musings on travel, international living, development aid, politics, turkey (the country more than the meat) and anything else that comes to mind...

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Rockin' it Pagak Style (Photos)

So let's just pretend like I didn't get back from South Sudan almost a month ago and am not just getting around to posting photos...

Good 'ol Pagak will have a special place in my heart... See why here!

Friday, December 14, 2012

(My) Changing Face of Development Aid

If you are 'the person' that regularly reads this blog you know that I was recently back in South Sudan. You might also be aware that I've been working in such fun places for the last 4-ish years, learning more about myself and the world than any classroom could ever dream to afford a student.

I hope to continue contributing to the development aid community of NGOs, multi-laterals, etc. into the future, helping to 'fix' projects, assess impact, design projects that fit needs, etc. There is so much great work going on by people (including me) who have all the right intentions. But...

There's always a 'but'...

Living in Cambridge, MA - the research center of the development world and a hub for venture capitalism/startup businesses - leads me to believe that maybe NGOs aren't the only ones who can/should address global poverty (*gasp*).

In Pagak, my latest field post amidst swampy awesomeness, we desperately tried to train (mostly women) farmers to be able to live at or above subsistence in an area that is so fertile and rain-filled I'm pretty sure I saw several of Jack's beanstalks reach into the sky (they were weeds). We provided medicine to the community despite the existence of a local market for medication that sprung up whenever the rain (or our collective disorganization) meant we couldn't get supplies in. Intrepid community members were sent out to deliver medicine and medical supplies to communities 5 days walk away, inaccessible by any other means.

Without the generous support of donors (mostly from 'rich' countries with stalled economies of their own), how would these people learn these skills and access these services? More importantly, are NGOs doing more than prolonging the status quo and/or creating aid dependencies? 'Sustainability' is often thought of as people being able to do the things you (the NGO) teach them on their own after you're gone.  What if sustainability meant private enterprises inclusively filling market gaps and making money while they're at it?

I'd argue that the private sector may be able to fill a lot of these gaps over time. It may take a while in Pagak (where asphalt is a luxury), but, in places like Rwanda, private sector-driven growth models have shown astounding results in the last 10 years.

More private sector involvement will not immediately eradicate poverty. NGOs are still much better situated to respond to humanitarian crises and disaster situations than inherently more risk averse companies probably will ever be. Cries of non-inclusive growth will undoubtedly be true in some cases. Long histories of extractive private enterprise that oftentimes enriched local political elite at the expense of the poor (read: colonialism) will loom over every transaction. Private sector-driven economic growth is not the panacea; as David Cameron points out there are many strands to the golden thread of development.

But (and there's always a 'but' remember) maybe there's something there that we - development practitioners, academics and policy-makers - need to explore a bit more? Business folks are all but openly scorned by development types (partly out of salary jealousy), but maybe a model whereby companies invest in (and make money out of) the developing world is a more 'sustainable' one?

Being in Cambridge I can't help but want to study this more, to read about how it's worked, to write my thoughts down, to perhaps even work in the private sector one day (*double gasp*)? Maybe I could help businesses make money in the developing world in a way that infuses capital into local markets, builds infrastructure, pays staff a living wage and provides valuable technical skills? Would that be so bad?

Or maybe I should just stick to addressing the academic/policy divide in development? Or maybe I stick with the NGOs? Or maybe...

So many ideas. So many options. So much work to be done.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Worldwide Companion 5k - Cambridge Style

I'm a sucker for 'global' events. I'm also in decent running shape after dodging dogs and cows for the last couple of months. Put it all together and what do you get?

Worldwide Companion 5k 2k12!

Envisioned by a Kiwi friend, WC5k2k12 (say that 5 times fast) brought together people from all over the world to run. Wherever you are. Stop what you're doing. And run. Together. It is no coincidence that this particular friend took Lauren and me on a night trail run (read: hills) as one of our first activities in Wellington back in July (i.e. southern hemisphere winter)...

From the Facebook page:

Choose a scenic local 5k route, grab some friends or do it alone, and run 5k at exactly 4pm Greenwich Mean Time on the 27th of November 2012. Take video and still pictures while running...

Challenge accepted!

So this morning, in the spirit of global unity and despite a 35°F / 2°C forecast which included snow, off we went...



Can't wait for next year!

Friday, November 9, 2012

House of Lords Defines Aid Dependency

After months of traveling, job searching and excuse giving, I'm finally getting caught up on my Google reader. Among the most prolific bloggers, the "I have a theory and by golly I'm sticking to it" team of writers from the Why Nations Fail blog discussed something yesterday about the UK's House of Lords that is, like their book, detailed and littered with examples.

Tucked in nicely towards the beginning of the post was a mention of a report commissioned by our favorite unelected-yet-still-very-powerful legislative body entitled "The Economic Impact and Effectiveness of Development Aid". (Full report available here.)

Now I'm intrigued. And now I don't feel so bad about not reading the full post. I'm even more excited when I flip to page 25 to a section on "Graduation from aid dependency". If you read my last post you know that this is something that interests me deeply.

The report measures dependency as "aid as a share of GDP" and gives several examples of countries that have substantially reduced their 'dependency on aid', sometimes (as is the case with Ghana going from 16.3% in 2004 to 4.1% in 2008) in a very short period.

Unfortunately, unlike my rant about dependency, the word 'sexy' does not make an appearance. More importantly, defining aid simply as a percentage of GDP over-simplifies the issue in a way that is quantifiable but may not be all that useful.

Let's take Bangladesh as an example.

Touting Bangladesh as a success (aid was 8.2% of GDP in 1977 and 1.3% in 2009) may be a bit misleading. Doing so does not take into account annual population growth of 1.78% since 1999 or annual GDP growth consistently over 5% during the same period. Put another way, UK development aid to Bangladesh could have stayed the same (or even increased) in terms of money provided, but since population and GDP grew at a faster rate, they are apparently 'less dependent' on foreign aid. I haven't had the pleasure of visiting Bangladesh yet, but others who have might say that this would come as news to lots of Bangladeshis still very much reliant on development aid. Additionally, Bangladesh still receives £171 per year (page 39 of the report), the third largest recipient of of UK aid, scheduled to drop to 4th on the list by 2015. So much for freedom from dependency.

To be fair, the report is talking only about UK assistance and DFID puts much of its funding towards direct government to government, bi-lateral support. Because of this, they're mainly looking at how much less of a percentage of the recipient government's budget they have to support. Yet they've still chosen GDP (an indicator of overall economic growth) as their denominator. In the grand scheme of things this is a very narrow, and perhaps not altogether accurate, interpretation.

One takeaway from the report is that over-simplifying the definition of (or narrowly defining) 'aid dependency' opens up a rather large can of worms and more questions than any of us have time to answer. It's a complicated subject, one that needs much more research and more than a simple formula to truly understand. It deals with more than propping up developing country budgets. It has to do with people and businesses and their ability to be independent from handouts. 

A bigger (and more positive) takeaway is that the report valiantly places growth at the top of the agenda, saying that they "believe that poverty reduction through economic growth should remain the aim of aid policy" (page 34). I applaud this belief and encourage the US purse-string-pullers and all other donors (including you, Mr. Insomniac flipping through late night commercials of malnourished African babies) to follow suit.

In the meantime, the search for a better definition of aid dependency continues.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

The Irony of Aid Dependency

By continually addressing symptoms of poverty we have allowed entire nations to become dependent on the generosity of others, thus ironically disincentivizing private sector growth and self-sufficiency that is arguably a long-term key to poverty alleviation. Despite the cost to our beloved heart strings, the global development community needs to start addressing root causes of poverty in a significant way, even if it comes at the expense of more traditional humanitarian aid.

A recent op-ed by UK PM David Cameron has sparked quite the kerfuffle in the blogosphere (the 'mainstream' media is too focused on trying to figure out whether blogger Nate Silver's models have an inherent liberal bias). Among others, Justin Sandefur and Todd Moss weighed in from the CGD while Chris Blattman chimed in with the type of constructive criticism that we've come to expect from him. I guess now it's my turn.

