By Jason Jones, Kiva Fellow, Nicaragua
“80% certainty is pretty good”, I thought, as I sent the information to Kiva’s home office in San Francisco.
“Yea, pretty good. But is it good enough?”
Would it be good enough for you?
(excerpt taken from Part I of Borrower Verification)
In a word….no. That is, it wasn’t good enough. Again, it’s not that anyone was making unfounded accusations or looking for something that wasn’t there. I say this because although Kiva does make a great effort to avoid any association with activities ranging from “less than 100% honest” to “blatantly fraudulent”, there’s really not a culture of doubt, suspicion or looking for fraud under every rock. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. It’s just that in the Borrower Verification, there’s no room for uncertainty, and although 80% isn’t so bad for a junior high math quiz, it just doesn’t cut it for an official audit.
So with that, I headed back to the beginning. Data was gathered, details were compared and facts revisited to ensure consistency. Camera? Check. Loan details? Check. Photo of borrower? Check. Snack, small amount of cash, sun block and rain jacket? Check. Check. Check. Check.
Next thing I know, I’m standing at a local transportation terminal, waiting to board what is known as a “micro-bus”, ideally headed in the southern direction. What is “micro-bus”, you ask? Excellent question. In Nicaragua, a micro-bus is really just a van. More specifically, though, it’s a van that travels between towns located within a one to two hour drive of one another. Although the cost is what I would consider to be minimal (roughly 60 cents for my one-hour journey), it is a bit more expensive (and faster) than a traditional bus. Then again, it costs MUCH LESS than a taxi, so it occupies a sort of middle ground in the realm of transportation options for the Central American Region.
Here’s how it works: The vans depart and arrive at specific terminals. In my case, I was leaving from Managua and headed for a town called Masaya. Since there is no schedule, they simply depart when they have enough people to fill the seats. But the story is not exactly that simple, because although there are departure and arrival destinations, one is free to board or exit the van at any point in-between. This means two things: One, rather than simply driving from point A to point B, these vans will honk, flash their headlights, yell out the window, etc. at any and all pedestrians on the right side of the road, all in an attempt to pick up additional passengers. And two, being as though the van is really just a mobile business, the more people IN the van, the more money IN the pocket of the owner. And as a result of that key piece of information, these forms of transportation typically resemble large white sardine cans with four wheels.
I was pretty fortunate that day. I was one of the first passengers to board at the terminal and was therefore seated adjacent to the window. You see, there are typically three rows of “bench-seats” in the van. But, in an attempt to add more seating capacity, they typically install a small wooden box immediately behind the drivers’ seat. This means that the passengers sitting immediately behind the driver on the improvised wooden box and the passengers in the first real bench-seat are facing one another with their knees intertwined. On that day, I was located next to the window, in the first true bench-seat, facing forward. If you take into account the number of people in my row as well those on the wooden box that we were facing, we were a group of 9. Add the 8 or 10 individuals from the other two bench-seats, the 6 or so poor souls forced to stand in the small space located between the seats and the sliding door, the two additional passengers in the front seat, and the driver and vehicle attendant, and we were…….well, clearly exceeding the intended capacity recommended by the manufacturer.
For the first half of the trip, everything passed uneventfully. There were the dozens of improvised stops, the entering/exiting of numerous passengers and the standard “hold on for your life-esque” driving by our “chauffer del dia”. As for the actual members aboard, there was the typical mix that included the unassuming gringo (that would be me), the two Europeans to my right, the doctor with whom I was sharing knee space, the enormous security guard that, under normal circumstances, would easily occupy a bench-seat by himself, the university student and the mother-child duo. I had noticed the mother-child duo when they boarded. They were located exactly in the center of our group of 10, and the mother had been holding a small towel over the mouth of her child for most of the trip. At the time, I didn’t think much of this. You see, people who have a cold or the flu in Nicaragua often walk around with small hand-towels to cover their nose/mouth. Although there’s an inherent risk of sharing such small spaces with the “sickies”, I just kept my face to my open window, considered the possibility of a large dose of vitamin C later in the day and enjoyed the ride.
