Let's hope the travel industry rights the ship in the direction of consumers

When Delta Airlines cancelled a friend's April flight between Seattle and Paris, she received a notice saying Delta credited her with an electronic voucher good for travel for one year from her original booking date. 

Delta automatically issued the voucher instead of a refund, despite a U.S. Department of Transportation rule that guarantees cash refunds to customers when an airline cancels their flight, and can't rebook them, no matter what the reason - in this case, a temporary U.S. ban on travel from Europe and an advisory for Americans to avoid all international travel due to the global impact of the coronavirus. 

Delta's own contract of carriage spells it out this way:

"If there is a flight cancellation, diversion, delay of greater than 90 minutes, or that will cause a passenger to miss connections, Delta will (at passenger’s request) cancel the remaining ticket and refund the unused portion of the ticket and unused ancillary fees in the original form of payment."

The operative words here seem to be "at the passenger's request," which means my friend will apparently have to spend hours on hold waiting to speak to a live agent to "request" what federal regulations require. 

These are difficult times for the travel industry for sure. Many travel providers are stepping up by waiving cancellation penalties and/or issuing refunds for non-refundable reservations. This is admirable. But as we talk about bailouts for the airlines, cruise lines, hotels etc., it's time for the travel industry to come up with long-term policies designed to inform and protect their customers.

For airlines, that means coming clean with what the law requires when they cancel a flight (there's plenty of info on their websites about what happens when you cancel or try to change a flight) rather than hope their customers don't know the rules, and will accept a restrictive voucher with no questions asked. 

For hotels and Airbnb, it's time to stop advertising room rates minus booking fees, cleaning fees, resort fees and taxes. 

For third-party booking sites, such as Expedia and Booking.com, it's time to stop promoting non-refundable reservations for rooms, travel packages and rental cars. Yes, it's the customer's responsibility to know the meaning of non-refundable, but in uncertain times, responsible travel providers should take the lead in eliminating these options.

Airbnb especially needs to clean up its act. Rates quoted on initial listing pages -the pages everyone looks at before they proceed with a booking - are for often for current month only, and don't include extra fees which can hike the rate up substantially. 

Example: The listing page for a studio apartment near Seattle's Pike Place Market quotes a price of $27 a night. That was indeed the rate when I plugged in March dates, but when I requested April dates, the price jumped to $49. A cleaning fee, service fee and occupancy taxes brought a two-night stay to $199.  

The listing page for a "super clean" artists loft in Portland, Oregon showed a rate of $47 per night. When I took the next step, and plugged in April dates, the price was $90. Taxes and fees bring a two-night booking to $297. 

Most hotels quote room rates without taxes, and most don't include hidden resort fees in their quoted rates. Cruise lines require customers to read fine print to find out that they have few options if the cruise line decides to change the itinerary or skip ports of call.

These are devastating times for travel providers. All of us want them to survive, but while they're struggling to right the ship, let's hope they steer some permanent changes our way.

Sheltering in place in Seattle

People make travel special; Let's keep them in mind as we plan for the future

Maria in Ariano Irpino

In the little Southern Italian town of Ariano Irpino, our friends Maria and Dante have no heat or hot water. The reason: They warm their home by burning olive pits, and with strict Coronavirus restrictions in place in Italy, deliveries are prohibited.

"Thank God we have an old house where we have a hot water heater, so we can wash," Maria wrote when I checked in with her on Facebook.

Maria and Dante are two of the many special people Tom and I have met and connected with through our travels. They live near Greci, a town between Naples and Bari, where my grandfather was born. They've invited us to dinner at their home twice. In my kitchen is a ceramic pitcher made by a local potter,  a gift from Maria.

Rita and Pino in Greci
Living nearby are Rita and Pino. Rita, who spent time in Australia and speaks English, has  become the unofficial ambassador to Americans visiting Greci to explore their roots. They too have hosted us in their home, and spent hours showing us around, introducing us to the many people in Greci named "Pucci."

Letizia Mattiacci in Assisi

Further away, in the hills above the Northern Italian town of Assisi, Letizia Mattiacci runs a bed and breakfast and cooking school called Alla Madonna del Piatto. We met while I was working on stories for the Seattle Times. Tom and I visited, had a wonderful time and I wrote a little piece that helped her business take off. Since then, she's published a cookbook, is working on another, and has expanded her business in all sorts of creative ways. 

All's quiet there now. No guests. No students. Instead of teaching classes, she's posting pictures about what she's cooking for dinner, and inspiring her followers, such as the two 80+year-olds in the U.S., who wrote saying they made an excellent pasta puttanesca from her cookbook while staying in their apartment and avoiding crowds.

