A Home and a Job?...What Have I Become?

Trip Start Jan 22, 2010
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Flag of Philippines  , Luzon,
Thursday, June 16, 2011

Well my "home" is in a small town in the Philippines and my "job" consists of helping less fortunate young adults gain access to higher education, so I guess I'm okay with the lifestyle change!

After a crazy few days in San Francisco, Japan, and Manila, I have arrived at my new home: Cabanatuan. Cabanatuan is a city of around 250,000 people and home to over 40,000 tricycles (the tuk-tuks of the Philippines), which provide the main form of transportation for its residents. Its claim to fame is that its prison was taken over by the Japanese during World War II and used as a sort of concentration camp for American and Filipino POWs, many of whom were forced to participate in the infamous Bataan Death March in 1942. Despite the fact that Cabanatuan has a population of 250,000 people, it has one 'highway', which more resembles a normal busy street, and the rest of the streets are bumpy, dirt, ‘alleyways’, in my opinion. ‘Far away’ is considered more than 5 minutes by tricycle. So even though there are a quarter of a million inhabitants here, it feels like a very small city.

My first couple of days in Cabanatuan were very lucky for me. When I arrived, I went recommended Village Inn Hotel, where I had hoped to negotiate a monthly price. However, they were unwilling to budge, charging me almost $20 a night, and I soon found out that this was the cheapest hotel in the city. I’ll be damned if I am going to live in a tiny city in the Philippines and pay $600 a month for a hotel room with no kitchen! As I was browsing the internet for information on Cabanatuan, I stumbled across a "homestay" that costs a whopping $186 a month. I went to check it out, and it is basically this family that rents out some of the rooms in their house as hotel rooms. The room has a big bed, TV, WiFi, aircon, private bathroom, chair, vanity table, and dresser/closet. I met the owner, who told me to call him Papa Doc (he is a doctor), and he introduced me to his wife and granddaughter. They have a son who lives in California with an American wife, and they speak very good English. They are very friendly, and told me I can use their fridge and kitchen (as long as I cook them an American dinner sometime!). It only took 5 minutes for them to make me feel at home. I now have my first “home” in a year and a half!

Now about my work. I am working at ASKI, a Filipino microfinance institution (MFI) that specializes in small business loans and community development. Their main office is in Cabanatuan, but they have branches all over Luzon (the island that both Manila and Cabanatuan are on). There are around 75 people working here at the main office, and they are all incredibly friendly. One of the girls is turning 27 this weekend, and she invited me to her birthday party which I believe will involve karaoke. The Philippines is a very Christian nation, and every morning at work we have an hour of morning prayer. Everyone in the company attends, and although it is not required for me to attend, I do it because I like to keep a “when in Rome” attitude and I don’t want the people I am working with to think that I think I am too good to attend. It begins with a Christian rock concert. There is a guy on the keys, and girls on drums, bass, and electric guitar. The words to the songs are in English and flash across a big screen behind them. And we all stand up and sing and clap and praise God. Afterwards, one person gets up and gives a 45 minute speech on the topic of the day. The first time I attended the topic was kindness. She spoke in a sort of Tagalish (get it? Spanglish but with Tagalog instead of Spanish heh heh). This is what I heard: “Blah blah blah kindness in your heart blah blah blah devotion blah blah blah let me tell you a story blah blah blah good things will come blah blah blah” and so on. It was pretty interesting! The second day the topic was prosperity, and it was basically a speech on generosity. These morning prayers are actually more like Chicken Soup for the Soul sessions rather than what I am used to as prayer. After the speech/prayer, the band plays the ASKI theme song (in Tagalog), followed by this weird song where each section lasts about 5 seconds and then a pause. At each pause, the members of a specific department at ASKI stand up and announce their department and who is out that day. So while we arrive at work at 8am, we usually don’t begin working till around 9:15. Lunch is eaten in house every day and a girl comes around at about 11:00 with a menu for the day. You pay her when she brings your food, usually about 80 cents. And so far very delicious. Items include eggplant baked with egg, sweet and sour meatballs, chicken or pork adobo (cooked in soy sauce, garlic, and vinegar), sautéed vegetables, and so on. I so far have not adjusted to the smaller meal portions and am pretty much hungry all the time (thank you U.S.A.!). No matter – I remember when I first got back to the U.S. I was unable to finish any of my meals because I thought the portions were humongous. Looking forward to getting back to that attitude! :)

As far as what I will be doing here, I am working for an American company called Vittana, who partners with local MFIs like ASKI. Vittana is a non-profit based out of Seattle that works on getting people in developing countries access to higher education through student loans. (If you are interested, I added more info on this at the end of this blog entry.) This is a new concept in the Philippines, and it is my job to help ASKI set up a student-loan framework. ASKI is Vittana’s second biggest pilot operation, with a goal of having 500 students enrolled in our program by the end of 2011. I am the only person from Vittana working with ASKI, so I have a lot of work ahead of me! Once I get the students up on the Vittana website, I will send out a link so that all you fine people can support my students by making a loan. :)

So that’s about it for now. Cabanatuan has no nightlife to speak of, so I pretty much just go to work, come home, eat dinner, watch TV or read, then go to bed. However, I plan on taking a lot of mini-trips on the weekends to nearby beaches and mountains. And Manila is just a 3-4 hour bus ride away if I feel like having a big night out. (A former Kiva Fellow who lived here went to Manila every weekend!) I think my host “mother” is going to take me on a walk around town tonight so that will be nice to see what people actually do here in the evenings. Next weekend I am taking a long weekend to get a visa extension and to do some exploring – I haven’t yet decided on what/where but it will probably be either relaxing at a beach town or trekking through the rice terraces in the north. More to come on that in the next entry!

 

(More info on Vittana for my ambitious readers:)

Historically, one of the biggest differences between the rich and the poor has been access to higher education. With education comes better work opportunities, more economic stability, and a greater well-being for future generations. But even though there are many intelligent, disadvantaged students who would want a loan to pay for vocational or college education, until now the majority of banks and large financial institutions have considered poor students to be too high of a credit risk. There are microfinance institutions (MFIs) who would like to offer loans to these students and give them the opportunity to demonstrate their responsibility and trustworthiness, but because the money in the MFI’s portfolio comes from banks and large international funds who don’t want to use capital for students, the MFIs don’t have the capital flow to start a student portfolio. Together with our partner MFIs, Vittana is breaking this cycle.

Vittana was founded in 2008 with the mission to expand opportunities for students to receive higher education, improve their professional opportunities, and most important, earn higher incomes. Working with innovative and experienced MFIs, we are demonstrating to the international financial community that student lending can be successful—with low levels of default—and that access to education can produce monumental social change.  To do this, we need to fulfill two objectives. First, Vittana raises capital on the Internet for the student loans made by our partner MFIs.  With each loan given through the Vittana program, the door to higher education opens to another student.  But at a higher level, looking towards the future, our intention is to demonstrate that, using this innovative model, student loans can be profitable and are a worthy investment for large banks and funders, thereby increasing our impact and giving opportunities to millions of students.

A couple of quick facts about Vittana:
  • Vittana has a loan repayment rate of 97%.
  • If you make a loan, 100% of your loan goes to the student (i.e. none of it goes towards administrative costs).
  • You get paid back with every loan payment the student makes (i.e. you don’t have to wait until their entire loan is paid off). So if you gave 10% of the student’s total loan (i.e. if they needed $1,000 and you loaned $100), you will receive 10% of each payment the student makes (usually on a monthly basis).
  • The longest grace period a student is given before they need to start repaying is one year, so that is the longest length of time you will have to wait to start getting paid back. Some students (as is the case at ASKI), must begin repaying within one month after the loan is disbursed.
 There is a lot of additional information here.
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Comments

Arnold on

Watch out for people who ask you to call them "Papa." hahaha Funny how you explained that 45 minute speech. Believe me, I had to do that before when I was managing a restaurant in Makati. It's SOP. :O)

Jose from FRBSF on

You will see a lot of the countryside were you are... :-). How about Baler, Quezon .. buses are in your way. What I remember of Baler is, it is a nice fishing town, good beaches...

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