Ruminations of a Traveling Man

Monday, April 22, 2019

Atacama, Chile.- K and I have lived in or traveled to a shitload of countries. (I should buy a map and put pins in it.)

In terms of cost and benefit, there are only three ways to travel: Budget Immersion Style, Group Discount Style, and Andrew Harper Style. And I’ve done them all.

Budget Immersion Style: You are short on cash but big in spirit. You take the cheapest flight regardless of where it’s going because you know that every destination has equal potential.

You sleep on lumpy mattresses, eat food you’ve never tasted before, travel in buses with people holding chickens on their laps, drink the local whatever (because they are so insistent), and make a serious effort to speak the language.

Traveling this way allows you to understand, first hand, what is unique and wonderful about the local culture. (Like it or not, your budget requires you to be immersed in it.) The big payoff is the respect you develop for the way other people live.

Group Discount Style: You fly economy to all the usual cities, stay at hotels catering almost strictly to Americans, eat astonishingly bad American-esque cuisine, visit the tourist traps in herds, speak only English, and make friends only with other English speakers you don’t ever want to see again. Other than being able to say, “I’ve been to _________,” there is no personal gain.

Andrew Harper Style: You fly first-class, stay at charming (and first-class) inns and B&Bs that none of your friends have ever heard of. Every meal you eat is the best meal you’ve ever had. And you can do whatever you want to do because your guide is working as if he’s expecting a $500 tip. (And by the end of the trip, you’re happy to give it to him.)

(By the way, if you’re not familiar with Andrew Harper, you might want to get acquainted. He’s been writing a newsletter about travel for as long as I can remember. He’s curated many of our trips. And though very expensive, they’ve all been memorable.)

I spent the 1970s traveling Budget Immersion Style, and it was great. Back then, every country had its own character and customs that were distinctly foreign. Everything felt wonderfully alien – from the way people dressed to the cars they drove to the street signs to the way light switches worked to the shape and functionality of toilets. And, of course, no one except tour guides “spoke” English.

K and I spent our early married years traveling Group Discount Style, and it was terrible. But now, in my semi-retirement years, we’ve discovered travel Andrew Harper Style… and it’s pretty darn addicting.

My general rule for touring foreign cities (our favorite spots to visit are parks, museums, galleries, churches, cemeteries, and monuments) is to leave a site the moment you are bored. Resist the urge to see everything or even the “most important” things. You are going to forget 95% of what you learn anyway, so look at less but enjoy more.

K and I figured this out many years ago. For us, four days seems to be just enough to feel like we got to know a city without overstepping its welcome.

One thing I don’t like about touring today is the omnipresence of the worst of US culture. McDonald’s and Starbucks are everywhere. Every person under 30 dresses exactly as our young people do. Every city has a big, US-styled shopping mall. And every country has its version of hip-hop music. (Note to people worried about the end of American culture. It won’t happen because it is already ubiquitous. It’s not high culture… but, hey, it’s American.)

As I said, there are only three ways to travel. There are also only three types of tourists: urbanites, beach lovers, and mountaineers.

K and I live on the beach so we don’t vacation on the beach. That aside, I’m an urbanite and she’s a mountaineer. And the trip we’re on right now – in Chile – is a compromise.

We’ve been here for about a week, and it’s been Andrew Harper all the way.

We spent four days in Santiago. Then we flew north to the Atacama Desert for… well, for K to once again remind me how much more fit she is than I.

In Santiago, we stayed at El Singular, an elegant, unflashy but first-rate hotel in the heart of the old part of the city. If you go to Santiago Andrew Harper Style, stay there. The location is perfect for seeing what matters. The building, inside and out, is sophisticated. The bar and restaurant are first-rate. And the staff is sanguine and supremely attentive, as good as any hotel I’ve ever stayed at.

The city has 7 million people – about the same as New York. And like New York, it has a history of conquest and corruption dating back to the Indians. Also like New York, it’s a cosmopolitan mix of diverse neighborhoods and busy streets, of commerce and finance, of good eating and entertainment and shopping.

One thing Santiago doesn’t have is much in the way of art. I couldn’t find a single gallery that sold Matta, for example. And the main museum, the Museo de Bellas Artes, doesn’t even have a permanent collection on display.

In the Atacama Desert, we stayed at the safari-styled Awasi, a Relais & Chateaux luxury hotel. There are only 10 rooms and perhaps 40 employees. You get all the attention you want, but you never feel pestered.

