Wings, Wheels and Walking (or, Just Say ‘No’ to the $100 Hamburger)

The $100 hamburger was invented to give pilots a way to feed their hunger to fly. The burger is six bucks. The plane, $94. “Hey. Anyone want to fly someplace for dinner?”

All the Way to XiaHe, China for this Yak Burger

All the Way to XiaHe, China for this Yak Burger

I’ve been working as a part time flight instructor at Monadnock Aviation in Keene (KEEN), NH. The airport was shut down this June for about 10 days for re-paving, and owner Beth graciously offered me the use of the Cessna 172 during that period. Relocating the bird to Springfield/Hartness airport in Vermont (KVSF) allowed me to re-kindle a project I last made progress on 15 years ago.

The idea is to combine three things I enjoy – flying, cycling and hiking. The goal is to fly to the airport nearest the high point in each state, ride my bicycle as far as the road goes, and then hike to the summit (if necessary). The previous work toward attaining this (dubious to some) goal was when I lived in Pittsburgh, PA and flew with the Beaver Valley Flying Club based at KBVI. I’ve lost some track as to my progress, but I know Archer N47562, Monty and I bagged Mt. Marcy in New York’s Adirondacks, Mt. Rogers (Virginia), Mt. Mitchell (North Carolina and memorable for the 100F heat), Campbell Hill (Ohio), a corn field in Indiana, and Delaware’s high point (in a trailer park).

At Lake Placid, NY About to Head for Mt. Marcy

At Lake Placid, NY in the 90’s About to Head for Mt. Marcy

The flight planning for these adventures has always been diligent. I’ve done quite a bit of self-contained cycling (those guys you zip past in your car who are loaded down with saddle bags of stuff, often drenched in the rain), and the ground planning is often nearly absent. I usually remember to look at a road map before I take off, and may even refer to some trail maps. But I approach the ground transport with a “Lets Go!” spirit and often forget the planning that might make them more successful … or make me more prepared. (Two trips were required to find Mt. Rogers since the locals didn’t know where it was. This confirms what I’ve found during years of traveling – you can never rely on local knowledge. Inquire, but don’t rely.)

Some of the Flight Planning Info

Some of the Flight Planning Info for  the Flight to Millinocket

An airplane that can transform to a car comes with compromises that make it disappointing in both regards. For me all the compromises must bear on the bike, though the compromises are relatively slight. My ride is an old Montague folding mountain bike made back when they were marketed by Schwinn. It fits comfortably in the back seat of a Cessna 172 or Piper Cherokee.

Much of what makes an airplane are the avionics – an inexpensive Cherokee with a modern instrument panel (worth more than the plane) can be a treat to fly, though some may wonder why you’ve made the investment.

The analogy for bikes are the “components” – the crank, rear gear cassette, derailleurs (the things that move the chains between gears) and the shifters and brakes. Most of the money in a good bike is in the rear wheel.

The old Monty has a slightly flimsy frame (due to the folding joint stiffness), though it is relatively light. In terms of riding, it’s primary attribute is the utter cheapness of the components, and the only reason I have it is because it folds in half. I’ve replaced the original rear wheel – the spokes pulled out the first time it was heavily loaded – but the most expensive addition I’ve made to the bike is replacing the saddle. I try not to go too fast downhill since I have little faith in the brakes which also means I have trouble not going too fast downhill. I haven’t replaced the gearing and shifters, and I curse the thing every time I shift, vowing to upgrade the components, though never doing so. (To shift down one speed, I have to shift down two and then shift up one, and/or vice-versa. And that works, sometimes.)

Only in 36C's Dreams

Only in 36C’s Dreams

I can’t see dumping money into it. It’s the same thing that goes through every airplane owner’s mind when they’re wishing they had DME (distance measuring equipment) but can’t bear to part with the thousand bucks since how often do they really need it? And it would be nice to have a glass panel, but a tablet works well enough and costs thousands less. (If you wait long enough, maybe Android will be FAA certified.)

So with that as the background, we’re off to Millinocket, ME for an attempt on Mt. Katahdin – at 5269 feet the highest point in Maine and the northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail. Nothing really went wrong on this trip, it’s just that everything took a lot longer.

kmlt 2

Millinocket and Katahdin on the Montreal Sectional Chart

It has been said that a pilot’s license is a license to learn and in my experience this continues to be true. I checked the weather and filed my IFR flight plan the night before using the government computer system, DUATS. During the morning weather briefing with a human (this service is contracted to Lockheed-Martin) I learned there was forecast icing at my filed altitude of 9000 feet, so I decided to amend my cruise altitude to 7000 feet to avoid any possibility of running into ice. I was surprised to learn that they do not have access to flight plans filed through DUATS. In fact, they couldn’t even view my flight plan so I had to repeat my route of flight and other info just to get the briefing. In order to amend mine, the briefer had to put me on hold and call “Center”. Good enough, but getting my clearance from Burlington Radio just before launching a couple of hours later, the flight plan had not been amended. “Oh well, I’ll ask for lower once I get airborne.”

This is the second time this year I’ve run into this situation where the right hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing. On a flight earlier this year with an instrument/commercial student we filed and activated a VFR flight plan and picked up VFR flight following from KEEN, through the New York Hudson River corridor and on to Cape May, NJ (KWWD). We did a practice ILS approach into Cape May talking to Atlantic City Approach (KACY). After parking, my student discovered that his phone had several messages from Flight Service asking where we were, since we were slightly overdue. Surprised that Atlantic City hadn’t apprised them of our situation, we cleared up that we were, in fact, alive and no search and rescue attempt was necessary. Departing Cape May, and re-initiating flight following with Atlantic City Approach, they asked us if we’d talked to Flight Service because they were looking for us. It turns out that having a VFR flight plan in no way connects to VFR flight following or other ATC functions. If you need to report your progress on your flight plan, you need to go off of center frequency to talk to an FSS, report your status, and then go back to center. This seems to be a rather serious flaw in the system, but what do I know.

Mt. Katahdin in the background

Mt. Katahdin in the background

I figured the flight to Millinocket would take 2.5 hours in N5136C – a 2002 180HP Cessna 172SP. Departing KVSF, only the low scattered cloud layers that were predicted were present, so I was only able to log 7.5 seconds of actual instrument time during my initial climb. After getting high enough to contact Boston Center, I was almost immediately given the opportunity to shave a corner off my route by flying direct to Kennebunk VOR when I was able to receive it’s signal. There were no clouds above me by the time I got to 7000 feet, so I just continued to 9000. Noting I had entered “VFR GPS” in the remarks section of my flight plan, the center controller asked me if I was OK going direct to Millinocket. I told her that I certainly was OK with it. This saved a bit more time. Nevertheless, I arrived in Millinocket 15 minutes behind plan due to the murderous 40+ knots headwind most of the way. The ride was exceptionally smooth, though.

Boston Center stepped me down to 6000 feet (the winds were no better) to set me up for a VOR approach to KMLT to get through the broken cloud layer below me. But when I was 30 miles out the clouds were breaking up, so I canceled IFR with Boston Center and went down through a hole in the clouds for a visual approach. Boston kept me squawking with them and on their frequency until I was about 10 miles out – this was comforting as it is pretty much wilderness up there and it was nice to know someone was watching. Tuning in Millinocket’s ASOS (Automated Surface Observation System), the surface winds were reported as beastly (that’s aviation-speak for bad), the heading varying between 350 and 030 degrees at 15 knots gusting to the 20’s. I prepared for a bumpy approach and was not disappointed. On short final for runway 34 I kept the ASOS tuned in to get updates, but didn’t really need confirmation to know that I was getting a bad ride. I was coming in 10 knots faster that my normal approach speed with just two notches of flaps. I saw the airspeed indicator swing between 60 and 80 kts and back in a matter of a second. The last ASOS report before touchdown (plantdown) was 010 at 13 gusting 28.

