Ramadan in the Heat of the Desert – September 2010

In early September, I spent a few days in Marrakesh, a city located squarely in the

Sahara desert.  My visit coincided with Ramadan, during which observant Muslims abstain from both food and drink during the hours between dawn and dusk for one month.  When my flight from Spain from landed in Morocco, I was curious as to how the Ramadan would affect the rhythms of city life in Marrakesh.

This was not my first experience with Ramadan.  One of my closest friends in New York observes the holiday and I have learned that meeting him for the iftar – the large evening meal that takes place when the fast is broken – means eating promptly at sunset, as is customary in the Muslim tradition.  Also, during my various business trips to Turkey, I often visited Istanbul during Ramadan.

Unlike Istanbul, where as much as half of the population chooses not to fast, I learned that fasting in Morocco is observed by practically everyone.  Those who choose not to fast, or cannot fast due to health problems, are careful not to consume food or drink in public out of respect to others.    This is quite different than in Turkey where I relished the idea of having a normal breakfast and lunch with the half of the city that didn’t fast and then enjoying a huge Ifthar alongside all of the faithful who hadn’t eaten since before sunrise.

Another big difference from my experience with Turkey was the oppressive heat that overtakes Marakkesh during the day.  Since the city is located in the Sahara nights are rather cool, but days are scorching, with temperatures exceeding 100º during my visit.  As I polished off my fifth bottle of water on my first day in the city, I wondered how the locals could bear this heat if they weren’t able to drink water.

The answer, I soon found out, is simple.  Lots of people just stay out of the heat.  Everywhere I went in the city, people were clearly trying to conserve energy and making sure that they didn’t work up hunger or thirst.  It is not uncommon to enter a shop to find the shopkeeper lying on his side and looking a bit woozy.  In fact, the entire city feels like it’s sleeping through the day in anticipation of the iftar and the activities that will come once night falls.   From sunset until late in the evening, the city’s main square is filled with families enjoying music and watching animated story tellers relate folk stories and fables.

That’s not to say that there are no exceptions to this rule.  I spent an afternoon in the souks shopping for classic Moroccan souvenirs such as clay cooking pots called tagines and knock-off soccer jerseys of the most popular Spanish teams.  The souks are located in the heart of the ancient medina and are a massive maze where I managed to get lost three times in the course of an afternoon.

Despite the heat, loads of entrepreneurial young men offered to escort me to my destination of choice for a few coins.  The concept of personal space in many parts of the Arab world is quite different than it is in the United States.  Strangers will call out to you and grab you on the shoulder or the arm and it’s no big deal.  After the thirtieth kid grabbed my shoulder, I finally gave up and hired him to guide me out of the maze.

While Mohammed and I chatted a bit in a mix of Spanish (his was pretty good), English (I won that one), and French (merci again, Mrs. Auger), he repeatedly attempted to hold my hand and guide me along.   I wasn’t too surprised as I’d observed in the past that male friends in places like Pakistan and Egypt tend to walk down the street holding hands.  Heck, after living in Argentina where male friends kiss on the cheek as a sign of greeting, I’ve learned that in some cultures guys are a little bit more…uhhh, affectionate than we are in the States.  Still, I couldn’t really resign myself to holding hands with a male teenager and settled them comfortably in my pockets for the rest of our walk.

I emerged from the souk and made my way to another part of the city.  As sunset approached, I found myself far from my hotel, thirsty, and ready to grab a cab and hit the pool.  It was then I realized my fatal miscalculation.  The streets, usually clogged with traffic, were empty.  Every shop was closed.  I walked by a few homes and restaurants and saw families breaking their fasts and opening large bottles of water to rehydrate after the long, hot day.  With no water and no taxi, I was stranded in a world of thirst and could look forward to walking back through the desolate streets, a solitary and parched soul.

Just as I started to think that I should follow the example of my Moroccan hosts and sit down in a shady corner for a while, a lone taxi rounded the corner.  The driver picked me up on his way home to break his fast and told me there would be no need to pay for the ride.  I think he could tell by the look on my face when he picked me up that I had finally figured out what it was like to fast during Ramadan.

An Open Letter to Algeria – September 2010

Algeria, I’ve got to be honest, I’m a little disappointed.

I know that things haven’t been easy.  You suffered a terrible civil war in the 1990’s, but thankfully things have been looking up for the last 8 years.  Although much of your tourist industry disappeared due to the war, with the return of peace, it seems like it would be a great time to welcome visitors once again.

Call me crazy, Algeria, but over the last year I had a sudden urge to visit your capital, Algiers.  I had always wanted to visit the casbah and I must admit, a bit sheepishly, that my desire to do so was probably inspired by that song “Rock the Casbah” by the Clash.  In my opinion, it’s their second best song after “London Calling.”  I know it’s a bit silly, but indulge me a bit.    Plus, since I was living in Barcelona for part of the summer and Algiers is just about two hours away by plane, I figured that I should take advantage of proximity and stop by for a few days.

