2010 Year in Review

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.

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Closing Thoughts

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

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)

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)

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.

Thrift Store Shopping

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).

Great Guatemalan Grub

Whenever someone in Guatemala asks me what my favorite food is, I respond in .000001 seconds: tamales. They are just way too good.  In Guatemala, there are over 20 different types of tamales so I will try to just focus on a few.  They are traditionally eaten on special occasions: we are talking Christmas (like my family!) or family gatherings, birthdays or in the case of this post, the handing over of $10k worth of medical equipment (through FAPE´s health project) to a community.

The two stand-out tamales are paches and chuchitos. Paches are rice tamales with a big chunk of meat in the middle (with or without bones), wrapped in a small banana leaf and cooked in a huge pot of boiling water over a wood fire. Chuchitos are my favorite: read favorite food in Guatemala. They should be consumed by the dozens with a steaming cup of atole (Guatemalan corn drink) in hand. They are a maize tamale filled with pork, chicken or beef and you will be amazed (like I am) at how your taste buds start watering when you see these videos…