Yunnan village

In the town of Lijiang in China's Yunnan province, our friend Lily Zhang doesn't expect business for her ecotourism company to bounce back anytime soon. 

Lily arranged a memorable two-day excursion for us to a remote village that could be reached only by walking more than a mile down a steep hill. The locals harvested pumpkins which they stored in huge piles. We overnighted in a homestay Lily booked for us, and ate pumpkins for breakfast, lunch and dinner. 

The good news for Lily is that Lijiang and the surrounding area were largely unaffected by the virus. That means she and others can go out again. She's been posting pictures of beautiful spring days, ideal for bike rides and hikes, but the reality is "all tours were cancelled," she wrote. And since Lijiang is a tourist town, "It's almost impossible for us to find another job to do."  

As I finish unraveling our immediate travel plans, and think about where we might go in the future, my thoughts go not only to places, but people. As we all plan ahead, it will be important  to focus on ways to support local entrepreneurs - here and abroad. 

Our own first forays will likely be local, partly because we want to help restart business here in the Northwest and because we live in a spectacular part of the country filled with natural beauty and vibrant towns and cities. 

Mexico City Greeter Oskar with a churro seller
The next time we travel abroad, I'll book a walk with a Global Greeter, such as young Oskar Sandoval with whom we spent a delightful afternoon last fall in Mexico City. I'll also be sure to book a dinner in a private home, remembering fondly the evening we spent in Cairo, Egypt with Reham and Ahmed Elnawasany, arranged by Urban Adventures. 

Our Cairo dinner hostess Reham

I'm not much on organized tours, but if I were to consider one, I'd pick a company that supports small businesses - hotels, restaurants, tour guides, and hosts such as Lily and Letizia.  Rick Steves had made a mission out of this with his dozens of European tours that emphasize local connections. He's suspended his trips for now, but when things change, I encourage you to look into the experiences he offers.

Letizia in Assisi writes often on her Facebook page about the need to support small businesses by booking directly with them rather than through a third-party booking site. I plan to redouble my efforts to do this, and encourage small inns and and bed and breakfasts to make direct booking as seamless as possible. 

There are so many ways we as travelers can support the people in the countries we visit. So let's all use this time not only to plan future travel, but to think hard about about ways we can help the locals, and at the same time, create some wonderful travel memories. 

Coronavirus and the view from Seattle:

Our Sunday morning hang out

  Our usual Sunday morning breakfast spot at Seattle's Pike Place Market was empty at  9 a.m., an hour and a half after opening. 

  The staff at the Crumpet Shop applauded when we walked in. "Yeah," they shouted. "You're our first customers."

  Was it the coronavirus scare, or was it the switch to daylight savings time that meant it was really 8 a.m. body-clock time?

   More customers streamed in as we sat drinking our tea and reading the paper. By the time we left, things seemed about back to normal.

  Seattle is not a ghost town, as a recent NBC report would have you to believe. Rather we are a responsible citizenry pulling together to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus. 

  Yes, traffic is light as Amazon, Microsoft, Starbucks and other big companies ask their employees to work from home.  Businesses around Amazon's offices at South Lake Union and downtown are hurting for sure. But my neighborhood Uptown Espresso was busier than usual the other morning with people tapping on laptops. Ikea's parking lot was half-full. Lines were short, but people were shopping. Trader Joe's had plenty of everything as did our local drug store (with the exception of hand sanitizer). 

  As one of four areas in the U.S. where the virus is thought to be taking hold through "community spread," Washington has been making national news mainly because of the high number of deaths - 29 as of mid-week - almost all occurring in the same nursing facility in the Seattle suburb of Kirkland. Our governor has laid out directives banning gatherings of 250 or more, including religious services and sports events. County officials are asking  bars and restaurants to provide customers with "social distancing," space, ie: tables 6 feet apart etc. 

  Like many, my husband and I have been going about our normal activities, while avoiding large groups and skipping classes at the local gym. We're aware of the need to support our neighborhood businesses while at the same time complying with local government directives. So we're having people over, going to friends' houses and going out, but keeping our distance from others at restaurants, cafes etc. We have our usual supplies of food in the house (soups in the freezer etc.), but have avoided hoarding or buying excess amounts of anything. 

 When it comes to travel, it saddens me that Seattle will be hit hard.

Mount Rainier views from Sea-Tac Airport 
  Seattle has become Delta's West Coast hub for Asia travel, nearly all of which has disappeared just ahead of Sea-Tac Airport's plans to open a new international terminal later this year.  