I’ve got to be honest with you and let you know that getting a visa to visit your nation is not a straightforward task.  Having gone through the visa process for tricky nations such as Bhutan and Russia, it takes a lot to surprise me.  Consider me surprised.  There was a lot of paperwork required and the instructions I found on your website were not particularly clear.

Since you have no consulate in Barcelona, I called your embassy in Madrid to make sure that I was doing everything correctly.  In fact, I called three times (I’m a perfectionist).  I learned that your embassy required that I apply for my visa in person and then pick it up three to five days later, also in person.  That’s why I called your embassy a few times.

Before undertaking the expense of travelling twice from Barcelona to Madrid just to get the visa, I wanted to make sure that I had all the details correct for the application.  I’m sure that you can appreciate my desire to make sure I play by the rules – in this case, your rules.   I am happy to report that when I called your embassy, the staff were very helpful and told me that my application appeared complete.  They were also kind enough to confirm to me several times that that embassy would be happy to issue a visa to an American travelling in Spain.

Finally, the big day arrived.  I was in Mallorca for a few days and instead of returning directly to Barcelona, I flew to Madrid instead.  I’ve got to admit to you, Algeria, I actually felt a little nervous.  As I walked up to the window to drop off my passport, I felt as if I was at a junior high dance and I was working up the courage to ask a girl to dance to “Stairway to Heaven.”  Would I be rejected?  I’m pretty sure that you don’t have junior high dances in your country, but you’ve probably seen lots of American films on TV, so you may be able to understand how I was feeling.

Unfortunately, my fears were not unfounded.  As the visa officer examined my papers, he suddenly looked up and informed me that as a US citizen, I would need to apply for the visa in Washington, DC, and that he could do nothing for me.

I’ve got to be honest with you.  I was a bit shocked.  I reminded the embassy official that I had been assured that I would be eligible for a visa – three times! – but I was unable to get any additional information and I was out of luck.  I asked the embassy official for his name so that I might lodge a complaint, but he was not willing to provide this information.  That was the end of the road for my hopes of seeing Algiers.

Since there was no one else with whom to speak, I thought that I would write to you directly.  I understand that you have the right to deny admission to anyone who wishes to visit your country.  In fact, I’m sure that many Algerians have horror stories about their experiences trying to get a visa to visit the United States.

Still, I would like to at least share a few thoughts on my experience now that my frustration has abated.  A nation such as Algeria can only benefit when a foreigner seeks to understand its culture.  This is especially true of a nation that used to have a much more significant tourism industry but due to sad circumstances has found itself rather isolated.  The money that the tourist spends during his or her travels doesn’t hurt either.  Your visa process is excessively complicated and your staff lacked the training to provide accurate information regarding visa requirements.  I respect your desire to require visas for visitors from certain countries, but I cannot respect the disorganization that I experienced during the process.

For what it’s worth, I’d like to tell you a bit about the experience that your neighbor Morocco has had with tourism.  From what I read in a guidebook, the King of Morocco conducted a study and realized that the average foreign visitor spends more than US$1, 200 during a visit to his country.  Given the favorable impact of such spending, Morocco has tried to make itself as tourist friendly as possible.

Morocco’s visitor-friendly policies certainly attracted me.  The day after I left your embassy in Madrid, I booked a flight to Marrakesh.  It turns out that I won’t require a visa, so I’m already feeling like I’m going to feel quite at home there.

Endless Summer in Barcelona – September 2010

Following the implosion of my employer during the Global Financial Crisis (apparently people are capitalizing this title these days), I decided to take a sabbatical.  I figured that it made sense to use the time off to pursue an adventure that I’d always had in mind – to live in Barcelona.  Barcelona had captured my imagination even before I saw the movie “Vicky Christina Barcelona.”  When I lived in Buenos Aires as a college student, my roommate was from Barcelona.  During that time, I found myself hanging around with a group of students from Barcelona who were, like me, spending the year in Argentine.  I visited these friends twice in the late 1990’s but hadn’t stepped foot in Spain since 1999.   I had lost touch with these friends but ended up reconnecting with them through Facebook.

A few months ago, during a dinner in New York with a business school classmate from Barcelona, I learned that one of her friends from high school wanted to spend the month of August in New York.  Within days, I had arranged an apartment swap and my plans were set

My first impression upon landing in Spain was unmistakable: Spaniards don’t mess around when it comes to vacation.  For the entire month of August, Barcelona is a ghost town.  You can’t even buy a newspaper without searching far and wide for an open newspaper stand.  I realized this early on when I ventured to the neighborhood stand and saw a sign informing that it would be closed for the entire month of August for vacation.

I soon learned that the newspaper seller had a lot of company during his vacation by the seashore.  Want to get a key copied?  Please wait until the first of September.  Need a passport photo?  You get the drift.  Without exaggeration, I would estimate that a good 50% of businesses in the city of Barcelona are closed for most of the month of August.   Thankfully, however, all of the ice cream parlors are open.

My time in Barcelona taught me to better understand what it means to live in a “socialist” society.   While Spain’s economy is not socialist per se, many of its social programs struck me as such.  These days, in the United States, it’s not uncommon to hear political figures warn that we’re turning into a socialist country.   Au contraire.  If we’re going to become a socialist country, we have way too few vacation days.

