My Trip To South Africa & Dubai

In early November I had the opportunity to travel to South Africa for the first time in my life, which included a visit to a private game reserve, Sabi Sands, in the Kruger National Park region. My prior knowledge of Africa in general and South Africa in particular was derived from things like the autobiography of Roald Dahl, the novel The Power of One, various history lessons about European colonialism and WW2 and assorted contemporary news articles about violence and poverty in post-independence South Africa. Clearly, none of it could really prepare my mind for what South Africa was as I experienced it, and certainly it couldn’t capture the majesty of experiencing exotic wildlife up close (sometimes as close as 6 feet away, protected only by the elevation of an otherwise open vehicle) in its natural habitat, much better than the idea captured by a “living zoo”. As a collection of experiences packed into 11 days of travel, it would be exhausting to fully catalog as a blog post, so I’ll try to stick to some high level perspectives and recollections as far as piecing this entry together goes.

Our trip started in Cape Town, which we transited to through the UK and which involved two day/night cycles which made for truly disorienting jet lag on arrival. Despite being an international airport capable of servicing large, long-distance aircraft like ours, the terminal was “sleepy”, with little people and activity aside from the recent arrivals. Security and customs was a joke– no disembarkation card to fill out, no questions, just a quick stamp in the passport book and then on our way. It suggests South Africa is either quite welcome to having visitors and tourism, or doesn’t take border security seriously. Either way, I appreciated it as a traveler.

The ride from the airport to our destination downtown took us by numerous shantytowns along the roadside. I learned later that these shantytowns are normally populated by recent immigrants from bordering African countries which are even more poor and unstable than South Africa. South African law allows for squatters rights after some short period (may have been 90 days) at which point the shantys can’t be removed. It doesn’t seem like there is a concerted effort to remove them in the meantime as the towns were numerous and expansive. Trash develops along the roadside wherever they spring up but they otherwise appear to be orderly places, with electricity, running water and satellite TV. I don’t know if satellite TV would be the most important use of my funds as an impoverished immigrant and I am always surprised to see how the “destitute” manage to be able to shell out for what appears to me a luxury item. But who am I to judge?

Something that struck me being in and around Cape Town was the number of construction cranes on the skyline! Cape Town by no means has a “scenic” skyline. The architecture is largely dreary and uninspired, it looks like the kind of semi-Soviet concrete structures that populated many Third World countries during itinerant booms in the 1970s and 1980s. But it seems that Cape Town is participating in the same global boom in downtown real estate prices and thus experiencing the regenerative development patterns that can be seen in every other major metro from LA to London to Tokyo. From my hotel balcony near the water front I could see 8 different construction cranes, and I did not have a full 180 degree view looking back toward the city. Surely there were more that escaped my notice.

The other thing I noticed about Cape Town is that it is geographically scenic. Framed by Table Mountain in the background, Cape Town appears to offer many retreats and activities for the active bodied resident. And standing on Table Mountain you can see all that you might like to see– Cape Point and the southernmost part of Africa, the Stellenbosch wine region and dramatic, glassy ocean blue views. With international shipping routes converging at the cape, the horizon is peppered with interesting long-hulled ships here and there. There are opportunities for ocean sports, hiking, climbing, air sports, “extreme sports” and more.

We took a tour of the wine country, Stellenbosch, and I found it both scenic and idyllic. And the wine was fantastic. I chatted with a friend before my trip who is a wine snob, who insisted “South Africa doesn’t have any good wine.” I just don’t know what to say to that kind of ignorance, it is demeaning to the country to even treat the objection seriously.

When I visit some place new I always try to ask myself, “Could I imagine living here?” My biggest stumbling block is usually thinking about what value-added service I could provide to have a comfortable income in this new place. Nothing stuck out to me in terms of economic opportunities during my short visit in Cape Town. And while I don’t think I’d rush to find some place to live there, I could see myself enjoying my lifestyle there.

After a few days of acclimating in Cape Town, we were off to the bush for the safari. We took a small aircraft (jet) from Cape Town to a municipal airport in the northeast of the country, and from there boarded an even smaller aircraft (twin propeller) where luggage weight was a concern and flew directly to the game reserve’s air strip about 15 minutes away. Here we were picked up by our guides and trackers in their Land Rover trucks and proceeded directly into the reserve. Not knowing what to expect, I was quite shocked when a few minutes later we spotted a herd of elephants in the brush, thinking that we needed to drive to some “attraction” area to do some animal spotting. This would be a theme throughout the visit, the unexpected nature of animal sightings which occurred nearly everywhere.

Before going further, I want to talk about health risks in the bush. November in South Africa is the beginning of the summer rainy season, and the rains activate insects which have lain dormant through the dry winter period. The health recommendation for the trip was to take vaccines for Typhoid, Hep A and Malaria (and/or anti-malarial pills). According to the CDC, the country is a known risk factor for the first two and the particular area we were going to for the safari, near Kruger, is a known malarial zone.

