Archive for October, 2010

Georgia!

October 19, 2010

Oh…Sweet Georgia.

I have been living here for about 3 weeks already!  And I haven’t even blogged about the country!?!?  Well, time to stop slacking and talk about this place.

I must start by saying I found the better Georgia in the world.  This wasn’t very hard, given how bad the State of Georgia is.  Or perhaps it was just visiting my brother down there and hanging out in the Wal-Mart in Pooler, Georgia that has left bad memories of that Georgia.  Anyways, this Georgia, the country…well, I really like it so far.  It is completely unexpected in a lot of ways.  It feels really European in Tbilisi.  It is a comfortable place to live abroad in and has some beautiful landscapes surrounding it.  Mountains, Desert, The Black Sea on the West Coast, Wine country…what’s not to like in Georgia?

I plan to be doing a few articles on Kiva’s website talking about the country in greater detail, so I won’t do an educational lesson on it quite yet.  But I can share some cool photos of some things I have done the last few weeks…

Like exploring around Tbilisi.  This is one of my favorite churches here as it has a good location.

The Old Town of Tbilisi is small, but quite pretty.  The President has made ‘tourism’ one of his top priorities for Georgia.  Everything is being remodeled here to get ready for the onslaught of tourists who will be coming more and more to this country after word spreads about it.

I have also done a lot of walking…to some interesting places.  Just 1239 more kilometers at this point.  I am just glad they have the English under the Kartuli language.  You take a wrong turn and I may miss Tehran for a place like Baku in Azerbaijan.   Then I would really be in trouble.

And I have learned where Russia is…literally, just over that hill. (Of the photos I had, this was the only one with my index finger pointing, even if I look like a gigantic dork.  The other fingers aren’t appropriate I shall say…)

There have been some long mountain hikes too…I didn’t bring a winter jacket here.  I layered up, but I still got a bit of a fever/cold the last few days trying to recover from this hike.  This picture also needs to be big just to show how awesome this place was.  Click on it!

But I have always made it to where I was going.  This was a long hike up here, but it was really worth it.   This church is about 6 miles from the Russian border.  It was strange going up to the Russian border.  On the map, across the border are South Ossetia and Chechnya.  Places you always here of in the news, but to be that close to them feels weird.

And I have been lucky to get rich along the way by finally…FINALLY finding the end of the rainbow.  The leprechaun was actually completely surprised to find me there as he thought nobody would be on those hills.  I think he was a bit inebriated too from just having watched Notre Dame Football play, so taking his pot of gold was much easier than expected.

And I found one more country I can dominate in….I would have destroyed this kid in pop a shot!

Soccer is also big here…but not as big as pork!  I went to this festival this past weekend and watched this game.  It took me a few moments to actually look down and see what I was standing over.  Apparently, he was the prize for the victors!

I have also met some old friends here…I think he missed me in Moldova.

Ah…well, I will leave with one more photo.  Me in Tbilisi the first day I got here….really happy to get in!  There are a couple things to take from the photo. I need to get back on the EY diet of eating out every night instead of kebab,,,and it was so warm here.  Like 80 degrees that first day, when it was really cold coming from Kiev.

Well, the one comment I always get back on the blog are more photos, so I hope you all enjoyed some of the places I have seen 🙂

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Moldova, Microfinance, and Happiness

October 6, 2010

Note: This blog was done for the Kiva Program and can be found on Kiva’s Website

Upon receiving news of my placement in Chisinau, a friend of mine recommended I read ‘The Geography of Bliss’ by Eric Weiner.  This New York Times bestseller detailed Weiner’s journey throughout the world to find what made countries happy.  To truly know ‘happiness’, Weiner decided he needed to go to a very unhappy country: Moldova, which ranks near the bottom in most national happiness studies.  After reading his depressingly pessimistic account of the country, I can say my enthusiasm for the Fellowship dropped slightly, but I was still interested in seeing it for myself.

So, what have I learned about Moldova in the time I have spent here during my Kiva Fellowship? Certainly a lot more than I knew before I came.

Chisinau Central Park. It's a happy place!

Moldova is a complex country in spite of its small size.  It is caught in a gray area between the EU and Russia, with a mix of both Russian and Romanian speaking populations having different political orientations.  Its breakaway region, Transnistria, has Russian ‘peacekeepers’ that just never left after the Cold War.  Many Moldovans act as de facto Romanian citizens carrying passports and voting in Romanian elections thanks to heritage laws.  There is a lack of a common, shared understanding on what a ‘Moldovan’ is.  This was apparent in the 2009 ‘Twitter Revolution’, in which many Moldovan flags were ripped down and replaced with Romanian national flags following disputed election results.  The Communist Party had supposedly won 50% of the national vote, and the younger, more western oriented voters were not happy with the results.  Recently, people have started to vote more with their feet than with ballots, as studies indicate approximately 25% of Moldovans now live abroad trying to earn a living.