Apart from trivialities such as vacation days, life in Spain is quite different from what we’re used to in the United States.  The government provides national health care (it seems we’re going that way), although most people still maintain private health insurance.  The insurance provided by the state is most useful for serious illnesses.  Most universities cost a few hundred dollars per semester.  Unions remain an important factor in business and the state requires unionized employers to provide incredible benefits when jobs are lost.  My friend Ivan is about to lose his job as a financial director at a newspaper.  For his eight years of service, the company is legally required to provide a payment equaling roughly 18 months of his salary.  Even if he gets a new job the day after his employment ends, he keeps the severance package.

What is the downside of all of these policies?  Spain is currently suffering from 20% unemployment and a serious perception that it could be the next Greece.  In a fundamental sense, Spain may not be able to pay for all of the benefits that its laws grant to its citizens.   Moreover, I’ve noticed something very interesting when comparing Spain to the United States.  In my opinion, one of the fundamental strengths of the United States is the collective belief that anyone can “make it.”  Whether you buy into this notion or consider it a myth, our system is grounded in a belief that anyone can rise from obscurity to become a tycoon.  In Spain, society feels more equal but there is less opportunity to make it big.  The Spanish government assures that the basic needs of its citizens are met, but the country lacks the social mobility that is so central to the American narrative.

In sum, I think I can pretty much attest to the fact that the United States is not, in fact, “socialist.”  We pay a lot for our healthcare, we pay a lot for our universities, and the guy who sells newspapers on the corner does not get a four-week vacation during the month of August.   On the other hand, Spaniards don’t enjoy the range of opportunities for advancement that exist in the United States and they have become accustomed to a series of benefits that their country can no longer afford to provide.

It’s worth thinking about the kinds of programs that we value in our society and comparing these ideas with what has or hasn’t worked in countries such as Spain.  At the same time, we should be careful to make sure that we don’t make the mistake of using word such as “socialist” too lightly.  If we’re ready to describe the United States as Socialist, we’d better prepare ourselves for a lot more vacation days.

Biking by Velo in Paris – August 2010

In May, I spent a week in California looking at some ideas for a potential business opportunity and was reintroduced to the idea of actually owning a bike.  As a kid, my friends and I biked all over town and spent our summer days biking on trails throughout Sanford and Springvale.  Then, I went to college and completely forgot about the joys of travelling by bike.

In San Francisco, I discovered that lots of people travel through the city by bicycle.  Their journeys are facilitated by a well-designed series of bike lanes and plentiful racks to lock up their rides.

When I got back to New York, I immediately purchased a bike and started riding everywhere.    I used the bike so much, that I didn’t even step foot in the subway for a few weeks.   My newfound excitement for urban cycling hinges on a simple reality:  riding a bike just makes life more fun. When I ride around my neighborhood, I feel like a kid again.  Of course, there are a lot more cars in New York than in Sanford (and the drivers are certainly more aggressive), but with proper precaution, biking is a great way to move around town.

Currently, I’m spending some time in Paris as part of my decision to live in Europe this summer.  I am taking a brief sabbatical from full-time work and my consulting job allows me to work from anywhere.  Thus, I decided to split the summer between Paris and Barcelona.  I lined up some friends with whom to swap apartments and – voilà – I have great places to live at no cost.

When I got to Paris, I was intrigued to see that the city has introduced a high-tech bike rental program  – called Vélib’ (www.velib.paris.fr) – that allows residents and visitors alike to rent bicycles on a short-term basis.  For a fee of just 5 Euros (around $6.50), and a credit card guarantee for any damage, I signed up for access.

Each morning, I walk outside of my apartment where there happens to be a bike rack. There is a web-enabled kiosk where I enter an 8-digit ID code and a PIN and then choose one the bikes or “vélos.”  On selecting a vélo, it is electronically unlocked and I’m on my way .  The bike is free for the first thirty minutes and then costs about 1 Euro for each additional thirty minutes.

With over 20,000 bikes and 1,5000 bike stations available, it seems like Vélib’ is everywhere.  I can take the 10-minute trip to the Louvre and then leave the bike at a nearby rack.  Once I want to move on, I find another free bike and move on to my next destination.  No need to worry about carrying a lock as the bikes are automatically locked when they are returned to their racks.   It all ends up being cheaper than taking the subway, and it is exhilarating to travel through Paris at street level.

Despite all these positive factors, however, travelling by vélo does have its risks.  While the city of Paris has excellent bike lanes and drivers are quite conscious of bikers, Paris also has hundreds of ancient narrow streets that require careful negotiation.

On my second day using Vélib’, I turned down a small street near the Seine and found myself approaching a trash truck head on.  Since the street was too narrow for me to drive past the truck, I moved over to the side of the street to allow the driver to pass me.   Although the French I learned in Mrs. Auger’s 8th grade French class has stuck with me quite well and I can actually get around in French pretty well, I don’t think we ever learned the phrase: “Move your bike or we are going to run it over!”  Apparently, that is what the trash collectors must have been yelling, because they proceeded to drive right into me and bend the petal on my bike.

