Thursday, February 26, 2009

As promised

Another quick post to tell you what's been happening here lately.

Recently, I've been working on trying to increase the efficiency here at CREDIT. Sometimes the guys are a little lazy with the work, so part of my efforts are directed at trying to manage without micromanaging. It's tough to keep my Kiva Coordinator focused when his boss is out visiting sub-branches. He'd rather chat on Skype or read newspapers. I can't really blame him though. His job primarily consists of translating page after page of borrower profiles and updates from the field. Eventually the stories start to look the same, and it just becomes drone work.

I think that's one of the most difficult aspects of the whole Kiva-MFI relationship. Kiva needs talented bilinguals to work with them on getting information about borrowers on the website. By nature, those who are very good at other languages tend to be more curious and creative than those who don't make the extra effort needed to learn a very different language. However, the work that we want them to do is outright boring, and becomes nothing more than an endless grind of translating handwritten documents and inputting the information into the website. No wonder the turnover rate for Kiva coordinators can be so high.

Anyways, I've been focusing on figuring out ways to take the load off of the coordinator so he/she can focus on other work. I had a couple of ideas, but none seem to be perfect, and one was rejected by the crew at Kiva headquarters.

  • let the kiva coordinator just translate forms word for word, and have native english speaking volunteers in America create well-written profiles out of them. In web 2.0 speak, crowdsource the creation of the profiles and journal updates from the basic info. This would prevent burnout because a lot of effort goes into trying to craft grammatically correct sentences.
  • Use various programs to reduce the amount of useless, repetitive work that is required to upload a user profile or journal update
  • For increasing the journaling rate of the field officers -- create a program that will automatically collect the comments generated in response to each post that was created from a field officer's journal update information, and send it as a printout (because of lack of internet) to the sub branches. This means that field officers see other field officer's posts and resulting comments, which would hopefully generate some competition and drive people to get more and better information. It's pretty fun to read comments that people write in response to your stuff...
  • other random ideas that are still brewing
I also figured out a process where my coordinator and I can create about 8 journal updates per hour without getting completely burned out. It just involves being clever with keyboard shortcuts and making him do the minimum amount of translation work as possible. Using that method we've done about 55 journals in 3 days, with plenty of time for other work.

I've been trying to plan a visit to the field, but it's a bit difficult to coordinate, but I'm being very pushy, and have scheduled two visits to nearby areas next week. Hopefully we can go farther afield the week after that. Angkor Wat, anyone?

I think I had the most delicious meal I've eaten here for lunch today. I made a video, sorry for the shakiness. Just believe me when I say it was incredibly satisfying, and that the onions in the stew were heavenly.

And with that, it's time for a weekend! My plans? Get a bicycle, soak my clothes in insect repellent, buy some socks, and study study study.

(I forgot to mention that we were blessed with the presence of Alex, a member of the Kiva board and an absolute riot. He reminds me of some 70s rocker, but with a razor sharp wit. Hanging out with him means laughing every 30 seconds or so)

A quick week

Things seem to go a lot faster than I want them to here. There doesn't seem to be anywhere near enough time in the day to do things I want and need to do. This probably also stems from not having internet access at home, which is something I'll have to get comfortable with.

I like to consider last week to be a "warm up" of sorts for my fellowship. I wasn't living at my real apartment (I was still at a guest house with the number of rats at least equaling the number of human guests), I had the flu and then some strange stomach thing where I couldn't eat or it really hurt, I was still getting used to the heat, and I went to a conference for a couple days which was not worth my time.

I moved in to my apartment last weekend. It's a great place, and has more locks than are probably necessary. Although I guess you never know in a country like this. More to come on the apartment and the old deaf-mute who lives downstairs in a later post.

