Acoma Sky City

If you travel about 60 miles west of Albuquerque, New Mexico, you’ll come upon a 367-foot sandstone bluff. Atop that bluff, you’ll glimpse a village. Acoma Sky City is one of the oldest continuously inhabited settlements in America. Because of that, I’m really surprised that more people don’t know about it.

I had the opportunity to visit this magical place in 2005 when I was traveling around the American West, visiting various Anasazi ruins. The Anasazi, now called the Ancestral Puebloans, occupied this bluff, and the Puebloans themselves have been living there since at least the 13th Century.

That’s quite an achievement. It’s a great strategic location. From way up there you can see for miles in any direction. But it’s also a very isolated, desert landscape. To this day, the nearly 5,000 people who identify as Acoma live there without water, sewer, or electricity. All water is currently brought in by truck, and people use generators when they feel the need for power. There was no road access to the bluff until the 1950’s.

Even while living traditionally, modern life does have a tendency to creep in. While showing us one of the traditional kivas (their circular religious chambers), a tour guide told us that the men gather there for ceremonies, yes, but they’ve also been known to snake extension cords in through the windows from the generators so that they can watch the super bowl in peace. (I just love that story.)

While up there learning about Acoma’s rich history, you can visit many little shops that sell traditional pottery and food, and you can also check out the pretty San Esteban Del Rey mission and the cemetery.

The Acoma identify as Catholics, thanks to that mission, but they also incorporate a lot of ancient spiritual beliefs. The cemetery has holes in the wall so that the spirits can depart, for example. And the mission has corn painted on the walls, as the people are very focused upon agriculture and nature.

If you ever have the opportunity to visit Acoma Sky City, I highly recommend it. Until then, I’ll leave you with some of the pictures I took in 2005.

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How Microloans Change Lives

I just opened my drawbridge for the Boeing Corporate Yacht. That thing is probably worth 3 million dollars. And it will most likely be coming back through in less than an hour. Every time I do this, I can’t help but think that the money they are spending just on fuel for that one little jaunt could pay off my relocation debt and allow me to start saving for a used car that actually has a working heater. But no. That’s not how the world works.

But then I realize that for the vast majority of people on this planet, I must seem like the Boeing Corporate Yacht. What am I doing to help them? Quite a lot, actually, relatively speaking. I just gave my 58th microloan to a woman in my 48th developing country. Through Kiva.org you can make these microloans in increments of $25 each. And so far, I’ve always been paid back.

Twenty-five dollars may not seem like a huge amount to you or me, but for these people, it can mean the difference between being able to send their children to school or not. It can provide their family with nutrition that they wouldn’t otherwise receive, and allow them to build up businesses that can sustain them for many years.

Just recently I got an update from one of the loan disbursement organizations in Myanmar that I have supported. Here’s a little bit of what they said:

Before her loan, Daw Lei Lei’s family finances were in dire straits. Like her many neighbors who were gravely affected by Cyclone Nargis in 2008, Daw Lei Lei’s family lost a daughter and their seven-acre farm was demolished. Since then, the family has survived by farming ducks, but they have had to pay exorbitant rates on loans.

Rarely do microfinance organizations make it to these hard-to-reach rural areas, and when they do they rarely lend to non-crop farmers. According to a UNCDF research study, over 63% of the rural population has no access to regulated credit, and virtually no one has access to regulated savings or insurance.

Proximity’s loan has done wonders for Daw Lei Lei’s family. They have used the $200 micro-loan to purchase more ducks and quality duck feed. This modest injection of cash was enough to stabilize their income and generate profits from their duck and egg sales. With their newfound profits, Daw Lei Lei’s husband purchased a boat to start his own transportation business. His new business yields enough profit to cover their two children’s school fees. Now, instead of taking their children out of school early to work on the family business, a predicament that is extremely common in Myanmar’s rural areas, Daw Lei Lei and her husband are able to provide their children more educational opportunities than they were able to have.

I hope you’ll join me in making microloans through Kiva.org. The one percent may not be spreading the wealth to the rest of us, but that doesn’t mean we have to follow their horrible example. When we lift up others, we all rise.

[Image credit: kiva.org]
[Image credit: kiva.org]

Just Trying to Get By in Azerbaijan

I am a huge supporter of Kiva.org. Through the years I’ve made 54 microloans of 25 dollars each to women in 44 countries, and I’m thrilled to say they’ve always paid me back. While loan defaults have been known to happen, Kiva’s default rate is amazingly low. (I think I did lose about 10 cents once due to an exchange rate fluctuation between the time the loan was repaid and the time it was posted to my account, but 10 cents to change the lives of 54 families? That’s not too shabby.) I can’t think of any other example in which I could make such a huge difference without sacrificing anything at all, can you?

