Summer of love

The six months since The International Bank of Bob was released have been a blast.  I have so many people to thank.

Since last I updated this site (in February! I suck at the Internets):

Day of release, the book shot to #3 on Amazon, mostly thanks to a ton of Kiva lenders grabbing copies all at once. The book went into its second printing in less than 24 hours. Thanks, Kiva lenders! (I’m sure Bloomsbury, my publisher, thanks you, too.)

There was a lot of nice press, too—the New York TimesSan Francisco ChronicleUSA TodayBoston GlobeTravel+LeisurePBS NewsHourForbesMarieCurrent TV, among a lot of others.

 

 

Even Chinese state television (!).

 

The tour of SF, LA, NY, and DC was awesome. Big crowds, lots of old friends. The Strand event in NY was a real highlight.  I was also invited to give talks at Citi, Visa, and Google, whose team lending total increased by almost tenfold soon after. (I’m not sure how much my talk had to with that; I’m sure that the people who organized my talk drove all that lending, and I was a handy prop at most. Still, cool.)  A bunch of book clubs have asked me to Skype in, too, some from as far away as Europe and Australia. Meeting people who appreciate the book never gets old.

More important by far: more than 15,000 new lenders have taken advantage of the “Bank of Bob” free trials page at Kiva, creating new accounts and making their first $25 loans to small mom-and-pop businesses all over the world. (If you’re curious, click the link. Poke around. You’ll probably dig it.)  Meanwhile, the Friends of Bob Harris team at Kiva is approaching $4 million in loan volume, having made nearly 130,000 loans to small businesses in 76 countries. I can’t even get my head around those numbers.

And we’re just getting started. This fall, the book has already received academic adoption at a number of university “first read” programs.  And as I write this, I’m in New York, taking a little time for fun. Then I head for Brussels, where I’ve been invited to present the book in the European Parliament. (Those words look really weird to write.)

I’ve said this individually to everyone I can reach, but for the record: heartfelt thanks to readers, lenders, Kiva, friends, family, booksellers, my publisher, various writers and interviewers, nice folks at a bunch of colleges and corporations, and most of all, to the kind and hardworking people in nearly two dozen countries who opened the lives and work and homes and hearts in various ways, just because I asked.

I have been given more than I ever dreamed of asking for, nearly everywhere I’ve gone. Best summer—heck, best four and a half years—of my life. Thank you.

 

Travel tips: how to get from Machu Picchu to Kathmandu on a Kiva Lender’s Budget

For my the upcoming book you may have noticed mentioned somewhere around here, I traveled around the world with side trips on five continents, visiting destinations both frequently touristed (Cusco, Siem Reap, Cebu) and less so (Sarajevo, Kigali, Chennai).

Given that any $25 saved could be rolled into more loans, conserving money while traveling safely was a major consideration.

With no pretense of presenting a comprehensive guide to budget travel, and acknowledging that others will have different preferences, here are a few things that helped me keep things cheap, safe, and sane:

What to pack

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As close to nothing as you can imagine. If you’re checking a bag, you’re doing it wrong. I’ve been all the way around the world three times now without checking a bag: backpack, sport jacket, camera or computer bag, done. Unless your job requires bulky yet essential equipment — perhaps you’re a golfer, supermodel, band roadie, or all of the above — checking a bag means you’ve brought too much stuff. Light travel is happy travel. Go full-on Buddhist here. Release your possessions, at least onto the floor of your living room, and cut down to the bone.

Get it all down to carry-ons, and you’ll save fees, energy, and hours at baggage carousels. Plus, no airline can ever lose anything of yours again, and packing for the next destination becomes a breeze. Once your personal inventory becomes familiar, you’ll never again have a nagging feeling of having left something behind.

Bob’s stuff– all of it –in the Beijing airport during a 2008 round-the-world trip: one sport jacket atop a backpack and computer bag.

Skip the foreign currency packets, traveler’s checks, and so on. ATMs connected to international banking networks have become ubiquitous virtually anywhere you’re likely to visit, and you’ll get a favorable interbank exchange rate as well. Check the destination airport’s website in advance if you want to feel certain, but there’s probably an ATM you can use right after customs.

