Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

Brasil

August 13, 2009

Finally, I am back and enjoying life in the States.  In the near future I will blog on my overall experience in South America.  This post will exclusively cover my travels through Brasil.

brasil flag

After leaving Iguazu Falls, Argentina (see previous post) I traveled to Florianopolis, Santa Catarina, Brasil.  This city has a high standard of living and its 42 beaches are internationally acclaimed to be amongst the best sites for surfing.  It was here I finally got my feet into the Atlantic after starting on the Pacific (Lima, Peru) 5 months earlier.

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Finally made it to the Atlantic

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Beautiful

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I'm alone at the beach... plus the dog to the right

After a few days in Florianopolis I set off to Curitiba, Paraná, Brasil.  The city is an international role model in regards to city planning.  Crime rates are low, public transportation is excellent, and environmental protection remains a priority.  Similar to Florianopolis, the quality of life in Curitiba is one of the highest in Brasil.

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Botanical Gardens

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Contrast

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Arabian Memorial

I arrived in Sao Paulo, Brasil bracing myself for a mammoth of a city.  Even being mentally prepared, the sheer size of Sao Paulo intimidated me upon arrival.  Stats vary between sources but estimates of the metropolitan area range between 22-27 million people.  It is the financial hub of South America and has a similar feel to New York.  There are numerous bunches of skyscrapers in the center and periphery of the city.  I was worried I would not enjoy traveling to a city like Sao Paulo but I was pleasantly surprised to have an excellent few days exploring the heart of Brasil.

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São Paulo See Metropolitan Cathedral

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St Paul in Praça da Sé

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Liberdade - largest Japanese community outside of Japan

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Bustling Sao Paulo!

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Praça da Luz

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Estação da Luz

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View of the financial district from Ibirapuera (Sao Paulo's Central Park)

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Estádio do Pacaembu - one of the most famous soccer stadiums in Brasil

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Consolação Cemetery São Paulo - almost as impressive as La Recoleta Cemetery in Buenos Aires

At this point my anticipation to arrive at my final destination, Rio de Janeiro, became nearly unbearable but I knew I had one more stop before I could get there, Ouro Preto, Minas Gerais, Brasil.  This colonial mining town has maintained its charm over the ages.  It is designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO for its outstanding Baroque architecture.  The Spanish and Portuguese were allies to Rome as the Catholic Church utilized Baroque architecture in the 15th and 16th century to fend the influence of Martin Luther’s Protestant movement.  Brasil, a Portugese colony, naturally fell in line with Portugal and utilized this architecture into the 17th and 18th century.  Ouro Preto translates to black gold.

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After 5 months, 4 countries, and endless stops, I finally arrived in Rio de Janeiro, Brasil.  This city deserves the hype it has accumulated over the years.  Although the perfect beaches, gorgeous residents, amazing architecture, and exotic jungles inside the city can give an indication as to why Rio is amazing, the city’s greatness is more felt in the air – the city exudes a feeling, an aura, of euphoria unmatched by any other destination I have visited.   Even the poor, dangerous, illegal favela I toured seemed magical and prompted within me a desire to stay.

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O Cristo Redentor

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One of the most beautiful cities in the world!

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One of four TEXAS tiles in the Santa Teresa Mosaic Stairs

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Recently added Obama tiles

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Artist Jorge Selaron

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Copacabana Beach

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Rocinha favela in the bottom half - an affluent neighborhood directly adjacent to the favela

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Rocinha favela - 150,000 illegal inhabitants

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My last night in South America was at a private resort overlooking Ipanema Beach and a full moon - perfect end.

My time in Brasil was short but it was enough to get a feel for its culture.  The country was by far one of the most enjoyable places I have traveled to due in part to the generosity and welcoming attitude of the Brasilian people.  Also, it was nice to make new and meet old friends along the way.  I will surely return to Brasil in the near future!

My next post will comment on my entire South American experience between Peru, Bolivia, Argentina, and Brasil.  I will consider what I have learned both professionally and personally.  I will obviously include a reflection on my microfinance internship with Pro Mujer and my impact in Cochabamba.

Until then,

Shiju

Internship OVER, Traveling ROCKS

July 28, 2009

My internship with Pro Mujer ended a couple weeks ago and I accomplish more than I originally envisioned  I could in such a short time.  In the last two weeks I traveled through parts of Bolivia and Argentina.  Currently I’m traveling in Brazil and I fly back to the States in under two weeks.

5 Topics:

1. Pro Mujer

2. Microfinance Corner

3. Travels (Uyuni, Potosi, Tarija, Salta, Iguazu)

4. Food

5. Home

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1. My last few weeks at Pro Mujer were extremely busy.  I submitted my grant proposal and WON.  The project budget has been fully funded by the grant competition, Sustainable Bolivia, Foundation for Sustainable Bolivia and the funding received from some of you (thanks again to everyone that contributed).  Prior to my departure an excellent team was assembled for the implementation phase of the project.  The Regional Director and members from the national office were impressed with the initial planning, fundraising, and current implementation of the project and I have received periodic updates informing me that implementation is being executed to plan.  If you are curious to know more about the project I will happily send along additional details.

2. Microfinance Corner IV(read MFC I-III from previous blogs) – The idea of social business should be reevaluated in response to the increased attention non-profit microfinance has received in recent years as a solution to poverty.  I am an avid proponent of free markets with reasonable regulations therefore companies created with social goals (poverty reduction, rights empowerment, environmental protection, etc.) should not be limited to a single bottom-line – social good.  Actual profitability is frowned upon by many such as Mohammad Yunus who has an immense impact on general notions of “social business” to the public.  MFIs as well as other social corporations should have the right to collect profits thereby attracting greater talent and investment to their respective social goal(s).  Capitalism has clearly shown its shortfalls yet exclusion of the most dyer social challengers from a capitalist, public-private partnership will ultimately keep the most relevant global challenges under the rug.

