Category Archives: Travel and Culture

Travelogue Colombia: Part I, Cartagena

Street art in the Getsemani neighborhood of Cartagena

The flight from San Francisco to Colombia is surprisingly long, particularly when you are relegated to a middle seat.  Fortunately, my neighbor was afraid of flying and took her mind off it by telling me everything about the secret menu at In N’ Out Burger, where she worked during the summer (noteworthy items include chopped onions, diced chillies, and a four-patty burger). But experiencing the seaside city of Cartagena, the little towns in the Efe Cafetero (“Coffee Axis”), and the truly wild restaurant, Andres Carne de Res, outside Bogota made the eight-hour flight worth it.

My friend, Ashaya, and I planned the skeleton of the trip a month before we left, booking flights and hotels, but leaving out any specifics.  Our philosophy – on this trip and one to Oaxaca, Mexico – has been to put ourselves in the right place with a roof over our heads, and let inspiration guide the day-to-day.  We took a red-eye to Cartagena via Panama City and a taxi to the Old City, where the boutique hotel we’d booked, Casa La Fe, overlooked the Plaza Fernandez de Madrid, a beautiful square with artisans, sidewalk cafes, and hawkers selling Panama hats and woven bracelets (I bought both).  Centrally-located with a rooftop pool and a bar, Casa La Fe is right up my alley, offering “a calm and relaxed atmosphere in the heart of the city.” We checked in and set out to find breakfast and explore the city.  

The view from my balcony at Casa La Fe

Cartagena is the fifth-largest city in Colombia, but it is best-known for the walled Old Town, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that was founded by the Spanish in 1533.  With its cobblestone streets, brightly-colored Spanish colonial-style buildings, and a breezy vibe, the Old Town makes for a pleasant stroll. After breakfast, we wandered into the Universidad de Cartagena, to check out an art gallery and performance space, where we sat and watched a string trio who we’d see busking around the city at least three more times, before slowly making our way to the waterfront.  

A tropical city on the Caribbean coast, Cartagena has the sort of history you’d expect from a Spanish colonial port.  After the city was sacked by naval officer turned pirate Sir Francis Drake in 1586 and ransomed for $200 million in today’s currency (only after the destruction of a quarter of it), the Spanish built walls around the town to protect against future calamities.  As the seat of the Spanish slave trade and a key port for the export of Peruvian silver, Cartagena was an attractive target for pirates. Fortunately for us, the walls these days make for a delightful place to watch the sunset and enjoy a pisco sour.

Ashaya looking cool outside the Oh La La Cafe Bistro

On our way to the waterfront, we passed a dive shop, where I booked two dives the following day off the Rosario Islands, a beautiful string of beaches an hour off the coast of Cartagena.  I wouldn’t recommend diving here for a few reasons. Part of the enjoyment I get from diving comes from the slow ride out to the reefs in a dive boat, where you chat with your fellow divers. But this experience felt a little assembly line-esque, with a speedboat taking us to the island and a little boat taking us to the reefs from there.  And sadly, the once-beautiful coral reef of Varadero is a shell of its former self, having been destroyed by deteriorating water quality and the dredging of a new shipping line. It was nice to get a few dives in, but seeing the handful of fish left in the reef made the fact that a fifth of all of the coral in the world has died in the past three years a lot more visceral for me.  

The Rosario islands, the jumping off point for my dive trip

When we first arrived, Ashaya made the dubious, unsubstantiated, and highly-specific claim that Cartagena is the bachelorette party capital of Latin America.  But after a few days, I began to see why. Apart of the dive-ersion on day two, we spent the better part of three days wandering the city, eating ceviche, drinking wine, and playing Uno.  We ate dinner at El Boliche, a low-key family-owned cevicheria with 25 seats and a great mojito, and Cuzco, a modern Peruvian restaurant in an old colonial house, and had lunch at La Cevicheria.  It is worth getting a reservation at the popular spots, but the food scene in Cartagena is solid, and you can’t go wrong with any of these choices.  I’d also recommend having a sundowner on one of the outdoor bars on the wall around the city, and a nightcap at El Baron, a hip cocktail bar in the Plaza de San Pedro Claver run by a German mixologist.  

Having a cocktail at El Baron

By the time our three days and nights in Cartagena were over, we really didn’t want to leave.  The city is charming and beautiful. From the street art murals of Getsemani to the plazas around the Old Town, the scene in Cartagena is chill, and the people reflect it.  But, alas, we had to begin the second leg of our trip, and headed to the airport for an two-hour flight to a small city called Armenia, where we’d drive an hour to Salento, a little town in the heart of the Eje Cafetero, otherwise known as the Colombian coffee region.

Develop Economies’ Music Recommendation

Long-time DE readers know that every post comes with a music recommendation, and this one is no exception.  If you haven’t heard Khruangbin, do yourself a favor and listen to them immediately.  Here is one to get you started:

Travelogue: India


As I mentioned in the last post, I decided to figure this India trip on the fly, refusing to make any concrete plans that might hinder my freedom to do whatever I wanted. The day before I left, I ordered a copy of the Lonely Planet India on Amazon to be delivered the next day (which it did, five hours before my flight). Armed with a book about India and a couple recommendations from friends, I felt confident that the trip would work itself out. Unfortunately, within 24 hours, I lost the Lonely Planet and was back to square one.

The original plan was to explore Varanasi, a city on the Ganges River that is among the holiest for Hindus, and Rajasthan, a region in Northern India known for beautiful landscapes, brightly-colored clothes and architecture, and a rich culture dating back thousands of years. I would take a bus from Pokhara to Varanasi and cross from Nepal to India by land. After a few days, I would fly to New Delhi and follow a path called the Golden Triangle, starting in Delhi, moving on to Agra, the site of the Taj Mahal, and Jaipur, known as the pink city for its reddish-hued stucco buildings, before returning to New Delhi.