Plantdown was 2.8 hours after departure. All those shortcuts kept me from being even later. Jeff, who mans the FBO, came out to meet me and help me tie down. “Windy up there today? Well, at least it keeps the black flies down.”


No Sight of the Summit, Yet

It was on short final into those gusty headwinds when I noticed I was pointing directly at Mt. Katahdin capped in clouds. The realization that these were going to be the same winds I was about to ride against on my bike settled in. After “Three Six Charlie” was chocked and tied down, I unfolded Monty, loaded her up and off we went. Into the wind. I estimated it would take about 2 hours to cycle the 25 miles or so into the campground in Baxter State Park, but it took over three and a half hours. I stopped for a snack and to replenish my stock of Snickers bars at the North Woods Trading Post (last gas before the park). “Gettin’ blown around on that bike today? Well, at least it keeps the black flies down.”

Lean-To Accommodation

Monty and Our Deluxe Cabin Class Accommodation

I had booked a lean-to at Katahdin Stream Campground figuring it would save the weight in carrying a tent. I hadn’t really thought all this through even after my buddy, Roger, reminded me to stock up on DEET. Fortunately, I heeded his warning if not fully grasping the implications, and had a new, full, 10 oz. bottle. But no tent, nor the associated bug screen. My introduction to the imminent threat of death by blood loss due to insect bites was when I stopped at the park gate and presented my reservation form for the lean-to. The gatehouse was protected from the wind, and, therefore, unprotected from the bugs. I was immediately covered with mosquitoes. There were seven on my hand as I produced my reservation form. While the park rangers were distracted admiring my rubber ducky handlebar horn and debating whether or not it counted as a “pet” (not permitted), I quickly broke into my DEET cache and doused myself.

Eight miles of dirt road later, we arrived at the campground and my stream side lean-to. Still windy and the mountain was still covered in clouds. No chance to try for the top today – too late, anyway. The ranger I checked in with said, “It’s been too windy to hike today, but at least it keeps the black flies down.”

Fortunately, the winds kept up and the temperature dropped into the 40’s, so the bugs were kept to a low roar and it was cool enough to zip my sleeping bag up in defense. Hanging my food bag out of the reach of bears afforded the only evening entertainment after I took a short walk up to see some waterfalls. Liberal quantities of DEET were sacrificed on my behalf. It is probably bad for your health and knocked 2 years off my lifespan, but at least it kept the black flies down.

A Friend on the Trail

Easy to Make Friends on the Trail

View During the Ascent

Some Great Views on the Ascent

If I couldn’t hike the mountain on day 1, my “plan” was to hike the mountain, ride back to KMLT, and fly back to KVSF on day 2. I figured the hike was 6 hours round trip. An 05:45 alarm got me up, breakfasted, packed the bike to be ready to go after the hike, and on the trail at 06:47.

“Should be back noon-ish,” I thought, optimistically. Well. I was making steady progress on the trail, but had a couple of people pass me which is always disheartening. Two guys just blew past me which really hit my morale where it hurts, though I later caught up to them and passed them above tree line. The “trail” became a scramble, sometimes in a stream bed.

I caught up to a woman at 09:10, still below treeline, who said this was about half-way. “Can’t be,” I thought. I’d been on the trail over two hours. But she was about right.

Not "The Tablelands" and Not the Summit

Not “The Tablelands” and Not the Summit

Top of Maine

Top of Maine

“Climbing” mountains is often a misrepresentation of hiking a trail. Not so here. There were several short pitches of rock that were quite steep. And on the down climb I scouted many less airy routes around the “trail”. For those Appalachian Trail hikers starting in the south and ending here, this must feel like a final insult. Eventually I made it up the scramble to “The Tablelands” and across to the main summit at 11:48, just over 5 hours up. Nice view.

I was already patting myself on the back thinking about the iodine in my first aid kit and how that would treat the water at the first stream I came to on the way down. The two liters I packed that morning was plenty for a six hour hike …. not for 10 hours, though. “Thoreau Spring” is located on The Tablelands, but didn’t afford an easy means to fill my bottles as it would be better named “Thoreau Ooze”. I still had some water left, anyway.

View from the Summit of Katahdin

The Tablelands from the Summit (That’s Snow in June)

I continued down, down, down, through the rock scramble, finding alternate ways around places that required a scary-ish down climb. My legs were shot, and just in time I got to tree line and had some trees to hold onto as I continued to hobble down. Shortly below entering the trees, the path shared a stream bed and I was able to make some potable water. Sweet, with a hint of iodine and fruity undertones of Vibram boot soles.

I finally reappeared at the campground five and a half hours after leaving the summit – it took longer to come down than go up. I was knackered. There was NO WAY I was going to be able to cycle back to Millinocket that day. I thought about getting on the bike just to see how painful it would be, but decided to just imagine the pain. So I paid for another night at the lean-to and curled up snuggled with my bottles of DEET and Aleve after a chilly wash in the stream and awaited the onslaught of black flies which, fortunately, never came. I was glad I packed enough bagels and peanut butter and jelly to carry me through.

The next morning it was as painful to get on the bike as I imagined, but it was a beautiful day and the ride out was pretty pleasant – no wind to speak of, and no insects as long as I was moving. Going out of the park trended slightly downhill. I stopped to take a look at Stump Pond and there was a big furry rock drinking near one edge of the pond. Bear? Nope. Just a moose stumping around.

Stump Pond

Big Furry Rock in Stump Pond

The often overlooked virtues of having an airplane for drying laundry

The Often Overlooked Virtues of Having an Airplane for Drying Laundry. Katahdin in the Background.


I grabbed a breakfast sandwich at the North Woods Trading Post. “Winds are much better today! How was the hike?” “It was windy, so there were no black flies.”

Back in town Monty and I rolled through the airport gate up to 36C, and I hung my laundry out to dry while doing the pre-flight on the plane. I went into the FBO to take a sink bath, change my clothes and check on the weather for the return flight. It was going to be a great day – much lighter winds than the outbound trip. I didn’t bother with an IFR flight plan, but I filed VFR and would get VFR flight following to keep an eye on me over the wilderness.



Flagstaff Lake and Bigelow Mountain, ME (Dead Bug on Windscreen)

Circling around the north and west of the White Mountains in NH, I could see the poor visibility hanging in the mountains and got a good appreciation for the ruggedness of these hills and the beauty of this lake country. Two thirds of the way home I had to descend a couple of thousand feet to get under a cloud layer and Boston Center notified me “radar contact lost”. No more flight following, but I was pretty close to KVSF and just followed the Connecticut River valley south to Mt. Ascutney and in to KVSF.

I didn’t even contemplate cycling the day after getting home. The second day, however, I was ready to do something. and I looked everywhere for my cycling shoes. I’m often confounded by the fact that I always find things in the last place I look, but I didn’t even find them there, so I went for a ride in my tennis shoes.

That night I thought, “Could I have left them at the airport in Millinocket?” I called and left a message on the answering machine hoping they were on the floor next to the computer I used to check weather. Jeff called me back. “Yes. I found your shoes. They were delivered to Jaffrey yesterday.”

