I’ve been on quite a few roadtrips in my life, but this past month in Timor-Leste I embarked on the ultimate roadtripping adventure, complete with dusty dirt roads, winding seaside cliffs, steep rocky mountains, new friends picked up along the way, overnights in obscure places, a five-song Bob Marley playlist, and many, many unexpected road blocks. The route was designed with one mission in mind: to meet ten Kiva borrowers and verify that their information was accurate on the Kiva website (and to chat and hear about how the loan has helped their business!). The task sounded easy enough. Since the entire island country of Timor-Leste is about the size of Connecticut, I figured that I would be able to cruise around the country and easily meet a few borrowers each day. That was until we hit the roads.
Timor-Leste is Asia’s newest country and has endured a long, complicated road to freedom. The country’s struggle for independence, followed by post-independence conflicts, left almost all of its infrastructure destroyed and the roads are no exception. Despite the incredible progress that has been made over the past few years, gaping holes and missing bridges are just a couple of the hazards that await any Timor-Leste roadtripper. Roadblocks aside, the bumpy dirt roads and winding paths add unexpected hours to each trek. Needless to say, I would have been toast if I attempted this adventure alone. Plus, no roadtrip is complete without a great group of travel companions! So, please meet the roadtripping crew that made the whole trip possible:
This is Adao, the Kiva Coordinator who works at Kiva’s Field Partner, Tuba Rai Metin (TRM). Adao was not only my translator throughout the trip but also gave me a firsthand account of the history and culture of Timor-Leste. There’s no better way to get to know your colleagues than spending seven hours a day in the car together! Through Adao, I was able to hear a personal account of his experience during the Indonesian occupation of Timor-Leste, which served as a constant reminder of the resilience of the Timorese. Like many people in Timor-Leste, Adao’s family spent much of his childhood hiding in the mountains, occasionally surviving on tree bark when there was no other food available. Despite a tough upbringing during a time of war, Adao managed to finish his education and now works at TRM, providing access to financial services throughout Timor-Leste.
This is Julio, the man behind the wheel during each voyage. Julio could always be counted on for two things: getting us safely to our next destination (no easy feat) and a good laugh. He was always the first to point out a ridiculous or unusual sighting along the road – from a motorbike carrying eight mattresses to spotting a couple of school kids sneaking out of class. When I was first introduced to Julio, people called him “the man who’s always happy” and throughout our trip he lived up to the description. Although we didn’t share a common language, it was usually hard to spend more than a few minutes with Julio without finding something to giggle about. He found humor in the most everyday situations and made friends at every stop we made.
And then there were all the people who helped us along the way. When I came to Timor-Leste, I had expected to help expand new microbusinesses but I had no idea how much I would rely on those same businesses myself. Throughout our roadtrip, Adao, Julio, and I were constantly supported by TRM’s clients and the businesses they had started using a microloan. We made rest stops for bananas and other snacks at clients’ farm stands, ate at clients’ restaurants, and slept in clients’ guesthouses. In fact, it felt like every locally managed business had been started using a microloan. Our roadtrip through Timor-Leste exemplified the impact of microfinance, just as much as the borrower visits at each destination. It was incredible to see how microfinance has enabled small businesses to thrive in every corner of this rugged new country. Turns out, the impact of microfinance can be found on this island whether you’re looking for it or not!