Archive for August, 2007

Monday August 27, 2007

August 27, 2007 - 6:58 pm 1 Comment

It’s my last full day in Mexico, and I intend to leave without any regrets. The past month has felt like a lifetime, especially in light of the aggressive interview and data analysis schedule I maintained. Over the past few days, I’ve worked sedulously on completing my ppt summary of all the findings – the truncated version of the gargantuan written report that has to be delivered by next Monday. This afternoon, I presented my findings to one of the heads of FINCA Mexico, who pretty much doubted a lot of the results until I walked him through the underlying reasons and data. As I mentioned earlier, the microfinance industry currently lacks a comprehensive social impact study methodology and data, as summarized in the following article:

Microfinance Gateway: The Worrisome State of the Microcredit Movement

Due to difficulties in data gathering and high costs, most microcredit institutions rely on anecdotal evidence to prove their social impact – a methodology that clearly lacks academic rigorosity. More fundamentally, the clients that are the best microcredit candidates are simply not always the most impecunious, given that by definition, they must be more entrepreneurial with sufficient resources to invest in a venture without outrightly consuming their loan.

The fact that the director was quite surprised by the results signals that social data is of great importance. The fragmentation between expectation and reality is a common problem throughout the industry. Since FINCA is already a leader in this field, and hopefully, all follow-up studies will give an additional layer of rigoristy and validity of the results.

I am ready to go home – as of now, even a quotidian day with my family trumps a packed day of sight-seeing here! The good news is that after so many client conversations, data analysis, and presentations, my Spanish speaking ability has improved substantially.



Sunday August 26, 2007

August 26, 2007 - 2:39 pm 2 Comments

Indeed, we all travel alone – by definition, man is a solitary, lonely creature. Nevertheless, I must admit that going an entire day without a real conversation with a human being can create an unnatural chagrin. Since I lack both Internet and television at my current hotel, I´ve been very productive in data analysis and GRE studying. I take a daily 20-minute walk to the Centro each day to enjoy the culinary delights and to spectate the many activities of the inhabitatants. My stay here in Cuernevaca seems almost like a capricious reverie…I lack a conception of time and space, and wander aimlessly.

As a richer city, there are clear meretricious displays of wealth in the district I´m staying at. Many of my neighbors are true sybarites. This morning, I had a special Sunday brunch buffet at ”La India Bonita”, one of the city´s most famous up-scale restauraunts, established in 1933. Located in the former home of a US Ambassador, the dining experience was truly munificent – imagine a quaint garden courtyard with an elaborate fountain, excellent service, and a huge variety of delicate Mexican specialties, ranging from spiced meats, sweet pastries, and fresh fruit to the staples of chilaquiles, queso manchego, and omlettes. I spent a glorious two hours at the restauraunt – dining, reading abook, and attempting to ignore the nagging feeling that I would have so much more fun in my family and friends were there. Nevertheless, I refuse to renege on my duties of doing this presentation for the Central office. Although collecting the data is important, without the analysis, all the effort is for naught.

I think I might just find a nice outdoor café today and just continue my studying and leisurely pastime. The socioeconomic stratification I´ve witnessed in this country is striking. The disparity between the richest and poorest is reprehensible, exacerbated by a poorly run state welfare system.


Saturday August 25, 2007

August 25, 2007 - 8:11 pm 1 Comment

Cuernevaca is a beautiful, clean city with an august Zocalo, an enchanting Cathedral, a munificient Palace that once belonged to Cortés, and wonderfully bright streets teeming with activity. On Friday, I spent my entire day at the FINCA central office preparing my presentation. After working on it continuously from noon to 1.30 AM, and then from 8 AM to 11 AM on Saturday, I finally finished all my analysis! I e-mailed all my results out this morning, and am in the process of making revisions.  

Then, I took a brisk 20 minute walk to the center of town, where I enjoyed all the historic sights and activities. From indolently lounging on a park bench enjoying the mariachi music to enjoying a 3 course lunch and visiting the Cortes Palace, I´ve kept myself occupied and involved in the city´s culture and history. The Cortes palace was really interesting…I learned a lot about the involvement of the Morales state in Mexican independence as well as the severe cruelty of the encomienda system. The museum had a wide variety of exhibits, taking me through prehistory and the classical age to colonialism and 19th century Mexico. To imagine all the slave labor involved in the building of the palace, and the fact that Old World diseases killed 75% of the Indian population in less than five years…history reminds us that justice is an illusory concept defined by the winners.

