60 Tips from Kiva Fellows

Compiled by Kate Bennett, KF16 Peru

Do: A Kiva Fellowship. It'll change your life. (Eric Rindal, KF15 Sierra Leone, KF16 Bolivia)

The sixteenth class of Kiva Fellows has all but left the field- but we’re by no means done talking about our experiences. We’ve collectively spent 422 weeks in the field (just over 8 years!) and worked an estimated 16,650 hours at Kiva field partners around the world.  Needless to say, we’ve got a lot of opinions about how to use this time wisely.

Now, we’re no experts in living or working abroad (though we sure do like it), but we have some nuggets of wisdom to offer up for those of you transitioning into a life abroad or beginning your next Kiva Fellowship. Stick by these tips, and you can’t go wrong. (And for more hints and tips, check out 33 Tips from Kiva Fellows (written November 2009) or 45 More Tips from Kiva Fellows in South America.) Enjoy!

Best Way to a Kiva Fellow’s Heart is through…

1. People love to share food in El Salvador. If you’re having lunch with someone or with co-workers, offer up some of what you have for them to try. (Andrea Ramirez, KF16 Costa Rica & El Salvador)

2. Though most of the USA fast food places are here, don’t bother with them, Turkish food is wonderful. (Kim Strathearn, KF16 Turkey)

3. If you take a trip(s) during your fellowship, remember that in some cultures it’s customary to bring back (small) gifts to friends and coworkers from your travels! I found that a box of chocolates to share in the office of my MFI was always much appreciated and disappeared within hours. (Laurie Young, KF16 Indonesia)

They may not look good. They may not taste that good, either. But do it: eat the fried cow intestines.

4. Make sure you try the different casados(rice and black beans paired with some sort of salad, and meat). It’s delicious, affordable, and the closest thing to home-made. (Andrea Ramirez, KF16 Costa Rica & El Salvador)

5. Try everything. Ok, yes, you could get sick, but worse, you could live the rest of your life without knowing what guinea pig, cow tongue, fermented maize, cow heart, llama, friend random thing with more random things in it, magical juice in a bag, etc., etc., tastes like. If these things don’t seem appealing, remember: even worse, you could miss out on a big chance to share in a local cultural experience that will stay stayed with you forever. (Mariela Cedeno, KF16 Bolivia)

6. Befriending office mates is easy as pie, especially if you bake one. Any baked treat will do the trick: cookies, cupcakes, 7-layer bars – anything tasty and homemade will suffice. Walk around and offer your treats during the afternoon coffee break. (Sandra Pina, KF16, Honduras)

How do you say…

7. No amount of “city” Spanish will prepare you for the linguistic richness and diversity of Spanish spoken in rural Costa Rica. That said, bring a notebook for ALL field visits, and let the loan officers be your best professors and guides. Even Costa Rican urbanites find themselves lost among the colloquialisms of Tico country Spanish. (Julie Kerr, KF16 Costa Rica)

8. Learning common words and phrases in an indigenous language is the quickest way to break the ice. Guaraní is Paraguay’s other official language and is spoken by the majority of the population. Purete means cool, haso means not cool, kaigue is lazy, nde ha’e kuña guapa means “You are a hard working woman!,” chevare’a means “I am hungry,” and amokose means “I want a drink!” (Alba Castillo, KF15 Paraguay)

9. Get rid of “uhm” in your vocabulary- it mean a female private part in Turkish. (Kim Strathearn, KF16, Turkey)

10. When a farmer says he brings his harvest to market using his “salchichón” (commonly known as “sausage”), blush not my friends, he means “horse”. (Julie Kerr, KF16 Costa Rica)

11. If you lose the thread of a conversation don’t just say ‘‘ or intermittently laugh. Get them to repeat things and when that get boring pick out a word or phrase that you Do know and make a comment or nonsequitor. They might be saying “fijate, las olas son bravas en la playa” and your response might be an unrelated, “¿Te gusta la playa?”  This gets the conversation back on your own terms. Think about how often you respond like this in English! (Jim Burke, KF16 Nicaragua)

12. Because they will ask: Kiva means “unity” or “agreement” in Swahili. (Kate Bennett, KF15 Ecuador & KF16)

What to Bring

Do: bring a tuperwear container. Sporks can also come in handy, for that mid-morning mountain climb.