  One of the big decisions will be whether or not to declare the end of the beginning of the Alaska cruise season. Cruises bring 1.2 million people to Seattle each season, but a temporarily halt seems imperative. Do we need to risk our already-stressed medical and emergency services on quarantines and evacuations that could be so easily avoided?  So far, the Port of Seattle has agreed to allow the season to start at least two weeks late. The first two cruise sailings of 2020 have been canceled, including the Grand Princess’ April 1 port call.  That ship has been the site of two coronavirus outbreaks over the past month, and was held off the coast of California recently after the latest outbreak was confirmed last Thursday. 

Cruise ships dock in Seattle 

 Our governor's prediction that "if the virus goes unchecked," the 366 cases confirmed in the state by mid-March could jump to 60,000 in six weeks, seems unlikely, since that would bring a state with a population of 8 million nearly up to the 81,000 cases reported in China.

  Washington is not China, and there is no indication things are going "unchecked." Our city, state and county officials are doing lots of things right. We have some of the best medical and science minds in the country here at the University of Washington and the Gates Foundation, all working together to make up for the weak federal response.

*Seattle won’t shut off water and electricity service during the city’s novel coronavirus emergency. City Hall will offer to defer city business-and-occupation tax payments for some small businesses and will set up a small-business recovery task force.

*The state’s unemployment insurance program will cover workers whose companies close due to the outbreak. Likewise, workers who require hospitalization or who must take care of a family member may be covered under the state’s Paid Family and Medical Leave law, which went into effect this year.

*Testing for the virus in the Seattle area will get a boost in the coming weeks as a project funded by Bill Gates and his foundation begins offering home-testing kits.

*The Metropolitan King County Council wants to increase volunteer opportunities for those who want to help. Legislation is expected soon.

Just as important have been actions taken by big companies, the same ones that are often criticized for not paying their fair share of taxes.

  *Amazon approved a $5 million fund to support small businesses around its Seattle headquarters struggling with a slowdown since the company told its employees to work from home.

 The company will provide cash grants to businesses with fewer than 50 employees or less than $7 million in annual revenue that serve the public, rely on foot traffic, and have a physical presence near Amazon.  

 Amazon also pledged $1 million, joining Microsoft and other corporations, in setting up a fund aimed at softening the economic blow on people without health insurance or sick leave; residents with limited English proficiency; communities of color; and health care and gig economy workers.

  *The Seattle Times, one of the country's last remaining family-owned newspapers, is pouring all of its resources into covering the story. It's removed its pay wall on virus-related reporting, and provides minute-by-minute online updates on the situation nationally and locally. 

  As for me, I had to make the decision to cancel a long-planned trip to Ukraine and other parts of Eastern Europe this spring, not because of fear of contacting the virus (more of a threat here than there), but out of a feeling of not wanting to impose on an already-stressed-out world. Everyone's scrambling on how to cope with what might lie ahead. Who needs leisure travelers getting in the way, or soaking up scarce medical resources.

  When things change, as they hopefully will, later this spring, summer or fall, I'll be traveling again. In the meantime, I've decided to focus on what I can do to help our businesses and tourism industry here at a home.  

The marina on Bainbridge island, a short ferry ride from Seattle 

  We live in one of the most beautiful parts of the country. I can't think of a better place to  spend some time. 

Thinking through your future travel plans with Coronavirus in mind

Pancakes in Kiev

We hadn't planned to be in Kiev for Butter Week, the last week in February when Ukrainians mark the end of winter and week before Lent by eating thin pancakes called bliny and burning down a scarecrow.

But we were planning to be there during Orthodox Easter, as part of a three-week trip starting out in Krakow and moving onto Lviv in Ukraine, then Kiev, Minsk in Belarus and finally Vilnius in Lithuania. 

We looked forward to being in Kiev for Easter services when believers parade through the streets with baskets brimming with colorful painted eggs and traditional foods. The Salo (pork fat) Museum in Lviv is was our list, along with sipping acorn coffee in Vilnius and going to the circus in Belarus.

What a difference a few days makes.

Up until this week, I didn't plan to postpone, but it looks now like I will. The virus is spreading in Seattle and elsewhere, and there's an increasing possibility that other countries could begin placing restrictions, such as quarantines, on travelers coming from the U.S. Many destinations are closing major sites, cancelling events and otherwise hunkering down  to maximize social distancing. And there are other people to consider. As travelers, we could end up putting undue stress on the overly-stressed and underfunded health care systems of the places we visit. 

