Friday, October 29, 2010

Last thoughts from the road

It’s 9:00 am here in Ulaanbaatar and I’m sitting here in the hotel restaurant, quietly reflecting on the past few weeks. Outside the sun is shining and the city is going about its business. Like most mornings, traffic is absolute chaos by our standards – but seems to work. At least I haven’t seen any accidents and the pedestrians weaving their way through moving traffic all seem to make it.
My own personal nick-name for pedestrians braving a road crossing is the Mongolian death run. Think of Quail running in front of your car, their little stick legs moving for all they’re worth and you absolutely screaming inside Fly! Fly dammit, don’t run, you’re a bird! But they seem to make it too, so it must be true, as the SAS would say, Who Dares, Wins.

As I type this VERY well dressed Mongolian women are striding briskly on a cold crisp morning as they make their way to where ever they have to be. Shop keepers are opening their stores and Ulaanbaatar once more moves forward, both literally and figuratively.

I’ve been here over two weeks now and I’ll admit, at first I wasn’t the biggest fan. It’s a tough place to like at first. The air can be dirty, especially on a cold day when all the Ger’s in the vast Ger districts surrounding the city proper all fire up their small coal heaters at once, the traffic can be imposing and the older buildings left over from the Soviet era, all seem to be crumbling and decaying at once. But....... after a few days you see through this: the sun seems to shine brighter, you realize crumbling facades hide beautiful interiors and the people, who seem stoic and a little severe at first, reveal themselves as caring and engaging. Mongolia is like an onion. You need to peel through the layers to get to what’s inside – and the more you peel through the layers the more the country and the people reveal their true beauty. And I’ll admit, I’m now hooked. I absolutely love it here. The people are some of the most caring and appreciative you’ll ever meet and the country is vast and beautiful – just waiting to be explored by camel, horseback or cross country by Landcruiser.

Last night was our wind up dinner. We were entertained in a small banquet room in the Ulaanbaatar Hotel – a large opulent hotel from a bygone era. We were treated to a huge Mongolian dinner complete with enough Vodka to float a large boat. At this point I’m afraid to shave because if I cut myself I may just bleed out. I’m sure at this point my blood is running clear because of all the vodka I’ve consumed. Between Mongolian Karaoke, Mongolian Disco’s and one brave attempt at my classic dance move which went over really well with my Mongolian hosts, I’m sooooo ready to get back home.

But for all this I’m still more than a little humbled. I’ve met incredible people from government, and cooperative apex organizations and I was able to offer my advice and recommendations that may help shape the credit union movement going forward. To be asked by the Commissioner of the Financial Regulatory Commission, and the Director of the Micro Finance Department to meet with government to offer my input into draft legislation currently before parliament was the highlight of the trip – and something I’ll always treasure.

That’s it for now, I leave on a 24 hour trip back to Toronto in another few hours and by Sunday night it’ll all be behind me.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Alive and well in UB

Hi Everybody
The following is mostly for my family and friends but I know, due to the nature of the internet, it's really available for all to see.

First, my apologies; the time difference and my schedule here makes it difficult for me to keep up with all your e-mails and best wishes. It's been tough enough trying to connect by Skype with Rosi (love you sweety!) and I just haven`t been able to stay on top of the rest of my e-mails etc.

I wish I could tell you that I`ve been travelling the Mongolian countryside, riding camels, visiting ger`s and sampling Yak`s milk, but it wouldn`t be true. That`s NOT to say that I haven`t explored a little of Ulaanbaatar and that I`m not soaking up as much Mongolian culture as I can but it`s nowhere near the hardship some would think. Exotic and different- absolutely - but hardship travel, hardly.

This week my days consist of getting up around 6:30, making my way to breakfast around 7:00 or so, comparing notes with the other members of the team and maybe laying out a game plan with Scott, my partner and then walking the six blocks or so to the office where we`re working.

