Saturday, July 14, 2007

A very special souvenir

Well, I'm back in the USA, but Nicaragua wasn't going to let go that easily. Yep, it's every developing country traveler's favorite intestinal bug - Giardia lamblia! Giardia is a cuddly little critter that likes to show its affection via fever, diarrhea, stomach cramps, and general can't-leave-the-bed-all-day full-body exhaustion. Do try never to get the stuff.*

The treatment for Giardia is arguably just as bad as the disease. The experience of taking Flagyl, aka Metronidazole, aka Something Scraped from the Bowels of the Guardians of Hell, is like being alternately kicked in the brain and the gut, a weird, woozy, free-floating nausea that percolates up to the brain and evokes thoughts of psychiatric med withdrawal.

Erica's Happy Morning Anti-Nausea Shopping List:

Reed's Ginger Brew
Ginger tea
Probiotic capsules
Probiotic goop in dairy culture
Papaya (Since it was Whole Foods, of course, I couldn't just buy a plain ol' papaya. Instead I got a sort of decorative papaya centerpiece, filled with raspberries and limes and presented for my viewing enjoyment. Very elegant.)

Celebrate your healthy digestive tract today! Go, Lactobactillus sp., go!

*No, I couldn't possibly tell you which of the many nasty "food" or water products I consumed in Nicaragua gave me giardia. One particular morning in Leon, however, shines in my memory. We had to be at the office at 7:30; my hotel didn't start serving breakfast until then. The only place in Leon where you can eat before 7:30 is the outdoor market, which is every bit as unappealing as you might imagine, sanitation-wise. I watched the lady behind the food stall stir instant coffee crystals into some boiled milk with a skin on it that she'd ladled out of a big pot, swatted the circling flies away, nibbled on my stale slice of poundcake that for some reason tasted vaguely of garlic, and thought, "I can't believe I'm about to drink this."

And then I did.

Saturday, July 7, 2007


We-re done! (Sorry, can-t find the apostrophe key on this computer!)

After one last bit of Nicaraguan craziness, we finished our final report yesterday and made a presentation in Managua. We were up till 3 a.m. dealing with computer problems and general sleep-deprived, last-minute formatting, then got up early and worked up until the "ultimo momento" and beyond. There was no way we were going to make it on time with the bus, so we took a taxi to Managua - not cheap, but que suerte that there are three of us. On arrival to the FINCA office we had a joyful reunion with our colleague Amelia, who is another FINCA fellow working as a "business analyst" in the central office for the summer. Apart from the fact that she-s a lovely person, it was unexpectedly wonderful to hang out with 1) another American who 2) understands exactly what we-ve been doing these past weeks and does not make stupid comments about how we are all on vacation!

We-ve actually been quite fortunate to have timed our Managua/non-Managua travels when we did, because apparently the electricity outages have been really bad in the last few weeks there, whereas in the other areas where we-ve been they have been much less severe. Our presentation was thus in a dark room by the romantic light of Jeanette-s laptop, but went reasonably well considering we were all hallucinating from sleep deprivation and I could barely think straight in English, let alone Spanish. But our main finding - that the majority of FINCA clients would not be officially classified as poor by either the Nicaraguan or the international standards - was, I think, well received. The program director asked about the best way for them to carry out a low-budget impact assessment, and Jeanette gave a quite good explanation of how they could take advantage of their credit officers regular trips to the field to avoid most of the costs of such a study.

Then it was back on a bus to Leon. Jeanette and Lauren leave tomorrow for Guatemala, and I-m heading up to a rainforest lodge in the mountains called Selva Negra for a few days of R and R before returning to DC.

We-ve been in a nice backpacker place in Leon called Lazybones Hostel for the last three days. Oddly enough, although the rooms are certainly nothing luxurious, basically a wooden box with a bed and a fan, I-ve noticed that backpacker places have the highest standards of customer service in Nicaragua. Maybe this is because the staff include foreigners, maybe because ALL the guests are foreigners. Regardless of the reason, it-s very nice to deal with friendly and helpful staff. The place has a (clean) little pool, hammocks, a garden, free halfway decent coffee, and lots of internet stations, so we-re all enjoying kicking back and indulging in some well-earned relaxation.