Flexibility will be the watchword in the near future as travelers grapple with the decision to go ahead with plans, cancel or reschedule or change destinations.

Whether or not to travel is a personal decision that should be based on each individual's overall health and comfort level, but having a checklist for "just in case" situations can help keep the decision rationale instead of reactionary.  

Some things to know:

Air travel

Contrary to what most of us probably think, the Center for Disease Control reminds travelers that risk of getting COVID-19 on an airplane is low. 

"Because of how air circulates and is filtered on airplanes, most viruses and other germs do not spread easily on airplanes," the CDC reports in a section on its website devoted to travel.

To boost sagging ticket sales, Airlines have started waiving fees for changing or cancelling tickets purchased before March for travel through April or later. Travelers who want to change their plans will be offered credits, not refunds, and new fares will apply when rebooking. 

Country- by- country risk

This website does a good job of putting things in perspective by tabulating country-by-country confirmed cases, recoveries and deaths. There are now more cases of the virus confirmed in the U.S. and the state where I live (Washington) than in many countries in Europe or in any of the places where we planned to go

When it comes to assessing the risk levels in various countries, the CDC has established a warning list with three levels and a helpful point-and-click map for country-specific information.

Warning Level 3 (right now, China, South Korea, Iran and Italy) advises everyone postpone nonessential travel; Alert Level 2 (Japan) advises high-risk groups (older adults or those with chronic medical conditions) to postpone plans. Watch Level 1 (Hong Kong) advises that the risk is low. 

With Watch Level 1 and all other countries so far, "travelers shouldn't postpone or cancel travel plans," the CDC says, "but should take precautions like avoiding contact with sick people; avoiding touching their eyes, nose or mouth before washing their hands; and wash hands often.

The site has a helpful FAQ section answering such queries as "Should I cancel my trip?" and "Is it safe to go on a cruise?''

Other governments offer relevant information on their websites. The UK, for instance, offers advice for travelers advice  through the National Travel Health Network and Centre. https://travelhealthpro.org.uk/news/499/novel-coronavirus-covid-19-general-advice-for-travelers

What other countries decide to about travelers coming into their areas is a moving target. Israel is requiring anyone, including its own citizens, who have been in several European countries to self-quarantine at home for two weeks. It's considering adding Washington State, New York and California to its list. 

Check local news sources

It's always a good idea to cultivate contacts in the destinations where you plan to travel. Can you get in touch a friend, a friend of a friend, your Airbnb host, or someone else to get a read on what's really happening? Facebook works well for this. Other reliable  sources of information are the websites of local newspapers. I bookmarked several for my trip, and checked them daily. 

Avoid non-refundable bookings

Now is not the time to snag a cheaper rate on a hotel room with a non-refundable booking. Third-party booking sites, such as Booking.com and Hotels.com, offer some rooms at a discount if you pre-pay a non-refundable rate. Some hotels have started doing the same. For maximum flexibility, avoid these offers. 

If the hotel you want demands prepayment, find another place. I currently have reservations at five places to stay in five cities, all of which can be cancelled without penalty a day or two before arrival. I also have a set of train tickets refundable until 20 minutes before departure.

Check your travel and medical insurance

Medicare doesn't cover health emergencies overseas, but many supplemental and advantage plans do. Check to make sure, and if not, purchase a separate plan. 

Most travel insurance, including policies that come with use of a credit card, include secondary medical coverage (paid after you file a claim with your own insurance company). But unless you buy an expensive "Cancel for any reason" policy, it won't cover trip cancellation expenses should you decide not to travel due to fears of being exposed the Coronavirus, even if the CDC or the State Department advises against travel. 

Travel insurance can cover you, though, in case of a disruption while you're on your trip, such as a quarantine period that might force a change of plans.

Embassy information

The websites of overseas U.S. embassies include detailed information on where Americans can go for medical and other help when traveling. The U.S. embassy in Ukraine, for instance, maintains a list of local medical facilities, some with English-speaking staff, where help can be found if the situation warrants professional care. 

Check the website of the embassy or consulate in the country you plan to visit, and keep a print-out of PDF document of relevant information handy.

Have a Plan B

Stay flexible and think about what you might do if a destination on your itinerary no longer feels safe. Could you alter your plans by taking a train, a bus or flying elsewhere? If so, where would you go? Where would you stay? What guidebook or Internet info would you need to begin changing your plans at the last minute?

One of the best ways to prepare for uncertainty is to ask and answer your own set of "what if" questions.  

