The past dozen-or-so weeks have been an outstanding blur of awesome people, places, ideas, gatherings, conversations and flights.  Summer came and went for much of North America, then San Francisco’s belated summer arrived and has now — with this weekend’s foggy chill — apparently departed too.  For me, the change of seasons always represents a good time for updates and reflections.  In the space of about six months I have opportunities to attend seven (fingers crossed, eight) extraordinary events, any one of which would be enough to satisfy my “pursuit of an interesting and meaningful life” quota for a good chunk of time.  Here’s a summary of those gatherings-on-tap:

As of today I’m officially halfway though this (for me) uber-exciting-albeit-slightly-daunting calendar, and already favorite memories are many.  Lots of interesting discussions about the Future of Money and alternative currencies, which have cross-cut these gatherings.  It seems that people everywhere are interested, in different ways, about how to live life and build a world focused on quality of life rather than quantity of dollars (or euro or renminbi) stashed away.  How do we build more resilient, human-centered economies that focus on relationships and well-being, rather than anonymous number signs (which, by the way, seem to be one of the lousiest indicators of happiness these days)?  How do we build a toolkit of exchange mechanisms – for example some based on time, others on expertise and others on reputation, each of which plays a meaningful and appropriate role in daily life?

Other favorite topics include urban mobility; the nexus between water security + food security + energy security + climate change; encouraging “more knowledge, less information” in today’s hyper-connected world; and the relationship between taking care of oneself and being an effective leader.  Each of these merits a blogpost of its own; well, all in due course – notwithstanding the firehose of ideas that seem to be streaming my way on a daily basis!  Better yet, perhaps I could get some YGL friends to guest blog here…

Aside from these events, I went to Peru over the summer to explore WaterCredit expansion opportunities there – as a springboard to other countries in Latin America.  It was great to refresh my rusty Spanish, and Lima has undergone a sort of urban renaissance since I was last there six years ago.

Now time to go dive into Zeitgeist!

What’s a YGL?

I’m only 6 weeks late with this post. That’s pretty good for 2011, all things considered.

It’s been a pretty amazing year so far — packed with opportunities, travels and discovery — though my blog has paid the price for that.  I have more half-written draft posts than I care to admit, and a pile of good intentions behind them.  These days it’s easier to get the quick-and-exciting stuff out immediately on Twitter, but that still leaves a gap for more thoughtful reflection.

Probably my most exciting — and certainly most humbling — news is to have been named a Young Global Leader (YGL) by the World Economic Forum.  It’s an honor I never dreamed could happen to me, and a journey which I am thrilled-beyond-words to take.  I got the news right before my birthday (end-January, as Davos was starting) and then had to keep it top-secret until the public release was issued on March 9.  I have a pathetic poker face for things like this.

Each year the Forum selects approximately 150 individuals under age 40 from around the world based on their “professional accomplishments, commitment to society and potential to contribute to shaping the future of the world.”  The YGL community includes heads of state, corporate executives, entrepreneurs, policy makers, Olympic athletes, actors, artists and many others.  This year YGLs come from 65 different countries, with the largest gender parity (44% women) and representation from the developing world ever.  Here’s the 2011 YGL list.

I join the YGL community formally for five years (officially beginning on July 1, 2011) and remain a YGL alumna for life.  During my active YGL years, I’ll have the opportunity to attend Davos and get involved in a variety of other Forum-related activities such as the YGL water and poverty alleviation initiatives.  There are also other topic- and geography-specific Summits throughout the year.  The first one is the Annual Meeting of New Champions in Dalian, China this September.  So my passport and frequent flier accounts should get continued good use and — if I’m lucky — I’ll visit lots of new places too.

My first few weeks as a YGL have been phenomenal.  Due to fortuitous logistics I’ve been able to attend the first-ever YGL Innovation Summit (held in the Bay Area, with 100 other YGL’ers from 35 different countries), hold meetings at the World Economic Forum HQ in Geneva, Switzerland, and meet a variety of YGL’ers independently.  The more I learn and observe, the more inspired I get.  It’s going to be a fascinating journey: as I said to the Forum, with the YGL community I hope to help amplify and disseminate things that really work — often blending for-profit and non-profit, public and private sectors — to do business and make policy in better ways.  So let’s get started!