13. My three smartest investments for my fellowships? A SteriPen, a tuperwear container, and a pocket knife with a corkscrew. (Kate Bennett, KF15 Ecuador & KF16 Peru)

14. Always carry a small, sturdy umbrella. It will get you through unexpected showers; as well as hot, sunny days. (Alba Castillo, KF16 Paraguay)

15. Rain is as plentiful is the air we breathe. Bring an umbrella if you prefer to shower before getting dressed. (Julie Kerr, KF16 Costa Rica)

16. Bug spray, bug spray and MORE bug spray!! For those of you who like more natural alternatives, anything with menthol or eucalyptus helps repel the mightiest of mammoth mosquitoes, sand flies, ticks and chiggers. Slather it on THICK! (Julie Kerr, KF16 Costa Rica)

17. Bring clothes or shoes that need to be fixed, mended, or altered. It is cheap and the work is top quality. The sasterías and zapateros are EVERYWHERE. (Jim Burke, KF16 Nicaragua)

There’s no place like home (in a new country!)

18. If you can, try to find accommodation near the central market building: there’s nothing like eating shrimp ceviche with avocado at 7 o’clock in the morning. Besides, this may be your only chance for the entire day to get your hands on food that’s neither triple-fried nor made out of pure pork fat. (Emmanuel von Arx, KF16 Ecuador)

19. If it’s possible, go with a homestay! Local food, local language, and a solid support group in-country are just a few of the obvious perks of living with a family. (Kate Bennett, KF15 Ecuador and KF16 Peru)

20. For Kiva Fellows in the former Soviet republics: If you’re looking for apartments in older Soviet buildings, check to make sure that the utilities actually work. Gas outages can be frequent (sometimes in the dead of winter), and running water tends to be spotty on higher floors. As a rule of thumb, try not to live above the fifth floor – after all, the elevator might also not work! (Chris Paci, KF16 Tajikistan & Azerbaijan)

Getting from point A to B

21. When moving around by taxi in Cuzco, do everything possible to seem local to get cheaper prices (there are lots of local gringos, so you can pull it off). How to go about it?

• Say hi to your taxista like this “Buenas, maestro.” Saying hola is touristy, saying chofer is touristy, and asking anything about anything is touristy. You don’t care. You are local.
• Tell him where you are going by saying “I will get off at such and such location”. If you are going to a restaurant, know its name, what street it is on, the nearest cross street, and a reference point nearby BEFORE you get in. Otherwise you won’t be able to pull off the “trabajo aquí.”(Miss any of those four, you are officially a tourist.) (Rob Gradoville, KF16 Peru)

If you're feeling the need for speed, do: hop on your loan officer's motorcycle.

22. If you’re taking the bus and you don’t know where you need to get off, just ask the bus diver. Costa Rica has the nicest bus drivers around! (Andrea Ramirez, KF16 Costa Rica & El Salvador)

23. Note the taxi number (on side of doors when you get in) can help you retrieve forgotten item. Also can help if the taxi driver sees you note the number, he might be less likely to take the long way. It is common for taxis to stop and ask other for directions if they don’t know the place your going. Always make sure they turn the meter on. In the tourist area, always flag down a moving taxi–the ones that are just waiting around are just waiting to rip you off. Beware of the money switcheroo (ie you give them a 50 lira note that is the same color as a 5 lira note and they do the switcheroo and try to convince you that you only gave them the 5. Females always sit in the back and not in the front. I have have some excellent taxi driver and some dinks as well. Rider beware (Kim Strathearn, KF16 Turkey)

Get to work!

24. If you have any freedom to do borrower visits, have no shame in visiting anyone who owns a panatería, heladería, or pisco vineyard. Peruvian hospitality and pride in their business translate to homemade treats for you. Microtenterprise never tasted so good. (Kate Bennett, KF15 Ecuador & KF16)

25. Make people laugh, even when it’s awkward. Visiting clients who are on a spectrum from extreme introvert, to slightly less extreme introvert, can be daunting, but like everything else in life, there is nothing better than a laugh. You’d be amazed how many times my laughing at people and saying “por favor, sonria porque se me va a romper la camera si sigue asi,” actually made them smile. Don’t rush, don’t pull out your pen and BV template, and don’t start dangerously pointing your camera right way. Chill out, smile, shake hands, take in the scenery, interact! (Mariela Cedeno, KF16 Bolivia)

Do: hang out with coworkers after work. Don't: let them win.

