So Wendy and I are wrapping up our travels. As I write this, it’s been 164 days, 12 countries and 43 different cities since we left New York. We’ve traveled by just about every possible mechanism: jet, prop plane, train, subway, dodgy wooden boat, dodgy metal boat, bus, car, rickshaw, camel and elephant. And we’ve walked miles by ourselves.
To close out our travels, I thought I’d share a couple of thoughts that have popped up while we’ve been abroad. (If you’re looking for a top x list, this will disappoint; fortunately the Internet it full of said lists).
The world’s great travelers are the…French. Perhaps it’s the 26 hour work week and the mandatory retirement at 42, but the French were everywhere we went. The Dutch travel a lot too, but they seem to focus on the former colonies. On the other hand the French are ubiquitous. Laos, Indonesia, Malaysia, Uzbekistan, India; sometimes I thought they were simply following us around.
I was shocked by how few Canadians, Aussies and Americans we saw. There’s a massive gap between Southeast Asia and Turkey where, with the exception of the Golden Triangle in India (Delhi, Agra and Jaipur), you don’t hear much natively spoken English.
The other interesting trend is the rise of the Chinese tourist. They travel in packs and seem like teenagers who are aware that they’re getting stronger but aren’t quite confident with their new muscles. Hordes of them are descending on places that, like Ha Long Bay, seem curiously reminiscent of China.
In fact, their travel reminds me of Canadians. For most Canadians, their first trip is to America. It’s a chance to get a taste of a foreign country and see what “foreigners” are like yet not give up the familiarity and safety blanket of home (heck, they look like you). Yet we all go abroad eventually; expect to see many chinese tourists near you soon.
Everyone loves to compare countries. It’s natural; one of the reasons we travel is to see how things are in different countries (unless you are doing the Canada -> Mexico/Cuba booze run; there’s little anthropology involved there).
The standard way economists compare countries is to use GDP or GNI per capita, adjusted for purchasing power. Said another way, take the value of everything made and traded in a country, divide it by the population and adjust for how expensive things are in different countries.
This sounds great, but having seen it in action, I think it’s one of the silliest metrics out there.
Consider the following:
You’re looking at gross national income per capital, ppp adjusted for India, Uzbekistan and Laos. India is the leader here with a value of $3,260. Uzbekistan is about 10% lower at $2,890 and Laos is the laggard at $2,210.
Based on this you might think that India is more developed than both of these countries and a better place to live. But the reality is a little more nuanced.
When you fly into Tashkent you might mistake yourself for being in a lightly populated European capital; leafy boulevards and cafes abound. You would never make this mistake flying into Mumbai or Delhi (or, god help you, Calcutta). Similarly, Laos is, on average, poorer than India but it’s low population means that you will never be accosted by 5 year old children gently tapping on your car’s window and gesturing to their mouths for food.
So if we can’t compare countries’ development based on per capita income, how might we compare them? Here are a bunch of signs that I think could be combined into some sort of development index to figure out how far along a country is:
- Can you get Diet Coke? In the smaller towns?
- How many households have washers and dryers?
- Are there any garbage cans in public places? If there’s one, is it ceremonial or are there enough and are they frequently emptied?
- Are there convenience stores that are not attached to gas stations? How sophisticated are they? Are items just arrayed on the shelves or is there some sort of science behind how they’re arranged? How frequently does the stock turn over?
- What is the ratio in the cost of a liter of oil vs. a liter of bottled water?
- Are people allowed to park on the sidewalks or is there zero tolerance for this?
- Are there wild dogs and cats in the city?
- Is there a modern art gallery in the capital city? Do people actually go there?
- Can you place an outbound call from your hotel room?
- Do stores have price stickers on their goods or are you negotiating every single price?
So how do select countries compare?
Japan is the clear winner in the convenience store category, followed by Hong Kong – with Laos and Vietnam getting into the game. Germany, India and Uzbekistan aren’t doing too well.