One of my most recent loans was to a lady named Sehrinaz in Fuzuli, Azerbaijan. She had started a sewing business and needed the loan to buy cloth and necessary supplies. I look at this woman, who is trying so hard to improve her lot in life, and I think that but for the dumb luck of being born in a different location, this could be me. It was my pleasure to give her a helping hand, and she has paid me back in full. I think of her sometimes, sewing away in a war zone. There but for the grace of God go I.

Kiva

Recently I got an e-mail from the lending organization in Azerbaijan, and with Kiva’s kind permission I will post it below, because it eloquently describes the lives that these people are forced to live and the difference you can make in them. So without further ado, here’s the Kiva Field Update from Azerbaijan:

Greetings from Azerbaijan. My name is Vince and I’m a Kiva fellow currently working in Azerbaijan. I’ve spent the last 3 months traveling with the Komak Credit Union and since you’ve made a loan to a Kiva borrower at Komak Credit Union I wanted to share some stories from the field.

Komak, which means ‘help’ in Azeri, was one of the first Credit Unions set up in the country. Credit Unions are non-profit organizations and owned entirely by their members who are also their borrowers.

Most of Komak’s members come from the Fuzuli area. This region is right on the border of the disputed area with Armenia and most of the borrowers are internally displaced persons (IDPs). In fact 80% of Komak’s members are IDPs. Life in this part of rural Azerbaijan is incredibly difficult without the added challenge and uncertainty of living next to an active frontline.

We meet Nirada, a 54 year old lady who is raising two calves bought with the help of a Kiva loan. Narida stays in a village just a few hundred yards from the conflict zone and tells me that most nights gunfire can be heard in the distance. She says this without emotion, it has just become an accepted part of life. A few weeks ago tensions escalated between the two armed forces and as a result, in an exchange of gunfire, a young soldier was killed. It is all very sad.

We also meet with Narida’s neighbor, Tovuz, who is also a Kiva borrower. She runs a small corner shop in the village which she is very proud of. Narida and Tovuz make me aware of the chronic unemployment issue that exists in the area. I have seen for myself that employment opportunies are very limited and that that manufacturing is almost non-existant. Job choices are mainly restricted to raising animals/crops, running a store, serving in a restaurant or driving a car for a living. Nearly every borrower we meet does a combination of these things in order to earn sufficient income for their family.

One of the things I like best about Azerbaijan is the real sense of community that exists. Neighbors look out for and help each other and the family bond is incredibly strong. It is not uncommon to see three generations of a family all working together in the field or in a store. As we drive from village to village with the Komak loan officer we occasionally stop to give people a lift. It does not matter if it takes us a little out of our way it is the accepted practice and the neighborly thing to do.

Komak has been working with Kiva for over 8 years.They are totally integrated into the communities they serve and provide great service with a smile. Microfinance is more than a job for the Komak staff, it is an opportunity to help people in their own community.

You can meet more of Komak’s clients on their lending page http://bitly.com/16lEI6L or check out the Komak website http://bit.ly/1EK5vZC or Facebook for more information.

Thank you for your continued support of Komak and Azerbaijan.

Best regards,

Vince Main

Kiva Fellow, KF25 | Roaming Azerbaijan

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Giving

A well thought out gift will always say, “I cared about you enough to take the time to really think about what would make you smile.” What could be more special than the gift of caring? That’s why we say it’s the thought that counts. You took the time to know me, know what interests me, know what my favorite color is and what size I am, what I wish for, what I need. You took an interest. We don’t make that sort of effort for just anyone.

Today many people in the world will exchange gifts. Some of those gifts will gather dust on a back shelf, or be relegated to the “regift” pile. That’s so unnecessary. Those gifts were usually exchanged out of some sense of obligation. The ugly sweater that doesn’t fit from the distant relative. The coffee mug from the coworker who has overlooked the fact that you don’t drink coffee. Don’t even get me started on the inedible fruitcake. And the frustrating thing about these types of presents is that the giver and the receiver usually both know what a waste they are.

The world is already full of more stuff than we need. Why add to that mix stuff that won’t be used or appreciated? In recent years, when I have felt the need to give a gift to someone who isn’t in my most intimate circle of friends or relatives, I have given a microloan to Kiva.org or a donation to Heifer International in their names. That way someone who really needs help to help themselves will benefit, and you can share in that warm feeling with the recipient of that gift. You can’t go wrong like that, because I guarantee you that the life of someone, somewhere will be improved by your generosity.

Always remember the most basic reason for giving someone a gift. It’s a way to show love. In the end, that’s all that really matters. If you are not sincerely putting love into the process, the least you can do is send some care and consideration out into the wider world.