Prior to the trip, I agonized about whether or not to take steps to protect myself. As a general rule, I am a vaccination skeptic. I also was trying to think about the risk of getting ill and/or bringing something home with a pregnant wife near term. After doing a lot of research and thinking about it, I decided not to take any vaccinations nor to take the anti-malarial pill regimen. My reasons were many. First, I found out that typhoid and hep A are extremely uncomfortable symptomatically, but they are not considered lethal nor do they cause lasting tissue damage, and a normal person can fight the disease and heal on their own if they contract the disease. I also studied the transmission mechanism for these diseases, which is contact with bodily fluids (specifically blood or feces) from an infected person. I was never going to be anywhere on the trip where I expected to be exposed to that kind of hygiene problem, and I didn’t see why I was at more risk of this transmission mechanism at home versus in South Africa. Googling and reading stories on TripAdvisor confirmed these suspicions– people with more competent doctors were laughed at for considering these precautions on anything but remote mission work, and even then.

As for malaria, I did a lot of research and realized that we were unlikely to encounter a lot of mosquitos at this point in the season. In addition, most people reported success in warding off bites (which are the only vector for the disease) with simple bug spray repellant. Finally, while malaria can be lethal, if it is contracted it is pretty obvious and can be treated with anti-viral medications at that time with a high rate of success. The side effects of anti-malarial medications are well known and include horrible nightmares, vomiting, diarrhea and other miserable flu like symptoms, which seem to occur with some frequency.

I decided to take my chances and I am really glad I did. I experienced my time in Cape Town as quite “civilized”, at no point did I feel there should be a reason for there to be a heightened risk of transmission of typhoid/hep A via food contamination, the most likely vector given that I don’t do intravenous drugs or hang out with prostitutes. In fact, many parts of Cape Town came across as very “hip”. I think hygiene is something they understand in this part of the world and the economy, which is so dependent on tourism, would really suffer if they were poisoning all their visitors with careless, avoidable disease transmission.

As for malaria, I didn’t see one mosquito the entire safari, nor receive one bite of any insect or spider (I saw many insects and spiders). The day we arrived was the first day of rain after the dry season, and we were leaving four days later, which happens to be the normal gestation period for the larvae once they receive water. So we lucked out in that sense. However, I spoke to the guides about this and they kind of laughed at the idea of taking anti-malarials. None of them took any and none even wore bug spray. They felt it was an extremely small risk and treatable if it occurred. These are trained ecological scientists (more on that soon) and wilderness survival professionals, not snooty dorks from the city that read anti-vax hoaxes on the internet. They just found operationally it wasn’t a risk in their area.

Meanwhile, many of the other people on the safari who had taken the meds had horrible side effects to the point that they were crippled with symptoms for several precious days. When the rumor got around that they might be experiencing side effects, they one by one stopped taking their meds and recovered instantaneously, enjoying the remainder of their trip in perfect health. Aside from spraying myself with a citronella bug spray before going out more out of habits back home than anything else, I did nothing to preserve my health on the trip besides eating well as I always do, getting sleep and being aware of my surroundings. This seemed to work just fine.

The safari experience is hard to describe to a person who hasn’t enjoyed it. It is not simply like being inside a zoo exhibit, because at a zoo animals behave differently than they do in an expansive habitat. They live on a kind of rhythm created by their feeding schedules and the coming and going of people as the park opens and closes. They lose their instincts, they stop mating, they no longer hunt to survive, they no longer have to avoid predators. Often times they become depressed or deranged. So going on a safari is not a “super zoo”, but a qualitatively different experience entirely. You now are watching animals do what they always do as if no one is watching and nothing disruptive has happened in their life. You are watching them be truly natural. Modern humans struggle to understand this, but what is natural is often fundamentally different from what is man-made.

On our safari we road around the massive acreage of this game reserve in a Land Rover, with our guide driving and our tracker sitting on a chair hanging off the hood of the vehicle. It is quite noisy and obvious moving along the trails (and quite ferocious in terms of mastering the terrain, able to climb and remain balanced in steep slopes, operate in deep water, crash through small trees and other brush as necessary) but it doesn’t seem to disrupt the animals. They perceive it as a large but unthreatening animal moving through their environment, as long as the humans all remain inside.

We’d start with a 430AM wakeup, gather for a quick snack and coffee and depart by 5 or 530AM. The sun rises around 330/4AM, so by this time it has been up for awhile but it is not yet warm. We would drive and see what we could see for a couple hours, stop on the trail and make a snack and second coffee on the hood, clean up and continue driving for another hour and a half, ending around 830AM. The rest of the day was to be spent at leisure at the lodge, until afternoon tea again around 4PM, followed by the afternoon drive at 430/5PM. A similar pattern ensued, with a break for a snack and the last half of the drive occurring after sunset at which point the Land Rover headlights come on and the tracker sweeps the horizon with a floodlight rhythmically, looking for the glint of reflection coming from a hidden animals eyes.

