Wednesday, February 1, 2017

The Big Bad Wolf

Warm greeting from a stranger in Islamabad
It's been more than a decade and a half since 9/11, and terrorism hasn't gone away.  It's not going to.  We can and should work to contain and control and reduce it, but when we talk about "eradicating" it, we're kidding ourselves.  Terrorism is like mosquitoes--annoying, and persistent, but mostly an irritation more than a crisis.  If that sounds callus, think about how many people die every year from guns, or car accidents, or infectious diseases--or counter-terrorism.  Being "honest" about terrorism is not claiming that you know how to defeat it, but admitting that we have to live with some of it.  Maybe it's time we started thinking about a sense of balance: how far are we willing to go to fight this unconquerable enemy?  How many innocent people will we condemn to living in danger or desperation just for the chance of catching one or two monsters?  How many resources will we divert from schools and hospitals and parks?

Lately we seem increasingly willing to dismiss entire nations, cultures, and religions, forgetting, at our peril, that no country is ever more nor less than the sum of its people.  Heroes and despots come and go; economies rise and fall; political ideologies blossom and fester; natural resources are exploited and exhausted; but the citizenry endures.  And in my experience, in over 50 countries, the overwhelming majority of people are not only innocent, but kind, warm, generous, curious, and profoundly hospitable.  Maybe we should return the favor.

In light of recent moves to make the USA significantly less of a welcome mat to the world, I want to share a few stories and photos of people in "bad" places who've surprised me with their goodness.  I'd like to see folks visit a country before they bomb it or ban it--or at least heed those who have.

Custom-made suit for less than $100
In St. Louis, Senegal, I had a suit made.  At the end of complicated negotiations due to my limited French, the tailor, a bent-backed old black man in long blue robes, a white fez, and thick glasses, took my money, shook my hand, and promised to mail me the suit in a week or two.  As I was organizing my luggage later at the hotel, the receptionist told me I had a visitor.  It was the tailor, who pressed a wad of bills into my hand.  "C'est beaucoup," he said, closing my hand around the bills when I tried to give them back.  "C'est beaucoup."  I was sure I'd paid only as much as we'd agreed, yet he'd gone to the trouble of finding my hotel and trudging over in the afternoon heat to deliver this "refund" I didn't think I deserved.  So often I hear Americans worry about getting "ripped off" whenever they leave the homeland, yet here a person who could easily have taken advantage of me went out of his way not to.

Streetside tailoring
In Hunza, Pakistan, my backpack needed some TLC.  This fellow happily made repairs for me, and then refused to let me pay him.  I don't know where to get such work done at home for any price.

Free Ramadan dinner in Istanbul
Outside the central mosque in Istanbul, people were handing out flyers inviting tourists to a free dinner and discussion of Islam.  When we came back that evening, we were given VIP treatment: comfortable seats in an air-conditioned room (rare in Istanbul), a thoughtful slide show and question-and-answer session, and an excellent boxed dinner.  In a way it's sad that Muslims feel so assaulted as to need to explain their faith, the second-largest and one of the oldest religions in the world.  But the hospitality was astounding.

Schoolboys in Ayun, Pakistan

Proud soccer fan in Gilgit, Pakistan
In Ayun, Pakistan, our group was invited to visit a madrasa--gents to the boys' side, ladies to the girls' side.  Although madrasa has been made synonymous with "religious indoctrination" in Western media, most are simply village schools; if they favor the Koran, it's partly because no other books are available.  They blend religious and secular education very much like the one-room schoolhouses common in the US a century ago.  When I entered the older boys' classroom, all the students immediately stopped what they were doing, stood up, and said, "Good morning, sir!"  "Thank you," I said.  "It's great to be here.  You remind me of my own students--only more polite."
I saw this boy and itched to have his picture, but couldn't stop.  When I wandered back to find him, he was inside a shop watching soccer with his father, so I asked his father if I could take the boy's picture.  He got up, ushered the boy out into the street, and, wearing a face of immense pride, offered that most elegant of all human gestures, placing a hand over his heart, as if to say, "Please, it would be my honor."