3. The last few weeks of traveling has been amazing – see below pictures of various stops along my way to Brasil:

A. Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia – largest salt flats in the world – also, 60% of the world’s known lithium reserve is under the flats.

Largest salt flat in the world

Largest salt flat in the world

You can play cards anywhere in the world!

You can play cards anywhere in the world!

You can also throw up the Longhorn anywhere in the world.

You can also throw up the Longhorn anywhere in the world.

B. Potosi, Bolivia – highest city in the world – Potosi mountain funded much of the Spanish kingdom for two centuries with the mountain’s massive silver reserves that are stilled being mined to this day 

Town Center

Town Center

Beautifical Facade

Beautifical Facade

One of the most historic mountains in the world

One of the most historic mountains in the world

Interviewing for a mining job?

Interviewing for a mining job?

Crawling through the mines of the mountain that has been mined for centuries

Crawling through the mines of the mountain that has been mined for centuries

Holding LIT dynamite - the "bang" was insane

Holding LIT dynamite - the "bang" was insane

C. Tarija, Bolivia – beautiful small wine town in Bolivia – highest vineyards in the world

Random building I liked

Random building I liked

Church

Church

Highest vineyard in the world. You really can play cards anywhere in the world!

Highest vineyard in the world. You really can play cards anywhere in the world!

D. Salta, Argentina – cool city in northwest Argentina – I originally came here in 2007 to bungeejump and paraglide

General Guemes

General Guemes

Interesting Architecture

Interesting Architecture

Fountains a the city lookout atop a nearby hill

Fountains a the city lookout atop a nearby hill

Convent

Convent

E. Iguazu Falls, Argentina – the most impressive waterfalls in the world

Side falls

Side falls

In case you needed reminder, "Don't Jump!"

In case you needed reminder, "Don't Jump!"

Throat of the Devil

Throat of the Devil

From my hotel room

From my hotel room

Absolutely gorgeous

Absolutely gorgeous

"I'm on a boat!"

"I'm on a boat!"

The falls from one of the trails...

The falls from one of the trails...

Rainbow

Rainbow

Can't describe this place in words...

Can't describe this place in words...

4. Needless to say I miss food from the States a lot.  I can not wait to get home to eat Tex-Mex and BBQ.  Also, my mom’s food will taste heavenly the first day I get home.  Yet South America does have something to offer – I have had my fair share of steak these last few months – sorry to you vegetarians!

Fried Yuca in the background

Fried Yuca in the background

The steak is bigger than my head

The steak is bigger than my head

Bacon wrapped... mmm

Bacon wrapped... mmm

So tasty!

So tasty!

Mushrooms are good too.

Mushrooms are good too.

The rice and salad were eaten at the end.

The rice and salad were eaten at the end.

5. My five months in South America comes to an end in under two weeks and it will be bittersweet.  In my next post I will include pictures from my Brasil travels (Florianopolis, Curitiba, Sao Paulo, Ouro Preto, and Rio de Janeiero) and a reflection on my trip.   I look forward to catching up with old friends and family once I get home.

I would love to hear what you all are up to – shoot me an email with an update and I can also answer any questions you may have about my experiences in South America.

Until then, I’ll be on the beach 🙂

-Thomas

5 Topics of the Month + Highlight: Pro Mujer Marketing Plan

June 22, 2009

Not as many things have happened in the last month so I’ve limited this post to 5 topics including a highlight section on the Marketing Plan I created for Pro Mujer.  Same labels as before: (w) work related, (p) personal life.

Highlight:  Marketing Plan (w)

  1. Pro Mujer (w)
  2. MF Corner (w)
  3. UTexas Baseball (p)
  4. Pairumani (p)
  5. Cochabamba (p)

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Highlight:  Partner with Pro Mujer to Reach Bolivia’s Poorest Women

I have created a comprehensive Marketing Plan for Pro Mujer – Cochabamba, Bolivia so the Organization can reach the poorest women in the Cochabamba region.  Pro Mujer is unique in that the Organization provides numerous social services (business training,  basic healthcare, nutrition courses, insurance products, child educational assistance, etc) not found at many for-profit MFIs.

FSD - B&WMarketing is particularly important within MFIs because the target poor populations are often unaware and suspicious of the products and services available to them through organizations like Pro Mujer.  Marketing is both cost and labor intensive therefore necessitating a major commitment from an organization.  Pro Mujer has recently built a Promotion Team and is allocating resources to the effort . Yet, additional resources are needed.


Pro Mujer reps promoting to a group of rural women

Pro Mujer reps promoting to a group of rural women

The Plan consists of creating a Marketing Manual, mandating periodic training sessions, investing into promotional materials, and establishing a Monitoring and Evaluation Program.  I am seeking funding from various sources including grant organizations; I will send my grant proposal to anyone who requests  it.  The overall cash budget exceeds $2,500 and I would like you to consider partnering in the Project.

A donation of any size can go a long way in Bolivia – no amount is too small.  All donations are tax-deductible (USA) and will go through the Foundation for Sustainable Development(FSD).  You can see a project description and donate in under 5 minutes at the following website:

www.fsdinternational.org/donate/projects/Thomas

Hope you consider partnering with Pro Mujer!