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

On the beach - now with photos!

My beautiful beachfront room. $21/night - que ganga!


Yet on further reflection, not perhaps the best choice for productivity. Poor Lauren had to work in this airless chamber. I just asked the staff to pop my laptop in the fridge every now and again as it severely overheated in the constant 100-degree humidity.

You will have to open this one at full size to see anything. This is a photo of the drywall peeling away from the wall just below my window to reveal a bat nest inside. I like bats (they eat mosquitos!) but thoughtfully refrained from mentioning anything to my travel companions until just now.

Alas, I do not have any pictures of the fireworks (yes, fireworks!) We shared our hotel with a large church group from the US... and since the 4th of July fell during our stay, and they were not only religious, but Texan, and thus ultra-patriotic... they commissioned a fireworks show on the beach! Unexpected, but cool. As a matter of fact Lauren and I felt so touched we just had to sing a round of "The Star Spangled Banner" to Jeanette in our hotel room.


We are now in a beautiful beach town (I'll call it "Playa Escondida" in hopes of forestalling waves of high-rise hotels) writing our final report. It is lovely, exactly what you dream about when you're dreaming of Central American beaches: frothy white waves, turquoise blue water, palm trees, friendly dogs, and just a few simple cabins scattered among the fishermen's houses.

Yet because it is so small and undeveloped, internet access is slooooow, so no photos until we're back in the city!

P.S. There's an old Nicaraguan saying that goes, "You only know who your true friends are when they take the time to comment on your blog..."

Transaction costs

A future client at our last village bank meeting in Nicaragua.

In grad school, we read Robert Chambers' “Voices of the Poor," which book and its sequels later sparked a World Bank initiative by the same name. Chambers’s point was that even in countries that are extensively studied and researched, the very poorest people tend to be excluded from study and consultation, and rarely heard from by outsiders. Why is this? Well, imagine you are a study team with a limited amount of time and money to spend in a country. You will probably focus your work in large cities; if you do get out of the city, you’ll go to areas that are reachable by paved roads; if you get off the paved road, you’ll go to areas where the roads are passable in rainy season; etc. The poorest of the poor tend to live in areas with much worse transport infrastructure. That’s part of what makes them poor. So reaching one such person for a survey or consultation requires ten times the effort of reaching someone else with a similar demographic profile, but living near a paved road.

The tradeoff between a large sample and a representative sample became very clear to us yesterday, our last day of interviews in Nicaragua.

Although we had thought we’d be going to bank meetings in the city, there was a last-minute change of plans and we ended up going out to rural areas. We got to the office at 7:30, but didn’t end up leaving until 10:00, when the FINCA driver became available. Because the credit officers had left before us, the driver dropped us off in the truck, with the branch coordinator riding along to help find the way.

City girl Lauren does not know quite what to make of this strange, green, growing stuff...

First, we drove about half an hour along the paved highway. Then it was time to turn off onto a dirt road and follow the “directions” to the client’s house, where we promptly got lost. As I mentioned earlier, the “two blocks below Pulperia Martinez, turn left at the mango tree, then ask around” method doesn’t work much better for Nicaraguans than it does for us. First we had to find the pulperia - the first person we asked said (with total certainty in his face), “Ah, yes, two blocks to the right.” We drove - no pulperia. The next person we asked, equally certain: “Ah, yes, two blocks to the left.” We finally found the pulperia and drove, twisting and turning and asking directions every few meters, up a road composed of thick black sand to a small house at the end of the road. “FINCA? What finca? You mean our farm?” Eventually we figured out that we were at the house of the wrong Dona Mercedes Gallo, and headed back, where the truck got stuck in that thick black sand for about 20 minutes before the driver finally figured out how to engage the 4WD. (Just in case you were wondering: Sand acts just like snow, and “gun the engine and spin the wheels real fast” is another approach that doesn’t work any better in Nicaragua.) Finally, we found our first bank meeting. Because most of the clients lived far away, and we had no transport, we could only interview those clients who actually showed up to the meeting: Lauren did 1 interview, I did 2. After a few souvenir photos of New York City Girl Meets Pig, it was off to get lost again, this time waiting at the empalme of something-or-other for a while before giving up and hiking along the highway to the pueblo entrance. After hacking our way through a forest of banana trees dotted with isolated houses to the second bank meeting, we had time for just 1 interview each before the credit officers left for another isolated meeting and we had to return to Leon.