Methuselah?  Santa Claus?  Chitral, Pakistan
I love this picture because this old man has such a sweet expression.  I also love it because when I asked if I could take his picture, he gave the slightest and yet most eager of nods.  Generally young folks are more willing to be photographed, and the elderly can be guarded, but this fellow had clearly been waiting and hoping, as I wandered around the mosque and snapped shots of the younger folks, that I'd include him too.  

Young fellows eager for a photo in Gilgit, Pakistan
I should write a whole other post about mosques, but the dozen or more I visited in Pakistan were anything but breeding grounds for terrorism.  Men came to chat, to nap, to escape the heat, to drink or wash in clean water, to have picnics or family reunions, to play games, to meet friends.  They were community centers of the sort all too many American communities have lost.  And they brought back acute memories of my childhood, when the best part of going to church was neither Sunday school nor the service, but the social time afterward, when the kids got to run semi-wild while the grownups chatted over coffee and cakes.  

Foreigners drawing attention in Skardu, Pakistan
In many parts of the world, crossing the border is a bigger deal for the guards than the visitors.  This is not because there aren't dangers--most frontier towns are hotbeds of smuggling, money laundering, drug trafficking, abductions, and other crimes.  Yet the immigrations and customs officers are often itching with curiosity to observe and converse with foreigners.  Once when I crossed into Bolivia the officer spent what felt like forever leafing through my passport--not because he suspected me of anything, but because he'd never seen such visa stamps, or maybe any American passport.  In Uganda they opened the border post just for my overland group, and when the electricity failed, they checked us through by candlelight.  

People keep saying that they're not against refugees, they're just for security.  I hope so.  And I hope they'll join me in doing something to help people in troubled areas of the world.  One excellent way is by making a Kiva loan, and targeting it to "conflict zones" or "refugees/displaced persons."  Poverty doesn't discriminate, and neither does Kiva; their intrepid Fellows do good work even in "bad" countries.

We've been hearing a lot about the "bad guys" lately.  Maybe it's time we start focusing on the good people.
Happiness is a cool hat: Skardu, Pakistan

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Divided we rise

Italian wisdom
Several times a day, for several months now, the news has been reminding us how divided we are as a nation.  I'm not convinced.  This relentless pessimism, which is really a kind of nostalgia, reminds me of how teachers constantly bemoan the supposed decline in students: those of yesteryear were always somehow smarter, better read, more tastefully dressed, more polite, more mature, probably even better-looking.  Yet there's no hard evidence of this.  I strongly suspect that if today's students really are lacking in some areas, they more than make up for it in others.  I remember the blank faces of my very well-read parents as I enthused during October break from college about a class on Asian religions, and realizing that they no longer knew more than me so much as they knew different things.  Even with the help of spelling and grammar checkers, my students are unable to create prose as error-free as what I used to generate in cursive, yet they can cut and paste photos into an online presentation, or film and edit a short movie, to make my head spin.  And those are just the obvious intellectual advances: there are also countless forms of social and moral progress, like the fact that homophobia, which was assumed throughout my childhood, is now all but extinct.

I can only shake my head at reports of liberal children turned away from the conservative family Thanksgiving table, or Democrats who've suspended their morning constitutional lest they be forced to converse with Republican neighbors.  Are we really so boring that all we can talk about is donkeys and elephants?  Was Thoreau right to complain that common fellowship is merely a dose of  "that old musty cheese that we are"?

Keep the "passion" in the juice, and out of polite conversation
Three things happened recently to remind me that plenty of common ground remains despite all the political posturing.

Days after the election, a former student sent me a long, distraught email saying that as an immigrant, an Indian, and a woman, she didn't feel safe; her parents were leaving Michigan, and she could no longer consider living in a "red" state.  I talked her down as best I could by email, and we agreed to have lunch while she was in town for winter break.  Thanks to my counsel, or the passage of time, she was back to her old buoyant self by then.  In fact, she reported, she was dating someone who'd voted for Trump, whose kindness and sensitivity--including staying up late to comfort her throughout election night, and making her breakfast the morning after--had reminded her how artificial the political divide can be.