*FUNDRAISING IS OVER!  Thanks for all the support (7/1)*

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1. The last few months at Pro Mujer has been a rich learning experience.  The current Director took over his post in March and has committed to minimizing inefficiencies and improving working conditions of employees.  The global economic crisis has affected even the poorest classes here in Bolivia.  Default rates are rising and the Organization is allocating additional capital to fight the storm.  The Organization recognizes many of the problems facing the most economically challenged classes can be aided by simple business training and an emphasis on maintaining savings accounts.Micro-finance-cartoon

2. Microfinance Corner III(read MFI & MFII from previous blogs) – The microfinance platform goes beyond providing credit to poor individuals.  Microfinance has been successful building communities through housing projects, creating agricultural cooperatives to gain greater stability and negotiating power, and spreading the use of green energy in areas with limited traditional infrastructure (coal, natural gas, hydroelectric).  Nevertheless, although microfinance is vast in it’s breath, one must recognize its limited depth.  Microfinance is not a blueprint to solve each instance of poverty.  Political instabilities and failed economic policies have inhibit microfinance in some countries (Somalia, Zimbabwe, Afghanistan) necessitating a different or combined strategy.  Poor countries with more stability have had more success depending on microfinance to combat poverty (Bangladesh, Bolivia and Peru).  Myanmar (Burma) is an exception as microfinance has been successful in midst of a military dictatorship.  Microfinance does have some capacity to combat fundamental problems within a society.  Many of the following are byproducts of the presence of MFIs in parts of the underdeveloped world: increased women’s rights, social mobility, indigenous rights, energy independence, social equality between ethnic groups, decreasing child malnutrition and mortality rates, and environmental protection.

The Tower when UT won the CWS title, June 2005

The Tower when UT won the CWS title, June 2005

3.  The University of Texas Baseball Team will continue its quest for a 7th national title Monday (22nd) night against LSU in the College World Series (CWS) finals.  UT is no stranger to the CWS as they recently won the 2005 and 2002 CWS titles.  The Longhorns were seeded the overall #1 team in the country going into the 2009 post-season.  This may be a demon to battle as no #1 team has won the CWS since 1999.  Nevertheless, the Longhorns have had a magical post-season run by recording a 25-inning win (longest in the history of CWS) against Boston College and Friday night’s 9-inning heroics (2 HRs) against Arizona State for a come-from-behind victory.  Winning the 3 game series against LSU will be difficult given the exceptional pitching, hitting and fielding LSU brings to the game… but the Longhorns do have an advantage in resilience and heart.  Prediction: Longhorns win the series in a low scoring, pitching duel in game 3 –  Go Horns!!

4.  It is nice to have a beautiful park footsteps from home.  A couple weeks ago I took a day trip to Paiurmani and had a blast.  The day included an easy hike to a waterfall and a relaxing picnic (wine, cheese, olives, meats, chocolate).  It was a fun day followed by randomly meeting some locals in a nearby small town and playing a dice game while drinking a local spirit out of a bucket – fun experience.  See pictures below:

Cochabamba is visible from here

Bolivia has a diverse landscape (lush to the left, canyons to the right)

Feeling Good

Feeling Good

Looks like the Lion King tree

Looks like the Lion King tree

Waterfall

Waterfall

The tree trunk was a natural cup holder

The tree trunk was a natural cup holder

My shoes doubled as wine bottle holders

My shoes doubled as wine bottle holders

5. My demanding work schedule has kept me from traveling too far but it has allowed me more opportunities to explore Cochabamba.  The city is a great mix of traditional Bolivian city with cultural experiences around every corner and a livable city with the modernity and comforts of the West.  The city has amazing food, good bars, and beautiful architecture.  I am going to miss this place!  See pictures below:

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One of the views from my room - Statue of Cristo is on top of the hill to the right

A view from my room - Statue of Cristo is on top of the hill to the right

One of the views from my rooftop

One of the views from my rooftop

Random comments:

1. I did not get lucky and win a spot into the the New York marathon – probably a good thing.  My attempts at long distance running at this altitude (8,450 feet above sea level) have not been the most successful.

2. Can’t wait to start my 4 weeks of traveling (Salar de Uyuni, Tarija, Salta, Iguazu Falls, Florianopolis, Sao Paolo, Rio de Janiero)!!!

3. Will be in the northeast (D.C. & N.Y.) end of August and first couple weeks of September.  See many of you then.

4. Please consider partnering with Pro Mujer with a donation to the Marketing Plan I’ve created for the region.  Again, no donation is too small and the process is extremely simple – see the following webpage: www.fsdinternational.org/donate/projects/Thomas.  If you have any questions about donating, let me know!

Until next time – cheers,

-Thomas

Ten Topics of the Month

May 29, 2009

Similar to my last post, I will divide this one into various topics (work – w; personal – p).  Overall I’m settled in professionally and personally.  At work I finally feel I’m contributing and I’ve become an integral part of the team.  My host family and I have grown closer and I feel comfortable as a member of the family.   Topics are as follows:

1. Pro Mujer (w)

2. MF Corner (w)

3. Marketing Project (w)

4. Grant Proposal / Donations (w)

5. Chipari / Coca-Cocaine (w + p)

6. Rockets (p)

7. Books (p)

8. Sucre (p)

9. Health (p)

10. Future travels (p)

1.         My internship at Pro Mujer has been both interesting and challenging thus far.  The challenge stems from witnessing numerous inefficiencies but recognizing many of those inefficiences are caused by a lack of resources.  Nevertheless, I feel stunned by the amount of work that does occur given the limited resources.  My exposure to microfinance in NY was limited to panels or talks by major players in the industry (Fazle Hasan Abed  of BRAC; María Otero of ACCION International, Elizabeth Littlefield  of the UN & CGAP) therefore I had a top-down and partially academic perspective.  My current experience with the campesinos (farmer clients) and field team employees has given me a different bottom-up perspective.  Read this recent and SHORT article by the BBC on Pro Mujer: Big ambitions for small loans