I've finally settled, and have been able to cook for myself, at least for breakfast and dinner. I think that's really saved me, because my stomach couldn't really manage to adjust while trying to maintain some semblance of a vegetarian diet (I admit to eating bits of fish and meat on several occasions, partially out of necessity). I found a great marketplace near my apartment where I grab vegetables, tofu, and fruit. I'd love to show you a video when I get the chance. The markets are like some crazy, sweaty, smelly, overheated labyrinth. More to come on that later

I have an established running route, and the heat is not so bad in the mornings. I think I'm starting to get the protein (or some other nutrient) I need to be able to exercise thanks to my cooking, because before about today, anytime I went running, my legs felt incredibly weak, particularly my quads. I just need to get up about 5 minutes earlier to make it on time to work, which starts at 7:30 here.

The water that comes out of the shower smells terrible, sort of like it's been sitting in a rusting iron tank. I suspect this might be the case. One of the few things I miss about home is not having to worry about not getting the water in your mouth when showering.

I started getting lessons from a Cambodian tutor who tutored a friend from Stanford a few years back. She's a great tutor, and really knows how to tailor her plans to the particular student. Best of all, lessons are $5 an hour, an absolutely amazing value. I try to go 5 days a week, sometimes for more than an hour. Side note - I have to go to her family home in the residential area because both of her legs are broken. This happened because her dad was drunk when pulling the car into the house, and hit her. It's been about 6 months now, and she had to get one leg "fixed" in Vietnam because it wasn't healing properly.

I'm getting used to riding on the back of motoscooter/cycles. It's still pretty frightening though if you think about what would happen if you fell off. Accidents are very common, and I saw one right in front of me. My friend got thrown from his moto-taxi in an accident after being here for only a week!

There are lots of little things that have taken some getting used to, but they're not really worth complaining about because they are just that -- little things. I'd rather talk about the more interesting stuff with you.

Most interestingly, yesterday was payday at the MFI (microfinance institution) that I volunteer at. The guys were giddy all day, and barely did any work. As soon as the clock hit 5, it was time to go to the pool hall. I forgot to take a video, but it basically looks like pool but with larger tables and smaller pockets, and a whole bunch of red balls. The game is called snook-ah or something to that effect. I played at the losers table because I suck.

Here's a video of us getting in the car, which is exciting because I've been riding on the backs of "motos" for the past 2 weeks. Cars feel safe.

Next, we went to a local restaurant with a beach sort of theme. They had delicious food. My buddies started drinking and were on my case about it, so I had a couple of beers to appease them. I haven't had a drink in quite a long time, and after the two beers, I remembered that I wasn't missing out on anything. Anyways, they proceeded to get really drunk, and I took lots of video that you would find wholly uninteresting. The restaurant and drinking was what they called "step 1." After everyone had their fill, the bill for the feast/drinkfest came -- less than $10 a person.

Step 2 was the highly anticipated Karaoke bar. I was excited, because at least there would be some singing involved. However, there were a lot of suggestive comments made by the guys before we went, so I was a bit suspicious. When we got there, there were maybe 20 dressed up girls waiting by the door, and it became clear that it was some sort of hostess thing, with possible shady inuendos (at least from my decisively western perspective). We got to the room which was a big thing with couches lining the wall and a big TV in the middle. Probably the most well-built room I've been to in Cambodia besides the casino (for the conference), which should tell you a little about how much money must be going through there.

I thought the singing would commence immediately, and I really wanted some water. Instead, the others waited excitedly, telling me that I have to choose "the most prettiest girl," and that I would be third in the order. It was extremely difficult for me to explain that I felt uncomfortable because I come from a different culture. They just wouldn't have any of it. I refused to choose, but one of the guys brought someone over who spoke English. I felt tremendously uncomfortable, especially when they suggested that it was "good to touch, ok to kiss!" and things of that nature. Perhaps the strangest thing to me was that half of the guys in the room were in relationships or married. BUT! I ask that you refrain from judging them, because as I came to realize, my discomfort stemmed only from the fact that the cultural perception of what's acceptable for America and Cambodia is simply different. Or, at least that's what I told myself to avoid overreacting and losing face with the group I'll be working with for the next 4 months.

