AMA #7: Did You Want to Integrate?

Today, I am answering Deputy Chris Blin, who asks the following:

Did you want to stay longer in any of the places to the point of integrating more in their community and society?

An interesting question.

It could be a one word answer, because, frankly, after visiting four continents and three dozen countries in my short life, I am 99% certain there is nowhere in the world I could bare to live and root myself securely, other than Guernsey.

I lived in England long enough to develop a general dislike of the place, a feeling that has been redoubled now that its spectacularly authoritarian and baldly moneymaking public-private government has forcibly confined me, at my own expense, for 10 days, despite showing no coronavirus symptoms and having had two negative PCR tests.

However, I can happily hash out what is attractive about the countries I’ve visited, in terms of prospective integration, what makes me prefer one to the other in that respect, and what the gentle reader might find interesting and relevant if thinking of emigrating and integrating – at least hypothetically.

I spent the vast majority of my time with locals and ex-pats in each country, with whose hospitality I was blessed, and with whose friendship I remain blessed. Though I did meet and travel with a few fellow travellers along the way, that time was almost always shared jointly with locals, too.

I used CouchSurfing.

I hitchhiked.

I was embedded in and learning from these societies in a way that the standard tourist isn’t, generally; certainly if said tourist stays at a hotel, eats at restaurants, and only visits the pretty places with approved tour guides.

I state this simply, as a fact, not a pejorative statement.

There is nothing snooty and glamorous about constantly leaning on peoples’ goodwill, sleeping on floors, camping in harsh weather, and so on.

This way of travelling does build some idea of what it is like to live in these places, though, both as a local and as an ex-pat. Especially as I tend to speak to a lot of people, from all strata of society. In my old man’s words, “You’d speak to the devil, you would.”

Let’s whizz through each country and I’ll give you some of my thoughts on each.


The Author and the late vigorous Oleg survived a passing storm at Son Kul

Kyrgyzstan is a fantastically unstable place, a beautifully wild one.

I met a young Spaniard married to a Kyrgyz lady, who runs a bar in Bishkek and teaches world history at an English school.

That was a theme, English teaching. They are crying out for people to teach English in Kyrgyzstan, especially native speakers. They are crying out for English teachers throughout the third-world, for that matter.

If you want to earn decent money whilst living in a wild and beautiful country, go teach some English in Kyrgyzstan. You need the barest education and little qualification to do so.

I met Klaus, a German, another bar-owner in Bishkek. I asked him why he emigrated.

Klaus had less than flattering things to say about German domestic policy decision over the last half-decade, and describes his hometown as ‘no longer German.’

Klaus also despised the rigorous commercial regulation of Germany, which he found intrusive and obstructive to doing business.

Presently I am reading that late firecracker of a personality, Anthony Bourdain:

You must be fluent in the Kabbala-like intricacies of health codes, tax law, fire department regulations, environmental protection laws, building code, occupational safety and health regs, fair hiring practices, zoning, insurance, the vagaries and back-alley back-scratching of liquor licenses, the netherworld of trash removal, linen, grease disposal.

Anthony Bourdain, Kitchen Confidential

These legal obligations and their concomitant responsibilities and stresses are almost non-existent in Kyrgyzstan.

Sure, utilities barely function, the country is an open garbage heap in places, and the authorities are corrupt and ineffectual.

But Klaus can whittle down Bourdain’s list to simply paying squeeze and protection money to the police and security, after which he can trade and profit and employ as he pleases.

Another theme was United Nations jobs.

The UN has a big presence in Kyrgyzstan. It is a country which shows little to no regard for its environment, has undeveloped infrastructure and education, and still-surviving medieval practices like bride-kidnapping.

Kyrgyzstan hardly has prime conditions for big business, which seeks stable markets in which to set up shop. There aren’t ‘big names’ about, nor crowds of ex-pats moving over.