My shock was quickly replaced with anger and I felt compelled to think of an appropriate response.  Drawing on my French-Canadian upbringing, I yelled the only thing that came to my mind: “Cochon!  Vous êts un cochon!”  The driver kind of laughed and then moved along while I was left to inspect the damage to my bike.   The petal was definitely bent, but otherwise it was in fine condition.   Not knowing what else to do, I returned my bike to the nearest rack and contemplated the charge that would surely show up on my credit card for any needed repairs.   Before anyone gets judgmental, my Parisian friends all assure me that I handled this like a true Parisian.

The Vélib’ program in Paris has truly revolutionized the city and has vastly improved quality of life.  People of every age use the vélos and it’s not uncommon to see an impossibly elegant French woman dressed to the nines and pedaling down the street.   The citizens of Paris have readily taken to the program because it is affordable, easy to use, and fun.

As for me, I dusted myself off, got another bike, and headed off to the Left Bank.   I also decided to be a bit more cautious on my bike going forward.  When I see a trash truck now, I pull off the road and respectfully wait for the truck to pass.  I have learned in life how to pick my battles, and French-Canadian insults are a poor weapon in a fight with an 8-ton truck.

Disconnected in Patagonia – June 2010

One of the fundamental qualities that many travelers, including myself, find most thrilling about their journeys is the ability to truly disconnect from their daily routines.  It used to be that one could jump on a plane or hop in a car and simply unplug from the nagging responsibilities of everyday life.  Over the last ten years, however, the escapist qualities of travel have become much more elusive.

Prior to attending business school in 2002, I took a six-week journey to Asia where I backpacked through China, Hong Kong, Japan, Vietnam, and Cambodia.   Having received my first blackberry (a huge brick that vibrated with tremendous force) a year earlier, I had become used to being tethered to work at all times.  I also carried a cell phone (a huge brick that vibrated with tremendous force) that further connected me to the worlds of work, family, and friends.  While I left both of these gadgets at home while in Asia, I constantly found myself checking my pockets when I thought I felt some slight vibration that would have normally signaled a new email or call.  I started to realize that these phantom events weren’t unlike the types of feelings that recent amputees experience when they first lose a limb.  My digital devices were like appendages that had been removed but yet still seemed to exist in my subconscious.

In early 2010, I decided to leave my job and take a sabbatical to explore new opportunities.  This was a direct result of the massive changes that the financial crisis caused at my company, AIG Capital Partners.  Enough ink has been spilled on the events at AIG, but suffice it to say that I learned during the credit crunch that it’s no fun to work at a company that is the poster child, right or wrong, for all of the flaws of the capitalist system.

I decided that I needed to embark on a journey that would serve as a sort of detox from the trauma of the AIG implosion.  For me, there is one place on earth that can fulfill this need.   Ever since I lived in Argentina for a year in college, the country has retained a very special place in my psyche.  It was in Buenos Aires that I learned Spanish and discovered a passion for international travel, foreign affairs, and the excitement of discovering new places and cultures.  I guess it’s my “happy place.”

Unlike previous journeys where I restricted my movements to the bustling streets of Buenos Aires, this time I was looking for solitude and ample time and space for reflection.  Patagonia has always been the type of place that has attracted people who are looking to escape from the wider world.  It is known for barren windswept vistas and strange characters that are seek to live off the grid amid sweeping empty swathes of countryside.   The region was immortalized by the travel writer Bruce Chatwin in the 1977 masterpiece “In Patagonia.”

With a copy of “In Patagonia” in my backpack, I set off for a city called El Calafate, which is home to Perito Moreno, a stunning glacier that is the world’s third largest reserve of fresh water.   I spend a day trekking across the glacier with a pair of crampons firmly attached to my hiking boots.   I was reminded that the tremendous power of nature when my group was over the center of the glacier and a flash storm blanketed our group with high winds, ice, and rain.  As the sleet pelted my face, I happily realized that no iPhone app was going to keep me dry or make sure that I would arrive back to terra firma.  Rather, I needed to depend on the sureness of my own steps.

Next, I ventured to El Chaltén, a hamlet of 332 inhabitants that is known as the “Trekking Capital of Argentina.”  The entire purpose of the town’s existence was to claim land for Argentina during a border dispute with Chile in 1985.  There is no cell phone service and while my hotel had WiFi, I could only get a reasonable connection if I sat right on top of the wireless modem.  Without these distractions, I spent entire days hiking in the mountains and sat reading beside the fireplace during the evenings.

Finally, I concluded my journey in a city perched at the southern most tip of South America on Tierra del Fuego.  In Ushuaia, I walked among thousands of penguins and sampled beaver carpaccio and hedgehog for the first time.  My advice: try the beaver, but skip the hedgehog.

I once told my boss at AIG that if everything went downhill and he didn’t see me in my office, he should know to look for me in Argentina.  While I made the comment in jest, when the time came to make my exit, I knew a priori that needed to go to Argentina.  I also knew that somehow I wouldn’t suffer from phantom cell phone rings and blackberry vibrations this time around.  When you really need to disconnect, it is possible to put mind over matter after all.

