A long time has passed between my first post (An ordinary borrowers visit: The reality of microfinance) and this one — partially because I have been working very long hours and spending a lot of time on the road, but mainly because my laptop died. Those who have worked in the field know what a huge problem this is, especially when you need the Internet to do your job. I can’t believe I’ve lived without a computer for three weeks!
But I’m not here to talk about my problems. Instead, I’d like to tell you a story.
Right now, I’m living in San Pedro Sula, Honduras. It’s where ODEF, the microfinance institution I’m working with, is based — otherwise known as the most dangerous and violent city in the world (ranked No. 1 in 2011, beating out Ciudad Juarez, Mexico).
I recently set out to visit a borrower that lives a four-hour drive away. At 8 a.m. we — ODEF’s Kiva coordinator and I — left the city and headed toward Honduras’ border with Guatemala. Finally, we arrived at the MFI’s branch in Las Flores, Lempira.
When we met with the loan officer accompanying us to the borrower’s house, the first thing I asked him was, “Does the borrower live anywhere near here?” At this he smiled and said, “A little bit far from here.” From experience, I knew that this meant more than two hours on dirt roads over mountain passes. But I never could have imagined what was coming…
We hopped back in the truck, and the loan officer asked, “This is a 4×4, right?” When that’s the first question someone asks, you know the road is going to be interesting, to say the least. We were on our journey for just two minutes when the road ended.
“What now?” I asked the loan officer, and he pointed at a hill with a little arch. I laughed and told him to be serious. “No,really, that’s the entrance to the bridge,” he replied. When I saw the bridge up close, I knew he couldn’t be serious and we threw the truck in reverse.
“Hey!” he exclaimed. “We really need to cross that bridge to get to this borrower. And this isn’t the only one like it we have to cross.”
The first thing we had to do was tuck in the side mirrors to fit through the bridge’s narrow opening.
I told her I understood, and that I would go ahead with the loan officer by myself. I asked him if he could drive and he took the wheel (only ODEF employees are allowed to drive these company cars). The bridge seemed to go on forever. I could hear the sound of the river below and every rotten wooden board creaking. It was really something. When we reached the slack, middle section of the bridge, the loan officer stopped the truck, freaked out by the swinging of the bridge caused by the wind.
I told him we had to press on, that we couldn’t stay on the bridge for very long. So we started along the upward slope. Just 4 meters away from the end it seemed like we were going to make it! But suddenly the truck shut down — my driver didn’t accelerate as hard as he needed to. The tires had no grip on the smooth boards and we started sliding backward. For a moment I was sure it was all going to come crashing down, that we were both going to die on the rocks in the river below.
The truck rolled back into the side of the bridge (the side where I was seating on), trapping me inside, there was no space at all to open the door . The loan officer put on the emergency brake and got out on his side. So there I was, alone in the truck, and getting out on the other side was too dangerous — any small movement could make the truck fall.
Then, without any warning, a stranger jumped into the driver’s seat and drove the vehicle straight off the bridge. He was a man who worked nearby and was used to crossing. He spotted us having trouble and took action. Somehow, we were still alive!
We continued on our two-hour journey — which required crossing yet another bridge just like the last one, not to mention both of them on our way back. The extreme dirt roads and the rivers we had to cross seemed easy after that hammock bridge.
When we got to the second bridge, it was just as narrow and the wood was in a worse condition than the first one. That said, there was no one to help us this time — we were in the middle of fairly thick jungle. When we hesitated, a man with a machete and huge scar on his face came out of nowhere, and stood there staring at us. This gave us the courage we needed to cross the bridge without looking back.
We finally made it to the borrower, Mercedes, a lovely woman who owns a little coffee plantation around her house.
When I asked her for her birth date, she couldn’t remember. She shouted at someone in the house who shouted back, “It’s today!”
Yes, it was her birthday and she didn’t even realize it — or really seem to care. But I stood up and gave her a big hug anyway, and we all sang a bit of the Happy Birthday song. Before long, it was time to turn around and head back. This time, it had started raining — the truck would have even less grip.
We crossed the first bridge with little trouble. Then the loan officer proposed an alternate route to avoid the second one. The catch was that the trip would be longer, and the conditions on the other road were worse. Not only did it go through rough terrain, it was also dangerous. People get hi-jacked and robbed every day along this road, including two loan officers who were robbed at gunpoint last month. They were thrown, naked, over the nearby cliff, and the thieves left with their motorcycles and possessions.
So we had to decide between these two options. I voted for the bridge — mostly because I wanted to take some more pictures of how crazy it looks. I thought I could share them in this post. But the loan officer and Kiva coordinator both voted for the other route.
Luckily we didn’t get robbed, and we made it back to the branch office in a little over two hours. After pausing to look over a few documents, I hit the road again — four more hours back to headquarters.
We made it, but now you know how difficult it is to visit with these borrowers. As a Kiva fellow, you have these experiences and adventures. It’s a unique opportunity to get to know a country, the local people, their families and how they live. But for a microfinance institution trying to help these people, just talking to them face-to-face is extremely time consuming and costly. I’m extremely grateful that these MFIs exist and are willing to go the extra mile to give people the financial tools they need, and I’m proud to be able to contribute to the cause.
Santiago Cortes is a Kiva fellow living and working in Honduras. He works most closely with Prisma Honduras, but is also helping the Orginizacion de Desarollo Empresarial Femenino (ODEF), another MFI in the country. Visit kiva.org!