“Jaffrey?” (KAFN is just on the other side of Mt. Monadnock from KEEN – 20 miles.) I have no known connection to Jaffery other I flew there once to get ice cream.

“Yes. Harvey was in here yesterday on a charter. You know Harvey?”

“Yes (not really), but …”

“I was telling him about a plane from Keene being in here and a guy on a bike and I think he left these shoes here. He recognized the tail number and said he knew Monadnock Aviation. So he took the shoes.”


I called KAFN looking for Harvey, but spoke to his wife, Lee. “Um … Did Harvey happen to pick up my shoes in Millinocket the other day?” “…. Oh! You’re the shoe guy! Yeah. We’ve got ’em!” So I had an excuse to drive to Jaffrey to get some ice cream … err.. my shoes.

Too funny.


Clouds En Route to North Adams

Mt. Greylock, MA

War Memorial on Mt. Greylock

There were still a few days before KEEN would re-open, so I plotted a course to try and nab the high points of Massachusetts (Mt. Greylock) and Rhode Island (Jerimoth Hill) in one day. It was not to be. Approaching Danielson, CT (KLZD) from the north, I was looking at the edge of a wide storm (a storm I looked at on radar before leaving home and thought I might be able to beat). The clouds were reported at scattered 300 with temperature and dew point at 19C. Not ideal for flying or biking. So over Southbridge,MA I diverted northwest to North Adams, MA (KAQW), unloaded the bike in full sunshine and grunted up the 12 mile road to the war memorial atop Mt. Greylock. Monty and I were passed by a few cyclists wearing team colors, sigh. I did manage to stay ahead of the woman walking her dog, though. A few steps down from the view at the top, Bascom Lodge offered a nice hummus and roast eggplant sandwich. The guy seated next to me had a yummy looking pulled pork sandwich. They had ice cream. The ride down was 95% coasting, wishing I had upgraded Monty’s brakes, and vowing to do so, someday.

One of Many False Summits of Rhode Island

One of Many False Summits of Rhode Island

I returned to Danielson for an attempt on Jerimoth Hill the next day in bumpy conditions. The round trip seemed like a ride in a washing machine. The “climb” up to the summit of Rhode Island at 812 ft MSL was pretty decent. It was just about seven miles from the airport along Route 101 which had a good shoulder and light traffic. I scouted out a good ice cream place just before leaving Connecticut. The highway sign for Jerimoth Hill is about 500 feet (horizontally) from the actual top. Walking through the woods of small boulders I thought it must have been a challenge to the surveyors to find the actual high point. The Nepalese prayer flags hanging in the trees around the top made it obvious, but I doubt they were there for the survey crew.

The True Summit of Rhode Island

Monty at the True Summit of Rhode Island

The brownie hot fudge sundae with cake batter ice cream and a cherry (yes, I will have the nuts thank you) consumed upon re-entering Connecticut had enough calories to maintain a family of four for a week.

Cessna 36C was patiently waiting for us back at Danielson, and the flight back to KVSF was uneventful though it was nearly impossible to maintain any given altitude – the vertical gusts were set on a heavy wash cycle. (Time to believe that AIRMET for moderate turbulence.) As soon as I could pick it up, I monitored KVSF’s ASOS. Some reports had the winds above the demonstrated crosswind capability of the plane. But by the time I was getting close to land the direction and magnitude of the winds had settled down a bit. It is important to note, however, that after a dozen trips flying into runway 29 at KVSF, I still hadn’t done a decent landing. This trip was no exception. I blame it on the crosswinds, but at least they keep the black flies down.

The Rewards of a Hard Day

The Rewards of a Hard Day

Both runways at KEEN reopened on schedule at the end of June and the students began to return. But July 1st arrived with no students on my schedule and the promise of fair, though hot, skies. A good opportunity to bag the high point of Connecticut. It was already getting hot as I loaded Monty into 36C. I launched later than I wanted to due to morning fog and arrived at Great Barrington, MA (KGBR) a little after 9. It’s a cute little airport with a 2400 ft paved runway in the southwest corner of the state. The approach end of runway 11 is highlighted by a clump of trees just a couple of hundred feet from the threshold. It was hard to avoid yielding to the temptation to go through the space around either side of the trees, but I think that might have been a losing game.

36C at Great Barrington Airport

Three Six Charlie at Great Barrington Airport

I parked on the grass and was greeted by one of the local instructors, Dante. As I secured 36C and assembled Monty, I described my project to him and inquired about the presence of a hose that I might desire upon my return from the summit of Connecticut. No problem.

Connecticut’s highest summit is Bear Mountain at 2316 ft., but the high point of Connecticut is actually on the southern slope of Massachusett’s Mt. Frissel at 2380 feet. (The summit of Mt. Frissel is at 2653 ft.) Off I rode into the heartland of Mt. Washington State Forest (with a quick stop at the South Egremont Deli to pick up a sub for lunch.)

How to Get to the High Point of Connecticut

Ground Planning to the High Point of Connecticut

It was a long climb up a peaceful road in low gears passing some huge homes enroute. Shortly after the pavement ended I found the car park (within sight of the MA/CT state line marker) for the trail head about 2 hours after leaving the airport. A couple was just heading off on their quest for another of the New England high points, but their major project was to hit New England’s 100 high points.

I love these projects. Maybe someone should start a project of climbing the highest point in each state which is not a mountain/hill top. Maybe it’s been done.

Locking Monty to a tree, I donned my day pack and headed up the trail which quickly became a scramble. I kept telling myself this is not Katahdin. This first part of the trail topped out on Round Top Mountain (and first point for some much needed breezes) where I ran into another highpointer – a guy from Michigan who was on his way home from Dubai and on his way down from the top of Frissel. This was his 32nd high point and he was hoping to get Massachusetts and maybe Vermont before heading home.

A slight down scramble from Round Top to the shoulder joining it to Frissel led to a longer scramble up to the tree covered, viewless, windless, hot summit. A hundred yards or so south-ish from there on the open shoulder of the hill led to the geologic marker at the state border and high point of Connecticut – about an hour and twenty minutes from the car.

High Point of Connecticut

Watch Where You Sit!! The High Point of Connecticut Really is a Point

Did I mention it was hot? The panoramic view over the Berkshires from the high point was a good lunch spot with some warm breezes.

The hike down was relatively uneventful and much faster than the scramble up. I’m usually on the lookout for snakes on hikes since I don’t really like them, but I hadn’t really thought about it much on this hike. Easing down an angled rock slab, a garter snake rolled past me down the slab which alerted me to set my sensor level a bit higher. Nearing the top of the scramble back up Round Top, I heard this high pitched chirping. Almost a squeal, it sounded like a big insect. I was looking around in the undergrowth to see the cricket that could make such a racket when I noticed the rattlesnake on the side of the trail a couple of feet in front of me. Yikes. It was a much higher frequency pitch than I’ve heard in other similar encounters. Made me wish that I hadn’t saved the weight of my ankle high boots and brought them rather than hiking in my tennies. One more garter snake on the way down, and I was safely back to Monty.

Note that DEET is ineffective against reptiles.

Final Battle of Shay's Rebellion

Site of Final Battle of Shay’s Rebellion

The ride back to Great Barrington was mostly downhill, so a treat after the heat of the ride in and the hike. Another stop at the South Egremont Deli for some cool drinks, and I was on my way for a short side trip to the site of the last battle of Shay’s Rebellion of 1787 on a side road to Sheffield, MA.