With nothing but an airline change fee to lose (I bought my tickets in January), I'll be waiting a few more weeks before I pull the plug. In the meantime, I've begun to focus on ways I can balance personal safety with supporting our struggling businesses here at home. 

Whidbey in Winter: Lose the crowds off-season at this island getaway

Double Bluff Beach on Whidbey Island

Beach trails, mountain views and waterside towns draw thousands of visitors to Whidbey Island, just a 45-minute drive and 20-minute ferry ride from Seattle.

"It's a close-in destination for a mini-vacation," says Mary Jo Oxrieder, of Raven Rocks Gallery and Gifts at Greenbank Farm  where weathered red barns house artists, a pie maker, winery and cheese shop.

Wait until summer to take this day-trip, and you'll face long ferry lines and traffic along the highway that cuts across the island to scenic Deception Pass.

Go now, as my husband and I did on a recent winter weekend, and you'll find artists such as Oxrieder alone in their galleries with plenty of time to talk; distilleries and wineries welcoming visitors into their tasting rooms, and open tables at popular restaurants.

Get an early start, because there's much to explore. Whidbey is 55 miles long, but just 12 miles across at its widest point, making it easy to find most anything. In the interests of time, we tackled the south and central parts of the island, going as far as the historic town of Coupeville, but skipped busier Oak Harbor, home to the Whidbey Naval Air Station.

Here's the plan:

8:30 a.m.
All aboard 

Leave the city behind as you board an early ferry for the 20-minute crossing from Mukilteo, north of Seattle, to Clinton on Whidbey Island. There's rarely a wait this time of year, but allow extra time for the drive (around 45 minutes from Seattle), depending on traffic.

Cafe in the Woods

9 a.m.
Breakfast in the woods

Head north on WA-525 S. for five miles, then detour onto forested S. Crawford Road to Mukilteo Coffee Roaster's Cafe in the Woods  The outdoor patio buzzes in summer, but winter draws loyal locals indoors to sip cinnamon roll lattes around burl wood tables. Murals and Led Zeppelin posters decorate the walls. Order a farm-to-table omelette (your choice of cheese, veggies, smoked salmon etc.), and take a deep breath. The roasting plant is next door.

Hats from Nepal at Music for the Eyes

10:30 a.m.
Explore Langley

Take some time to wander around the city of Langley, the island's main tourist hub, with shops, galleries and restaurants overlooking Saratoga Passage.  Watch the glassblowers at Callahan's Firehouse Studio & Gallery inside the city's old firehouse, or take a virtual trip to Nepal or Uzbekistan at Music for the Eyes stocked with treasurers from Central Asia, Tibet and Nepal where the owners have worked or traveled. 

Get out for a hike

So many choices. One of the most popular summer hikes is in Ebey's Landing near Coupeville, with a bluff trail along a ridge overlooking the water. It's accessible year-round, however winter days can be windy, so an inland destination can make more sense this time year. 

One of my favorites is the Earth Sanctuary, 72 acres of old-growth forest in the village of Freeland, owned by entrepreneur Chuck Pettis, and open to the public ($7). Discover waterfowl, a stone sculpture garden and a labyrinth as you follow a self-guided tour through wooded wetlands.   

For a beach walk, try nearby Double Bluff Beach, with a two-mile stretch of salt water beach strewn with driftwood, and an off-leash area for dogs. 

1 p.m.
Island history

Drive 18 miles north to Coupeville, one of the oldest towns in Washington on scenic Penn Cove, known for its mussels.  

Rural Whidbey comes alive here in summer at the Saturday Farmers Market. Winter days are better for visiting the free Island County Historical Museum to learn about the island's original Native tribes, and visit the shops and galleries in the historic buildings along Front Street. 

Penn Cove Gallery displays the work of 26 Whidbey artists who make handwoven scarves, wood carvings and jewelry. Open for a lunch of mussels and beer with a view is historic Toby's Tavern.

Pies galore at WhidbeyPies

2:30 p.m
Pie and coffee

Homes have replaced much of what used to be farmland on the island, but not everywhere. Detour off the main highway, and you'll come upon working farms, artists studios, distilleries and wineries. 

Saved from development by community leaders and investors was the 150-acre former Greenbank Farm, a former loganberry farm acquired by Chateau Ste. Michelle winery in the 1970s.

Mary Jo Oxrieder at Raven Rocks gallery

Next door to Raven Rocks Gallery is the Artworks Gallery, a cooperative of island artists including fiber artist Marcy Johnson and woodworker Jim Short. 

Picnic tables next to a demonstration garden draw visitors to Whidbey Pies in summer, when it's hard to find a seat inside the 12-table cafe. We walked right in for coffee and a slice of salted caramel apple pie. 

