Echoes of violence

This is a repost from my blog on Kiva Stories from the Field. Check out the site for blogs from other Kiva Fellows across the world.

By Rob Packer, KF10 Colombia

One of the things that attracts people to the Kiva Fellowship is the chance to visit places they would never visit otherwise. Over the past three weeks with the Fundación Mario Santo Domingo (FMSD), I’ve been to barrios in Bogotá, Barranquilla and Cartagena that I would never have visited otherwise. The alegría and friendliness of Kiva borrowers normally means that this is an overwhelmingly positive experience. However, there are other kinds of visits, often to poorer areas, and it’s this kind of visit that haunts you and enrages your sense of justice in the world. Wednesday of this week was my hardest day in four months as a Kiva Fellow.

Cartagena is Colombia’s most visited city and is known for its colonial architecture, beaches and port. On my first trip to the city though, I sped past all of these to go to the city’s other barrios with loan officers from FMSD. The moment I first realized that my first visit of the afternoon would be different from the others was when Elberto, the loan officer for the area, stopped his motorbike and made sure I knew where my camera was: “Es una zona peligrosa” (“This is a dangerous area”). As he explained later, whenever he is working in the area, he only goes by car, taxi or motorbike as the area can be dangerous for strangers walking around. Incidentally, this is the only time in my three weeks in Colombia that I’ve ever felt even remotely at risk.

When we arrived at the seashore, the streets thinned out and were replaced by wooden buildings and dirt roads that characterize what Colombians refer to as barrios de invasion (squatter settlements). As we got off the motorbike, Elberto mentioned that that Teresa, the woman we were going to see, was una mujer desplazada (a displaced woman). When I asked him later, he told me that a lot of the inhabitants of this 20-year-old barrio had been displaced from the interior of the country or from the southern part of Bolívar, the department where Cartagena lies.  Colombia has one of the world’s highest populations of internally displaced people (IDPs or desplazados) with up to 4.3 million people (10% of the population) displaced by guerrilla, paramilitaries or drugs traffickers: a process that continues to this day with 2.4 million people displaced since 2002 (link, document and video in Spanish only).

Teresa is originally from San Rafael, Antioquia and was forced to leave 12 years ago. She told us that when she arrived in Cartagena, she had nothing: they’d had to leave everything behind. Teresa seemed strangely quiet and reserved compared with most Colombians I’ve met and there was something about the way she said this sentence that made me realize that she wasn’t exaggerating: her “nothing” meant literally nothing. Since arriving in Cartagena, she and her family moved from barrio to barrio before coming to Olaya four years ago and where she still lives. As she showed us her grocery shop taking up the front half of her home, she mentioned a foundation (Granitos de Paz) who constructed her house out of breeze blocks (cinder blocks), replacing the wooden structures of the area. Elberto interrupted to say that this foundation constructs basic homes at no cost and that Teresa’s is just one month old. However, he later added that some people living in the area are suspicious of their motives and don’t want their homes reconstructed because they’re afraid they’ll be taken away from them—the fear of authority runs deep.

When Teresa told me how thankful she is for what she has, it suddenly dawned on me that her new house, business, loan and hopes of sending her children to university made her one of the lucky ones. It doesn’t bear thinking about how many other desplazados don’t have these opportunities. As I put my motorcycle helmet on and we headed off, I couldn’t control the tears I’d been choking back since almost the beginning of our interview. I remember feeling overwhelmingly thankful that Teresa is able to get the help she deserves so much.


The next day, I went to two towns called San Jacinto and San Juan de Nepomuceno, two hours from Cartagena to visit borrowers there with César, the local loan officer originally from San Jacinto. Like a lot of rural Bolívar department, the towns were affected by Colombia’s most recent period of armed conflict in the late 90s when guerrilleros used to arrive at night. One borrower we visited told us that she planned on leaving and going to Cartagena but no longer feels scared. Another borrower happily showed me her business and told me about her three children all living in other cities of Colombia; it was only hours later that César explained to me that one of her sons was killed 13 years ago by guerrilleros and that she could only work out how long she’s been with FMSD in relation to her son’s death. César, who knew of him, could offer no explanation as to why.