Back at the airport I folded up Monty and loaded her and the rest of the gear into 36C, then searched for that hose. The first few seconds produced solar heated hot water, but shortly it became ice cold – just what the doctor ordered. I doused myself with the secondary goal of washing the sweat from my cycling clothes. A quick wardrobe change and I was ready to be airborne again. Departing runway 29, I would fly over the same trees I flew in over, and I had hoped to snap a few pics of the departure. But the gusty, direct crosswinds on takeoff kept me otherwise occupied. I sailed back to KEEN through hazy skies with a 25 knot tailwind. It was hot, humid, and hazy – thunderstorm season is soon upon us.

The only New England summit remaining for me is Vermont’s Mt. Mansfield. Though, come to think of it, I haven’t summited New Hampshire’s Mt. Washington by flying there and biking to the trailhead….


One in a Few Billion.

May 24, 2013 3 comments
Timor Meets the Sea

Timor Meets the Sea

I’ve written a few blogs about my experience as a Kiva Fellow in Timor, but I haven’t written directly about a typical borrower in this very poor region. So as I wrap up this fellowship with Kiva, I’m taking this opportunity to fill that gap.

The borrower you’re about to meet lives within the city limits of Kupang on the western tip of Timor. Kupang is the provincial capital of Nusa Tenggara Timur which includes the western half of Timor, the islands of Flores, Sumba, Alor, Rinca, Komodo and 560 other small islands. NTT is the poorest province in Indonesia, but it is a beautiful place. Jagged mountain skylines (mostly volcanic, though Timor is not) are bounded by coral reefs, isolated and deserted beaches, and rich turquoise seas.

The Kiva micro-finance partner in Kupang, Tanaoba Lais Manekat (“Serving With Love” in the local Dawan language) has been operating since 1995. TLM has grown to 30 branches operating on six islands serving 7,000 clients. At this writing there are 410 active Kiva loans which will expand to about 700 as TLM uses all of the loan capacity now available to them. The average Kiva loan is about $650 and is repaid in just over two years.

Blandina with Daughter Ivander

Blandina with Daughter Ivander

Blandina has been a TLM/Kiva client for several years. She is 46 and raising six children spanning the ages of 6 to 18. She exemplifies someone who was at risk of slipping into poverty and was unfortunate enough to find herself there.

Ten years ago she would not have considered herself poor. Although they lived in a humble house, her husband, Oktovianus, worked as a mason. Together with her income as a sales clerk, and a small goods business in the local market they were able to support their family.

But a few years ago Oktovianus passed away after a long illness which drained the family savings and forced them to sell their home. Blandina was left with nothing and needed to support her children by herself. Her own illness forced her to leave her job as a sales clerk, so to meet expenses she went door to door washing clothes.

Blandina's Home and Kisok

Blandina’s Home and Kisok

The earnings from washing just wasn’t enough, so she began to generate a bit more income by opening a kiosk business from the home she now rents. It’s a small operation selling home-made snacks and baked goods (her spicy fried corn is especially yummy), instant noodles, toiletries, staples like salt and sugar, candies and other items. She began with her own capital and borrowed about $300 through TLM and Kiva to increase her stock and build a larger customer base.

After housing and feeding her children, keeping them in school has been Blandina’s primary concern. She has a unique savings system where money earned from each of her activities is put in a different colored box for different expenses – one of these is for tuition. She also has savings in TLM’s deposit program.

She recently took out her fifth loan and will be using the $400 to expand her income activity by buying piglets to raise and fatten for re-sale.

The income from her various businesses has allowed her to meet her goal to keep her children in school. Unfortunately, her oldest son recently graduated from high school and is not able to attend university – he’s working as a fare collector on one of the local mini-buses to help with family expenses.

Blandina is hoping that continuing support from TLM and Kiva’s lenders will help her build a better future for her other children. She is certainly working hard to make that happen.

If you haven’t looked into Kiva, you might take this opportunity to do so. It’s an easy method to help the neediest people directly through Kiva’s partners worldwide. It has been proven for many years that micro-finance works – micro-loans enable people to help themselves. It would be great if you could make a loan for as little as $25 to one of the billions of poor people like Blandina throughout the world.

Go to and meet someone like Blandina. Loan them a few bucks. It isn’t tax deductible because you get it back.

More pictures of NTT here: NTT Photos

Kupang Waterfront

Kupang Waterfront

Sunset from Kupang

Sunset from Kupang

Postcard from the Lesser Sunda Islands

May 15, 2013 3 comments


Here are some random photos from some of the islands of the Lesser Sunda group: Indonesian Timor, Sabu, Rote, Flores, Rinca, and Komodo.

Rote Island

Rote Island

Rice Fields

Rice Fields on Timor

Street Food - Salome

Street Food – Salome

At Berth in Sabu

At Berth in Sabu

Floating Off Komodo

Floating Off Komodo

Beauty and the Beast .. or .. "My Last Photo"

Beauty and the Beast .. or .. “My Last Photo”

Best Left Alone

Best Left Alone




Sunrise at Anchor Off Komodo

Flores Island in the Distance

Flores Island in the Distance

Rinca Island

Rinca, a Dry Island

King of Rinca

King of Rinca



Labuanbajo Harbor

Labuanbajo Harbor

Laundry Day

Laundry Day

Four on a Bike

Four on a Bike

Local Carrier

Island Hopper

Third Police Station of the Afternoon

Third Police Station of the Afternoon

Crystal Cave Pool

Crystal Cave Pool – Scene of the Crime

Oesau Market

Oesau Market

Sunset at Kupang

Sunset at Kupang

West Timor

West Timor

Small Scale Tempe Producer

Small Scale Tempe Producer

Visiting Clients

Visiting Clients

Small Business on Sabu

Small Business on Sabu

Sabu from the Air

Sabu from the Air

Kupang Sunset - A Daily Event

Another Kupang Sunset – A Daily Event

Mister! Take My Picture!

Mister! Take My Picture!

Not Sure

Not Sure

Rice Fields

Timor Rice Fields and Hills

Kupang Waterfront

Kupang Waterfront

Bemo Guys

Bemo Guys

There are many more photos to see on flickr. Click HERE.

Here’s the map I promised. The Lesser Sunda Islands make up the Indonesian province of Nusa Tenggara Timur (East Southeast Islands):

Nusa Tenggara Timur - The East Southeast Islands

Nusa Tenggara Timur

Artificially Sweetened Development

April 8, 2013 Leave a comment

Usually when I’ve been in places that I declare to be “artificial” I am thinking of a Disney theme, or a place like Cabo San Lucas or Cancun – southern California or Florida transported to Mexico – a place which bears little resemblance to what it would be like if it weren’t for the tourist dollars it was created to attract. Of course, Las Vegas is the archetype for turning a desert into a sweet water oasis, of sorts.

Shopping malls are artificial in that they are sterile replacements for shopping streets. Modern shopping areas have turned most American cities into a Warhol-like canvas of indistinguishable images in slightly different hues. Show me a Walmart and there’s a Taco Bell not far away.

The Jesus Statue from the Hills Above Dili.

The Jesus statue from the hills above Dili.

Dili, the capital of Timor-Leste, is an artificial place, but in a different way. The city (and much of the country) was destroyed after the rampage of pro-Indonesian militias following the 1999 independence referendum. (This followed a period of brutal repression highlighted by a concerted effort on the part of the “international community” to look the other way. Most notably Australia, the only country in the world to officially recognize Indonesia’s sovereignty, by a thirst for oil and gas in Timor’s offshore fields. And by the US in the post-Vietnam cold war era where Suharto was just about the last regional dictator available to support.)