5 interviews, 7 hours of 2 people’s time. Average time spent per 1/2-hour interview: 4.4 person-hours.

There’s just no way to contact poor rural people efficiently. It’s a huge investment of time and energy. Which is why it’s so important that when it does happen, the survey should be extremely well-designed, and some sort of education or outreach should take place along with it. It seems such a huge waste of effort to spend so long reaching these people, only to ask them 100 questions of dubious statistical value. We are all trying to at least act as FINCA “goodwill ambassadors,” and my personal goal has been to make sure every client I talked to understood the concept of an interest rate.

Extrapolating wildly from a single experience like the good statistician I am, I´d guess that the actual work of data collection occupies a relatively small proportion of most researchers' time in rural areas, because most of the work is in getting there in the first place. Given that, wouldn't it make more sense to always do data collection as part of some other project? The UN, World Bank, etc. invest so much money in data-gathering every year. Imagine if, oh, basic sanitation training went along with every such effort. Perhaps a naive thought - but at the moment it makes sense to me.

Sunday, July 1, 2007

Lovely Leon

If I had to live in one city in Nicaragua... this would be it. There is lots of public art here and man, had we missed that. Yesterday we went to the Fundacion Ortiz art museum, a beautiful colonial mansion full of gardens and fountains that has been turned into a museum. After a foreboding early start of unremarkable European religious art, the collection proved to be actually quite interesting, with lots of modern work from all over Central America. We were particularly enthralled by one work, a stylized "map" of Nicaragua's Pacific coast with each church, skyscraper, etc. in Leon, Chinondega, Managua, Masaya, and Granada represented as a silver metal cutout, with large fields of green and blue showing the land and the 2 lakes. It was clear, simple, and well-executed, and for literally the first time in a month we knew where we were on a map!

My new advice to travelers: if you are seeking a good map, skip the tourist office and head straight for the art museum.

Just for my own amusement

Think I was exaggerating about Managua? Don't take my word for it:

“Markus” from Berlin writes:

“Managua is the worst city I have ever seen, a place without a soul. The lake is polluted and foul smelling, next to it is an awful slum area, the governmental area (monument area) is virtually deserted and somewhat eerie, the so called centre is just for cars, it’s life threatening for pedestrians. There are a few good clubs but they are far between. There’s no street life, in the night you’ll mainly meet hookers and vendors. In my opinion it’s not worth to spend even one night there, if you don’t have to.”

On Flyertalk, Managua wins the vote for Worst City in the LatinPass program:

NicaraguaTravel.Biz - a promotional site for Nicaragua, mind you - says this:

"The climate is tropical which means constant high temperature and high humidity… The more or less exploding development of the city has left its infrastructure sort of a mess and most of both the air and Lake Managua is severely polluted. Steps are being taken to transform the city into a more hospitable place for visitors and the people living there but so far with unsatisfying results….

… Today nature rules much of which should be the centre of Managua, there are no parks or monuments but just pure jungle, a few ruins and some squatters leaving Managua with no actual centre at all….

...Although Managua is the capital of Nicaragua there is very little there to entertain the common tourist. The city is noisy, crowded and suffers from a high crime rate, the air is very polluted and the sights are few and far between. There are some sights worth seeing such as cathedrals, both new and in ruins, and the government buildings but not much else. The recommendation for most tourists is to visit their home embassy, if necessary, and then move on. Managua might not be the worst city ever but there sure is not much to stick around for. "