Returned from Kyrgyzstan, Cultural exchange

Been a while. I had the extraordinary opportunity to serve as a Legislative Fellow to travel to Kyrgyzstan in an cultural exchange program. When asked “how was it”, my answer has been “interesting and intense, hardly fun.” The hospitality of the Kyrgyz people ranks phenomenal. We were hosted and wined and dined every night. Learned quickly that expectations are you eat what you are given, but with a small balance left so they don’t reload your plate or your glass. My six fellow Americans and I meet with a vast array of people from 8 or 9 am to 5pm daily. The intensity of understanding their country has only been independent for 30 years and that only two years ago they had a 2nd revolution provides perspective. They are struggling to build this fragile democracy while 80% of their people are unemployed; they have to change a culture of corruption from political forces to cops, from news media to education. Bribery is rampant because for the 20% employed it’s not at a livable wage. Without fixing corruption International governments or businesses won’t invest much needed currency to allow the growth to employ their countrymen. Where do you start?

Women are getting a voice (every third candidate on the ballot must be a woman), but they still aren’t allowed at the table for company-unless that company insists. Young girls and women can be kidnapped as brides, married-often with their family’s support, yet they have an 80% divorce rate.

Their infrastructure doesn’t exist–sidewalks are created as new owners upgrade a building-they’ll put in intricate concrete shaped as tiles. The rest deal with tar or maybe used marble blocks. As Americans we take so much for granted. And the whining about what we have or what is asked of us now magnified for its ridiculousness. As a country we are no different than the blueberry girl from Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory.

Flew on a Friday at 7am to San Francisco, from there to London. A layover long enough to eat a full traditional English breakfast including rasher bacon and tomato with tea. Flew to Azerbaijan for refueling, then in to Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan-at 4am on Sunday–long trip. Took a nap till noon. Then toured the area for the Sunday evening–and that’s the last easy-going part of the trip.

My six fellow Americans and I worked from 8am or 9am – 5pm meeting with Parliamentarians, city councils, NGOs (non-government organizations) working on everything from Election Structure to Internet and Privacy to Media law. We talked talked to journalists trying to get truth and accuracy in the media that’s predominately owned by politicians or influential business owners. We met members of two of the five leading political parties. We watched Parliament in action. We connected with students-60% of the population are 18-25 year olds. The hardest place to get into was the US Embassy-my first visit to an embassy in my limited travels.

At night we dined with hosts, many who have been Legislative Fellows from Kyrgyzstan who have traveled to the USA. The Kyrgyz people are extraordinary hosts. Learned quickly that food spreading the table upon arrival is merely course one-or what we’d call appetizers. Except it’s a full on meal. Must pace oneself! And manage not to put too much food on your plate-rude not to eat what you take. Then comes course two. No desserts-they provide lots of sugar for tea, sweetened breads or candies, dried fruit, fresh fruit for every meal.

Just the appetizers!

I’ve lots of thoughts about this experience, and intend to share throughout the summer. At least I have blog content.

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