My Last Peruvian Post

February 9, 2011 at 9:47 am | Posted in Culture, Guatemala, Kiva, Kiva Fellows Post, Microfinance, Peru, Travel | 4 Comments
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This is a hybrid post. Half consists of pieces taken out of my last Kiva Fellows blog. And the other half from my final musings and future plans (I won´t be blogging for at least a month). Feel free to cry now.

Click above to read the full post “Last July, I sat in Kiva headquarters listening to speaker after speaker desperately trying to get a grasp on what life as a Kiva fellow would be like. Despite all my “international” experience, I don´t think anything could have prepared me for the adventure that was to come.  Personally, I set out to discover how microfinance worked, IF it worked, and how it impacted the lives of the people it touched, but I really had no idea what lay ahead of me.

My two Kiva fellowships have allowed me to work with four separate institutions: FAPE and ASDIR in Guatemala and Arariwa and Manuela Ramos in Peru.  I have been able to meet and talk with hundreds of borrowers posting new loans and doing loan updates…

On the flip side, I have had a chance to surf in four new countries, to climb four volcanoes (including Concepción in Nicaragua with some other Kiva Fellows!), and hike the Inca Trail.  On the down side, I have been robbed once and assaulted another time, but I wouldn´t trade my two Kiva fellowships in Guatemala City and Cusco for the world.

And as I see my second (and final) Kiva fellowship come to a close, I have been asking myself what I have learned from the last eight months in the field… My second reflection on microfinance is that the most effective microcredit programs that I have witnessed combine education and training programs with the loans that they offer.  I personally perceive education programs highlighting business management, budgeting, family, nutrition, or health allow the borrowers to develop not only economically, but in all aspects of their life.  Which is the positive impact that all of us wish to see.”

As far as the future, I have a road trip through Patagonia planned with Devin Dvorak (starting on Feb 14th!). Coming back to the states, I’m heading up to Portland for a week, and after trying to find a job in Los Angeles.

My experiences with Kiva in Central and South America have truly been an adventure, one that I wouldn’t trade for the world. Thanks for all your prayers, support, and for reading my blog! I promise to blog when I’m back in the states about my exploits!

2010 Year in Review

December 31, 2010 at 9:29 am | Posted in Aldea Nimasac, Costa Rica, Cuisine, Culture, Cuzco, El Salvador, Guatemala, Guatemala City, Kiva, Microfinance, Nicaragua, Peru, Travel, United States | Leave a comment
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I usually don´t have new year´s resolutions, but the last few years, it has been a generic “make this year better than the last”.  Whether that be traveling to 15 countries or graduating from college or working for Kiva, this year has been both un-forgettable and equally hard to top. Here are some highlights!

January. I´ll bring this full circle. Last New Year I spent in Frankfurt, Germany with Sandra Nymphius lighting off bottle rockets. A subsequent trip to the glorious dutch nation of Holland to visit Shamir, eat herring, and see Amsterdam make January 2010 equally unforgettable.

February-March. Columbia with Devin Dvorak. This whorlwind tour of Medellin, Cartagena, Santa Teresa, and Bogota involved a lot of beach side eating, mojitos, salsa dancing, and monkey chasing.  Never forget that day in Cartagena eating Ceviche… And back at Pepperdine for Songfest! Half the time I think I hated doing the practices, but at the end (and KTD´s almost win), I wouldn´t trade it for the world.

April. Wine tasting for my birthday. Getting the Kiva Fellowship. Graduating from college. My favorite month / memories of 2010…

May-June. Cruising the Mediterranean with Princess Cruises with the parents. Highlights: seeing Venice, quads in Mykonos, the spice market in Istanbul, Florence, Rome, and going back to Barcelona (easily one of my favorite cities in the world).  Road tripping up to San Luis Obispo with Hallie. The 24 hour drive out to Houston for Andy and Trudy Smith´s wedding.

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July-August. Kiva Training. Visiting with the cousins in San Francisco. Moving to Guatemala City to start my fellowship. Getting robbed on Roosevelt in Guatemala City (not a highlight but definitely memorable).  Moving to Aldea Nimasac in Guatemala. Visiting Lago Atitlán.

September-October. Kiva Vacation in Nicaragua (one of my favorite vacations of all time). Kiva Vacation in El Salvador. Surfing. Visiting with Devin Dvorak in Costa Rica. Seeing the Kite Festival in Sumpango.