It was during just such a moment when it happened. There I was, my face to the wind, admiring the scenery of the Nicaraguan countryside on that unseasonably cool day, when I felt a sudden sensation on my right knee and lower leg. In the fraction of time that it took for me to turn my head, I processed two primary thoughts. The first came in the form of an image from my peripheral vision. Coming from the center of the bench was an explosion of sorts. It wasn’t an explosion in the sense that there was any loud noise or shock wave. It was more volcanic in nature, the type of explosion one gets when they open a can of pop/soda/coke/soft drink (choose your section of the US) after shaking it vigorously. In fact, my first thought was that the kid with the towel had done just that. But the second key piece of information lead me to believe that whatever was happening in that moment far exceeded the commonality of a carbonated beverage. I say this because what I perceived in that second fraction of time was the absolute panic of my fellow van-mates.
As I turned my head to gain a comprehensive assessment of the situation, I realized that although the source of the panic was indeed the little girl with the towel, there was unfortunately no carbonated beverage involved. There WAS a geyser of sorts. It’s just that it was coming from beneath the towel! In other words, there was an internal force being emitted from deep within this kid that appeared to be unstoppable. The futile attempt by her mother to intervene with the little piece of cloth resulted in what I can only describe as a fountain of regurgitation raining down upon me and my fellow passengers! And the worst part about it was that there was absolutely nothing we could do! We couldn’t escape! There were so many people packed into the van that no one could move! We wanted to run! We wanted to stampede! To escape this ungodly fate! Yet we were frozen in space by the mere proximity of our fellow van-mates! We were packed in! Our only option was to grimace or close our eyes while bracing for another round!
I think the poor Europeans suffered the worst of it. They were located directly across from the source. Ground Zero. The university student and her homework? Soiled. The doctor across from me? Soiled. Me? Yep, me too. At first, no one knew what to do. I suppose it’s not unlike any traumatic situation when there is that initial moment of pause, that moment when the brain attempts to devise a plan of action. Following the pause came the initial clean up. I realized that I had a small bandana in my backpack. The van attendant produced another. In spite of our limited space, we all offered our best attempt at a primary de-con. As soon as I could, I repositioned my head to be mostly OUT of the window, doing my best to avoid any inhalation of interior air. As for the sick little girl, she seemed imiraculously better. My concern at that point wasn’t for her. Rather, it was for the potential of secondary effects. We all know those people who, when they smell……..well, I think you can understand my concern.
For the next ten minutes or so, we rode along in our collective agony. I took full advantage of my window seat, while the other passengers suffered from their centrality. For their part, the mother and daughter never said a word. They chose to avoid all eye contact with the other passengers and to simply move forward with any remaining dignity. For the part of the others, we too remained in silence. No one chastised the culprits. No one complained vocally. No one said, well, anything. Instead, the most amazing thing happened. As I sat there thinking, reflecting upon the recent event, I found myself with the strangest propensity toward laughter. I don’t know why, really. It wasn’t a particularly funny moment. In fact, it was really quite awful. But the more I tried to restrain it, the more I wanted to laugh. And then I looked to my right and realized that the Europeans were experiencing the same emotion. I realized that the university student who, at that point, was standing up seeking fresh air toward the roof of the van, was also laughing! The security guard was laughing! The doctor was laughing! Why? Who knows? It wasn’t that anyone was laughing AT the poor, sick kid, and we certainly weren’t laughing at the fact that we were all in need of a shower. I think it was just a matter of having no additional options. We were stuck there, packed into our misery with nothing other than humor to grab onto as a lifeline. And for a moment, it seemed to bring a bit of relief to the situation; relief, that is, until we saw the towel go up again.
Well, everyone eventually survived the ride. Although the poor kid did spend most of trip suffering from her illness, someone THANKFULLY was able to find her a plastic bag (oh man…I’ve never been so thankful for a common grocery bag). On a personal note, I arrived at the intended destination, gave myself a generous rinse in the office sink and headed out to meet the client for a second attempt at the BV. On that day, the client was “at home” in the more traditional sense of the word. She had all necessary identification, all loan documents, everything required to get through the “audit” with 100% certainty. I thanked her again for her time, made my back to the bus terminal and boarded yet another small white van, this time headed in the northern direction.
Since that day, the infamous van-ride has crossed my mind on several occasions, each time bringing with it a moment of levity. As for the ever-important issue of lessons learned for that particular afternoon, I suppose I can offer only one detail: On the return trip to Managua, I sat up front with the driver.
Jason Jones has recently completed a Kiva Fellowship in Nicaragua.