Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Kiva Magic

Classic Kiva magic:
Claudina Janet Avilez Arevalo,  corn farmer,
Ventanas, Ecuador
The conventional definition of "Kiva magic" is when a borrower sees a printout of their Kiva profile and realizes, ecstatically, that they're involved in much more than an ordinary loan: dozens of strangers on the other side of the world have pledged them money on the strength of their photo and bio.  It's wonderful when this happens, and it makes inspiring photos and videos.  Yet in the course of visiting more than 25 borrowers, I've only witnessed this once.  In Peru and Ecuador at least, most borrowers are more overcome with bewilderment than joy.  In some sense this is good, because it means borrowers are too focused on their work and families to be preoccupied with the Internet, making them seem extra-authentic.  Still, the rarity of classic "Kiva magic" has made me think that perhaps the definition needs expanding.

When people ask why I got involved with Kiva, I struggle to answer.  A teacher by trade, I majored in English, and my graduate degree is in creative writing.  Unlike many of my fellow Fellows, who studied International Relations and worked in investment banks, I never even took Economics (shhh!).  I just wanted to help, and I'd traveled enough to see that people in the developing world want opportunity more than charity--"a hand up, not a hand out," as the slogan goes.

Dionisio Diaz Leyva,
coffee grower, Pucará, Peru
Despite being a Kiva lender for almost a decade, I was never able to articulate how it connected to my life.  During Fellows training in San Francisco we were asked to describe Kiva in a single sentence, as if we were talking to someone who knew nothing about it, and suddenly it hit me: Kiva is where a good story can change a life.  And stories, of course, are the stock in trade of English teachers--yet a good story is much more than dog-eared pages in a dusty textbook.

The modern world bombards us with polite fictions, from "All you need is love" to "Have a Coke and a smile."  And though we know statistics can be made to say anything, and the essentials of life defy calculation, we pay rapt attention to the Dow, the cancer-preventing properties of blueberries, and the likelihood of rain calculated down to a percentage point.

Mirian del Rocio Pilco Seis,
swineherd, San Miguel, Ecuador
It's been said that the shortest distance between two people is a story.  Anyone who's struck up a conversation with a stranger on an airplane knows how true this is.  Kiva puts this axiom to the ultimate test, because the stories that drive Kiva transcend language and culture and distance, and filter through many layers of humans and technology.  It's a testament to the modern age that a student in Chicago can connect with a goatherd in Azerbaijan.  More deeply, it's a testament to the timeless power of narrative.

As a Kiva Fellow I learned that all stories are not created equal.  Some borrowers "sell themselves," while others can use a little help.  One of the profiles I looked at said, "Maria needs to fix up her house because it has no roof."  Most people hardly need to hear more, because they can imagine the rest of the story viscerally.  That single sentence lets people far away, in comfortable houses, know exactly how difficult life is for Maria.

Victoria Mendoza Carrasco,
store owner, Cayaltí, Peru
It's a tribute to the generosity and imagination of Kiva lenders that most loans get quickly and fully funded, because despite the best efforts of everyone at the local partner, and everyone in San Francisco, and the volunteer translators, and all the technological wizardry, a borrower profile can only convey so much.  Take Victoria Mendoza, a shop owner I visited in Peru.  Her Kiva profile states, "Victoria is happy, friendly, and hard-working."  That's nice, but hopefully all Kiva borrowers fit that description.  The next sentence makes her an individual:  "She is a woman who pushes herself in order to have a better quality of life."  Victoria's own words make her unique: "Everything I've accomplished has been for my son." 

Cesar Patricio Cayambe Mendoza,
corn farmer, San Pablo, Ecuador
The joy of visiting borrowers is that they become fully dimensional people, revealing parts of their stories that didn't make it onto the web page.  Some borrowers impart wisdom that transcends their own situation, like Dionisio Leyna, coffee grower, who mused, "A plant is like a Christian.  You have to feed it with love," or Cesar Cayambe, corn farmer, who explained how agriculture is a race against the calendar: "You have to help the next year," or Lady Diana Comtreras, cashier, who insisted, "Patience is the most important thing."  Others are funny, like Wilmer Sanchez, store owner, who demanded, "Are you sure you don't want to visit somebody else?  I'm not even wearing shoes!"  Still others reveal the hidden complexity of poverty, like Mirian del Rocio, swineherd, who admitted, "I love my life, but I want better for my children."

Lady Diana Comtreras Vera,
cashier, Ventanas, Ecuador
A good sentence is more powerful than commonly thought.  When that sentence offers a vivid window into another person's life, it becomes an X-ray, dissolving all the dross that drives people apart.  It's all too easy to be overwhelmed by statistics--2.8 billion people live on less than two dollars a day, 781 million are illiterate, 60 million are refugees, 2.4 million endure human trafficking.  Real human stories, simply and honestly told, one person at a time, are irresistible.  They become fulcrums balancing the humanity of borrowers with the generosity of lenders.  Who wouldn't be moved by these living poems?

Claudina's dream is to buy herself land to plant more.  In her free time she likes to sew.