Cameron promotes his ‘golden thread’ idea whereby multiple strands (rule of law, lack of corruption, property rights protection, etc.) must come together to create the hallowed development ‘thread’. Blattman responds by pointing out (among other things) that ‘industry’ is not even mentioned. “Why is industry so unfashionable among aid elites? I honestly don’t know,” he laments.

I suspect, as he goes on to offer some possible scenarios (environmentalism, heart strings, etc.), that Blattman is aware that ‘sexiness’ (not the Victoria’s Secret or David Beckham type) matters to the world of development as much as it matters in the battle between the iPhone 5 and the Galaxy S III. The aid community – and the governments, politicians, foundations and individuals that fund it – rely on stories of life-saving food supplies delivered to Mogadishu under a hail of gunfire and of small-holder Indonesian farmers getting up-to-date crop prices via text message. Admit it, the image of a malnourished child with flies on her face causes you to reach for your wallet a lot quicker than someone telling you to donate your hard-earned money to a 'private-sector growth' or 'government capacity building' program.

However, as sexy as they may be to taxpayers, many of these genuinely well-meaning initiatives (several of which I’ve worked on myself) attack poverty in a reactive way; they treat the symptom rather than the cause. And in the long-term, they very well may be doing more harm than good. (PhD topic anyone?)

In my temporary home in rural South Sudan, NGOs have long run health care facilities, flying in medicine and supplies from places where, unlike here, asphalt is not an unthinkable luxury. Yet private clinics still exist, operating mainly at times when logistical problems or weather limit the availability of NGO-provided free medicine. In other words, people find a way to pay for treatment when it’s not free. No villager in his or her right mind would admit to this to the NGO of course; why pay for something when someone else will provide it for free? To be fair, it’s likely that quality of care and medicine is higher at the clinic supervised by trained clinicians employed by NGOs. But, by undermining the growth of the private clinic industry with our free goods, we may never know whether the market would eventually correct this lack of quality were it to be demanded (and paid for) by consumers.

Only one small example of many I've noted, it is nonetheless another reason why I feel that, if we are to achieve development in the long-run, sustainable economic growth must be a focus at the policy level. Our policy makers need to start ideologically phasing out such handouts, shifting focus to the promotion of private sector growth and the environment needed to support it (like property rights, government accountability, etc.).

Should humanitarian aid and handouts stop altogether, immediately? Absolutely not. Doing so would be disastrous to countless lives fully dependent on the generosity of others, not to mention wholly counterproductive from a less emotional perspective. It’s hard to build on something that doesn't exist at all.

Instead, this must start with a gradual shift in mentality. One that must start from David Cameron and his peers at the highest levels of government in the 'developed' and 'developing' world. One that involves a tough transition from reactive humanitarian aid to economic growth and stability-encouraging initiatives. One that may take a generation (or more) to fully realize. One that will be unpopular with inherently protectionist constituents justifiably worried about their own domestic economies and jobs. One that nonetheless just might allow us to eventually shift from ‘helping developing countries’ to ‘dealing with trading partners’.

After decades of international assistance and countless billions spent trying to alleviate severe poverty that still exists in shocking numbers, it is a shift in mentality that is long overdue.

I don’t pretend that such a refocus on ‘industrialization’ or ‘private sector growth’ is the panacea. In Blattman’s dissection of Cameron’s op-ed, he identifies several other valid ‘blind spots’ in the strategy that should all be 'strands' if there is to be a magical ‘golden thread’. Nor do I fool myself into thinking this will be easy. Defeating poverty is a massive industry in itself (visit South Sudan if you don't believe me), with many people smarter than I constantly coming up with ideas, solutions, and RCTs. However, based largely on my own experiences in the field, I do believe that facilitating private sector growth should be at the heart of combating aid dependency and, to a subsequent and larger degree, global poverty. To grossly over-simplify this concept is to say that 1. markets adjust to demand and 2. people will buy what they need to survive if they have money.

Mr. Cameron does an admirable job of presenting several relevant, inter-dependent themes for development in a way that I've yet to see American politicians do. But I've found few who openly discuss the political will and policies necessary to (ideologically and tangibly) move huge swaths of the developing world away from their dependency on others. In fact, ‘dependency’ rarely comes up in policy discussions, usually hidden within broader, more nebulous discussions of ‘sustainability’. No one wants to think of his or her generosity as having negative repercussions.

It’s time to call it what it is folks. More importantly, it’s time to do something about it.

I’m looking right at you, Mr. Cameron.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Rain and the Under-Appreciation of Asphalt

Where I grew up we had seasons. Summer. Autumn. Winter. Spring.

In many parts of equatorial Africa (especially South Sudan), there are but two seasons. Hot and dry. Hot and rainy. The names of the seasons we know and love mean nothing here; just another reason for locals to look at you and chuckle.

Don't get me wrong, the rain here is not constant (as one would expect it to be in India during the monsoons for example). In fact, more days than not are hot and sunny. Add humid to that equation and that's a pretty common day in South Sudan this time of year.

Currently Pagak is at the end of its rainy season, yet the power of mother nature is still in full force. As I write this in our 'Mess Tukul', rain descends as if it was already time for Open Championship golfing to commence. It won't last all day but its effects will last long after the sun comes out again.

I never truly appreciated the luxury that is asphalt. Back home it rains (or hurricanes) and, for the most part, life goes on. Most New Yorkers and those who regularly enjoyed the fruits of a Boardwalk stroll (among others) will be recovering for a while after Sandy and my heart truly goes out to them. But in Cambridge (my fair city), rain and wind only meant that people streamed Netflix and drank bottled water on Sunday/Monday. Come Tuesday, life went on.

Thanks to today's rain in Pagak (a place where asphalt is experienced only on television), the following will happen:

  • The once-weekly flight - cancelled last week, delayed yesterday and rescheduled for today simply because of the incompetence (there, I said it) of UNHAS - will be delayed again due to the now-wet airstrip, probably until Monday;
  • For at least the next two days gumboots will be the least common denominator in every outfit, not preventing your shins from being submerged in mud but rather allowing you to not care when it inevitably happens;
  • Our solar panels will be useless - thank goodness we just got three barrels of diesel for the generator... how will I internet myself to sleep at night?
  • Most importantly, our staff will be unable to move out to field sites except by trudging for days through the mud - trainings will be delayed, medicine won't be delivered, and life that people here spend mostly outside will retreat into dark mud tukuls...

I enjoy the peacefulness of rain, not to mention the bounty it can facilitate, so generally I don't mind. Additionally, dealing with the annoyance of rain is much better than dealing with no rain at all, as witnessed during the drought in the Horn of Africa last year.

So much of development work in the field is subject to delays that are completely out of our control: rain; fuel shortages; 4-hour local government meetings to discuss desired compensation for two cows killed by the UNHAS plane after running onto the airstrip as it was taking off last month; etc. Sadly these delays are usually misunderstood by management in NGO headquarters expecting western-style levels of efficiency. Such is life in the bush. You deal with it, do your best, and move on. All part of establishing field cred I guess.

But when it's me that needs to fly out, as will be the case in a couple short weeks, I start to worry. Time to start thinking about Plan B...

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Over the Hills and Through the Swamp

At least now I can tell my grandkids about the swamp...

Pagak is on the South Sudan side of the border. According to Google Maps and Thuraya (sat phone) we're in Ethiopia; naturally the SPLA begs to differ with such newfangled/highfalutin technologies, so we're in South Sudan. Unfortunately, for 8 months out of the year, Pagak (and this entire remote section of South Sudan) is completely inaccessible to any piece of machinery that doesn't have wings. 

That's where the swamp comes into play...

To get to Gambella - the sleepy little Ethiopian town 100km from the border that supplies practically everything to Pagak - during the rainy season (read: April-December) one must first brave the mud up until the border, shouting "Nuer!" back at periodically naked children who are intent on repeatedly reminding you that you're a khawaja. Finally the (above water) mud ends and everyone starts rolling up their pants.

When in Rome...