Anyways, I was very fortunate because the girl they chose had agreed with her manager beforehand that she would only translate, and do nothing more than that. I was quite relieved when she told me that. I only felt uncomfortable when the guys would occasionally come over and try to mash us together or put my arm on her. Fortunately, she wasn't having any of it either, so they eventually left us alone (or fell asleep from the drink)

Watching the others interact was really strange. I guess it's "ok" to touch and kiss and do other things like that. I had to suppress any feelings about the terrible male/female inequality of the situation, but again, it's a cultural thing, and honestly, I don't know the right way to feel about it. I still think that acting antagonistically towards such a display as a visitor in a country is a pretty bad idea though, regardless of how I might feel.

I did manage to sing one song, "it's now or never." I did my best Elvis voice while the guys did some strange dancing, which was lots of fun. After that it was back to awkwardness, and eventually I decided it was time to go as things quieted down. My bag was in a friend's car, but I just left it there so I could make my getaway. Fortunately, my house was only 1/2 a block away, so I got home and went right to sleep.

So yeah, quite an experience.

This morning I had a bit of diarrhea, which is unfortunate since I know it was caused by the delicious food at that restaurant. I'm just glad it decided to wait until 10 seconds after I returned to my apt. from my run.

A funny side note, today I was told we were going to have a snack around 2pm. Something about eggs. A bowl of what looked like hard boiled eggs that were battered and fried were brought in, along with an accompanyment of pepper, lime, and some sort of herb. Here's what happened (please watch the video).

Yes, that was a half-formed duck embryo in there. Not what I expected at all. Still, I finished it. It's not that bad as long as you don't think about it or look at it too much. Learn more about it here.

Well, that's all for now. Time to go home. Thanks for reading, and hopefully I'll do another post tomorrow.

Friday, February 20, 2009

A Phnom Penh Afternoon

(note: I'll be posting this to the Kiva Fellows blog in a little bit, which should explain the different style of the post)

Hi KF blog readers,

My name is Jeff Zira, and I’m a Kiva Fellow (round 7) in Cambodia. I’ll be working with the MFI CREDIT in the capital city, Phnom Penh, for about four months. I’m very excited to start my fellowship here, and am looking forward to meeting clients so I can learn firsthand how microfinance affects them.

I arrived at the tiny, one-lane-runway airport, where three guys from CREDIT were waiting to pick me up. The heat was intense, with the humid sunshine beating down on the dusty roads near the airport. I was taken to my guesthouse, and then my MFI so I could introduce myself. I felt immediately comfortable among the friendly, welcoming staff. I had my first taste of delicious Khmer food at CREDIT’s group lunch, which only cost one dollar.

However, after a few hours, I realized that the I aches I was feeling were not a result of sitting in uncomfortable seats on the plane, but were early symptoms of the flu. Not a great way to start my adventure.

I spent the weekend trying to orient myself and adjust to the heat (the heat proved to be the more trying of the two tasks). Not only was my body’s thermostat still set on “winter mode,” but the flu kept switching my sense of temperature from fever to chills and then back to fever. Sleeping was not easy.

I did manage to make it out to Wat Phnom though, one of the most important temples in Phnom Penh. Since I’m more familiar with very low-key Japanese Buddhist shrines and temples, the colors and music surprised me.

On Monday, I made my condition worse by eating something that made my GI tract hurt so much I couldn’t eat for 24 hours. Still, as I rode home from work on the back of an unsafe moto-bike in the rush-hour traffic, I noticed my mood steadily improving. Maybe it was the heat, the dizziness from the flu, or the lightheadedness from my fast, but I felt incredibly alive. I felt so in awe of the epic beauty of the massive pinkish clouds, so connected to the vibrant life emanating from the throngs of people and shouting children, so rejuvenated by the uniquely "Cambodian" pop music, and so warmed by the heat of the evening and the playful shouts of teenagers in the streets that I couldn’t help smiling all the way home.

This country is so full of life and excitement. I can’t wait to get to know it better.