¡Por Fin, Me Quejo!

This is a repost of my blog on La Vida Idealist. Check out the site for more stories and resources from Idealists in Latin America.

By Rob Packer

If you’re not a Spanish speaker, the title means “At last, I complain.” No, this doesn’t mean my Kiva Fellowship placement in Barranquilla, Colombia has gotten off to a sticky start. It’s from a sign we saw while on a journey around the city to get our bearings earlier in the week.

The sign was actually directions to two barrios of Barranquilla, one called Por Fin and the other called Me Quejo. Barranquilleros seem to enjoy pointing out their—often crude—sense of humor and this is an example. The reason for these names is like two sides of the same coin: these are depressed areas of Barranquilla that lacked public utilities for a long time. While the people from Me Quejo se quejaban (complained) that they didn’t have water or electricity, the more optimistic people of Por Fin celebrated every time a utility was connected: “At last we have water! At last we have electricity!”

As a Kiva Fellow in Barranquilla, a large part of my time here will involve visiting poorer areas of the city, in order to meet microfinance borrowers and to see the effects of microfinance loans on their lives. It was this kind of direct connection with people on working hard to succeed in the face of poverty that originally brought me out an investment banking bubble into the nonprofit sector. My previous placement with Kiva was based in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan and I’m looking forward to seeing the differences in volunteering in very different parts of the world. Part of me hopes that the optimist-pessimist streaks of different barrios continue, but I think that, like in Central Asia, the real interest factor will be the borrowers I meet and each one’s individuality.

La Macarena

By Rob Packer

I spent Saturday morning nursing a terrible hangover (enguayabado in Colombian Spanish) after a night of rumba, barra libre and fondo blanco, and hoping that I’d feel able to eat something by the time my friends Sasha and Rodrigo were supposed to pick me up for lunch. By the time they arrived to pick me up, my recovery had begun and I was feeling able to face the day.

Sasha and Rodrigo took me to the area they live in, a barrio of Bogotá called La Macarena, which is one of the more Bohemian areas of the city. Full of world restaurants and with an artistic vibe, it reminded me more of some areas of Brooklyn than my concept of Bogotá. It was worth getting over the enguayabado for.

Churrasquería gaucha, an Argentine restaurant in Bogotá's La Macarena.

A gorilla with wings.

The car park for La Juguetería, a restaurant in La Macarena. The toys over the walls give it a circus-gone-wrong quality.

When toys aren't cute.

Another, less scary, car park.

Streets of La Macarena.

Streets of La Macarena after the rain

A blue building in La Macarena.

La Hamburguesería, part of a chain of premium burger restaurants.

The burger at La Hamburguesería. I love papas criollas (small yellow potatoes).

Life in the freezer

By Rob Packer

What is it I like so much about Bogotá? Compared to what I’ve got used to on Colombia’s coast, Bogotá’s altitude makes its nights cold at 8°C—this is admittedly not much to complain about when you’ve lived in Bishkek in nights of -20°C and no heating—but if you’ve come to Colombia with no jacket, this is pretty cold. And apart from the colonial era area of La Candelaria, it’s a modern city of non-descript buildings and highways. But there’s something about its urban intensity and human energy that sneaks up on you as you’re driving in a car along the rollercoaster-like Carrera 5 and sucks you in.

Rain and the TransMilenio, Bogotá's rapid bus transit system.

A street in central Bogotá. I'm a big fan of this kind of architecture for some reason: yellow and concrete.

One of the things that strikes me about Bogotá is its on-the-streets civic culture. When I first told people that I was applying to come to Colombia, the country’s notoriety for guns, cocaine and danger made a lot of friends ask me if I was sure what I was doing. This sits strangely with a capital city that closes 120km of its main streets for seven hours every Sunday so that Bogotanos can go cycling, running or rollerblading: an innovative civic initiative that’s been in existence since 1975. If the crowds gathering around the street theatre on the Parque de Santander are anything to go by, the ciclovía initiative does encourage people to come out onto the streets on a Sunday morning for exercise.

Ciclovía in Carrera 15.