Not having spent much time in Louisiana, swamps are relatively new to me. This one basically looked like a massive high school science project gone horribly wrong. Grass poking up in random places and maybe even growing down from the surface at points...? A busted bee hive wreaking havoc. Purple flowers that might or might not give you a fun disease. Mosquitos and more mosquitos. Squishy, clay-like mud under the surface daring you to take another blind step. Nescafe-colored water with [insert your worst hygiene- and critter-related nightmare here] floating serenely to and fro. Wait, was that a snake?!

Despite the dangers, my mantra worked like a charm. Apparently "don't fall. don't fall. don't fall. don't fall. don't fall." causes one to focus intently on not submerging one's backpack/whole body in the swamp… the fact that one of the clumsiest people I know (yours truly) didn’t slip was much to the disappointment of the ever-growing audience of children waiting for the splash. Khawaja 1 : 0 Swamp

One bumpy ride in the back of a beat up Land Cruiser pickup plus more than my fair share of sunscreen... and 3 hours after setting off we finally arrived in Gambella. Excuse me folks, I must go straight to the shower to wash the lower half of my body. Immediately. Repeatedly. Vigorously.

-------

We development aid workers have a fairly self-deprecating sense of humor, encapsulated best by the Stuff Expat Aid Workers Like blog of which I was honored to be a guest-poster earlier this year. We enjoy the facial reaction we get when telling a friend of a friend in a Harvard Square bar that you've just spent 2 months without plumbing, fighting off animals with sticks. We delight in one-upping a fellow aid worker's "remember that time I was in the bush?" experiences by telling them you waded through a swamp barefoot. We imagine ourselves a dashing mix of Indiana Jones, T. E. Lawrence, Oscar the Grouch (when the internet's not working) and Mother Teresa.

Most notably, we also have a peculiar penchant to periodically participate in hyperbole and exaggeration (see above).

Friday, October 19, 2012

Dodging Dogs and Cows

Lauren threw down the challenge before I left.

"You're going to lose more weight," she said definitively, citing scarcity of food in the field and the fact that I had lost 10 pounds since our round-the-world-trip ended. Unfortunately for me, food in Pagak has been much more acceptable than expected and, even if there's only rice and lentils to be had, I have a tendency to just eat more rice and lentils.

But the gauntlet had been thrown... so... challenge accepted!

EROL'S PLAN TO LOSE WEIGHT IN PAGAK
Task number 1: portion control.
Task number 2: run.

Running in South Sudan has always been an interesting experience for me. I came around to the benefits only a few years ago after picking up Runner's World out of utter boredom while in Iraq. I'm yet to truly instill it as an irrevocable part of my schedule. Would love to be that guy that wakes up an hour early every morning to start off the day on the right foot. I'm just not.

For most South Sudanese (notable exceptions excluded), running is something they did away from bad guys with guns during the prolonged civil war. 'Footing' (walking) is something that is only done when the Land Cruiser is broken/out of gas, and running is only for crazy people. And Khawajas. And some Kenyans. And periodically Ethiopians. But almost never South Sudanese.

So upon arrival in Pagak I was pleased to see that our compound is right next to the airstrip. 827 meters of straight, flat dirt. I asked our now-departed British/American logistics/former pilot guy how he measured such a precise distance.

"I walked it," he replied without hesitation.

Of course you did.

So the airstrip is approximately 827 meters. Which, for you math nerds, means that there and back is... you guessed it, about a mile! Do that 3 times and you've got yourself a 5k. Do that 8-9 times and you might collapse from heat exhaustion. (On a side note - why don't we all just use the metric system?)

After getting over the predictable 'you're back in South Sudan but you're used to Whole Foods' stomach bug, I was ready to hit the dirt. Unfortunately, so were the following obstacles that have made my running experience in Pagak... well... never dull:

  • packs of wild dogs that camp out on the airstrip in the morning (though thankfully just strays, not these terrifying creatures) - I now run with a big stick;
  • periodic marching and singing exercises by soldiers. I generally stop running when they start marching... it only takes one hungover soldier;
  • the drunk and/or high local who decided, during one afternoon run, to run straight at me as if playing chicken. (He won.) After dodging him (his being intoxicated made my mad moves look legendary) two more times, I quit running;
  • a herd of cows with large, awkwardly-shaped horns... none too enthusiastic about my stick;
  • Ethiopians who laugh at me when I tell them I'm like Haile Gebrselassie;
  • Nuer children who also laugh at me. Who then, often barefoot and sometimes pants-less and always snotty-nosed, escort me until they tire.
Obviously the last group is my favorite. Sometimes I wish I knew how to speak Nuer so I could hear what kind of names they're calling me. Could be anything really. Except, of course, for 'Fast White Guy'...

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Don't Fly in Small Planes...

An old roommate, dear friend of mine and serial exaggerator once made up a set of rules by which she lived. Numero uno on the list:

"Don't fly in small planes. You will die."

It's a good thing she wasn't with me yesterday. On a small plane. In South Sudan.

Arriving (for the fifth day in a row) at the Juba office at 0730 with bags fully packed, I was less than optimistic about my chances of leaving. As I frantically tried to busy myself with [insert generic office task here], the minutes turned into hours and before long I was hungry.

Which was exactly when I was told we were leaving for the airport... hurray!

What came next is fairly standard for folks with experience in humanitarian aid, South Sudan, etc. and so this post is predominately meant for my mother and other interested non-crazy persons.

When we pulled up to the cargo area of the airport the yelling had already ensued. As the resident foreigner, it was presumably my fault that we were 4 hours late leaving.

"Look. My friend," I managed in my best East-African-colloquialism-tinged tough guy impression. "I'm just the passenger. We can stand around all day yelling or we can get the hell out of here so you can get paid." Somehow the money angle usually works.

Unfortunately we still had to load the plane with the medical supplies that would be going with me (actually I was the one hitching a ride with them) up to Pagak, my new home for the next 5+ weeks. That took another hour. Still no food in my belly.

The plane is a Cessna; a reliable work horse of the humanitarian aid and aerial safari communities. All manual. Goes anywhere. Lands anywhere. The Kenyan pilots get in and start pushing buttons. And turning the plastic wheels that I'm assuming control the flaps. They remind me of Big Wheels tires.

"Seat belt on?" Check. Now that's what I call a safety briefing!

We're first in line for take off. Actually, we're the only one in line for take off. As we taxi over to the runway I notice that the pilot's door is still ajar. I figure I'll wait until we're on the runway about to take off to say something. Good thing I waited. He was deliberately keeping it open... air conditioning.

Elevating up over Juba is always magnificent. Tin roofs, dusty streets, cows, and the beauty of seeing utter chaos blend together from above. This time was a bit bumpier than usual, but as soon as the main pilot took off his shoes, leaned his chair back ever so slightly, signed something in the logbook and started to eat a sandwich, I dozed off to sleep. Probably not the right reaction in hindsight but I was really just jealous he had a sandwich.

Some turbulence woke me up about halfway into the two-hour journey. Glancing outside at 8,000 ft I saw... well... absolutely nothing. Imagine the feeling you get when flying over the ocean... just not over the ocean. No tukul. Nary an animal. Nothing decipherable. Where was I going??

After another quick nap I found out the answer. Wait, where are we going to land? Just over those trees and down onto that piece of dirt? Hmmm. Ok...? I wonder if I missed lunch...

Again I come back to the Cessna; an excellent machine that made the Pagak's 'runway' seem like glass. Even better were the pilots who not only got me here safely, but were able to avoid a herd of cows running across to the runway just before take off........

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Jet boating... Mekong triathlon... Juba jet skiing... great white shark diving... Vietnamese motorcycle road trip... helicoptering... elephant riding... bungee jumping... small planes in South Sudan... for a guy who's the self-described opposite of an adrenaline junkie, 2012 has been quite the year!

Although, to be fair, I am marrying a woman who thinks that everyone just naturally wants to jump off a bridge with nothing but rope around your legs...

Thursday, October 4, 2012

(Already) Back in Africa!