There was unrest last year, which many refer to as a revolution, during which protestors stormed Bishkek’s White House, setting it on fire.

Something I liked about Kyrgyzstan, something intriguing and exciting about the place that puts it in sharp contrast to many other countries I visited, is that its government is wary and afraid of its people, more than the other way around.

Indeed, this is exciting, but only as a two-month tourist to the place. Decidedly not as an emigrant, I dare say.

The people, though, I found to be very hospitable.

Properly hospitable, in a raw and real way.

Hospitality was and often remains the mutual means of survival here, not just something nice you do to entertain and put credit into your social account.

My friend Oleg and I hitchhiked to Son Kul, a remote, mountain-cupped lake of epic beauty.

As we arrived, a squall whipped across the plain, for which we were totally unprepared, wearing just our jumpers.

Some yurt-dwelling Kyrgyz kindly called us over, offering us shelter in one of their yurts for the duration of the storm.

Oleg and I had nowhere to stay, and just 500 soms left to our names, less than a fiver. These kind people offered us to stay in this large yurt and eat with them for this small sum of money.

Instead, Oleg and I spent it on the cheap vodka being bootlegged by a neighbouring yurt encampment, and ended up staying in a tiny two-man tent with an ex-convict fisherman instead. Another story for another time.

When I first arrived in Bishkek, I made for the mountains I could see overawing the city from the south. Without speaking any Russian or making due preparation, I was kindly helped along by two Kyrgyz sisters, who became my Kyrgyz mothers, with whom I stayed for many weeks. They cooked for me and they cared for me when I fell ill. Hearts of gold, both.

I mention these two tidbits hoping to illustrate Kyrgyz hospitality, and why I wanted to stay longer – which I did, for more than 2 months in total.

Most young people I spoke to want to leave Kyrgyzstan for Europe or Dubai.


The architectural history of Uzbekistan still stands strong

Uzbekistan is the opposite of Kyrgyzstan in many respects, I found.

Kyrgyzstan has the jaw-dropping nature and the wildness to it, but not much in the way of architecture or tangible history.

Uzbekistan has medieval Silk Road structures that rendered me speechless, other-worldly portals seeming to erupt from beneath the Uzbek sands, the only manmade structures I’ve seen on a par with the Roman temples in Lebanon. Nature-wise, though, nothing there approached Kyrgyzstan’s beauty and variety.

Uzbek hospitality, though different in character to the Kyrgyz, was no less kind and considerate. It also involved far tastier food.

I mentioned the way in which Kyrgyzstan’s government are wary of Kyrgyz people.

Uzbek people are wary and fearful of the government of Uzbekistan, justly so.

Uzbekistan is a poor, very conservative, and very, very corrupt country.

Though it has opened up since 2016, after the death of its president Islam Karimov who ruled for a quarter-century, it is by no means attractive to business or ex-pats. Yet – I add, optimistically.

My Uzbek host Zoha informed me that the Karimov regime gunned down hundreds of unarmed civilian protestors in 2005 on the streets of Andijan.

Torture was commonplace.

Governance was affected by way of fear, and still is, to a lesser degree.

(My Kyrgyz Mums respected Karimov because they believe the strongman prevented Uzbekistan from becoming another Afghanistan. They tell me many Uzbek Islamists left their country to contribute to the Jihad fought from Afghanistan and Pakistan.)

Uzbekistan seems, from my unqualified standpoint, to be in a weird purgatory. It is trying to grow out of its Soviet and police state paradigms, and its society reasserts its identity in the only way it knows, by becoming more Islamic and more conservative.

This reassertion, though, is sharply opposed to its younger generation’s aspiration to remain secular like the Soviets whilst becoming more free like the West.

My Uzbek friend says, “I think the Soviet times were the best times for my country.”

It’s cheap in Uzbekistan, if there are any adventurous remote workers interested.

The currency is kind of laughable – if you have a dark sense of humour.