Ivan requests this loan in order to buy a refrigerator because his refrigerator broke.

Isatu hopes to use any additional profits to educate her children and buy a piece of land to build a dwelling in the future.

Cesar's dream is to help his parents be comfortable as they are now older.

In the future, Oimnisio plans to use the profit from her business to marry off her son.

Joseph owns a bicycle which he uses as transportation to distribute bread.

Mariam is a widow who cares for five orphans and three other orphans (her stepchildren), who are all in school.

In Consuelo's heart is the hope of creating a small school of traditional dance to pass on the artistic legacy of her ancestors to the youth of the city.

You'd need kryptonite to stop sentences like these.

Wilmer Sanchez Benites,
store owner, Morropón, Peru
Most borrowers' financial gains are modest, but Kiva has a profound psychological effect by putting them in control of their lives.  Getting a Kiva loan means that someone, from a loan officer on up to a couple dozen strangers on a website, believes in you, thinks you're special, wants your business to succeed and is putting something at stake to make sure it does.  Borrowers take a chance on their businesses, and lenders take a chance on borrowers.  This risk makes microfinance different from traditional charity.  There are 1001 ways a borrower could fail, which would cause all their lenders to fail.  A Kiva loan is neither a gift nor a guarantee, but an act of faith, an assertion of optimism.  A Kiva loan is much more than money; it's a statement of belief in someone's potential, and a way of honoring their unique story.  That's the power of narrative.  And that's Kiva magic.

You can celebrate a unique story of your own at www.kiva.org.

To support the microfinance organization where I'm working (Cooperativa San José, San José de Chimbo, Ecuador), click here.

Kiva gift cards make excellent Christmas presents, celebrating both your loved one and a "friend you haven't met yet" in the developing world.  It's never too late, and personalization and shipping are always free.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Andean Mountain High: a day in Chimbo

San José de Chimbo, my Ecuador Mountain Home
The sun comes on strong.  At 6:30, when my alarm sounds, it's still pale and grey outside, but by 7:30, when I get out of the shower, I have to draw the drapes lest my little third-floor hotel room overheat.  The heavy yellow fabric turns the room golden while I dress.  Dance music fills the building as the receptionist begins cleaning.  I leave my key, bid her good day, and walk downstairs to the street, past the taxi drivers' union and the mysterious "multiple room." 

The lady who sells roast guinea pig isn't out yet, and some stores are closed, but most doors are open while women sweep away the night's grime, or hose down the sidewalk.  I wave to the man with the enormous mustache across the street, and marvel that the guy who hand-builds sofas is already at work; he finished two yesterday.

There's confusion at the corner as a pickup-for-hire waits for a box truck, even though the pickup has the light.  By the time they resolve this impasse, a motorcycle has raced up from the other side.  Not for the first time is there nearly an accident due to people being too hesitant.

Slow food
I put off navigating the intersection by sitting down at the open-air joint on the corner where a lady with a long silver braid makes cheese-filled tortillas with exquisite slowness.  The coffee is sweeter than teen romance.

Crossing to the plaza, I run into the young guy with the white cart full of syrups who concocts drinks and snacks out of what looks like an array of potions and powders.  He always greets me warmly even though I've never bought anything.

The shoeshine men have already erected their yellow-awninged high chairs, but they let me go quietly, even though my shoes are filthy--just as well, because I'm short on coins and time.

The litter-collector is circulating with his broom, long-handled dustbin, and oil drum-on-wheels.  I don't see any of the gardeners, but they're probably at work somewhere, evening out the grass with hand clippers, pruning the flowers, and running endless hoses that create vast puddles while leaving the grass dry.

Too close for comfort
I might get a stare from one of the taxi drivers, who are lined up and waiting, the one in back vigorously toweling down his spotless yellow Hyundai, with the hood up and the doors open, the radio blasting cumbia.  No one ever yells at me ("Gringo!" or something), and by now almost everyone knows who I am--no longer the strange foreigner, but the foreigner who works at the cooperative.

The taxis congregate below some of the loveliest balconies in town.  All the more charming for being crooked and cracked, some are meticulously painted in contrasting colors--white and teal, salmon and fuchsia, beige and chocolate--while others are fading and flaking down to raw wood.  Always vacant, they seem to await Romeo and Juliet.  Once I say a girl toss a key down to her boyfriend just like in Life Is Beautiful. 

"If I profane with my unworthiest hand. . ."
"Good pilgrim, you do wrong your hand too much. . ."

Vicente, the security guard at the cooperative, greets me with a smile and a firm handshake, and I go through the daily ritual of signing in.  Today is an office day, which means I'll be inside at a desk from 8 to 5, writing up borrower verification visits, working out APR calculations, monitoring repayment reporting, assessing loan volume and projections, examining social performance metrics, translating videos, interviewing the Kiva Coordinator, and uploading photos, with a one-hour lunch break.  Accustomed to the pacing and room-changing of teaching, I find it very hard to sit still for so long.  Yet somehow I end most days exhausted.