The saying goes that once you've drunk from the Nile (a somewhat vile thought that is nonetheless indirectly true for most people who've spent time in Juba) you always come back. So I'm generally not surprised to be back in South Sudan... I just didn't think I'd be back so soon!

For those that don't know, I'm helping fill a management gap in a field office for an NGO for the next 6-7 weeks. With my job search in Boston still continuing (even from South Sudan), I'm happy to be adding funds to a bank account that has been rapidly going in only one direction for the past several months and even happier to get 'back in the game' so to speak.

Turns out, against all odds, I actually missed Juba a little bit... who knew? It's been almost six months since I left but there will always be a special place in my heart for the cackle of a local laugh, a 'rolex' in my belly every morning and the seemingly never-ending intellectually stimulating (say that five times fast) discussions. At the end of the day this is a challenging place where moving from A to B is about as easy as multi-variable calculus. As a country they have a ways to go to get where they want to be, but they'll get there. Someday.

Alas, today is Thursday. I was supposed to be at my field site already but, in true South Sudan style, I was not on the plane manifest for Wednesday and today's charter flight carrying medical supplies (and me) to the inaccessible northern part of the country failed to leave because... well... let's just chalk it up to a misunderstanding (and not multiple layers of incompetence, because that would be mean). So I'm supposedly on a charter flight in the morning. As long as it doesn't rain tonight.

Or there's not enough fuel.

Or a herd of cows doesn't decide to sit on the runway.

South Sudan oyeee!!

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Marketing Lessons from Kony 2012 & TOMS

Lauren and I just got back from a lovely weekend in Minneapolis visiting good friends working (and excelling greatly) in corporate America. Inevitably, on about the third bottle of post dinner wine under a perfect late summer midwestern night sky, the topic turned to... well... what is it that you 'tree huggers' do again?

International development is a way of life and career for many of my friends and colleagues. Some of us live, breath and tweet it as if our efforts will somehow (perhaps through a shared idea, best practice, etc.) have a positive effect on someone somewhere who desperately needs some positivity.

But, in talking to our friends, it became very apparent that the reason they know that the world of international development even exists is because of our friendship. They still somewhat think we work for 'the agency' (which isn't altogether an off base conclusion given the dangerous history of overlap between aid/development and intelligence), but that's another story altogether.

Here is the main question that was raised out of a simple query as to our impressions of Kony 2012:

  • Whose job is it to educate the philanthropically-minded non-development practitioners (NDPs) on how/where to donate money to maximize effectiveness?
Regardless of how you feel about Invisible Children (the best responses I've seen can be found here), they have undeniably proven that massive amounts of NDPs (100M+) can be made to care about something that didn't originate on TMZ.com and/or doesn't involve Todd Akin. TOMS (you know you own a pair) has similarly figured out a way to turn social product marketing into profit and has been similarly derided in the development blogosphere.

What has made them so much more widely known than J-PAL, Oxfam, Root Capital and others doing great work around the globe? Our friends (both of whom work in sales/marketing - full disclosure) would argue: marketing.

Is capturing Joseph Kony worth 100M+ hits on YouTube in my opinion? He's a bad man, but I'd argue that it's not. Is the TOMS' one-for-one method the best way to get shoes on feet in the developing world? Also no. 

But the folks working at IC and TOMS do marketing better than most in the development sphere and have mobilized massive amounts of goodwill (and profits) for their causes. Our friends point out that instead of/in addition to bashing the ICs and TOMS of the world, development experts should market our own efforts more effectively and mobilize that goodwill (and the cash that comes with it) to ends that fit our definitions of 'better', 'helpful', 'effective', etc. 

The thing is... they're right.

However, in a development sphere littered with thousands of NGOs 'doing who knows what' (ex. Juba), marketing in a cohesive way to 'normal people' (much less policy makers) borders on the impossible. One.org, US Global Leadership Coalition and others have broadened their message in a way that unifies followers behind a common theme - yet ironically that common theme is so broad that it's difficult to market in ways that are truly effective in 140 characters or less.

Alas, I don't have the answer. But, in an era of decreasing government-funded development, we need to find one that better mobilizes the goodwill (and pocketbooks) of philanthropically minded NDPs.

As an aside, the marketing solution should preferably involve a really cute little blonde kid pointing his finger at an African warlord and calling him 'a bad man' (just kidding...... mostly).

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Meles Zenawi - the Other Obituary

Meles Zenawi, Ethiopia's long-time Prime Minister, died last night... what a relief.

To repeat the most overused contemporary political phrase... let me be clear: I don't wish death upon anyone no matter how bad. Justice? Yes. Death? That's for higher powers than me to decide.

But I must say that, on behalf of Ethiopia and my Ethiopian friends, I'm glad Meles is no longer in power. (I also realize that, by just saying that phrase, my ability to return to Ethiopia in the Meles era, which I'm assuming it still continues even after his death, is in jeopardy.)

Harry Verhoeven, an Oxford PhD, points out the (admittedly) many good parts of Meles' history in his piece in AJE entitled "Zenawi: The titan who changed Africa". Although Verhoeven does point out a few 'questionable things' (my words, not his) about Meles in the article, it is largely a glowing obituary.

To be fair...

He rescued Ethiopia from the Derg, perhaps one of the most ruthless regimes history has ever known. He ushered his country (with the help of the international community) from being in all out famine to... well... only somewhat in famine. He sat at the top as Ethiopia experienced unprecedented (yet uneven) economic growth. He was a revolutionary hero with a pan-African vision revered by many in the global political sphere.

But...

There's always a 'but' with Meles. Several actually, some of which are pointed out in Mark Tran's article in the Guardian. Growing as reclusive as he was unpopular (at least everywhere in Ethiopia except for Tigray, his homeland) in recent times, Meles had unfortunately turned power hunger and the never-ending search for political longevity into a repression of his people and a deft manipulation of the Western donors.

In my experience, Ethiopians were largely scared (and/or unable to due to the government's annoying telecommunications limitations) to voice any opposition to him or his cronies lest they end up disappearing in the middle of the night. Fear of the government was par for the course. Most foreign, and more importantly diaspora, companies wanting to invest didn't for fear of expropriation. Aid to Ethiopia (in the billions of US$ per year) continues to sustain the massive amounts of food insecure while NGOs (and any outsiders really) are tightly controlled to such a degree that limits sustainability, innovation and long-term effectiveness of donor dollars.

Much like contemporary Turkey and its delicate balancing act between Islam and democracy, it's hard to understand this fear without experiencing it first hand. Friends refusing to discuss the government at all in public. The inability to fight any type of bureaucratic injustice for fear of violence. The dreaded knock on your door that could come at any time (what did I say? what did I do?). The (admittedly) rapid economic growth that has occurred with little international or diaspora investment. The amazing unmet potential of a beautiful country full of bountiful resources and well-educated people (the food's pretty tasty too, but that's another story).

Meles might have started off on the right path, but like so many others (Saddam, Putin, Mugabe and Erdogan if he becomes Turkey's next President - to name but a few) he stayed in power too long and his people have suffered because of it.

The mark of a great leader is not just revolutionary success and big dreams. The mark of a great leader is knowing when the job is done... then stepping aside for others to carry the torch.

Unfortunately for Meles, it took his death for that torch to pass in Ethiopia.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Is there an academic/policy divide in development?

Alas, all good things - even 3 month round-the-world extravaganzas - must eventually come to an end. To steal probably the most commonly used Gen. Next answer to the 'how was the trip' question... it was awesome!

But more on that later, including lessons learned (any development professional worth his/her salt includes these) and tips for other aspiring global vagabonds.

For now, it's back to the grindstone. A pastel-colored, boat shoe- and trendy sunglasses-wearing grindstone (I am in Cambridge Mass after all), but a grindstone nonetheless.

There's an amazing amount of international development ideas floating around this place and I can't wait to jump right into the deep end.

The main question I have (and hope to learn more about in the aforementioned deep end) is whether those ideas and solutions are making their way outside of the academic community? Are policy makers in Washington, London, Geneva, New York and beyond accessing the information? Are they making changes/upgrades base on the evidence?