An acquaintance who's been forwarding virulently pro-Trump and anti-Obama emails by the bucketload sent a personal email of appreciation for a blog on my sister site (Rocinante's Apple) which I'd conceived as a way of poking fun at a conservative view of foreign policy.  Rarely does anyone, left or right, take the time to express thanks for a blog post.  It seems we can at least still laugh with each other, or even at each other, and the old courtesies are not gone from this world.

Peppers + fire = magic
The day before Thanksgiving, in pursuit of what's become an annual tradition of making ajvar, a Serbian salsa of roasted red peppers blended with olive oil and garlic, I was outside with my bon aimée roasting peppers, sipping scotch, and smoking a cigar.  I got some funny looks from passing cars and pedestrians, as I always do, and everything seemed normal until the mailman walked up.  He looked at me, smiled, and said, "You like cigars?"

     "Yeah," I said.
     "I'll bring you some," he said.
     "Sure.  I'm half Cuban, I get 'em all the time.  You gonna be here Friday?"
     "Yeah, I'll be here."
     "I'll bring some by Friday afternoon."
     "That'd be wonderful.  Thanks.''
     "No problem.  See you Friday."

We missed each other Friday, and Saturday I left my mother's house for Michigan.  But when I visited again for Christmas, a plastic bag filled with two tinfoil cylinders awaited me.  Gingerly unwrapping them, I found two Cohibas, Havana's finest smoke--not an easy thing to come by, given the embargo.  You can fly to the Caribbean and smuggle some back, you can drive to Canada and sneak some across, or you can befriend your mailman.
Stocking stuffer for grownups

It was almost New Year's by the time I found a chance to smoke them, standing around  in the apron of my mom's garage with my very "blue" sister and our staunchly "red" old friend.  We found plenty to talk about, savoring the peaty scotch and sweet, spicy smoke, remembering all the previous times each of us had enjoyed a real habano, and chuckling over the serendipity of having a mailman for a "supplier."

By then I'd run into the mailman a couple more times, and he'd promised to bring me more cigars.  Busy with the aftermath of Christmas and preparations for New Year's, I didn't see him again until Saturday morning, New Year's Eve, as I was heading out to a friend's house in Massachusetts.  Making a pit stop at my mom's house after getting gas, we spotted the mail truck on an adjacent block.  By the time we left the house a final time, we had to circle around the neighborhood to find him, but eventually we were able to wave him down.

     "I'm so glad I saw you," he said.  "I forgot to bring these yesterday.  Enjoy." He handed me another plastic bag.
     "Wait, I have something for you," I said, dashing back to the car.
     "Do you drink?" I said, presenting him with a bottle of whiskey--a brand-new product from my "red" friend's distillery, as it happened.  I felt stupid asking, but people have so many prohibitions these days.
     "Sure," he said.  "Thanks."
We shook hands, smiling, he off to deliver mail and cigars like a kind of Cuban-American Santa Claus, and me off to keep adolescents out of trouble and into knowledge, like Ichabod Crane in a compact car.
The real deal

When we talk about being "divided," the media benefit, and perhaps the politicians benefit, but reality suffers.  Even if we are more divided in a strictly political sense, who cares?  We have so many more opportunities to be united, or to come together despite our supposed divisions.  It's up to us, as real people, to be better than the pundits, pollsters, and politicos.  Being unwilling to see the thousand shades of "purple" behind the "red" and "blue" is a failure of imagination, a selective blindness.  All last fall, on my Kiva Fellowship, I had deep, far-ranging conversations with coffee farmers and shopkeeps and horse breeders in a different language, an alien culture, and a level of poverty so deep they might as well have been from another planet.  Yet people claim that Americans, who share everything except a political party, can't talk to one another?!

Pass the cigar.

Friday, July 8, 2016

What a world we live in

Plaza Doña Elvira, where I wrote this blog
Every time I look at the news, it's terrorism, nutty politicians, wacky weather, economic spasms, and 38 flavors of gossip and hoo-ha.  All in all, pretty depressing stuff.  Yet the world around us, for the most part, isn't depressing at all.  From my perspective, it's a grand new adventure every day. 

