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Tuesday, December 26, 2006


So we made it to Cuenca. And we didn't feel so good.So we spent some time 'resting.'

Our room looked out onto a little green area, with benches and fig trees and roses... it was quite relaxing and peaceful. Everything was so neatly trimmed! The fig trees were absolutely loaded with fruit, although there weren't any ripe ones just yet.

A handsome gardener took care of things while wearing a denim jumpsuit. He had long curly hair and kept a tape measure clipped to his sleeve. Susan wants me to get a jumpsuit like that, now.

This is the church right at the end of the street. We never did quite figure out the bell-ringing schedule, since some mornings it was earlier than others, and sometimes no bells, and sometimes bells every fifteen minutes (or so it seemed). In a country that is 95% Catholic, there are lots of churches and lots of bells.

The streets were narrow, mostly one way, and were all cobblestone.
Everyone was quite festive, getting ready for the holidays, and each afternoon there was quite a commotion when the kids would all get out from school. The ice cream sellers were out, and the kids were all crowded around with their coins in their hands.

We went walking around, slowly getting further and further from where we were staying. Everywhere we turned there was another beautiful street or another beautiful view. Just a couple of blocks from our little hotel were these stairs:
At the bottom of the steps there is a bridge over the river that runs all through town, which is flanked by grass and beautiful trees.

The river is just fantastic. It's flowing fast enough to make that nice gurgly-water sound and it sounds refreshing. Maybe one reason why it felt so good was that the weather was amazing...just mild and warm, but with a breeze it was just cool enough. It felt like spring. From the walk along the river you could see all the bouganvilla up on the terraces up above on the hillside...the terracotta roof tiles on the white plaster buildings... just beautiful.

Here is a medical school that we walked past, at the bottom of the hill. We found Cuenca to be an interesting mix of modern and ancient...and these buildings are the perfect example.

I thought the detail on the wall was quite interesting...

One of the industries in Cuenca is straw hats, made from the toquilla straw that grows along the coast in the northwestern part of the country. The 'Panama Hat' is really from Ecuador, Panama being where men bought them and then took them back home with them after working on the Canal. Cuenca is where the hats are/were finished and then prepared for export.

So! While wandering around we came upon a hatseller that had a small museum-type exhibit on how the hats are made. In the picture on the left, you see how the fibers were treated with sulpher and 'spun' a bit to soften them so that they could be woven. The center picture shows how the finished hat was steamed into shape, with the dimples on the front and a crease on top. On the right is the finished product.

The lovely couple in the photos are Joe and Lois Parise. We went through the exhibit with them and then ran into them again at the airport a few days later! On our advice they went to Banos for a couple of days...only to stay in a hotel that was robbed overnight! They woke up to find that their passports and other valuables were stolen from the hotel's safe and had to get emergency replacements in order to be able to make their return flight a couple of days later.

That place had a wonderful exhibit, but actually didn't have any of the higher quality hats that made Cuenca famous. So...we continued walking along. A few blocks away, at a small, somewhat seedy looking shop, we ran into Alberto Pullo. His shop had hundreds of the cheaper quality hats that we saw most of the indigenous people wearing, the ones that they would have 'whitewashed' every year or so to keep them looking fresh.

When I enquired about buying one, Alberto (who is now mute) shook his finger vigorously at me. No, no, no he whispered. He took us upstairs, around the back and up the rickety stairway, into his 'real' showroom. We were surrounded by hats of all different styles and shapes and colors...along with newspaper clippings, many very yellowed from age.

As it turns out, I'd read about Alberto Pullo twenty years previous, while reading about Ecuador and the 'Panama Hat' trade. He learned the business from his father and started working with him at the age of seven...and has been working ever since. He proudly showed us the magazine articles about him, the letters of thanks that he's received, postcards from around the world, his guestbooks...and then shows us the stacks of more and more underneath the table. He's quite proud of his son, who lives in New York City and works as a veterinarian.