Wild dogs pop up in strange places. Istanbul is a giant squat for feral beasts and new breeds of mutt are being created daily. India gives it a run for its money.
Istanbul also has a great and popular modern art gallery; most of Uzbekistan can’t imagine one (modern art is an interesting proxy for political freedom and drive for modernity).
In Japan it’s going to cost you a lot more than gas for a liter of gas. In Germany it’s actually cheaper – thought barely – due to the ubiquity of bottle shops (people buy bulk). In India water is cheap and gas is very expensive.
Not one of these indicators will predict the level of development of any country, but put them together and you get an interesting perspective on how different places are doing.
The seatbelt is universally hated by the populations of all nations. Taxi drivers around the world have rejected it.
Conversely, irrespective of whatever country you’re in, if a car you’ve never seen flashes their high beams at you, you should assume there’s a cop right around the corner.
I like using travel to explore the banal. All countries face the same set of basic challenges: feed a large mass of people, protect them from famine/war/invaders/disease/etc. and then try and raise their standard of living.
I’m particularly interested in what countries do once they’ve satisfied those first two and can start to focus on the third. Because at that point, everyone starts to encounter the same set of banal problems, but lots of countries come up with different solutions.
Consider, for instance, the pressing need to open canned goods. I’m sure that every reader of this blog (all six of you) have, at one point or another in your life, used a can opener. Since many of you are Canadian, the process probably went like this:
a) Pickup can opener
b) Open jaws
c) Place one side of jaw on upper lid of can. Place other jaw underneath lid
d) Close jaws
e) Rotate large bar on side can opener while squeezing jaws shut
f) Watch in awe as your can of Alphagetti opens and shares the wonder of the latin script with you.
Simple right? You’ve done it hundreds of times, so you’re pretty confident you can open a can.
Well, I thought so too, until I tried to open a can in Germany.
Here’s how one opens a can in Germany:
The can opener immediately confused me as there were no jaws. Just two little wheels staring at me. Watching. Judging.
Like a cave man trying to decipher a telephone, I groped at the tool, tossing it gently from hand to hand, sensing its weight and hoping it would yield a clue. After a few minutes, a breakthrough: when I depressed a plastic button in the handle, a handle shot out the side. This must be the right path.
In the third photo above you can see what I tried to do next: I tried to use the German can opener with the North American technique. I thought the handle and the main body were analogues to the jaws on a normal can opener and I had to use them to vertically grip the can’s lid. Every time I closed the jaw, the can opener would shoot sideways and clatter to the floor.
Much cursing ensued.
Hunger stopped me from learning anything and instead I assumed that there was some “trick” and if I could just get the angle right the damn lid would come off.
After five minutes of this I realized that this wasn’t working. Male pride would not allow me to admit defeat and I considered getting out a knife and simply hacking away at the top of the can. (Wounded male pride must be responsible for most household accidents and visits to emergency wards)
But then I had a thought. What if the can opener didn’t work up and down, but rather sideways. It was an Archimedes-like moment of inspiration but instead of yelling “Eureuka” I simply muttered the brand of the canned soup under my breath.
I gently slid one of the rollers on the inside lid of the can and the other on the outside. I depressed the previously inscrutable handle and there was a satisfying lock as the teeth gripped the edge of the can. The can opener stuck out horizontally, sneering at gravity. Solid. German.
And then I turned. With gratifying effort, the top of the can gave way. But I wasn’t cutting off the lid, I was cutting off the top of the can.
And that’s just how they roll in Germany. I’m sure that every German over the age of three knows how to open a can. And now I do too.
I’ve kept the can opener to remind me of just how little I know.
Another banal area that I am now intimately familiar with is laundry. I’ve had the opportunity to be on the receiving end of how almost half the world’s citizens wash their clothes. You laugh, but washing your clothes when traveling – and getting back the same clothes you started with – is a decidedly non-trivial experience.