The light is fading by the time I leave the office, and it's cool enough that I no longer mind my blazer.  Though my phone predicted daily thunderstorms, and locals complain regularly about the "cold," Chimbo enjoys almost perfect weather--never colder than 60 or warmer than 80, and even in "winter," it only rains a few times a week, usually for less than an hour.  Instead of worrying about raincoats or umbrellas, people either wait it out, or dodge the drops by walking under the generous eaves that protrude from almost every building.
Just past my hotel is a corner store where Dalton, a little old bespectacled man, sells me a Coke in a glass bottle out of his antique mustard-colored fridge.  Always thrilled to see me, he calls me by name and once again asks, "How long are you here for?"  Few can believe that a foreigner would last a month.  I stroll back to the plaza and claim a bench.  At this hour I practically have the place to myself, yet by 7 pm it'll be almost crowded, as it can be early in the morning.  No matter how I nurse the Coke, it's always too soon for The Simpsons when I get back to the hotel.

Colorful and delicious
At 7 pm I go to Doña Bernadita's house for dinner.  (I went there for lunch too, because there are virtually no restaurants.)  For two dollars a meal, she welcomes me to the family table like a son.  Tonight she serves beet salad to accompany the ubiquitous rice and chicken or pork, and I'm so excited by this rare vegetable that I take a picture of the plate, which her husband, Don Rodrigo, finds funny yet flattering.  They both urge bread on me as if it were the elixir of life.  A locally produced sitcom on TV plays hard on stereotypes of indigenous culture, buck teeth, short men, and fat women.

Jazzercise?  Zumba?  Let the good times roll!
Ice cream the old-fashioned way
After bidding Doña Bernadita and her family good night, I hike up to the church.  Tucked high in the mountains 5 hours from Quito and 4 hours from Guayaquil, Chimbo is nicknamed "the pot" because most of the city lies in a deep valley ringed by the highway.  No matter how you get here, it's always a coast in and a climb out.  Arriving from Guaranda, you make a complete circle of town before getting to the main bus stop near the church, where blue-smocked women sell bread, roast pork, coffee, juice, and tortillas.  On Sundays a sweet old lady serves hand-churned ice cream out of a barrel.  Most afternoons there's a game of volleyball, and by evening a group dance and exercise class breaks out, as vendors set up shop selling French fries, hot dogs, and soda.  The first time I ventured near the church at night, two little girls ran up and peppered me with questions for twenty minutes.  There's no stranger danger here, and even children treat everyone to a formal greeting at the very least.

Poor man's Taj Mahal
Wandering back down to the plaza, I pass several declarations of love spray-painted onto buildings--graffiti has replaced greeting cards here.  Since it's Wednesday, things are pretty quiet: small groups of women stroll arm in arm while a watchman circulates to scold toddlers away from the edge of the fountain, or the grass.  Lone men sit on benches checking Facebook or Whatsapp thanks to the free WiFi piped in by the "Illustrious Municipality of San José de Chimbo, Autonomous Province of Bolívar." 

Old men congregate in groups of two and three on benches at all hours, looking like sages or holy men except for their fedoras and flat caps.  Everyone over sixty wears a suit.  On Saturday nights young men race up and down the main street--the only flat spot--on unmufflered dirt bikes, trying to catch girls. Children hoard coins to buy popsicles or gum, and teenagers pool their resources to buy a giant bottle of beer and a few cigarettes, laughing and gossiping around the car they've parked with the doors open, salsa or reggaeton blasting out.

After circumnavigating the plaza a few times I amble back to the hotel and try to get some writing done.  A symphony of car alarms, fire alarms, delivery trucks, people yelling, dogs barking, and smoke from the guinea pig lady keeps me from getting bored.  Almost on cue around 10:30 everything goes quiet, and by then it's cool enough for a cozy sleep and dreams of hand-churned ice cream, or the view on a clear morning almost to Chimborazo, and another quiet day tuned to human rhythms.

Enough for the week?

You can pay tribute to the beautiful people of Chimbo by making a Kiva loan of your own at www.kiva.org.

To support the microfinance organization where I'm working (Cooperativa San José, San José de Chimbo, Ecuador), click here.