Electrical adapters are easy, too. Cheap all-in-one units the size of a soap cake are easy to buy online, and they work nearly everywhere (South Africa being the main giant-pronged exception). I pack two and a small U.S. multi-plug, and I never worry. Laptops, cameras, and other small electronics are designed to work internationally on nearly any supply you’re likely to encounter. (Again, check ahead if you have any concern.) Certain items like hairdryers need special adapters, but if you’re bringing a hairdryer, you’re reading the wrong article.

Bottom line, here’s my basic packing list: socks and undies in quantity, plus outerwear I can layer. Sunscreen, insect repellent, sun hat. Shorts that double as swim trunks. Foldable mosquito net, depending on destination. (This is the size of a CD travel case.) Maybe a light rain shell, crushed mercilessly into the bottom of the pack, again depending on destination. Toothbrush, floss, razor, travel meds (see below), thermometer. Electrical adapters and multi-plug. Laptop computer. (I prefer to bring an old one, stripped of all data except basic software.) Earphones and basic computer cables (Ethernet still comes in handy sometimes). Digital camera with extra batteries, memory cards, and charger. ATM and credit cards. Vaccination card and travel health insurance info. Earplugs and sleep mask. Pages from guidebooks, ripped from their spines to save weight and volume. Ballpoint pens. Small black moleskine notebooks for doodling or sharing ideas or drawing maps for a stranger. And, of course, my passport. And we’re off to the airport…

Airfares

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I’m not savvy enough about credit scores to know how many readers can even try this, nor how many will savage their credit if they do (mine may be toast, for all I know) — but anytime a bank or airline has wanted to give me tens of thousands of free air miles, I’ve taken them. Some airline credit cards offer 40,000 miles or more just for signing up, making some low threshold of purchases, and paying a small annual fee comparable to the cab fare to the airport for your first trip.

I must have burned through half a dozen of these while writing the book, but it paid off in thousands of dollars of saved airfare. When I visited Cambodia in 2011, I first flew from LAX to Tokyo for 20,000 miles and $102.50 in fees on one major U.S. carrier, then continued down to Singapore for just 10,000 miles and $30.90 in fees on another. A short hop on a Singapore-based airline got me to Phnom Penh for just under $120. Total price, Los Angeles to Cambodia: less than I usually spend flying home to Ohio.

Be flexible about routing, and for long journeys, figure out how to cross the ocean first and work backwards. When I needed to get back to the U.S. from Lebanon, for example, I first searched for the cheapest transatlantic fare regardless of departure city. At the time, this was Barcelona-JFK for just 10,000 miles and $85 in fees. So now I just needed to get cheaply from Beirut to Barcelona — a simple task, given the competitive market for discount air travel all over Europe. (Check out whichbudget.com for matching any two cities.) It took about 10 minutes to find a cheap one-way to Barcelona on Czech Airlines via Prague; I wound up getting to New York more cheaply from Lebanon than I often do from California.

Prepare to believe some incredible deals you may come across. Singapore, Bangkok, London, and several other cities are remarkably competitive markets that often feature did-I-see-that-right fares. I’ve twice traveled round-the-world from England for under $2,000, including taxes and fees. (The Great Escapade is a great place to start.)

That said, deals like these are often on airlines that many Americans may not feel familiar with. No worries — just check the airline safety records yourself, so you can stay off the planes that fall down and go boom. Generally speaking, flying abroad is as safe and often more comfortable than flying in the U.S.

Most of all, be ready for pleasant surprises. On the Sharjah-to-Nairobi route, Air Arabia followed a long echoing prayer to Allah with reruns of Pinky and the Brain.

“Pinky and the Brain” on Air Arabia (note the Arabic script on the seat back).

Getting around locally

On the other hand, don’t cut corners on local transport. Spend the money for a train, bus, scheduled van, or taxi over smaller, more vulnerable vehicles like mototaxis and tuk-tuks. The price difference may seem substantial, but the safety difference is more so. As a rule, if your knees are accessible to traffic, the dollar you’re saving is not worth it.

I always carry a small notebook and ballpoint pen. This has a million uses: besides simple note-taking and address-sharing, I’ve gotten taxi rides to monuments simply by drawing them; passed hours with seatmates with no shared language just by drawing maps of our respective hometowns, diagrams of our family trees, and simple doodles of the people around us. I even once navigated a complex ride to a hospital by asking a neighbor to write its name in the local script, then showing it as needed along the way.