Happy holidays, dear readers.

gift

[Image credit: fanpop.com

Money Well Spent?

Someone just bought the bike from the film Easy Rider for 1.35 million dollars. Stuff like this makes me want to scream. For a little bit of perspective, I did some research. Here’s what I found out. 1.35 million dollars equals any one of the following:

  • 54,000 microloans on Kiva.org, which in turn would allow 54,000 third world families to live healthier lives.
  • Enough food to feed 168,750 people for a day, or keep 462 people from starving for an entire year.
  • Enough mosquito nets to save 450,000 children in Africa from dying of malaria.
  • A full course of vaccines for 270,000 children, as provided by UNICEF
  • 6,750,000 pencils for under-supplied schools.
  • Enough wool blankets to keep 192,857 homeless people warm this winter.
  • 54,000 pairs of shoes for people who have been victims of natural disasters.
  • 67,500 LifeStraws, each of which can provide safe, drinkable water for an entire year.

So if you are the one who bought that damned motorcycle, I sure hope you enjoy the ride.

EASY RIDER, Peter Fonda, 1969

Donating Yourself

Times are tough and there’s so much need out there that it can be overwhelming. But it’s understandable when people can’t make financial donations. I for one am struggling to make ends meet. But there are so many other ways to help.

Here are some ways you can give of yourself, show the world how wonderful you are, and improve the lives of others without spending a dime, and if you need added incentive, in many cases you can write these donations off on your taxes.

  • Become a marrow donor. If you’re between the ages of 18 and 44, a simple cheek swab will get you registered, and if you become a match it could save someone’s life. Go here to order a registration kit.
  • Become a cord blood donor. Are you pregnant? Donating your baby’s cord blood after birth does not put you or your child at risk and could save someone’s life. Talk to your doctor and find out if your hospital participates in this program before your child is born. For more information, go here.
  • Donate your used clothing and furniture. It breaks my heart to see useable items on the curb on trash day when there are so many organizations who would be happy to take them off your hands. Many will even come and pick it up from you.
  • Donate your used car. There are a lot of organizations that will take your used car. Here’s a site that can connect you to various charitable organizations, but personally, I plan to donate my car to National Public Radio when the time comes.
  • Volunteer. Many organizations in your community could use your help. Here’s a website that can help you find those opportunities.
  • Give someone a micro-loan. I can’t say enough about Kiva.org. In a nutshell, loan 25 dollars, change someone’s life, get paid back, and hopefully do it again. What have you got to lose? Not one single penny, that’s what.
  • Help a neighbor. If you have a neighbor who is sick or elderly or disabled or a single parent, they could no doubt use your help. Whether it’s shoveling snow, running an errand, doing home repair or mowing the lawn, there are any number of things you could do to make their lives easier.
  • Donate blood. Another free opportunity to save a life! Imagine that. Go here to find the blood bank nearest you.
  • Freecycle. One man’s trash is another man’s treasure. Rather than filling the landfill with your perfectly usable but no longer wanted items, advertise them here on your local freecycle network. This is a great way to pick up things that other people are giving away as well!
  • Spread the word. Do you know of a way for people to save money or live healthier or safer lives? Don’t keep this information to yourself. Share it. Facebook it. Tweet it. Whatever it takes to share this with others. Knowledge is power.
  • Donate your hair. Planning to cut more than 10 inches of your hair off? Don’t let it go to waste! There are organizations that will make wigs for people who have cancer or alopecia. I don’t want to give any one organization special treatment, so simply google “hair donation” and choose the one you like best.
  • Listen. Sometimes all someone needs to turn their day around is someone willing to listen to them. Really hear them. That’s a skill. Please practice it.
  • Participate in Neighborhood Watch. Help keep your neighborhood safe the RIGHT way, with an organization that does not advocate vigilante behavior. Google Neighborhood Watch to learn more.
  • Be a mentor. Share your knowledge and expertise with someone who would benefit from it. Learn more about this here.
  • Recycle. Think of this as volunteering for the planet.
  • Report abuse and other crimes when you see them. If you witness domestic violence or any other crime, speak up. That’s the only way you’ll prevent its recurrence. This is a way of doing a good turn for a future victim. Simply dial 911, or if you are outside of the United States, find out your emergency number and keep it handy.
  • Be an organ donor. Sign up to become an organ donor in your state’s organ donor registry and you will not have died in vain. For more information, go here. Also, be sure to share your wishes with your loved ones so that there’s no conflict or confusion when the time comes.