Monday, November 16, 2015

A ride with Robin Hood: portrait of a loan officer

A little engine trouble won't stop us
            Ebert is waiting for me at 7 am as promised, crouched by his motorbike, his hoodie cinched, looking like a benevolent bandit.  He hands me a helmet, I mount the bike behind him, and we're off to visit Avelino Perez, coffee farmer, way outside Pucará, Peru, as part of my Kiva borrower verification.  We stop once for gas and again when the bike stalls three times and won't start.
            "I told the boss this bike had problems," he grumbles, shaking his head.  He has a singsong way of talking that makes even complaints sound cheerful.
            A wiry guy of 28, with pinched grey eyes, a mess of short hair, and so close-shaven I get razor burn looking at him, Ebert is a man of quick and constant movements.  In less than a minute he's breaking off a piece of wire from a sign to fix the bike with, and soon he's contorted it to prop the choke open.  Amazingly, the bike starts.
            After twenty minutes we turn off the highway onto dirt roads that get steeper, windier, narrower, and rougher for the next three hours. 
            We ride through a series of villages where people wave as if we're celebrities, and we have to stop repeatedly so someone can rush up and ask Ebert for advice, or offer a gift.
            "Faster?" he asks as we get into the really steep stuff.
            "No!" I shout over the engine.  "This is a good pace."  At some points we're so close to the edge of the mountain I get a little dizzy, and we're dodging and bouncing over rocks so hard it's all I can do not to fall off.  Ebert rides like he's on the run.
            We power through a couple streams, but eventually one is too big, and I have to dismount while Ebert walks the bike across.  I notice him clenching and unclenching his fists, and I'm embarrassed to realize I've been thinking only of my own discomfort.
            "Tired?" I ask.
            "Just the hands," he smiles through clenched teeth.
Water break
            As we get close to Avelino's house the road all but disappears, and the going gets so steep the bike can barely make it.  Before I know what's happened I'm pinned underneath the bike and Ebert is sprawled on the ground in front of me.  He's beside himself, grabbing and pulling me up before checking himself or the bike, which has a broken mirror.
            "I've hurt you!" he says, stricken, as if I'm royalty.
            "No, I think it's all right.  I'm not even bleeding."
            "Are you sure?"
            "Yeah, just a bruised elbow.  What about you?"
            "My knee…." he says, pulling up his pant leg to reveal more than a little bleeding, and dirt in the wound.
            "Here, use this," I say, handing him some toilet paper.  "But make sure you wash that with water when we get to another stream."
            "I've never fallen before," he says, shaken. 
Chasing poverty to the ends of the earth

            Ebert studied agricultural engineering, so he's even more eager than Avelino to explain the workings of the coffee farm, prompting a lively discussion about heritage vs. hybrid strains of plants, the benefits of mulch, the productivity of old plants vs. young, why hired workers don't harvest properly, and the importance of optimal seedling spacing.

Sherwood Forest?
            When I pose the standard question about how the borrower would rate the local partner, Avelino waxes rhapsodic.
            "This guy does a great job.  I never really thought about what to do with a loan, but he came out to visit, and he was so polite, and he explained all the benefits, and I saw that this is how we Peruvians can advance.  'How can you improve your farm without capital?' he asked, and he was right.  Now my plants are doing so well all my neighbors want loans too."
Ebert demonstrating optimal harvesting technique

            "What if the borrower defaults?" I ask Ebert after we bid farewell to Avelino.
            He shakes his head, smiling.  "They never default."
            "How can that be?"
            "I take care of my borrowers.  If I hear one's in trouble, I call him, or visit him, and we work something out.  Maybe he needs more time, or a different payment schedule, or a smaller loan.  Or maybe someone in the family is sick, and I can help them get to a doctor."
            "But surely there must be impossible cases. . ."
            He shakes his head again.  "I don't let a client take out a loan unless I know it's right for him.  I talk to him, talk to his neighbors, get to know his whole situation."

Photo break 
           On the way home Ebert regains his fearlessness.  Riding downhill is worse, because we go faster, and I keep sliding forward and getting horrendous wedgies.  Near the bottom we stop for crackers and Cokes at a tiny shop where the old lady can't believe our refusal of chairs.  Ebert is hobbling, almost as stiff as me.  He chats with the lady about cable TV service, the route back to the highway, the weather, the state of her business and the world.
            "Is she your client?" I ask as we're getting back on the bike.
            "No," he says.  "Just a good person."
            Macadam feels so luxurious after hours of dirt that I dare to let go of the bike and snap some photos.
Merry Men
            It's getting dark by the time we reach Pucará, and Ebert drives straight to his favorite restaurant--someone's house, really--where a jug of iced barley water and two plates of chicken and rice seem like the best things in the world.
            My butt is numb, my left ankle has locked up, my fingers are blistered from gripping the luggage rack, I'm walking like a cowboy, and I have to lean on the arms of the chair to sit down.
            "Long ride, eh?" Ebert says, as I lower myself, wincing, into the chair.
            "You do this every day?" I marvel.
            "Usually I'm in the office in the morning, visiting clients in the afternoon.  It's the same for all the loan officers."
            "I admire you guys.  I don't think I could do this every day."
            "I love this job--especially visiting clients.  Sure, the rides get a little long sometimes, and it's not so fun in the rainy season, but it's always good to get out and talk to people, learn more about them, see if you can help them somehow."
            "You're like Robin Hood, riding around on a motorcycle handing out money to poor people."
            "Like this?" he says, pulling his hood up and darting his eyes around.

            We wolf down the food, and as I'm debating whether or not I should offer to buy Ebert a beer, he lays down his knife and fork, wipes his mouth, and says, "Same time tomorrow, then?"
            "Can we make it 8:00?" I suggest timidly.
            "As you say, friend," he smiles, and stands up, hand extended.  "Until then."
            In a flash of the roaring motor he's gone.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Real ice cream

As I was situating myself at the bus stop to go to the next village over in search of coffee, a sweet little old lady who could have been my grandmother asked if I didn't want to try her ice cream.  Then I noticed that in addition to pound cake on the table, there was a wooden barrel on the ground filled with ice and a stainless steel cylinder, just like the one we used when I was a kid--only bigger, and without the gear assembly or crank.