The “Big 5” on the safari that everyone hopes to see are the leopard, the lion, the rhino, the elephant and the buffalo. We managed to see all of these, and more. We were truly spoiled as we often saw some of them more than once, or doing unusual things (mating, recovering after a kill, with newborns, etc.) We were often so close that, while I never feared for my life because we were with professionals who understood the risks, my own instinct was to tighten up and remain still not wanting to make any sudden movement unintentionally. It felt like that sudden move could invite a beast to come lunging into my lap in one snap motion!

Things that can’t be communicated in photos, and only poorly in videos, are the sounds of the safari. Warning cries. Combat sounds. Horseplay noises. Mammals, birds, insects. And of course the smells! At this time in the season, the bush and the grass are well eaten away and some of the animals are on the verge of starvation. An entire season’s worth of shit of every conceivable species is littered over nearly every square foot of ground and while it doesn’t smell bad (even when it’s fresh, most of it is essentially grass and leaf material, it is the meat-eater feces which smell putrid) it adds something to the environment. So does the occasional rotting carcass, which can literally be smelled from a mile away and which is totally revolting at proximity when driving by.

And then there are just general landscape items that are hard to capture because they become almost monotonously mesmerizing as they are passed by repeatedly. Hundred year old termite mounds that look like small hills dotting the landscape every fifty or sixty yards. Trees being slowly consumed by strangling vines. The nearly endless variety of grasses, bushes, trees and other plants, some of which have still not been cataloged and fully speciated.

All of this stuff we were whizzing past for hours every day for four days, all of it so different and unusual and unassimilable in my normal experience parameters that I was amazed at how quickly I became inured to it as a stress-induced response to being incapable of taking it all in in such a short period of time. Something funny that happened again and again was the way I’d get a photo of an animal, and then we’d come across another specimen of the same one I had photographed earlier, and I decided to set my camera aside and just watch because “I’d already seen this”, and the animal would proceed to exhibit some unusual or unexpected behavior and I’d be cursing myself for setting the camera aside! But simultaneously, I was fighting that urge to just be present and let my memories develop organically rather than trying to catalog everything at risk of missing out on actually perceiving it live and honestly.

The highest praise I can give the safari experience is that it is one I will be eager to share with my children at some point in the future. They can certainly live without it, anyone can. But it is a trip worth taking if you want to take a trip. It is just so different in terms of the sights, sounds, smells and sense you get in “being there” that it has no comparison to any other travel I’ve done up to this point in my life (and I think it’s taken the crown for most “exotic” from my trip to Japan in 2001, an experience that has not been surmounted despite a recent return trip to Asia that touched many other countries).

On our way home, we decided to stop over in Dubai for a day and see the sights. I will keep this brief. I was not impressed with Dubai. In fact, I was a bit offended with how impressed I was supposed to be. To me it was a depressing place– a false city of gilded monuments to a capability that doesn’t belong to the people who live there, constructed with resources that other people discovered and learned how to produce. It is the most sickening welfare society I have yet come across and I couldn’t get over how phony it was, with it’s attitude of “we’ve brought the best the world has to offer to one place, our city!” trying to paper over the fact that there’s nothing remarkable or noteworthy originating there.

I was really happy we only decided to spend a day there!

Skeptical Remarks About Dog Ownership

I own a working breed dog, but I do not have a working purpose for the animal as I live in a suburban community that is at least a one hour drive away from the kind of terrain and property arrangements where one might actually be able to put a dog to work. Currently, I also live in a smaller-sized apartment with my wife, the Wolf, which meets our space needs in large part without being wasteful, but which is not ideal for the dog who would do better with a yard to run free in. I have several friends who think our dog ownership decision is something of a lifestyle mistake– they see only costs and are unclear on the benefits.

In the interest of trying to think objectively about my life choices, I want to explore their skepticism as if it were my own. Why do I own a dog? What am I getting out of this seemingly parasitical arrangement?

In many ways, owning a dog is like having a child who never grows up:

  • the dog is dependent upon you for its feeding and care
  • the dog imposes additional costs in terms of food, occasional medical attention, dog equipment (leash, collar, dog toys, etc.)
  • the dog has limited communication capabilities and often leaves its owners guessing as to what its needs are and how they might best be resolved
  • the dog has a penchant for behaving in unpredictable and undesirable ways (barking at strangers, pacing about the bedroom late at night, distracting visitors)
  • the dog puts severe constraints on your ability to travel and come and go as you please, requiring special arrangements anytime you’re out of town for extended periods of time
  • the dog thrives on routine and predictability, which means your life becomes more routine-based and therefore monotonous to the extent you decide to cater to your dog’s needs
  • the dog represents a commitment and the responsibility which entails can not be shed at a whim

These shortcomings and limitations of dog ownership are very real. I have counseled many a friend and young family member to think twice before taking on the responsibility of a dog while single and resource-light. The demands of letting the dog out throughout the day and giving the dog substantial exercise can be extremely stressful to a young professional or amateur careerist operating on their own, not to mention the hindering effect dog ownership has on the attempt to have a nightlife and with it, a sex life! Taking on a dog before you take on a full time partner is like turning on a homing beacon for the irresponsible and imbalanced that simultaneously sets off an ear-piercing frequency that can only be sensed by the collected, cool-headed types you’d ideally want to attract but are instead unwittingly driving away.