Post-independence civil strife in the middle of the ‘naughties didn’t help. Today there are only a few remaining scars of that time – a few scorched buildings – and it is a fairly bustling place of a few hundred thousand inhabitants.

What exists today would not exist without the huge influx and efforts of UN peace keeping forces, NGO’s and aid agencies of every stripe and nationality. There is not a school or public building without a flag or plaque commemorating the foreign entity that paid for it. Some of it was direct aid like the central post office – paid for by South Korea. More recently large commercial investment has appeared. The first shopping mall and cinema (just opened late 2012) was built by Singapore developers. (You can tell it’s Singaporese because guests going from the ground floor reception desk to the elevators for the upstairs hotel must walk through the shopping center. And some rooms have lovely balconies with windows either facing a blank wall, or blocked by billboards.)

Going to visit borrowers in Dili.

Going to visit Kiva borrowers in Dili.

I’m sure there was a great deal of planning on the part of those responsible for the rebuilding, and I don’t suggest that it was not noble, humanitarian, right, and helpful to the government and people of Timor-Leste to have done this. But it is certain that what exists here today would not have sprouted from local, organic development.

Any cultural expression is limited to a few places where traditional woven cloth (tais), baskets and carvings are sold. Notable among them is the Alola Foundation created to raise awareness of sexual violence against women and girls as a result of the militia rampages of 1999 A new “Timorese Resistance Archive and Museum” (paid for by Portugal and Macau) relates the long struggle for independence. (A little ironic when you consider that Timor-Leste and Macau were Portuguese colonies for over 400 years.)

The consequences of this development are a little strange, though not immediately apparent in a quick visit. For the most part, tourists are rare, and what exists in Dili exists to support the international workforce. Supply of services is highly skewed toward them and their expense accounts.

When UN workers first arrived, there was no place for them to stay, and they were lodged on ships moored just offshore. Building “tourist infrastructure” is one of the areas where aid was and is applied. And though priced at international rates, it is not of high standard. In the poorest country in one of the poorest regions of the world, my room cost a whopping $850 per month (a slightly larger room with a chair, sofa and table was $400 more). Similar lodging on the Indonesian side of the island costs less than 1/3 of that. The main difference being the lack of a large foreign aid workforce.

Not Too Busy for Lunch.

“Castaways” bar at idle.

The UN left in December of 2012. I wasn’t there before they pulled out, so I can’t say how different it is today, but all of the beach side tourist restaurants are running at idle. There are few customers.

From the viewpoint of someone assigned there, even for just a brief period as I was, it was very nice to find the Chinese-owned grocery store shelves filled with imported goods – mostly from Portugal (great sardines and olives). And I did find Skippy peanut butter, both Smooth and Crunchy.

It Was Fresh This Morning.

It was fresh this morning.

One of the things I pictured in my mind before arriving here was wonderful grilled seafood. And there was a lot of fresh fish being pulled out of the sea and for sale along the beachfront road. But it was never on ice, often in the sun, and as the day wore on, the smell of spoiling fish filled the air. I never had a really good piece of fish in Dili, and I think most of what I got was a frozen import. You could even get five varieties of imported Portuguese dried bacalau in one of the markets.

For a short jaunt from town on a weekend I could often be found riding my motorbike 10km east along the beach to “the Jesus statue” – a 27m tall copy of the one in Rio – and back.

She Shops and Cooks to Order.

She shops and cooks to order.

Stopping for lunch in one of the beach bodegas usually meant a pretty long wait if I ordered anything more exotic than nasi goreng (fried rice). The cook didn’t keep much food on hand – it would likely go to waste for a lack of customers. She had to send out to buy anything I ordered. The chicken was a good bet to be fresh since it came back from the market still clucking.

Lunch Shopped and Cooked to Order.

Lunch shopped and cooked to order.

About 70% of the population of Timor-Leste lives on less than $2.50 per day. Coincidentally, an ice cream cone at the new mall costs $2.50. The lunch special at The One More Bar is $5.00. Most lunches out cost $8-10, though the $6.50 buffet at the City Cafe was the best deal. (I think The OMB was named with the intention of prompting you to order “one more,” but I interpreted it as “just another bar.”)

I have no survey data to support this statement, but I think I am safe in saying that 99.5% of the local population cannot participate in this economy. This is the symptom of big money aid. It doesn’t address the bulk of the population. It papers over things and gives a false sense (not in all ways) that progress has been made when, in fact, most people have been left behind.

It’s the Law of Unintended Consequences.

Good time for a Kiva plug ( The reason I was in Dili was to work with Kiva’s micro-finance partner Tuba Rai Metin ( to improve their reach to the people left behind. I suppose my time was well spent since TRM will soon be offering Kiva loans in all 13 national districts (before they were only offered in 2), and their available fundraising limit with Kiva was more than doubled. The next time you make a Kiva loan, be sure to look for borrowers in Timor-Leste.

Splitting my time as a Kiva Fellow between Timor-Leste and west Timor, Indonesia, I had two options for moving to Kupang in the west. Either a horrendous 12 hour bus ride, or a flight to Bali and a flight back to Kupang. A couple of days R&R on Bali sounded like a good plan, so I booked a hotel in Sanur, an area I hadn’t stayed in before.

Old and New, Bali.

Bali, old and new.

Bali is a different definition of artificial. Perhaps it’s just over-developed. I don’t know where the development dollars are from, but there were (and are) a lot of them. The whole southern end of the island is one traffic jam in streets full of foreign shops and throngs of paradise seeking vacationers and the people to support this industry. Yucch.

The “real” Bali is to be found inland or along the coastline well away from over-developed Denpasar, Kuta, Legian and Sanur. But does “the real” (old) Bali still exist? Doubtful. Maybe just a shadow of it.

Whether or not it is, I don’t know, but the development seems more home grown here. Even with all the tourist mod-cons and brand name shops, the building seems more in line with Balinese ideas.

Bali was probably a nice hideaway at one time, but it is a perfect example of why you should keep your mouth shut when you find someplace nice.

I ran into another aspect of this last year in Sardinia. The northeastern coast, La Costa Smerelda, was scrub land picked up by the Aga Khan in the 1960’s for next to nothing. He developed it into a characterless resort town, touted it, and today it’s a destination for the rich, the famous, the wannabies, and cyclists with only one coastal road to choose from.

A Nice Place. Maybe on Sardinia.

Another place. Maybe on Sardinia.

Costa Smerelda. Lovely.

Costa Smerelda. Lovely, isn’t it?

But I was also curious to see how the other, other half lives, and to check out the advertised splendor of the scenic coast. I was really disappointed. It’s scrub land. There are far more beautiful places in Sardinia than that (and I’m not going to tell you where).

It just shows you what good marketing and the general desire of humans to gather into amorphous clumps, dress alike, drink beer and proclaim their superiority can do, though I guess the clientele there has a better claim on the latter than the rest of us.

So I was really interested to see what Kupang would be like – only 175 miles (280 km) as the crow flies from Dili. There are no tourist brochures touting it as a destination. I’ve only been here about ten days, but I can say it is real. There’s nothing in Kupang that I can interpret as put on, or existing only to serve a foreign audience. OK, there’s Teddy’s Bar down on the water, but it ain’t much.

Kupang's waterfront.

Kupang’s waterfront.