Locals can be seen thumbing through fat rolls of bills just to pay for basic essentials.

I became an Uzbek millionaire!

Quite quickly and easily, actually, for I only needed to withdraw the equivalent of £67.

I stayed for 3 weeks, and could have stayed longer, because I met such beautiful and friendly people. I made many friends in Uzbekistan who will remain friends for life.

Most young people I spoke to want to leave Uzbekistan for Europe.

Iraqi Kurdistan

The Author with his adoptive cousin Ayar to the right and Ayar’s father and uncle to the left

Iraqi Kurdistan is a strange and glorious bastion of stability in a country that has seen little of it throughout past decades.

With an ocean of black gold swimming underneath its scorched sands, the country naturally attracts ex-pat workers, like bees to honey.

In Erbil, I saw and overheard many English and American workers there, whizzing through shops and speaking to waiters as they would in London or New York, hardly the time to say hello or pretend to be interested in a human being outside their domain of business.

There are interesting flavours to Erbil, which has a sizeable Christian district, and another interesting district one wouldn’t dare denominate as religious at all – which I mention in this article about LGBTQ experience in Iraqi Kurdistan and elsewhere.

Remote workers aren’t to be found here.

There are a quite a few foreign restauranteurs, and even a tattoo parlour run by a German and Romanian, who introduced me to Erbil nightlife, to my great expense.

Outside of Erbil, Kurdistan is a different beast. More wild. More welcoming.

I will be publishing a longer answer about Kurdistan and Kurdish people in due course, but suffice it to say, that Kurdish people are gloriously hospitable, and the nature astoundingly beautiful.

I stayed for two weeks, the shortest amount of time I stayed in any of my destinations – apart from my current stint in the UK, fingers crossed!

I did not want to stay longer.

I learned a lot and made friends for life here – some of whom shall be visiting Guernsey in the near future, as it happens! – and that was enough for me.

The 45 degree heat killed me and after that trip I felt tired.

Though, I must say, I would definitely entertain a return trip.

Notably, most of the young people I met had no intention of emigrating, though I met one Kurdish immigrant revisiting his homeland. He will visit Guernsey soon, Inshallah.


Full moon in Istanbul

I offended a Lebanese friend when, flying from Beirut to Istanbul, I expressed some relief at ‘returning to civilisation.’

“So Lebanon isn’t civilised?!”

She is an activist, by the way, and is the first to complain about the lack of basic essentials in Lebanon, like electricity and water and fuel and medicine.

Turkey, I think, and have argued with one Turkish friend, is not a third-world country.

It is a state descended from a proud empire and civilisation.

Its de facto capital Istanbul – Ankara de jure – has the best public transportation I have used, the only exceptions being a couple of Western European countries. It puts UK transport to shame, in terms of cost and quality.

Turks are law-abiding and educated; a civilised and proud people.

But Turkey is, in general metaphorical terms, and in an all-too-real sense, unstable.

Erdogan, though respected for what he initially did for Turkey, is derided for his policy and increasing authoritarianism over the last decade.

I cannot recall one person saying favourable things about the guy in Lebanon or Iraq or Turkey. Quite the opposite, in fact.

This is the kind of guy, remember, who will not only remain on effectively neutral terms with Daesh, but actively finance them by buying the oil they appropriated in Iraq and Syria.

Turkey, I said, is unstable in a very real sense, too.

My friend Cansu moved out of Istanbul, as quite a few of its tens of millions of inhabitants are now doing, knowing that there is a catastrophic earthquake due any year now.

Cansu tells me this unsettling fact when we are in Izmir, overlooking a wonky building, which was almost toppled by an earthquake that occurred just a couple of years ago.

The currency is crashing.

Most of the young people I spoke to want to leave Turkey for Europe.


Such unaffected artistic scenes are to be found throughout Tbilisi

Georgia is the society into which I would most like to integrate, by some margin – hypothetically, at least.