And while the ongoing costs of dog ownership are fairly minimal (dog food is the gag fate of impoverished elderly people everywhere for a reason), dogs seem to have a nasty habit of swallowing things, breaking things or otherwise becoming near-fatally ill in the most costly and inconvenient manner possible for those least able to bear the financial strain, and such situations can be an impressive financial setback for those just starting out in life. How would you like to shell out $2,500 cash for surgery on a recently discovered tumor your poor old dog has developed? Or spend multiples of that treating an animal who is congenitally predisposed to the painful and debilitating disease known as degenerative myelopathy?

One of the supposed joys of dog ownership is taking your dog out in public as you traipse about town. But in doing so you take two major risks. The first is that you will attract a crazy person with an obsessive compulsion to pet or otherwise inappropriately interact with your dog. The second is that your dog will become frightened or alarmed by another animal, ideally a small child, and bite, at which point you will now have a dead dog (put down by the authorities) and a costly lawsuit to defend yourself against from the animal’s owners (parents, other dog-owner, etc.) which you will undoubtedly lose.

To avoid such troubles, you might think of taking your dog to the park, where it can roam and run and chase a ball to its heart’s content with little risk of an upsetting interaction with a stranger. But if you live in a town like I do, with strongly enforced leash laws and bans on dog activity on school grounds, which constitute a majority of the open public spaces nearby, you’re kind of out of luck on this draw. You can’t let your dog, legally, off its 6-foot leash which doesn’t make for a fun game of fetch, and you can’t, legally, even go to most of the places otherwise suitable for playing with a dog unless you’re interested in attracting a dog catcher and paying a fine and/or losing your “privilege” to own a dog (said privilege operating on two levels of irony given the tenor of this post so far, and the views of this author on the role of governments in society).

In that case, you might go to a dog park. These are specially designated areas where a variety of dogs of differing size, temperament, training discipline and owner profile all congregate and go nuts on one another, rolling in fleas, transferring diseases to one another, pissing and shitting all over the place and more than occasionally getting into fights. Many of the owners are the same caliber of insane as the standard weirdos who might try to approach you when you’re out about town walking your dog, which is also enjoyable. And you can still get sued if something goes wrong. (You could also be mauled yourself!) A dog park is actually a good case in miniature for a broad policy of social segregation, of dogkind and mankind alike.

It’s actually difficult for me to think of anything I enjoy about owning a dog that I could not enjoy without the dog itself. I could say that owning a dog is a good excuse to get some exercise and walk the neighborhood, but I could surely do that without the dog and in fact many people do, some jog instead of walk but nonetheless they get it done without a four-legged friend. I could say that a dog is a good home security system, but it’s probably inferior to today’s WiFi and app-connected DIY home monitoring system technology in both cost and effectiveness, and unfortunately this “security system” goes on vacation whenever you do, needing to be boarded at additional expense away from home when you’re away. I could say that a dog provides one with warmth and companionship, but that’d be an indication of an imbalanced, emotionally needy mind that could probably get that relationship more authentically from another human being after some workouts with a qualified therapist. And I could say that a dog adds a playful spirit of spontaneity to one’s life, but I’ve never been fond of jumping out of airplanes and I imagine you could accomplish much the same thing that way if you really wanted to do so. Besides, as I said before, where I live there’s no place to play with my dog and it’s hard to be too spontaneous in the living room in the small hours of the evening.

What value, then, is there in owning a dog? For someone with a working purpose connected to their lifestyle (shepherding, farming, mountain rescue, police/security work), dogs probably make sense. In fact, anthropologists and evolutionary theorists posit that dogs were domesticated thousands of years ago precisely because of the important functional relationships they could establish with hunter-gatherer societies.

But we don’t live in those societies anymore, at least, I don’t, and for the modern, non-rural person such as myself a dog doesn’t seem to have much of a purpose.

And since we all live in interventionist welfare societies now, maybe it doesn’t make any sense to have children, either.

Review – Restrepo

I watched a NatGeo documentary last night called “Restrepo.” It’s about the conditions and objectives of a small US Army platoon in the mountainous wilderness of Afghanistan.

Very little happens in this movie over its 1.5hr runtime. There is a lot of buildup and talk about how often the base is attacked, and this is depicted several times, but overall nothing happens. I don’t know if this was an intentional part of the plot (“the futility of the Restrepo mission”) or if it’s bad editing or belies a fraud about the claims being made in the film about what it is like for these troops, but it is not entertaining. And by that I don’t mean, “Gee, I wish there were more poor, dumb soldiers getting wasted in this real life documentary” but rather, “Gee, what am I getting out of watching this film?”