Literally, No Passport Required – December 2009

When I was in eighth grade, I joined the track team.  It was a bit of a tall order for me as I was not in great shape and hated running.  The results weren’t pretty either.  I ran the 800 meters and never finished better than last place during the season.     Each day’s practice began with a quarter mile team run in which the time difference between the fastest and the slowest runners could not exceed a given number of seconds.  I invariably came in last and caused us to have to run the entire drill over again at least a handful of times.  For any readers who were on the track team with me that year, I apologize.

Despite my considerable room for improvement, our track coach, Mr. Breault, always encouraged me to keep trying my best.  With his support, a small kernel of interest in the benefits of running was planted in my brain.  This initial interest got me started running on the treadmill in college and eventually I discovered that I actually enjoyed running outside. 

Over the years, I have gradually come to see myself as a bit of a recreational runner and I never travel without my running shoes in my bag.  No matter what corner of the world I’m traveling to, I find that lacing up is a great way to see the city and beat jet lag.  It’s also the best way I know to combat the stresses of everyday life.  My innate response to the frustrations of working at an AIG subsidiary over the past year has been to hit the treadmill or the street with regularity.   

I was recently home for the Thanksgiving holiday and woke up on the morning of Thanksgiving to unseasonably mild weather.  I laced on my shoes, grabbed my iPod, and hit the road.  Usually, my runs in Sanford consist of a loop from my parents’ house near the Department of Public Works to the Louis B. Goodall Statue or maybe Hannaford.  It’s a nice route.  Moreover, I enjoy passing the Goodall Mansion and the library and seeing what’s new in town, be it a new store in the Mid-Town Mall or the unveiling of the crèche in Central Park.

This time around, I decided to take a longer run through areas of town I hadn’t explored on foot since high school.   Growing up in Sanford, I spent the entire summer racing around in the woods on my bike.  I was also an early convert to hiking the Mousam Way Trail.  These days, I usually travel through town by car, so I was surprised by all of the interesting developments that have taken place there. 

After completing my usual route from my family’s house to Hannaford, I continued along Main Street to Springvale.  The first surprise came when I passed by the entrance to the Rail Trail on Main Street.  Although the path was a bit muddy, my curiosity got the best of me and I proceeded down the path a bit before deciding to explore it in warmer weather. Next, I discovered the terrific landscaping and park around the corner of Bridge and Main Streets.  Thanks to the Urban Walk guideposts, I learned that there had once been a Sears and Roebuck shoe plant at that site.  More recently, this area has been landscaped and even has a picnic table that sits right along the river bank.

Further down Pleasant Street, I turned onto River Street and headed back toward Sanford.  Along the way, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that the area is quite runner-friendly, with plentiful sidewalks that are well maintained.  I never noticed that while speeding through in a car.  These sidewalks also lead to the Gowen Park area and the paths that wind around Number One Pond.  With its benches, trees, and flocks of geese, the pond looked terrific in the November sunlight.  Proceeding up Riverside Avenue, I passed the St. Ignatius Gym that my great-grandfather built and looped back onto Main Street.  On the final stretch back along Main Street, I passed Jerry’s Market, which since as long as I can remember has long been the one and only place where my family buys turkeys, roasts, and pork pies at the holidays. 

As I discovered all of the terrific parks, trails, and attactions throughout town, I couldn’t help but realize that I was seeing my hometown from an entirely new perspective.  Surely the hard work of a group of people in our town has helped to develop and maintain these areas, but many of them were right there during my childhood.  I simply didn’t take advantage of them or forgot about how nice they were over the ensuing decades.  I guess my belief that running is one of the best ways to get to know a place holds true.  But in this case, I didn’t need a passport to find a place that I wanted to explore.  All I had to do was open the front door.

Brazil Arrives on the Global Scene – November 2009

In early September, I attended the last of a series of international weddings in 2009.  This time I ventured to São Paulo, Brazil, a city that holds a special place in my memory.  In the early part of this decade, I spent an inordinate amount of time commuting between New York and São Paulo for work.  Since my employer provided me with a Portuguese tutor, I also gradually picked up the language over time.

As I spent more time in Brazil, I knew that I wanted to gain fluency in Portuguese and I convinced my boss to let me work from São Paulo for a few months during the summer of 2001.  I returned to live full time in New York just before September 11, 2001.  As a result, I tend to think of São Paulo as the place where I lived out the last months of a simpler time.   The events of September 11 ended a period of innocence for my generation. 

In the intervening years, I left my job and entered graduate school.  Although I traveled to Brazil in 2004 for New Year’s, I didn’t spend any time in São Paulo, but rather focused my time in Rio and the Northeast of the country.

