Wrap your arms around me

By Marcus Berkowitz, KF16, Ecuador

Imagine yourself stepping outside of your tomato-colored house and onto a peaceful street, steeply hung over a mid-sized Ecuadorian town nestled in a lush valley. It’s nearly silent as you walk to the bus stop. You can see the center of town bustling below you. The giant Mt. Chimborazo in the distance and the smaller range just in front of it block the harshness of the early morning sun, casting a soft light on the quiet countryside.

This peace lasts no more than a couple of minutes before it is loudly shattered by the shouting of the fare official of the bright red bus screaming towards you with no intention to stop, loudly blaring from its many loudspeakers the same song as yesterday (indeed, as every day). So it begins!

“Get on! Get on! Go, go, STEP ON IT!!” shouts the official, pulling you forcibly onto the steps as you grab the bars in front of the permanently open door on the still-moving bus. If you’re lucky, you yank yourself inside before a branch from a plant sticking out of the hillside smacks you in the head.

If you click this photo and enlarge it, you can almost get a sense of the amount of people jammed in there.

Once precariously perched on the steps inside the bus, you find yourself face-to-face with (or in my case, at a modest 5′ 9″, looming over) a sardine-style mass of upwards of 100 school children, uniformed workers, and assorted others who have been piled into a bus built for perhaps 50. Usually you end up crunched in a sort of awkward bear hug with whomever was unfortunate enough to have been jammed in next to the giant, as you vainly attempt to grab hold of anything solid.

If you’re into that, it’s actually pretty fun. And definitely not boring.

If not… well, it’s a little sweaty.

As you may have divined from this description (and from my prior post, “Motorcycle Madness”), one’s ability to thrive in Ecuadorian society is directly correlated to one’s level of comfort with embracing complete strangers in public places on a regular basis. That and trying to fully absorb the beauty of, while simultaneously attempting to completely ignore, one’s surroundings while on moving vehicles.

All exaggeration aside, this is a fairly accurate picture of what rural micro-borrowers from Cooperativa San Jose would have to go through every time they had to make a payment. That’s not to mention the cost of the bus fare or the time it takes out of their day, which is considerable since many of them come from the distant countryside and have limited incomes.

I say would have to go through, because luckily part of the “Ventanillas Rurales” (Window to the Countryside) program, which your Kiva loans support, brings the bank to the borrower so they don’t have to brave the bus. Instead of asking these faraway borrowers to make the long trip to the city, loan officers go out to each group regularly to collect repayments and savings deposits, and to check in on how the loan has affected the community.

Financial room service, if you will.

There are limits, of course. Loan officers don’t always make it to every meeting, meaning that at least one person from the group’s leadership does have to weather the long journey occasionally. And if the borrowers want or need to make transactions which are unrelated to the loan, or which have to take place at a time other than the group meetings, they are usually out of luck; they end up jammed in next to me or someone else on the morning bus.

But overall, the Ventanillas Rurales program does a great job of keeping itself convenient for its borrowers, by coming to their communities and in countless other ways. Stay tuned for a future blog post about a transformative new technology that CSJ is about to launch to eliminate perhaps all of the aforementioned limits; just part of its commitment to ‘embrace’ easy-to-use financial services for all of its members, near or far. This unflinching commitment is the principal reason why Cooperativa San Jose rocks at meeting the needs of its most distant rural members. Keep lending to them!

Now more bus music for your listening pleasure.

Disclaimer; none of this music is technically Ecuadorian. All these songs, though, apparently can be found on the top 10 list of the average Ecuadorian bus driver.

Marcus Berkowitz is a first-time fellow with Cooperativa San José (CSJ) in the western Andes of Ecuador’s Bolívar province. Show support for CSJ´s hardworking rural borrowers by making a loan. Or get even more involved byjoining CSJ’s lending team!

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