Learn the name of a major landmark near where you’re staying. In some cities, this may be more useful for getting home than any address, cross street, or even the name of the hotel or guesthouse. If it’s a famous statue, tower, bordello, sports arena, or sacred shrine that everyone knows, you will never have trouble finding your way home.

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When something like this is just a few blocks from your hotel, even a simple facial expression may help a cabbie get you home.

Where to stay

One personal preference is finding a locally owned, perhaps family-run hotel where I can feel more hopeful that my dollars are staying in the country for a while. (International chains may return much of their income back to a corporate mothership in Europe or America, doing less for the local economy than one might hope.) Compared to the big internationally branded hotels, these may also only charge about half as much for the same accommodation.

Some very nice options in many developing countries may not be on major travel search engines yet. If you’re curious but unsure how to proceed, just book something conventional for the first few nights, and then ask around. You may soon find a deal that is better both for you and for the people you’re visiting.

Calling home

This is why the gods gave us Skype. For years, I traveled with a four-band Motorola Razr that was compatible with at least one local frequency virtually anywhere on the planet, all enabled by a cheap worldwide calling plan on T-Mobile, but it just stopped being necessary. It’s still a good idea to have a phone of some sort in case of emergency, and the cheap, ubiquitous, easy-to-SIM-switch Razr is still a surprisingly useful choice. If you have some brilliant roaming plan on your iPhone or whatever, more power to you. But me, I just Skype now.

Staying healthy

Get your shots. Do not screw around. Check with a tropical disease specialist and/or the CDC to make sure you’re immunized for your destination, and if not, get on it. For malarial areas, make sure you have the proper prophylaxis for the region (regimens vary) and take it without fail. In areas where other insect-borne diseases (dengue, etc.) are endemic, keep exposed skin to a minimum and wear appropriate repellent.

My doctor always sends me overseas with filled prescriptions of two kinds of antibiotics along with guidelines on when to begin their use if necessary. This has saved my kiester a couple of times. Highly recommended.

The sun is a mighty god to be feared. Do not mess with tropical or high-altitude sun if you’re not used to it. Keep your head covered and your skin screened. When applying both sunscreen and mosquito repellent, sunscreen goes on first, that bug repellent layer goes on the outside, facing the bugs.

Basic food and water hygiene are well covered by many travel websites. Study up, and follow the rules religiously. It only took me one slip-up in China to turn an entire week into Crouching Tourist, Shooting Dragons.

Ninety-nine percent of the people you meet will range from pretty nice to downright wonderful. Still, trust your instincts. People are people. If your spidey sense kicks up, trust it and remove yourself from the situation.

If you do ever find yourself in a mugging situation, surrender your goods pleasantly, without showing fear, then attempt to exit as casually as possible. If you have packed properly, every item in your possession can be easily replaced. Your internal organs are another matter.

Customs, as in the national-boundaries kind

Have your visa card, control stamp, entry or exit paperwork, or whatever else the bureaucracy wants from you ready in advance. If there’s a fee on arrival, make sure they’ll accept the currency you’re carrying or you may find a rare exception to the don’t-need-currency-in-advance rule.

If you’re planning on smuggling anything — booze, pot, a fragment of some historic relic, an enchanted monkey’s paw, anything — please stop reading right now and hit yourself repeatedly around the eyebrows with a ball-peen hammer.

If a customs officer wants to confiscate something, let them. Consider it an official mugging, and play by the same rules as above. Protest lightly if you must, with a smile and an explanation — no, good officer in Beirut, my computer security cable which has traveled uneventfully to 23 countries cannot be used to throttle a pilot into submission, despite your feverish lunacy — but after that, let it go. You can buy more stuff a lot more easily than you can buy your way out of trouble.

Customs, as in the personal-boundaries kind

If you forget whether it’s appropriate to bow, kneel, remove shoes, or self-flagellate on Tuesdays, no worries: just ask. It’s really that simple. When in doubt, just cop to being a visitor, express your desire to be respectful, and ask with friendly humility. In my experience, the response has ranged from patient helpfulness to flattered delight.