MFIs2.         Microfinance Corner II (read my last post for the first MFC – they build on each other):  MFIs (microfinance institutions) can be placed in two general categories: 1) a not-for-profit entity such as Pro Mujer or Grameen Bank or 2) a for-profit, stakeholder company such as Compartamos or BancoSol.  The industry’s focus on outreach to the poor appears purely philanthropic yet this conclusion is invalid and misleading.  Microfinance promotes sustainable development by the inclusion of those in the poorer class into the financial system.  Rather than “giving” funds to the poor, MFIs loan funds, charge interest, establish credit, and allow clients to progressively access financial instruments as participants in an economy.  Not-for-profit organizations value “returns” as these organizations strive to be self-sufficient.  Non-profits are often unsustainable if they depend on outside contributions especially in the current economic climate.  Traditionally companies focus on profitability (dollars and cents) and define it as their bottom-line.  MFIs use a double-bottom-line approach which includes profitability but also includes social return.  Although it is a more difficult measure, social return is becoming more important as companies and investors become more socially conscious of their investments.  Hypothetically speaking, would you rather invest $100 in a Fortune 500 company for a 10% annual return or an MFI for a 9% return?

3.         After completing a feasibility study, I concluded the establishment of an NGO promoting education for clients of MFIs can succeed but will take a tremendous amount of time I don’t have at the moment.  I will continue to explore the idea and potentially lay the groundwork or plant the seeds for someone else to follow-up on the project.

My project has morphed numerous times but finally I have clarity and focus.  I am working on revamping Pro Mujer’s marketing / promotional strategy in the region.  This project is comprehensive and thus includes elements from employee training to evaluating promotional techniques for its various products and services.  The strategy will also utilize varying strategies in rural and urban communities.  The project will be cost-intensive but I believe with sufficient up-front resources the organization’s marketing abilities will be sustainable long after I leave.

4.         Given the cost of the project it is necessary that I raise funds and thus I will spend the majority of the next couple weeks creating a grant proposal.  I am hoping to raise $2,500 to contribute to the program – it sounds like a small sum of money but that amount can go an extremely long way in Bolivia.  I will focus my fundraising towards grant programs yet I recognize I do have an extensive network of family and friends that may be interested in partnering financially on this project.

FSD

Donations of any size (even $5) are welcomed and of course it will go through the Foundation for Sustainable Development (FSD) – a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization – therefore contributions are tax-deductible.  If you have any interest send me an email (thomas.shiju@gmail.com) with the subject, “Pro Mujer – Marketing Project Info” – I will NOT view emails as a commitment to contribute, but simply as an inquiry for more information about a potential donation.

5.         A few weeks ago I traveled to Chapare for a mid-term retreat with FSD.  Chapare is a tropical area receiving the 2nd most rainfall in the world.

Many of the discussions focused on alternative agricultural development for the region.  It is an area of controversy as it produces a large percentage of the country’s coca leaves (the raw product used to make cocaine).  Coca leaves are outlawed internationally but after much investigation I’ve realized this is a tragedy as the coca leaf in itself is a great medicinal product for altitude sickness, and stomach ailments.  It is also rich in vitamin D.  Moreover it an important cultural symbol for the Incan people.  It can be consumed as a tea or by chewing the raw leaf.  Equating coca leaves to cocaine is similar to equating a piece of metal to pistols.  The international coca leaf ban reflects the failure of the U.S. and Europe to take any responsibility to curb demand within their respective regions and instead place complete blame of the cocaine problem on the supply side (Peru, Bolivia, Columbia, SE Asia).  Responsibility should be split evenly.

Anyways, all work and no play makes for an unhappy Thomas – so there were tons of recreational activities.  We went swimming in a natural river – scary given I’m not the best swimmer – and hiked through one of the national parks (Carrasco National Park).  We also visited an animal refuge – Inti Wara Yassi (wiki page).  At the refuge I got to play with some monkeys – one monkey dug through my pockets attempting to rob me.  Another jumped onto my lap expecting that I would comb through its hair and clean him.  I did it and subsequently the monkey fell asleep cuddling me.  Eventually, I tried to leave but the money wouldn’t let me and latched onto my leg… overall great time.  Pictures below:

Rainforest

Rainforest

The monkey enjoyed sitting atop my head

The monkey enjoyed sitting atop my head

The monkey felt it was my job to clean him

Another monkey felt it was my job to clean him

National Park

National Park

One monkey fell in love and wouldn't let me leave

One monkey fell in love and wouldn't let me leave

Clutch City

Clutch City

6.         I feel it is appropriate I give a shout-out to the Houston Rockets.  The team took the best team in the NBA’s Western Conference to 7 games in the conference semifinals.  Prior to the playoffs the team lost its “leader” and star in Tracy McGrady.  Early in the playoffs Dikembe Mutombo fell to a career ending injury.  The Rockets with a healthy Yao Ming were underdogs against the Lakers; yet once Yao went down with a season-ending injury everyone expected the team to fall over and die.  Rather, the undermanned and tremendously overmatched team rallied and played with more heart and passion than any fan could demand of their team.  The 2008-09 Rockets season, even without a title, will remain one of my favorites of all time.

7.         I told myself I wouldn’t read any novels in English until I improved my Spanish.  Obviously given my discipline I caved quite early and began reading The Shadow of the Wind.  I got addicted quickly and skipped a couple afternoons of work to read the book.  I definitely recommend the book, but make sure you have a few days of free time before you get started!  It’s particularly great novel to read if you enjoy a mystery stories with countless plot twists.  The majority of the book is based in Barcelona.  Now I’m reading The History of the World in Six Glasses.  It discusses the impact beer, wine, spirits, coffee, tea, and cola has had on history from the Stone Age to modern times – pretty interesting actually.  Upon request I can write a book report on it – maybe in the next post!