When I arrived in São Paulo in September 2009 after an absence of over 7 years, the city seemed unchanged at first glance.  Since I had taken a redeye for the 10 hour flight, I slept most of the day and woke up later than I had planned.  Still, I knew I had time.   The bride, Priscilla, was a Brazilian classmate of mine at business school but we had met prior to school through a friend.  Over the seven years I have known her, she has made an art form out of arriving no less than 45 minutes late to any occasion. She’s a true Brazilian and she lives on Latin time, which means late arrivals, late dinners, etc.   I have taken to making plans with her in the following fashion.  I’ll make a reservation for dinner at 9:30 pm, tell her dinner is at 9:00, and arrive myself at 9:40. By the time she rolls in at 9:45, I’m comfortably seated at the table.  Our little system works well and I never have an issue living by Latin time as long as I’m in the right mindset.  

Since Priscilla’s wedding was meant to start at 4 pm, I arrived approximately 45 minutes late, all the while smugly congratulating myself for being so clever.  Unfortunately, I had misread the wedding invitation and had actually turned up nearly 3 hours early.  The irony killed me.  I was so early, in fact, that the manager of the events space thought I must be part of the catering crew.  After I determined that I had indeed gotten the time wrong and I clarified to the doorman that I was not part of the kitchen staff, I found myself with enough time to meet up with a few friends and check out some other parts of the city. 

From that point on, I started to get a real sense that Brazil had experienced a game changing level of economic development since I had lived there.  Of course, the usual signs of prosperity, namely packed shopping streets, bustling restaurants, and crowded hotels, were all present.  More interesting, however, was the contrast in the generally feeling I got from my business school classmates regarding the present economic environment.  Unlike friends in the United States whose careers are largely in various states of disarray, the Brazilians are thriving.  In fact, they told me that they had observed an increasing number of foreigners moving to Brazil to take advantage of the tremendous career opportunities.  Brazilians who have been living for years in New York and London are returning home to take part in the tremendous Brazilian growth story. 

At 7:45, I returned to the wedding venue with a group of guests.  We were just on time and the wedding began – exactly 45 minutes late – at 8:30.  I later found out that Priscilla had been ready to go at 7:45, but a last minute wardrobe malfunction with a bridesmaid had caused the delay.   It was her wedding day and she was determined to arrive on time.  Of course, she told me this story over dinner in New York…a dinner to which she arrived 45 minutes late. 

The wedding itself was a massive party that reminded me that Brazilians like to celebrate in style while retaining a relaxed and tropical mindset.  For the stylish part of the equation, Priscilla, who works in cosmetics, commissioned a signature scent from a perfume designer in New York.  At the same time, all guests were provided with Havaianas flip-flops and were encouraged to ditch their shoes before hitting the dance floor.  Most of us did and we ended up celebrating São Paulo style until 6 the next morning.  It seems that Brazilians have a lot to be happy about these days and it’s hard not to want to join them.  Priscilla recently moved back to Brazil from New York to take part in the excitement.  It seems that she has arrived right on time. 

 

 

Peru: Another Country, Another Wedding – July 2009

2009 will go down as the year I hauled myself all over the place to attend weddings and seek respite from the global financial crisis.  Recently, I wrote about my experience attending the wedding of a buddy from graduate school in the Indian city of Jaipur.  Later this year, I plan to join another friend from graduate school at her wedding in Sao Paulo, Brazil.  This edition of NPR, however, regards a trip I made to Lima, Peru, to attend the April wedding of a former roommate. 

The wedding was sort of a homecoming for me.  The groom, a Spaniard named Daniel, was my roommate during my junior year of college when I lived in Buenos Aires, Argentina.  Although he now lives in Singapore, his bride, Cynthia, is Peruvian American.  Hence, the choice of Lima for the wedding.  The last time I had been to Lima was in 1997, when Daniel and I backpacked from Bogota, Colombia, to Buenos Aires over a six week period.  Through a combination of bus trips and flights, we worked our way down the Andes over a period of six weeks.

The trip I made together with Daniel represents a true watershed event in my life.  Before traveling to Argentina, I had never been out of the United States, save for a day trip to Niagara Falls when I was in high school.  Over the course of the trip, we visited Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Chile, and Bolivia, in addition to the northern provinces of Argentina.  As we made our way to Buenos Aires, we lived a number of (mis)adventures that took me outside of my comfort zone.  I rode on buses with numerous animals (including chickens, dogs, pigs, and even a cow in Chile), was searched numerous times by border agents and military (including at gunpoint), and climbed over a pile of melons and a crate of rotting fish to cross the Ecuador-Peru border.  I also spent 24 hours with nothing more than a jar of peanut butter and a bottle of water after the Bolivian banking system’s ATM and credit card systems went out of service and my pockets yielded less than a dollar of cash reserves.  I’m sure my mom will never forget that early morning collect call I made asking her to find a Western Union and bail me out of my temporary famine.  Over the course of that journey, I dramatically improved my Spanish and learned invaluable lessons about thinking on my feet and staying calm under pressure. 