Learn the basic greetings (including any gender-specific phrasing), plus the words for “please,” “thank you,” and so on before you even think about setting foot in somebody’s country. It’s just polite, and even if it’s all you learn, and you spend weeks roaming the countryside saying “hello, thank you, please, hello, thank you, please, hello,” people will at least be entertained.

Beyond those phrases, if there’s a language barrier you just can’t cross, enjoy the puzzle. If you’re carrying the right attitude, the person on the other side may well join you in a group activity of navigating the barrier. Get out your notebook and start to draw. Pictionary is international.

To avoid accidental offense in gesturing: few cultures frown on keeping your hands close to your body, and most gestures that can cause trouble involve individual digits going in directions considered offensive. Solution: y’know the stiff-fingered paddle-hand gestures that airline crews use during pre-takeoff safety briefings? That’s pretty safe. Find a way to gesture “I’d like to buy this item” or “is your taxi free?” with flat hands and an open facial expression, and you’ll rarely give accidental offense. (With practice, you may even go long stretches needing little verbal language at all.)

Also keep your hands from touching other people until you know the local ground rules. Some cultures aren’t particularly keen on menfolk and womenfolk even talking outside certain circumstances. A friendly American hand on the shoulder may be a major faux pas. When in doubt, again, sincerely asking is a demonstration of your respectful intent. Honest curiosity — “is this a bow or a handshake moment?” — usually buys friendly laughter and a ton of social breathing room.

Keep your feet to yourself, too. Pay attention to where your shoes and the soles of your feet are supposed to go. This isn’t just an Arab or an Asian thing; minding your shoes and keeping the soles of your feet out of view is a good habit pretty much anywhere.

Finally, good-natured patience and genuine interest in your hosts are your two most important pieces of travel equipment.

Pack these first, double-check that you have them at all times, and you’ll rarely go wrong.

Blowing it up in Nicaragua

[This is a repost of a guest entry over at the Kiva blog. My trip to Nicaragua and a few other fun moments along the way didn't make it into the book, so I'm sharing the extras over the next few weeks.]

I’m about to help a new friend blow up some stuff in Nicaragua. 

This really isn’t what I originally set out to do here. But it seems like a good idea now. Mostly because Luis Alberto is so pleased about it. 

Luis Alberto and I are standing on a deserted rural road flanked by barbed wire, marking the edges of dry empty fields. Just a 20-minute ride from the bustling streets of León, the only sounds here are the rustling of dry leaves, the occasional bark of a distant dog, and metallic hammering from a nearby tin-roofed work site. 

This quiet strip of pavement is a perfect place to light a fuse, plug our ears, and giggle.

Luis Alberto blows things up for a living. He and his employees make fireworks, and his business has been financed in part by Fundación León 2000, the local Kiva partner. They’ve loaned Luis the equivalent of $850 to buy gunpowder, coal, sulfur, nitrate, and assorted kablowie necessities. Fundación León 2000, in turn, has financed Luis’s loan through Kiva. I’ve chipped in $25 to his loan at Kiva here.


 
Meanwhile, I’ve spent sizable chunks of the last few years traveling to visit borrowers in Bosnia, Lebanon, Cambodia, and so on, writing a book about Kiva and microfinance while meeting as many loan recipients as I can. That’s why I’m here in Nicaragua, where a Fundación León 2000 loan officer has kindly led me to Luis Alberto’s door in a working-class quarter of León, and Luis’s family has immediately welcomed me with cold drinks, family photos, wedding pictures, and stories.* 

We’ve talked about business as well: the fireworks trade has high periods around holidays, so depending on the calendar, Luis Alberto may have eight, ten, maybe a dozen men working for him. (Knock-on job creation like this can be a positive side effect of many microloans, not always apparent in a Kiva profile.) At the time of my visit, he employs about a half a dozen men, all at a work site safely far from any residential area. Would I like to see it? 

So now, trying to return his trusting spirit, I’ve followed Luis Alberto to his outdoor explosives-making workshop along this rural Nicaraguan road. As he places a single three-walnut-sized firework on the ground, my inner Cub Scout kicks in, compelling me to check the wind direction, raise my arms to warn nonexistent traffic, and scan the ground worriedly for some kind of makeshift ear protection. (Look! Two squirrels! That should work!