Source: World Bank

This is the challenging political environment in which microfinance institutions (MFIs) in Moldova operate; however, a challenging environment does not mean there is a lack of MFIs willing to lend.  There are 17 MFIs in Moldova competing over an ever decreasing borrower base.  This fierce competition has led to an over indebtedness by many individuals who take out multiple loans from all too willing MFIs looking for customers.

Going into my first borrower interviews, I was questioning the role of microfinance in ‘alleviating poverty’ in Moldova. The boon in microfinance loans and accompanying interest rates seemed to have caused many problems during the recent economic slowdown.  I frequently asked myself “How effective is microfinance in this country?”

My first borrower Maria answered that question in a short few moments.  Maria sells clothes in a local market that she buys in neighboring Ukraine.  A few times a year, she is able to buy merchandise in bulk thanks to her loan.  When asked directly about how this loan has benefited her, I was surprised by her genuine happiness.  She has been a client for 6 years, taking many new loans for her basic working capital needs.  Admittedly, she has not moved up the socio-economic ladder very much, but her microfinance loans have given her the ability to provide for herself.  This self-empowerment brought out a genuine happiness that I witnessed in talking to her.

Microfinance is not a panacea for all of the issues facing this country.  I still hold some doubts about its role here, and how to improve the industry going forward.  I do believe people like Maria can be the best testimony to microfinance’s benefits in making Moldova a happier place to be.

The Never Ending Story Part III

October 4, 2010

Well, I have certainly blown by my goal of an update every 10 days or so.  It has been a busy few weeks, and not necessarily related to my job.  I wrapped up in Moldova and took some time to travel to a few cities.  Now, please cue the Indiana Jones music while I highlight my journey in blue! (Wish I could do red like Indy)

Basically, I left Moldova, went to Romania, and then to THE UKRAINE (UKRAINE must always be capitalized I feel and have the word THE)

Well, thanks to google maps for setting up where I was…but what did I see!?!? (You can click on the pics to get them larger 🙂 )

Moldova: Saying goodbye to a place is always sad…even more so when you have to leave the adopted hostel dog Chapeeta who I cooked for frequently 😦

Brasov, Romania: But Chapeeta can not compete with the beauty of Transylvania.  This was a wonderful former German town in the middle of Romania near Bran’s Dracula castle.  Very touristy, but did some awesome hiking in a quite treacherous gorge.  I also did not see any vampires if Adam asks.  (Or maybe Uncle Kevin did if Adam has been acting up at all????)

Suceava, Romania: This was one of the most boring places I have ever seen.  I needed to come here and spend the night to cross over the border to Ukraine.  I hitched a ride across the border with a Romanian family in the morning.  They spoke no English, I spoke no Ukrainian or Romanian.  Kinda brutal 2 hours.  And of all places, I found this car below with Michigan plates.  I really thought my former client from Detroit was tracking me down in the middle of nowhere Romania!

Chernovtsy, Ukraine: Nice little town in Ukraine.  I spent the day here after getting dropped off by the family.  Had some difficult first experiences trying to get around as I can’t read the Cyrillic alphabet.  So I drew out what I was looking for 🙂

Seriously...I drew this out. I found a Ukrainian guy who said in English..."Say it in Spanish". Then I said "El Tren"...Still took him awhile...And why Spanish, Mr. Ukraine?!?!

Lviv, Ukraine: Cool town.  Interesting history as it has passed hands so many times between all these countries.  As it is charming, I will consider it Polish though even if they were all kicked out after WWII.  I will also consider it Polish because they have a Gloria Jeans here!  I can’t tell you how many times I went there with Mom as a kid.

Kiev, Ukraine: And finally! Chicken Kiev.  I wasn’t a big fan of Kiev.  It definitely has some beautiful churches as seen below, and some good nightlife.  The churches are at least worth a visit here, but I just spent a couple days here.  It’s just a little too ‘Soviet’ feeling for me walking around.

As I said, beautiful churches…

…Of whatever religion you may be…

Well, this was just a high level overview of things seen and done.  I will post pics on Facebook one of these days.  It was a good little trip, and I am now waiting in the Kiev airport to get over to Tbilisi.  This airport is fairly awful and strangely reminds me of the Akron, Ohio airport…that is never a good comparison for an international airport.  And I don’t have ‘status’ on Ukrainian Air.  Till next time, and I promise these will get more entertaining!