The only place I could find a self-serve laundromat was Tokyo. Interestingly, it was entirely self-service. No one worked there and it was just trusted that everyone would take care of the place: not trash the machines, take their laundry out in a timely manner, etc.
Whenever we dropped out laundry off in Germany it was handled with Prussian efficiency. Every single article had a sticker with our order number written on it:
Contrast this with India where, at Mt. Abu’s Fawlty Towers-esque Lake Palace, they actually wrote “LP” in indelible marker on every article of clothing we dropped off:
Unfortunately for Wen, they actually wrote “LP” on the front of the neck of many of her t-shirts so she had an awkward little tattoo for a few weeks of our trip.
Sometimes you come across a problem that a country has solved and you didn’t even know you had. One of the ones I noticed was the two sets of alarms on German light rail cars. You can tell the driver how long the door has to stay open when requesting a stop: if you’re traveling with a child you’ll probably need a bit more time to get out of the car:
One of the unintended consequences of globalization is that whether you are in Fort Kochi (India), Hanoi or Istanbul, someone is going to try and sell you a hand-powered mini-sewing machine or a glowing toy that fires a spinning parachutist into the sky.
Somewhere in China is a factory that makes both and the workers there have absolutely no idea what they have set loose in the world.
In other news, I’d love to know the distribution system that makes sure that this useless stuff gets delivered to all the varied corners of the Earth.
When Wen and I go to a town, we try and get at least a little bit off the beaten path. I want to see the popular sites, but I also want to get a sense of how the locals live (In no part because so many of the the locals in many of the countries we visited want what I have – I don’t begrudge them that as I was born very lucky in a great country – and I want to get a sense of where they’re at in getting it).
This lead us to some interesting places. A walk through Tokyo’s, Istanbul’s and Hanoi’s back streets. Aimless wandering in Kowloon. Grocery shopping in Semporna (Borneo) and Udaipur amongst other places.
I always thought Wen and I were a little weird for this, but then I found out someone who is, in part, making a career of it – and came up with the great term “Geopolitical travel.” Here’s a snippet from a great article where he describes it:
There is another part of geopolitical travel that is perhaps the most valuable: walking the streets of a city. Geopolitics affect every level of society, shaping life and culture. Walking the streets, if you know what to look for, can tell you a great deal. Don’t go to where the monuments and museums are, and don’t go to where the wealthy live. They are the least interesting and the most globally homogenized. They are personally cushioned against the world. The poor and middle class are not. If a Montblanc store is next to a Gucci shop, you are in the wrong place.
Go to the places where the people you will never hear of live. Find a school and see the children leave at the end of the day. You want the schools where there is pushing and shoving and where older brothers come to walk their sisters home. You are now where you should be. Look at their shoes. Are they old or new? Are they local or from the global market? Are they careful with them as if they were precious or casual with them as they kick a ball around? Watch children play after school and you can feel the mood and tempo of a neighborhood.
Find a food store. Look at the food being offered, particularly fruits and vegetables. Are they fresh-looking? What is the selection? Look at the price and calculate it against what you know about earnings. Then watch a woman (yes, it is usually a woman) shopping for groceries. Does she avoid the higher priced items and buy the cheapest? Does she stop to look at the price, returning a can or box after looking, or does she simply place it in her basket or cart without looking at the price? When she pays for the food, is she carefully reaching into an envelope in her pocketbook where she stores her money, or does she casually pull out some bills? Watch five women shopping for food in the late afternoon and you will know how things are there.
Go past the apartments people live in. Smell them. The unhealthy odor of decay or sewage tells you about what they must endure in their lives. Are there banks in the neighborhood? If not, there isn’t enough business there to build one. The people are living paycheck to paycheck. In the cafes where men meet, are they older men, retired? Or are they young men? Are the cafes crowded with men in their forties drinking tea or coffee, going nowhere? Are they laughing and talking or sitting quietly as if they have nothing left to say? Official figures on unemployment can be off a number of ways. But when large numbers of 40-year-old men have nothing to do, then the black economy — the one that pays no taxes and isn’t counted by the government but is always there and important — isn’t pulling the train. Are the police working in pairs or alone? What kind of weapons do they carry? Are they everywhere, nowhere or have just the right presence? There are endless things you can learn if you watch.
