Microfinance

A Day in the Life

[caption id="attachment_221" align="alignleft" width="250" caption="The Ceres bus from Bacolod to Escalante"][/caption] Today I woke up at 5:30 in order to make the 1.5-hour trip to Cadiz City before the first center meeting.  The bus passes by 100 or so kilometers of sugar cane farms and fields.  The loan officers arrive at the branch around 8 AM.   There will be 14 center meetings led by 7 loan officers.  Each loan officer is in charge of 1-3 meetings per day, depending on the proximity and size of the centers, which range from 6 to 85 members.  This morning, all the loan officers are heads-down, calculating the day’s payments from the clients.  It is important that this work is done ahead of time, as promptness and efficiency are a virtue when you are trying to meet with upwards of 100 clients per day. (more…)

Travel and Culture

Thoughts on Mass Tourism

"To be a mass tourist, for me, is to become a pure late-date American: alien, ignorant, greedy for something you cannot ever have, disappointed in a way you can never admit. It is to spoil, by way of sheer ontology, the very unspoiledness you are there to experience. It is to impose yourself on places that in all noneconomic ways would be better, realer, without you. It is, in lines and gridlock and transaction after transaction, to confront a dimension of yourself that is as inescapable as it is painful: As a tourist, you become economically significant but existentially loathsome, an insect on a dead thing." - David Foster Wallace Tourism in Cambodia has taken off over the last decade.  From 1975 to 1979, the Khmer Rouge, a radical Maoist political party, controlled the country.  During the four-year reign, Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge attempted to turn Cambodia into an agrarian socialist state where everyone lived as peasants.  Over two million people – a quarter of the population – were either murdered or died from disease or starvation before the Vietnamese invaded and took control of the country for the next decade.  Only in 1998 with the death of Pol Pot did the civil war end, which is precisely when Cambodia became a hotspot for tourists. In 1998, the country had 217,000 visitors; in 2007, it had about 2.1 million.  By 2010, the tourism minister expects about 3 million.  It’s not surprising, given that the country is stunningly beautiful.  The historical-minded traveler could spend days in Angkor.  Over the last decade, Siem Reap, the provincial capital 10 miles away, has been turned into a traveler’s paradise, with high-end restaurants, massage parlors, and shops across the city.  It is very popular among the French, Japanese, Koreans, and Chinese, all of whom have invested huge amounts of money in building up the infrastructure around Angkor Wat, including an international airport a few kilometers away that can handle wide-bodied jets. (more…)

Travel and Culture

Fixing a Tire at Angkor Wat

[caption id="attachment_167" align="alignleft" width="240" caption="In front of the Bayon, a temple at Angkor Thom."][/caption] Last week I spent three days visiting Angkor Wat and the nearby city of Siem Reap.  I'd arrived two nights before and, in the span of 48 hours, had already become cynical and jaded about the entire experience.  I'd spent the last three days getting ripped off by street vendors, restaurants, and taxi drivers, and was ready to snap.  Feeling downtrodden by the constant scams and suffocating hordes of tour groups, I opted for a more natural, pure means of transportation the second day: a bicycle.  For $1.50, I rented a fixed-gear Chinese bike for the day, threw on the muscle-tee I bought that morning, and started off for the Angkor temples north of Siem Reap. The city of Angkor contains over 1,000 ancient stone temples, dating back over ten centuries.  Built using stones dragged by elephants from mountains miles away, it is both the biggest pre-industrial city in history, spanning 1,000 km in its heyday, and home to the largest religious structure in the world - Angkor Wat, the famous temple depicted on the Cambodian flag.  Once the capital of the great Khmer empire, Angkor was home to over a million people - an impressive feat in 1,200 AD.   Despite it's shortcomings (to which I am an active contributor), it's an amazing sight to see. (more…)

Travel and Culture

Beard Difficulties

In my previous life, I worked at a job that made growing a beard difficult.  Every time I'd let it grow on vacation, I'd get close to an acceptable length, but still below the threshold of respectability.   Naturally, when I learned I'd be working with Negros Women for Tomorrow and Kiva here in the Philippines, I looked at it as a great opportunity to reinvent myself as a man with a beard.  On the street every day, people walk around with beards knowing that they are part of an exclusive fraternity, having chosen to distinguish themselves from the rest of the clean-shaven world.  On this trip, I would not pass up the opportunity. The process began on November 18th, two days before I left work.  I had two weeks before work began in the Philippines, a narrow window for a full bloom.  The above photo was taken on December 20th, showing a month of unchecked growth.  In the first two weeks, I already had a nice base, extending from my sideburns, down my cheek, and underneath my chin.  Halfway down my face, the pattern forms a right angle, before dropping precipitously past my mustache and down to the area below my chin. (more…)

