Ben Shell

December 17, 2013

Where were you – and what did you do – during your PiA experience?

I was in Khon Kaen, Thailand teaching English in 2005-2006, then a member of the first group of PiA fellows in Mongolia, working in microfinance.

Beyond the day jobs, for some reason right now I am reminded of some of the many extreme opposites from my experience: hiking through rainforests and watching hours of terrible TV, painful introspection and amazing food, wild parties and meditation, beaches and frozen tundra, mega-cities and empty steppe. Good times!

Looking back, what was one of the craziest or most interesting experiences you had while on PiA?

On a two-week hike through a remote corner of northern Mongolia accessible only by horse or on foot, we came across a herder’s ger as dusk approached. This herder had passed us two days earlier journeying back to his home. The evening of that day we had experienced the most awesome hail storm of my life. It was the biggest thunderstorm you can imagine combined with baseball-sized hail that lasted half the night. I literally thought the tent might blow away with us in it into the middle of the nearby lake, or lightning would surely strike us as it seemed to be doing everywhere else, or, if I was lucky, some hail would rip through the thin plastic layers protecting us from nature and just knock me out before either of those other things happened. But we survived the night intact, our German-made tent looked no worse for the wear, and we continued on our trek.

As the herder and I greeted each other outside his ger, I asked him in my broken Mongolian how he had fared in the storm. His eyes widened as he recounted through speech and pantomime how he had waited out the storm by … hiding underneath his horse. Literally crouching underneath his horse for hours, shivering and half scared to death - but still, incredibly badass!

The herder offered to let us pitch our tent in his yard, and we happily agreed. As we sat inside his ger with his wife and watched the Beijing summer Olympics on one of the three TV channels they got via satellite, I discovered that this grizzled man of the land was a first cousin of someone I sat next to in my office at the bank in Ulaanbaatar - he showed me a photo of himself with my officemate taken only months earlier to prove it! At that moment I felt as if I actually had been hit by a stray piece of hail somehow left over from the storm – how could such two vastly different worlds be so tightly connected, overlapping so casually? That is Mongolia, and part of what makes it such a dynamic and fascinating place.

What are you up to now?

I’m starting a business in Haiti. My partners and I are trying to provide green power to off-grid rural farming communities. We are using cutting edge technology to generate electricity from agricultural waste (making it carbon-neutral) with a much lower investment cost than solar or wind. I moved to Haiti in March and I’ve actually had a really fun time, something I honestly did not expect. Starting a business has been seriously hard, frustrating, unpredictable, rewarding in unexpected ways … sound familiar?

How did your PiA experience influence your subsequent path through career and life?

For sure it made me who I am today. It launched my career in microfinance and my interest in economic empowerment. I met some of my best friends in Asia and I’ve continued to meet incredible people through PiA.

In a word or phrase, what was one of the most important things you gained as a result of your PiA experience?

Appreciation. For how much difference there is out there, how much kindness, how much we can and must rely on others.

What advice would you give current PiA fellows in the field?

Get to know, travel with other fellows and the “honorary PiA” people around you. They can be some of the best friends (or partners) you’ll ever make and these experiences, during PiA but just as much after you "return,” create bonds that frat boys and sorority girls can only dream of … except, of course, those awesome frat boys and sorority girls that do PiA.

Let your experience on PiA change your life. Just because you sought out this journey does not mean it is easy to travel down the road on which you eventually find yourself, nor is it always fun to actually experience and understand what you see or feel. But let it happen.

I would also suggest keeping in mind that support and insight will come from unlikely sources, but that might sound too much like a fortune cookie. 

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