May 2011

Kiva LogoThis weekend, thanks to a promotion from the Milepoint website, I’ve knocked off another item on my bucket list. Kiva is a micro-lending charity that gives loans to entrepreneurs in second and third-world countries so that they can build a business and improve their lives and communities. I like this concept because it’s a hand up, not a handout. It doesn’t involve a charity showing up and trying to fix all of a community’s problems for them. Instead it creates real changes by encouraging community members to find and develop solutions to their problems.

Kiva works by taking loans in $25 denominations from people through their website and giving them to entrepreneurs. Lenders can go through and read up information about each business before making a loan. Once the full amount of the loan is met, the entrepreneur uses the money to start or expand their business and repays the loan over time. The lenders get repaid and they can then either roll the money into another loan, donate the money to Kiva or have the money transferred to a Paypal account.

So far, Kiva has been pretty successful. Over 98% of loans get repaid through their program. It’s not a perfect program- some loans do default and some lenders may not get the full loan amount due to things like currency fluctuations. The program has also received criticism over issues like high interest rates. But even with the flaws, it seems to be doing more good then harm.

While loaning to Kiva has been on my list for a while now, what gave me the nudge to loan was a promotion through the new Milepoint website for frequent flyers. They were trying to get their members to support Kiva by giving $25 in Kiva credit for the first 200 members to make a new loan through the Milepoint team. I’ve never seen a offer like that before, so I jumped on it.

I chose my first loan almost at random- I just looked for a female entrepreneur whose loan was about to expire (loans have 30 days to get fully funded on the site). So I ended up funding a loan for a woman in Armenia who wanted to expand her shoe-selling business. The match from Milepoint came almost immediately. I then noticed that I could sort potential loans by country. So I picked the remaining loans by choosing countries I’ve been to before (Mexico, Peru and Kenya).

I’m looking forward to seeing what happens with the loans. If everything goes well, this could be a great way for me to give back in a small way to the places I’ve visited.

A scene from the Ripley's Believe It or Not! video game.

A scene from the Ripley's Believe It or Not! video game.

My fascination with Easter Island began with a video game. It was an adventure game that had the rather cheesy name of “Ripley’s Believe It or Not: The Riddle of Master Lu”. While the plot line eludes my memory, I do remember all the exotic destinations that the main character visited. From an office in New York City to a street market in China to the bridges that crisscrossed Tibet, the game has shaped my travel aspirations more deeply then I realized at the time.

One of the game’s locations was Easter Island. I’m not sure if that was the first time that I ever heard of the island, but it was certainly the first memory of it that stuck with me. The idea of an island filled with giant mysterious stone
heads built for some unknown reason piqued my interest. It also seemed unreal to my 11-year-old mind. It looked like a place that belonged in the pages of the
National Geographic, but not a place that just anyone could visit. To my young self, it was a realm that belong to brave explorers and adventurers and could only be explored by ordinary people through imagination and video games.

Fast-forward a decade and a half to last year. Suddenly, the idea of visiting Easter Island became a very real possibility, and at a price far cheaper then I had ever dreamed of. It turns out that getting there has gotten a lot easier since the days of Robert Ripley with LAN running daily flights from Santiago. I jumped at the opportunity and soon had tickets to the remote island.

Not long after dawn on the first morning, I took a stroll outside. The island was both beautiful and remote. Looking out to the Pacific, all I could see were a couple of fishing boats and nothing else all the way to the horizon. The sun was peeking out behind the island’s largest volcano. And just down the road, I spotted my first moai.

I was a little uncertain at first as to whether it was actually a moai. It looked more like a large weathered boulder. But a sign nearby indicated that the lump of rock was indeed one of the more worn and small moai on the island.

Fortunately as I kept walking I found a couple of moai down by the harbor that matched all the pictures that I had seen of the stone heads. They were tall- easily twice my 5′ 2″ height and surrounded by stones set in the grass in a grid-like pattern. It was exactly like what I saw in that video game years ago.

Moai at Rano Ranku.

Over the next few days a friend and I drove all over the island looking for more moai. They were everywhere. From toppled over ones by the coast worn by the weather to the ones that were restored and raised back up at Rano Raraku, the birthplace of the moai. By day three, I had seen enough moai to last a lifetime.

Even though the moai looked pretty much like what I saw in pictures, seeing them in person made the moai real to me. No longer were they just the product of National Geographic or of my childhood mind.

It wasn’t just the stone heads that captivated me on the island. I loved the sheer remoteness of the place. The island has about 3,800 residents and nearly all of them live in the one small village of Hanga Roa. The last time I was in a place that isolated was in the northern countryside of Kenya.

I had no fear walking around by myself at night. I just had to be careful to stay out of the roads since streetlights were far and few between.

Outside of the village, I sometimes couldn’t see another person around for miles. The only sounds I heard were the waves crashing against the rocky shores or the mooing of a cow. I was at peace.

I don’t know if I’ll ever go back again to that remote island. But I’m glad I did. It was the fulfillment of a childhood fantasy that turned out to be even better in reality.