A (quite ugly) Christmas tree in Plaza de Bolívar, Bogotá's historic centre. Taken on my first trip to Bogotá at the beginning of January.

Like so much of Colombia, though, it’s the people in Bogotá that mean that I enjoy spending time in Bogotá. There are few places in the world where you can have more friends to meet up with than you can fit into a weekend after only three weeks in the country: that’s true testament to Colombians’ friendliness (and to my own friends’ friendship matchmaking skills).

Street scene, Parque de la 93.

Graffiti, central Bogotá.

A balcony in Bogotá.

Microfinance: One industry, multiple methods

This is a repost from my blog on Kiva Stories from the Field. Check out the site for blogs from other Kiva Fellows across the world.

By Rob Packer, KF10 Colombia

Microfinance is commonly seen as the exclusive territory of non-profits and non-governmental organizations (NGOs). While there are a lot of non-profits on the Kiva platform, there is also a fair number of for-profit MFIs and additionally, a lot of the non-Kiva money coming into microfinance is returns-driven (i.e. investment for profit). Whether it’s interest charged on a loan from a bank, the spread required for philanthropic financing by national or supranational governments, or the more apparent return sought by microfinance investment firms, there is an implicit profit motive in microfinance that touches all areas of the industry. Does a for-profit MFI with a strong social mission automatically cause lower levels of development because the ultimate aim of the company is profit? As is always the case in microfinance, the answer is “it depends”, but from my experience in Kyrgyzstan, I don’t see that microfinance and for-profit are mutually exclusive. In all the discussion of whether for-profit or non-profit organizations are better, there is an important point that is often overlooked. The main struggle for an MFI is not how much of a profit they make, but whether they break even.

Leonardo, barber and FMSD client - and coming soon to Kiva.

I’ve now spent two weeks with my new MFI, Barranquilla-based Fundación Mario Santo Domingo (FMSD), which is also Kiva’s first field partner in Colombia. The difference in temperature and ambience between the cold of Kyrgyzstan and the warmth of Colombia’s Caribbean coast is obvious enough, but the differences between these two MFI’s as institutions are almost equally as astounding. While Mol Bulak Finance is a for-profit institution working mainly with women in group loans, FMSD is a philanthropic foundation started by the Santo Domingo family, one of Colombia’s richest, with a microfinance department that lends primarily to individuals in the urban areas of Barranquilla, Cartagena and Bogotá. And while a large number of Kiva’s field partners have been in existence for less than a decade, FMSD will be celebrating its fiftieth year in 2010, although it hasn’t included a microfinance unit for all that time.

FMSD Client Lila Rosa, who's been with the Foundation for 12 years

Visiting Rosario, another FMSD client who has been a client for 9 years. She only moved into her shop over the last few years with help of FMSD.

From what I’ve seen over the past week, FMSD inspires an incredible amount of loyalty from its staff, a lot of whom have been with FMSD for around twenty years—a rarity in the microfinance industry. You can find a similar loyalty in terms of the clients: on a visit to meet borrowers this week, we met some who have been clients of FMSD for up to ten or fifteen years and I’ve met other borrowers who have now been registered as businesses in Barranquilla’s chamber of commerce.  It’s hard not to be impressed. At the same time, FMSD run a wide range of free vocational training programmes: while I was waiting for the bus with my Kiva Coordinator last week, a passer-by stopped to say hello to FMSD’s Kiva Coordinator—he’d taken a course as a baker at FMSD and now had a job as a baker around the corner from the Foundation. Perhaps one of the most impressive parts of FMSD’s work was part of the same visit to entrepreneurs when afterwards we went to Villas San Pablo, a housing community being built on the outskirts of Barranquilla with assistance from a number of international organizations, such as the Inter-American Development Bank, as well as the Colombian government. The scale and vision of the project is impressive: to construct a community of 20,000 homes to allow the poor from all over the department of Atlántico to have their own home for the first time. A visit to the site at the moment is a strange experience as it’s still under construction: there are lots of vacant lots and a few streets of single-storey buildings with the sound of reggaeton from a lot of the houses. The majority of the inhabitants are people who aren’t able to move out of their parents’ home for financial reasons, people who are living in rented accommodation or people from other parts of Colombia displaced by the armed conflict that needs no introduction. The houses are built with a joint loan between FMSD and the Colombian government and have been designed to be constructed using a modular method: each room of the house can be built separately depending on the family’s resources. It’s going to be interesting to see how it progresses.