The more time we're there, the more hats we try on...the more I break down and decide to get a really nice one: a Monticristi Fino. Mr. Pullo, of course, couldn't have been more delighted. The finest kinds can be rolled up, put in a box, packed up and then unpacked later, with the original shape springing back when it's unrolled. I'd known this for years, but it was still a little shocking to see my new hat rolled up and boxed. It's unpacked right now and looks perfect!

We asked if we could take a picture, which he gladly agreed to. It wasn't a picture with me that he was after, though. He took quite a liking to Susan.

With my beautiful hat tucked away in a balsa box, I realized that I needed a hat for everyday wear, too. I selected another hat with a wider brim to wear out from the shop. The lower quality hat takes a couple of days to make, whereas the nicer one took about two months to make. The difference in quality is obvious when you look at or hold both in your hands. I'm still tickled to death about my hats!

Everywhere you turned you felt like you were just in an old city. Not perfect and pristine, but very old, with a very long history. With the actual city of Cuenca being almost 500 years old, it's easy to understand why. There are parks and squares around that you just stumble upon when you're wandering, and there are lots of art galleries tucked away in small spaces.

We took this picture on our last day in Cuenca. Susan insisted on the picture because the clouds were just so beautiful. Of course it's different in person, but you probably get the idea. It's December, it's in the mid 70's, the sky is blue, there's a nice breeze blowing crisp dry air past you and you can smell something good that someone is cooking...yep, it's good.

There were a couple of museums in town that we visited, and while we were a bit hesitant at first, we really enjoyed our visits. The first was an enormous display of pre-Columbian art, mostly ceramics. The second was a bank sponsered museum that included very well done exhibits that demonstrated the clothing, food and houses of the indigenous people in all of the areas of Ecuador. They had quite a lengthy explanation of the Shari people, including their practice of shrinking heads, one of which you see here. Wow.

After several days of rest and exploration, we headed back to Quito. We flew back (a forty-five minute flight) instead of taking a ten-plus hour bus ride. As it turns out, the roads were closed and we couldn't have taken a bus if we wanted to!

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Guayaquil market

We were so glad that we got a chance to just walk around in Guayaquil for a while. It certainly has it's own style, weather, people and food. It's a big city, and the morning we walked around by ourselves was busy. The neighborhoods/streets we passed were of all different kinds. We'd pass the office supply part of town, the furniture part of town...as if you were moving though different stores!

We were off wandering and went into one of the markets, which is like going to a grocery store, since there are vendors that sell everything you'd find...there were produce sections, sausage sections, household utensils, guinea pigs...everything that you'd find in a grocery back home.

In the 'Greens' section, the smells were so intense. I wish there were a way to share that smell. Everything smelled so clean, strong, healthy, and just so...green.

One part of the market had the live animals. We had fun asking which were pets and which were for eating. Sometimes it was hard to guess. There were doves, chickens and guinea pigs for eating...and parakeets and parrots for pets. Of course I kept guessing wrong and the lady selling them all would laugh.

There were also all kinds of interesting kitchen utensils, handmade graters, carved wooden spoons and cutting boards. Handmade soap was popular in a couple of booths, and there was even a black sticky version that had newspaper on the bottom, from when it cooled and cut. We got some of that. It turns out that it's for washing your hair. We haven't tried it yet.

After all of that we went and checked out of our hotel and took a last walk down to the riverfront. We sat for a while, talking, watching the people, listening to the Parks & Recreation trucks that had bedfuls of speakers, blaring music out on the streets.

We had to decide whether to head back up into the mountains to Cuenca, or continue up the coast...heads or tails, just about. There isn't a wrong decision there. We read our books that we brought along with us and tried to decide.

At the bus terminal, before we got our tickets, we decided to get something to eat. The food smelled so good and we knew that we'd have a several hour trip ahead of us, so we stopped. The food looked good...tasted very good....and we should have just stopped right there. But we didn't. We _HAD_ to add some hot sauce to that, didn't we?

It looked a little suspect and the nozzle was kind of clogged...but we put it on our food anyway. And we have regretted it. Oh well, you never know.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

The Bus ride to Guayaquil

We never posted anything about our bus ride down from the Andes down to Guayaquil, not because it wasn't interesting, but rather because we couldn't get at the pictures!