November-December. Visiting the U.S. My weekend in San Diego. Moving to Cusco, Peru. Finding the meeting place. The near miss with a Machete Robbery. Having Marc Capule come visit. Exploring the Incan Culture and Ruins. Christmas with Peruvians and brunch in San Jeronimo.

Closing Thoughts

November 4, 2010 at 8:48 pm | Posted in Culture, Guatemala, Guatemala City, Kiva, Microfinance, Peru, Travel, United States | 1 Comment
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This is my last blog. At least in Guatemala. Today is my last day.  Tomorrow, I jump on one of those planes that I hear fly every night over the house to take me back to the good ´ole US of A. So, I offer you some closing thoughts.

The experience has been amazing.  Besides learning about microfinance, I have learned about myself: who I am, how I confront challenges, and how to live alone in a country that isn´t my own.  And, I have gotten really good at speaking Spanish.

The pictures are from FAPE, the microfinance institution where I have spent the last few months working as a Kiva Fellow.  From working on repayment reporting and strengthening the Kiva connection between borrowers, lenders, the MFI, and Kiva to implementing lengthy social performance evaluation managment surveys and doing a lot of training on the Kiva process in Spanish, I can say that I have been blessed to have been assigned to such an awesome field partner.

Unrelated, I have begun to discover a few things about microfinance.  It isn´t the “silver” bullet that will eliminate poverty by itself.  It will take people from around the world contributing their skills, talents and resources, and it will take big picture policy changes on the parts of governments throughout the world.  However, I (personally) agree with Muhummad Yunus when he said that “Access to credit is a fundamental human right”.  The access to financial services will allow the poor to smooth their income streams, preserve capital for future disasters, and obtain capital for their businesses (in that order).

Access and provision of financial services to the poor will introduce competition to the market and as the laws of supply and demand dictate, the relevant price of financial products to the poor will fall.  There has been a lot of negative press in microfinance lately, concerning the apparent suicides in India and a recent conference in New York.  But both beg the question if microfinance does more harm than good.  To which I (and most of the microfinance community) would respond no.

All of the clients that I have met have expressed their deep gratitude for the loans and services provided by FAPE, and the key to all of this as I mentioned earlier is access.  Microfinance provides something that was almost inaccessible for most people in poverty (or at the very least unaffortable): financial services. And through these financial services (as their progress and impact is closely monitored and controled) and policy changes, I believe that we may begin to see people escape from poverty.

Figured I´d end my last Guatemala post with the Guatemalan ruins of Iximché that I visited last week.  All the Best!

A Taste of Culture

November 3, 2010 at 2:44 pm | Posted in Cuisine, Culture, Guatemala, Travel | 3 Comments
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This is an amazing post. Or possibly it´s just an insufficient reflection of a really amazing day.  Either way, in this post you will find my cultural take on Guatemala´s Day of the Dead, see the biggest kites you have ever seen, and hear about one of the strangest foods in the world.

Putting a video so early in the post makes it seem like I´m giving up too much too early.  On Monday, I had a chance to go to Festival de Sumpango de los Barriletes Gigantes.  Instead of looking up barrilete in my Spanglish dictionary, I decided to hold out until I got there to figure out what a barrilete was exactly.  As you can see in the video, the town of Sumpango comes together and teams of 30-50 young people start building intricate and colorful 75ft tall kites in July to display in the festival.  Some of the smaller kites (still huge at 20ft!) are flown, and a competition is held to see which ones stay afloat (also check out the video to see which ones didn´t).

You may be wondering, like me, if there is any cultural tradition behind this beautiful exhibition.  As it turns out, Day of the Dead is the one day that Guatemalans believe that their ancestors pass from the grave and roam free, visiting their old homes.  Kites are flown to communicate with their ancestors, and the noise the kite´s long tails make is believed to scare away bad spirits.

And everyone on this day (besides visiting the cemetery and their ancestors), eats fiambre.  Fiambre is a cold dish because originally it was placed on graves for their ancestors, and is made out of every type of food imaginable.  Seriously. I´m talking pieces of chicken, hot dogs, 5-10 different types of sausages, anchovies, tuna, peas, green beans, pickles, cold cuts, queso fresco, beets (gives it the purple tint), corn, cabbage, and anything else you can imagine.  Here is a video of the dish:

I know that kite festivals occur all over the world, but Barriletes de Sumpango is definitely one of a kind.  Additionally, if you are curious about the location of Sumpango in Guatemala, check out the interactive travel map I have created for my trip under the Travel Map tab.