That being said, this is not good propaganda for the US government’s desire to nation-build overseas. Why does the military allow journalists and documentarians to embed with their troops? Restrepo is an offshoot of a slightly larger but still insignificant base tasked with enlarging the “security bubble” in the area so that a road can be safely built connecting two hapless economic regions into one, which is supposed to bring jobs, incomes and peace and happiness to the land. Every bit of tactical maneuver in war seems really stupid when studied by itself — “50 men gave their lives for a bridge that was ultimately destroyed by the enemy anyway, why did 50 men die for a bridge?” — but the Restrepo mission seems especially stupid not because these men are fighting and dying and accidentally murdering local civilians for an unbuilt road, but because the premise behind building the road is itself very stupid. Do the local Afghans even WANT this road? If they did, why didn’t they build it before the US Army showed up?

Is military Keynesianism a viable structure for developing foreign economies? Keynesianism doesn’t seem to work to develop domestic economies. And the military, professional murderers and demolishers, don’t seem to be the right people to task with building things, let alone people’s economies. Wouldn’t it make more sense to send overwhelming military force through the area, wipe out/expel the organized Taliban elements and then let civilian diplomats and construction contractors come through and negotiate new power structures and infrastructure plans?

The Korengal Valley itself, where the drama unfolds, is truly magnificent geography. It reminds me of the valleys I hiked on the Inca Trail in Peru on my way up to Macchu Picchu. In fact, the remoteness, the terraced cultivation and the “primitive” lifestyle and social organization of the Afghans looked nearly identical to what I saw in Peru. It seems like a perfectly nice place for the locals to live and you get the insane idea watching the movie that they never asked for the US Army to invade their territory and murder their wives and children in helicopter gunship assaults, and they’re not all that thankful for their service now that they’ve shown up. Would it be unpatriotic, dare I say even treasonous, to suggest that the Afghans are getting a raw deal here and it’s hard to wonder why they wouldn’t want to overtly or covertly support the Taliban in these circumstances?

That old quip about “I’m from the government, and I’m here to help you” runs hard through the film’s narrative. We see again and again the way the local commander makes big promises and doesn’t follow through– he murders a guy’s cow and offers no agreeable compensation, he disappears a local who he suspects of being an accomplice of the Taliban and then offers the vague assurance that he’s being treated nicely and will soon return though he doesn’t, and he responds to an attack by calling in a fire mission on a neighboring village that kills and maims several women and small children. I don’t care who someone is fighting for, if I had to hold the charred body of my innocent two year old in my arms and watch a bunch of crude monkeys rifle through the smoking remains of my home looking for contraband after such an incident, I think I’d lose my shit.

And what IS the best solution to murdering someone’s cow, anyway? If you could get your higher-ups to release the $400-500 cash to pay the guy back (I think the village elders took the US Army for a ride on that request, by the way, there is no way a cow is worth half a grand in the mountains of Afghanistan) doesn’t that incentivize them to let more of their cattle wander into your concertina wire whenever they lack liquidity? And if you can’t get that cash released, aren’t you guaranteed to keep pissing off the locals while insisting you’re there to win hearts and minds?

The long and the short of it is that imperialism is a terrible idea in the first place, but the United States government isn’t even good at imperialism. It is very half-hearted and half-assed in its attempts to brutalize and control foreign peoples and spends more time apologizing and groveling about its numerous mistakes than making any meaningful progress in terms of rapine and pillage. It makes you wonder the whole time how such a pointless and ineffectual system can sustain itself, until you realize that the people who are really getting mulcted in this process are the guileless American people “back home.”

And the poor, dumb US foot soldier is the tool used to tug at those people’s heart strings while picking their pockets clean. “Thank you for your service,” indeed.

The Grand Finale

We returned to the US and the first text I received when I turned my phone on was a friend notifying me that Andrew Jackson is being replaced by Harriett Tubman on the $20 bill.

If this country’s main priority for improving things is to debate which racially charged historical figure should be on the toilet paper money, then this country has problems.

Singapore Cabbie Anecdote

I had a conversation with our cabbie on the way to the airport in Singapore that was worth memorializing. It’s one man’s perspective so the anecdote must be put in that context, but it’s still interesting.

Our cabbie told us that rents for nice 1 and 2BR apartments on the outskirts of town run S$3500+, and the same apartments in the CBD are closer to S$5000+. He said many foreign manual laborers were earning S$1-1500/mo ten years ago and make about the same now.

Foreign expats who come to take corporate jobs are often on contract and sign up to make S$10-12,000/mo by his estimate. While they could choose to live outside the city and save money, many live in the CBD and obviously rent consumes a substantial portion of their income each month. As a result many feel that Singapore doesn’t offer the opportunity they imagined and look to leave when their contract ends.

He said that if he didn’t have a wife and kids, he’d be looking to move to Australia, New Zealand or another economy like that as he thinks the job and living standard opportunities are better. But he thinks it’s too hard to do it if you’re not single and flexible. I thought this was interesting because to me it says a lot about a place if people want to immigrate in or emigrate out.

I asked about the press. He said the press was completely controlled by the government and they painted an often comical picture of reality compared to alternative views people can now freely access on social media. He said they don’t seem to understand how that has put the truth to their lies but nonetheless it is not a free press.

He said that the different races mostly get along, and there are no ethnic political parties, they’re all mixed, but he said it wasn’t so simple as everyone getting along with everyone else and there is definitely some stigma toward the darker skinned manual laborers from India and similar areas.