The bus wasn't so different, although in the picture on the left you can see that our 'in-flight' movie was Casino Royale, which was barely in the theaters when we left. We got to see it in Spanish on the bus for free. Oh! And someone brought their dog, which kept wandering around the bus, walking under the seats, sniffing around for a tasty treat. Maybe we could have brought Pip after all...

For a good portion of the trip, we were literally driving through clouds. Even still, you could see the change in the types of trees, and of course the change in temperature. The progress was pretty slow for most of the trip, since the visibility was pretty low.

Once we'd dropped down to the coastal plain, we were suddenly in the middle of banana country. The picture on the left shows what the banana fields look like, and in the middle picture, if you look closely you can see a cacao tree, with a fruit on it.

We were merrily flying along, trying to catch up on the schedule, when all of a sudden there was an explosion on the bus. It wasn't inside, it was outside -- a tire! It was pretty loud, let me tell you. We pulled over, and within about twenty minutes the tire was replaced. It was a good time for everyone to take a leak, too. The center picture is the driver...and the one on the right is the dog.

We finally got in to Guayaquil in the late evening...quite a bit later than we expected. After finding a place to stay and cleaning up a little, we went out for a walk down to the waterfront.

As you can see by the shorts and short pants...it was quite a bit warmer than anywhere else we'd been! The nighttime temperature was pleasantly warm and pleasantly humid...just perfect!

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

¿Donde esta mi Ceviche?

OK, so I know you´re all wondering what happened to the food! Don´t worry...we´ve got the whole scoop, the whole giant spoon, too. After traipsing around all morning we all were feeling a bit peckish, so we went downtown to a Cevicheriá called Marcelo´s. Wow! This is what was out in front:

It´s a cart piled high with conchas (shells) and the guy on the left uses a little guillotine type device to split them, then puts them into the bowl (center) and then another guys sluices the tasty bits into the bowl...where they are then destined to become lunch.

There´s Robert, tearing into his bowl while mine sits (for the moment) untouched. At first when we were inside, I thought that they had squid ceviche, since a lot of people had bowls with ceviche...but the lime juice was black.

Then, I find out it´s from the color of the conchas we´d seen outside. I´m not as much on the bivalve ceviche, and was debating whether I should change my order...but when my order came, they´d made a mistake. Instead of shrimp and oyster ceviche, I got oysters and conchas. I didn´t have to send it back. Susan got the fish and shrimp ceviche, and I figured that we could share back and forth, but she wasn´t so keen on the conchas. Hmm. They were a little tougher than the shrimp, but quite tasty. Wow!

As a small note, ceviche is a seafood dish that´s comprised of different types of seafood that aren´t cooked, but rather marinated in lime juice. In addition to various spices, onions are almost always added, along with tomato and cilantro.

Susan wasn´t paying attention to her camera duties for a couple of minutes (she´s in charge of all the culinary action shots, you know) and by the time she came to, from swooning over her own succulent bowl of maritime delights, the bowl was nearly gone.

Thank god for the fast-action, high speed camera, or this mesmerizing scene might have been lost.

After lunch, we were set loose on the streets with the intention of resting a bit, before dinner. We, of course, had nothing to wear. After trying to find somewhere to buy some presentable clothes for a while...and time drawing near for dinner...we took the drastic action of asking a random woman on the street if she knew where two backpackers could find decent clothes for a dinner invitation. She said to go to Policentro. It sounded a little scary, but we thought about it. After another person also told us to go there, we did.

We took a taxi.

We were in the midst of a full-on, Western style shopping frenzy! The mall was as modern as any we´d seen, and we found a fantastic little boutique where Susan found some lovely clothes. The prices were outrageous in Ecuadorean standards, but just the same as back home, in DC. A trip to one of the anchor stores in the mall paid off with a nice white shirt for me, too.