Kupang is a noisy, bustling place. It is the business center and capital of Nusa Tenggara Timur – the poorest province in Indonesia. The nicest hotel in town is rather unremarkable and worn. The budget places are a little scary. The only foreign restaurant chain I’ve found is KFC, and there are far fewer foreigners around, though almost all of those are aid workers. There are many little snack places, and the restaurants are patronized by local people and families – a very rare sight in Dili.

You can get fresh fish in the supermarket, on ice, and you can even get Skippy (smooth only). The very nice Borneo Bakery sells local product, not imitations of perceived foreign tastes. As an added bonus, the mosquitoes seem to be more plump and juicy and crackle more dramatically when hit with my zapper.

Bemo depot in central Kupang.

Bemo depot in central Kupang.

Missing from the landscape are the white Toyota Land Cruisers with UN or other logos on the doors and hood, careering around town with little regard for anyone else.

A surprising absence in traffic are taxis. They were everywhere in Dili and always honking to get attention. I’ve seen just a couple in Kupang, but the population of motorbikes is higher here, and the traffic worse. Taxi’s must have sprouted in Dili to serve the needs of the foreigners. The normal city public transport in both places are mini-buses – mikrolets in Dili; bemos in Kupang. (The “bus, coach & minibus” section of my phrase book offers the helpful, “You’re on my foot.”)

So, as I dig deeper into the place over the next few weeks, I’ll monitor how I feel about reality. I’ll have the chance to do that while I’m working with Kiva partner Tanaoba Lais Manekat ( My main task will be to perform a “borrower verification” – meeting with 10 current Kiva-TLM borrowers spread from Sabu to Niki-Niki. And I’ll be discussing ways TLM can take advantage of Kiva’s lender base to improve their reach to the poorest of the poor.

East of Kupang. Nicer than Cost Smerelda, and not a one percenter in sight.

East of Kupang. Nicer than Cost Smerelda, and not a one percenter in sight.

TLM's main office in Kupang.

TLM’s main office in Kupang.

Standing Firmly on the Ground

March 12, 2013 Leave a comment


An Unstable Foundation

In western mythology the phoenix, rising from its own ashes, represents cyclical extinction and regeneration; death and re-birth. Human stories lack the mythical qualities of the tales they inspire.

“On 30 August 1999, in a UN-supervised popular referendum, an overwhelming majority (78.5%) of the people of Timor-Leste voted for independence from Indonesia. However, in the next three weeks, anti-independence Timorese militias – organized and supported by the Indonesian military – commenced a large-scale, scorched-earth campaign of retribution. The militias killed approximately 1,400 Timorese and forcibly pushed 300,000 people (1/3 of the population) into western Timor as refugees. Most of the country’s infrastructure, including homes, irrigation systems, water supply systems, and schools, and nearly 100% of the country’s electrical grid were destroyed. On 20 September 1999, Australian-led peacekeeping troops deployed to the country and brought the violence to an end.” CIA Factbook – parenthetical comments and emphasis mine.

In 2000, Save the Children hired Angelo Soares to work as coordinator of their Children Youth  Development Program (CYDP) as part of the re-building effort in Timor-Leste. Timorese by birth, he had been educated in Indonesia in agricultural development and worked for the government there for 10 years.


Angelo Soares, CEO, Tuba Rai Metin

When Save the Children opened a micro-credit program in July of 2001, they asked Angelo to join that program. The micro-credit program was transferred to Catholic Relief Services in January 2002, and on May 13 “Tuba Rai Metin” (“Standing Firmly on the Ground” in the local Tetum language) became a legal entity registered with the NGO Forum. CRS continued support to TRM over the next four years with loan capital, technical assistance and grants.

Timor-Leste was internationally recognized as an independent state on 20 May 2002, 27 years after the Indonesian occupation began.

Angelo began as a field loan officer, and he rose to be a Branch Manager in 2004. By 2006 he had become an Area Manager.

An Uneven Recovery

Unfortunately, 2006 would be a year of turmoil, too.

“East Timor’s capital, Dili, descended into chaos in April and May 2006, when the prime minister, Mari Alkatiri, fired almost half the country’s soldiers for striking. The fired soldiers, who had protested against low wages and alleged discrimination, then began rioting, and soldiers loyal to the prime minister started battling them. Soon the violence had spread to the police force and the civilian population, causing about 130,000 to flee their homes to avoid the bloodshed. Australian troops were called in to control the unrest. On June 26, Prime Minister Alkatiri resigned in an effort to stop the country’s disintegration.”

Angelo remembers the date well. It was May 26 when his home was ransacked and destroyed. His family lost everything. They fled to live in nearby Motael Church with 500 other scared people. Other churches and schools across the city along with the airport filled with refugees by the thousands. They remained for two weeks until calm returned. Like the rest of his neighbors, Angelo and his family were starting from zero.

Panorama 2a

Motael Church in Dili Today

The senior manager of TRM fled to Australia “for 12 days”, but a month later he sent his resignation letter to the board and never returned. Angelo was now in charge of what had been the 5th largest of 15 micro-finance institutions (MFI’s) in the country. Thirteen of them were now closed because they lost their assets. But TRM still had physical and financial assets, loans outstanding, and clients wanting to stay in business, even though many were in refugee camps.

By January of 2007 CRS completed an assessment and concluded that the situation in Timor-Leste was too difficult to continue support. They were pulling out. TRM’s monthly expenses were $8,500, yet income was only $4,000 in a deteriorating climate. Angelo was presented with three options:

  1. Close down and pay the staff a severance package.
  2. Merge with Moris Rasik – the only other surviving MFI (larger than TRM)
  3. Continue operations with no further support from CRS.

Angelo chose the third option.

How to Exist as a Timorese Institution?

This was not without some risk … to say the least. Unable to break even while supporting 24 staff members, an outstanding loan portfolio of $168,000 with 2,800 clients uprooted from their homes and businesses and living in refugee camps, abandoned by management and an international aid organization, TRM would be a high risk venture in anyone’s estimation.

Refugee Camp, DiliPhoto by Austcare

Refugee Camp, Dili 2006 – Photo by Austcare

But how to exist as a Timorese institution? First he tried to convince the board of directors to engage with the business, but not one director was willing to meet with him. A quarter of the staff left for more secure jobs in the government. But Angelo felt he had to try and make it work. It was for his community and his young country.

The remaining staff forged a plan to manage the budget to make it work. Cuts came, and they were difficult, but there was a desire to make sacrifices to rebuild. Benefits were cut to the bone. Employees agreed to sleep in branch offices to save on lodging expenses while traveling. TRM leased one of the cars to another company. Tightening their belts, they managed to reduce expenses significantly.

There were a few challenges in helping their clients rebuild. First the 2,800 clients had to be found amid the refugee camps. Micro-finance, by its nature, is a labor intensive business. The loan officers spend a lot of time out in the community getting know their clients personally, and they meet with them when loan repayments are made. They were accustomed to doing a lot of leg work, and clients were found.

Loans were restructured, and, in many cases, additional loans were made available. It took about a month to get most businesses going again, but most did get going again. The challenge was helping clients rebuild while keeping the company afloat.

A Bumpy Road

Things were going so well that in March of 2007 TRM opened a new field office in Lospalos, Lautém District. And in May income met expenses for the first time since TRM became a Timorese business – just five months after CRS pulled out.

Working closely with their clients, they set the stage to reduce the number of delinquent loans from 75% in 2006 to only 14% in 2009.