I´ve gotten so used to traveling alone…it´s no where near as fun as going with friends and family. In general, the people who I meet here are rather perplexed that I decided to travel by myself. I´m getting quite homesick, but I know I can pull through these last couple of days! I saw a television program on Hong Kong cuisine a few days ago, and felt miserable the entire day because I miss the vibrance of Asia and the sheer delight of Chinese cooking. I´ve eaten so many tortillas here that the taste of ground corn is nearly an epeptic…


Thursday August 23, 2007

August 23, 2007 - 9:38 pm 3 Comments

Dreadful weather in Iguala continues. Since many of the towns I visit have unpaved roads, I trudge through thick inches of mud and dirty water to get to their houses. Given my proclivity towards mosquito bites, I was sincerely nettled when one of the clients informed me that dengue – a serious tropical disease carried by mosquitoes – was quite common in the area. Due to the fact that I am a solitary traveler, I have indulged a lot more idle worries, many perhaps insalubrious.

I finished my last day of interviewing without any difficulty. After completing approximately 180 interviews by now, I know the questionnaire by heart and have seen the full spectrum of multifarious responses. I´ve met so many different loan officers and offices, and have gotten very familar with their diurnal obligations. Everday that I interview the clients, I am reminded that hap and birthright determine a great portion of opportunity. My ability to live as fully as I do right now is sadly a product of mere chance, nothing deserved.

I am literally going to be sick if I eat another tortilla. After three full weeks of Mexican food, I am sick of the same flavors, spices, and tastes. The food lacks the delicacy and variety of Chinese food, compounded by the perfidious presence of large portions of grease and sugar. I can´t wait to go home and sample my dear mother´s culinary delights!

Tomorrow, I´ll leave for Cuernevaca – a 2 hour bus ride away. Traveling alone is always slightly uncomfortable, but I´ve gotten accustomed to my own lonely company. I´ll have to crunch away at the numbers in preparation for the presentation on Monday…I just hope that my group members get me the data as soon as possible!

I miss my dearest family so much, but the chance to see microfinance operations at its most basic level – to discuss poverty without the platitudes – is a truly worthwhile endeavor. The sights that I encounter everyday are ineffable, often times too remiscent of documentaries or movie scenes.

Wednesday August 22, 2007

August 22, 2007 - 10:25 pm 1 Comment

Hard to believe that tomorrow will be my last day of interviewing – I must finish off strongly! On Monday, I´m scheduled to deliver the final presentation to the FINCA Mexico Central Office in Cuernevaca. Since I moved my flight earlier by two days to squeeze out more time with my family, I´ll have to work extra hard over the weekend to finish all the analysis. On Friday, I plan to leave Iguala (to my great relief, considering the heat is suffocating).

Today, it rained excessively to the point that walking nearly constituted natation. I visited a total of five different village banks, located in opposite corners of the city. I finished my interviews quite efficiently, and arrived back at the hotel earlier to start my data analysis. I´m beginning to realize that nearly all the loan officers here think I´m some sort of spy for the central office, and are thus hesitant to be truly candid. I´ve also discovered that they are quite competative in trying to pry out information on the performance of their peers. As I assured them, I´m here only on a social mission, and have absolutely no determination on their performance.

Only a few days until I can come back home!


Monday August 20, 2007

August 20, 2007 - 7:35 pm 3 Comments

Today I had a very strenuous day of interviewing, exacberated by a loan officer who I perceived to be innately mendacious. She mumbled the entire time, making odd gestures and comments that kept me slightly uncomfortable. When I motioned for her to give me more privacy in the interviews, she just nodded and returned to her original seat. Likewise, when I mentioned to her that I was hungry and would like to grab some food, she just told me that she wasn´t hungry because she eats only one meal a day, and pretty much tacitly ruled out my ability to buy something on the basis of shortage of time. Some of the clients I interviewed today were amazingly helpful and fun to talk to, while others were quite taciturn and chary to provide the necessary expenditure data.

In comparison to the other FINCA offices, the Iguala office seems a lot more impersonal, though significantly more efficient. The difficulty with today´s schedule was that all the groups were located in opposite directions. As a result, we went to the first group, returned to the city center to catch another bus, went to another group, returned to the city…the process occurred a total of six times.

Iguala´s sweltering heat and car fumes constitute a visible miasma that overhangs the city. There are two mosquitos in my hotel room, which has caused me an extra 3-4 bites every night. Sadly, my leg looks like it has been masticated quite ebuliently by wild animals..

The transportation networks in Mexico are quite an adventure to navigate. Today, I rode perhaps 12 different convis, which are tiny white buses (better known as jalopies) with engines so decrepit that I often consider it a miracle that they are able to run. Although a convi can perhaps objectively seat 8 people comfortably, they arrange the seating such that 17 people can cram in. Many convis lack doors, which could pose a precarious threat if accidents do happen…

Sunday August 19, 2007

August 19, 2007 - 8:03 pm 1 Comment

My experience in Iguala has been relaxed and languid - I spent the day wandering the town indolently, enjoying the local sights and foods. I found the inner courtyard of the Flag Museum to be a wonderful study sanctum, and I discovered a passion for guava popsicles, made from large chunks of fruit. Without any constraints, I finished a large portion of my GRE book, filling my mind with obscure vocabularly. Did you know that low is another word for moo? A factotum an epithet for a handyman? Expatiate, exculpate, extirpate, expiate…

Iguala´s very tropical climate makes it a wonderful habitat for mosquitos. Since arriving, I´ve been devoured alive. Thankfully, the hotel is perhaps one of the nicest I´ve stayed at – large, clean, bright, located very near the center. Tomorrow, I´ll be back in the field with my studies. At the end of this week, I´ll have to get a full presentation together for the Cuernevaca head office about the full 300-400 data points collected by the fellows. Quite a daunting task!