The nice taxi driver for the ride home agreed to wait for us while we ran upstairs and changed and ran back down and then dashed off to the restaurant. Susan discovered the ploy of having him wait as soon as we got upstairs and I said, ¨OK, hurry! He´s waiting!¨

Here´s a picture of us on the way. Susan looked fantastic.

This is the fantastic place we went for dinner with the Mifex staff:

They had a giant grill inside where they grilled too many things to count. I took lots of pictures, but only posted one picture of the actual food...the one on the far right.

That´s Luis, slicing off a healthy portion of an entire filet mignon. It didn´t fit on the skillet.

It was cooked perfectly.

I´m sorry. I have to stop now. I just can´t go on...

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Guayaquil and the Microenterprises

This is the entry that has taken the longest to write. Not just because of the number of photos, which are many, nor for the amount of text, which will be long...but rather for the amount of information, memories, and the gravity of what we saw and experienced. I want to strike a good balance here, with the proper tone, while still giving the contextual picture of our experience. Hopefully, as we´ve gone along on our travels, relating some stories and photos here, you´ve noticed the banner on the right for Kiva. It´s not there by accident, nor is it some intrusive advertising, but it´s there by choice. We put it there. For years I´ve been intrigued by microfinance and hoped to someday be able to participate, as a financier, as a lender, as a facilitator...in some fashion. Before I ramble on any further, you can click here for a more thorough explanation of microfinance.

Kiva - loans that change livesIn early 2006 I heard a piece on NPR that highlighted Kiva, a non-profit organization that allows anyone with internet access and as little as $25 a chance to participate in micro-lending. I immediately signed up and was delighted to be able to put some funds that would otherwise be diverted to a savings account directly into the hands of entrepreneurs, in developing countries around the world. More recently, an episode of Frontline on PBS highlighted Uganda and the success of a microenterprise that I was lucky enough to have lent to, directly through Kiva. Click here to go to that page and see the show.

So! With all that explained, Susan and I traveled to Guayaquil specifically to be able to visit some of the people and their businesses that we´ve lent money to already.

Mifex is a microlending business that operates in Guayaquil, and they use Kiva as their funding source. Although it´s certainly not part of their job or responsibilites, we were very pleased when Robert Edgar, the Director of Operations, corresponded with us before we arrived and offered to take us on a tour of their operations. So! After a couple of phone calls on Saturday morning, he picked us up, along with Luis Crespo (whose business card says General Manager...but I´d say CEO!) and Esther Vasquez, a loan officer.

They took us to their two offices, which are pictured below. Now, the microlending we knew about...but what surprised us as well was that they also provided vocational training. Volunteers come into the offices and hold classes in various subjects, all of which cost the students just $1 per class. While we were there, two women were learning how to apply acrylic nails with appliques...both of which will be positioned to receive their own loans, once their training is complete. The middle picture shows their bulletin board, which lists some of the trades that people can learn. For more information and Mifex´s website, click here.

When we first made plans to visit Guayaquil and contacted Robert (the man talking with Susan in the picture on the right), we were hoping just for the addresses of some of the businesses, so we could visit on our own. His very polite reply was that it might be a little dangerous, as they weren´t in the best parts of town...perhaps he could meet us and take us there. If I recall correctly, he also mentioned that it would be hard to find them, since there weren´t addresses, as such, that we could use. We didn´t decline, of course, but still thought that we´d be ok on our own.

As the three of them took us for a ride, we crossed a river and came upon this view:

It looks beautiful, doesn´t it? They went on to explain that with so many people coming to Guayaquil, looking for work, not just from other, more rural parts of Ecuador, but also from Peru and Colombia, that there simply isn´t room for them all. As many as two million people live in what Luis called ´the poverty belt´that wraps all around the city. I hate to call them slums...perhaps shanty-towns might be more appropriate. These homes along the water are built by squatters and have no services: no water, no sewer, no electric and no trash services.

We next moved to another neighborhood, which on the map looks just like the picture above. No street names, just the name of the neighborhood. They explained that they were entire towns that were only semi-official. The city doesn´t want to recognize them...only informally. Typically, these neighborhoods have only one paved road that runs through them, for the buses to use, and the rest are dirt.