26. Make sure to hang out with MFI staff outside of work. Don’t worry so much about about keeping it strictly ‘professional.’ I built trust, learned office hierarchy, gossip, and got a lot of technical questions answered after a few beers with loan officers. (Jim Burke, KF16 Nicaragua)

27. Fake it ’til you make it. You will be considered an expert in all things Kiva, even if you’re not. Embrace the challenge. You will have multiple resources at your disposal: use them. Learn along the way and don’t be afraid to tell your field partner, “Can I get back to you on that? I want to confirm with Kiva.” (Sandra Pina, KF16, Honduras)

28. Invest in your coworkers. From the service staff to the reception staff to the MIS, they not only help you with your job but they can be great friends and connectors to your life in a new country. (Jill Hall, KF16 Philippines)

29. They tell you this at training, but really, do it: spend your first week only asking questions. Lots and lots of questions (and start on your Loan Product Survey or Social Impact Assessment first- asking pointed questions while completing items on your workplan is a double whammy!). Being extremely informed about every aspect of your MFI will only make your work easier moving forward. (And teach you more about microfinance, which is the whole point of the Fellowship, right?) (Kate Bennett, KF15 Ecuador & KF16)

30. If it should take a day or two, it’ll take three or four. If it’s your Borrower Verification, it’ll take a month. (Kate Bennett, KF15 Ecuador & KF16)

31. Figure out how your MFI communicates. They are probably using chat or skype. Get your coworkers chat/skype info early on. Sometimes you can formulate better questions, get better responses and be less annoying chatting rather than visiting their office for every little thing. (Jim Burke, KF16 Nicaragua)

32. Email coworkers when you leave! – Even if they weren’t helpful with that one thing you were working on…they still care and want to hear from you when you’re gone. (Eric Rindal, KF15 Sierra Leone, KF16 Bolivia)

33. Participate! Don’t be shy (or obnoxious) and get involved with after work sports or after work drinks. This is your new community. (Eric Rindal, KF15 Sierra Leone, KF16 Bolivia)

Gringo Pricing

34. Don’t be afraid to bargain for transportation and goods! In many developing countries, it’s expected of everyone. You’ll probably be quoted a much higher price at the start than you should be paying, and it’s not because the vendor’s trying to “cheat” you as a foreigner. It just makes economic sense – it would be foolish for the entrepreneur not to sell for as high a price as he/she can get. (Chris Paci, KF16 Tajikistan & Azerbaijan)

35. Never take the first price- haggling is expected. On the other side of the coin (jaja), though, don’t haggle some old woman trying to sell you a scarf in the Sunday market into oblivion- that extra dollar probably means an awful lot more than her than it does to you. Lay aside your hubris and indignation from time to time and accept the gringo tax. (Kate Bennett, KF15 Ecuador & KF16)


36. Should you ever attract negative attention from the police in the former Soviet world, an effective tactic is to pretend (or demonstrate) that you speak barely any Russian – enough to understand their questions, but not enough to maintain a conversation. As long as your documents are in order, they will likely decide you’re too awkward to be worth it and let you leave. Hurray! Oh, and always carry your passport and registration with you. Always always always always always. (Chris Paci, KF16 Tajikistan & Azerbaijan)

37. Remember, guys: It’s better to appear like a total sissy than to get robbed or killed. If you feel that you are getting into a dangerous situation or a dead-end street in a bad neighborhood, don’t hesitate: simply turn around and run! Don’t worry: nobody will ever know about this – your reputation as a fearless globetrotter stays alive, and so will you… (Emmanuel von Arx, KF16 Ecuador)

38. It’s natural to burn with curiosity about your host country. But if you’re not living in a democracy, be cautious about the sorts of political questions you ask, unless you know your conversational partners well. For instance, my first placement was in Khujand, Tajikistan, in a region surrounded on three sides by the hostile country of Uzbekistan, and the authorities were always wary of Uzbek spies. My current placement of Azerbaijan is a country that considers itself at war and has suffered terrorist attacks in the past, so as the police see it, there’s a lot to be suspicious about. Be hyper-aware of these sorts of issues. And if you feel tempted to criticize the political system there and/or extol the virtues of your own, stop and reconsider. It’s not why Kiva sent you there, and in the worst-case scenario, you might get both yourself and your conversational partners in genuine trouble. (Chris Paci, KF16 Tajikistan & Azerbaijan)

39. Never carry your credit card unless you are making a withdrawal. I prefer to carry large sums of money in my shoe rather than bringing my card out of hiding. (Jim Burke, KF16 Nicaragua)

40. Make and carry a photocopy of your passport. Carrying it around for real is a real bad idea, and having no record makes it hard to check into hostels/hotels. (Jim Burke, KF16 Nicaragua)

41. If you’re in a country with a heavy police presence, be careful what you photograph! Sometimes the most unexpected subjects – bridges, factories, metro stations, gorgeous government buildings – can be deemed security risks, and photographing them can attract negative attention from the police. (Chris Paci, KF16 Tajikistan & Azerbaijan)

Hugs and Handshakes

42. If you are an unmarried woman and living in a country where the locals aren’t used to seeing women wandering around alone and are often inquisitive of where you are going and why you aren’t married, bring and wear a fake wedding band. Also, make sure you figure out which hand is the hand that the locals wear it on! It’ll do wonders for (sometimes) avoiding uncomfortable conversations if you don’t want to have them. (Laurie Young, KF16 Indonesia)

43. Outside of San Salvador the people are pretty conservative. Men won’t shake a woman’s hand unless she extends her hand first. (Andrea Ramirez, KF16 Costa Rica & El Salvador)

44. In Paraguay, you greet and say goodbye to friends with not one, but two kisses – one on each cheek. (Alba Castillo, KF16 Paraguay)

45. In Turkey, among friends the greeting is a kiss on both checks (Kim Strathearn, KF16 Turkey)

Living and Looking Local:

Do: try to dance like the locals. Don't: fool yourself into thinking you're really, really good at it.