Several organizations (including, among others, MIT's J-PAL network and IPA) are out in front of this crusade but are the right incentives there for professors to dedicate time, effort and resources to bridging the (real or perceived) gap? Several fascinating books address global poverty (I'm finally reading Poor Economics by Duflo/Banerjee after having just read Why Nations Fail by Robinson and fellow Ameriturk Acemoglu - both highly recommended) and have elevated their authors to rock star status in the economics/development realm... but what are the distinct policy implications/ramifications? Is it all just talk if things don't change in a policy world full of NGOs with differing agendas, politicians with constituencies and nobody with a whole lot of spare time to read 100+ page research papers/books?

Put another way... in an academic world intensely focused on publishing valuable research that could improve the efficiency/effectiveness with which your and my money combats global poverty, are professors/researchers properly incentivized to appropriately share their knowledge in ways that are truly accessible to policy makers?

I hope so. But I also have my doubts. Maybe I can help?

Saturday, July 21, 2012

From Australia/New Zealand: Photos!

Thanks to a God-knows-how-long flight from New Zealand to Tokyo (and good internet in Japan) I was much better about editing/posting pictures this time...

Shots from Australia here.

Shots from New Zealand here.

Enjoy!

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

From New Zealand: When in Rome... or Queenstown

There are only two cars in the parking lot. Three including ours. The cold drizzle reminds us that July is winter here. An old bridge juts out from the side of a round building on the side of a cliff. A rope dangles off the bridge.

I slow my breath to a pace that betrays my heart beat. I smile at two giddy young ladies rushing past, talking of something... no idea what. I'm singularly focused.

It's safe. You only have to conquer your fear.

A quick stop in men's room. One last glance up from washing my hands. You've paid for it, teases the voice from inside the mirror. No turning back now.

I'm eerily calm, as if the battle raging between my romantic and my classical sides - between my heart and my mind - is nothing but background noise. Static on the radio.

New Zealand has been wonderful to us. Incredible, drastic vistas that change at every bend in the road. Old and new friends. (Mostly) great weather. A niceness in people that can only be matched by Canadians. Whales diving deep into the ocean, leaving their iconic tails for us to photograph. Trail running Wellington's parks at night.

But Queenstown is about adventure. It's about extreme. It's about doing things once. For some, it's about doing those once-in-a-lifetime things over and over again. It's about the rush.

So here we are. Looking out at a bridge.

Cat Stevens is playing over the loudspeaker. Or is it Guns & Roses? I step on the scale. 93 is written on my hand. Note to self: exercise more.

The man we're following now is heavily bundled up. I've taken my coat off. Wait, it's not time yet is it? We're early? Lauren smiles and squeezes my hand. She is nervous yet giddy. I'm just nervous.

It's safe. You only have to conquer your fear.

The drizzle is now rain. Forrest Gump, sideways rain. It's cold although I'm not.

The old iron bridge is wide, probably made for horses and carts carrying gold from the mines. I don't look over the edge.

Small talk ensues. Texas. Austin. Music. Boston. Africa.

The towel is unceremoniously wrapped around my shins. The straps are tightened. Is that all? Aren't there more straps?

Lauren wants to know who I think should go first.

Me. I'll go first.

The ledge is a few feet away. A cord, the cord to which I'm entrusting my life, swings in the wind. We were told earlier in the day by a lovely 19 year-old man that one can jump in practically any weather off the Kawarau Bridge, the place where bungy-jumping was invented 2.5 decades ago. It's a fixed structure. Apparently.

Bound together, my feet can only wiggle their way to the edge. Or hop, but that sounds like a bad idea in this situation.

"Ok, time to go man," reminds the pleasant Kiwi who was, in hindsight, keeping my mind busy with his chatter. "3. 2. 1!"

Nope. Not yet.

"You do have to let go of the bridge you know."

What these gentlemen don't realize is that this is possibly the dumbest/awesomest thing I've ever done. What they don't get is that for me to conquer my fear, this has to be done on my terms. I've never wanted to jump off a bridge before. Yet here I am.

"C'mon man, let's try this again. 3..." This time he doesn't make it to one.

Instinctively my arms go out. My mind goes clear. My eyes stay open. I don't feel the rain. I don't feel anything.

That's because I'm flying.



Sunday, July 8, 2012

From Australia: Bizarro World

Dear Erol: Why haven't you blogged more from Australia? Dear Reader (who doesn't really exist - this is essentially me talking to myself): quite frankly I've been having way too much fun! And we've been in the car. For 3,600km i.e. a lot. And, to my utter confusion, I was stuck in bizarro world where mere survival was my primary concern.

For those of you who aren't Seinfeld (or DC Comics) fans, bizarro world is a world that looks and feels familiar but is slightly off. For Elaine, it was her three new friends that were almost exactly like Jerry, George and Kramer. Almost. For me, Australia is bizarro world.

In traveling down under, I expected the toilet to flush counter clockwise, for people to have cool accents, and for steering wheels to steer from the right. What I did not expect was that the place would be so eerily familiar. At times almost exactly like the US. Almost.

Here's an example:

We thought that the best way to see the country would be to rent a car and make our way through lazy small town - with the general store next to the one pump gas station next to the neighborhood of one story homes with large yards - after lazy small town. Beaches full of domestic tourists (and lots of kids... everywhere) on a break from school. Semis tracking police radars and testing speed limits. Genuine southern hospitality. Seemingly endless windy roads followed by a straight stretch of endless sky followed by a truck stop.

This would be entirely normal for me, except that I'm not talking about a road trip through Texas... This is Australia!

After a great few days in Sydney, we flew to Brisbane and drove right up to Airlee Beach in our pursuit of yet another box (the one next to 'Great Barrier Reef') checked off the list. Nothing bizarro about the reef, mates... just pure amazingness!

Cruise Whitsundays afforded us the (admittedly very touristy/full of vacationing children) opportunity to see the outer reef, something that is not really an option from most places along the 2,300km long collection of barrier reefs that are collectively known as 'Great'. Essentially what that meant is that we took a boat out 3 hours into what felt like the middle of the ocean, only to find... well... you really have to see it to believe it. And to think that almost everything we saw scuba-/snorkel-ing is currently (or was once) a living organism? In. Cred. Ible.

In keeping with our with our 'we have backpacks but aren't really backpackers' theme, we concluded our day on the reef with a helicopter ride back to the mainland, flying over the appropriately named/shaped 'heart reef' and spotting a few breeching humpback whales along the way.

But, after that quick detour into 'amazingness', we were back on the Bruce Highway and thus back into 'bizarro'. Roadside motels that should've been $35/night but were actually 5 times that price. Passing Sunday (i.e. slow) drivers on the highway, just doing so on the right rather than the left. Townspeople waving to us exclusively with their left hands... ok, I might've made that one up.

Skippy (an old Iraq era friend) and Shiralee's town of Amamoor was no exception to the bizarro. In addition to all of the above, we happened to be there on July 4th, the most American of American holidays where sports are watched, arteries are clogged and fireworks are enjoyed. Minus the latter, our lovely hosts facilitated the most non-traditional (i.e. bizarro), traditional independence day I've ever had. There was actually football on the tele, only it was the Queensland Maroons playing the NSW Blues in the clincher of the Origins series, rugby league (i.e. football to most Aussies) style... not the Cowboys against the Redskins. And grilled steaks, potato salad and more chips/dip than I've had in years nicely facilitated the clogging of arteries. Top it off with a quick ride on the Harley the next day? God Bless America (and Australia of course)!

Last but not least, the hospitality of our friends was, in a word, overwhelming. After spending a bit more than planned on everything (!) thanks to the obnoxiously strong Aussie$, not only was spending a few nights with Skippy/Shiralee and the fantastic Kelly family in Uralla refreshing to our pocket books, it was a welcome foree back into the land of families and friends, something missing since Thailand (much like distance in DC is measured by the number of Starbucks in any given route, I've started measuring the passing of time in terms of countries).