These are the neighborhoods in which Mifex operates. Not with the extreme poor, that are homeless, but with people that are on their way up, economically speaking. Without going too far off subject, they have a rating system that they use to rate the poverty level...which also factors into their underwriting system. Mifex is very stringent in their requirements, and only funds around 30% of the applicants...but they have a 100% repayment rate thus far.

Here is a short clip of us driving through the neighborhood, below. The roads are rough, so it´s a little bumpy on the video, too.

While driving around we got to see some gang members hanging out on the corners. This was a good reason for us not going here alone, that´s for sure. The Mifex loan officers have to deal with them on a regular basis, hiding their digital cameras and other valuables, paying a ´tax´to pass through of $.10-.15 each time. One loan officer recently discovered that they literally had no money on them...and got pistol-whipped as a lesson.

The first business we visited was that of Ervin Lino, who is pictured on the right, along with his mother. They operate a business called ´Picanteria Tres Hermanos.´ In the middle picture below you can see (from the left) his father, followed by Ervin, a cousin, the second brother, his mother and finally the third brother.

The whole family is involved in the operation. Ervin´s father runs a natural juice stand out in front, which we found to be quite delicious, too. I got a chance to try the specialty of the house, literally the last bowl left, even though we were there in the morning. While we visited (and I ate), Ervin discussed his plans for his next loan: a truck which will allow him to buy larger quantities of fresh fish and other supplies. In addition to the two businesses here at this location, the family also has started a little store just down the street, on the corner, where they sell dry goods. The truck will come in pretty handy, I´ll bet!

In the picture on the left, you can see Luis Crespo on the left and Robert Edgar on the right side of the Jeep. On the right, Ester Vasquez is busy talking while I´m sampling the best encebollado I´ve had yet! It´s no wonder that his business is thriving! ¡Que Sabroso!

To see Ervin´s original loan request, click here.

The next business we visited was that of Teodoro Burgos. He´s the man in red in the picture below:Teodoro runs his mechanic´s shop in a small neighborhood where he has clients, and he also has a contract to do repair work for Dole, which has a large presence in Ecuador. Bananas are big business around Guayaquil! He proudly showed us his operations and his staff, taking a break from his day. They had been working when we arrived, and we could not only see their current projects, but also smell the paint that was yet to dry.

The pictures are of Teodoro and his staff in the left and center picture, and the street entrance on the right.

For Teodoro´s original loan request page on Kiva, click here.

As if all of that wasn´t enough, Luis was kind enough to invite us to dinner with the entire Mifex staff. As it turns out, it was to celebrate their first year in business! Although I could understand only about half of what was said, each person shared how pleased they were with their first year, that while it wasn´t easy at all, they were proud of the progress they´d made and how grateful they were to be a part of this organization. We were quite impressed as well, and look forward to being partners with Mifex for years to come.

I won´t share any more news that we learned that night, but suffice it to say that they have many more plans in the works; bigger and better things to come! As Luis put it, we were the first to visit their enterprise and we get to see them in diapers...but they have big pants! They have a lot of plans and it certainly looks like they´re well on the road to completing them. Each person involved has far more experience than is required for their current position, far overqualified. They are working on a project that is larger than all of them combined, one that has a substantial impact on the neighborhoods and on the individual businesses.

To Luis, Esther, Robert, and the rest of the Mifex staff, we thank you sincerely for a wonderful experience -- certainly a highlight of our trip!

Thank you for reading through such a long post, too! Maybe you can now understand why it took so long to be able to sit down and put all of this together. Coincidentally, I did have a chance to just check my email the morning after our visits, and there in my inbox were two emails from Kiva: Ervin and Teodoro´s latest payments had just been posted. It´s working!

-Tom and Susan

PS. If you´d like to fund one of Mifex´s loans to businesses in Guayaquil yourself (by clicking here)...you might have to be patient. They have many loans waiting to be posted, but they have to wait their turn...and their loans are for smaller amounts than some, so they tend to be filled very quickly! I just looked, and while there were some when I started typing, there is only one left!