But inconclusive June 2007 elections between seven competing parties and protracted negotiations to come up with a ruling coalition led to political unrest. Generally, there was an East-West divide of feelings. Those in the east generally favored independence parties, while those in the west leaned toward Indonesia.

Most people were fearful of leaving their own cities. But Angelo continued to make the run between Dili (west) and Baucau (east) on a regular basis to keep the business moving.

In July there was a month-long work stoppage in Baucau. Banks and government offices closed. All activity stopped. But not at TRM. In order to keep a low profile, the loan officers visited their clients on their motorbikes dressed in shorts and sandals and, when challenged, said they were out visiting friends. There were no banks to deposit their collections, and they avoided using the office, so the Branch Manager kept loan collections in his house.

The political unrest turned violent in several districts, including Baucau. On July 7 TRM’s Baucau branch office was burned along with all the records. $18,000 in cash was lost.

Stability …. at Last

Since the mid-decade troubles, the political climate has been much more stable. UN security forces moved in to stabilize the country, and they just left in December, 2012.

TRM's Kiva Coordinators Connecting Borrowers with Lenders

TRM’s Kiva Coordinators Connecting Borrowers with Lenders

TRM has been on a steady growth path with help from BASIX and the UNCDF (UN Credit Development Fund) and now serves over 7,500 clients in all 13 national districts. The loan portfolio has grown to over $2.8 million. They offer a complete portfolio of loan products, micro-insurance and deposit savings accounts.

Tuba Rai Metin has been a partner with Kiva since May of 2012, offering the opportunity for Kiva lenders to make loans directly to individuals and groups served by TRM.

I am in Dili working with TRM to solidify and expand the relationship with Kiva. Angelo and his team have just completed the requirements to move from “pilot” to “active” status. This will increase the amount of money Kiva makes available to lend to TRM borrowers through the Kiva website, as well as open the door to fund special development projects.

I hope you will look for TRM’s clients on as you search for places to connect with small entrepreneurs.

Phoenix or Mortal?

The phoenix resurrected from its ashes is a fanciful image created in men’s minds. The origin of the story is lost in time. Perhaps it was used as soothing encouragement during catastrophic times. Maybe an inducement to rise powerfully against a conquering enemy.

To stand firmly on the ground is something humans do. In the final analysis, it is the only course of action we humans have. But we can do pretty well. Perfecting our stance will do more to help ourselves and others than any flight of fancy.


Relics of the Struggles Remain

So, Where Are You From?

February 25, 2013 8 comments

As I’ve traveled around the world, my response to the “Where are you from?” question has been, “I’m from The States.”

Going Batty In Costa Rico

Going Batty In Costa Rica

I acquired this somewhat neutral title for my native land back in the 1980’s. I can trace the start of my thinking to 1982 when I was in Costa Rica on a caving expedition in Guanacaste Province.

When Amerigo Vespucci’s name was applied to maps of the three New World continents, they were all America. Central Americans are Americans, as are South Americans, Mexicans, and yes, even Canadians (though the Québécois may really prefer to be French, or at least not Canadian, though I really don’t know if their identity crisis attempts to distance them from l’Amérique du Nord. And what do people in St. Pierre and Miquelon, who are French citizens, consider themselves?).

In prep meetings for the expedition we were cautioned that self-identifying as an “Americano” was a sensitive issue. It was suggested that we say we were Norte Americanos. Or say we were from Los Estados Unidos.

On Rope in Guanacaste

On Rope in Guanacaste

Incidentally, Vespucci himself only saw South America. So South Americans may have a preeminent claim on identifying themselves as unqualified Americans.

Maybe North Americans should be called Columbians, since that’s where Columbus landed. But then Hugo Chavez would have to distinguish between his own country and the Norte Columbianos in his diatribes.

You can see it’s a problem.

But for six weeks in rural Costa Rica I was pretty careful about it, and I remember talking to a local in a bar one day when we were down from the hills. He tried to get me into a drunken trap to use the A-word, but I didn’t take the bait. The beer wasn’t that good.

Returning to Costa Rica twenty years later on a trip through Central America, I used “Norte Americano” and received funny looks. “Americano” was clearly understood as “gringo”.

There must have been a generational shift.

Ten years later (2011) and I was cycling from Malta to Dublin.

Dublin had never even crossed my mind as the final destination when I pedaled those first few kilometers from Malta to Gozo. In true vacilador tradition, it only became my final destination three and a half months into the trip – 10 days before the trip ended.

From Malta I took the ferry to Sicily and had some interesting times there. After cranking up Mt. Etna and traversing the island, I took an overnight ferry from Palermo to Cagliari in southern Sardinia.

Sicily had been fantastic. And although I liked walking around Palermo and taking in its raw grittiness, art, food, dirt, clatter, and pickpocket infested buses, a few days was enough.

Cagliari was a refreshing change – it had a holiday ambiance, and I liked Sardinia as soon as I got off the boat.

The overnight sea voyage was refreshing. Taking a lesson from the awful experience Barry and I had ferrying from the Orkneys to Aberdeen the previous year, I splurged on a private cabin. The common areas were jammed, so it was a good decision.

I know enough French and Spanish to get by, but my Italian is almost non-existent. Traveling, I was able to pick up a few things, and at least I thought I knew some pronunciation.

Cagliari – Kah-GLYAR-ee, with emphasis onthe penultimate syllable.


It is more like KAH-glyar-ee. Sort of sounds like the Canadian city of Calgary. Welcome to Sardinia.

My Tour de Sardinia began by cycling around the southwest corner of the island. There are a couple of small islands just a short ferry ride offshore, and I stopped for a few days on Isola di San Pietro at the Hotel California.

San Pietro is a beautiful little island to cycle around on day trips. Some good climbs. Gorgeous rocky coastline. Seabirds. Lighthouses. Secluded coves. Nice little harbor front in the main town, Carloforte. I almost found a sfogliatella, but the pastry shop advertising it was never open.

I just didn’t want to check out.

I’ve forgotten exactly how it started. Maybe I was standing with my bike by the pier and was looking for a direction to go. That look of indecision might have been the catalyst for this guy to come up to chat.

I could sort of tell, as you learn you can sort of tell, that this guy had something to sell. He was selling information. Information about him. He wanted to tell me his story. The price was my time. It was one of those things you fall into, being a nice person such as I am with time on my hands. He was one of those people that you don’t meet – they meet you. I started to listen.

Harbor front on Isola di San Pietro

Harbor front of Carloforte on Isola di San Pietro

He spoke fluent English, but I couldn’t place his accent. He looked Caucasian, may have been middle-eastern, but I guessed European, but from where? He had a big gold watch, big gold necklaces, and that ruddy complexion and gut that sailors have that I attribute more to hoisting bottles of port while tied to a berth than to hauling hoisting lines in healthy sea air getting into port. He was sailing around the Med. Had sailed around the Med before. Other places, too. He stopped in for the tuna festival this weekend. Are you staying here for that? No? Too bad. I’m going to fill myself. Etc.

I tried to ask only enough questions to seem to appear to be interested. I didn’t know where this “conversation” was headed.

He asked where I was from.

By this time I’d used “the states” as my origin for decades in dozens of countries and situations. I don’t know why my senses picked something up. But it’s almost that I knew instinctively that this time was different. It wasn’t quite instinct because it was a conscious choice in my response. Somehow I knew this was his hot button,and maybe it was the whole reason for this conversation.

I pressed the button.

“I’m American.”

This set him off on a mini-tirade about how arrogant “Americans” are (yes, in deriding me for identifying myself as American, he actually used the phrase “you Americans”), they don’t know their place in the world, insensitivity, yak, yak, yak, yak, yak.