I guess I shouldn't be surprised... after all Skippy is quick to tell you that Aussies are the real purveyors of southern hospitality!

Sunday, July 1, 2012

From Australia: Top 11 Things that Make Sydney Spectacular

Dear Sydney - It's pretty difficult to describe how great you are. There are so many reasons and so many facets to your awesomeness. So to say thanks for hosting us I figured I'd just give you my top 11 things that make you an awesome city (other cities take note):
11. You have a chain of stores entirely devoted to cupcakes.
10. You are an infinitely walkable city with excellent running options; because jogging around the Sydney Opera House is almost as amazing as jogging around the White House. Almost.
9. SoCal-style beach livin', surfing and surfer dudes/dudettes are but a 30 minute Manly ferry ride away.
8. People refer to 'ol Mr. McDonald's restaurants as 'Mackers'.
7. As you boast few cafes (at least that we found) that have free wifi, people actually go out to read the newspaper (like the actual print version - remember that?) and drink coffee. Or wine.
6. There are decidedly more active people (running, playing lunchtime rugby, etc.) on your streets than there are overweight people.
5. Snapper pie at the Boathouse on Blackwattle Bay.
4. You intertwine the arts into everyday life (through urban gardens, chic shopping, museums, etc.) better than most.
3. Your ever-fashionable citizenry have cool accents and while you are having some difficulty these days with your immigration policies (aren't we all?), you are a land of tolerance, immigrants and opportunity; a place where world traveling backpackers (not us, don't worry) can easily earn US$15+/hour as a minimum wage doing... well... just about anything.
2. You have an opera house that is not only architecturally mind-blowing but also constantly in pursuit of new, innovative ways to entice all cross-sections of the population (including orchestra-loving septuagenarians, skateboarders, Janet Jackson aficionados, toddlers and everyone in between) to step through your doors.
1. Except for the horrendous value of my hard-earned US$ on your streets, you are a very livable place. Other great cities of the world (New York, Istanbul, Tokyo, London, etc.) have many of the above qualities but are they really as livable as Sydney...? Guess I'll just have to find out some day!

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Syria/Turkey Fighter Jet Fiasco: Conspiracy, Strategic Blunder or Both?

Something smelled a little funny when I first saw it on the news... 'Syria downs Turkish fighter jet' ominously stated BBC's ticker. What? Are you serious? Al Assad can't be thaaat stupid, can he?!Unless you've been under a rock (or unless Kim Kardashian passed gas in public and is thus consuming all domestic news in the US), you probably know at least some of the story that's being passed around media circles.

Turkish unarmed F4 strays into Syrian airspace. Syria anti-aircraft guns shoot it down. Plane crashes over the sea. Wreckage (allegedly) found but pilots still unaccounted for. Increasingly hostile rhetoric from Turkey.

I'm not usually a conspiracy theorist, but there are several things I find difficult to believe about the situation as presented to us through official Syrian and Turkish government channels. Having a blog also gives me the opportunity (dare I say the right?) to voice ideas based purely on conjecture (traveling in Australia and SE Asia means I'm more than a little removed from my normal circles and connectivity); please read on with this in mind.

Firstly, the Turkish military is one of the most advanced in the world. Especially the Air Force. Behind the US and Israel, it's probably one of the most potent aerial powers in the world and has been for some time. Well-trained pilots (who, in unrelated news, often-times make the literally 'bumpy' transition to commercial piloting on THY) command state of the art planes and equipment. They're well-financed and good. Really. Really. Good.

Secondly, Syria claims that it shot the F4 down with anti-aircraft machine guns. I'm no military expert, but presumably this would mean that the plane was flying pretty low, much lower than would be needed for reconnaissance. Turkey must've known there was anti-aircraft batteries in the vicinity too, so coupled with advanced on board mapping systems that tell you when, oh say, you've crossed into Syrian territory... you get my drift.

Thirdly (I could go on and on but I won't after this), Turkish authorities are claiming it was a training mission of some sorts. Why would you do a training mission so close to the border with an increasingly hostile neighbor?

Basically, what I'm getting at here is that we probably don't have the full story, especially from Turkey. Syria is claiming that it bears 'no hostility' towards Turkey, something that I actually do believe. Once one of his better allies, Turkey has all but disowned al Assad recently. But al Assad, who I think is a murderous crazy person but not a strategic idiot per se, has to know that further ostracizing Turkey, of all countries, is not in his best interest.

Thus, the conspiracy theorist in me thinks this fiasco was orchestrated by Turkey.

For whatever reason, Erdogan went from BFFs with al Assad to mortal enemies almost overnight last year. After not really getting involved at the start of the carnage, something happened that caused a shift in strategy. Perhaps it was a 'your mama' joke gone horribly wrong or a drastic humanitarian change of heart by our dearly beloved leader in Ankara. Whatever it was (if you have more info on this please comment), now that Turkey hates Syria (something I fully support given the brutality of the last year+) this could be part of a broader strategy.

Let me explain. After Iraq and (more recently) Libya the appetite for western military intervention in Syria is almost non-existent. I'm sure our leaders in Ankara (and more than a few people in the west) would love to dive bomb al Assad and call it a day. Unfortunately, with Russia and China dodging their responsibilities as super powers (as usual), that's probably not going to happen.

Unless, perhaps, Syria starts it first. I'm thinking of a move not unlike those 'but he started it!' moments from the playground. Is it so hard to believe that Turkey, with one of the most advanced militaries in the world, deliberately sent an unarmed 'training' plane (that looks suspiciously like a deadly fighter jet) into Syrian territory and deliberately got shot down so that it could invoke NATO Article 4 ('but he started it!') and have more support for active intervention? Is that so far fetched?

Regardless and thankfully (I'm generally not a huge fan of armed intervention), even if that was the goal it's probably not going to work. EU leaders have urged restraint, even as Turkey heats up the rhetoric. This may lead to more travel bans and economic sanctions, but multi-lateral military intervention is probably still off the table and I'd like to believe that Turkey is smarter than to engage unilaterally.

So what's the end game? Well, even though Turkey may not have gotten the exact response from NATO/EU that it was looking for (if indeed I'm right and that was the plan all along), Syrian military officials are defecting in higher and higher numbers each day. Despite the propaganda spewing from the al Assad regime, these defections could be a signal that something much more significant (and more organically Syrian) is afoot.

The tide may be finally and mercifully turning against al Assad from within. We (Turkey and the international community) should do everything short of all out assault on Damascus to support change in Syria on terms defined by the Syrian people who are fighting and dying for their freedom from tyranny.

It's the least we can do.

Monday, June 25, 2012

From Vietnam/Laos: Photos!

Finally... photos from Vietnam and Laos! Apologies for the delay and greetings from Tokyo!Coming soon: Australia, New Zealand and finally... Japan!

Sunday, June 24, 2012

From Laos: Luang Prabang Mekong Triathlon(g)

Laos is known in the backpacker community (yes, I own a backpack, have survived many an encounter with the species and am therefore an expert) for its value for money, incredible scenery and laid back citizens. What some people would call laziness, I would call (especially after India) refreshingly 'not in your face'. Sales people relax in the shade while you are able to decide if you'd like to buy anything... what a novel concept!

Actually, in broader terms, I absolutely loved the Lao people. Ever smiling with the welcoming nature of the southeast Asians without the taint of over-tourism and over-modernization. Don't get me wrong, the Mekong Riverside Hotel in Luang Prabang was stellar, fully modern and a lovely taste of the nicer legacy of French colonialism. But lazily riding bicycles amongst monks, boutiques and one quaint restaurant (our favorite was L'Elephant) after another, life (and ones heart rate) slows down just a bit.

Of course, traveling with a woman who is on a personal quest to experience everything possible, the heart rate wasn't slow for long. To be fair, we had both been dying to do some outdoorsy stuff and had deliberately left this to Laos, so I had already mentally prepared myself for some physical exertion. Which was good because a lot more than 'some' was required.

