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

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.