I'm hardly a champion of technology, or progress, or an uncritical fan of the modern age.  My travels and years have taught me that there's plenty of suffering in the world, and it's not at all evenly shared.  And I'm by no means immune to nostalgia.  But it's important to put things in context, and not miss the small wonders that make this a wonderful time to be alive.

Yesterday I took a day trip to Cordoba.  Thanks to the outstanding Spanish rail system, a 100-mile journey takes a mere 40 minutes on the AVE, a futuristic airplane-on-wheels sort of train.  It's expensive, and somewhat soulless, but it moves like greased glass at up to 250 kph, hydraulic pumps tilting the cars off their wheels on turns, all but silent thanks to being electric.  It features a bar car, or cafetería, with blonde faux-wood kidney-shaped tables, and counters under the windows which are specially modified to be the right height to gaze out of while leaning on the counters or tables.  Recessed lights in the ceiling mimic a starry sky.  By morning it gets busy serving cappuccino, and by late afternoon it gets rowdy serving cocktails, and, sometimes, actual draft beer.  And they take American Express.
Why the long face, Speedy?
Call me a terminal optimist, but I find it hard not to feel pretty good about the state of the world while sipping a gin and tonic on an air-conditioned train speeding past olive groves and stone farmhouses three times as fast (and much smoother and quieter) as I could legally drive.  Globalization has brought plenty of evils, but at moments like this it seems pretty nifty, and those who seek to make violent disruptions, or relentless critiques, completely missing the point.
Happy hour at 250 kph
I love trains so much I'd be happy to ride a route one way, get off and stretch, and get right back on and ride it the opposite way.  But I did have a purpose in going to Cordoba, which was to seek out my favorite pottery, a rustic old Granadan style that seems to be falling out of favor, and perhaps visit a lovely Moroccan tea house I'd found previously.  Having been to Cordoba a few times before, I thought it was time to try taking the bus downtown from the train station instead of a taxi.  I got on the right bus easily enough, happily noting that they take cards or bills or coins, but stop after stop failed to look familiar, until we were clearly past the historic center and I was forced to ask a mother and daughter sitting next to me for help.  They were from out of town too, but the driver chimed in that I'd missed the stop, but no worries, we were almost at the end of the line, and he'd show me just where to get off when we got back to the right stop in about fifteen minutes.
Cordoba's judería (Jewish quarter)

From there an ordinary bus ride turned into an impromptu private tour, as the driver explained to me every neighborhood and monument we were passing, inquiring meanwhile where I was from, and enthusing over the bears and alligators and moose and other amazing elements of the great American landscape he'd seen on TV.  I remembered the time in Chile when I'd missed my stop on the local bus and ridden way out to a dusty sub-suburb of Temuco, where the driver amiably informed me that I should get out and climb aboard the waiting adjacent bus to go back into town and find the stop I'd obviously missed.  I'd seen more of Temuco, and now Cordoba, than I ever would have without making a mistake.  And I'd made a friend--two hours later, as I was circumnavigating the ancient mosque and its throngs of souvenir stores, I heard a persistent honking behind me and finally turned to see bus #3, with the same driver smiling and waving at me.

Gazpacho de naranja
An emblem of religious harmony
I lunched at Casa Nazal, which does for gastronomy what the nearby Sephardic Jewish Museum does for history.  Longtime readers will know that I'm more than a casual foodie, and have eaten my way across five continents.  I do not say lightly, therefore, that the appetizer, orange gazpacho, was one of the most interesting things I've ever eaten: perhaps even more exciting visually than on the palate, despite being served cold it somehow sizzled, apparently from toasted flower petals that garnished the barely sweet, slightly creamy liquid.  The entrée was a bit more "deconstructed" than the high water mark of couscous I enjoyed in Morocco, but the garnish of raisins and pumpkin seeds begged the question why "normal," European food so rarely involves this kind of complexity.  I've only had Sephardic food one other time, at the Johannesburg Jewish Museum, and it too was like something from another planet.  Much more nuanced than many other iterations of "Middle Eastern" food, it bears no resemblance to corned beef, pickles, egg creams, and all the other examples of Jewish food so common in the US, where nearly all Jews are Ashkenazi.  Two different sources contend that there are Jewish families in Turkey, Morocco, and elsewhere who still have the keys to the houses they were evicted from in the 15th century, when Spain expelled all its Jews.  In the 1980s, after Franco, some of them started moving back, and there are now active synagogues in Seville, Granada, and Toledo for the first time in half a millennium.  Why don't jaw-dropping events like this ever make the headlines?