We heard that Tiger Trail Outdoor Advertures was the way to go; sustainability focused and highly personalized (at least for us in the low season), going with them turned out to be a great decision. Although at times I felt like our personal guide (a young man whose name sadly escapes me) was taking full advantage of showing around tourists who don't mind getting a little dirty and are not McDonald's obsessed westerners.

First we biked. Hard. Up and down. Through the woods. Through the mud. Across a river on a long boat. Up more hills and down even more. It was exhilarating, exhausting and extremely awesome!

There have been multiple times on this trip where I've been concerned about getting my DSLR wet. The ensuing hike, after a mercifully cool dip in some natural springs, was one of those times. And it wasn't raining. You get the idea.

Our reward for completing Day 1 quicker than normal bike/hike was more time in a quaint farming village that was to be our home for the night. For once not having brought anything to read, we spent most of the day wandering around the village (Tiger Trail brings tourists here often it seems so they were comfortable with our presence and mainly just went about their business as if we were just flies on the wall) and enjoying game after game of sepak takraw, a game that combines soccer/football, volleyball, martial arts and acrobatics. Played with a ball made out of some sort of bamboo-like substance (a lot like a wiffle ball just made from a tree not a Chinese plastics factory), we both sat there mesmorized while team after team of farmers played after returning from their fields, displaying some of the most impressive athleticism I've ever seen.

And then they asked me to play, at which time the quality decreased just as quickly as the hilarity increased. I wasn't terrible, but (as was evident by me falling on my ass after trying to execute a scissor kick) I certainly wasn't any good. Fantastic experience though and thankfully I have some pictures to prove it!

We were up at dawn the next morning. Not because we had to be, but because we were both fascinated by the sounds of early morning village life and, quite frankly, didn't have much choice in the matter. Roosters. Dogs. Children. Mothers. Crickets (the Lao refer to cricket chirping as 'Chinese' because it's so loud/annoying). Yelling. Crying. Laughing. Sometimes it's better to close your eyes and hear the surrounding world. This was one of those times.

Our 'triathlon' finished with a four-hour kayak journey down the iconic Mekong River, the namesake for an entire region and the source of much life and beauty. Much to the chagrin of our guide we were able to weather the rapids without capsizing and successfully floated into Luang Prabang a little after noon... sunburned, sore, more than a little tired, and smiling from ear to ear.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

From Vietnam: So Many Treasures... So Little Time

Most of what Americans know (or think they know) about Vietnam comes from the war that was the defining event of my parent's generation. Few (including me 10 days ago) have any clue that in fact Vietnam holds countless, non-war-related amazing treasures. Of them all, I have to say that the abundance of natural beauty and the beautiful (inside and out) people were my favorite (and therefore most blogworthy!). Let's start with the people. I decided before the trip that I would rebel and not bring a razor. Those that know me know that this is not the most violent of rebellions, but whatever, I don't want to do it on vacation either. Unfortunately, in planning to periodically get shaved by a guy in X country on the side of the road, I forgot that Asians have very little, if any, facial hair. Fail. So, to avoid looking like a Neanderthal and to ensure Lauren will look at me, I've been going to haircut places who use an electric razor on me. Normally this is a fairly standard process, 10 minutes tops.

Not in Vietnam.

In Saigon, the random salon on the side of street into which we stumbled looked innocuous enough. One manicure (for Lauren), shave, and 40 minute 'best. shampoo. ever.' (it was really more like a massage honestly) later, we paid $10 and bid our adieus to salon heaven. That, my friends, is service.

This is but one silly example of a larger theme: Vietnam might offer the best service to money ratio of any place in the world. It's almost as if people are born with smiles and helping hands. Sure, vendors offer to sell you stuff, but you generally feel good after the experience (except at the beach near Hue where, being the only foreigners there, several children selling junk food declined to offer us any peace). Hotels are generally clean and the staffs are always fantastic. Maybe we've just had good luck (thanks Trip Advisor!), but most truly are fantastic. And all that will cost less per night than dinner at Chili's!

Dear Vietnamese people: love you guys! I'll definitely be back (although perhaps when your government realizes that communism is extractive, impossible, and just darn silly and that your economy would grow so much more if you would stop freaking out about everything)!

Then there's the natural beauty. And boy oh boy are there lots of options! We decided to stay in Hue while in mid-country, essentially for it's access to lots of different cool things. First stop was Thuan An beach which, as mentioned before, was absolutely pristine except for the durned kids (best if said in a crotchety grandfather-like voice).

Next was the massive drive (10 hours spent in the car that day) to Paradise Cave with a stopover into the war-era Vinh Moc Tunnels. Limestone caves are exceedingly difficult to describe if you've never been in one. Let's just say I let out an audible 'wow' when my eyes adjusted to the light and before me was a moonscape of formations dripping with water and whetting the imagination (is that a bear? a dragon? a face?). Privately operated and only opened in 2011, only one kilometer of 30+ kilometers of cave are open to the public. Can you imagine being the guy who stumbled upon that?! By the way, turns out it was a villager hunting (or something) in the jungle who first felt the cold blow of the cave's mouth in 1999. Crazy to think that this underground palace was completely hidden to humans before that; makes you wonder what else is out there?

The next day, instead of taking a taxi to lovely Hoi An town, we decided to take the Holiday Diamond Hotel's (worth every bit of the praise it receives on Trip Advisor - truly a gem of a hotel in Hue mainly because of the staff who really are that nice) advice and go the 200km by motorbike...

(This is the point in the post where our parents might or might not have heart attacks.)

In a move that would've made our dear Juba friend Sam exceedingly jealous (thanks for the idea buddy!), we strapped our backpacks to the back of the bikes... and off we went! To be fair, we weren't driving so the coolness factor is diminished a tad, but it was still amazing. After a quick dip (and some mechanical trouble) at the refreshingly cold Elephant Springs, a lot of very fresh seafood (i.e. you point at the live versions of what you will eat shortly thereafter) and a stop at a war era top-of-the-mountain US military bunker near Da Nang, we made it to Hoi An windblown and happy. Not sure I want to own a bike myself really, but I definitely get the appeal; especially on the side of the mountain windy roads overlooking the ocean, devoid of cars thanks to the normal traffic-preferred tunnel below.

Last, but certainly not least, no trip to Vietnam (especially Hanoi) is complete without visiting Halong Bay. One of the 7 natural wonders of the world, you (and thousands of your closest tourist friends every day) have to see it to believe it. As the story goes, a dragon's tail crashing to the ground created huge holes in the land that are now filled with water. The result of said dragon's handiwork is a surreal underwater mountain range with only the peaks peaking above the ocean. We heard (thanks Victor!) that with only a day trip there (it's a 3-4 hour drive from Hanoi) you're asking to hate it, so we went ahead and spent the night on a lovely, albeit extremely touristy, 13 room cruise boat. Definitely worth it as it wasn't until the second day that the sun started to power through the persistent mist, bathing the other-worldly, seemingly never ending (think 'far as the eye can see') rock formations in light. Stunning.

Notable exceptions that didn't make it into the post because they were neither natural nor specifically people- or service-related:

  • Hoi An - Amazingly quaint little town with an old quarter that's straight out of some French colonial novel about le times gone by.
  • The Imperial City in Hue - crumbling a bit but still really fun to walk through the grounds. Don't miss the Imperial Tennis Court!
  • Enjoying beers and fried pork while sitting on plastic stools at an intersection in Hanoi's old quarter... watching the world (mainly mopeds and flustered looking tourists actually) go by.
8 days definitely did not do Vietnam justice and every minute it seemed to inch its way towards the top of the 'favorite country of our trip' list... Oh well, guess we'll just have to go back!

From Vietnam: Harvey and the War

The Vietnam War as I knew it only existed in textbooks. The conflict was an existential, unfathomable (at least before the Iraq War) concept. Vietnam was to me more a descriptive adjective than an actual place. Even when I became friends with several of the multitude of Vietnamese-origin Texans, I never seemed to put two and two together. It wasn't as if I didn't know they were related; it just never became an active part of my daily intellectual wanderings.

Until I finally traveled to Vietnam.