Friday, February 13, 2009


After 16 hours in transit from Tokyo, I’ve finally arrived in Phnom Penh. My experience with the flights was surprisingly pleasant, despite a 7 hour layover in Singapore (from 1:30 to 8:30 in the morning -- nothing to see even if I left the airport). I managed to get four hours of very good sleep on some chairs in the airport, so I feel great. Well, that’s an exaggeration; I’m almost certain the body aches I’m experiencing are symptoms of the flu. Not the best way to start my trip, but my excitement overwhelms any self-pity I’m tempted to feel.

The airport at Phnom Penh was tiny. There were only two spots for planes to park, and the runway was a single lane. Fairly surprising for a capital city.
I met up with my friend Drew (another Kiva Fellow), whose flight arrived 45 minutes after mine, a fairly incredible coincidence since we scheduled our flights over a month ago without any knowledge of each other’s existence. The guys from my MFI, CREDIT, were waiting outside with a sign. It was hot. It’s still hot. I guess I expected that. We hopped in the truck, and I noted that it looked a fair amount like Thailand, just a bit dirtier and less built-up.

We stopped briefly at our guesthouse to throw my bags down, and then I was off to the office to meet CREDIT’s employees. Everyone is very friendly, and most people speak English beyond the level I expected. I was quickly invited to the communal lunch, which only costs a dollar and tasted great: white rice, a fish and green vegetable soup, and a spicy meat dish with green beans and bell peppers that was somewhat reminiscent of a Thai dish. The format works out well because I don’t even have to tell them I’m a vegetarian -- I just avoid eating the meat!

I spent the afternoon learning names and asking about work. The guys are very friendly and seem excited to take me out with them when they hang out playing pool or table tennis. I would have taken them up on their offer to show me around tonight, but I already arranged to meet two other Kiva Fellows tonight to celebrate our arrival!

Here’s a shot from the hot, dusty balcony, a good summary of my impressions of Cambodia so far.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Ready to go

In the midst of all the traveling I’ve done in the past few weeks (LA, San Francisco, Sacramento, Michigan, Japan, and now Cambodia), I’ve hardly had any time to reflect on my situation or how I feel about it. Most recently, I spent a week in Tokyo after being away for about four months. It was an odd experience; I felt as though I haven’t been away long enough to have forgotten anything, but simply being there reminded me of all the details that once defined my life. To wax slightly philosophically, it was a vivid reminder of the ever-changing nature of the world. Many things changed imperceptibly, such as the crops in the field next door, the angle of the sun, and the look of some of the buildings. However, when taken together, these changes were enough to make me aware that my memories are not actual representations of what was once there, but artificial mental constructs that capture the narrow perspective I held at the time. It’s nice to be reminded sometimes.

I had a really great time seeing my friends and visiting favorite places. It was even more fun to have someone with me whose personality and tastes are so closely matched with my own to share the adventures with. My brother Aaron is setting off on his own adventure; he’ll be living alone in Tokyo while trying to find a job and clearing tedious legal hurdles to a long-term visa. I showed Aaron all of my favorite spots and gave him a crash course in navigating the idiosyncrasies of Japanese society. In the end though, he’ll have to discover most of it by himself (which is true for most things in life, I guess).

Japan also gave me the time I needed to find my balance through meditation. I occasionally skipped sessions or allowed my mind to be filled with busy thoughts in the hectic weeks up until I left, but with the chance to have uninterrupted time to myself in the mornings, I’ve rediscovered how wonderful life can be when I live in a heightened state of awareness.

As for the future, I’m not really sure what I should expect when I arrive in Cambodia. I think I’ve prepared myself (mentally) as best I could, so there is nothing left but to wait and see how it actually unfolds. I don’t really have any reservations about anything. Maybe the mosquitoes? The heat? But even those are nothing more than trivial concerns. I think the best way to describe my mood is cautious exuberance. I’m really excited to go and make a contribution, but I’m not setting any expectations that might hurt me later on if they aren’t fulfilled. I’m very, very ready.