8.         This past weekend I went to Sucre (UNESCO World Heritage Site, Bolivian judicial capital) for its 200th anniversary.  It was one of the best weekend trips I’ve ever taken.  The city is absolutely gorgeous with colonial spanish architecture and a visible hint of moorish influence.  The buildings are whitewashed and the city is well-kept.  The climate is perfect as the days are warm and nights cool.   The history of the city is equally impressive as it initiated the independence campaign for all of Latin America from Spain; the first “Grito Libertario” (Shout for Freedom) in any Western Hemisphere Spanish colony took place in Sucre in 1809. Pictures below:

Church

Church

Bells

Bells

Another Church

Another Church

Church Towers

Church Towers

Interesting Wall of a Church

Interesting wall of a church

Walkway overlooking the City

Walkway overlooking the City

Parade

Parade

Plaza Principal

Building in Plaza Principal

More Plaza Principal

More Plaza Principal

Looking onto a desolate Plaza

Looking onto a desolate Plaza

Nice view

Nice view

Sucre around sunset

Sucre around sunset

9.         My health has seen ups and downs.  On the upside my stomach feels great and I lifted all limitations with food – including the tasty yet questionable street food.  On the downside two weeks ago I badly hurt my foot walking back from work.  Part of the cement sidewalk was not level with the rest of the sidewalk and while walking on the unlit street I slammed my foot against the cement while wearing sandals… the result was ugly and I couldn’t walk for a few days.  I’ll spare you the gory details.  Luckily I’m fine now and I’m hoping to start running this weekend to train for the NY Marathon in November – assuming I get a spot through the lottery (will find out soon).

10.       I created rough travel plans for the weeks following my internship and before I return to the States.  I will travel from Cochabamba to Potosi (highest city in the world 13,420 ft – 4,090 m) and Salar de Uyuni (largest salt flat in the world).  Thereafter I will head to Tarija for some R&R and visit Bolivia’s best vineyards.  Since I spent 2 months in Argentina in 2007, I will skip all the good stuff in Argentina (except asado – bbq) just to arrive at Iguazu Falls.  The falls are on the border with Brasil so after seeing the falls I’ll cross here and have two weeks to do Sao Paolo, other small colonial cities, and eventually get to Rio de Janeiro.  I fly from Rio to Texas on August 6th.  Anyone interested in joining me for any segment – spots are limited?

Potosi

Potosi (Bolivia)

               Salar de Uyuni

Salar de Uyuni (Bolivia)

Tarija (Bolivia)

Tarija (Bolivia)

Iguazu Falls (Argentina/Brasil)

Iguazu Falls (Argentina/Brasil)

Sao Paolo

Sao Paolo (Brasil)

Rio de Janeiro

Rio de Janeiro (Brasil)

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Two random issues:

1. I knew my blog was lacking something really important in the last few posts:

HOOK ‘EM HORNS!!

Go Longhorns!

Go Longhorns!

The Longhorns are the #1 overall seed in the NCAA tournament (baseball) – yet I agree with the wise old Augie (UT coach & all-time most winningest coach in Division I) who said “You have to go play the games to earn the No. 1 that means something.”

2. I miss summer in N.Y. – a lot!!

3. I still miss bbq and tex-mex.

I hope you all are doing well in each of your respective locations.  I really enjoy the updates I receive from many of you – keep them coming!!

Until next time – cheers,

Thomas

Ten Topics of the Week

May 4, 2009

This post includes 10 topics I discuss briefly.  Some are work related (w) and others are personal (p) so skip topics that don’t interest you.  I tried to keep each topic close to 100 words so I don’t lose your attention too quickly.  Some topics like “Microfinance Corner” will be repeated in each future entry.  Sorry, since I’m working now I don’t have as many interesting photos in this post as I’ve had in previous posts.

  1. Pro Mujer (w)
  2. Microfinance Corner (w)
  3. Expansion into Rural Areas (w)
  4. Starting a New NGO (w)
  5. Living Situation (p)
  6. Morachata (p)
  7. Cochabamba (p)
  8. Brasilian Obama (p)
  9. Sick (p)
  10. 40 Day & 40 Nights – Marathon (p)

  1. Pro Mujer possesses talented people who are able to accomplish a ton with limited resources.  I am both impressed and humbled by the mission of the organization and seeing first-hand how microfinance functions at the borrower level.  In three weeks I met all 80+ members of the Cochabamba region, went to a retreat, and visited 9 of the 11 offices in the region.  I am also surprised I’m working 60 hour a week here – I thought I’d have a bit more of an easy schedule!  Visit the website to learn a little more – there is an NBC video on the homepage I find interesting:  www.promujer.org
  2. Microfinance Corner: I define microfinance as a platform allowing financial services and products to reach the poorest class of individuals and families.  Healthcare, education, technology and legal assistance are some additional parts of the microfinance platform; however these services are separate from the core business of microfinance: microcredit/microloans, insurance, savings and bank accounts.  For example, by giving out small loans microfinance institutions (MFIs) give microenterprises an opportunity 1. to make critical capital expenditures, 2. to increase capacity to meet demand, and 3. to diversify their business and shield themselves from unstable income generation.  This allows clients to realize one goal of microfinance: to create and sustain savings accounts.
  3. My work thus far has been varied but my main responsibility to is assist with expanding Pro Mujer’s footprint into rural areas.  This is a seemingly impossible task given the lack of infrastructure in rural areas, the distance between Pro Mujer staff and potential clientele, and the reality that each rural town has less potential clients than urban centers.  Resources cannot be utilized with enough efficiency and therefore the cost of servicing rural clients becomes too high.  Currently, I am brainstorming nontraditional means of promotion that are cheap and effective in rural areas… Ideas?
  4. An idea I came across recently is starting a new NGO that utilizes the current network of microfinance clients to promote secondary and/or university education.  Microfinance enables families to climb the financial ladder but education remains a secondary (and thus long-term) goal behind providing shelter, food, and healthcare.  Working with MFIs gives the NGO a filter to find the upper class of those in poverty where families are relatively stable and are ready to benefit from education.  Using this filter, the NGO, partner MFIs, and partner educational institutions find students who show potential and offer scholarships or cheap student loans.  I recognize this would take a tremendous effort from me and a good bit of luck but for now I think I’ll just look into the feasibility of the idea… Help/Comments?
  5. I have an awesome living situation.  I live in a beautiful building/house where each of the four floors is inhabited by a different sibling.  Floor one has the oldest sister who is married with children, 20 and 22 years old.  Floor two has a brother whose family includes two boys, 9 and 10.  I live on the third floor with one of the brothers (Roland) who is single and a successful dentist.  I have plenty of privacy with my own huge room with a killer view and bathroom.  The forth floor houses one of the sisters and she is really fun and a professional.  The parents (76 and 81) live in another house directly across the street and they are very loving and kind – explains why the rest of the family is so great.  The family also has two country homes.  One is 30 minutes away and has a dozen different types of flowers and delicious fruits growing year-round!
    Country Home - Lots of fruits!