Small wonder in the small streets of Seville
I've long maintained that there's no such thing as a wrong turn.  My experience missing bus stops certainly proves that, and so do the old neighborhoods of Seville, where there are so many abrupt turns, blind alleys, and dead ends that the whole historic center is a play on the old Maine rebuttal, "You can't get there from here"--at least not directly.  Yet it almost never seems apt to say you're "lost" in Seville, because around every other corner blooms a plaza fragrant with jasmine and whispering with a fountain, a plaque in three languages commemorating Muslims, Jews, and Christians sharing this space, an 800-year-old remnant of the original city walls, or a small orgy of azulejos (hand-painted tiles) surrounding a massive carved wooden door.  Even if you ignore the inviting café-bars spreading umbrella-shaded tables in all directions, Seville is a place not to get lost, but found.

I overhear a lot of English-speaking tourists, and they seem to have an unending litany of complaints: it's so hot, the food is too oily, the streets are too narrow, my phone doesn't work here, I'm tired of sangria, all my clothes are dirty, my feet hurt, . . . Who cares?  You're in one of the world's most beautiful cities, the weather is perfect, the food is wonderful, it's safe and clean, everyone is polite and helpful, and you're completely free.  Free to discover, or free to be told--the choice is yours.

Even the bottoms of things are beautiful

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Smaller. Stronger. Better.

A city with a sense of humor
A few years ago New York was peppered with billboards that proclaimed, in bold orange and pink letters superimposed over cups of coffee and arrays of doughnuts, "Faster.  Cheaper.  Better."  The prosecutor, so to speak, was obviously Dunkin Donuts, but the defendant was unnamed.  Everyone was left to assume that the unspecified proprietor of expensive, slow, bad coffee was that great green-aproned monster, Starbucks.  This struck me as a brilliant ad campaign, lampooning not only the usual flaws in Starbucks (complicated menu, burnt taste, high prices) but its more specific problems in the City That Never Sleeps, where even normally cheap things cost an arm and a leg, and there's no tolerance for waste or sluggishness or pretension.  New York is nothing if not no-nonsense, and while DD may not make gourmet coffee, it delivers the basic goods quickly and simply.

Artificially shaded street
On a two week trip to Seville now, I'd like to borrow Dunkin Donuts' slogan to describe most things in Spain.  It's as if everything Americans are used to has been concentrated, boiled down, magnified, and distilled into a smaller, stronger version of itself.  Coffee, which is always espresso-based, comes in tiny white cups, or, if you ask for café con leche, a small glass.  I've tried and failed to replicate this at any number of American cafés: less than a latte and more than a cappuccino, it tastes more deeply coffee-ish than either.  The worst coffee in Spain is equal to some of the best in the US, and the best is otherworldly.  Yet the barmen who make it are so casual, stabbing open great golden bags of beans to run quickly through their sleek, steam-spewing machines as if making great coffee were as simple as pouring a Coke.  (Apologies to my patritotic countrymen, but Coke also tastes better in Spain--and most foreign countries--because it's made with sugar instead of corn syrup and comes in a heavy glass bottle.)

Most drinks other than coffee are served in the same simple 8-ounce glasses known as tubos.  (Coke gets its own curvy green glass.)  This seems a laughably small amount of beer, but there's a hidden advantage in that you can finish it before it gets warm, and it balances the tapa that accompanies it.  Orange juice is almost always fresh-squeezed, an elaborate machine that feeds actual oranges through a mechanical splitter and juicer crowding the corner of most bars.