I’m also hoping that this one demonstration will be the only kaboom that I hear. The manufacturing work is all done by hand, with people sitting between bins filled with various powders, fuses, and kaboom-containers, creating each firework with assembly-line repetition: grab one of these, scoop some of this into there, mash it down with this metal thing, and repeat.

In skilled hands, each firework takes about 45 seconds to make. The guys are friendly and eager to demonstrate the process for their skittish American visitor. Tengo miedo un poco, I manage to summon from my gringo-watching-telenovelas Spanish. I’m a little afraid. This brings only friendly laughter — it’s perfectly safe, they tell me. I should try it myself and see! Um… okay

The results, in my hands: grab one of these, scoop some of this into there, drop that thing by accident, spill the powder back into the bin, get some of it on my pants, grab one of these again, and so on. Five minutes later: one firework and all ten fingers. A moral victory. 

Now I’m dripping in sweat from the heat. And I’ve only been out here for maybe an hour, tops. These men work up to ten hours a day, but they have dreams and families to work for, so there it is. 

As with nearly every client and business I’ve visited in these travels, I can barely imagine the patience and physical endurance involved. All I can map it to: when I was growing up in Ohio, my dad spent his entire adult life doing manual labor to support our family. He’d work in a warehouse, take third shift, lay sod in the hot sun, whatever was necessary. It’s hard to look at these workers in Nicaragua—or anywhere I’ve visited—and not see at least some resemblance. And my dad obviously had things a lot easier, given a minimum wage, occupational health and safety regulations, and so on. 

One of the cruelest stereotypes about economic struggle is that it’s caused by a lack of hard work. Just one day in the field with microlending clients should be enough to convince anyone otherwise. 

Finally, out in the street, ready to demonstrate the results of all the handiwork, Luis Alberto has the happy grin of a teenager. He’s 63 years old, mind you, and he speaks to his employees more as a father than as a boss. But when he’s about to light a fuse, he has the same smile he must have had when he was a kid. 

Finally: match, fuse, ba-BAMM! We giggle like ten-year-olds. For one gorgeous instant, language, age, religion, and nationality disappear. It’s only one moment, sadly, and a Beavis and Butthead one at that. But this was hardly the only such moment of connection. 

On my arrival at Luis Alberto’s home, recall, the discussion was immediately of things that matter everywhere: work, love, marriage, age, death, hope for the children, pride in small victories. I bet you feel connected to all of that, too, even through a computer, wherever you are. 

I can’t change the birth lottery, any government, nor the slightest whim of the global economy. I don’t pretend for one second that my $25 loan or the afternoon I spent counting and re-counting my fingers (Ten? Yes!) with Luis Alberto, by themselves, had any great effect on his life. 

But I can and do feel grateful to be able to help this gentle, funny man to create great effects in his own life, to provide a home for his family and employment for those around him. 

And after visiting clients from Kenya to the Philippines, when I look at the Kiva website and scan through the thousands of photos and stories, I can only feel excited for more. 



* Incidentally, I don’t volunteer to clients that I’m a lender. An indebtedness vibe would not only feel kinda gross, but factually inappropriate, what with pre-disbursed funds and the likelihood that some other Kiva lender would have invested in the loan if I hadn’t. I’ll admit that I’m a lender if anybody asks, but almost nobody does, and it seems a lot friendlier, simpler, and more accurate just to say that I’m an American interested in their lives. This is certainly true. 

Best. Birthday. Ever.

Thanks to the 75+ people who came out to the W hotel in Westwood last week for the combination of Kiva's 6th anniversary, a celebration of the million bucks (!) the Friends of Bob Harris team at Kiva.org has raised to lend to small businesses in the developing world, and my own birthday party.

The million bucks was actually the team's goal for my birthday present (Kiva did a whole blog post about it, in fact), which is also mindblowing—the idea that my birthday would ever be an occasion for hundreds of people to do something nice for thousands of total strangers all over the world… I just don't even know how to respond. (In fact, these 750 sweet folks have made it to over $1.1 million by my birthday, and are already approaching $1.2 million.)

One highlight I'll never forget: I turned around, and more than a dozen folks had put on matching T-shirts proclaiming themselves officially as Friends of Bob Harris.  

It's one thing to know you have a lot of wonderful friends. It's another to see that they've decide they want a uniform. Wow.

Everyone should get to see something like this once in their lives.

Huge, huge thanks.  Now it's on to two million!