After reeling me in and chatting briefly, the señora excused herself and walked off with an old-fashioned aluminum milk pail in each hand, leaving her son (I presume) to serve my ice cream into a heavy glass stemmed bowl atop an enameled tin saucer.

Bucket o' goodness
"Where do you get the milk?" I asked, aware that it often comes from a can in these parts.  This isn't necessarily a bad thing; such delicacies as tres leches cake have evolved from these humble ingredients, and recently I had a delicious palito, literally "little stick," or popsicle, that boasted of being half mora (blackberry) sherbet and half frozen condensed milk.  
            "We have cows," the man said, as he scooped the thick yellowish stuff.
            I laughed.  What better answer could there be?
            "What's in it besides milk and sugar?"
            "That's all."
            "Do you prepare it the night before?"
            "Yes, you have to boil the milk very well, and then let it cool."
            So boiled milk is the secret--for thickening, I suppose.  In all the hoopla over ice cream vs. gelato vs. frozen yogurt, I've never seen a recipe suggest that, but why not?
            "Are there any eggs?"
            "No, sir."
            This answer surprised me, because the ice cream was about the color of eggnog.  But I think we might have been talking at cross purposes, because another lady whose ice cream I tried also denied using "eggs" but then admitted to using yolks.

A real mom and pop (or son) opersation
If you're wedded to factory ice cream, you might be disappointed in what the little old lady serves.  It's only lightly sweetened, and the texture is very inconsistent: creamy one bite, icy the next.  It's so soft that some vendors serve it with a straw, and it actually melts, which hardly any commercial ice cream does.  In that delicate balance between solid and liquid lies the magic of ice cream, how for the briefest of moments it defies the laws of physics.  There's nothing better than ice cream straight out of the churn, before it's fully frozen, or at the bottom of the bowl, as it's just begun to melt.  Years ago, when I lived in Florida, I took advantage of a sale and brought several half gallons of Breyers to the check out, where the girl thought this was a pretty funny purchase:
            "You really like ice cream, huh?" she challenged.
            "Well, you know, it's frozen, so it keeps," I replied feebly.
            But in a way she had a point; ice cream is better when it's fresh.

I do a game with my classes in which every student has to say his or her name and favorite flavor of ice cream.  Year by year the answers get stranger: "cookie dough," "cake icing," "Superman," "blue moon."  These aren't flavors, I sometimes dare to suggest; they're things, or ideas.  I like cake icing as much as the next man, but I like it on cake, not reengineered into ice cream.  Yet many of the classic flavors--strawberry, peach, chocolate chip mint, pistachio, cherry vanilla, coffee--are just as fanciful to many, because they've never had the unadulterated fruits, nuts, or herbs.  Students dispute my assertion that there's no such thing as "blue raspberry," and more than once I've been so beleaguered by questions from a barista at Starbucks that I've been reduced to saying, "I'd like the coffee-flavored coffee, please."  After smelling vanilla bean on the tree in Tanzania, I've never looked at extract the same way again.

Yes, that's a cow's horn
The ice cream in Chimbo comes in one flavor, and it ain't Chunky Monkey, or Peanut Butter Brickle, or Moose Tracks.  I wasn't sure it had any flavoring at all until I asked one lady who allowed that she included canela (cinnamon).  The ice cream makers are cagey if not competitive in their insistence on how few ingredients they use.  You can actually taste the milk--it has that depth of flavor I haven't enjoyed since I got raw milk from a cow share, so creamy and yellow and eggnog-y that the first time I tried it I went searching for the nutmeg.   

The "artisanal" label has really been rubbed raw in the last few years.  Beyond nostalgia, it's exciting that some things are still made in a way simple enough to reveal their mode of discovery; that an individual can control the whole production process; and that everything from raw materials to finished product can be a single stream, close at hand.  But it's more than that. 

People often ask why I'm so drawn to poverty.  The true answer is as simple as it is hard to explain: I go to the developing world because it's real.  All that glitz and glamor stateside is fake, dishonest.  What's the true cost of a vanilla latte?  What really went in to a cashmere sweater?  How many people have to sweat so one can enjoy A/C?  What planet are the people in TV ads from?  However elaborate the subterfuge, we in the "advanced" countries live off the exploitation of others.  This quickly becomes obvious when you go where such basics as electricity and running water can no longer be taken for granted.  Hand-churned ice cream is emblematic of the forgotten reality: no mysterious ingredients, no long-distance transport, no unknown people, no hidden costs, no branding.