A hanging forest of hams
American ham is such a caricature of Spanish that it gets its own word: york.  Jamón serrano, blood red and intensely aromatic, is so strong that it is sliced paper-thin and arrayed like jewels on a platter.  It comes in a head-spinning number of grades, including ordinary jamón serrano, from ordinary grain-fed pigs; jamón iberico de pata negra, from black pigs interbred with wild boars; jamón iberico de bellota, from pigs fed on acorns; and jamón iberico enamorado, from pigs that were in love.  (Okay, I made that last one up.)  It's easy to poke fun at the near-religious fervor with which Spaniards approach ham, but even vegetarians have been known to weaken at the taste.
About $10 worth of pork raised to the highest power

The labyrinthine streets of the historic center of Seville are in many cases too narrow for cars, with the happy result that pedestrians rule--though Vespas and other motorbikes do pose an occasional menace, their inadequate mufflers creating a racket that reverberates among the closely spaced buildings.  Even VW Golfs and smaller are diesels.

Despite the prevalence of well-marbled ham, fried squid and eggplant, crusty white bread, potato salad drowning in mayonnaise and grilled vegetables (and everything) swimming in olive oil, to say nothing of ice cream shops and pastry stores on every corner, the people are smaller too.  Spaniards can be dwarfishly short or outlandishly tall, but they're almost uniformly slender--though there does seem to be a sudden tipping point around 45 when huge bellies emerge on men and thick hips and arms on women.  Evidently marriage is bad for the constitution.  The typical strong features--white skin, black hair, heavy eyebrows and chins surrounding fine noses--soften at this point too.

Even the Dumpsters are tiny
The compactness of everything occasionally becomes comical, like the bathroom door of my hotel room that only opens 45 degrees before hitting the toilet, or barstools that can scarcely be moved without banging into the adjacent table, itself too small to comfortably hold enough drinks and tapas for the number of chairs surrounding it.  Where parking is allowed, every car is boxed in so tightly that it seems only a crane could extricate it.

Even the sun is extra-intense; mornings are pleasant, and nights tolerable, but afternoons drive the world under umbrellas and awnings--equipped with cold water misters--for lunch, and then inside for a long nap.  Visitors learn quickly to do almost anything to avoid standing in the sun, or walking on the unshaded side of the street.  Between the long days and overcharged sun, 6 or 7 in the evening feels like early afternoon.

Cocktails on the train
The heat makes drinking and eating a major component of Spanish life.  Though Coke, orange juice, and other cold beverages are widely available, there's no distinction between "hard" and "soft" drinks, and only children and foreigners drink nonalcoholic ones.  This would be a terrible place for recovering alcoholics, when wine and soda merge into that seductive refresher known as tinto de verano, draft beer flows like water, and cocktails from the classic gin and tonic (Spain pioneered gin) to the modern caipiriña are ubiquitous.  Far from a teetotaler, even I am a bit dumbstruck at the clanking, banging volume of kegs and bottles nightly churned through at a typical bar, when every other business is a bar, sometimes half a dozen clustered so closely together you have to squint to see which you're entering.

The night belongs to Spain.  My previous visit to Seville was a day trip, and its charms eluded me: a giant cathedral, orange trees out of bloom, horse-drawn carriages and their attendant shit--what was the big deal?  But the liveliness of a Seville night, when every sidewalk becomes an obstacle course of rowdy tables, and lines of standing drinkers snake half a block away from popular bars, is unrivaled.  The much-ballyhooed Temple Bar area of Dublin matches Seville in noise and volume of alcohol consumption, but lacks both the gastronomic splendor of tapas and the elegance of people drinking for refreshment rather than oblivion.

Typical old-fashioned bar, too early (9 pm) for typical crowds
The USA has its charms, of course, but we really missed something when it comes to café culture.  Even in the punishing afternoon heat, bleary with jet-lag, my first stroll through the old town of Seville made me smile: everyone goes out here, from toddlers to tottering old ladies, and in a city built for strolling, there's nothing more natural than sitting down for a drink and a snack.  Somebody has to work for all this indulgence, no doubt--I pity the poor masons and plumbers I've seen laboring in this merciless sun--but it seems that most are working to live rather than living to work.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Kiva Fellow Superpowers

In the movie Taken Liam Neeson says, “I don’t have money.  But what I do have is a set of very particular skills that makes me a nightmare for someone like you.”  Kiva is about altruism, not vengeance, but our Fellows are just as skilled (in a non-violent way) as any ex-spy.