A street in Villas San Pablo.

Explaining Villas San Pablo.

A resident of Villas San Pablo.

Two of the men who make the building materials for Villas San Pablo. They got a loan from FMSD to be able to contribute to building the community.

It looks like it’s going to be an interesting few months and I’m looking forward to working with Kiva’s first partner in Colombia. And with the tradition of story-telling on Colombia’s Caribbean coast ranging from Barranquilla humour past the bawdy letanías of Barranquilla’s Carnival to the magic realism of Gabriel García Márquez, I can already tell that meeting the borrowers is going to be a highlight of my time here.

Welcome to the Kiva family, Colombia!

Rob Packer is a Kiva Fellow currently working with the Fundación Mario Santo Domingo in Barranquilla, Colombia. There are borrowers from Colombia with FMSD who you can help by contributing to a loan today, and many other entrepreneurs from around the world on the Kiva site.

Rubén goes flying

By Rob Packer

A few weeks ago that now feel like an eternity, I stayed with my friend Jimena in Bucaramanga. According to the street signs on the main roads into the city, Bucaramanga claims to be many things, such as the “epicentre of fashion” in Colombia, which was news to everyone in the car who thought Medellín was, and a “cosmopolitan and global regional city”. When I arrived in Bucaramanga though, my parents had told me that Bucaramanga was the Colombian capital of parapenting, although a quick Google of the sport brought up parapenting locations in Bucaramanga, Bogotá, Medellín, Villavicencio, in short, pretty much everywhere in the country. Wherever the Colombian centre of parapenting might be, it’s one of the things to do in Bucaramanga so we went up onto the hillside to one of the parapenting stations to take to the skies.

We arrived and I was struck by how quick it was: give you name, ID number, money and weight and you were up in the air within seconds (for super-light Jimena) or minutes (for heavier me). The girl taking my name misheard me and my name for the afternoon became Rubén. I actually enjoyed my new alias so much, especially once it was given a Santanderano spin to Rubencho, that I never told Germán, my parapenting guide, that it’s not really my name.

Jimena takes to the sky!

Getting ready for take-off.

La bandera. Pretty windy up the top.

Parapenting is the kind of activity that you want to say feels really scary. But being attached to a parachute and being guided over the landscape above Bucaramanga felt surprisingly pedestrian. There was part of it that felt like you were sitting in an armchair in the path of a ventilator and watching videos. On the other hand, the view is spectacular.

Take off. The view over Bucaramanga.

The view from above.

The question of what Bucaramanga is famous for seems to be something that concerns the town’s government a lot. If it’s not parapenting, it’s definitely not fashion and despite all the bilingual signs on Bucaramanga’s metrobus network, it’s not really a global regional city, what is it? I’d say it’s a relaxed city of spectacular sunsets with incredible people whose hospitality became more and more jaw-dropping with every day that I stayed in there.

Me with Rodrigo and Sasha, two of the people who made my stay in Bucaramanga so fantastic.

Hong Kong comes to Colombia!

Err. Where am I?

By Rob Packer

After just over a week in Barranquilla, I now have a map of the city. This seems like a pretty basic thing for a newcomer to a city to have but I was told I wouldn’t need one because the system’s easy, which is why Barranquilleros don’t use them, or know where to get one: I was sent to the geographical institute, then the town hall before falling back on a street-side stall.

Barranquilla is a typically Colombian city based on a grid system in that follows a system of calles (north-south and abbreviated as C) and carreras (east-west and shortened to Cra), quite similar to New York’s system of streets and avenues. A typical Colombian address—coordinates would be a better translation—is made up of nothing but numbers and letters: your house is located on a calle or carrera a certain number of paces or metres, opinions differ, past a cross-street. Unlike New York though, the system spreads out over the entire city and when the roads get to a hill (Barranquilla, Bogotá and Bucaramanga are anything but flat) they follow the contours of the land rather than racing straight up them San Francisco-style. The effect of this is that most streets outside the centre go neither east-west, north-south or in straight lines. However, the numbering system carries on regardless, adding letters and numbers here and there, or missing streets out completely in other places.