            "Where do you get the ice?" I asked the fellow.
            "From a machine.  We used to get it from Chimborazo, but not anymore.  Only Riobamba still gets ice from Chimborazo."
            A 20,564-foot inactive volcano, Chimborazo is the highest mountain in Ecuador.  Due to the equatorial bulge, its summit is the farthest point on the Earth's surface from the center of the Earth.  For this reason it was long thought to be the highest mountain in the world.  
            Suddenly a simple cup of ice cream is part of a major excursion--to think that this could involve llama trains, or burros, and teams of men scaling a volcano to haul back a piece of a glacier just so I can have a snack.  So much work!  And yet, if you really calculate everything needed to run a freezer--the steel and copper, the freon, the miles of electric cables, the coal or oil or hydroelectric dam--is it any easier?

Real glass, real plate, real spoon, real dairy product
Sunday is ice cream day in Chimbo--this lady hauls out the churn only once a week.  Two or three other folks also make ice cream, but if you don't catch them on Sunday, you won't get any.  As with many other things, we've forgotten how special ice cream is.  My grandmother loved few things as much as ice cream, which used to puzzle me, because she was an Olympian baker, turning out coffee cakes that disappeared almost before they were sliced at church suppers, birthday cakes that spoiled me for all others, and even when she could barely walk, whipping up delectable muffins seemingly out of nothing.  But she remembered when an icebox was literally that, and anything frozen was precious.  She refused to rush her ice cream, even though her brothers would steal it if she took too long.  The famous opening of One Hundred Years of Solitude reminds us of the wonder that is ice, and all things made with it:

Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.

In Michigan we take ice for granted, cursing and resenting it half the year, and dreading it the rest.  But most of the world's population lives close enough to the equator that ice must be sought, often with great effort.  Chimbo is cool enough that I don't pine for ice cream, the way I did in Kashgar (the only other place I've been where they make ice cream the old-fashioned way: see previous post).  And Chimbo is small enough, and isolated enough, that there are many things it lacks.  How much more flattering, then, for someone to offer this little cup of magic for a mere coin.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Peru, the land of convenience

Whenever I travel outside Western Europe, the most common reaction is, "Wow, that must be really hard!" as if the developing world were little more than an array of obstacles, challenges, frustrations, and difficulties--unlike the unfettered convenience and ease of everything in the good old USA.

Yet every time I settle back into the American Dream, I find myself pining for any number of things that were easier or better elsewhere.  But when I describe most foreign countries as "convenient," people look baffled.  So here are some examples:

Cotton candy, anyone?

1. The world is a strolling buffet: from windows of rice pudding, sandwiches, and stews, to pushcarts groaning with mandarins and grapes, to itinerant vendors of popcorn, popsicles, and tamales, you can get fat without even sitting down.  By the time you've finished your kebab, candy apple, or empanada, another vendor will appear with the second course.

2. Food and drinks are always fresh, and often organic: pisco sours made with hand-pressed limes, juices blended while you watch, potatoes simmered overnight to make stews for the next day's breakfast.
How fresh is your OJ?

3. No need to worry about your wardrobe, because it never rains, never gets hot, and never gets cold.  When your clothes get dirty, you can have them washed, dried, ironed, and folded in 24 hours for $1 a pound.

An auxiliar who supports the home team

4. Signs on American buses warn, "Don't talk to the driver," and if your bags are bulky, or you don't have exact change, you're on your own.  In Peru, there's an auxiliar who loads luggage, answers questions, makes change, and reminds you when to get off--and he takes requests.  Handicapped people, senior citizens, pregnant women, and new mothers get preferential seating, and assistance with boarding.

5. If you don't feel like going to the bus station, simply stand on the side of the road and wait.  When a bus comes by, wave at it to stop.  Spanish has handily provided a dual-use verb for this: esperar.  If you know there's a bus coming, it means "to wait"; if you don't know, it means "to hope."

6. You needn't waste time going to the store, or online, because if you stand outside long enough, a whole world of merchandise will come right to you.  Newspapers and snacks are just the beginning: sunglasses, watches, wallets, windup toys, a set of scissors or paintbrushes, anyone?

Sombrero sale on the sidewalk

7. Comparison-shopping is easy, because businesses come in clusters: Appliances Alley, Hardware Hill, Bedding Boulevard, Plastics Plaza, Shoe and Socks Street.

All things plastic

All things metal

8. Anything can be repaired--shoes, belts, luggage, clothes, irons, blenders, TVs--and there's no need to order special parts: a piece of bent wire can fix a motorcycle, some scraps of fabric can revive a backpack, a plastic bottle and putty can solve most plumbing problems.

First aid for motorbikes

First aid for backpacks

9. Hailing a cab is as easy as being tall, blonde, Caucasian, or confused.

10. Forget waiting for UPS: anything can be hauled on the top of a car or minibus--sacks of potatoes, mattresses, giant squash, bedroom sets, refrigerators.

No such thing as "overpacked"

More cargo than car

11. You can leave your iPod at home, because life has a soundtrack, and it's salsa, cumbia, or son.  You can't board a bus, sit in a restaurant, enter a store, or work in an office without lively dance music coming from somewhere.

Narrow sidewalks make good neighbors

12. It's safe to let your gym membership lapse, because you'll be walking everywhere.  With the exception of an occasional taxi or bus ride, you can spend months getting reacquainted with your feet.  (If you can't stand walking, see #9.)

