way of life fluctuates so much even within one country. It's a completely different world, out here. I sat in a smokey, dirty little Guatamalen cafe, and found myself wondering how similar the atmosphere was in there to a cafe in Guatemala. There was a little sign up that said "as of April, this store will accept no checks, credit cards, and will extend no credit to anyone, including close friends." It occurred to me that there are probably some interesting stories that led to the necessity for that little notice.

So anyway, it feels really good to finally have the bookends of my internship figured out, by now. There's a lot of uncertainty in the middle, but it will be fun to set the pace as I go.

Friday, May 28, 2004

Everybody hates foreigners

So it's taken me about five years of travel through approximately 20 different countries to realize a multinational truth: Short of actually hijacking your airplane, bureaucrats at foreign embassies will do everything they possible can to prevent your travel to their country.

My suspicions began two summers ago, when I was applying for a visa at the Russian embassy in Ukraine. The official at the desk winked at me as he suggested that the speed with which I would procure a visa would be directly related to the quantity of small foldable green bills included in my application. It's interesting that although accepting bribes and even conducting transactions in American dollars are expressly illegal in Russia and Ukraine, those rules don't seem to apply with the officially appointed bureaucrats at embassies. It's good to know that they are vigilantly looking after the interests of Russian citizens by deterring would-be American terrorists from crossing their boarders under the silly guise of business or recreation. Anyway, I was dissuaded, and never got the visa.

My uneasiness was further confrimed last summer, as I applied at the Ukrainian embassy in Azerbaijan for an entrance visa. Between numerous assurances of unbounded love for the American people and way of life, this bureaucrat informed me that he just could not assure me that my visa would be honored when I hop off the airplane in Kiev. This was because the term for travel on my Ukrainian visa didn't technically start until the day after my arrival in Ukraine. As opposed to altering my visa, the bureaucrat was curious as to whether I could just cancel my trip to Ukraine. I felt comforted to know that my convenience was more important to him than my desire to visit his country. Fortunately, I went to Ukraine, anyway, and the lady with the visa stamper at customs was too busy with a fascinating Brazillian soap opera to pay any attention to the travel term on my visa. The take-home lesson from this is that I can still conduct my typical subversive behavior in foreign countries. I just have to know where the boarders are porous and the officials aren't so vigilant in their defense of national interests.

My frustrations with visa applications have, however, reached new heights. I should have known that the application process for six visas would be complicated, but for heaven's sake! The application process has taken over 2 weeks, now, and I have one Tajik visa to account for it. I'm headed out to Washington D.C., on Monday evening, to personally attend to the problems at the embassies. I'll make sure that I bring plenty of money and patience. One way or the other, these experiences have helped me to understand the mentality behind people in the John Birch Society. It's not just Americans who hate foreigners; everybody else does, too!

Thursday, May 27, 2004

This summer

In order to understand what I'm doing, this summer, let me explain my adventures, a year ago. I had a wonderful opportunity to spend last June and July in Kyrgyzstan and Azerbaijan, respectively, working for the Foundation for International Community Asistance (FINCA). This NGO provides micro-loans to people in poorer countries. To see FINCA's website, go to Anyway, my job was to interview a representative sample of FINCA clients to gather demographics, business, and family data. The idea is to get a snapshot of the clientele in a country, in order to make some generalized statements, and even predictions as to the effectiveness of FINCA's program.

Upon arrival in Kyrgyzstan, my two partners and I realized that following FINCA's established methodology of conducting individual oral interviews with each client, we would never gather a statistically significant sample size of a country's clientele. We realized that with 99% literacy rates in former Soviet states, we could devise a written questionnaire, and administer the tool en masse. Our results turned out to be very successful, and we were able to gather data for approximately 450 clients in Kyrgyzstan, and 350 in Azerbaijan.

When I arrived home, I began investigating the datasets with assistance of local BYU professors and my FINCA partner, Kris Johnson. We discovered that we could put together moderately robust econometric models to predict family business income as a function of demographics data and the number of loans that a client has received. This is a potentially very interesting finding, because it suggests some quantifiable results of real positive impact of micro-loans on family income. The generally acepted real impact of the micro-finance industry is somewhat ambiguous, at this point, due to a paucity of rigorous quantitative studies. In spite of these encouraging results, it became apparent that our data was incomplete. It represented a snapshot in time, which means that we can only compare clients to each other. This is a problem because clients must be measured using a standard of their own progress, not someone else's. For example, a more mature client might make less money than a less mature client. This does not necessarily suggest that the each progressive loan has caused the mature client's income to decrease, but could rather suggest that the clients each started from different initial income levels, and that both have increased over time. Kris and I realized that in order to develop a truly robust model, we would have to follow these clients over time, and develop a panel-data econometric model (sorry for the jargon...).

We pitched a proposal to the founder of FINCA, John Hatch, when he was visiting Provo, back in March. We suggested that we could return to one or two FINCA offices in the former Soviet Union (hereafter referred to as the NIS, or Newly Independent States), and train country staffs to administer the questionnaire over time. John Hatch enthusiastically endorsed the proposal, but decided to make the project much more ambitious than we initially intended. He suggested that Kris and I travel to ALL of FINCA's offices in the NIS to conduct our tool. Since that time, Kris has left the project to pursue a career in the corporate world, and I'm now on my own. I've subsequently streamlined the project to include only 5 NIS countries. Next week, I will leave on a trip that will include two-week stints in Tajikistan, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan. To get a cursory look at each of these countries, go to the following links:
Tajikistan, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan

I don't have a final departure date, because I'm having some visa troubles. As soon as I have some final information, I'll be sure to let you know. This has gotten a little long, so I'll continue my ramblings, later.

Wednesday, May 26, 2004

Hello... I'm going to try to keep this up.

Well, my friends, I found this neat way to create an easy personal website. It's kind of tacky, right now, but I'll definitely try to improve it, over time. For now, I'll just use it to update people about what I'm doing. It will kind of serve as a public journal. It's better than sending out mass emails, because nobody really likes to get spam, anyway. So you can visit it whenever (or never) if you want.

Me near the old wall in Baku.