There is an organization in town called Coopera that loans money to local farmers, then buys and sells their meat & produce (much of which is organic) at several outlets around town. The farmers’ profits allow them to pay back their loans, provide for their families, and hopefully save some money as well. This business model has been wildly successful, so much so that the Ecuadorian government is actually consulting with the group’s leaders.
But in order to loan money you’ve got to have deposits, right? Coopera always pays generous interest, and this week they sponsored a St. Patrick’s Day event, of all things, in cooperation with a new alliance of local business owners called the Cuenca Referral Network. The email flyer promised a cocktail, snacks, and a presentation of financial products, which most prominently included CD’s---at 10.5% interest.
Apparently that number got a lot of folks’ attention, because the courtyard of Coopera’s headquarters in San Joaquin village, in spite of being a L-O-N-G taxi ride from Cuenca, was packed at the noon starting time. Of course the event didn’t actually start at noon. It’s a rule of thumb that expats are almost always punctual and Ecuadorians rarely are, so the staff was still scurrying around getting organized until we eventually got rolling at about 1:15.
The head honcho gave a long, flowery, heartfelt welcome and introduction made doubly long because he spoke zero English, thus through an interpreter we got to hear his speech twice. Next we saw a Powerpoint presentation followed by a Q&A session that quickly got testy.
Why is it in every crowd there’s that one obnoxious personality who you just want to throttle? One lady kept grilling the Coopera people about insurance on deposits and shouting out, “That’s a lie!” when she wasn’t satisfied with their answers. Incredibly rude. Finally she was put in her place by another guest (no, surprisingly it wasn’t me) who suggested she keep her money in US banks and see how well that $250,000 FDIC promise held up if the government went belly-up. It turns out, by the way, that deposits are insured up to $25,000 here.
When order was restored and the meeting was adjourned it was well after 2 o’clock and I was starving. Apparently I wasn’t alone. In Ecuador it is traditional at events such as this for food to be served by waiters on silver trays. Very formal. Said trays began emerging pretty quickly but for the poor staff it was like throwing a kitty cat in a piranha pond—they were mobbed before they could get 10’ from the staging area.
This meant the guests sitting farthest away from the action weren’t getting any action. So being the resourceful and practical Norte Americanos that we are, protocol was dispensed with, the middlemen were eliminated, and we all just queued up at the steam trays and got us some vittles, damn it.
The food was quite good, St. Patty’s cream de menthe cocktails were plentiful, and the mood soon mellowed out. It was announced that the officials of Coopera would be honored for us to board buses to see their hacienda where various crops were grown and animals raised. This was optional but the offer sounded benign enough so after lunch concluded we all climbed aboard to take a look.
We rode for a L-O-N-G time. I asked one of the organizers if we were still in Ecuador. And you know what you’re thinking in these situations: oh, crap, however long this friggin' drive takes, we’ve got to get back, Jack, and do it again. It had to be at least an hour before we arrived. I, and I think everyone else, was under the impression we were going to have a cocktail and some snacks, see a little presentation, and we’re outta there. Instead it was after 3, we were in the middle of nowhere doing we didn’t know exactly what and returning we had no idea when.
Let me pause the narrative here to insert that I’m not meaning for this description of the day's events to sound critical. I fully understand the Coopera peeps are justifiably proud of what they have created and were anxious for those of us who were thinking about investing to have a comfort level with their operation. Our whole afternoon was simply another example of the cultural differences that unintentionally cause things to sometimes not turn out exactly as anticipated. In this case and at the most basic level, we gringos come from a world where events start punctually and have a well-planned agenda and schedule. Cuencanos habitually start late and don’t seem to grasp the concept of anything finishing “on time.”
Sadly this hacienda we spent at least an hour getting to wasn’t “all that.” There was a pig house that smelled, well, like a pig house. My God, the stench was stifling--I almost puked. A rabbit/guinea pig house. An outdoor pig holding area with rude and noisy tenants (my image of kind and humble Wilbur from Charlotte’s Web was shattered forever). A garden growing things. Honestly, we drove a L-O-N-G way---to see a 4-H project. Plus it had started to rain. I’ve been to a fair before and seen livestock—I’ve even had a garden. So personally I was kinda over it at this point and stayed under cover. But interestingly most of the guests dutifully trooped around getting soaked wherever the guide took them (hey, I came all the way out here—you’re damn right I’m gonna see everything—what else are you growing on this hacienda? Show it to me---now!)
So the tour was over. Time to go home, right? Uh, no. Let’s first sit everyone down inside and serve them a big bowl of chicken soup—with French fries floating around in it—and a big piece of chicken sticking up in the middle. Then let’s give them a tiny plastic spoon and watch them try to figure out how, if they’re like cruise ship people and still somehow really hungry after the big lunch we just fed them, to eat that piece of chicken.
Now I feel like I’m getting cynical, and I apologize for that as well as for this being so long, but crap, it was a L-O-N-G day! The Ecuadorians were putting on a show for us; they were putting forth their best effort to entertain us and make a good impression. Understood. It just wasn’t working.
Finally we finished our soup, got on the buses and headed back to Cuenca. Now the rain was really coming down and it was past 6 PM. When we got into town I noticed we were kinda near my neighborhood and realized something—if I continued on to the drop-off place two buses were going to simultaneously regurgitate a bunch of passengers who would all be trying to do the same thing---hail cabs---simultaneously. Not a pretty picture.
I asked the driver to drop me off and I proceeded to run home—in the rain—with no jacket and no umbrella. I arrived home—in the rain—drenched and chilled to the bone. But at least I wasn’t standing out there with everyone else hoping for a cab to come by, which at this point seemed like a very good thing.
The wet clothes were shed. Warm pajamas were donned. Wine was poured. A date with our neighbors in the adjacent building was postponed. I guess something was eaten; I don’t really remember. And a correction to the previous blog—it was on this night that American Idol was watched—we’re always a day behind. Sorry about that.
I’m certain that more wine was poured. And in spite of the day being a bit “off,” shall we say, and all the shenanigans that happened, compared to what my portfolio in the States is doing, that 10.5% interest still looks mighty attractive---------.
It's important in life to keep your priorities straight.