One of the highlights of the trip was my stay in Peru.  At the time I visited, Lima was in the global spotlight as terrorists were holding more than 400 dignitaries hostage at the Japanese embassy.  Despite the crisis, I remember Lima for its historic Spanish colonial architecture and a particularly raucous night that ended with me singing the hot Latin song of the moment twice in a row at karaoke.  It was my Peruvian Idol moment and I briefly considered a career as a Latin pop star.   Thirteen years on, Lima has changed substantially from the city I knew in 1997.  Despite the world economic crisis, the economy is booming and Lima’s skyline is dotted with cranes and rapidly rising apartment blocks. 

Unlike the Indian wedding, I was far more familiar with the formalities of a Peruvian wedding.  The vast majority of Peruvians are Roman Catholic and the wedding ceremony took place in a colonial chapel housed in the historical center of the city.  I love attending Mass in Latin America.  As with anywhere else in the world, the mass is exactly the same as the countless masses I attended with Father Auger at St. Ignatius.  The text of the mass is a direct translation of the English text and the rituals are identical.  Until recently, the Catholic Church in Latin America forbid communicants to touch the communion wafer with their hands, so for added atmosphere, nearly everyone takes communion directly into their mouth from the priest’s hand.

The reception was also similar to an American wedding.  DJ, check.  Wedding cake, check.  Tearful speeches, check.  There was one notable local tweak.  At around midnight, a confetti gun shot a massive quantity of confetti over the dance floor.  In the ensuing chaos, guests were handed crazy hats (I chose a lion’s head over a huge replica of Bart Simpson’s head).  We were also handed countless long thin balloons.  Caught up in the excitement, I summoned up childhood memories of the professional balloon sculptors at the now-shuttered Ground Round in Portland and attempted to conjure up a few balloon animals. Unfortunately, I was only able to produce something along the lines of the hind legs as I attempted to craft a balloon dog. 

Having traveled through Peru thirteen years ago as a student, it was strange to visit the country at this stage in my life.  As I’m older now and not prone to rough it as I did in those days, I didn’t endure endless bus rides and $5 hotels.  Rather, I had the benefit of a comfortable hotel and I even – don’t tell anyone – went to Starbucks a few times.  While my experiences this time around in Peru were certainly not as raw as my backpacking trip, I don’t think I’ve entirely lost my edge.  After all, who says that seeing a crowd of Peruvians in Bart Simpson hats is less scary than being searched at gunpoint?

An Indian Wedding Crasher in the Making – June 2009

Earlier this year, I wrote about my experience staying at the Taj Mahal Hotel in Bombay in the months following the November 2008 terrorist attacks.  The purpose of my journey to India was to attend the wedding of a close friend from graduate school who lives in Bombay.  While I initially wavered on the decision to travel 7,000 miles to India, I ultimately decided that I wanted to join a great friend for such an auspicious occasion. 

 In any case,  I had been itching to get back to India and to explore the country in greater depth.  My one previous graduate school trip in 2003, while enjoyable, was characterized by group tours, peering out the windows of a bus, and mixing with my classmates.  Under my “Golden Rule of Travel,” or “GRT,” you haven’t seen a city or country until you’ve walked the streets, talked to the people, and gotten the local dirt under your fingernails.    I figured that I could use this trip to see India under the terms of the GRT. 

 Upon arriving in India, I realized that the wedding would be a one of a kind event.  The groom, my friend Shashank, is a terrific guy and an impeccable host.  In fact, the last time I had visited India, it was Shashank who took me all over Delhi to buy clothing and supplies after Indian Airways lost my luggage for a week. 

Shashank’s father is governor of the state of Rajasthan and the event was to be held in Rajasthan’s pink-painted capital of Jaipur, or the “Pink City.” The wedding was the talk of the town, with each day’s events covered breathlessly in the local newspaper.  Since a prominent and very popular Indian politician, Rahul Gandhi, was attending the wedding, the newspapers had spies who made sure to describe his every move.  For example, when describing the food Mr. Gandhi had enjoyed at one of the events, the Times of India wrote: “the Caesar salad and cheese fondue with side servings of kirsch, raw garlic, pickled gherkins, onions and olives were simply out of the world.”  Since I didn’t even get to try the pickled gherkins (I don’t think I know that they look like), I kicked myself upon reading that passage. 

 The tricky thing about an Indian wedding is that it is an exhausting multi-day affair that requires lots of costume changes by the bride, the groom, and the guests.  The first night was a festive dinner at a palace.  The second day consisted of a garden party at noon followed in the evening by a dance performance and a celebration called a Sangeet that ended at around 4 am.  Day three consisted of another lunch and then the evening wedding ceremony and reception.     

 Given all of the costume changes, I decided to adhere to another element of the GRT by opting for local attire for at least one of the events. With the help of a friend who lives in Bombay, I purchased a wedding outfit called a sherwani, which is basically a long coat-like garment that is worn over pants that are loose above the knee and tight on the calves. 

 I was glad that I made the purchase because I needed something to complement the turban I would be asked to wear during the ceremony.   When we arrived to the Governor’s Palace at about 6 pm, the friends of the groom were asked to join his family in a large salon where the men were fitted with multi-colored turbans.  After an hour or so, the groom’s entourage, now numbering around 100 people, was greeted by a large brass band and a series of horses.  The groom and his brother each mounted white horses and then rode about 20 meters to a waiting elephant.  They then mounted the elephant and proceeded to join the entourage on a parade around the estate grounds.  As friends of the groom, we were expected to dance in front of the elephant along the entire route. 