    Country Home - Lots of fruits!

    Also Flowers

    Also Flowers

    I couldn't stop eating the pomegranates

    I couldn't stop eating the pomegranates

    The grapes were pretty good too

    The grapes were pretty good too

  6. The other country home is two hours away in Morachata – a beautiful secret getaway town hidden between mountains.  I went with Roland and the parents Saturday morning and it was unbelievably relaxing.  The air was fresh, the views were breathtaking, and at night people would go onto the streets or into the parks to party.  The parties included people playing music, dancing, singing, and socializing around a fire as if they had no worries in the world.  I consumed numerous types of drinks including wine, beer, chichi, whiskey and tiger milk – weird but tasty.  There was an air of innocence at those parties usually lacking at most bars/clubs!
    Driving through the hills

    Driving through the hills

    At one of the parties (felt like we were camping)

    At one of the parties (felt like we were camping)

  7. Cochabamba is far better and more modern of a city than I expected.  The food is diverse and delicious as Cochabambinos say they “live to eat, and never eat to live.”  Year-round the weather is spring-like with mornings and nights a bit cool and days very warm.  There are plenty of beautiful plazas to sit back and people watch as well as bars and clubs to go a bit crazy if one [not me] desires.  The city feels very normal likely because 1. it does not attract a tourist crowd.  2. the existence of a clear upper, middle, and lower class.  Also, the city has the tallest statue of Christ in the world (33 meters) – a couple meters taller than the famous statue in Sao Paolo.  He is atop a hill on the east side overlooking the city.
    Christo looking over Cochabamba

    Christo looking over Cochabamba

    Cochabamba, Bolivia

    Cochabamba, Bolivia

  8. Brazilian Obama – Since shaving my head I’ve been confused for many ethnicities including African and Middle Eastern.  In Bolivia, however, I am most often considered a Brazilian – to the point where random people start speaking Portuguese to me.  Once I inform them I am from the U.S. with an Indian heritage they immediately show great interest in my life.  Usually the topic of politics comes up and thus Obama surfaces and although relations between Bolivia and the U.S. are horrible, he is greatly admired.  Also, I look nothing like Obama but for some reason, in a friendly manner, people enjoy calling me Obama.
  9. I spend the better part of the last two weeks with some sort of stomach illness.  It wasn’t the traditional “foreigner arrives, eats something questionable, lives in the bathroom for a week” sickness as it came and went in an unpredictable fashion.  It was more of an annoying pain in my stomach than any bowel issue.  Nevertheless, I think it has finally passed so I can finally include back into my diet lots of great dishes I wasn’t eating before and most importantly I can go back to eating various types of tasty hot sauce with every meal!
  10. Today marks 40 days and 40 nights of not smoking anything (cigarettes, cigars, hookah).  I’ve been a casual smoker for years so this is a great step but it’s particularly impressive given my smoking habit normally increases significantly while in a foreign country.  To sustain my abstinence I have decided to train for a marathon.  I wanted to run the Chicago Marathon in October but registration closed a week ago so instead I will add my registration to the New York City Marathon’s lottery.  Hopefully by November I can be prepared for the race, assuming I receive a spot through the lottery.

Hopefully this pans out...

Hopefully this pans out...

Other random thoughts:

-Go ROCKETS!!!

-Happy Birthday Mom

-I miss BBQ and Tex-Mex

-I can’t believe I am safer from the global epidemic in Bolivia than at home in Houston or New York;  hope everyone is okay and taking the proper precautions

I love that on this blog I can share my experiences and thoughts with anyone interested in my trip but please don’t forget to update me on your life.  As great of an experience as I’m having, the best part of each day is when I check my email and get updates from friends and family… makes me feel not so far away.  If you want to call, try my cell after 7pm ET or during the weekend.

Until next time,

Thomas

Cusco – Inca Trail/Machu Picchu – Puno

April 11, 2009

It’s been a month since my last post so I’ll try to be concise. I promise to post more regularly in the future. This post has zero work/microfinance information and only includes events up to my arrival in Bolivia (April 3rd). I’ll include information about FSD, Pro Mujer, Cochabamba, my host family and training in a later post.