My 2010 travels so far have been blessedly less frenetic than in 2009.  I’ve “only” been to India twice, Canada once, New York City and Washington DC each twice, and a handful of other fun locales a few times.

Each trip has been memorable in its own ways.  India has seen me get really sick, twice, including my first-ever adventure to Indian hospital in July.  (Side note: Total cost for 1 doctor’s visit to hotel + 1 day in hospital + 4 prescription medications = $25.  With no mention at any time of health insurance.)  Colorado meant awesome fun with my nieces Ella and Amelia, who are growing up beautifully but so fast.  A much-overdue road trip through the Midwest, from Minneapolis to Kansas City via Des Moines, turned into one big highlight: great friends, time to catch up, perfectly-fiery fall colors, open space and local flavors.  Returning to Cambridge, Massachusetts to join the Board of Directors of the World Wide Web Foundation — a real honor and source of much excitement as I can get more involved in the technology-for-development space.  And of course, no travel series for me would be complete without spending time upside-down: here’s a favorite handstand photo addition, snapped atop Camelback Mountain (in Arizona) at sunrise last month.

I have really enjoyed being closer to home more often.  Not that it’s been any less busy, rather just nice to water my local roots and hold more in drawers and on shelves than in a suitcase.  But that’s about to (temporarily) change soon because…

I’m going around the world!

On November 12, 2010 I will board the first of ten flights (eight of which are international long-hauls) that will take me over the Pacific, Indian, and Atlantic Oceans; across the Mediterranean and Red Seas; touching down in seven countries, from Thailand to Egypt; and bookend a variety of personal and professional dream-come-true adventures.  All in five weeks, but who’s counting? (I fully admit I’m in denial of how much I’ll miss some very special people back home, but hey — let’s focus on the fun stuff.)

I’d like to hold on to at least a few surprises, so check back here (or more quickly, my Twitter stream) for updates on my whereabouts and goings-on.  Trekking in the Himalaya, drinking yak butter tea, exploring temples and hill towns, holding in-depth meetings with microfinance institutions (MFIs), visiting water and sanitation systems in urban slums, figuring out how women and youth and marginalized communities are tapping into mobile and internet technologies for the greatest good…

Let’s go!

It’s hard to believe my time in India has already come and gone.  It was a good trip, as always – full of hectic meetings + early morning flights + learning + sensory overload + wonderful people – but far from my best.  Though I was there 2 weeks, it felt more like one since the other was a blur spent in bed and doctor’s offices.  But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The key highlights of this trip were definitely World Water Day (March 22) and our inaugural WaterCredit Forum (March 26).  Each year one of Water.org’s partners, Gramalaya, organizes what we believe is the largest World Water Day gathering in the world.  More than 21,000 people – probably 99% of whom are women – come from over 400 villages throughout Tamil Nadu to celebrate their access to clean water and safe sanitation, and to advocate on behalf of those who don’t.

A sea of bright saris flooded my eyes, all sitting underneath a giant bamboo-lattice roof to protect from the searing heat.  WaterCredit loan group members had matching saris; that was a totally unexpected, absolutely thrilling sight to behold.  There were dances.  Children dressed up as animals and did pantomimes about good hygiene (“I’m a bunny. I like to play in the dirt. When I’m done playing, I must wash my hands before eating my carrots.”) and water quality (“I’m a tiger.  I roam around all day, looking for something to eat.  This makes me thirsty.  Sometimes I find water in a pond.  But I shouldn’t drink it if it’s dirty, because it will make me sick.”).

I sat on the dais as a guest of honor, a garland of freesia around me, and was overwhelmed by joy and pride.  Unfortunately I was too wobbly to do much more than smile (keep reading), but hopefully that was enough for my first time.  I plan to celebrate many more World Water Days in a similar setting.  It was incredible.  A few pictures here, and a fabulous Water.org video clip here.