Our guide, Marco, quickly figured out that K was the one he was going to have fun with. I explained to him that I’ve summited Mt. Kilimanjaro and so I’m done with uphill walking. I said I’d be more than happy to be left at any convenient spot where I could write and smoke my cigars while he and K explored the wilderness. That was fine with him, but K wouldn’t have it. I begrudgingly went along on every other trek and, of course, loved it.

We also spent a day in Valparaiso, which has a vibrant amateur arts and crafts scene, including lots of painting on walls – tagging and graffiti, as well as murals. Tagging is the practice of spray-painting one’s “signature” to mark one’s territory. It is crude, inwardly centered, and ugly. Graffiti takes tagging into the realm of folk art by displaying ingenuity and skill. Mural painting is real art. It is outward-centered, intended for the viewer. Somehow, taggers understand this. Rarely do you see a mural defaced by tagging.

One of my favorite things to do when traveling is to visit the houses of writers and artists. And we’ve been able to do some of that here. Pablo Neruda’s homes in Santiago, Valparaiso, and Isla Negra, for example, are wonderful composites of architecture, interior décor, art, artifacts, and curiosities. Even if you aren’t a huge fan of his poetry (I’m still trying), seeing them will make you wish you had been his friend.

All of the Chileans I’ve met on this trip – so far, at least –  have a surprising sense of identity. They see themselves as descendants of the original Indians (before the Incas even) rather than the offspring of the Spaniards. But, in fact, many of them are probably more Spanish than Indian since the Spanish wiped out nearly all the locals during the conquest.

And though I’m sure there are Chileans that admire Donald Trump, I haven’t met one yet.

Binge Out!

Thursday, April 18, 2019

Atacama, Chile.- The language police have struck again. According to Dictionary.com, I’m not allowed to describe my bouts of overeating chocolate kisses or over-watching Netflix as “binging.”

The dictionary opines: “When most of us use phrases like binge-watch or gag me with a spoon, we aren’t trying to cause harm. However, our willingness, inadvertent or not, to treat eating disorders, their symptoms, and their vocabulary as a joke means that the 30 million people in the US who suffer from some form of an eating disorder can feel stigmatized, made to feel like their conditions aren’t serious.”

There is method behind this madness, and it’s all about money:

Take a bad habit (i.e., binge eating), give it a clinical-sounding name (binge eating disorder), give that an acronym (BED), register it as a mental illness, get health insurance to cover it, and – bingo! You have created a new billion-dollar industry.

Two more steps:

* Get media to promote the idea that binge eating is not bad behavior but a disorder.

* Call in the language police to restrict usage of the term to the “professionals” and, thus, control and protect the asset.

Thoughts on Jefe’s Death

Friday, April 12, 2019

Delray Beach, FL.- I wrote about the death of our dog Jefe (left) last week. I said that he gave us so many gifts – so many moments of laughter and love – during his lifetime. Thinking about it since then, it occurred to me that pets like Jefe provide us with another sort of gift, an existential gift.

Dogs have a relatively short lifespan – typically 8 to 15 years. That’s enough time for us to see them grow from puppies into adults and then into those frail years. It’s also enough time for us to learn to love them. Sometimes very deeply. But then they die and we have to deal with the grief of losing them. It’s painful, but we go through it and we move on.

We’re likely to experience the death of half a dozen pets before we are middle-aged. That’s half a dozen opportunities that our beloved pets give us to practice the grieving and recovery process – to prepare us for what we will one day have to go through with the humans we love and have loved for the longer length of human life.

Jefe

Wednesday, April 3, 2019

Delray Beach, FL.-

My little old dog: A heart-beat at my feet.” – Edith Wharton

When we entered the butterfly pavilion, the manager approached us and said, “I’m sorry, but we don’t allow dogs in here.”

“He’s a service dog,” Michael said, pulling out Jefe’s certificate. “You have to let him in.”

“Please understand. The pavilion is full of butterflies and small birds. It is simply too much for dogs. They can’t contain themselves. If you could leave him here, we’ll look after him.”

“He’s certified for birds and butterflies,” Michael said.

I frowned at him as if to say, “You’re overdoing it.”

The manager reluctantly let Jefe pass. But we were followed by a half-dozen staff members ready to jump in when the inevitable melee occurred.

Jefe isn’t really a service dog. His certificate was bought online. But he has always been an amazingly sensible and good-natured animal. We spent a half-hour walking through the pavilion, and throughout he had no fewer than a dozen butterflies on his back and a bird or two for good measure. Not only did he not react, he hardly seemed to notice them. And when we exited, the manager rushed towards us and said, “Oh my lord. He is trained for birds and butterflies!”