Keys made in the street

13. Any imaginable service can be engaged, from the man who types letters to the guy who repairs watches to the lady with a scale who tells you your weight.

14. Compassion is not considered a sign of weakness.  Bus drivers stop to give change to old ladies, calling them "grandma," and shopkeeps indulge children with coins, telling them to go buy a sweet.  People talk to beggars, and often I'm the only one who doesn't give.

A happy child even without a sweet

15. In the time it's taken to read this, you could have had your shoes shined, your car washed, or your phone plan renewed.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

The man behind the barista: visiting a coffee grower in Peru

Shortly before leaving for my Kiva fellowship, I had an iced coffee so good that I thanked the barista.  Today, I got to thank the man who grew the beans--not the actual beans, probably, but the kind of high-quality beans that must have gone into such a drink.  Experts say that while Peru doesn't produce nearly the quantity of its famous neighbor, the quality of its coffee can be even better, in part because production is on such a small scale, mostly on tiny family farms.  Avelino Perez, 62, is one such small coffee farmer; he has taken out a Kiva loan of $325 to buy compost and fertilizer, and it's my job to check that everything's in order, and see how he and his business are doing.

Where the clouds come down to greet you
Perhaps it's fanciful to suppose that something delicious should come from somewhere beautiful, but Avelino's farm is the stuff wall calendars are made of, tucked away in heaving mountains shrouded in mist and lush with vegetation.  From Pucará, a mere hamlet two days north of Lima, it takes three hair-raising hours on a motorcycle to reach him.  I've hiked trails that were in better condition than this road.  Ebert, the loan officer, and I pass small waterfalls and huge, panoramic vistas.  We pull over for trucks, women with babies on their backs, and men in enormous hats with machetes slung over their shoulders.  We stop often for directions and still find ourselves puzzling over which scratch in the dirt to follow.

Avelino's house on a hill
 We're greeted by Avelino's son, who says his father is out in the fields, pointing to a black spot I can barely make out a couple ridges down.  When we explain that we've come a long way to see Avelino, the son and Avelino's wife and a daughter and grandson send out a bucket brigade of shouts urging him to come in.

Appearing much more quickly than I would have thought, Avelino is flattered to have a visitor from Pucará, let alone the United States.  This is my third borrower visit, but the process continues to remind me of the famous scene in The Wizard of Oz when the film jumps from black and white to color, as this person who was just a face on an Internet page appears live before me.  He readily agrees to be photographed, and urges his daughters to pose as well, but they are shy and wary.  He is a man of expansive gestures and simple words.  His biggest concern seems to be that we might catch cold from the wind (delightfully cool to me after the swelter of Pucará, in the desert plain thousands of feet below); he continuously urges us to rest "inside," by which he means closer to the doorway of his adobe brick house, farther in under the corrugated tin roof, away from the dangling laundry.

Proud papa of profitable plants
I ask if we can see some of his plantings, and he happily leads us down the steep hillside thick with the short, dark-leaved trees that spawn the magic beans.
"Growing coffee must be very hard," I offer.
"No, it's easy," he says.
His weathered hands suggest otherwise.
"What's the hardest part?" I persist.
"Preparing the ground is difficult," he allows.  "After that, all is easy."
People in northern Peru have been teased for "singing" their Spanish, and country folk do so even more than city people.  The way Avelino says "easy" is the auditory equivalent of a first baseman lobbing a practice throw to home plate: indolently expressive.

I ask if he has any dreams, what more he'd like to do with another loan, but he seems baffled by the question.  "Improve your house, send your children to school, perhaps?" I suggest.  "Yes, yes, these things are very important," he agrees.  "Pay medical expenses also."  I often have to chide students away from the "poor but happy" stereotype of college essays, so I don't want to romanticize this man who spends his days in backbreaking labor.  But there is something refreshingly "grounded" about him, and I realize that the reason he has trouble talking about dreams is that his are essentially the same as everyone's.  Some of us chase dreams in business, or firefighting, or sales, or medicine, or teaching--he pursues them with coffee.

Experienced hands make tasty coffee
Though I fancy myself a connoisseur of coffee, and I've visited both plantations and processing plants before, I learn things from Avelino.  Ripe coffee "cherries" are sweet, but unripe ones are tasteless.  Not all ripe berries are red; he has one variety that ripens yellow.  Most plants mature at the same time, but not all: within a few feet are some whose "cherries" have desiccated into husks, while others are still flowering.

I ask Avelino how much a kilo of coffee sells for: 2 or 3 soles, he says (less than a dollar).  I'm almost afraid to tell him that in the US a kilo of good coffee can cost twenty times that or more.  "Coffee is the best crop for Peruvians," he insists.  Even though he sacrifices most of the profits to distributors and processors, he still nets far more than he would with such common, low-margin crops as corn, beans, or potatoes--which he grows in small quantities for his family, as well as keeping chickens and pigs and a cow or two.  He's very proud of his several hectares of coffee, but not too proud to be a subsistence farmer on the side.
The women of the family consent to a portrait

The burning question for me is, does he drink his own coffee?  Yes, he says, he has his own machine for husking the beans as well as a wooden toaster, but it's the wrong season for that now.  Thus my hopes of tasting coffee in the spot where it's grown are dashed--and not for the first time.  One of the many ironies of the coffee industry is that the beverage is almost never available anywhere near the plant, because the processing is almost all done in North America and Europe, even though cultivation is exclusive to the tropics.