Guatemala Rundown (2)

October 28, 2010 at 3:15 pm | Posted in City, Cuisine, Culture, Guatemala, Guatemala City, Travel, United States | Leave a comment
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I apologize for the uncreative title. I could title this “Stuff I won’t miss” or “Guate Culture Shock” or “Welcome Eric, this isn’t your country”, but true to form, this is my second (personal) decompression of the country where I have lived for the last few months.  And lets face it, everyone secretly likes the movie The Rundown with the Rock and only is reading this to see if I will reference it. WELL, I DID.

Safety. I have been robbed three times in my life. The first in Rio de Janeiro during carnaval (my wallet got lifted out of a friends purse), the second in Tijuana coming back from building a house (locks got punched out on the van and my backpack with my tools, phone and car keys got lifted), and the third here (window broken at 9am and laptop, two cameras gone in the first week).  I had heard that Guate City wasn’t the place to dance in the streets after nightfall, but I wasn’t expecting everything I had brought to get stolen the first week.  It’s a matter of fear and i’m not the only one who feels it.  The papers tell of mass murders in restaurants in the downtown, or armed bus assaults, or how 12 and 13 year old boys get paid Q100 by gangs to kill random people (Guatemala laws protect minors from going to prison).  It’s a sad reality that where there is poverty, there is crime, and I hope that for the sake of all Guatemalans the streets are cleaned up.

Food. Ok, this isn’t entirely a negative.  I have a love hate relationship with the food here.  I love the typical Guatemalan food: the tortillas are out of this world, as are the tamales, the shukos, the beans, the plantains and the soups (minus the revolcado).  But they consume limited quantities of fresh fruits and vegetables (makes me wonder where the huge bags of carrots and truck loads of pineapple go), and a lot of fast food.  I guess what I am saying is that I have ate more McDonalds here than my entire life in the states (exaggeration? possibly, but close), and although I love American culture, I like to leave it behind when I travel.

Loneliness. This isn’t Guatemala, it’s me. From my year in Argentina to my summer in Spain and Israel, I have always had a ready-made group of friends.  Travel is easy when you speak a foreign language 50% of the time and still have the comforts of your own culture.  Here, my English has deteriorated.  I love living with a family, but I speak Spanish at work, then at home.  I guess after a while, I just start to miss well America (in the form beyond fast food).

Videos of my visit to Iximche, Mayan ruins outside of Tecpan, microfinance thoughts, a new Kiva blog post, and a street food post soon.

Guatemala Rundown (1)

October 27, 2010 at 2:55 pm | Posted in Aldea Nimasac, Antigua, Culture, El Salvador, Guatemala, Lago Atitlan, Mountains, Travel | 1 Comment
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So, in exactly 8 dias, my feet will touch U.S. soil once again.  Now, this usually isn´t a feeling I have when I´m traveling, but I´m ready to go home.  It´s not that I haven´t enjoyed Guatemala; it´s just that i´m ready to move on to the next adventure.  I have basically finished my Kiva workplan for FAPE (at the start of the fellowship 770 hours of work), and am (minus a couple of field visits) just bidding my time.

But before I go, I wanted to post a short series (and will help keep me busy) about Guatemala: my favorite and least favorite parts and what I have learned about life and microfinance.

Lago Atitlan. For anyone that has visited Guatemala, they would list this as a highlight.  Six years ago, I came to Guatemala on a high school trip building a school and besides the sacrificed goat on the steps of a church in Chichicastenago, the iconic image of three volcanos shrouded in clouds was forever burned in my memory.  And thankfully so, the film from six years ago was ruined and my camera this time was stolen before I could back up the pictures.  Particularly jumping into the pristine water from the cliffs in San Marcos and eating the fresh burritos and drinking coffee from a nameless café on the waterfront will inevitably be some of the highlights of my trip.

Antigua. Is it too touristy to say this? The pristine colonial city nestled in the mountains just minutes from Guatemala City was my refugee multiple times from the city.  There are more extranjeros in a 10 block radius here than the rest of Guatemala (ok, I made that up, but its true), and more cafés than natives, but the presence of an additional police force keeps the streets clean and I can´t think of a better place in the world to spend an afternoon drinking a coffee on the patio of a café overlooking its cobblestone streets.