Jefe was born in Nicaragua. We bought him as a puppy and kept him there as our Nicaraguan dog. But in Nicaragua, dogs do not have the same importance as they have in America. The people that cared for our house so well cared little for Jefe. After seeing the shape he was in when we came back after having been away for a while, Michael decided to adopt him and bring him back to the States. In the USA, Jefe had a life his fellow Nica dogs could not even imagine. The first week he was in Florida, he had a complete makeover – not only lavish scented baths, a haircut, and a pedicure, but an aromatherapy session and some sort of doggie counseling to boot.

He was, in Michael’s words, the best dog in the world. He was intelligent, responsive, obedient, and kind. He was also playful – as playful as you would want a dog to be. As Samuel Butler said, “The great pleasure of a dog is that you may make a fool of yourself with him and not only will he not scold you, but he will make a fool of himself too.”

As I’m writing this, Jefe is resting in his home in Baltimore with his mistress Maggie, and Michael, his master, is flying home to be with him. He is scheduled to be at the veterinarian tomorrow. His last visit. After 13 years of being a remarkable being on this overpopulated planet, he will breathe his last breath.

Michael and Maggie are crying a lot. Kathy and I cried a bit tonight as well. But I like to remind myself that Jefe lived a long life – more than 80 years in dog time. And he lived the sort of life that we proud humans only hope to live. He had no ambitions other than to enjoy the moments that were given to him. He welcomed the new ones with excited anticipation. He endured the difficult ones with admirable patience. He forgave each and every hurt accidentally put to him. And most importantly, he was always present in those moments, which means that he had millions more of them than you or I.

Jefe will go down tomorrow gently, as he lived. He will not rage against the dying of the light. In going, he will give us the last of countless gifts he has given us along his way.

Monday, April 1, 2019

Delray Beach, FL.- I’m happy to report that I’ve been contacted by a senior curator at the Smithsonian, who has informed me that they want to put all my published works into the institution, seal them in a vault, and make them available only to scholars in the future, but not to the public. They believe my wealth building writings are too powerful to be disseminated freely. I will update you as this develops.

How Many Laws Do We Really Need?

Friday, March 29, 2019

Rancho Santana, Nicaragua.-From Capitol Report: “Despite the slow start while new legislators learned their way around the capitol, over 3,400 bills have been filed by the 2019 deadline that could change state laws in the two months of Florida’s Legislative Session.”

Think about that. Thirty-four hundred bills in two months in one state.

How is that even possible?

We hear frequently from conservatives that our federal and local governments are over-regulating everything. I always took that to mean that they were passing laws that put restraints on free enterprise. But 3,400 bills in two months? That’s way beyond restraining free enterprise. I can’t even imagine how many areas of our lives it takes to accommodate so many bills.

How many people do you need to think up and write 3,400 bills? Not to mention the people you need to do the research and file the documents and circulate copies and so on. Then there is another level of “workers” — journalists, lobbyists, and government watchdogs — who spend their time reading and reporting on those bills.

I asked Alex, our research associate, to find some facts about the growth of government bureaucracy in the USA. Here are some good ones:

  1. More Americans are employed by the government than by the country’s entire manufacturing sector.
  2. The federal government indirectly employs an additional 12 million people, more than any other governmental agency or enterprise in the world.
  3. Every year, the government spends $279 billion on federal employee salaries – and that number continues to grow.
  4.  Since inception, the federal bureaucracy has quintupled in size, now housing more than 2,300 subsidiary programs, administrations, and departments.
  5. When federal laws were first organized in 1927, they fit into a single volume. By the 1980s, they filled 50 volumes of more than 23,000 pages.

How many laws do we really need?

At one time, it was believed that 10 were enough. Now there are so many it’s impossible to get a reliable count. And if you had one, it would be grossly outdated in a week’s time.

If there’s a silver lining to all this, I’d like to see it.

Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World – and Why Things Are Better Than You Think 

Wednesday, March 27, 2019

Rancho Santana, Nicaragua

Answer these 4 questions:

  1. In all low-income countries in the world today, how many girls finish high school?

a.- 20%

b.- 40%

c.- 60%

  1. In the last 20 years, the proportion of the world’s population living in extreme poverty has…

a.- Almost doubled

b.- Remained more or less the same

c.- Almost halved

  1. How many of the world’s one-year-old children have been vaccinated against some disease?

a.- 20%

b.- 50%

c.- 80%

  1. Which geographical regions have the highest incidence of melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer?

a.- Those that have lots of sunlight

b.- Those that have moderate sunlight

c.- Those that have little sunlight

Someone left a copy of Factfulness by Hans Rosling in my office for me. I don’t know who it was, but I’m grateful.