3  p.m.
Get in the spirit 

Three distilleries, all family-owned, offer free tastings and tours. 

Mutiny Bay spirits

Closest to the main highway are Mutiny Bay in Freeland, and Whidbey Island Distillery,  closer to Langley. The tasting room at Mutiny overlooks a neighbor's blueberry patch, the source of fruit the Stallman family uses to make their small-batch blueberry liqueur.

A tasting in Whidbey Island Distillery's "bunker"

At Whidbey Island Distillery, visitors are invited to descend the stairs into the "bunker," a daylight basement turned into a tasting room, and sample rye whiskey or liqueurs made from berries grown in Sequim. 

Cultus Bay distiller Kathy Parks

Off-the-beaten path, but worth the drive is Cultus Bay Distillery run by Kathy Parks, 77, in old boathouse on the southeastern tip of the island. Parks drives visitors down to the estuary in a golf cart to show off her home-built stills, and tasting room where bottles of gin, vodka, whiskey and grappa line the shelves.  

Committed to using and recycling local products, she mills island-grown barley, and sends the spent grain to a Whidbey  sheep farmer. She proudest of her EFD 81 whiskey, named for her husband, fallen Everett firefighter Gary Parks.  

4:30 p.m.
Wine, art, food

Wine, art, food and music come together at Blooms Winery which serves light meals from 11 a.m. into the early evening at its 5511 Bistro in Freeland.

 Come for a tasting, and stay for an early dinner before heading back to the ferry. There's live music on Friday evenings and Sunday afternoons; locally-made jewelry for sale and a menu featuring island-sourced salads, mussels, beef and lamb. 

If you go

Getting there: From Seattle, drive north on Interstate 5 and take Exit 182 and follow WA-525 N to the Mukilteo ferry dock. Distance is about 25 miles. Crossing time aboard a Washington State ferry to Clinton on Whidbey Island is 20 minutes. 

Winter hours: Hours vary in the off-season. Check opening and closing times before visiting. Best days are Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. 

Upcoming events: Whidbey's festival season kicks off with the Penn Cove Musslefest, March 7-8. in Coupeville. Chowder tastings, live music, boat tours and more. 

This story appeared in The Seattle Times on February 25, 2020

Micro loans fuel dreams of female entrepreneurs in Oaxaca, Mexico

Oaxacan weaver Guillermina Carreno Gutierrez, 85

It's Thanksgiving Day, 2019, and while most Americans are sitting town to turkey dinners, a dozen visitors to the city of Oaxaca in Southwestern Mexico are piling into a van for the 45-minute ride to the Zapotec village of Teotitlán del Valle. There awaits a lunch of tortillas filled with black beans, cheese and chicken; bowls of a fragrant green vegetable soup and chilled glasses of tamarind water.

We've happily traded away a holiday traditionally spent with family and friends to join a "microfinance tour" of rural villages sponsored by Foundation En Via. The non-profit funnels  the $50 each us paid for the meal and transportation into interest-free loans for self-employed female entrepreneurs. They weave rugs, raise sheep and make tortillas in rural communities where houses made of mud bricks and dirt roads contrast with the stylish cafes, hotels and boutiques in Oaxaca's tourist hub.

Microfinance lending is common in many underdeveloped parts of the world. What sets En Via's programs apart is that all the borrowers are women, based on the principal that women are the ones most likely to invest in their families and their communities.

“It’s not necessarily about fighting poverty as much as its about empowerment," En Via staffer Kendall Hitch told us. “Women (in these villages) historically have had very, very limited access to financial institutions."

En Via, started in 2010 by an Oaxacan and an American, changes up the game by lending to women in groups of three, using a "solidarity model" that requires women to support each other it comes to following through on required classes, goals and loan repayments. 

Borrowers must complete money and business management classes before receiving their first loan. As they move through the process they attend monthly classes on developing a small business, and finally present their businesses to a group of responsible tourists. That's where we come in.

En Via funds around 80 percent of its loans from the tours it offers, with another 20 percent coming from donations. The aim of its tours is to show travelers a different side of Mexico, while giving the women experience in presenting their products and business plans as they were pitching to bankers or investors.

Maria Sosa Luis and her daughter, Marcela,
cook tortillas on an outdoor comal

Our first stop is at the home of Maria Sosa Luis where she and her daughter, Marcela, have set up the large, communal table in front of an alter adorned with religious statues and pictures. She and Marcela cook tortillas on an outdoor grill while we start with a soup made with fresh greens, squash and herbs. Next to the cooking area are two sewing machines. Hanging nearby are beautiful woven rugs and jewelry, most with price tags, a tip they picked up in an En Via training class. Maria's goal (everyone in the program has one) is to start a small restaurant outside her home.