Avelino is surprised when I tell him that we don't grow coffee in the United States.
"Too cold," I say.
"Aaahhh, it gets cold here too," he says.
"Do you get snow?" I ask.
"Noooo.  A sprinkling in the sky, maybe.  Nothing on the ground."
"Where I come from in winter the ground is covered in ice and snow."
"So cold!?" he says, almost skeptically.  "My plants would not like that."

Night falls fast this close to the equator; dreading the long, breathtaking, butt-pounding ride home, I suggest that maybe, regrettably, it's time to go, thanking Avelino profusely for letting me pester him with questions and photos.  Yet the funny thing is, in the end he thanks me.

You can say "thanks" to Avelino and other small-scale farmers by making a Kiva loan of your own at http://www.kiva.org.  To support others in Avelino's area, and the microfinance organization where I'm working (Edpyme Alternativa, Chiclayo, Peru), click here.

Friday, September 4, 2015

Dogs and beer

For the last week I've been training to be a Kiva Fellow at Kiva headquarters in San Francisco.  There's a lot to be said about Kiva, and its Fellows program, but for now I want to focus on their office, which validates many of the seemingly outlandish claims I'd heard about Silicon Valley work environments being more like Montessori classrooms than offices.  Coming as I do from a tradition-bound Anglophillic prep school, this is both shocking and refreshing.

There are no walls--at least no permanent ones.  The large, high-ceilinged workspace, with exposed heating ducts, concrete floors, and an "industrial" aesthetic, creates subdivisions only with sliding doors, curved plywood partial partitions, desks and other furniture, and shower curtains.  Given that some 100 people are intently manning computer workstations and collaborating in various sub-groups, the noise level is surprisingly low.

Flexible seating

There are no individual desks.  People seem to have designated spots, but they're all at common tables shared by six or more co-workers, and people move around a lot, from big low rectangular tables to big high rectangular tables to small round high tables to small round low tables to couches to stools to chairs to Yoga balls.
The revolution will not be leashed

If there's any hierarchy, I can't see it.  Regional managers, who are pretty close to the top of the Kiva "food chain," sit next to interns, and Fellows, mere volunteers, are allowed to wander at will.  The corporate counsel, a tall, bright-faced woman of barely 30, looks more like an elementary school teacher than a lawyer.  The CEO, a rail-thin Swiss man of maybe 50, wears sneakers, jeans, and a button-down shirt, and could hardly be more self-effacing or casual.

Dogs are welcome; one cinnamon-pelted husky-heavy mutt wanders the office most days in search of willing Fetch partners or head-scratchers.

Let my people drink!
Both a keg and a dedicated beer fridge grace the closest thing to an auditorium, a semicircle of chairs facing a pull-down projection screen with a pair of incongruously old-school Klipsch speakers hooked up to wireless mikes and a giant computer monitor.  People wirelessly plug and unplug their laptops to this and any of several other oversized monitors whenever the need arises.  Macs and PCs, desktops and laptops, are all happily married.  Outlets are everywhere; a cluster of every known phone charging cable pokes through a hole in one of the lunch tables.

The kitchen would not satisfy a compulsive cleaner, but food is shared and dishes attended to with reasonable alacrity and thoroughness without any apparent supervision.  Though lunch becomes a lively social hour, eating at your desk, or in a small working group, is not uncommon.
Fussball, anyone?

Dress is very casual: on Monday, the president gave the closest we've come to a formal talk in jeans and a sport shirt, tails untucked.  The next day he sat down at lunch with whoever happened to be around.

The closest anything comes to a private room is an enclosure with one glass wall and a sliding door.  The only space without a glass wall is the "quiet work area," whose door never closes; looking a lot like an old-fashioned library, it features a life-size statue of Yoda.

May the force of innovation be with you

At the far opposite end of the space is a hammock room.
How's it hangin'?

About midway between is "Thunderdome," the largest discrete space apart from the "auditorium," where, in case the giant monitor proves inadequate, the long internal wall, painted green, can be written on like a whiteboard.

Don't fence me in

Kiva staffers seem universally peppy, and private conversations have confirmed that while the pay is low, work conditions are commensurately low-key.  Nonetheless, I can't believe that all this casualness comes without a price: 40 hours a week in front of a computer screen has a strong taint of drudgery, no matter how you package it, and nonprofits can be just as exploitative, in their own way, as any soulless corporation.  Being noise-averse, and working best alone, I might struggle to be productive or happy at Kiva.  Still, I wonder, if Kiva can accomplish so much with dogs and beer, why do the rest of us persist with neckties and closed doors?  Is it possible for work to be too cozy?

Rainbow of ideas