The WaterCredit Forum was more staid in comparison, but still served its purpose and was a big success (if I may say so myself!).  We attracted a great range of microfinance, water/sanitation, banking, venture capital and development organizations.  Most participants came from India, though Africa, North America and Europe were represented.  The morning saw plenary sessions and excellent presentations by our MFI partners BASIX and Guardian.  In the afternoon, we split into groups for interactive discussions about opportunities, challenges and other innovations for WaterCredit moving forward.  The entire day felt like one big highlight.  Microfinance Insights has written an article about the Forum already; Microfinance Focus will publish a full report next month.

The one — but big — downer of the trip was a bad case of Bombay belly I got, which was double-whammied with a virus that left me woozy,  in pain, with a 104F fever and wishing I were not on the road.  Poor timing and then some.  Even so, it was an opportunity to learn about the kindness of strangers (and colleagues!) and gave some insights into Indian medical care.

The day after I started feeling nauseous and lost my appetite, I woke up barely able to move.  Nearly in tears, I wobbled downstairs to the hotel lobby, where my colleagues were preparing to go on a site visit.  They took one look at me and said, “to the doctor you must go – now!”

Next thing I knew, I was whisked away to a tiny, bird-chirpy corner of a residential neighborhood and plopped into a chair at the home of some Dr. G. Ganapathy.  I was told he was “one of the top physicians in all Trichy – studied in the US, very famous man.”  Sounded good to me.

Five minutes later, in walks a delightful elderly man – who we’ve clearly woken up early – with a gentle step and sparkle in his eye.  He asks me where I’m from; it turns out he spent 2 years in Sacramento, which in Tamil Nadu was as close as next door.  (Later, having recovered, I would accompany him to his home so he could proudly show me photos of him, his wife and Alcatraz.)

For the next two hours, I was poked and prodded, slept on his home-office-bench, got 2 injections, was force-fed honey with fresh sweet lime juice, and continued to feel awful.  Not to worry, said Dr. Ganapathy, I was going to get better.  I wasn’t sure I believed him – but the one thing that definitely did make me feel better was realizing that we’d made an appointment at a moment’s notice, had never once been asked for insurance cards, and I was being treated almost as if I were family.  It was comforting beyond words.  (Why can’t a “developed” country like the US understand this?!?)

For the next several hours, my colleagues Nayakam, Aananth, Damodaran and Jose kept close watch over me.  We ventured out once, for a couple of hours to see some Water.org work.  I got sick again, nearly fainted, and decided not to do that again.  Bed was the best option of all – I slept 17 hours in one day.

That evening we returned to the doctor, keeping him up both early and late.  Once again he welcomed us with open arms.  My fever had risen, so he kindly spent another 2 hours poking and prodding, and asked if I wanted to go to hospital.  My colleagues flatly refused and insisted on taking me to their home instead.  I will forever be grateful to Damu’s wife Viji and daughters Priya and Preethi for welcoming me with open arms, feeding me sugar-salt solution and (delicious!) rice porridge, and nursing me back to a semi-normal state.  The following morning, after some tender coconut – the local palliative of choice – I was allowed back to the hotel and we moved on to Chennai.  It would still be several days until I was back to normal (to be honest, I’m still not there yet) but the worst was over – and I’d had lessons in the kindness of colleagues, humanity of the medical profession (especially when not constrained by worries like malpractice) and a stern reminder to be kind to my palate in India!

I’m wondering where the past 4 months (since my last post) have gone.  Tweeting is so easy in comparison to blogging. Alas.

Since Italy in November, I’ve been to Germany (Berlin), Canada, and taken 6 other domestic trips (mostly east coast – met Natalie Portman at the gym in Soho!).  So, it’s safe to conclude that a lot of the past 4 months have been spent on planes, in meetings and exploring other cities.

I leave for India in less than 2 days. This will be my fourth time there in less than 2 years. I am really excited, as I always am to return there. It’s a combination anticipating the sensory overload that awaits + exhilaration about new discoveries and places + a good dose of anxiety about all I/we have to accomplish while there.

The main reason for this trip is the inaugural WaterCredit Forum.  We’re bringing together — for the first time in the world, in such a setting, as far as we know — a crowd of peers from the microfinance, water/sanitation (WSH), and banking sectors to learn and discuss opportunities for innovation.  There will be MFI CEOs, WSH organizations and experts, catalytic philanthropists, commercial bankers, public WSH authorities, microfinance consultancies, and several current WaterCredit partners on hand.  The interest in attending has been outstanding; makes me both very happy, and a little nervous.

The WaterCredit Forum also coincides with World Water Day on March 22.  I’ve heard incredible stories about how moving and memorable the day is in places where water is a scarce, precious resource.  I’m going to be in Tamil Nadu then, in a water-scarce area, attending celebrations for how water has been brought to many communities — yes, proudly thanks to Water.org and WaterCredit.

Before all that happens though, a flurry of meetings in Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai and beyond.  I won’t even have an option to get jetlag, with our first appointment only hours after arrival.

And at the end, I swing through Cambridge (Massachusetts, not England) for presentations at Harvard.  Should be great fun to take a trip down memory lane and share what I’m doing now with others, that grew directly out of what I studied there.  I’m especially keen to catch up with professors who trivialized topics like microfinance, deeming it somehow inferior to “real” finance.

My tastebuds are gearing up for chai. My balmy-hot weather clothes are packed (there goes winter this year — by the time I return, it’ll be full spring).  I can’t wait to see my in-country colleagues again and meet many new interesting, inspiring people too.

Time for pre-dawn Kingfisher flights, Ambassador cabs, brightly flowing saris, and beautiful smiling faces like nowhere else in the world!

The two months since my last post — and really, the past four months — have been intense, rewarding and at times I’d even have to say extraordinary.  Four continents, 12 countries (8 for work + 4 for layovers), 40+ flights (no comment on carbon footprints please — I’m trying to help the 2.6 billion people without water and sanitation) and more meetings with MFIs and watsan organizations than I can count.  Whew!

Here’s the big-picture overview — think maps, pins and where-in-the-world:

  • Trip 1 (July – August): Kenya – Uganda – Ethiopia – Sweden – Netherlands
  • Trip 2 (September): Singapore – Hong Kong – India (8 cities, north to south and east to west) – South Korea
  • Trip 3 (October): London, England – Frankfurt, Germany
  • Bonus Trips: Kansas City, Los Angeles and Washington DC
  • Trip 4 (now):  Italy (Rome, Bergamo, Cinque Terre)
  • Trip 5 (forthcoming at end November): Berlin, Germany

There are too many highlights to note here; hopefully my Twitterstream has done some justice to these over time.  In addition to my personal observations, I have a WaterCredit Twitterstream that’s focused specifically on water, sanitation and microfinance.  I talk a lot about toilets, poo and municipal water authorities these days… hmmm.  Well, given that we’ve got 2.6 billion people without appropriate WSH (that means Water, Sanitiation & Hygiene) today and — despite significant resources, time, money and efforts being expended globally — we’ll have 4 billion people like this by 2025, I’d say more people need to join these conversations.

But back to the travel theme…

Such awesome trips, all of them.  Professionally, MFI interest in WaterCredit is broad and sincere; I couldn’t be more pleased with how outreach meetings went.  The Water.org/WaterCredit team has a lot of follow-up work to do — hurray!

It was interesting and great fun to return to several places I’d visited in the past, but this time with additional work responsibilities and insights about “doing business” there.  My in-country Water.org colleagues were amazing hosts and enabled us to do, learn and experience things that I never could have done solo.  For example I will never forget the 11-course meal (including 4 rice dishes alone — with everything from coconut to cracked pepper, pomegranates and cardamom) warmly prepared by the Water.org India country director’s wife at their home in Tiruchirapalli, Tamil Nadu, and then playing shuttlecock (aka badminton) with his daughters afterwards.  And not least, the tumble I took in the street trying to return a volley.

Alongside familiar places were several new ones too.  Among them:  Uganda; Bahir Dar, northern Ethiopia; and Frankfurt, Germany.  Uganda was a trip — navigating through slums to MFI headquarters, roaming Kampala‘s first 24-hour Nakumatt superstore, and eating my first matoke (yes, it tastes like wet socks).  Visiting Bahir Dar was like a step back in time, to a bucolic verdant community removed from the frenzy of Addis.  I did have to remind myself however that we were there during the short wet season, when the land is eye-poppingly green; for most of the year it suffers from drought (hence Water.org’s program there).  By the way, if you’re curious about the kinds of water-works Water.org does in Ethiopia, here‘s one example.  And Frankfurt = what an unexpected treat!  I’d only been there in transit before; this time I attended a “Financing Sanitation” conference hosted by KfW.  Alongside that, we had opportunities to explore the delightful city center and ride in a bona fide Paternoster elevator.

Now checking in from Rome, it’s as lovely as ever — especially with the crisp autumn air and thinner tourist crowds — though also surprisingly expensive.  (Notwithstanding the awful $:euro rate, what’s happened to the local economy in the past 3 years?!?)  I made the delicious mistake of ordering gnocchi al tartufo bianco at a local trattoria (simple family-run locale) and got nailed $40. The cafe’ next to my hotel charges 9 euro ($13.50) for a double espresso (“only” 5 euro ($7.50) for a single). The metro is still a steal at 1 euro ($1.50) per ride, but trains are dear (80 euro ($120) for a 3-hour journey up north) and it’s better to walk around town and enjoy the sights anyway…

Which I’ve been doing whenever possible.  Piazza Navona, Pantheon, Forum, St. Peter’s, Campo dei Fiori, all my favorite places already ticked off.  Especially enjoyed wandering the backstreets of Trastevere (stumbling upon a hole-in-the-wall forno with steaming-hot fresh bread, gawking once more at the stunning mosaics of Santa Maria in Trastevere), quaffing my first in-country cappuccino at Caffe’ Sant’Eustachio, and doing a handstand in front of the Colosseum.  That makes handstands at 6 of the 8 Modern Wonders of the World (Great Wall of China, Pyramids of Giza, Petra, Macchu Picchu, Taj Mahal and Colosseum) — Chichen Itza and the Giant Jesus in Rio, here I come!  Flickr photos up shortly.

Of course the most important reason I’m here is the IDLO law-and-microfinance “grand finale” gathering.  It’s like a family reunion with participants from 30+ developing courses whom I’ve been fortunate to meet and teach over the past 3 years.  We’ve come together to discuss lessons learned and the way forward; it’s truly a humbling experience, and as usual (it feels like) I’m learning far more than contributing.  Simultaneous tracks in English, Spanish and French covering topics ranging from regulatory structures to consumer protection and branchless banking.  Wow… and makes me very excited for what could be next up for IDLO’s microfinance team.

On that note, back to microfinance credit ratings and (shortly) another espresso… Ciao for now, a presto!

Namaste!  Hard to believe that since my last post, exactly one month ago, I’ve taken some 17 flights and been to 7 countries.  Quite the globetrotting, but not exactly sustainable travel statistics — at least not long-term if I value watering and tending to local roots too!

You can find photos from my time in east Africa here, and Stockholm World Water Week here.  The Swedes have such a good thing going in summertime…

Today I embark on the next phase of WaterCredit travels: India.  Over the next 2+ weeks I will be in Delhi, Lucknow, Mumbai, Ahmedabad, Bangalore, Hyderabad, Chennai and Tiruchirapalli.  Hoping (and fingers crossed expecting) to find MFI feedback and interest in WaterCredit equally if not more encouraging than was the case in Africa, and very excited to see what may result.  As always you can find out more about what I’m up to on a daily basis — travel notes from the road, adventures and random observations — on Twitter.  Until the next post, off to experience life and the world to their fullest!