Loans start small, and can grow. The first - 1,500 pesos or the equivalent of $80 U.S. dollars   - must be paid back in 10-15 weeks. Subsequent loans can go as high as 7,000 pesos ($375). Only one in 100 defaults.

Maria Lazo Bautista grinding cochineal

Our next stop is the house of Maria Lazo Bautista who explains that as a child, she helped her mother wash wool, and began weaving when she was 15. She uses natural dyes made from plants, seeds and insects, demonstrating how she produces a bright red dye by pulverizinng dried cochineal, bugs that attach themselves to the pads of prickly pear cacti, then adding lime and salt to produce different shades. For now, she sells her textiles out of her home, but her goal is to open a shop. 

Yarn colored with natural dyes
Next door we meet another weaver. Adelaida Ruiz Carreno and her mother, Guillermina Carreno Gutierrez, 85. Skanes of colored yarn hang from a hook over looms in a mud brick work area. Adelaida, on her second En Via loan, says the training classes taught her how to calculate a profit and how to invest in her business to make it grow. She sells out of her home and at the village market on Sundays, but knows that if she had a shop with regular hours, she could sell more and more often.  As we're leaving, she goes to a tree to pick the pomegranates, (she uses the seeds for dyes) and gives us a few to take with us.

Adelaida Ruiz Carreno
We end the day at the home and farm of Isabel Lopez Mendez in San Sebastián Abasolo, an agricultural village where horse carts bump along the dirt streets. Isabel grows oats, garlic, runs a tortilla business in her garage and raises sheep. Before En Via, she had a bank loan, but it carried a 30 percent interest rate. 

A smiling Isabel Lopez Mendez

"The En Via loan is small, but I have more money now, and don’t have to think about paying back the interest. It helps," she tells us. She wants to use her next loan to buy a bull. In the meantime, she's learned how to make a savings plan, and recently took a class in customer service. There, she says, she learned the importance of smiling and engaging the people who come to buy her sheep.

Up Close and Personal in Mexico City

Global Greeter Oskar Sandoval

MEXICO CITY - Leaving our hotel on a busy Monday holiday, my husband, Tom and I, walk a few blocks to a museum where we look for a statue of a Spanish king on a horse. It's here where we are to meet Oskar Sandoval,  22, a volunteer with Mexico City Greeters.

We spend the next five hours together, walking, chatting about everything from immigration to homelessness, sampling ice cream, and marveling at the art deco architecture in a 19th century neighborhood of Tabacalera, named for a cigarette factory that now houses an art museum. 

Fast-forward to dinner later that evening. An Uber driver drops us off at the home of Roberto Escoto and Cristina Unna. They are members of eatwith.com, a website that follows the Airbnb model of connecting travelers with locals worldwide - not with a room but with a shared meal in their home.

Gathered for an eatwith dinner with Cristina, Luz and Roberto

We're together for the next three hours as we eat and talk about life in the United States and Mexico. The next morning, we become Facebook friends.

It would be easy to feel lost in a city the size of Mexico City. With more than 20 million people, the metropolitan area vies only with Sao Paulo, Brazil as the most populous in Latin America. You arrive as a stranger, but with a few well-planned local connections, you don't have to feel like one. 

Three suggestions for an up close and personal visit:   

Sign up with a Global Greeter

We found Oskar through the Global Greeters Network, an organization with volunteers in more than 200 destinations worldwide. The greeters aren't tour guides, and don't accept tips. Rather they focus on special places that have a personal meaning to them, often hidden treasures away from the usual tourist sites.

Oskar and I began e-mailing and texting on WhatsApp a week before we left Seattle.
When he mentioned that two of Mexico City's largest newspapers were headquartered in Tabacalera, and that an old-time ice cream shop still made tobacco-flavored ice cream, I was all in.

Oskar studied English in Vancouver, B.C., and earned his degree in history from a public university where tuition is free for those who qualify. In between his volunteer gig with Mexico City Greeters, he does research at a botanical gardens as part the mandatory public service the university requires of graduates.

Revolution monument in Tabacalera

Former cigarette factory, now an art museum

We walked by the newspaper offices, the old tobacco factory, and the Monument to the Revolution, an arched observation tower built around the remains of a palace planned for Porfirio Díaz, Mexico's president for 30 years until he was deposed.  