Saturday August 18, 2007

August 18, 2007 - 4:06 pm 1 Comment

I arrived safely to Iguala this morning at 11 AM after a grueling 8 hour bus ride to Mexico DF followed by a 3.5 hour transfer to Guerrero. During the latter course of the trip, the bus broke down so were literally stranded on the road for a good hour. Nevertheless, everything passed quite smoothly – I found the hotel easily, and was able to settle down, eat a delicious lunch, and explore the city.

Iguala is a big commercial center teeming with activity. In terms of notable attractions, however, it clearly lags behind the others. The heat is beyond sweltering – one only has to sit outside to sweat buckets. I went to the open air market, where I proceded to buy a large amount of fresh fruit, consisting of bananas, peaches, grapes, and the ubiquitously delicious mango. Then, I walked back to the hotel take a break. Although the hotel has wireless, I´m missing my wireless card so I can´t get online in my room…what a bummer.

Traveling by myself hasn´t been too difficult yet. Now that I´m here in Iguala, the rest of my stay should be smooth sailing since I´ll be accompanied throughout. I think I´ve gotten a lot more used to Mexico, and am a bit more comfortable with the transportation system.


Friday August 17, 2007

August 17, 2007 - 6:55 pm 1 Comment

This morning, I woke up early to hitch a ride to the famous Ocotlan Friday market, where all the local artesans gather to sell their wares. Enjoying the energy and bustle of the market, I sampled many delicious local fruits and foodstuffs, while admiring the craftsmanship of the traditional Oaxacan alebrijes (painted animal figures) and barro negro (black clay sculptures). I bought quite a few souveniers, and left fully satiated and ebullient.

Sarah and Tyler departed today – I now officially begin my solitary travel, which commences at 11.45 pm tonight with a bus ride to México DF Tasqueña, approximately 8 hours away. Once I get to the station next morning, I´ll buy a bus ticket to Iguala, approximately 3 hours away. Hopefully, I´ll arrive at the hotel tomorrow late afternoon. Today, I nearly cried twice thinking about my family – this summer, I´ve just been away for too long, and Mexico just accentuates the fact that I´m very far away. I´m very sad I´m missing my sister´s move-in day, and just wish I could be there to share the experience!

My data gathering in Oaxaca Central has been very illuminating. Although Oaxaca is a very poor region which could potentially benefit significantly from microfinance, over 170 institutions currently grant micro loans, which has led to problems of market saturation and over-indebtedness. In my interviews, it was not uncommon to find clients who have obtained a FINCA loan just to pay off a few previous loans. Clearly, such a strategy is highly unsustainable, since they don´t have the working capital means to meet interest payments. Many of the groups I visited had problems with repayment and solidarity.

The best aspect of this fellowship is the opportunity to get a very realistic perspective of microfinance – to get past the superficial rhetoric to discover firsthand the impact of loans on the lives of women and their families. Although I admit I am sometimes discomfitted by what I descry, exposure to the guttural reality is very worthwhile.

Nevertheless, I miss my family and friends dearly. Please send me e-mails and messages to make me feel connected and not so alone.


Wednesday August 15, 2007

August 15, 2007 - 8:48 pm 1 Comment

The past three days have been a whirlwind of adventure and surprises. On Monday, I went to Ocotlan, a quaint town approximately 30 minutes from Oaxaca, to conduct interviews. As it was my sister´s birthday, I spent the entire day missing my family. I went with the loan officer to San Gertrudis, a very remote town, where I was devoured by mosquitoes and spent a lot of time waiting idly for the women to congregate. That night, I went to an amazing restauraunt by myself, where I downed a very tasty yellow mole, just wishing my family was there to celebrate and share it with me.

Tuesday was a tough day in terms of interviews. I spoke to this one woman who had previously attempted suicide because of depression and anxiety. As she showed me her scars on the inside of her arm, I cringed at her effusive description of how her husband has continuously cheated on her and physically abused her even when she was pregnant. In terms of overall standard of living, she was substantially better than the average client since her husband is a credentialed lawyer for the government, but her misery was contangious. I realized then that an impecunious state did not necessarily engender great misery – to be happy, we just need to recognize the benison that is our family, friends, and our vision.

Today my interviews went very rapidly and efficiently. As a result, I finished early and had some time to explore Oaxaca. The historic district is incredibly beautiful, with prodigious churches and wide open grassy squares. Only two more weeks in Mexico before I can finally come home!