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.