I don't come from a long line of military folks. My father is Turkish (and therefore served mandatorily in the Turkish armed forces not the American ones) and, to my knowledge, few people in my American family served for Uncle Sam in that way. If they did, they sure don't talk about it! The notable exception to this is my cousin Vince who recently conVinced (pun intended) the high brass to pin a star on his shoulder (congrats again Vince!). Long story short, I have great admiration for our military heritage... we just weren't really a big part of it.

At first Vietnam seemed like any of the other SE Asian countries. Friendly people. Sticky heat. Motorbikes everwhere. Then I started seeing a few hammers and sickles. Lots of red... everywhere. The old GI bars in Saigon, now officially called Ho Chi Minh City much to the chagrin of most southerners with whom we spoke, and the ubiquitous army green Vietnamese flag hats got more noticeable. The lingering resentment towards the always suspicious north (access to blogging, and probably many other, websites are restricted in the south), and the US who made the conflict uncomprehensibly more destructive, seemed to add a layer of unease that belied the endless smiling faces.

"Are they ok with us now?" wondered Lauren's dad over Skype before our flight to SGN. Pssh, we thought, that was forever ago! It's fiiiiine. Actually, the man who served in the reserves during the war and generally lived through those turbulent times in the US may have been more perceptive than we thought... maybe he was on to something?

Alas and thankfully, no. The Vietnamese are amazing and opened their arms to us, indulging our increasingly bold questions as we delved deeper into this part of America's and Vietnam's dark past. "Some of the old people who lived through the war may not want to talk to you," Thien told us as he showed us through the Vinh Moc Tunnels, the site of some of the worst continuous aerial bombing that forced entire villages to live underground. "But most of the younger people especially are really curious about the US."

The same guide also told us what had to be a candidate for the 'most heartwarming story of the year' award. Harvey, a 60+ year old Texan, served in Vietnam during the war. At the time units were distributed throughout the south, tasked with living in small villages for often months at a time in villagers' homes. Almost four decades later, his health beginning to wane, Harvey returned to Vietnam with a bag undoubtedly full of white walking shoes, flowery shirts and a poloroid... of him standing with a young boy in front of a hut. As Thien whipped out the photo from his wallet he told us about when Harvey asked him to find that boy. He'd really like to see him again; unfortunately he didn't know the name of the boy, much less the name of the village. Being a military man, he knew the approximate location on a map, but that was it. Long story short, Thien was able to channel his inner Sherlock and, after several days of non-stop searching, finally happened upon a mother carrying her small child in front of their house.

"Do you know this boy?" Thien asked for the ump-teenth time, pointing to the shirtless figure on the right.

"Sure," she answered without a pause. "That's my father. He's in the rice fields right now but let me get him."

Neither Harvey nor the boy in the photo remembered anything about that day. There had been lots of villages and lots of white people roaming around at that time. Neither spoke a word of the other's language, but when they finally did meet, I imagine the handshake was earthshatteringly epic... or maybe it was a hug?

I still don't really know the dates, the offensives, or much about the intricacies of battle in the '60s and '70s. Nonetheless, I learned a lot about what we call the Vietnam War, very little of which could ever be learned from a textbook. It was a dark period in world history, but kudos to the Vietnamese for welcoming us and countless other American tourists each year just a few short decades after... well, you can read about that more in the history books and, better yet, visit Vietnam!

Monday, June 11, 2012

From Myanmar/Thailand/Cambodia: Photos!

The next batch of photos are up! Thailand ones are fairly lame (although Chiang Mai was lovely and definitely worth the trip) but the other two (especially Myanmar) are pretty fun.

Myanmar photos.

Thailand photos.

Cambodia photos.

Enjoy!

Sunday, June 10, 2012

From Cambodia: Angkor Whaaaat?

It was on the list. You know, the list. It's been on there for a while. Not exactly sure why or where I first heard about Angkor Wat, but from the first picture I saw I was hooked.

Well, turns out that Angkor Wat, the largest religious building in the world, is not only fascinating in person, it's only part of the fun! Much like Bagan in Myanmar, the temples just north of Siem Reap (of which Angkor Wat is the most famous) just keep going. And going. And going. Also like Bagan, they were all a bit different from one another, built by different people at different times for different (or perhaps the same?) purposes. We were there for a good part of the day (5am to 1pm) and I get the distinct impression that we barely scratched the surface of what there was to explore both on and off our map.

Like other places we've been in Cambodia, the whole complex is well-maintained, organized and conducive to exploration. Not really being the 'guided tour' types (with some rare exceptions), we preferred to use a tuk tuk (the place is too big to see much of it in one day on bicycles) for transportation. But the exploring was up to us. Just the way we like it!

However, even in the low season and under the extreme humidity, there were thousands of other people (some of whom are described below) who decided to be hand held by an undoubtedly knowledgeable guide constantly spitting out dates and random tidbits of information that most likely made the treacherous journey into one ear, through the thoroughly confused tourist's brain and out the other ear. They're easily identified and just as easily grouped into categories.

Seeing as how Cambodia is in the neighborhood as the world's most prolific travelers, it's no wonder that many a group of Chinese and Japanese were spotted being ushered through the ruins of and around Angkor Wat. Let's call them crazy Asian tourists... crasians for short.

In my experience crasians are some of the most well-prepared, and hilarious, travelers. Always in groups of 15+, your typical crasian will don a late model fanny pack (yes, apparently they are still manufactured), big floppy hat and, always, a nice camera. We're talking DSLR here mostly, with expensive point-and-shoots as the backup. And they all have them. Good luck trying to take a shot of the temple overrun by trees and vines (nature 1 : humans 0) without also capturing at least 4 and a half crasians posing for photos. As the tour guide yawns (it's probably his/her fault anyways - I've heard guides say 'and this is a pretty place for a picture' countless times), this can go on for 10s of minutes, each husband or wife taking a picture of the significant other flashing the peace sign. Then a group shot. Or three. Luckily for my sanity, crasians are also very good at waiting in line. They are exceedingly polite and regularly express animated acknowledgment of interest facts through head nodding and surprise-indicating verbal cues ('aahh' and 'oohh' being the most common). And they always smile at me while looking straight up at my chin from below. Yes, at I am a freak of nature in Asia.

As a point of clarification, I am not calling all people of the Asian persuasion crazy. Much like otherwise normal fraternity guys descend into insanity upon coming together in a group, so too do Asian tourists become crasians when grouped into 15 or more.

To be fair, American tourists are similarly fun to watch. Let's call this group Loud Bad Jeans White Shoes (LBJWS). LBJWSs, although not as prevalent as crasians on the international 'it's in the guidebook so I must see it' scene, are just as recognizable. They're almost always loud and obnoxious ("Betty. Betty! BETTY! Honey, you HAVE to come and see this pretty 'lil native thing here! It's only 20 bucks!), never minding those of us around who realize that there are other people around that may not want to hear about the great juice mixer you just bought or the Made in China scarf you're about to purchase. Almost without fail, LBJWSs also have poorly fitting jeans (but they're just comfortable right?). C'mon, admit it, we all have a pair (or three)... Lastly, LBJWSs always seem to be wearing tennis shoes (usually white) with white athletic tube socks. Again, they're comfortable, get off our backs.

In all honesty, I think Europeans are the best travelers, perhaps because traveling is such an ingrained part of their culture. German, French, English, etc. youth are encouraged to take a year off backpacking around the world before or after university. It's a great policy if you ask me and one that more American kids should try. Generally they also have decent fashion sense, even when it's a million degrees outside and despite the fact that capri pants (i.e. manpris) never look good on men. Even though Germans have the tendency to pair shorts with hiking boots not just when hiking, I have to give a general thumbs up to the Euros (not the currency, that's a mess). Sometimes on tours but (especially with the youth) usually alone or in pairs, they get my vote for most awesome-est tourists.

Call me insensitive for pointing this stuff out and collectively poking fun at tourists (and myself - just ask Lauren about some of my outfits on this trip)? I'm just telling you what I saw. And see over and over again. And over again.