“Why don’t you say you’re from the United States, or that you’re North American?”

“Because it is generally understood when I say I’m ‘American’ that I’m from the US. Just as you understood it.”

I was confused why a European would make such a distinction. Or care. I think if I told most Europeans that I’m North American, they wouldn’t know exactly what to think. Canadian, they know. Mexican, they know. American, they know. The States, they know. The United States, they think the USA, even though Mexico has 31 states and is formally called “Estados Unidos Mexicanos”. If I said “The Provinces” I’m just about 100% sure they would not think of Canada (or Costa Rica), though they might think of rural France.

Sfogliatella. Photo by avlxyz

Sfogliatella. Photo by avlxyz.

What was this guy’s accent? More importantly, why am I standing here on the waterfront in Carloforte having this discussion when there might be sfogliatella lurking about nearby?

“Look. We’re in Italy, right? What is the Italian word for someone from the US? Americano. What is the French word for someone from the US? Americain. What is the German word for someone from the US? Amerikanischer. What is the British word for someone from the US? Yank. So, what’s the problem?”

But where was this guy from?

“So, where are YOU from?”

“I live in Halifax. I spend about half the year there.”

….. (sigh) …… I apologize to my Canadian friends, but  ….. There was going to be a second hot button. I let him have the second barrel.

“You’re from Canada?!  The fifty-first state?!”

He was not amused.

Perhaps there is a huge, untapped demand for Psychologist-Geographers dealing with continental identity angst (CIA).

So. Where are you from?

Dublin Street Art

Dublin Street Art

Introducing Timor-Leste

February 20, 2013 1 comment

I arrived in Timor-Leste about a week ago to begin a Kiva Fellowship, and you might be wondering where the heck that is. So I’ll try to fill you in on some background while I ease into the place.

I like maps. Here’s one of the world:

It's Way Our There

Timor Is Way Out There (Unless You Live in Australia)

The Regional Context – Southeast Asia

I’ve traveled through SE Asia quite a bit, and I really like the region. It is exotic. Some places are truly Paradise – there are apples, serpents and even the occasional sinner seeking (or transferring) knowledge.

A few cities are westernized and modern, and it’s hard to remember you’re in Asia. But most places have a very different feel. The various cultures have lived in relatively close proximity for… well, forever, but travel has been difficult, so there are still very diverse regional identities – language, food, beliefs, traditions, even the weather.

The region has seen empires come and go, waves of invaders and colonists, been in the middle of world conflict, and shared in more peaceful cross-cultural exchanges as international trade has blossomed. But some places are still nearly untouched.

Hang On, Another Map Is Coming

Timor is in SE SE Asia

Timor is in SE SE Asia

Even if you haven’t been to the area, or can’t find them on a map without searching a bit, you have heard the names. The Asian Tigers – the economic tigers – of Singapore, Brunei, Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia have done well in the global economy.

Like the rest of the world, income and wealth distribution is very uneven. The per capita GDP’s of Singapore (intellectual and manufacturing hub) and Brunei (think oil) are higher than the USA. Malaysia, the third largest regional economy, earns 1/3 the US figure. Thailand’s is half of that. Indonesia, with a roaring economy (16th largest GDP, and the fourth largest world population) has a per capita GDP that is half of Thailand’s – one tenth that of the US.

Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia are rich places for some people, but poor for most.

Timor-Leste – the first new country of this century – ranks nearly last, economically. Among all of Asia, its 2011 per capita GDP of  US$4.50 per day (3% of the US figure) places it just ahead of Myanmar, Afghanistan and Nepal, and just behind Bangladesh. And this figure is inflated due to the large UN and non-governmental organization (NGO) presence, of which I am a part. It also includes oil wealth which is the only means the government has to fund itself.

More maps:

Finally, Timor

Finally, Timor – A Crocodile?

The Indonesian Archipelago

The Indonesian Archipelago

Here Comes Some History to Complement the Geography

Partly due to history, but perhaps mostly due to geography Timor has always been a backwater. The island is the 5th largest of the 17,000 islands making up  the Indonesian archipelago and is near the far eastern end (almost in Papua New Guinea).  About the size of Massachusetts, or a bit smaller than Belgium, it never figured very large in Dutch or Portuguese colonial ambitions. There wasn’t much to take except sandalwood – the only place on earth where sandalwood forests exist today.

Remnants of the Portuguese

Remnants of the Portuguese on Dili Harbor

The only lasting legacy the Europeans left behind was the political division of the island into east and west (and some influence on the local language). The Dutch on the west end of the island had a toe hold in Kupang, and the Portuguese in the East at Dili. Their colonial administration centers were just too far away to care – the Dutch were in Jakarta/Batavia 1200 miles to the west; the Portuguese center in Malacca on the Malay Peninsula was even farther.

Fast Forward a Few Centuries

A major consequence of Japanese expansion in WWII was the dismemberment of European colonial control. Local populations were startled at how easily the Japanese swept out their oppressors. So, after the war independence fever hit the region defying European return – Malaysia, Singapore & Burma/Myanmar (British), Vietnam & Cambodia (French), Philippines (US), and Indonesia (Dutch) ultimately became independent nations.

When the Dutch formally acknowledged Indonesian independence in 1949, the western end of Timor went with it.

Independence for the East?  …. Not Yet

The eastern end of the island remained in Portuguese hands until the 1974 military coup (Portugal’s “Carnation Revolution”) ousted dictator Antonio Salazar and brought democracy to Portugal. One reason for the coup was continued conscription to fight wars in the colonies.2013-02-09_23-40-43_DSCN2935a

But 1975 did not bring freedom to East Timor. Indonesia had ambitions on the entire island and the absence of the Portuguese and lack of international interest allowed them to enforce a long and bloody occupation. There were pro- and anti-Indonesian militia factions warring among themselves, civilian massacres of thousands and a civilian exodus of hundreds of thousands. A 1997 Asian financial crisis increased social unrest prompting the UN to send peacekeepers (mostly Australian). In 1999 a referendum on independence only fueled factional violence.


Independence was finally achieved in May of 2002 – Repúblika Demokrátika Timor-Leste becoming the first new nation of the 21st century.  But internal rankling and a presidential assassination attempt kept the country in an anxious state into 2008. The UN just left in December of 2012 after a long transition of security control to local forces.2013-02-16_20-02-13_DSCN2996

Timor-Leste is poor and always has been. Today, oil and gas account for half the exports. Coffee  – Starbucks buys 80-90% of it – makes up a quarter. There’s a small traditional crafts industry, and a small tourist market – mostly for Scuba divers plunging into the rich waters just offshore (you can drive to some nice dive spots).

But most of the population live as subsistence farmers. You remember that $4.50 per day per capita GDP (which includes oil and gas exports)?  Well, about 70% of the population earns less than $2 per day.

And that is why Kiva has sent me here.

Specifically, I’m working with a local micro-finance institution called Tuba Rai Metin. In the local Tetun language that means “Stand Firmly on the Ground”  which is an apt monicker for only one of two micro-finance institutions to adapt to, evolve and survive the violence and uncertainty of the last decade. From its beginning in 2001 with support from Save the Children Federation it has grown to have a loan portfolio of about $5M serving 7,000 borrowers (all women) and offers financial products such as business and agricultural loans, micro-insurance, and deposit savings.

You’ll be hearing more about this.

Headquarters - Tuba Rai Metin

Headquarters – Tuba Rai Metin