The quick summary: I had two weeks of language classes where I met some great people and improved my Spanish immensely. On the 21st I went white water rafting for the first time – quite an adventure. Later that week I went horseback riding to four Incan ruins. Between the 27th and 30th I walked/ran/climbed/crawled the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu – easily ranks as one of the best experiences of my life! After a couple days in Cusco, I stopped in Puno for a few days as it was on the way to Bolivia.

Details/pictures:

I. Spanish

II. Rafting

III. Horseback riding / Inca Ruins

IV. Inca Trail / Machu Picchu

V. Puno

VI. Random Pics

I. Spanish:  Taking 8 hours of class daily my first week in Cusco and 4 hours daily the second week has done wonders for my language skills. I need tons of additional practice but I’m finally comfortable engaging in conversations beyond my favorite topics of family and food.

II. Rafting:  A group of 6 including me set out white water rafting. I wasn’t happy about the 7am start Saturday morning but it was well worth it. The rapids were classified as level 3 and we were being poured on during the entire adventure. I was lucky to not fall out of the raft yet at one point we all voluntarily jumped out and went through the final section of rapids in the river. At another juncture we jumped off a bridge into the river…

WWR

Praying I don't fall out of the raft

About to jump...

About to jump...

III. Horseback riding / Inca Ruins:  The day was absolutely beautiful as you will see in the pictures below. We jumped on horses and toured the countryside on the way to a few ruins.  The Quechua/Incan ingenuity is most clearly viewed in their architectural abilities.

Shiju + Alpaca

I get along with Alpacas

Ruins

Ruins (Sacsayhuaman, aka "Sexy Woman")

My Horse

Riding

Nice day

Amazing sky

IV. The Inca Trail to Machu Picchu easily ranks as one of the most enjoyable and fulfilling experiences of my life. For 4 days we were completely separated from the “connected” world while hiking in the rain and camping out (not to mention unshowered).  The food we ate was heavenly and the sights were nothing short of magnificent. I’ve happily gained a new found respect for the great outdoors and hope to incorporate more outdoor activities into my life.

The Group

The Fun Group

Entire Group (Freddy - the guide - on the left is a badass)

Entire Group (Freddy - the guide - on the far left is a badass)

Freddy shared this beautiful Quechuan saying and greeting with me:

“Ama Sua, Ama Quella, Ama Llulla”

“Don’t steal, Don’t be lazy, Don’t lie”

Satisfaction

Accomplishment

Magnificent

Magnificent

EPIC

Epic

Finally got to Machu Picchu

Finally got to MACHU PICCHU!

MP

MP

MPII

MPII

Contemplative

Contemplative

The guys

The Guys (Ronnie, Me, 2 English lads)

MP from atop Wayna Picchu (Big Mountain)

MP from atop Wayna Picchu ("Big Mountain")

On top of the world

On top of the world

 

V. Puno was a relaxing trip after the Inca Trail. We toured the man-made floating reed islands on Lake Titicaca and afterwards spent some time on the island Tequila.

Floating man-made island on Lake Titicaca

Floating man-made island on Lake Titicaca

Floating Island

Floating Island

Tequila Island

Tequila Island

Not sure about the accuracy of this sign...

Not sure about the accuracy of this sign...

VI.  See below a few random pictures I’m too lazy to categorize from my days in Cusco:

Thank goodness for globalization...

Felt great finding a decent pool table in Peru

Found a restaurant with a teddy bear theme (non-profit)

Found a restaurant with a teddy bear theme (non-profit)

Cusco - Cathedral

Cusco - Cathedral

The Cusco flag is similar to the gay pride flag

The Cusco flag is similar to the gay pride flag

Interesting Painting at the Modern Arts Museum

Interesting painting at Museo de Arte Moderno Cusco

Another thought provoking painting

Another thought provoking painting

Plaza de Armas - Cusco

Plaza de Armas - Cusco

Caipirinhas + Hookah... some things never change

Caipirinhas + Hookah + Cards... some things never change

The last 5 weeks have been fantastic but life gets a bit more serious starting Monday.  I met the Pro Mujer Cochabamba director last Thursday and although he’s seemingly nice, he’s obviously very serious.  Soon I will post an update on my work and host family situation.  I’m most worried about my business spanish skills but hopefully that can improve quickly.  Hope the pictures and stories above were enjoyable.  I would love to hear how everyone is doing via email or telephone.  You can try my Bolivian cell phone (from the US: 011-591-7971-2071) in the mornings or evenings.

Also, thanks for all the birthday wishes last week.  I’m happy that at a quarter century my life is far from boring! Although I was away from home (understatement), I had a great time here in Cochabamba, Bolivia and felt the love from back home.  I really do have the best friends and family anyone could ask for…

Cheers,

Thomas

Finally made it to Bolivia…

April 4, 2009

Sorry for not updating the blog in quite some time.  I have been caught up traveling and doing other fun things.  I arrived in Bolivia yesterday and orientation for work begins today.  I will have a comprehensive post in the next few days covering weeks 2-4.  Cheers!!

Primera Semana

March 15, 2009

Week 1 Recap (written at different times)

Summary:  It was not the most eventful week so I apologize in advance for no memorable stories.  I flew in late Sunday (3/8) night and began Spanish classes early Monday morning.  Having morning classes also explains why I stayed away from the nightlife during week 1.  During my free time I enjoyed the local cuisine and got to know backpackers with interesting stories.  One guy is traveling Central and South America working on a boxing documentary as another guy is an investigative journalist following a group of ex-drug lords trying to save children from getting involved in the seemingly untouchable drug business.  I spent one afternoon on the beach (see pics of Miraflores below) and another afternoon in salsa class.  I am currently on a 24 hour bus ride from Lima to Cusco (Fri night) and this coming week will not be any more eventful than week 1 – in fact, it will be less eventful as I have eight hours of formal class each day.  I’ll have a ton more fun the following week as I begin El Camino Inca (Inca Trail) trek.