A navigation tool in Barranquilla.

For example, I live at the corner of C. 84B and Cra. 42D and was going to meet a friend who lives on what I thought was Cra. 42A at C. 84. It sounded pretty close so I gave myself ten minutes to walk there. Fifteen minutes later I was running on Colombian time halfway down what turned out to be Cra. 42B, when I found number 66 next to number 74 with number 70 nowhere to be seen. It was time to go back to the calle and start again. Complete the sequence: 43, 42H, 42G, 42F, 42D, 42B1, 42B, 42A4, 42A3, 42A2, 42A1.

Colombia’s grid systems aren’t perfect in a country that’s anything but flat, and they lull you into a false sense of security. But as a Colombian friend pointed out: for all its idiosyncrasies, it’s easier than having names.

Barranquilla. Many things, but definitely not a grid.

Al-Madina de Barranquilla

By Rob Packer

I always thought the word sirio from Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude was one of those words that I probably didn’t understand. Surely there weren’t Syrians on Colombia’s Caribbean coast and this was some kind of metaphor? When I found out I was coming to Barranquilla and started doing some research, I realized that García Márquez was being serious: there is a large community of Colombians with Syrian and Lebanese origins on the Caribbean coast, and Shakira, a Barranquilla native is easily the community’s most famous member.

As the post-film conversation at last week´s Cine Club turned to food, someone mentioned the word quibbe. Were they talking about kibbeh, a favourite Lebanese snack made of ground meat and spices? They were and told me that Barranquilla is full of Middle Eastern restaurants serving quibbe, tahine and tabule, and that it were delicious. Years of average Middle Eastern food in Hong Kong and the thought of kibbeh must’ve made my face light up because a trip to a Lebanese restaurant was planned for the next night.

Outside Los Trigales, an Arabic restaurant in the north of Barranquilla.

The next night’s dinner at Los Trigales was as delicious as I’d be promised it would be. We had a tahine to share for a starter, which looked and tasted like chickpea and tahini-based hummus, rather than the sesame paste that makes up tahini. I’m not sure where the difference in name comes from, but good food trumps all. The mixed plate of Arab food fulfilled my cravings for kibbeh and stuffed vegetables, but the real hit of the evening was a complete surprise: a garlic paste mixed with mayonnaise that spread its garlicky goodness on anything it touched it. By the end, Mar and I were almost eating it with a spoon.

Tahine (hummus) with meat, Barranquilla-style.

The plato árabe mini-mixto. A selection of kibbeh, tahine (again) and stuffed aubergines, cabbage and vine leaf.

Garlic paste. Delicious with pretty much anything.

Intrepid eaters from Couchsurfing Barranquilla.

The Mouths of Ash

By Rob Packer

The “mouths of ash” (Bocas de Ceniza) sound more like part of a volcano than the mouth of the Río Magdalena, Colombia’s most important river system. According to Wikipedia, the name comes from the ashen colour of the river at that point and is actually a reasonably accurate description.

I visited the mouths of ash on my first day in Barranquilla with Ronny, Lorena and Delvis, a group of three barranquilleros from Couchsurfing. The plan had been to go for lunch at one of the fish restaurants along the Magdalena at Las Flores, and when we looked back on it, none of us were sure exactly how we stepped out of the taxi looking for a restaurant and ended up on a trencito hurtling towards the end of the breakwater separating the river from the sea. It certainly wasn’t because we weren’t hungry.

All aboard the trencito!

Happily travelling to the end of the breakwater.

What do you do if you find a trencito coming the other way? You get the passengers off and push it to one side so you can get past.

The trencito, a tram with no walls and packed full of people, runs from Las Flores to the end of a surprisingly long breakwater that demarcates the last stretch of the Magdalena and at some points, its tracks are barely wider than the distance between the river and the sea. About a kilometre from the end of the breakwater, the trencito arrives at a group of huts selling drinks, fruit and fish, and you have to walk over a kilometre of rocks past groups of fishermen to get the end. Obviously the rocky terrain wasn’t ideal for the flip flops that most of us were wearing, and it took longer than our allotted hour to get back to the trencito stop.