The celebration and the parade began to pick up in terms of intensity.  Imagine 100 revelers, a band of 30 musicians, a few horses, an honor guard, and an elephant, all marching around a pink palace.  Then add periodic fireworks that served to frighten the large flocks of bats that live in the trees on the palace grounds.  After about an hour of parading, including a brief delay when the elephant was too tall to pass through a gate, we arrived to the garden to deliver the groom to his wife for the Hindu ceremony. 

 While weddings are joyous occasions wherever they are celebrated, the Indians have their own take on the experience.  Clearly, my friend Shashank’s wedding was a unique event that would be rather atypical compared to the weddings of many of his countrymen.  I did learn, however, that even in the smallest Indian villages, weddings can go on for days.  There may not be a pink palace and an elephant, but the intensity of the celebration remains constant, whether you are in Rajasthan, Delhi, Bombay, or a rural village.  Now that I’ve got a sherwani and little experience, I’m hooked.  Don’t be too surprised if you hear about a guy from Maine replicating The Wedding Crashers all over India.

The Credit Crunch – November 2008

Unless you have been living blissfully under a rock or in a well placed hunting cabin located deep in the Maine woods, you have been following the rapidly unfolding turmoil that is gripping the global financial system.  As an employee of AIG Capital Partners, an affiliate company of the American International Group, I have spent the last several months on the front lines of this phenomenon.  For me, this period has been characterized by frequent day dreams about picking up my things and moving to a cabin somewhere in the brush north of Moosehead Lake. 

The economic events that have taken place over the last several months are shocking and disturbing, but they are not as uncommon as one might think.  While we are continually told that the United States has not faced as grave a crisis since the Great Depression, in places like Turkey or Argentina, this is not the case.  Since the turn of the century, both of these nations suffered financial meltdowns that were far more traumatic than what we are living in the United States today.  In fact, outside of the United States and Western Europe, there is a long list of countries that have periodically lived through harrowing economic crises over the last fifty years.  The difference this time is that the United States and Europe are part of the crowd. 

As I’ve spent my entire career working with emerging markets (or developing economies), I was pretty much accustomed to seeing groups of economies crash every couple of years.  In 1996, the Mexican Peso Crisis took down Mexico and South America.  In 1998, the Asian Financial Crisis devastated Southeast Asia and managed to take down Russia and Brazil shortly thereafter.  Turkey lived through crises in 1998 and 2001 while Argentina entered a tailspin in late 2001.  While these events were all different due to the specific qualities of the economies involved, they had common threads.  Undoubtedly, these nations suffered a combination of the following:  a stock market crash, the fall of the government, street riots, a steep fall in the value of the local currency, foreign debt default, the evaporation of credit, massive economic contraction, and the failure of major companies.  In all of these cases, ordinary citizens were subjected to tremendous uncertainty, stress, and shock at the sudden loss of personal and national wealth. 

As I watched these events unfold on a computer monitor in New York or on the ground on a business trip, I never envisioned that I would someday live through something even remotely similar in my own country.  Rather, I would tend to think something like: “It’s shame, but they had it coming to them given their blatant mismanagement of their economy.”  Now that the shoe is on the other foot, I recognize that things may not have been so cut and dried. 

The good news, if you’ll indulge me a bit, is that the current situation in the United States, while it is certainly difficult, cannot compare (so far) to the kinds of things that have historically taken place in the emerging markets.  Let’s take Argentina for example.  While we have all suffered through strong increases in food and gas prices over the past year, this doesn’t hold a candle to the hyperinflation that has periodically gripped Argentina over the last 40 years.  An Argentine friend of mine tells me that during the late 1980’s employees would chase shoppers around supermarkets with price guns in order to increase prices since annual inflation at that point exceeded 3000% per year.  We also haven’t seen the kind of unrest that caused mass street violence in Argentina in early 2002.  I’ll never forget when my colleague Marcelo called me frantically from JP Morgan’s offices in Buenos Aires to tell me that a mob had started to break into the building to express its rage at the international financial community.  Thankfully, Marcelo managed to sneak out undetected.  

Thus, while the current financial crisis has certainly been painful, both in personal sense and as a citizen of the United States, I have tried to find a silver lining.  This experience has given me a profound sense of empathy for those around the world who have suffered far worse conditions.  It has also served to remind me that in a world that is ever more economically interconnected, crises will spread faster than before.  After all, our government has spent the last 70 years, since the end of World War II, promoting exactly the type of global economic integration – from trade agreements to deregulation – that causes these types of events to spread from nation to nation like a bad case of the flu.  While I’m still a believer in the merits of these policies, I also feel that the best thing that we can do as Americans is to take our medicine, learn from the experience, and recognize that events like the credit crunch are global in nature.  Of course, if things don’t get better soon, you might have to find me contemplating these lessons from a remote cabin somewhere in Maine.