Georgia is also the society into which I would most successfully integrate, I think.

It is relaxed. Chilled out. Tbilisi, the capital, starts waking up mid-morning. People stop to pet dogs. They have interminable and often boozy lunches. Their clocks work different.

Georgians prize hospitality. I was walking across a bridge in Tbilisi and, falling into conversation with two brothers going in the same direction, I suddenly find myself at their place drinking beer and brandy.

Georgia values highly its history and art, and its culture generally.

It has good food and wine.

It is safe and civilised and reasonably developed.

It has beautiful and easily accessible nature.

It is Christian, not Muslim.

I met a few remote workers in Georgia, and they are delighted with the place.

I can think of four off the top of my head, three who arrived just months ago, and want to stay longterm.

For good reason, too.

On top of everything mentioned, Tbilisi and Batumi – the two cities I visited – have comfortable cafes, new shared office spaces, and cheap rent; everything one needs for comfortable remote work.

I stayed for three weeks.

I would have stayed for longer, but I received some bad news during my trip, which I discuss briefly in yesterday’s answer.

Georgian people love their country and culture, and are rightfully proud of it.

The Georgians I met did not want to emigrate.

That is a beautiful, beautiful sentence for me to be able to write.


The symbol of the Lebanese “Revolution”

Lebanon is nothing short of a tragedy.

Tragedy implies some sort of contingency, some bad luck – looking at Lebanese woes people mistakenly point to the Beirut Blast – but the country’s catastrophic decline originated long before the blast, and is being perpetuated by far more cynical causal agents than Lady Luck.

Beirut is a small bastion of ‘functioning’ civility, enough so that you see the odd remote worker in a few of its fancier cafes.

Still, outside of these cafes are beggars, often with children. Often just children.

The electricity would cut out, unannounced, for hours.

These surprise outages happened in addition to the planned outages, made during the day as the buzzing generators were being refuelled or refitted.

There is a ‘medical crisis’ in Lebanon. Cancer patients go untreated. One person I spoke to had to ask their sister to travel home from another country to bring her chlamydia treatment.

I was in Lebanon as the currency crashed, even further and even harder than it already had prior to my arrival.

Literally, I watched the meltdown of the country, live, protests erupting, everybody with money to spare fleeing.

A single dollar equalled 18,000 Lebanese lira when I arrived.

When I left three weeks later, the rate was one dollar to 23,000 lira.

Crime is now, obviously, on the rise.

I found people to be nothing but hospitable and helpful and civilised. Maybe that is Lady Luck, because I received such uplifting warnings as:

  • “Brother. Take care.”
  • “Hitchhiking isn’t safe at allllllll. My man. You gotta calm down a bit. People be shooting each other for a sandwich. Please please be safe and be careful even if it costs u more.”
  • And after I reported to a Lebanese friend that my first few days were quite enjoyable, I received the reply: “U probably havent seen people fighting yet. Or chooting each other.”

My Lebanese brother Sam – glorious young man, trilingual, university educated, formerly working in a comfortable tourism job, now working irregular hours as a driver for a pittance – told me during the ‘revolution’ protests last year, the port explosion occurred, ‘The Beirut Blast’.

Many of those protesting – who weren’t killed or maimed or rendered homeless by the blast – stayed home after the blast.

Why stay on the streets to protest?

Protest for what?

It’s over.


The nail in the country’s coffin.

“There is only so much a people can take,” says one soldier, seeing the desperation in southern Lebanon.

Many predict civil war, a reality and not-so-distant memory for many Lebanese.

Two people in Lebanon, one in Beirut and one in Tripoli, greeted me by saying, “Welcome to hell.”

Many men are immigrating to Liberia – to Liberia – to earn money for their families.

Every single young person I spoke to wanted to leave Lebanon.

And that is a horrid, sad sentence for me to write.

One thought on “AMA #7: Did You Want to Integrate?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: