May 2008 – Latin America Trip Impressions
Rather than repeating what our website already pictures and describes, I’ve sketched just my impressions because this trip moved incredibly fast. I traveled 4 countries in 11 days and 5 countries in 13 days for Rick! In fact Rick and I may have hit a record: 4 cities in 3 countries in 24 hours (Cajamarca to Lima, Peru to San Salvador airport to Managua, Nicaragua).
More Serious Thoughts
Our time with the clients and the staff in Cajamarca were our highlights. Though I must say that Cuy (guinea pig) is a difficult protein for Norte Americanos to contemplate. After all, American kids keep guinea pigs as pets. The ceviche (marinated raw fish), however, was excellent.
Nactamales (Nicaraguan tamales) are tasty, the scenery is nice, and the people lovely. For me these were offset by Daniel Ortega’s overly cheery pre-election billboards everywhere (with a fuchsia background), especially because they were created by his wife, the Nicaraguan Government’s Communication Director. This is nepotism at its worst and irony at its best (Western-style posters for a Socialist / Communist). It was weird for me being in Managua at a Holiday Inn, watching American TV with Spanish subtitles and listening to Spanish speakers in the hall.
Sunday to tour around San Salvador
– Our delightful guide (who had lived in TX as a roughneck oil worker) and driver were very knowledgeable about current and historical events.
– We saw Mayan ruins of both working and religious villages; 335 year old church; picturesque caldera lake; beautiful indigenous gardens; parrots at the restaurant where we had lunch; and a delightful market in a town plaza.
– Near the town of Sulchitoto, we were reminded that the early 1980s to 1990s were chaotic in El Salvador as well as Nicaragua by:
o Bullet holes in the walls along a residential street;
o A gigantic rocket bomb (hopefully defused) stuck by its “nose” in the front yard of a house along the road leading into town.
– At 6:35 p.m. a strong earthquake disconcertingly shook our hotel for about 1 minute.
TechnoServe El Salvador staff are not only impressive for its current work, but also for maintaining operations during the civil war. Their contribution was recognized by the post-war government who contracted with TNS to help re-train combatants on both sides to become more agriculturally productive than before the turmoil.
– During our visit to Las Isla, an artisan cheese maker being helped by TNS, we had to dress in sanitary gear to tour the processing plant. We gained insight into cheese and milk processing as well as had fun dressing up.
Our TechnoServe office is in San Pedro Sula, not Tegucigalpa the capital, because it is closer to the clients as well as being safer. However, being driven from the airport to our hotel into a very industrial area was like driving through Newark, NJ but with more poverty. Despite the surrounding area, our hotel was filled with tourists so clearly it was a nice place, comparable to African business hotels. But the depressiveness was offset by meeting the delightful staff the next morning, going to see clients in action, and learning where/how my favorite food group, chocolate, is grown and processed!
We were very impressed with how competent and organized the TNS staff was in all the Latin countries. And seeing clients like Clarita’s Mix, Cuy Network, Cris Vida Water, La Isla cheese, and Apatch Cocoa Nursery and Farm continues to be tangible proof that TechnoServe’s approach really does work!
More Humorous Moments
– BEST CERVESA: Cuzquena Rubio (Peru) then Port Royale (Honduras) though Premium (Nicaragua) and Golden (El Salvador) were OK.
– BEST FOOD: the hands-down winner is Salvadoran restaurants (we had dinner at La Cofradias down the hill from our San Salvador Radisson hotel and lunch at Posada Sulchitoto in Sulchitoto, El Salvador. At both restaurants we were the only foreigners. My favorite dish is pupusas. I also like one called “doggie ears” (small, fried, meat-filled empanadas) as well as sweet tamales and plantain-filled pastries.
– BEST CROP: Cocoa beans in Honduras, since chocolate is my favorite food group.
– WORST ROAD: After lunch in the cute little town of San Marcos, Peru we drove to the cuy (guinea pig) farm to supposedly arrive around 2:00 p.m. After about 45 minutes on a deteriorating dirt road we arrived where the road was closed due to construction for about another 45 minutes. Of course we had the same experience 1.5 hours later when we had to return to San Marcos on the same road. An hour each way turned into 2 hours…
– FUNNIEST SOUND & IMAGE: whistling guinea pigs which frantically pile on top of each other as soon as we walked into the room with their cages. Maybe even their tiny minds understand how fragile and short their lives are.
Latin American Client Visits
We were picked up at 7:30am to meet our host the country director at the office then we were driven to the Apatch “fine cocoa” project in Chocoloma Basin outside San Pedro Sula. Just as TNS is helping its coffee farmers move into premium bean production, TNS Honduras is working with cocoa bean growers to upgrade to a high sugar content bean that can be made into edible, virtually 100% chocolate bars without added sweetening. Lots of cocoa seedlings were lined up in the nursery. Some were to remain “common” and some were to become finer cocoa species. We witnessed the finer cocoa being micro-grafted onto the baby cocoa plants as well as onto mature bushes. The latter is mostly trial and error since TechnoServe and the Honduran government’s agricultural department is not familiar with proven grafting techniques for older plants. But some success is certainly better than having local cocoa crops be poorly maintained and valued. Now I can picture how chocolate is grown every time I indulge!
About one hour’s drive from San Salvador, we visited La Isla cheese manufacturer in the small city of Sonsonete. Though the owner had been in business for about 25 years, TechnoServe had enabled him to build a new factory, train better workers, expand the number of cheese brands and types, find new markets (including potentially the U.S.) and create his own small retail cheese stores. Before Rick, Cindi, the TechnoServe staff and I could enter the facilities, we suited up in doctor-like booties, coats, masks and hats so that the cheese and milk would remain uncontaminated. We saw milk being fermented into fresh cheeses (crema and queso) as well as the processing, refrigeration, and packaging of multiple soft and hard cheeses. Though the site would probably not meet U.S.D.A. import standards currently, the entrepreneur, his staff and TNS supporters were working hard to achieve them in the future. Meanwhile, we all enjoyed their great recent success!
Clients near Cajamarca, Peru
From 2003 to 2005 and now again 2006 to 2008, TechnoServe (TNS) Peru has been helping Micro- and Small-Enterprises expand revenues, employment, and potential to impact poor and rural Cajamarca Province’s economy. A large corporation mining gold and silver is located near the city of Cajamarca. The workers and communities who contribute to the mine’s significant growth have not seen parallel improvements in their lives. It is anticipated that these precious metals may continue to be successfully mined until 2028 or even 2035. Recognizing their responsibility to the surrounding region, the large mining company has established a separate “corporate social responsibility” organization. Its goal is to source as many supplies from local vendors as possible as well as raise these vendors’ skills and products to serious corporate standards. Three major donors including the mining company underwrite TechnoServe Peru’s Small Enterprise project which identifies, assesses, and trains 20 qualified entrepreneurs per year in business/marketing, production/technical skills, and finance/accounting. In turn, each TNS alumni business should engage/impact up to 20 supplier-farmers whose increased family incomes will improve access to education, healthcare, and other services. TechnoServe helps improve local vendors’ capacities and revenues as well as connect them to more customers locally, across Peru, and even globally. Since 2003 TechnoServe Peru will have improved the livelihoods of over 150 entrepreneurs and 1,500 farmers in the Cajamarca region–all of whom are now actually benefiting from the mine’s success. The three clients we visitied: Water Bottler, Guinea Pig Processor, and Grain Miller.
Mid-May 2008 – “The Road to” TechnoServe Latin America
From May 19 – 31st 2008, Rick and I were on the road to TechnoServe offices in Peru, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala. Rick’s operations’ projects required input from the teams in each country to ensure that he delivers systems that meet their needs. Seeing field projects, interviewing in-country TNS staff, with brief bouts of sleeping and eating made this a hectic but insightful trip. I just tagged along but documented some client and country stories for my own purposes.
Despite our unfamiliarity with TACA “Grupo” airlines (representing several Central American countries), upon arrival at SFO at 11pm on May 19th, we were informed that because we were business class on the leg from San Salvador to Lima (which was news to us), they were upgrading us on the SFO to San Salvador trip as well. More leg room, better food, classier service—why not? We arrived at the San Salvador airport in El Salvador, entitled to spend our 5-hour layover in the 1st class lounge, a considerable step up from Nairobi’s equivalent. I was able to stretch out on a sofa, sleep comfortably for 2.5 hours, and take advantage of free wifi Internet. Though we did experience a very brief power outage, overall it was very pleasant!
Life in the Balance by Dr. Tom Graboys
This was the Most Impressive Book I Read on our Latin American trip. From June 2001 through April 2003, our daughter Diana worked as a researcher at Lown Cardiovascular Clinic in Brookline, Mass. before starting med school summer 2003. She worked for and met some of the world’s leading cardiologists, including Bernie Lown (inventor of the defibrillator, now 88 and still seeing patients) who headed the doctors who founded the Nobel Peace Prize winning Physicians against Nuclear War. Diana was incredibly fortunate to be mentored by Dr. Thomas Graboys, heir apparent to Dr. Lown, who headed the globally renowned cardiology team who practiced a mind and body healing of the total patient. The couple of times I chatted briefly with Dr. Graboys, I was impressed with his down-to-earth characteristics, untypical of such a highly-reputed, brilliant doctor-to-the stars*.
Diana had taken care of Dr. Graboys’ dogs while he and his new wife traveled, so had personal as well as professional insight into how to lead a balanced though highly demanding medical life. Before she left Lown, she learned that Dr. Graboys suffered from Parkinson’s disease, which forced him to retired in 2005.
While at SFO awaiting our flight to Latin America, I started reading Graboys’ recently published Life in the Balance, a brutally honest review about how he denied then faced Parkinson’s which had the additional misery of “Lewy body” dementia. It’s a tough read but well-written and uplifting despite the eventual, known outcome. It should inspire anyone who faces a debilitating disease because even brilliant doctors must deal with fear, anger, and denial when they are ill. Graboys’ remarkable story though sad, shows that hope with dignity is also possible with support from family/friends/colleagues/patients.
*Diana told many stories about his patients pulling up to the clinic in stretch limos but one of my favorites was her reviewing a chart of a patient named Edward Kennedy to whom she gave a stress test. She honestly didn’t associate his name with U.S. Senator Teddy Kennedy until one of the nurses later mentioned it. The Senator probably found it refreshing to have the Lown Staff treat him as a patient, not a personality.