In a few hours, I’ll board my flight to Singapore, where I’ll be from 1:30am to 8:15am. I think I’ll find a nice place to nap and wait it out. I doubt there’s much going on in the city at that time.

Here’s a shot of the dormant rice fields that shone so vividly green and gold when I last rode the train from downtown Tokyo to the airport, a reminder that even beautiful things don't last

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Halfway there!

I’m excited to announce that as of yesterday, I have officially passed the halfway point for my fundraising goals. After receiving my 20th donation, I’ve now collected $2540, over half of the $5000 I hope to raise. That covers my plane ticket and housing -- my two largest expenses!

It’s really amazing to witness everyone’s generosity firsthand, especially for someone who hasn’t done any fundraising since elementary school. Not to say that I underestimated my donors, but I really didn’t expect to collect as much as I have in such a short period of time. Thank you all so much!!

For those who are interested, you can see a list of donors on my page in the column on the right: Please note that I didn’t put full names or initials because I didn’t really want to make it into a competition or embarrass those who couldn’t give as much. I just put the first initial and the amount donated so my donors can see their contributions. (Am I’m going a bit far by hiding identities?)

An interesting tidbit -- I spoke to a former Kiva Fellow who just returned to Japan from Cambodia, and she mentioned that there really isn’t a way to fundraise for things like this in Japan. Apparently, it’s tough to ask people for money, even if it’s obviously for a charitable cause. I’m so glad you all were so willing to help me out!

I’m actually “halfway there” in more than one way; I’m also at the physical midpoint of my travels, Japan. Right now, I’m sitting next to my brother, Aaron, who is now living in the same apartment building I did when I worked in Japan. I stopped here to help him get set up as he tries to find an English teaching job. In two days, I’ll be off to Singapore, then Phnom Penh, the capital city of Cambodia. In the meantime, I’m enjoying the last I’ll see of winter until next year.

Finally, here’s a shot of Aaron in a mountain of broccoli leaves in the field next to his apartment.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Kiva Fellows Training

I knew that I should have blogged each day that I spent in training, but with social events, visiting friends, studying Cambodian, and reading up on microfinance, I never found the time to sit down and write anything coherent. In retrospect, a little blurb would have been better than nothing at all. As the memories quickly transform themselves into fleeting images and sound bites in my head, I can’t help but think that training was anything short of amazing.

I spent the weekend in Palo Alto, where I slept on my friend Ben’s floor. On Sunday night, I went to stay with my friend Cory, who will be a Kiva Fellow in Uganda. We left early Monday morning for Kiva’s San Francisco office (which is technically in the Mission district) not really knowing what to expect. The three-story office was in a warehouse-y neighborhood, and looked just like an aging apartment, complete with fading light-blue paint and a carpeted staircase. Kiva occupies two floors, and we sat in the middle of a 40 x 30 ft room (bordered by small offices and cubicles) for the duration of the training.

The training itself was very well executed, especially considering that the current director of the program started last May and has only trained two sets of fellows before us. We learned about the specifics of how Kiva operates, its goals, our duties as fellows, and how to handle difficult situations that others have encountered before. The training was well planned, with no training section longer than about 80 minutes. It felt like a very engaging and intense version of college, but admittedly, more fun. I found myself asking many questions and suggesting ideas, primarily because I was so genuinely interested. The others seemed equally engaged, since they raised many astute points I didn’t even consider.

The other fellows at the training were probably the most impressive and exciting part of the experience. I was among talented businesspeople and social achievers, all with impressive lists of prior accomplishments. Some founded their own socially-minded companies, and some had worked in challenging roles in banking and consulting. One person was a senior economist in a Kuwaiti firm. However, the most impressive characteristic of the trainees was not their achievements or drive, but their genuine concern for making a positive difference through Kiva, as well as through their careers. Never have I witnessed talent so devoid of selfish concerns, nor felt so immediately comfortable in a group.

After completing the training, I felt empowered and inspired. Through my exposure to the fellows and to Kiva’s crew, I was reminded that however small, I will make a difference.

What a wonderful week!