He said life is not bad in Singapore, but it just isn’t quite like the official story and a lot of people are beginning to struggle to get by and can’t manage to save, and the government doesn’t seem to have a good plan for managing this.

Why do we travel? 4

This may be the last in the series as our trip is coming to an end and my interest in blogging about it may be as well, I fear.

Today we got a late start. We work up around 7 but didn’t really get our act together and find food until around 830. We ended up picking up some bagel sandwiches and cappucinos (called a white here, as opposed to a black or straight coffee) from Two Men Bagel House. The bagels were outstanding, crispy on the outside, moist and chewy on the inside as promised in the reviews and the sandwiches themselves were creative and filling. Our quality coffee escapades continued, I found my cappucino extremely satisfying as did the Wolf.

We ended up watching the rest of “Indiana Jones Raiders of the Lost Ark” on Netflix with breakfast and by the time we finished it was almost 1030. The day was fast getting away from us and we hadn’t decided what to do yet and were seriously considering just staying back and relaxing. But somehow this felt like a copout. We came all this way and we still knew so little about the city. The Gardens by the Bay and Cloud Forest seemed interesting but we just didn’t feel much excitement about potential sun and heat exposure… It’s really, really warm here.

We were working on narrowing down a short list of air conditioned history and art museums when my friend from LA started texting me. It led to an interesting exchange which I thought I’d partially relay here as its relevant to the subject of why we travel.

The first thing he asked is if I think this is Asia’s century. I’m borrowing some logic from a book I read on the way over, “[amazon text=Asian Godfathers&asin=0802143911]” by Joe Studwell, but my answer is not really. Taipei is an industrious, commercial environment but I didn’t see much in the way of economic trends noticeable back home and I didn’t see any brands or businesses I could imagine dominating the US or Europe. It seems their role in the value chain is to add manufacturing technology exports to branded finished products and serve their domestic markets with largely unconsolidated product and service businesses, at least for now.

When it comes to Western brands in HK and Singapore, financial services dominate but there are also some inroads being made most conspicuously by McDonald’s, Starbucks and purveyors such as Marks and Spencer. Global fashion brands have done an outstanding job of penetrating all of these markets. There is a 3story Apple store in HK in the IFC Mall but I don’t know where one is in Singapore or Taipei, probably somewhere though as I saw authorized resellers.

Again in HK and Singapore, I don’t see anything that looks like it could become an emergent global brand. So this is Studwell’s point– these economies are dominated by raw materials monopolies granted to local cronies and their near captive financial institutions, and none of these businesses face competition from global firms which also means the local entrepreneurs aren’t being challenged to produce brands that are exportable.

No exportable brands mean no “Asian century”. The demographics may be on their side but the political systems are trapped in the mercantilist past. That’s weird to say as a person who is skeptical of the idea that the West in general and the US in particular have not seen their power and prestige eclipsed.

But for now I’ll say, based off the limited experiences of this trip the Asian century is not upon us. But I don’t know what is. It also doesn’t mean I’m calling for stagnation or economic collapse in this part of the world (China the possible exception, that place is weird.)

I also was raving about some of the food we had had so far, here and the previous locales and my friend asked if I’d consider it best in the world or how I’d rank it. I think that question kind of misses the point. We decided to skip an opportunity to eat at one of the “Top 50” restaurants in the world here in Singapore despite securing a reservation months before our trip. That kind of restaurant caters to food innovation and the experience of dining. I’ve been to places like that– they’re amazing, you often feel entranced and delightfully confused about how food can be what it is on your plate or in your bowl or what have you. But that isn’t about eating so much as it is about imagining, in my mind. There’s a time and a place for it but I wouldn’t judge a place and its food culture by trying to rank it against experiences like that.

What I am after in eating is intensity of flavors and simple food made from timeless, cultural recipes that speaks to the incrementally developed genius of a people and their place and how they turn their culture into what they eat. I’m talking about the stuff people eat day in, day out, that I’d be happy eating with similar frequency. Some people call this “local”, whatever you call it, it’s not cuisine and it can’t be ranked.

Some of the meals we’ve had in this sense have been superb. The purveyors aren’t trying to impress or win accolades. But they sometimes do both in the course of making their traditional dishes.

Another thing we discussed was the purposelessness of this trip. We didn’t come for work. We didn’t come to see friends or family. We really don’t know much about the history or culture of these places. It is a bit of an existential crisis initially to arrive somewhere without anything to accomplish besides “seeing” it, and then, not knowing much about what you’re seeing or what you might keep an eye out for.

Having visited these three cities now and noticed their similarities and differences, both compared to one another and to places and ways of life back home, I feel confident in saying we could live here if we wanted to and we’d be quite comfortable. I’m sure of that. But at this point I’m still not certain why we’d want to move.

There are some things that are far ahead of where were from that are wonderful– the cleanliness and efficiency of mass transit, the cheapness and ubiquity of mobile communications technology, the attitude of cooperation and community. And there are some things that are unique, like some of the food spots that it will just be hard to find something of similar quality back home even in a diverse place.