But Oh, what`s hard to believe but we`re working with everyday ordinary people trying to do their best in a hard thankless job as they lay the ground work for what could develop into a robust healthy credit union nationwide system. This week we`re offering our advice - and even more difficult for me to believe sometimes - they`re taking it - on how to structure a Stabilization Fund, a Deposit Insurance Corporation, Liquidity Shares and an overall approach to developing a Mongolian Central Credit Union.

I know as you read this it`s hard not to think yadda yadda yadda but that`s from a position of comfort and more important, stability. When you go to the bank you just know: your deposits are safe, your cheques will clear and the world will turn. And you know what, 50% of Mongolian`s have the same comfort. They drive nice cars, use the same ATM you do and go about their day to day lives with the same fears, worries and goals as the rest of us. But for the rest, it`s not so comfortable. They may or may not have a crop this year, a herd this fall or a meal this evening. And for these people a cooperative is often the answer. All of a sudden the Hands and Globe logo takes on a whole new meaning. It`s no longer just lip service or a nice pen when you sign a form; it`s the difference between subsistence and prospering, a hand up rather than a hand out and it`s being part of a worldwide movement designed to help those that help themselves - and I`ve never been more proud and more pleased to be part of it.

What we`re doing here is small, and may not matter in the long run, but action beats inaction and moving forward, even if in spurts, is better than the alternative.

As for me, all is well. I`m taking antibiotics and I`m feeling much better and `the longer I stay in UB the more I like it.

Take care

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Up Date from UB

Hi Everyone
I apologize for not keeping my postings as current as I'd like. We've been VERY busy and I've been quite under the weather. My head cold moved into my chest and from there I think it developed into pneumonia. I'm now taking antibiotics though and I think I'm on the mend!

This aside, the last few days have been hectic and absolutely chock-o-block full but VERY fulfilling. Since my last update we filed a report with the Co-operative apex organization, had dinner with senior representatives from two different co-operative organizations, visited a VERY cool statue of Chingas Khan and spent the night at a Gerr camp outside of UB. Our Mongolia hosts have treated us better than anyone could ever expect and are absolutely deadly at Karaoke!

That's it for now. I have several financial reports I still have to read and tomorrow we have a follow up meeting with the Director of Micro-Finance to offer our input into draft legislation before parliament to structure the Mongolian CU system. It's pretty humbling to be able to be part of something like this from the ground floor up.

Take care

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Up date from Mongolia

Day four in Mongolia, day ten on the road and a LONG way from home and I’m starting to feel it. Whether it was getting run down due to the travel, picking up a bug on the plane or the smoke in the air here in UB from the coal fired power plant, I’ve picked up a doozy of a head/chest cold. The problem is finding a pharmacy is a little easier said than done and when you do everything is imported from Russia, China or India. I’m a little reluctant to load up on pharmaceuticals I know nothing about but not to worry. There’s a peace core volunteer working for one of the NGO’s we’re partnered with and she says she has more than enough cold medicine brought over from home that will fix me right up.

Yesterday was another very full day. And just as some background information; this trip is part of a Mongolian credit union coaching and mentoring program. Most of the team members either hit the ground running to catch overnight trains to remote rural villages or are working with small financial cooperatives here in UB to offer advice and support. My partner Scott and I however were picked by our Mongolian hosts to work with two apex organizations. The Mongolian National Comparators Association, a trade and development organization representing all the cooperatives in Mongolia and MOCCU, the Mongolian Confederations of Credit Unions, which will hopefully play the role of a central credit union similar to BC Central. We’re also working indirectly with a third training and development NGO.

Neither of us has a background at the regulatory level so we’re not sure what the Mongolian partner saw in our resume’s that prompted them to pick us for this assignment, especially when others in our group look far more qualified. The only thing that stands out is we’re both now consultants vs. actual CU employee’s so that may have had something to do with it but I’m not sure why.

When I first heard I wouldn’t be traveling to a rural area with the rest of the group I was a little bummed but now I couldn’t be happier. Scott and I are working with some incredible people: senior management from various NGO’s and so far we’ve interviewed the president of the Union of Mongolian Production and Service Cooperatives and the Director of the Microfinance Department of the Financial Regulatory Commission of Mongolia.

I won’t lie: interviewing the Director was pretty cool. It was supposed to be just our coordinator and our embedded journalist. Scott and I were able to tag along because of the work we’re doing with MOCCU but it quickly morphed into seeming like our interview. The Director is a very professional woman with a very hard job. She has to implement new banking regulations that are currently before parliament and from that virtually reconstruct the Mongolian credit union system. No small feat when you consider the previous Commissioner was murdered when he tried to close corrupt credit unions prior to the collapse.

And now a few observations and thoughts in no particular order:
- Yes, in many area’s the roads are poor, the sidewalks are broken and the buildings are crumbling, but through this most Mongolian women stride along dressed to the absolute nines. As one of our group said, she wants to come back and open a boot shop because knee-high patent leather boots and VERY sharp business suits are the uniform dejur’ for Mongolian professional women.
- Most men wear business suits and those not in business attire are dressed just as sharply as their female counterparts.
- I seen VERY little litter and virtually no tagging and graffiti.
- And finally, here’s something that I think speaks volumes about their culture. The traffic is absolutely terrible and in many areas cars are double and triple parked three deep. We joked that if you were the car on the inside you’d be stuck until the others left but our guide said it’s not a problem because if you block someone in you leave your cell number on your windshield and it’s understood you’ll come back and move your car if it’s necessary.

Take care!

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The Co-operative Spirit

Greetings from Ulaanbaatar, the capital city of Mongolia!

The collapse of the Soviet empire hasn’t been kind to Mongolia. Prior to the collapse of communism and the restructuring of the USSR (AKA the complete pull out from all their satellite states) Mongolia was left to its own means and had to quickly adapt. Unfortunately what resulted was far more than a few growing pains. You can’t simply convert overnight from a totalitarian regime, one in which the State provides for, controls and is involved with every aspect of your life, to a market economy and your own unique version of democracy. The job they’ve done is incredible but along the way there’s been corruption, grinding poverty, soaring unemployment and steady deterioration of infrastructure. But through all this the Mongolian people have endured. With stoic perseverance and grim determination they’re moved on.

Next to crumbling monolithic soviet era apartment blocks and the severe, imposing facades of numerous government buildings you’ll also find new hotels, cranes dotting the skyline and construction literally everywhere. And between these imposing buildings you’ll find shops. Shops of every kind and every description – many of them the retail outlets for various co-op’s. Fleece co-ops, wool co-ops, handi-craft co-ops and everything in between. Co-ops made up of rural nomadic herders, established co-ops for the manufacturing and service sector and recently since 1990, financial co-ops operating as small, grass-roots credit unions providing loans a deposit services to the poor and disenfranchised that can’t otherwise get these services from the many commercial banks that can now dot the landscape.

The co-operative movement is very much alive in Mongolia. I don’t say alive and well, because it’s struggling but it’s still here and has no intention of folding camp anytime soon.

The co-operative movement in Mongolia goes back to the 30’s, albeit in a different form, when it was embraced by socialist thinking and culture as a way to bring prosperity to the collective. In the 90’s however the Soviet Union finally pulled out and a new fledgling democracy looked to co-operatives as an established model and encouraged and supported the movement in its efforts to bring a capitalism to the masses. It was this same time and circumstance that allowed the creation of the first financial co-ops or what we would know as credit unions. often is the case, the best of intentions doesn’t necessarily bring the results one would wish. By 1995 most imports from Russia ceased, food was rationed, and many businesses failed, including a lot of co-ops. Things looked good for a while, especially for credit unions, but then really fell off the rails in 2005. Through apparent mismanagement, liquidity issues, and what more than a few suspect was corruption at several levels more than 30 credit unions failed. Thousands of members lost millions of dollars and the people looked to the government for solutions and there were demonstrations in the streets. And since then things haven’t been much easier. A recent severe winter killed much of the nomadic herder’s livestock and unemployment and low wages plague the economy. Add to this the economic meltdown that effected all of us but none more so than the developing world, and it’s easy to understand that Mongolia has had more than its fair share of problems.

Through all of this however there have been dedicated Mongolian’s working hard in the background to wrestle a future for themselves from the current situation - and during the past two days I’ve had the incredible privilege and honour of working with a few of these people. One such person is the Executive Director of the Mongolian National Cooperative Association. A trained nuclear physicist that now works in the co-operative sector with few resources in a small out of the way office in one more non-descript government office. But what she and her staff lack in resources they more than make up with heart and desire. And between her and the others I’ve met that are just as dedicated and just as committed I know Mongolia has a bright future indeed.

And I’m humbled to be able to play whatever small part in this transformation that I can.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Notes from the Road

I thought I’d post a few observations and feelings from the road while they’re still fresh.

First, the first leg of the trip wasn’t as gruelling as I thought. We left at 1:30 in the morning, which is bad enough on its own but all things being equal it wasn’t horrible. Yes it’s long but the entire trip is made during the “night” because we flew west to east. Don’t ask me why but this seems to make it easier. It seems to help convince your internal clock that’s OK to sleep vs. if it was bright and sunny outside. The plane was full but the seat room was OK and here are my first observations of Koreans. And yes, I know my exposure is limited and one plane ride does not a full analysis make but ..........from my experience Koreans are polite, professional and VERY well presented. Why is it that we as North Americans have managed to adopt schlepping in our casual clothes as the uniform du jur’ for travel? I know it’s comfortable – and probably extremely pragmatic – but trust me, when you’re surrounded by an entire plane load of families and business people all dressed to the nines you very quickly feel like a fish out of water.

Now Korean Airlines itself – WOW!!! PLEASE Air Canada, send your senior staff to whatever school Korean Airlines sends their staff to. Very polite, VERY professional, lots of them and EXTREMELY well organized. We boarded around 1:00 and left at 1:30. It was a full plane with a three-three-three configuration and it was completely full. There was a sense of calm though, and loading was accomplished quickly and efficiently.

A half hour into the air we were served a breakfast reminiscent of plane travel in the Seventies: warm meals, real linen, small but still stainless steel utensils rather than a plastic spoon and attentive service followed by a warm towel and accompanied by free non-stop wine or beer. Korea – gotta love it!

This whole experience was continued in the Soul Airport. Rather than an airport full of overweight, poorly dressed workers wandering aimlessly throughout the concourse with nothing but a poor attitude to offer a wayward traveller the Soul Airport is staffed by a professional, well dressed and extremely efficient staff that approach their jobs with a sense of professionalism and pride – something long to lacking in North America. The airport is huge but well laid out and spotlessly clean and the whole experience is somehow a refreshing change.

As I type this I’m waiting for the next leg of our journey; the flight from Soul to Ulaanbaatar which is operated by the Mongolian national airline.......hmmm....only time will tell

Thursday, October 14, 2010

To Be or Not to Be (Canadian) Eh?

Wow, what a day makes.
I came into this experience secure in my knowledge and belief - and more than a little smug - that as a Canadian I was different. I was one more of those multitude of Canadian travellers with my back pack and luggage adorned with Canadian flags so as not to be mistaken for our neighbours to the south. Was I a little self-centred? You bet. And naive and ill-informed too because apparently, not everyone is quite so willing to accept us with open arms - and Mongolia definitely falls into this camp.

I'm in Ottawa taking pre-departure Intercultural Training through CIDA and Foreign Affairs Canada and as part of this they brought in a woman from Mongolia to speak to us about various cultural differences we might face and to give us some background and insight in to the country and it's history. It was an amazing experience to hear-first hand what I've only read about up until now but some of what she spoke about was definitely NOT in the Lonely Planet guide I thought of as the definitive resource up until now.

I won't get into a geo-political discussion of all that she spoke about - and it must be acknowledged that hers is only one opinion that I've heard at this point - but a couple of things really hit home, not the least of which was the fact that as Canadians we might be received with less than open arms. It turns out that Canada has had fairly strained relations with Mongolia. We were the last G8 nation to open an embassy, which the Mongolians took as an insult and we have no "official" presence in the region, unlike our neighbours to the south who are helping with all kinds of development projects. But here's the real kicker.....the main bone of contention is our involvement in the Mongolian mining industry. It seems we're the biggest player on the ground and we're involved in several large gold mining projects but from the average Mongolians perspective it anything but an equal partnership. I have no idea if it's an accurate assessment or not but our liaison claims we're seen as an intruder that is only there to take and isn't giving back. What really stung is this is a phrase I've used myself to describe others, here and abroad, and I don't like it. To hear someone describe Canadians this way was a real eye opener.

Toto, we're definitely NOT in Kansas anymore. From here on out things might get interesting.

But, all this apprehension aside, sometimes you meet people so inspiring, so amazing, that you just have to share it. Last night was just such an occasion. I met a member of our team that was part of a team that hiked to the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro as a fund raiser for African aid through the Canadian Co-operative Association. Through their efforts they were able to raise more than $60,000 which the Association will use to fight poverty in the region though co-operative development. In his words, they wanted to reach the summit so they could light a torch for all to see; and with that light they wanted to show people there was hope where there had only been despair, there was love where there had only been hate and there was dignity where there had only been oppression.

Sometimes, you find inspiration in the least likely places..........

Until later

Monday, October 11, 2010

Mongolian Bound (Almost)

Well, here it is - October 11th. After a lot of prep and study I'll be leaving on my trip tomorrow morning. I fly out of Penticton at 6:00 tomorrow morning for a short one-hour commuter flight to Vancouver and from there it's a 2 1/2 hour layover and then a five-hour flight to Ottawa.

I have to spend three days in Ottawa taking pre-deployment training and orientation through CIDA's (Canadian International Development Agency) educational division. The training focuses on the nuts and bolts of Mongolia itself as well as the cultural and psychological issues surrounding full immersion in a foreign culture.

After our training ends on Friday we leave that evening for Toronto to start the journey to Ulaanbaatar via Soul Korea.

It's going to be interesting. During the interview process way back when I applied, the interviewers spent a lot of time discussing the rigours of rural international travel; rough roads, overland travel, sparse accommodations, different sights and sounds etc. I figured what the heck, if I can ride a chicken bus in Guatemala how hard can it be? Once I was picked for the team they followed this up even further with discussions on the limited diet and and all the other difficulties associated with rural Mongolian living - and you know what? I was stoked! I couldn't wait! I love adventure and travel and new cultures and meeting new people and I figured this was right up my alley!

But......since then we've received our assignments. I don't want to suggest it'll be some kind of cake walk because it won't. It'll be long days working with our Mongolian counterparts to assist them and their organizations in anyway we can. But it doesn't look like it's going to have quite the deprivation and hardship that was originally indicated. Some of the other team members hit the ground and immediately start overland travel by bus or train to their rural assignments. My partner and I however, will spend the whole two weeks staying at the equivalent of the Mongolian Holiday Inn. We'll travel during the day to our various credit union locations but each evening it'll be a hot shower, clean sheets and a good wi-fi connection (I hope)'s still a foreign culture, a trip half-way around the world and an opportunity to learn from others while I do my best to pass on some of the lessons we've learned in the credit union system here at home. And if I don't get an opportunity to try fermented mare's milk maybe it just wasn't meant to be :-)

I'll post updates and pictures whenever I have the opportunity - assuming the wi-fi connection allows it - and I'll stay in touch by Skype with friends and family. Hmmmmmmm......maybe the Holiday Inn isn't so bad after all


Monday, October 4, 2010

WooHoo! New Addition to the Family

I was too tired to post anything at the time but last week I did a 2,000 klm, three-day ride to Boise ID. I won't bore you with the usual drivvle about fantastic roads, great scenery and wonderfull weather - it had all three :-) - but I will share with you the reason for said ride. I rode down to look at a new (to me) bike. I'm now the proud owner of a mint condition 2005 Kawaskai Concours. It's a purpose built two-up sport touring road rocket. It's in great shape, has low miles and LOTS of expensive after market goodies. That's not to say I'm not going to buy and install even more - I'm already searching the net for engine guards, highway pegs and driving lights - but Shhhhhhh, don't tell Rosi!