Isn’t it fun when we finally have the time, and sometimes the means, to see more of the world than our busy lives ever permitted before now? That’s what baby boomer and communications specialist Larry Checco of Silver Spring, Maryland, has just done. Check one area off the bucket list.

At age 68, I’m making a concerted effort to get through my bucket list. But one box that I will never be able to completely check off is “Travel to places you’ve never been.”

So when the opportunity presented itself to join a cultural exchange program to Central Asia — Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, to be exact, two countries most people can’t locate on a map (including me, prior to the trip) — it was a no-brainer.

Larry in a selfie with a host family member in Kyrgyzstan

Larry (right) in a selfie with a host family member in Kyrgyzstan

Organized by the Rumi Forum, whose mission is to foster interfaith and intercultural dialogue, the one-week trip was divided between Kazakhstan’s former capital, Almaty, and Kyrgyzstan’s current capital, Bishkek.

The trip could hardly be considered a vacation. Our group of eight comprised mostly accomplished academics plus me, someone with no acknowledged faith or academic credentials— except for an insatiable curiosity. No surprise, the Forum arranged a multitude of meetings with executives of human service nonprofits, better known overseas as NGOs (nongovernmental organizations), university presidents, school administrators, politicians, journalists, and academicians.

We even got to sit in on a session of Kyrgyzstan’s national parliament, the equivalent of our Congress, for a short period of time, where we were recognized by the chair, asked to stand, and were applauded by its members. Quite a surprise, as well as an honor.

The Gang of Eight plus one of our Kazakh guides and his son.

The Gang of Eight plus one of our Kazakh guides and his son.

Both Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan are former Soviet Socialist Republics which, in 1991, gained their independence after the Soviet Union fell apart and are now attempting to find their identities as independent countries. No easy task after 70 years of Soviet domination, especially for nations where people speak not only their native languages (Kazakh or Kyrgyz), but also Russian and Turkic (there is a large Diaspora of Turks in both countries), as well as English, which is taught in many schools.

Over seemingly endless cups of tea and dinners with wonderfully hospitable and generous Kazakh, Kyrgyz, and Turkish families, we learned about the obstacles these countries face with issues like education, health, their economies, corruption, national security, and more.

Being majority Muslim countries (70-percent in Kazakhstan, more than 85-percent in Kyrgyzstan), both are concerned about radicalization. Unfortunately, the day after we left for home, there was an incident in northern Kazakhstan, far from where we visited in the country’s south, in which several citizens were killed by “suspected Islamist militants.”

Larry beside a yurt.

Larry beside a yurt.

However, as an aging boomer, the more I see and learn of the world, the more I understand that the overwhelming majority of people, wherever they may live, simply want to raise their families in peace. All they are asking for is what we all are asking for, namely, political stability; freedom to speak and assemble openly; healthy, fair, corruption-free economies; opportunities to educate themselves and their children to get ahead; and a safe, warm home to take their rest at day’s end. Now, why is that so difficult — even in our own country?

It was a wonderful, education-rich adventure. Rashid, our fearless leader, provided many insights — and laughs — the entire trip. The rest of the great group of people I traveled with accepted me for who I am, which, when you come to think of it, is really the universal secret for a better world. It’s also one of my boomer values.

Larry Checco © 2016

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