But other than that, I haven’t seen anything that really appeals to me in some deep way, that I can’t get where I come from. These places aren’t freer. It isn’t any easier to start a business. Or even to grow wealthy– no El Dorado here, as far as I could see. Why pack up and go across the globe for what would essentially be an economic and financial reset?

P and I have remarked several times how fun it would be to raise children in a foreign place and let them learn new cultures and languages from their friends. But it would also be great to raise them in a uniform culture were familiar with, hopefully amongst a community of like-minded progressive parents like us (not big P progressive, mind you!!) Those are tradeoffs to pick one over the other and I’m not sure why we’d come all this way for that particular trade-off.

Living and working in Hong Kong and Singapore in particular seem like a young man’s game. If we turned back he clock ten or fifteen years and I was just about to make a go of it, and I knew of these places, I’d probably head this way and try to make my fortunes on my own, especially if there was greater opportunity for a Westerner looking to take that risk. Without a spouse, without family obligations and without a routine and a financial basis for myself back home I’d quickly set out for a place like this and see if I could try. The only reason I didn’t when that was the case was that these places simply weren’t on my radar.

But now, it makes less sense. Without some compelling economic reason, why come here versus continue on roughly where we are? That choice seems rather arbitrary.

One of the reasons we travel, and here in particular, is to see if we feel like we could make a go of it some place else. And I guess I’m a little disappointed to realize these last few times that we could, that we’d be happy, but I can’t find a compelling reason to jump.

The Singapore Success Story

At the National Museum of Singapore, we learned about the islands history from the time of the Melaka Empire to European colonialism, Japanese occupation and finally independence. The story goes that because Singapore was an island country with no natural resources to speak of, it needed visionary guidance from the “Founding Fathers” (this is actually what they’re referred to as here) of the People’s Action Party led by Lee Kuan Yew and his English and American educated Peranakan technocrats to develop it’s economy and provide all the people with a first world standard of living.

I find this myth fascinating, mostly because everyone believes it, but also because of two related observations:

In mainland China right around the time Singapore was struggling for independence and then climbing to first world status, the idea of economic guidance by benevolent central planners was being tried and failing miserably. There, the excuse was that China had been exploited by a series of colonial and external players not to mention left purposefully backwards by the Qing rulers so a strong central government was needed to push a modernization effort.

Why did this fail in China but succeed wonderfully in Singapore?

Here’s my other observation. The town where I come from is not economically self-sufficient and is also on the ocean. We too do not have an abundance of natural resources and must trade with others to survive.

But no one used that as an excuse for establishing sovereignty or central planning by a one-party state.

So what makes us different if a lack of abundant natural resources is not the issue?

POS and cash in Hong Kong

This is just a quick observation. Most of the small eateries we went to in Hong Kong did not have an electronic POS cash register. They used a simple locked drawer, if that, with a cashier who hand tallied the receipt and then collected payment and distributed change.

Often they’d have wads of cash for making change very close to the door where seemingly anyone could make a grab and go. I’m surprised to infer that must not happen often.

You need to have decently intelligent people you can trust to do fairly menial work accurately and honestly each time. I also wonder how they reconcile their receipts for tax reporting purposes?

In the US, even small businesses and startup food locations have electronic cash registers. I can’t remember the last time I saw someone operating a business this way. It is another good example of the contrasts I saw between the overhead costs of doing business in the US versus here in Southeast Asia. While there’s certainly a wide variety of clientele and no one is running a fancy steakhouse without electronic POS, it is nonetheless fascinating how little customers expect from small scale operations in terms of aesthetic design, seating comfort and cashiering services.

Why Do We Travel? 3

The curiosity continues.

I took a look through the archives of this blog and saw that I addressed this question somewhat when we first started writing about our travels in 2013. Some of the reasons I cited then we’re the opportunity to gain new experiences and perspectives, to learn about new foods, to practice speaking a different language and to gain exposure to different cultures and customs. That’s all fine, and those are some of the things you can accomplish on your travels, but WHY those are valuable and worth traveling for remains a question to be pondered. Here are some more thoughts.

There is something of a difference between travel and vacation. Travel implies some kind of purpose to the trip and it can be business travel or personal travel. The purpose of the vacation is to relax in a different place than your home environment. It is not necessarily to see anything or do anything in particular but to simply get away from the normal of life, wherever and whatever that might be.

How are travel and tourism related? Tourism has a very low opinion amongst people we’ve met who consider themselves “travelers”. When they think of tourism they think of your groups, tour buses, people shuttling on and off to snap a few photos of something they’re supposed to think is amazing or wonderful and then move on. There isn’t much thinking going on and the point of the exercise is maybe to get it all over with quickly so one can hurry home and show others what you saw.

Tourism also has the connotation of a logistical exercise, and involves efficiency of time. Most tourists have a short itinerary, cram too many locations, stops, transfers, etc. Into their plans and are always rushing about to be on schedule. The traveler has more of an attitude of a Flaneur, he has time to follow his fancy wherever it may lead and however long it might take to get there or accomplish it’s satisfaction. He might set out to travel for a few weeks but end up travelling for a few months.

To wit: several days ago the weather was poor and we decided the best use of our time would be to sit in a tea house across the street from our apartment and read books for several hours. We could do this at home and in fact we generally don’t (go to a tea or coffee house to read that is). This egregious use of time would be unheard of for a tourist. But for us on this travel, it was one of the more wonderful things we’ve done so far and was fully worth the time invested.

Wrapped up deeply in the idea of traveling is the notion of learning. And it is not just learning about a place or the people, it is about learning about yourself in a different way than you might if you had stayed home.

Thinking about why were traveling this time and what we hope to learn, I think one explicit question we had was “Could we imagine ourselves living in and being happy in one of these cities?” With several reservations the answer so far is yes, in fact we spent some time scheming about how we might do this in each place although we have no immediate plans and haven’t decided to cancel our flights home to stay.

Another thing were exploring is, “what’s really important to us in life? What do we feel we need more of? And less?”

Spending time “aimlessly” reading seems like something I want more of; my experience at Ozone left me confident I don’t yearn to be able to drink in the best bars in the world.

Yesterday we spent the afternoon with another of the Wolf’s friends from school, another Hong Kong native. He, too, enjoys traveling and we learned about his recent experiences and approach to travel. There were many similarities in terms of places to visit, the opportunity to learn new languages, the desire to explore a lifestyle in another place.

We also discussed routine– is it valuable to have a routine to return to, can travel fit into it, and could travel BE the routine? We all inhabit a privileged position where we have the freedom, personal and financial, to even consider such alternatives for ourselves. We also have the opportunity to think critically about our economic choices and the value of adopting a routine that involves “staring at a cubicle” for the rest of our working lives.

I thought the Wolf’s friend made a good point that I plan to dwell on further which is that, most people can not do what we are considering doing but would like to be able to do so. If you have the freedom to consider alternatives, why wouldn’t you do so? Why would you just automatically do what everyone else is doing with less freedom without thinking it through and exploring your options?

So maybe the meta answer to the question “why do we travel?” Is that travel is a means of exploring the optionality of personal freedom with the goal of finding an optimal pattern of existence for one’s remaining life.

The best US bank for travel in Asia? Citibank.

I opened a Citibank account when I moved to New York back in 2004. It seemed like a good option for ATM access in the city, but I came to regret my choice when I moved to Dallas and then back to California. Citi was not everywhere and was often difficult to come by– luckily I was never a big cash user, preferring to use my credit card for monthly cash management. Still, it was inconvenient and I often thought of switching to BofA or another major branch when I enviously spied these locations much closer to home and work whenever I went.

In fact, today I do most of my banking with Chase. Their bank branch expansion has been nothing short of explosive over the last few years and they’re now everywhere. In addition, they seem to have the most advanced ATMs which can read and deposit checks directly with OCR technology and an app that can also handle check deposits under $2000. I realize other banks (such as Capital One) offer similar technologies and I think maybe Citi and BofA have ATMs that are as capable now as well but my point is that Chase seems to offer the best overall package, domestically.

However, in the three Asian cities we’ve visited, Citibank has been hands down the best option.

Now, I keep a decent balance with Citi so I get their Citigold service. This means I am entitled to ATM fee reimbursement at non-Citi ATMs and I get their best forex exchange rate with no forex fees. When we traveled to South America three years ago, I pulled cash from local ATMs (I don’t remember spotting a Citi there, maybe in Santiago or BA but I don’t remember) and never had to go to a money exchange like Travelex. The rest of the time I just ran my debit card when it was an option and I got the same benefit– pay for the meal, ticket, whatever, at the best exchange rate with no fees.

In the three cities we’ve visited so far, Taipei, Hong Kong and Singapore, I’ve found a Citi ATM within two or three blocks of our AirBNB as well as around the city while walking. Even better, in Hong Kong and Singapore I found Citi ATMs in the baggage claim area of the terminals so I had cash for cabs, airport trams, etc. immediately upon arrival. I probably could’ve found one in Taipei as well but didn’t bother checking as we were being picked up by relatives and I planned to exchange money with them.

My Citi MasterCard debit card has been accepted anywhere the merchant offers credit card payment services, which has been just about everywhere but local food stands and some cabs.

I haven’t seen one other major US bank ATM or branch office here– no Chase, no BofA, no Wells Fargo. However, there are a TON of local/regional banks, it is actually amazing how unconsolidated the banks in Asia appear to be even with dominant local giants such as Standard Chartered and HSBC. This is something I read about in “[amazon text=Asian Godfathers&asin=0802143911]” by Joe Studwell. Asia in general is kind of overbanked because every crony capitalist wants his own bank to play financial games with his holding companies.

As I don’t have any substantial BitCoin holdings I didn’t explore how using BitCoin might work out here but my suspicion right now is that it doesn’t make it any easier or cheaper.

For a “globalized” world such as the one we live in, with so many people traveling for work and pleasure, isn’t it amazing we don’t have one, market derived currency of choice?