Totonicapán. Or the Xela and the surrounding mountains. The only place you can get a real taste of Guatemala.  Small towns, beautiful churches, comedores serving a hot caldo de res (soup) on a cold day, and untouched mountains.  Where corn is more popular than McDonalds (and more prolific: think corn tamales, tortillas, atoll (corn drink), corn liquor, and whatever else you can dream of) and where hospitality is a way of life.  My two weeks living in a small village in Aldea Nimasac and being the first gringo that most of the kids had ever seen was unparalleled.

My reason to return to Guatemala: Tikal, the Mayan ruins in the Peten district to the northeast. Yesterday, someone asked me my favorite parts of Central America, I replied that lets take the food, culture, Lago Atitlan, Antigua, and combine them with the beaches in El Salvador.  Ideal.

(In)dependent

October 18, 2010 at 9:34 pm | Posted in Guatemala, Philosophy, Travel | 4 Comments
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I want to warn everyone upfront.  This isn´t really a blog about microfinance or Guatemala or food or travel really.  It´s a simple realization of a lesson that I have been learning over the last three months.

On my way back from El Salvador last weekend, the movie Pursuit of Happyness came on (in Spanish of course) on the bus.  This was the second time I have seen it, and for some reason what stuck with me the most was how the movie was divided. For those who haven´t seen it in a while, the narrative would stop and then the Spanish Will Smith would say “And this part of my life I call…”  Which got me thinking.  About two things: (1) What would I put in that ellipsis? and (2) What was I looking, when I first started out, to call this chapter in my life and could I define it as that?

Recently I read, A Million Miles in a Thousand Years by Donald Miller (If you haven´t yet picked it up, I just made it super easy to go to Amazon and do so).  The overlying philosophy is that life is a story: one that we are constantly writing and have to “edit” in a sense to make sure that the story we are writing is a good one.  So, I was thinking about my story over the past three months in terms of defining my life like that Spanish Will Smith did with his.  And for some reason, what I wrote down was “Learning to be Dependent”.

This might sound strange. Heck, it sounds strange to me.  I consider myself a very independent person.  I have no problem spending time alone and speaking of projects or getting things done, I would  much rather just do the whole thing myself than rely on someone else.  When I travel, this is exaggerated.  I need to plan the trip, or be the one asking for directions or doing the negotiating over the price of the room.  I almost prefer to take a bus by myself than have someone go out of their way to drive me.

That´s why, I suppose, I wrote “Learning to Be Dependent”.  Although I am more than capable of doing all of this on my own, it has been good to rely on those around me that extend a helping hand.  In the city, I can´t do what I usually do: hop on a bus to get what I need, I have to accept and ask for the help of those around me.  Out of many examples, one would be this past weekend when I intended on taking a bus out to Suchitepequez to visit someone.  When the executive director offered to take me, I was thinking that I don´t need you to help me, I can do this alone, but really going with someone turned  out to make the day a lot easier and more fun.

Maybe this isn´t the most potent example (and I have a lot more), but its a process. A process of figuring out the people to rely on and then allowing them to help you as you help them.  It´s a process of writing a good story.  When you do stuff independently, you lack your supporting characters: the stuff that makes your story interesting.  This co-dependence between humans is what makes life beautiful (and it is even more so when it is offered and received when you are in need by those that don´t know you “like your friends do”).  To quote Krakauer, “Happiness is only real when shared”, and its true.

As for the second question, I´m still figuring that out, but I´m depending on someone a lot greater than myself to reveal that one.

Thrift Store Shopping

October 15, 2010 at 8:00 am | Posted in Culture, Guatemala, Guatemala City, Kiva, Microfinance | 1 Comment
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Read this if you have ever been to the Salvation Army, or if your church has ever had a clothes drive, or if you have ever put clothes in those huge yellow bins at Pepperdine. If you are curious if your clothes end up on the backs of the people you set out to help or if you were wondering what happened to the shirts that said the Celtics won the finals this past year

We set out on borrower visits yesterday, and I was VERY excited. I was visiting a borrower that I lent too before I knew I got the Kiva fellowship, and a borrower that I knew some of the lenders too! At Kiva training, they mentioned that we are the only people in the world that touch all sides of the Kiva process, and its true, I know the lenders, the people that make Kiva run, the MFI, and now the borrowers.

Also, on this visit, we visited a non-Kiva loan that sold second-hand clothes. I was curious. Over the course of my life, I have been constantly donating clothes to whatever foundation or church as I grow out of them. For me, more than helping people, it has been cathartic experience as I narrow down the number of possessions I have, but I know others who donate for the express purpose of helping those in need.

In Guatemala, they call them Megapacas, but they are second hand clothing stores full of clothes from the states. People, like this entreprenuer, buy 100lbs of clothes (wrapped up in huge bag) for Q950 (over $100!) and resell them. A whole industry made out of the clothes that you once donated. In this clients house, there were 18 of such bags, and they mentioned that you never get to see whats inside, its just luck of the draw. The first few times, they bought from someone who they didn´t know and once ended up with a couple hundred pounds of mechanics uniforms (with the names ripped off so the clothes where damaged).

I looked on one bag to see a label “Donations from the Church of Christ of the Later Day Saints”. The client said, the only problem with clothes from America is that people there are so fat and tall… the 14 year old American is a full grown Guatemalan. A world away, we are satisfied to see our old clothes go to a “good cause” without even guessing that they are sold to the people that need them most (including the resaler).

For all the Skeptics

October 12, 2010 at 4:39 pm | Posted in Beach, El Salvador, Guatemala, Kiva, Microfinance, Surfing, Travel | 1 Comment
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This weekend, I went to El Tunco, El Salvador with a couple of Kiva Fellows for a few days of surf, sand, fish tacos, flat julie filming (the new Kiva Fellows class intro video), smoothies, more fish tacos, and apparently a barrage of questions from some of the most unconvinced, microfinance skeptics I have met traveling.

Now, obviously I will have a tendency to defend microfinance as an industry because it is what I´m doing right now. More than that, its something I believe does a lot of good for a lot of people (maybe not everyone, but a lot of people), and even more than that, I am doing it voluntarily–so yes, I believe in microfinance. But as we sat in hammocks talking to our fellow travelers, we got hit with  a ton of skepticism of the industry (a lot of which I would like to clarify and respond to).

I mentioned that the typical Guatemalan moneylender charges 10% a month, and their immediate response was what you charge 9%? (for the sake of simplicity, I will response from my microfinance institutions (mfi) point of view and not Kiva´s). There are two things that are implied by this question: one, that the majority of mfis are seeking to maximize profit, and two, that the marginal benefit that mfis provide is well, non-existent. Uninformed on both counts. My mfi charges 3% monthly interest which is significantly lower than the moneylenders and in line with microfinance competition in the area. Contrary to popular belief, most mfis are not for profit (if you would like to discuss SKS´s IPO we can talk one on one), my current mfi included.  The majority have a social mission of expanding their clients access to credit and other basic services and generally to alleviate poverty.  In this sense, a 3% monthly credit coupled with other services (see my last three Kiva fellow blogs) doesn´t just provide marginal value to their clients, but adds significant value. Let´s also not insult the client´s intelligence, they would know if they were being taken for a ride, and contract microfinance services because they want too and because the services provided have a higher value for them then their other options.

That´s still a high annualized interest rate. Yes, I agree. It is high, but in order to administer the loans, it is significantly more expensive than going to chase.com and signing up for a mortgage or a credit card. Loan officers met and vet each client individually and then have to collect repayments and follow-up on the loan.  The fact of the matter is that microfinance is correcting a market failure (to provide credit to the poor) and at first, correcting this market failure costs more money.  Like I mentioned before, most microfinance organizations are not profit seeking and because of their social missions, some have even lowered their interest rates over time. As the market failure is corrected, more competition will be introduced, and the markets will become more efficient.

Not everyone is an entrepreneur, so whats the point? Does it do anything for the person that gets a loan to provide the same service as another ten people in the town? First of all, Yunus would disagree with this: everyone is an entrepreneur he would say.  But I understand the criticism.  Through microfinance, are we just enabling the clients to provide services that already exist? I would say that most businesses started with a microfinance loan aren´t unique: you will see 12 Kiva loans for corner stores, another 20 for tailors, and 15 more for pig farmers, but the fact of the matter is that they have access to financial services (and hopefully other services through the mfi) that they didn´t have before.  So, although we can´t specifically say that microfinance has improved the lives of its participants (although it is irrefutable that it has improved the lives of some), we can say that providing access to financial services is a step in the right direction to alleviating poverty.

So, for all the skeptics, microfinance isn´t perfect, but until you find something more effective, I´m going to keep working with this system knowing that it is doing a lot more good than harm.

Bringing you more than just credit

October 11, 2010 at 3:00 am | Posted in Guatemala, Guatemala City, Kiva, Kiva Fellows Post, Microfinance | Leave a comment
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New kiva fellows blog post on Financial Education at FAPE!

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