Oskar and me with tobacco-flavored ice cream

Over a dish of the tobacco-flavored ice cream (surprisingly tasty with maple syrup and strawberries) at La Especial de Paris, in business since 1921, Oskar explained his reason for volunteering his as a greeter.

"When people ask me if Mexico is a dangerous country, I say 'yes it is,' but it's not all of the country. Mexico City is one of the safest places to be. I want people to feel like they can walk around the city without any problems." 

Eat with a local

We've shared dinner and conversation with home cooks in France, Italy and Spain through the meal-sharing website eatwith.com. So I was delighted to come across good reviews for the "Celebrating Mexico" four-course dinner Roberto Escoto and Cristina Unna offer in their home, about a 40-minute Uber ride from the historical center.

With the fee arranged through Eatwith in advance ($48 per person), we felt more like friends invited over for the evening rather than paying guests. 

The couple welcomed us into a cozy living room filled with art, antiques and shelves lined with record albums, CDs and books. 

Roberto, 62, works in recycling and Cristina, 60, runs a cultural center. Both are devoted amateur cooks known to throw Paella dinners for 50, and stage pop-up dinners in Chicago when visiting their daughter.

Robert Escoto

Roberto mixed Margaritas as we chatted with Cristina and their friend Luz, visiting from Cuernavaca. After some get-to-know-you conversation, Cristina and Roberto went to the kitchen, put on aprons and reappeared a few minutes later with platters of quesadillas stuffed with zucchini flowers and mini tortillas filled with refried beans topped with pork and  salsa. 

Cristina Unna serves her tomatillo soup

Dinner began with a soup made from green tomatillos, followed by Chiles en Nogada, CQ a Mexican national dish featuring a Poblano pepper filled with minced pork and a mix of fruit and spices covered with a creamy walnut sauce.

In her spare time, Cristina makes fruitcakes - 100 every year which she sells around the holidays. We toasted our new friendship by sharing the first slices of the season. 
When it came time for us to go, she wrapped up a few pieces us to take home, along with a bag of her homemade granola.  

Sleep mindfully 

Many Americans head to hotels in the Zona Rosa, an area known for its shopping and nightlife. Scruffier but more authentically Mexican is the Centro Historico, a 34-block area, home to some of the city's most elaborate historic monuments, former palaces, traditional restaurants and museums. 

A few years ago, I might not have considered staying in Centro, but things have changed, thanks to young entrepreneurs such as David Marino.  He and his mother, Rosalie, own  Chillout Flats, an urban bed and breakfast in a residential building surrounded by bakeries, cafes and chic restaurants.

David Marino talks with guests at Chillout Flats

Over a breakfast of watermelon juice, fresh fruit and eggs, we met guests from Peru, France and other parts of Mexico. David and Rosalie shared tips for getting around, and pointed out their favorite spots for a meal.

Just around the corner was the 1912 Cafe de Tacuba where mariachis serenade diners enjoying traditional dishes in a dining room decorated with colorful tiles, stained glass and murals.Down the street was Rosalie's favorite, the Cafe La Pagoda where locals line up for bargain breakfasts such as the $3 plates of huevos divorciados -  eggs "separated" by their salsas, one a fiery red, the other a jealous green.  

If you go:


Apart from the metro system, Uber is the best way to get around the city. Fares are inexpensive, but vary with the time of day. Most locals use WhatsApp to communicate via text message. 

Making connections: 

*Book a lunch or dinner through eatwith.com Enter your destination, the dates you are available and the number of people in your party. Select from regularly-scheduled meals, or click on "show experiences available on request." This is how we found our hosts, Cristina and Roberto. Most reservations can be cancelled within 24-48 hours at no charge. Payment is made online through eatwith.com.

*Arrange for a volunteer greeter through the Global Greeter Network or Mexico City Greeters Greeters don't accept tips, but it's nice to offer to pay for coffee, lunch or a drink. The organization accepts donations through its website. 

*Sleep in a bed and breakfast, or an Airbnb, provided it's a room in someone's actual home as opposed to a commercial apartment. The family-run Chillout Flats, is an eight-room bed and breakfast run by David Marino and his mother, Rosalie, on the upper floors of a classic building in the historical center. We paid $65 per night for a large suite, with private bathroom and breakfast.  

*Ask your friends if they know anyone studying or working in Mexico City.  We had dinner our first night with an American friend of a friend who teaches English. He and his Mexican girlfriend met us for dinner, and introduced us to what became our favorite drink - pulque - made from the fermented sap of the Agave plant.

This story appeared in The Seattle Times on January 19, 2020