10 Fellowship Gems

By Cynthia McMurry, KF8 Ecuador

Over the past year, I have learned valuable lessons about life, gotten to know myself better, greatly enriched my understanding of microfinance, observed the workings of the informal economy in Latin America, been touched by many clients’ stories and experiences, and been proud to represent Kiva at four different MFIs in three South American countries.

Some of my favorite moments, though, have absolutely nothing to do with microfinance. They’re little cultural quirks, lifestyle adaptations, or just silly everyday things that make me smile, remember that I am not from here, and cherish the experience that much more.

Some of my favorites:

Best heckle:
Anyone who’s as white as me and who has tried to run in public in Latin America knows what it’s like to be heckled. You usually get whistles, catcalls, and hear things like, “Faster!” “Run!” and “ONE two three ONE two three.” After a while you learn not to pay too much attention and to instead focus your energy on watching out for dogs and traffic.

Out running in Trujillo at 7am one morning, a driver stuck his head out the window and yelled “Yuquitas peladas!” (“Little peeled yuccas!”), a metaphorical reference to the whiteness of my legs. By far the most creative heckle ever, plus I’m impressed that he was able to think of it so quickly (especially that early in the morning) and stick his head out of the car window while driving and avoiding traffic mishaps. Kudos.

Best street foods:
Grilled plantain with cheese (Ecuador), giant corn on the cob with cheese (Cusco), hand-churned muyuchi ice cream (Ayacucho), cow-heart kabobs (Bolivia/Peru).

Pati, a Kiva client in Cochabamba, grills up some cow-heart kabobs

Pati, a Kiva client in Cochabamba, grills up some cow-heart kabobs

Luzmila, a Kiva client in Ayacucho, dishes out some hand-churned ice cream

Luzmila, a Kiva client in Ayacucho, dishes out some hand-churned ice cream

Best market find: “Peanut paste” in Ecuador, which is supposed to be used to cook cow’s stomach. When I told the woman I buy it from that I add salt and eat it on bread with jelly, she looked at me like I was nuts. Crazy gringos.

Best healthy eating tip: A loan officer in Santa Cruz, Bolivia once invited me to a glass of caldo de caña (sugar-cane juice), a thick, murky brown liquid that is sickeningly sweet, like drinking a glass of maple syrup. He says, “It’s all natural, don’t worry. They don’t add any sugar to it.”

I’m waiting for this to take off as the next fad diet in the States.

Best religious insight: A conversation I had with a loan officer:
Her: What religion are you?
Me: Oh, I’m not religious.
Her: Why not?
Me: Well, I just have a hard time believing that just one of the world’s religions has all the right answers and all of the others are wrong.
Her: Yes, but if you think about it, the one thing they have in common is that they all lead you to Jesus Christ.

Best financial advice: Hoard change (thanks, Dan Kahn). You’re only as rich as the amount of change in your pockets.

Most humbling idiomatic realization: I will never be done learning Spanish. Every time I think I’ve got it down, I change locations and chalas become sandalias become become zapatillas, or lapicero becomes bolígrafo becomes pluma becomes esfero, or caña becomes chaque becomes resaca becomes chuchaque. And aguacate and palta keep switching back and forth.Where on my resume should I indicate that I know four different words for pen?

Second most humbling idiomatic realization: After two months in Ecuador, I still don’t know how to ask for the kind of bananas I want without pointing. I don’t understand the difference between a platano, a banano, a guineo, a maduro and an orito. If anyone has pictures with labels it’d be greatly appreciated.

Those look like oritos to me, but I wouldn't put money on it

Those look like oritos hanging back there, but I wouldn't put money on it

Best way to ask for directions: Most anywhere I want to walk to is immediately deemed too far away and/or too dangerous for a lolita like me to go on foot. In order to avoid answers like “Walk to the corner, hail a cab and tell the cab driver that’s where you want to go,” I’ve learned to strategically rephrase my requests for directions. Instead of asking, “How can I walk to this place?” I ask “How might Antonio Banderas ride a scooter to this place?”

Best way to tell Ecuadorians apart geographically:
One day at the beach with the local branch manager, he pointed out that it’s easy to distinguish locals from people from Quito who are in town on vacation. I looked around and wasn’t so sure I could tell, so we started guessing with passers-by. He nodded to one middle-aged man, lounging in the back of his pickup truck with a tank top pulled up to his chest, exposing his sizeable beer belly, which he rubbed fondly.

“What about that guy?” said Fernando.
The gentleman in question looked pretty tan. “Mmmm… local?” I guessed.
He laughed. “A local would NEVER do that, Cynthia.”
“What? I’ve seen tons of guys from the coast strutting around showing off their guts,” I responded, confused.
“Yes,” he said, “but never in Lycra.”

Quito at dawn. Why was I awake at dawn? My neighbors have roosters.

Land of Lycra: Quito at dawn. Why was I awake at dawn? My neighbors have roosters.

Cynthia McMurry is a fourth-time Kiva fellow working with brand new Kiva field partner Fundación Espoir in Cuenca, Ecuador. Previously she worked with Fundación AgroCapital in Bolivia and FINCA Peru and Asociación Arariwa in Peru.

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