Travel and Culture

Mr. Inasal and Me

The food in the Philippines garners mixed reviews from expats, but, as with most things, they might not be eating the right things.   Beef is harder to come by here, and usually much more expensive.  Fish, white meat (chicken), and the other white meat (pork) are the meats of choice in the country.  And everything comes with rice.  Rice and eggs for breakfast, chicken and rice for lunch, rice and anything else for dinner.  When in doubt, I know I can't go wrong with old faithful - grilled barbecued chicken on a stick.

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Travel and Culture

Dancing for Filipinos

In the Philippines, or maybe just here in Bacolod City, people enjoy celebrations.  Bacolod is called the City of Smiles and is known for its annual MassKara Festival held in October.  The tradition began in 1980, in response to a sugar crisis plaguing the island of Negros and a ferry-capsizing that killed over 700 Negrenses.  To pull the island out of a pervasive gloom, the government organized a weeklong festival in which the participants wear smiling masks.  The festival is a nice metaphor for the general outlook of the island and its people. In a country that is 80% Catholic, at an organization that values family, community, and faith, celebrating the birth of Christ provides a great opportunity to let down your proverbial hair and celebrate.  A Filipino Christmas party is a highly choreographed spectacle of extravagance, filled with singing, dancing, and revelry.  Participation is required by all, including your humble correspondent.  Imagine bottling the spirit that drives some people to sing karaoke, and unleashing it on a Christmas party. (more…)

Travel and Culture

Organized Chaos

Here in Bacolod City, and the rest of the Philippines for that matter, traffic laws are non-existent.  There seem to be no rules governing how you act behind the wheel – only that the horn is your friend, and is especially useful for letting the other guy know that you don’t intend to stop.  Last night, I went swimming with one of my coworkers and her mother at a resort in town (with an Olympic size pool, complete with a water slide, 30-foot statue of a giraffe and an elephant, and a zoo with an old crocodile that, according to my host, may or may not be dead).  On the way to the pool, we narrowly escaped a few accidents.   When Beth, the mother of my coworker, Liz, unsuccessfully tried to pass a jeepney with a bus barreling down the other lane, she shrugged it off.  “Whoops – almost didn’t make it,” she laughed.  When I relayed the fitting description the owner of a bike shop in town used to describe the traffic patterns here – “organized chaos” – she and Liz laughed again (Filipinos like to laugh, particularly here in the city of smiles).  “That may be, but everyone knows the rules here.”  And, as far as I can tell, it seems to be true.  When you drive here in Bacolod, honk your horn when you come to an intersection.  If you get there first, or see even a slight opening, go for it.  Drivers here are masters of the quick brake, mostly out of necessity. (more…)

Travel and Culture

Filipina Heart

The motivations for travel on a Trans-Pacific flight run vary more than your average domestic flight.  Businessmen hammering out last-minute presentations to their Chinese counterparts to your left; a sex tourist that looks, talks, and thinks like a sex tourist to your right.  And you, physically in the middle, but not necessarily anywhere along the same spectrum or plane.    The sex tourist and small business owner from southern Indiana sitting next to me is 48 and right now is en route to Bangkok to meet up with 25 year-old Filipino girl with a 6-year old daughter he met on filipinoheart.com.  When she was 19, she met up with a 50 year-old American who, according to my neighbor, "knocked her up, denied the baby was his, and called her a slut."  He left the country, leaving her with a newborn baby to raise on her own.  Now the sex tourist is heading over there for a week of fun in the sun and a proverbial test run, figuring out whether a) she is the one, and b) whether she is currently married, which means an extra $5,000 for an annulment to get her to the US.  The fact that she has a 6 year-old doesn't seem to bother him.  I might be giving him too much credit, and maybe he has no intention of bringing her back at all.  But she certainly seems to think so.  According to the guy, she's just looking for someone to love her ("they all are").  The good thing for her is that the sex tourist to my left actually seems genuine about bringing at least one of these girls back - his two buddies already have Filipino wives from previous flings. (more…)