The next time you travel I highly recommend doing so geopolitically – even if it’s just the city down the road.
Here are a couple of political thoughts I’ve had while traveling; my worldview is shifting:
- Corruption is the world’s biggest problem. A corrupt society can never truly be free and will never have a standard of living that, on average, matches those of uncorrupt societies. The only way to stop corruption is through free elections and an accountable judiciary. Influences: Uzbekistan and India.
- I’m currently wondering if democracy works at scale. I believe in democracy and think it’s the only form of government that will really work, but after spending time in America and India, I’m not yet sure we have the institutions to make it work at scale.
- India’s the largest democracy by population but its politics are captured by caste; you don’t cast your vote – you vote your caste and then get a job from them
- America, the world’s largest democracy by economic might, is currently experiencing regulatory capture where special interests seem to dictate what occurs. Direct democracy in California has been a disaster
- Maybe when a country hits a certain size it simply needs a new set of democratic institutions (broader executive powers with supermajority recall? Special track for long-term, expensive projects? I don’t know)?
- The emergent challenge of the 21st century is not “East” vs. “West” but “Modernity” vs. “Western Values”
- “East” vs. “West” doesn’t work because Japan is definitely not Western but embodies many of the notions of the West; Turkey is in a similar but different boat
- Instead, in many countries its a question of “can I give my people modern technology without freedom?” China is at the forefront of this, trying to use technology to secure the Politburo’s supremacy all the while soothing its populace at the teat of washing machines and online video games. Don’t think that countless countries in Southeast and Central Asia aren’t closely monitoring this experiment. (Any time a country explains that “social stability” is a prime goal, they’re going to be interested in this experiment)
There are all sorts of indexes out there that tell you how free a country you’re visiting is. Most of the time, it’s hard to tell exactly how “free” a place is (after all, if it’s not free, the locals probably aren’t hunting down tourists to tell them so-although in Uzbekistan they sort of did). Here are a couple of things I’ve noticed are half-decent indicators of how liberal a place is.
- Do you need a visa to get in the country as a tourist? Do you need an invitation to get said visa?
- Can you get money out of an ATM at the foremost international airport?
- Do your bags get x-rayed after you’ve landed but before you’ve entered the country? (Ostentatiously to protect the locals from drugs and contraband)
One final thought. I love traveling and seeing what the social contract is like in different countries. The goods you can buy, the services offered, the quality of the dwellings, the manifestation of the state on the street via cops and other civil servants, how people treat each other: it’s all a signal of a society’s social contract between citizens.
Traveling is most fun when you start to understand how a country’s social contract is different from yours – and that maybe yours isn’t the best. We had the best chance to observe this in Germany as we spent a lot of time there and it was the least foreign of all the countries we visited and thus the easiest to compare with what we know.
Some of the interesting things we noticed: a thriving publishing industry and airport coffee in glass cups.
In North America, the physical publishing is being killed by the online world and this is taken as inexorable; in Berlin there are about a dozen daily newspapers and countless magazines vying for your attention.
In North America, a cup of coffee at the airport is going to come in a disposable mug; in Berlin it came in a glass cup. Moreover, you could take it away from the coffee bar and over to your seat in the waiting room. It was assumed you would bring it back – because why wouldn’t you? This movie would end badly in Canada or America.
So there you have it, the results of almost six months of travel summed up in a blog post. It was an awesome trip and hopefully a trip in a lifetime, not the trip of a lifetime. I’m looking forward to a bit of normalcy back in Canada, but one day Wen and I will have to get back on the road!