46. Although Turkey is fairly well connected, don’t rely on google. (Kim Strathearn, KF16 Turkey)

47. If you want to look like a local, wear jeans. Even if it’s 100 degrees outside. Tourists are associated with shorts. (Andrea Ramirez, KF16 Costa Rica & El Salvador)

48. One of the best ways to learn about a culture is to people watch– what are they doing and not doing in public. (Kim Strathearn, KF16 Turkey)

49. When in Rome…always pour some out for Pachamama. If you find yourself sitting around a big bucket of Chicha with nothing but a full gourd in hand, don’t be stingy, pour some out for Mother Earth, she’s thirsty too. (Mariela Cedeno, KF16 Bolivia)

50. Walk, walk everywhere, all the time. Yes you need to be at the office at 8 a.m. and you get up at 7:40, but maybe during your two hour lunch break and on weekends you can make sure to take the time to pace yourself. Remember to absorb everything around you: the sounds, the streets, the people, the street vendors, the conversations, the protests, the smells. For some reason, those were also my most peaceful times. (Mariela Cedeno, KF16 Bolivia)

51. Getting haircuts is cheap and always a great experience. Getting a straight razor shave sounds bad ass but is just bad and hurts a lot. (Jim Burke, KF16 Nicaragua)

52. Get into the rhythm of your location. If the locals take time to smell the roses or take a tea break –you should too. This is a great video (in English) on what a glass of tea means (Kim Strathearn, KF16 Turkey)

53. Sit in a park/plaza by yourself…someone will sit next to you. (Eric Rindal, KF15 Sierra Leone, KF16 Bolivia)

54. Be a guest (and a friend) – allow people in your host country to take you around…you don’t always have to pretend like you’re not a tourist…let’s be real, this is not your native country (if it is, still go on some trips!). (Eric Rindal, KF15 Sierra Leone, KF16 Bolivia)

55. Get off the internet! Your friends at home really don’t need to hear from you every day (although your mother/father probably does). It’s way cooler to say, “I was out of internet range…” (Eric Rindal, KF15 Sierra Leone, KF16 Bolivia)

Mind your manners:

56. You are going to be thoroughly stared at. Get used to it, as it is not rude here. (Kim Strathearn, KF16 Turkey)

57. Don’t be offended when asked how much money you make, how much is your apartment, are you married, have kids, no to either question is followed by why not? Good way to deflect is nicely reply why do you want to know? Turks are very curious and have a different sense of what is private information. (Kim Strathearn, KF16 Turkey)

58. Turkish people are very hospitable and gracious to guests–learn what it means to be a good guest. (Kim Strathearn, KF16 Turkey)

59. Most people in the former Soviet republics love to be photographed! Once you do, though, they might surprise you by asking when they can expect to receive a printed copy of their photo. There are plenty of little shops here where you can get a picture printed, so always take down the person’s address and try to bring or mail them a copy. With an inexpensive little gesture like this, you can absolutely make someone’s day. (Chris Paci, KF16 Tajikistan & Azerbaijan)

60. Follow through on promises (or obligations)– go to dinner with coworker’s families, take a day trip with coworkers or friends, etc. (Eric Rindal, KF15 Sierra Leone, KF16 Bolivia)

Kate Bennett (KF16) is thrilled to be working in Ica, Peru with Kiva Field Partner Caja Rural Señor de Luren. For more on Kate’s experiences with Caja Rural Señor de Luren or life in Peru or Ecuador, follow her work here.

About the author

Kate Bennett

Prior to working with Kiva, Kate lived in Quito, Ecuador working in environmental management as a consultant for USAID implementing partners in the global south. After earning her B.A. in Political Economy, Postcolonial History, and Development from New York University’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study in January 2010, she pursued a practice-based understanding of effective tools in development through work with New York based social change organizations and grassroots nonprofit organizations in Guatemala. Kate worked previously with Kiva as a Kiva Fellow in Ecuador and Peru, which fomented her commitment to microfinance as a tool for poverty alleviation.