La Playa de Miraflores (Lima, Peru)

Miraflores Beach


La Playa de Miraflores (Lima, Peru) II

Miraflores Beach


Park of Love

Park of Love


Madre Teresa del Sagrado Corazon

Madre Teresa del Sagrado Corazon

Random topics below – subjects are in bold – read based on your interests:

Within four days of class I was conversational in SPANISH and it was the most fulfilling feeling I’ve had in months. Years of studying spanish came back quickly.  While in Miraflores (upscale suburb in Lima), I had grammar and conversation classes daily with two and three students, respectively.  This week will be intense as I have private lessons for four hours in the morning followed by four hours of group lessons in the afternoon.  Tengo miedo!!

It’s been a treat to visit a city on the Pacific as the FOOD was amazing.  I ate as much pescado (fish) as possible.  One of my favorite dishes is ceviche so I was in heaven without breaking the bank!  The only local meal I did not enjoy was breakfast – or better yet, the lack there of breakfast.  It is normal to have a couple pieces of bread and a cup of tea/coffee – that’s it!  Quero que la comida de Cusco es delicioso.

It’s a shame that the U.S. does not have a stronger culture of INTERNATIONAL TRAVEL amongst its youth.  While an interest in traveling exists, it’s quite different for us.  I constantly meet young travelers who take a year before or after university to see the world.  The intention to travel transcends a simple desire to see the world and includes a hope to learn more about oneself and use the experience to shape one’s future goals.  It begs the question, what forces shape the goals of students in the US?

It’s Saturday morning and I’ve been on this BUS for over 17 hours… sounds bad but I’m having a great time.  The food is good, my seat reclines fully, and I’m upstairs in a front row panoramic view seat.  The first leg of the trip curved south along the Pacific eventually turning east at which point the trip became significantly slower as we drove through deserts and scaled mountains.  As I’m writing this, we are at a high altitude driving through fog… even so, it is gorgeous winding along the road and seeing sunrays sneaking between the peaks of mountains.

It was great taking my work hat off a couple months back and it’s even nicer to put a student hat back on as I study Spanish but I’m itching to get back to WORK.  For now I’ll try not to think about it since my orientation is three weeks away and I’m certain time will fly.

Until next time – cheers,

Tomas

Top 5

March 8, 2009

My flight is later today and I’ve become overly anxious.   For the sake of setting clear goals and noting major concerns/worries, I’ve organized my thoughts into two lists.  Presenting my top 5’s…

Top 5 Goals:

1. Get a feel for international development and microfinance work while preparing for a job in one of the sectors upon my return

2. Become fluent in Spanish

3. Establish meaningful relationships

4. Experience the diverse Bolivian culture in both the cities and countryside

5. Complete the Inca Trail

Top 5 Concerns / Worries:

1. Getting robbed

2. Frustration with the slower pace in South America (relative to NYC)

3. Clouds at Machu Picchu or RIO not living up to the hype

4. Weird sickness (vaccinations + malaria meds hopefully alleviate this concern)

5. My Spanish skills remaining crappy

I’m cautiously optimistic about my trip but regardless of what happens it will be a hell of a learning experience!

Cheers,

Tomas

Estoy yendo a Sud America!

February 26, 2009

I am going to South America to explore one of my long-time interests – international development!  Specifically, I will work in the rapidly growing microfinance sector.  I accepted an internship through the Foundation for Sustainable Development in Bolivia with the organization Pro Mujer and I expect to be in South America through August 2009.  The answers to a few questions I’ve recently received are below:

Why microfinance?

While working at J.P. Morgan I had the luxury to attend meetings hosted by the Social Sector Finance Group that included talks on microfinance.  A few notable speakers at sessions I attended include Fazle Hasan Abed (BRAC), Maria Otero (ACCION International), Elizabeth Littlefield (United Nations & CGAP), and Willy Foote (Root Capital).  I took a closer look and realized microfinance has a transformative potential.

The rich-poor gap continues to widen for various reasons including but not limited to lack of education, oppressive or unstable political realities, and limited access to health care .  Another major factor receiving less coverage is the lack of financial products and services catering to poor or low-income households.  Microfinance fills this gap.

Microfinance functions as a means for individuals to transcend the shackles of poverty. Microloans can expand small enterprises and allow for diversification of products.  Advisory services can bring together farmers to form a cooperative that reaps the benefits of shared overhead and increased leverage during negotiations with buyers.  Ultimately, access to financial products and services translates into more revenue generation allowing a greater ability to realize non-basic goals (education/health care/savings).

Who is Pro Mujer? (from the website)

Pro Mujer is an international microfinance and women’s development network whose mission is to provide Latin America’s poorest women with the means to build livelihoods for themselves and futures for their families through microfinance, business training, and health care support.

What is the itinerary for the trip?

Peru – 4 weeks mainly taking formal Spanish courses (1 week: Lima, 2 weeks: Cusco, 1 week: Inca Trail + Machu Picchu)

Bolivia – 16 weeks working in Cochabamba, Bolivia

Brazil – 2 weeks of pure vacation!

What I intend to do upon my return?

Assuming I enjoy the experience I foresee myself returning to New York or moving to D.C./San Francisco to continue my involvement in international development.  I am open to working at a non-profit organization, governmental institution or private sector company.

What will be the purpose of my blog?

This serves as an easy way to update individuals on the events of my life while I’m abroad and less accessible. Moreover, I would like to use this forum to share ideas regarding the work I encounter and hopefully spark an intellectual discussion on economic situations in developing and underdeveloped countries.

Until next time – cheers,

Tomas

[While in South America I will go by my last name rather than Shiju]