To the end of the breakwater. The Caribbean on the left, the Magdalena on the right.

The end of the breakwater looking back towards Barranquilla.

Fishermen fishing in the Caribbean.

Me at the end of the breakwater. Badly shod and concentrating more on not being blown off by the wind than having my photo taken.

We sat down with ice creams to hide from the sun that had already taken its toll on all of us, and on me most, and to wait out the hour for the trencito to come back, which we’d been told would take us back towards Barranquilla. What we hadn’t been told was that when the trencito arrives, you need to fight your way on and people with blunter elbows have to wait for the next train. While this was happening, we were in one of the huts buying something to drink and turned round to see a mass of people trying to fighting to get onto the trencito. We didn’t fight.

A happier moment: we thought it was nearly lunchtime.

Posing at the end of the breakwater.

Fighting to get onto the carro.

Left at what was coming to feel like the middle of nowhere, we sat again and got to know a neighbouring family’s conspiracy theories that what were now called carros (cars), rather than the too cutesy-sounding trencito, were stopping at the beach about five kilometres away, picking up new passengers there and heading back to Las Flores laughing over their dishonest gains – and leaving us high and dry at the end of a breakwater.

A ship coming into Barranquilla.

After a failed attempt to walk to the beach, the carro arrived again and this time we knew we had a fight on our hands: from the moment the carro came to a stop, my hand wasn’t letting go of it. And we were on our way with cries of “¡Ladrones!” and “¡Rateros!” (“Thieves!”) from our conspiracy theorist friends. Just as the sun was setting, we were heading off to lunch.

Fisherman at the Bocas de Ceniza.

Fisherman at the Bocas de Ceniza.

Fisherman at the Bocas de Ceniza.

Fishermen at the Bocas de Ceniza.

Fishermen at the Bocas de Ceniza.

Fisherman at the Bocas de Ceniza.

Fishermen at the Bocas de Ceniza taking a break with domino.

Wrapping up Central Asia

By Rob Packer

My time in Kyrgyzstan has come to an end. I’m sitting on a plane to Colombia flying over Venezuela’s Andes Mountains, so there feels like there’s no better moment of closure to my Central Asian experiences than this. This is my second blog about my Central Asian experiences: the first was about my experiences with Kiva, this is more about my personal experiences.

Central Bishkek. It really is pretty in some places.

Legenda, a convenience store on a backstreet of Bishkek. The name means Legend.

People Search

At first I found being in Bishkek to be a very sobering experience: I usually don’t find it that difficult to meet people, but I ended up doing a whole lot of reading in my first few weeks in Kyrgyzstan. Bishkek in winter is a dark and forbidding city with few streetlamps and drainage ditches ready to be fallen into. There are few options apart from being the weird guy in the bar who starts conversations: a hit-and-miss strategy that can lead to a night of vodka drinking with cycle tourists or to just meeting duds. A chance introduction to a friend of a friend was the more sure-fire option; when that happened after about a month, my progress through War and Peace slowed to a crawl. Although I didn’t leave Bishkek with a large group of friends, I felt that in my last week I was getting tantalizingly close to having an active social life. You know who you are: thank you!

How I Learnt To Love The Marshrutka

Between marshrutkas, deserted dark streets, sometimes dangerous taxis from the street and the fear of having to book one over the phone in Russian, getting around Bishkek is not that easy.

The marshrutka is a staple of Central Asian transport, but also one of the hardest to use. These are second-hand Mercedes minivans with half the seats ripped out that ply the streets of cities in Central Asia packed to the rafters. Each one runs a set route with a board at the front with the landmarks it passes. The problem is that the board is so small that you can’t read it until the marshrutka’s at point-blank range; even then some of the landmarks can be pretty obscure to an out-of-towner who knows street names, but not where the Government Registry is. There’s a lot of asking passers-by and trial-and-error. But once you’ve got used to the fact that you might pick the only marshrutka not going to Osh Bazaar, it’s strangely addictive. It turns out there’s something special about it being so crowded that you have your face buried in someone’s coat and the only way to stay in one place is to wedge your head against the ceiling.