Many people assume that all foreign travel is basically a beach vacation, and anyone could do it if they just had the time or money.  One friend asked me, "Apart from speaking Spanish, what skills do you have?"  This got me curious about what special skills my fellow Fellows have, so I asked them to share their proudest moments.  The sampling below makes clear that many Kiva Fellows deserve capes, leotards, and letters on their chests.

So just what does a Kiva Fellow do?

  1. Spend 8 hours a day, 3 days a week plodding through mud and sewage until you're covered from the knees down
    Hot-footing it through the muddy, sewage-soaked slums of Nairobi
  2. Meet shy, nervous borrowers and get them talking--in your second language and their third--until they open up and make "thank you" videos
  3. Convince a group of old men at a banking confrence to be interested in what a young female foreigner has to say
  4. With no prior planning, help an Iraqi woman formalize her business plan in the Arabic you can barely remember from childhood
  5. Dance Friday night away with co-workers and return to work totally professional Saturday morning
  6. Charm local partners into helping you even though they're "too busy"
  7. Eat everything that's offered to you, from unidentifiable fruits to crazy-sweet coffee to frozen potatoes to guinea pig to grasshoppers--and smile and say it's delicious
    Rwandan treat
  8. Ride the bus for 19 hours and go straight to work when you get off (in another country)
  9. Practice agenda-yoga, accepting that what should take an hour takes an afternoon, and what's scheduled for tomorrow won't happen until next week
  10. Spend 9 hours a day, 5 days a week in a hot, crowded, noisy office 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--in Spanish
    On good days, the fan works and the computer runs
  11. Navigate a bustling mess of people pushing their way through to the markets, vendors peddling goods, and buses that skim by within an inch of the nearest person to find the right minivan among hundreds
    Maelstrom of minivans in Kampala, Uganda
  12. Convince 34 hesitant borrowers to go public at the biggest launch in history
  13. "Shrink" the world by showing a borrower his page of 59 lenders, making him fall silent for a couple seconds and then smile very shy without any words, knowing that so many people out there are supporting his grocery business
    Kiva Magic: a borrower sees his own loan page (Taiwan)
  14. Get students interested in microfinance by being guest speaker at a university
  15. Ride for hours on end hugging the back of a motorcycle, dodging stampedes of cows; get stranded by mechanical problems; hike barely existent footpaths freshly soaked from a recent downpour to reach every borrower
    Over the river and through the woods to borrowers' houses we go. . .  (Nicaragua)
  16. Travel by plane, bus, motorcycle, bicycle, rickshaw, tuk-tuk, boat, raft, horse, donkey, camel, elephant, and rope ladder
  17. Forge friendships on the spot: begin with cocktails and end with partners, making the gears turn in strangers' heads, inspired by the possibilities of low-interest loans
  18. Keep a group of 18 curious, competitive women calm and harmonious enough to take a picture
    More curious than camera-shy in rural Ghana
  19. Turn a cold call from a representative of a microfinance institution you've never heard of, with no connection to Kiva, into a new partnership
  20. Convince low-income immigrant women to take a chance on seeking a crowdfunded loan
  21. Halfway up a mountain, turn asking for directions into a conference on what Kiva can do for the village
    Borrowers-to-be in Manzanapanga, Ecuador
  22. With less than one day to fundraise a new loan, push for 100% and get there
  23. Live with mosquito nets, bucket showers, blackouts, glacial Internet, paper shortages, toner shortages, water shortages, fuel shortages, change shortages, toilet paper shortages
  24. Make beggars smile, co-workers laugh, and borrowers cry with joy
    Smiles need no translation (Ghana)
To support the microfinance institutions where I'm working, click here (Cooperativa San José, San José de Chimbo, Ecuador), or here (Edpyme Alternativa, Chiclayo, Peru).

To make a loan to almost anywhere else in the world, click here:

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

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.