There are so many ways to make a difference in this world, and you don’t have to spend any money doing so. If you can think of any other ways that I may have overlooked, please add them to the comments section. I do 13 of the things mentioned above, but doing even one will make the world a better place. Join me, won’t you?

volunteer

Remember when you were young and willing? It’s never too late.

[Image Credit: astdtn.org]

The Dinner Party

A friend and I have this little game we like to play. If you could invite 10 people, living or dead, to your house for a dinner party, who would you choose? This is an interesting thought experiment. It makes you think about the questions you’d like to ask. It makes you examine closely the issues and people that you find interesting, and most of all, it makes you see just how many amazing people there are/have been in the world.

So, for tonight, my guest list includes Peter O’Toole, Malala Yousafzai, Bill Clinton, Mary Magdalene, Nelson Mandela, Jessica Jackley, Ben Franklin, Maya Angelou, Mahatma Gandhi, and Eva Cassidy.

I must confess that Peter O’Toole has always appeared on my guest list. Not only has he met a lot of amazing people and done a lot of amazing things, but he was a brilliant raconteur, so he could tell you all about it in delightful ways. I have no doubt that I could listen to him for hours. I wouldn’t really have any specific questions for him. I’d just enjoy hearing anything he wanted to say.

Malala Yousafzai is a new guest, but I have no doubt she’ll be invited to my dinner parties for years to come. Just 16 years old, this girl has already been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize. Inexplicably, she did not win. She is an advocate for the education of women, not just in her native Pakistan, but worldwide. At age 14, she was shot in the head for her trouble, but that hasn’t even slowed her down. I would love to ask her what it is like to be so clear in your convictions at such a young age, and also what it is like to be thrust headlong onto the international stage when you started off just a humble young lady who simply wanted to go to school.

I’d love to have a chat with Bill Clinton, because I miss his presidency greatly. I would like to ask him about the one thing in it that disappointed me, though. No, not the whole Monica debacle. As far as I’m concerned, his inability to keep it in his pocket is strictly between him and his wife, since Monica wasn’t a minor. No. What I’d like to talk to him about is Rwanda. Why, why, WHY, Bill, did you look the other way and let all those people get slaughtered? I’ll never understand that.

Mary Magdalene was an outspoken female community leader at a time when that wasn’t as uncommon as you might think, but she is one of the few whose name has filtered down to us. Sadly over the years her reputation has been warped to seem as though she was a prostitute, but historians have found that not to be the case. It is probably a function of not wanting women to have powerful roles in Christianity. I would love to hear her thoughts on the subject. I’d love to know the truth about who she was, what she believed, and what she witnessed.

I can think of a million things I’d like to ask Nelson Mandela, but the primary one is how on earth he could emerge from 28 years of imprisonment and not only avoid bitterness and anger but also become someone who is known for reconciling his people.

I wrote about Jessica Jackley a few days ago. She is one of the founders of Kiva.org, a microloan organization that now benefits small businesses throughout the world to the tune of over 150 million dollars a year. I’d love to hear more about how she came up with her vision and brought it to life to such a degree that it has changed the world. She’s amazing.

Ben Franklin is my hero. I find him amazing. Not only is he an inventor, an entrepreneur, and a philanthropist, but he’s a fascinating politician and historical figure. He’s also quite the ladies man, and his one fatal flaw, I think, is that he treated his family abominably. I’d love to examine that contradiction further.

Maya Angelou is, among many other things, the author of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings which is a wonderful book. She is an amazing and inspirational writer. In her life, she’s been everything from a prostitute to a foreign correspondent to an actor, and she recited a poem at Bill Clinton’s inauguration. I’d have to put her at the opposite end of the table from Peter O’Toole, because they’d be able to match each other, story for story, I’m sure.

Mahatma Gandhi, I think, is one of the most determined individuals who has ever lived. I would love to talk to him about how he managed not to give up on his goals despite all the obstacles that were thrust in his path, as it’s something I struggle with daily. I can not think of a way to tactfully discuss his fatal flaw with him: the fact that he refused Western medicine for his wife, resulting in her death, and yet he accepted that same medicine for himself, resulting in his recovery, but it’s something I’d dearly love to know more about.

And last but not least, I would invite the incredible singer Eva Cassidy. I wrote about her recently as well. She died at age 33, her wonderful talent cut short. This is truly a tragedy. I’d love to know what her hopes and dreams and plans would have been had she been able to live to be 100. I can’t even imagine the beauty that she could have given the world. I definitely wouldn’t be able to sit her next to Ben Franklin, though, because his saucy comments to this gorgeous woman would probably disrupt the flow of the entire event.

I think this party would stretch on to the wee hours of the night, and it would be a most fascinating experience indeed.

Who would you invite to your dinner party?

dinner party