Philharmonia Square in Bishkek. Important: when a marshrutka goes past here, it does not say Ploshchad (Square) - that's somewhere else.

Relearning Russian

I spent the seven years between my Russian diploma at Cambridge and arriving in Kyrgyzstan mostly neglecting the language. Before I headed off to Kyrgyzstan I had a look through a Russian textbook and thought I remembered it; when I arrived in Kyrgyzstan, I could barely speak and understand even less, and spent two weeks feeling like a fraud before it came back. For all my struggles, it’s an incredibly rich and nuanced language, and every time a full, comprehensible sentence comes out, it feels like a mini triumph. By the end of the trip I was training people in Russian, telling anecdotes with colleagues after lunch, and then a shopkeeper in Bukhara asked if I’d been born in the Soviet Union. I enjoyed getting it back, but now the struggle’s going to be not losing it again.

For all its usefulness in Central Asia, however, Russian is definitely on the decline after eighteen years of independence and a resurgence in national languages. Bishkek is still resolutely Russian-speaking, but the story is different in rural Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, where more than one person bemoaned the declining standard of Russian among the younger generation. It’s hard for me not to sympathize with that view, but for more than the egotistical reason that I speak Russian. None of the Central Asian republics are particularly ethnically homogeneous (Turkmenistan is the most where the Turkmen population is around 80%); Russian provides and has provided a useful lingua franca between ethnic groups and between countries. At the same time, I feel that Central Asia will only be a strong region without the in-fighting that includes shutting off gas and electricity to neighbours and a visa regime in most countries that seems to actively discourage the tourism most countries are trying to promote. Could its loss alienate part of the population and make the region weaker as much as nation-build?

Bishkek's Opera House. The only time I went was to see Rigoletto. In Russian.

Coming Back?

I’ve been drawn to Central Asia for a long time. Shortly after Central Asian independence, when I obsessed about visiting Samarkand and Bukhara, I was always fascinated by the intricate shapes of the countries. Central Asia has some of the world’s most bizarre borders, especially around the Fergana Valley, where Tajikistan surges up to grab the mouth of the valley, meanwhile Uzbekistan floods over the mountains from into the valley’s lowlands, and Kyrgyzstan stays in the mountains around the edges. The situation is complicated even more by two teardrops of Uzbekistan and one of Tajikistan lie completely surrounded by Kyrgyzstan. It’s said that this cartographer’s dream comes from an almost slavish adherence to ethnic boundaries by Stalin when the boundaries of the Soviet Socialist Republics were being drawn up. Even then the results didn’t please everyone: the ancient cities of Bukhara and Samarkand were historically Tajik-speaking, but I’ve heard that Tajiks had to register as Uzbeks on their Soviet-era passports or be sent to live in Tajikistan. And there are still people in Tajikistan who want Samarkand “returned” to them.

The roads and railways complicate things even more, because in such a mountainous region these must follow topographical realities rather than whims: the main road to Batken, a Kyrgyz provincial capital, actually bisects two Uzbek enclaves. Meanwhile, countries like Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan were left with fragmented rail networks that dip in and out of those countries without joining up: a theoretical train journey from Bishkek in northern Kyrgyzstan to Jalalabad in southern Kyrgyzstan would take in five border crossings and four countries, so it’s no wonder people prefer to fly or drive over the mountain passes.

Central Asia continues to fascinate me: far from being a homogeneous region, it is surprisingly diverse ethnically, geographically and culturally. Although autumn and winter are not the best seasons to enjoy Central Asia, it hasn’t been all that cold. During my time there, I’ve had some amazing cold weather days: snow in Chong Kemin and Samarkand, and the cold of Bukhara. I have a long list of things to do next time, such as yurt stays, a trip to Almaty, hiking and visiting Tajikistan. As I wrote it another blog, if you love Central Asia in the winter, it’s true love and I’m sure I’ll be back.

The road from Osh to Bishkek.

A more snowy part of the Osh-Bishkek road.

%d bloggers like this: