Asia

From Europe to Asia

The object of our stop in Kosovo was to present our project and the process of microcredit in association with the French Alliance of Pristina, at the American University of Kosovo. About fifty students and a handful of professors did us the honor of attending our presentation in English. The conference went very well and the questions were very astute, but we are realizing that it is becoming necessary to include numbers and graphs in our explanations to put microcredit in perspective and define it more precisely. After this meeting, we all found ourselves standing near the 4L, again realizing how lucky we were both to be doing this project and to be French, when a Kosovian student confided that she could never do such a journey because it would be impossible for her to obtain all the necessary visas. Indeed, Kosovo, which proclaimed itself  independent in 2008, is not yet recognized by all the members of the international community.

Struck by our interactions with the Kosovians and exasperated by a few problems we had with our bank, we left Kosovo and went through Macedonia. To make our rendez-vous with Hélène, Pauline, Benjamin, Adrian et Jeanne, some friends of ours that had come from France, we were forced to pass through pretty quickly. As a result, we saw only Macedonia from its streets, but after all spending a year going back and forth in a car across the globe forces us to make certain choices and compromises.

At the Greek border, the patrolmen check our passports, tap the gasoline dispensers to know whether they’re full or empty, and ask us the usual questions.

“Cigarettes? Alcohol?

With great serenity, Matthieu responds “No sir, nothing to declare”, while a big bottle of champagne, a gift from a friend to celebrate our first stop in Istanbul, lies behind the two car seats.

“Open the car!”

“Yes no problem!”

 

At the sight of our hiking shoes, torn chip bags, pillows, water canteens, camping mats, and folding chairs, the patrolman – as usual – sighs and casually says the saving word, “Okay!”

The passage between borders is always a unique experience by its very nature. Even if we have done nothing wrong, we are constantly either impatient or apprehensive, because we are never safe from a scrupulous patrolman. But since the beginning of our journey, we have benefitted from some goodwill on the part of the forces of order, mainly due to our car. It is easier for a police or patrolman to be indulgent towards two young men in a 4L, carrying spare tires on the roof, than someone who rolls up in a 4×4 with tinted windows.

After a few more driving shifts, we reached Thessaloniki, in northern Greece. When we stopped for lunch, we each exclaimed, “It’s got the feel of the South!” And it was true, we had passed the cape, the climate had become Mediterranean and there was the familiar smell of pine in the air. On the road, we witnessed with our own eyes the economic state of Greece, which we had previously only read about in the papers. We were shocked and almost horrified by the number of abandoned factories overrun with weeds and sporting broken windows, and the multitude of closed, empty storefronts. We passed hundreds of these.

Our arrival in Istanbul was torture. We knew that to enter the biggest city in Europe by car would take a long time, and we weren’t disappointed! Two whole hours stopped in bumper-to-bumper traffic were necessary to finally pass the threshold of the little apartment we rented for five days. To pass the time, we even started a conversation with the neighboring car! The apartment was situated within the city walls, but not inside the historical heart, good news for us because we were really in a true Turkish neighborhood, apart from the expensive tourist shopping and restaurants. We used our stay in Istanbul to take apart, rebuild, and repaint the roof rack with grey antirust, fix the rips in our clothes and bags, buy some extra supplies, but also to visit the city backwards and forwards! Since our friend Adrian has lived in the city for 6 months, he brought us to the best little spots: the fish market where we ate delicious sandwiches, the café with the breath-taking view of the Bosphorus… Of course we also visited the unavoidable Saint Sophie, Blue Mosque, Galata tower, Topkapi palace and the Harem. We regaled ourselves with kebabs, pressed juice, and other Turkish specialties, even getting a taste of Istanbul’s nightlife by going out in the neighborhood of Taksim square where there are hopping clubs, bars and roof-tops galore!

Because all good things must come to an end, after this short week we went back to our routine – as crazy as it may seem – to drive to the ends of the earth! The crossing of the bridge above the Bosphorus that link Europe and Asia was a great moment!

Our second stop in Turkey was Cappadocia. The region, famous for its erosion-sculpted rock and troglodytic houses, offered spectacular views. Nevertheless, a little more freedom in our visit of it and less tourists, of which we were unfortunately a part of, would have been appreciated. Following the advice of five Turks, sprawled on a big couch and sipping çay, the Turkish tea, we admired the sunset from a big hill while talking about Turkey, Iran, and tourism, the activity off of which almost everybody in the region primarily makes a living: hotels, guides, hot air balloons, restaurants, souvenir shops… We ended our exploration of the area with a visit of the underground city of Kaymakli, where the Christian byzantine minorities took refuge during the VI and VII centuries to avoid persecution by the Persian and Arabian armies. We were stunned to learn that these populations of over 3,000 people lived underground with their animals!

Our last few nights were spent camping, when we lit our first campfires to warm up because the temperature dropped at nightfall! Unfortunately, our stove broke down and we ate cold dinners, but not to worry we’ve got a good start on fixing it. After crossing central Anatolia we headed towards Trabzon, a little provincial city on the edge of the Black Sea. If the Iranian consulate in the city didn’t authorize visas for Iran during the day, Trabzon wouldn’t be worth the detour. The city is mainly famous for its trading port, but beyond that there isn’t much to see or do. We got a hold of our visas six hours after giving them our photo IDs and fingerprints, a process that would have taken at least 2 weeks in Paris. To reach Iran, we chose to go by the northeastern Anatolian roads, near Georgia and Armenia. The arid, mountainous vistas remind us of those that we crossed beforehand, and we have traveled through a dozen passes, one of which was 2,470 meters high! When we returned to the plains, we passed strange police cars. We realized by the second one we saw that they were actually fake police cars designed to slow down drivers. Ten minutes later, the police stopped us, for real this time. It was the strangest police checkpoint in the history of checkpoints. We were asked to stop and refresh ourselves! The policeman even shared his tangerine with us! In this childlike atmosphere we amused ourselves by doing traffic control with them and advising them on which cars to pull over! We then continued laughingly on our way.

Since we left Cappadocia, our trip has taken a new turn. Indeed, we have left the touristic, developed regions for more authentic ones like the steppes of the northeastern part of the country; it’s invigorating to start our route through the less traveled regions! We are completely taken with Turkey. The Turks are adorable; we had only pleasant encounters and exchanges with open, helpful people. We will be in Iran tomorrow. Each day we inch further away from France, but at the same time we are also getting closer it. We’re on our way!

Nicolas & Matthieu

 

Click to see all our photos from Turkey on our Flickr gallery

 
 

L’Iran, pays de paradoxes

Derniers coups d’œil au mont Ararat, splendide roc de 5165 mètres érigé au milieu d’une grande plaine et coiffé d’un manteau neigeux éclatant, et nous quittions Doğubeyazıt en Turquie, à la fois excités et impatients d’entrer enfin dans le pays qui n’existait à ce moment que dans nos esprits et dans notre Lonely Planet : l’Iran! Plus de sept kilomètres avant la frontière nous avons aperçu une file de camions immense que l’on a doublée sans scrupules à vive allure. Nous apprenons plus tard que les camions ne peuvent en fait passer la frontière que le soir et pendant la nuit et comprenons donc mieux pourquoi certains chauffeurs s’étaient installés au pied de leurs véhicules sur un plaid autour d’un thé. Après quelques heures d’échanges des passeports, des papiers de la voiture et du carnet de passage en douane (document indispensable pour exporter la voiture au delà de l’Europe) nous avons enfin été autorisés à franchir l’immense barrière qui sépare la Turquie et l’Iran! Nicolas est passé avec la voiture et Matthieu à pied pour faire les formalités. Encore une fois la fouille de la voiture a été plus qu’efficace. De nombreux rabatteurs sont toutefois venus troubler notre passage – «My friend, I’m here for you» – en essayant de nous échanger de l’argent ou de nous vendre une assurance, mais nous les avons tous repoussés avec diplomatie.

De la frontière à Téhéran, nous avons emprunté une partie de la fameuse Route de la Soie qui relie l’Orient à l’Occident depuis des millénaires, un classique des tours du monde. Puis nous sommes descendus vers le sud en faisant escale dans des lieux mythiques tels que Isfahan, Yazd ou Persepolis. Nous avons même campé dans un oasis en plein désert. Une parenthèse luxuriante de vie perdue dans des centaines de kilomètres de terres arides où nous avons pu découvrir la vie d’un village installé depuis des millénaires et entendre des loups hurler très près de notre tente! Ce petit jardin d’Éden restera un de nos meilleurs souvenirs d’Iran.

«Vous allez en Iran?! Mais c’est dangereux, vous êtes sûrs que ça passe?»

Nous avons entendu cette phrase maintes fois pendant des mois. Nous avons découvert au fur et à mesure que nous nous sommes aventurés dans le pays qu’il y avait un monde entre le gouvernement iranien et les gens que nous avons rencontré – entre ce que l’on peut entendre dans les médias et la réalité du pays. Les Iraniens ont la culture de l’accueil et de l’hospitalité poussée à son paroxysme. Nous l’avons constatée dès le premier jour lorsqu’une famille nous a naturellement invité à dîner et à dormir chez elle après une courte conversation. Il est fréquent que nous dînions ou prenions le thé chez des Iraniens qui sont ravis de nous recevoir et qui font tout pour nous satisfaire. Par ailleurs, nombreux sont les passants à nous indiquer avec plaisir notre chemin ou les endroits à voir dans les villes que nous traversons. L’habitude qu’ils ont à faire passer les besoins de leurs hôtes avant les leurs nous ébahi toujours. Cette hospitalité est parfois presque gênante et il nous est arrivé au cours d’une discussion, de ne pas avoir l’opportunité de refuser une invitation. Alors que nous restions évasifs sur notre programme du soir même, le rendez-vous avait été unilatéralement fixé et nous devions appeler nos nouveaux amis à 20h30 pour les retrouver!

Depuis la révolution islamique de 1979, le pouvoir chiite occupe une part prépondérante dans le paysage politique iranien. Il est assez facile de faire parler les Iraniens sur leur gouvernement et nous avons entendu à plusieurs reprises le fait que le pouvoir politique est en réalité une marionnette dirigée par la classe religieuse – un système assimilé par certains à une véritable dictature. Ce pouvoir a ainsi interdit la consommation d’alcool, le port du short et obligé les femmes à porter un voile en public. Ces lois sont approuvées et encouragées par une minorité religieuse plutôt rurale, mais pour la jeune génération des grandes villes telles que Téhéran, Tabriz ou Isfahan elles sont absurdes, même si elles sont intégrées et font partie de la vie. Cette génération observe donc ces règles mais les contourne, ainsi la censure sur internet (Facebook, Twitter, YouTube…) n’est qu’une façade et tout le monde peut y accéder facilement. Certains jeunes se retrouvent chez eux pour boire de l’alcool provenant d’Irak ou de Turquie et nous avons même entendu parler de bars secrets à Téhéran où la condition pour y entrer est de connaître un mot de passe! Une certaine part de la population qui a connu la vie avant 1979 se comporte comme ces jeunes et continue de consommer de l’alcool «en cachette». Enfin des clips de chanteuses américaines très peu habillées défilent en boucle sur les télévisions, mais les femmes doivent porter un voile lorsqu’elles sortent et les couples non mariés n’ont pas le droit de se tenir par la main en public, ni d’aller à l’hôtel ou d’avoir de relations sexuelles avant le mariage. Ces contrastes nous marquent et nous laissent toujours un peu perplexes.

Les effets de l’embargo américain et de la situation délicate sur le plan international du pays sont bien perceptibles puisque les marques que nous connaissons tous n’existent pas ici. À quelques exceptions près les voitures sont soit iraniennes, soit ce sont de vieilles Peugeot 405 assemblées dans la région avant l’embargo. McDonald’s n’est pas présent, les grandes chaînes de distribution alimentaire ou vestimentaire non plus, seul Coca Cola a réussi à se faire une petite place! Enfin, nombreux sont les gens à nous confier avec envie qu’ils rêveraient de venir visiter Paris ou de faire leurs études en Europe mais ne peuvent pas obtenir de visa. Malgré cet isolement total et la méfiance des états occidentaux à leurs égards, les Iraniens, victimes de décisions politiques qu’ils n’approuvent pas, sont chaleureux et adorent la France. La question «Comment trouvez vous l’Iran et les Iraniens?» est récurrente et montre bien que les Iraniens souffrent de cette image de pays dangereux.

En Iran les distances sont longues, très longues, et pour la première fois depuis notre départ, nos arrêts quasi-quotidiens aux stations services sont un moment excitant et amusant puisque le plein de 35 litres d’essence coûte ici 180.000 rials, soit la modique somme de 6 euros! Pour relier les villes que nous souhaitions visiter nous avons fait de grandes étapes à travers le désert et roulé sur des routes infiniment longues et droites. Hypnotisés par le point de fuite créé par la route, le ciel et le désert, nous avons roulé comme des dératés dans ces immensités arides et rocailleuses que seuls massifs montagneux et oasis venaient perturber. Nous avons aussi parcouru de nombreux kilomètres dans des basses montagnes où les villageois cultivent la pastèque, la tomate et la betterave et élèvent chèvres, moutons et bovins. Nous sommes conquis par ces villages ou certaines rues sont trop étroites pour qu’une voiture puisse passer et où les maisons sont faites d’un mélange de terre et de paille, ainsi que par les mosquées grandioses décorées de mosaïques bleues et jaunes, plus belles les unes que les autres.

L’Iran est un pays fantastique, il mérite bien un voyage à lui tout seul! Sa position géographique centrale sur la Route de la Soie en fait un endroit fascinant. Des Hommes sont établis ici depuis toujours et de grands Empires se sont disputés ses terres. Le peuple iranien est accueillant, sympathique, drôle et fier de son pays. Mais le pouvoir – à contre courant – continue de donner à l’Iran une mauvaise réputation et l’enfonce encore plus dans des crises géopolitiques et économiques qu’il subit déjà. Même l’élection en juin  dernier du président Hassan Rouhani, pourtant progressiste, ne semble pas satisfaire une partie de la population. D’après les nombreuses conversations que nous avons pu avoir, il semblerait que tant que le pouvoir religieux aura une telle importance, les choses n’iront malheureusement pas en s’améliorant.

Avec les conseils glanés sur notre route, nous avons pris la décision raisonnable de ne plus passer par le Pakistan pour rejoindre l’Inde. Les récents attentats dans le nord du pays et l’insécurité grandissante dans la région du Baloutchistan nous ont contraint à contre-cœur de nous dérouter par les Émirats arabes unis. Nous partirons donc demain pour Bandar Abbas, tout au sud de l’Iran afin de rejoindre Dubaï en ferry où nous prendrons quelques jours pour organiser l’envoi par cargo de notre voiture en container à Bombay. De notre côté nous prendrons un avion pour récupérer la 4L en Inde et nous nous lancerons sur les routes d’un nouveau pays, en espérant que le transfert ne soit pas trop long! Inch’ Allah!

Nicolas & Matthieu

 

Click to see all our photos from Iran on our Flickr gallery

 
 
Dubai, the power of money

The last fourteen days that we spent in the Middle East were a turning point in our crazy journey. After crossing the Hormuz strait by boat to reach the United Arab Emirates, we spent most of our time organizing the transportation of the 4L by container to India, resting in Dubai, and visiting the Sultanate of Oman.

Before rejoining the Arabian Peninsula, we left the Iranians well, experiencing for the umpteenth time their unique sense of hospitality, which still awes us. While we were searching for a place to pitch our tent a little way off the road among fields of pomegranates, Nicolas approached an old man to mime our intention with extravagant gestures. Many mischievous smiles and glances were exchanged before our query was understood. It was then that this peasant, face creased by the sun and hands calloused from working the earth, told us to follow him. Three in the 4L, on an old, rutted path, our host guided us to his home. We rapidly understood that we were both invited to have some tea, dine, and rest there for the night. This was followed by the parade of all his family members, friends, and neighbors, through the living room. Like most houses in Iran, our host’s was spacious, empty rooms covered with thick carpets for guests to sit down together and share a cup of tea, a hookah, or a meal. We were somehow able de have numerous exchanges with our new friends in halting English, and were treated like kings. One of the cousins even brought us a to a traditional marital celebration. To the sound of a flute and the rhythm of drums, two men faced down in a dance with wooden staffs. One of them had to defend himself by parrying the one and only hit his opponent was allowed before they switched roles. The exclusively male audience circled the two combatants in palpable euphoria. Basically, we concluded our time among the Persians with joy, tranquility, and generosity.

We reached the city of Bandar Abbas on the Persian Gulf after two days’ trip through the desert. At 44°C in the shade and highs at 57°C during the summer, the atmosphere was suffocating. Boiling with impatience to leave that hell, early in the morning we rushed to the port to take the ferry towards Sharjah to the United Arab Emirates. Fifteen hours passed since the start of our efforts until the boat cast off. An infernal day of confusion, waiting, and trips back and forth between various bureaux, borders, immigration, the police, and the printer, seems to be the usual procedure for whoever wants to cross the Hormuz strait with their vehicle. We had a good – mercifully air-conditioned – night on the boat. At the landing dock, the formalities to leave the no-man’s-land with our car were tiresome, but by approaching every setback with patience and equanimity, after a few hours we finally obtained a “Gate pass” between our hands and were off to tackle a new country and a new city: Dubai!

Opulence, dementia and extravagance are all adjectives that describe Dubai. Built on rolling sands in an arid desert less than forty years ago, dizzying towers like the Buri Khalifa (highest in the world) sprouted up like mushrooms. The existence of this ultra-modern phenomenon in such a hostile environment left us perplexed. People don’t walk in the streets in Dubai because it’s too hot. The main attraction is shopping malls – huge air-conditioned malls – that are true temples of consumerism where opulence meets extravagance, with a huge aquarium in the heart of the Mall of Dubai, and an artificial ski run in the Mall of Emirates. Culture through museums and historical monuments is inexistent in a patchwork city that has no soul, and so in our humble opinion, the attraction it holds for tourists is but limited. But regardless, the city is toured a lot and numerous are the five-star hotel, 4×4 limousine, artificial island adepts. This manifestation of the power of money, though, would never have come to light without the Indian, Pakistani, and African laborers, paid 150 Euros a month, a half-dozen crammed in each non-air-conditioned room of the city dormitories.  But behind these somewhat critical comments on Dubai, we were really enchanted to discover a universe so different from those we have traversed these last two months and our stay would have been less pleasant without the hospitality of expatriate friends that kindly housed us. We easily able to organize the shipping of a twenty-foot-long container to Mumbai containing our car! The formalities at the port were so complex that an employee of our maritime transporter took care of it for us, condensing the long, several-day process into six hours!

Since the cargo will take about a week to reach the east coast of India, we took advantage of the time to briefly visit the Sultanate of Oman before taking a plan to Mumbai. After taking a bus to the capital, Mascate, we tried, for the first time since our departure, couchsurfing – a community network of travelers and locals that offer their couches to host visitors. We met several Omanis that way and discovered the capital “from the inside”, like when we visited the fish market at the break of dawn, an experience that will remain a treasured memory of Mascate. We left on our own to visit the city of Nizwa, a little inland, that encloses a superb fort and a traditional bazaar. A little country south of Saudi Arabia and east of Yemen, Oman really deserves to be known. The mountain ranges are superb and we would have liked to have more time to discover the country more in depth, go hiking, and – why not? – drive along its back roads. We miss the 4L already.

Nicolas & Matthieu

 

Click to see all our photos from Dubai and Oman on our Flickr gallery

 
 

Incredible India! From Mumbai to Ahmedabad

We landed November 1st in Mumbai and saw with our own eyes everything we had heard about India, a country that invariably impacts its visitors. The contrast with Dubai was striking. The cities were bustling with activity; the streets were a tangle of tuk-tuks, taxis, cars, and porters accompanied by the ever-present sound of car horns. Carving a path through the stalls, cows and ambulant vendors is a difficult task. The sidewalks are living spaces in and of themselves: in some places, entire families sleep, cook, and wash in public. The atmosphere is captivating, and we like to take it all in from the rooftops of the surrounding buildings. The colours are extraordinary, even the poorest women wear resplendent saris. However, we are also shocked by the violence in the country, at the edges of this bubbly life, where misery is obvious, and sometimes absolutely terrifying, leaving us speechless. We never saw as many beggars, cripples, and homeless people as we did then. The sight of kids sleeping in the streets, under bridges or against walls struck us and gives us new hope in the humanitarian aspect of our project.

We arrived in Mumbai full of hope, thinking we would get our car back by Monday November 4th. We were quickly disillusioned and realized we would have to wait a while… Indian administration, for the average European, is perplexing. The concept of time is vastly different, and spending most of the day in a waiting room or arriving an hour late to a meeting seems normal. So we went with the flow and forgot our European behavioural tendencies. In India, there is always a solution, it is only a question of time! Still, we had to hire an agent to take care of formalities at the border. The cargo arrived at the port of Nhava Sheva Sunday the 10th, six days late, and thanks to him we were able to collect the 4L in under 48 hours! Without his help, we would have spent at least 10 days and astronomical sums of bakchich on the border patrolmen. We have already been forced to adjust our schedule because of the late cargo, and we could not afford to spend over a week running around the port from office to office, handing our money to different officers.

We took advantage of these few days off to get used to India and visit Mumbai. With its 18 million residents, it is the largest Indian city and the most modern, while being the main trading power. We strolled through superb markets as well as parks where the national sport, cricket, is played by many youths. The English left behind their heritage, complete with red double-deckers and phone booths, as well as Victorian-style, gothic buildings overrun with vegetation. These were all magnificent and created a singular atmosphere. Most people speak English, which was very helpful to travellers such as us! Even though we loved the city, we started to get bored in the Spartan comfort of our guesthouse, and decided to spend three days in New Delhi, that we would not have otherwise seen. So we took a night train towards India’s capital! New Delhi is even more crowded, congested, and teeming with people than Mumbai. To escape the oppressive atmosphere of downtown, we happily explored peaceful, magnificent sites like the Jamah Masjid mosque, the Red Fort and Humayun’s Tumb, the first draft of the infamous Taj Mahal at Agra. These places are an oasis of calm in an ever-active city.

Back in Mumbai on Monday November 11th, we hit the road with great enthusiasm. Traffic was much better in the morning, and we decided from then on to get up with the sunrise to cover as much ground as we could at the start of the day. Indeed, driving in India is a unique experience. On the major roads, it’s a race of honking horns between slow-moving trucks that amble along regardless of the lane they are in. Pedestrians, motorcycles and animals moving against the flow of traffic are common. In the city, you need to drive aggressively and again use the horn to fray a way through the congestion. The right of way seems to belong to the driver that lays the most on his horn. We adapt to the environment and so behave the same way, sometimes with pleasure! To make matters worse, besides the double-decker, cricket and their language, the English left behind driving on the left side. Driving in these conditions makes constant vigilance necessary along with a passenger that also keeps an eye on the rearview mirrors and blind spots. However, the major roads are of good quality and we manage to cover long distances during a day in this country, five times the size of France.

Our arrival in India marks the beginning of the humanitarian part of our project with the scheduling of our first meeting with micro-entrepreneurs in a little under a month in Calcutta, in Western Bengal. Before our meeting with the micro-entrepreneurs that we support, we want to reiterate what the concept of microcredit is. Elaborated by Muhammad Yunus, this Economy professor of Bangladesh, confronted with rampant misery on a daily basis, realized that people living in extreme poverty needed only a small starting capital to create an activity. But traditional banks refuse to lend money to these people for numerous reasons: sometimes they don’t have identification papers, or are illiterate and so cannot sign contracts. Finally, banks are hesitant to lend money to the most unfortunate because they fear that the capital will never be reimbursed. As a result, the poor could borrow only from people that set interest rates so high that after reimbursement, they barely had enough left to feed themselves and no chance of getting out of the cycle of misery.

After reasoning through this, Muhammad Yunus and his team decided to found Grameen Bank in 1976 – the bank of the poor. It is, in every aspect, the opposite of traditional banks. The personnel travels to residents’ homes, everything is done orally, there is no deposit, the reimbursement of loans is done on a weekly basis, and finally each project is carefully thought out and regularly monitored by the employees of the Grameen Bank. The borrowers are for the main part women, and experience has indeed shown that they are more responsible and more likely to make the start-up loan come to fruition. These women are the poorest of the poor and their activities are of either the commercial, craft or agricultural order. The success of microcredit relies also on group solidarity: women borrow money in groups of four or five at a time and are responsible for each other. Beyond being a powerful tool for developing economies, microcredit has enabled the emancipation of numerous female communities. It is then that the entirety of society is ameliorated: kids can go to school, families can buy homes, live healthy lives, and build lavatories. Communities, as a result, flower.

The Grameen Bank is a social bank, which means that interest is used exclusively to cover the costs of operation and to help the 3% of borrowers unable to pay back their loans (the rate of recovery is estimated to be around 97%). With this in mind, we have teamed up with two microfinance companies (MFI) that work the same way: Entrepreneurs du Monde and Babyloan. Today, microcredit represents 154 million borrowers and over 10000 microfinance organizations for an outstanding amount of loans that total about 65 billion dollars. Microfinance institutions are present in numerous countries, in the Southern Hemisphere but also in the North, like in the United States, Canada, or France for example. During our tour around the world in the 4L, we will meet the micro-entrepreneurs that we support in India, Cambodia, Vietnam, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Peru, Ecuador, Senegal and Morocco, and publish our findings. Stay tuned!

Nicolas & Matthieu

Sources : Our partner, the Grameen Microfinance Foundation of the Crédit Agricole, Banker to the Poor, The Story of Grameen Bank, Muhammad Yunus (Aurum Press Ltd; 2003).

 

Click to see all our photos from India on our Flickr gallery

 
 

India and Nepal, 15000 kilometers!

We have arrived in Calcutta after 92 days on the road and over 9000 miles through 16 European and Asian countries! Mother Teresa’s city is the Asian finish line for the 4L since we cannot traverse Burma by land and it is impossible to enter Vietnam in a vehicle that has French plates. Faced with these challenges, we decided, in an effort to save time and money, to send our 4L by cargo from Calcutta to San Francisco. So we will travel by plane to South-East Asia to meet the micro-entrepreneurs that we support and hold our conferences on microcredit, in partnership with the French Agency for Development in Cambodia and Vietnam. From the west coast of the United States we will head south towards the Andes.

The delay incurred from shipping the car from Dubai to Bombay unfortunately forced us to hit the accelerator through the old English colony. The roads are dangerous here, and the use of rearview mirrors nonexistent. Not a day passed that we weren’t forced to slam on the brakes because of a truck blindly cutting us off, a cow crossing the road head down, or the road becoming a field of potholes… The behavior of Indian drivers goes beyond anything we can imagine in France and use of the horn is valued over that of the brakes. It is, for example, perfectly normal for a 33-ton TATA truck to go 30 miles/h against the flow of traffic on the “freeway” and claim that he is well within his right to do so as he repeatedly signals with his headlights and lays furiously on the horn — comparable to a fireman’s siren. However, as strange as this may seem, we didn’t have the impression that we were stuck behind the wheel a lot. We switched off driving duty regularly and it was funny how we seemed to change precisely at the moment the other was ready to take the wheel! Since India is a left-hand traffic country, you definitely need a copilot, which will guide you through  lane changing, and passing cars — one have to drive assertively and efficiently while watching out for pedestrians, bicyclists, and animals. Moreover, many people have asked us if our team functions well and if we can still stand each other. Our friendship has lasted over 14 years and never leads us astray. So we can honestly say that our complementary personalities allow us to adapt to any situation and our capacity to get along enables us to confront setbacks with a smile. As for the 4L, she’s starting to fail. But what would be our tour around the world without a few mechanical failures to report? In Nepal, we broke the right arm of the suspension. Welding a big piece of metal to it seemed to do the trick and we hope it will last for a long time. The body of the car sustained its first scratches when a biker, rolling in the middle of a blind turn, didn’t have time to get completely out of the way and skinned the right front passenger door. Finally, a 4×4 intentionally misjudged the distance he needed to brake and bring the car to a stop and rear-ended us. He was annoyed that we hadn’t pulled over in a ditch so that he could pass us after two and a half minutes of uninterrupted honking. Fortunately, it was more fright than harm.

Beyond these driving inconveniences, India is a strange paradox. The wonders of Rajasthan with the pink walls of Jaipur, the palaces and temples of Udaipur are some of the most beautiful cities we have visited since our departure. Like many travellers, we were amazed by the symmetry, balance in proportion, and architectural beauty of the Taj Mahal in Agra. We had a hard time tearing our eyes away from the monument and visited it several times before leaving last. These peaceful Indian jewels that breathe serenity contrast, in every way, with the foul landfills, tobacco chewing spits and the cities clogged by people and vehicles. The “go with the flow” attitude of some Indians still leaves us perplexed, along with an insistent honking at red lights that blow out your eardrums and are sometimes reminiscent of primal behavior — a sensation, granted, probably exacerbated by our weariness, intensified by 12 or 13 hours on the road… Since we’ve been in India we haven’t camped. The presence of a stranger in the countryside attracts too many curious souls. Indeed, it’s happened to us to eat in a little town with over 60 people standing over us, silently observing us as we ate a spicy dish, scrutinizing our every move. Likewise, checking the oil level in plain sight in the road can quickly turn into a riot. So we left our tent, table, and folding chairs in the trunk and instead opted for little guesthouses. We can both spend the night for 4 euros, although for that price, the bathroom is often dirty, small, with no hot water, or consist of a communal bathroom. But we adapt, and tell ourselves that we’re lucky to visit India at this time of year, since during the summer or the monsoon season the living conditions are something else: torrid heat, mosquitoes and torrents of rain. We have gotten used to rising at 5:30am everyday to take advantage of the deserted roads and avoid useless hours stopped in bumper-to-bumper traffic at the cities exit. The sunrise is superb, and the awakening of a city an amazing sight. In the dewy morning, the Indians are covered in large blankets with a scarf wrapped around their head. Some smoke cigarettes rolled in a single tobacco leaf, squatting before pots of boiling tea or around a fire of plastic and cardboard. The early-morning atmosphere is always stunning. We will forever remember a snake-charmer father that raised a cobra in a little basket for us, right before we left the beautiful city of Jaipur and entered the Uttar Pradesh region in northeastern India.

So close to Nepal, we could not bypass the country that had such a big impact on us when we went there two years ago for our humanitarian project with the Scouts and Guides of France. The Nepalese elections disturbed our trip with the border between India and Nepal closed for a few days and no vehicle authorized on the roads on the day of the election, but finally we managed to cross the border the day it reopened. Beyond their more slanted features, we both thought that there was a very clear contrast between the Indians and the Nepalese, with the latter  appearing to us a lot more cheerful, friendly, kind, reliable… We made a first stop in the city of Pokhara in the Annapurnas and a second in Kathmandu. Our second pit stop was laden with memories as we reunited with Lakpa, Lobsang, Kusang, Chhepal and Angsera, our Nepalese friends. These boys constantly surprise us with their humility and humanity and we hold them in high esteem. Our return to the capital of Nepal was also an opportunity for us to once again admire sites that now seemed familiar to us: Boudhanath and the majestic stupa, Durbar Square, Thamel, and the temple of Pasupatinath, a sacred site of cremation where a peculiar atmosphere reigns. We again witnessed the cremation of several bodies, whose feet sometimes stuck out of the pyre. Even though we had seen it before, we were speechless in front of such a spectacle. To return to India, we chose a road as beautiful as it was long, and took more than 10 hours to cover 100 miles through the Himalayas. Enduring the  rugged road with its thick clouds of dust invading the car, our eyes and noses paid the price at the exit of Kathmandu to continue through a breathtaking mountainous landscape.

After three days of intense driving, we reached Calcutta, the cultural capital of India in West Bengal, not without difficulty. The potholed dirt roads and poor quality gasoline got the best of the left-arm transmission, and of the 4L small 34horses engine. A second stop at a garage was again necessary for another welding job, and trying to solve the carburettor issues. Three mechanics worked on our 4L, but their labor was guided by instinct and seemed more like craft-like than mechanical. Indeed, once in Calcutta, we realized that our rear brakes had not been properly put back and that the gas line had been damaged. So we spent our time making these small repairs, preparing the shipment of the 4L, and volunteering for a half-day at a Mother Teresa center, at the bedside of hundreds of ill people. There are many volunteers there and it was a striking experience to so closely rub shoulders with misery. We are very impatient and interested to meet, starting tomorrow, the actors and beneficiaries of microcredit and will return with different success stories and the explanation of how a microfinance institution (MFI) works in our next travel log. Our microfinance partner in France, Entrepreneurs du Monde, works closely with the Indian IMF, NCRC, where Aurelie works, and whom we will shadow all week on her different missions. We will collect reimbursements daily from members in different neighborhoods, witness education programs about debt, managing a small business, or even health, and monitor the proper use of loans… Our time will be split between meetings in the field in the neighborhoods and slums of Calcutta and at the NCRC agency with various officials. We’re excited to finally see what lies ahead!

Nicolas & Matthieu

 

Click to see all our photos from India on our Flickr gallery

Click to see all our photos from Nepal on our Flickr gallery