It’s a book about a surprising problem: the enormous amount of ignorance about the answers to some very important questions. As Rosling points out, many of the “facts” that we accept as true and indisputable turn out to be false. And this is not a function of education. College grads prove themselves to be as ignorant as high school dropouts. In fact, monkeys do a better job of getting most of these important answers right. (I’m not kidding. Rosling has convincing evidence.)

I came upon this phenomenon about 15 years ago. Back then, you may remember, people were convinced that sun exposure was the cause of skin cancer and were doing everything they could to keep themselves and their children away from its rays. This didn’t make sense to me. The sun, after all, is the primary source of life. And as many studies have since proven, I was right to be skeptical. We now know that a healthy amount of sunlight each day promotes Vitamin D (more a hormone than a vitamin). And that wards off not only skin cancer but just about every other inflammation-related disease. (And, yes, geographical regions that get lots of sunlight have the lowest incidence of melanoma.)

Answers to the 4 questions, above:

  1. c
  2. c
  3. c
  4. c

What Do You Think? What Would You Do?

Monday, March 25, 2019

Rancho Santana, Nicaragua.- So Mike Weirsky,  divorced and for 15 years unemployed, wins the $273 million Mega Millions jackpot. And the first thing he does is buy a Ford Raptor.

But how much is he going to pay the person that found his ticket and selflessly and heroically turned it in to the store so Weirsky could claim it?

And why did Weirsky leave it in the store? Because he “was distracted by a phone call.”

Had the person not turned in the ticket, Weirsky would have been out of luck. “I was just very happy that there was an honest person out there, because I figured it was gone,” he said at a press conference.

“I’m looking for the guy that handed it in and I want to thank him,” he said. “I’m going to give him something, but I’m going to keep that private.”

Get this: “The guy,” had he kept the ticket, would have been able to claim the $273 million himself.

So what should he be given by Weirsky?

10 Things I Would Like to Become…

Saturday, March 23, 2019

Delray Beach, FL.- 

  1. A better teacher
  • My strengths are insight and caring. I need to be better at giving examples. 
  1. A more articulate arguer
  • I like to argue. I’m always surprised that I’m not very good at it. The problem is that I don’t have my arguments worked out. I don’t have a bank of facts to support my positions. And that’s because I am not in the habit of remembering facts. My habit is to remember my conclusions. (Because I think my interest in learning is philosophical, not rhetorical.) I have to identify my key positions and memorize supporting facts. I have to become a quicker learner. 
  1. A subtler writer
  • I’ve always wanted to be both a writer and also a teacher. My teaching desire penetrates my writing style. I tend to over-explain, which is sometime forgivable in essays and non-fiction books but is deadly in fiction. It makes me realize that my desire to be a good teacher – to have my student understand – is actually stronger than my desire to be a good teacher. I treat my readers like students. I’m more concerned that they get the point than that they enjoy the story.
  1. Less sensitive to criticism
  • I’m generally good at criticism because I’m generally comfortable being less than great at almost everything I do. But I could be better when it comes to criticism of my character. I’m sensitive to that – perhaps because I’m not as good a person as I’d like to be.
  1. More accepting of other views on social and political issues
  • Conservatives think leftists have no brains. Leftists think conservatives have no heart. I agree with both of them. And I let this infect my feelings. I actually get angry. Even at friends and family members.
  1. More aware of my surroundings
  • When you are as practiced in the art of self-absorption as I am, you have little attention left to give to your surroundings. I believe that living in the here and nowwill improve my experience of life. But I can’t get out of my head.
  1. Less conscious of my approaching death
  • When you reach a certain age, the mantle of death looms. That’s not a good thing for several reasons, not the least of which it makes you more self-absorbed. (See #6.) I’ve got to get out from underneath it.
  1. Kinder
  • There is a sign at a fork in the road that one comes to later in life. It appears every time you wake up and a dozen times during the day. One arrow points to Good Humor. The other to Grouchiness. I am well aware that I should walk in the direction of Good Humor. But Grouchiness beckons. 
  1. More stoic
  • When someone asks me how I’m doing these days, I answer, “No complaints.” I do that not because I’m feeling good, but because I realize that complaining about whatever ails me will do neither the questioner nor I any good. This is one small area in life where I’ve learned to be more stoic. I’d like to expand the range of my stoicism.
  1. Thinner
  • There’s no point in denying it. I cannot delude myself any longer with clichés like, “I have to love me as I am.” Thinner is better.