After college, my brother worked on a nature documentary in India and spent a week in Varanasi, which he claimed is the coolest place in the world. With such a strong recommendation, I felt I had to go. Given that Varanasi is in the northern part of India, the Golden Triangle felt like a natural fit for the second half of the trip. As with most of my plans, this one quickly fell apartment when I decided to take a bus from Pokhara to Kathmandu, book a flight from Kathmandu to Varanasi, and figure things out from there.

The more I spoke with people, however, it sounded like Delhi was just another giant metropolis and Jaipur a slightly smaller metropolis. Coming to the conclusion that I didn’t know anything, I decided to let Ashaya, who attended boarding school in India, decide my itinerary. She suggested two days in Varanasi, back to Delhi for the Taj Mahal, and down to Udaipur, a small and beautiful city of palaces situated on a lake and surrounded by rolling hills. With a tentative itinerary and two days before my trip, all that was left was to book it.

Having made no reservations of any kind, I spent the day before my flight trying to book a flight from Varanasi back to New Dehli, a round-trip ticket to Udaipur, and a flight back to Kathmandu. India actually has a fledgling low-cost airline industry, with several carriers offering cheap flights around the country. Having talked to a few people who’d done the trip before, I assumed booking travel would be relatively straightforward. Sadly, as with most simple tasks in India, that was not the case.

I first tried to book a flight on, India’s equivalent of Kayak, searching for the lowest fares across the four major airlines in India. Having found a cheap flight from Varanasi to New Dehli, I entered my credit card information, only to be informed that they only accept international credit cards five days in advance of booking, which wasn’t going to help me book a flight in three days. I tried to book directly on website of the airline, SpiceJet, which brought me all the way through the process, including entering my credit card, before bringing me back to the main website and forgetting all about the reservation it was supposed to be processing. Feeling a little like Sisyphus, I began to doubt the wisdom of winging a trip to India.

Having decided to punt on that Delhi flight, I went back to Yatra to book the rest of my flights. I found a great deal on a round trip flight to Udaipur – 8,000 rupees there and back. When I selected the flight, a notice popped up on the screen telling me that, in the time between selecting the flight and bring it up, the price had increased by 2,000 rupees. “Son of a bitch,” I thought. So I decided to wait a bit and check again. Fifteen minutes later I found the flight again for 8,000 rupees. When I click purchase, the same thing happened. I couldn’t help but be amused that an Indian e-commerce website was haggling with me the same way as a shopkeeper selling knockoff watches.

Regardless, it didn’t matter, since every site selling airline tickets in India seemed to be broken. Sensing my desperation, Ashaya told me she’d take care of it and called her ticket-agent cousin, who booked four flights for me on SpiceJet for a total of $380. And with that, I finally had the beginnings of a plan.

Unfortunately, my trip to India got off to a characteristically rocky start when my Air India flight from Kathmandu to Varanasi was first delayed by four hours, and subsequently cancelled altogether. Fortunately, my friend Ashaya called her uncle, Kamal Rana, who works at the airport to guide me through security and ensure I made my flight to New Dehli. This was the first of several saves that made my India trip go much more smoothly than it otherwise might have.

Mr. Rana met me at the airport, shepherded me through immigration and security, bought me coffee, and sent me on my way. Aboard the flight, I sat next to an older Canadian couple, Doug and Estela, also trying to get to Varanasi. Doug struck up a conversation, and we started talking about our respective trips. Once a year, Doug went hunting with a group of American and Canadian guys. One of the America guys had a form of cancer for which an experimental treatment was available in Canada. When he asked Doug to connect him with a doctor in Canada, Doug happily obliged. In return, the American, who worked for Delta Airlines, offered him and Estela first-class, round-trip tickets to anywhere in the world. So they started preparing for a month-long trip through India, with a five-day stopover in Nepal.

Over the course of the two-hour flight, we covered a lot of ground. Doug inherited a farm from his grandfather in Canada, and he and Estela, who is originally from Colombia, bred and raised racehorses. They recently bought a 20-acre farm two hours north of Bogota and were turning it into a ranch and guesthouse for people looking to experience the lush Colombian countryside. I said I’d never been to Colombia, and showed him the places I’d lived on the Air India “Where We Fly” map. When I told him I was in business school, he warned me not destroy the world economy and take advantage of people for financial gain, which I happily obliged.

Before we left, we’d been assured that we would be put on a flight to Varanasi early the following morning. When we deplaned, the Varanasi refugees coalesced, growing to 20 by the time we found out what we needed to do. Each airport employee we asked gave us contradictory instructions, ultimately leading us to leave the airport, take a staircase to the second floor, and re-entering it at the departures terminal. After one guy told us to go back the way we came, Doug mused “Kafka would appreciate this.” There were two Germans in their twenties, each traveling alone, a Dutch family of four who were midway through a four-month trip through India, an older Czech couple that were starting their fourth consecutive month-long India trip and talked about how much had changed from 25 years ago, when they first traveled to the subcontinent, and a handful of others.

When we finally arrived at the Air India customer service desk, it was pandemonium. We were not the only flight that had been cancelled, and people were screaming. The Czech guy, who looked like Mr. Magoo, immediately stepped up as the de facto leader of the group, and reported that we were all going to be re-booked on an already-overbooked flight the following morning. At that point, the Dutch couple decided to cut their losses and head north instead. In the ensuing commotion, I found another airline – IndiGo – with flights the following day for $80. So once we were back at the terrible hotel Air India put us up at, Doug called the travel agent who organized his trip and the three of us booked another flight to Varanasi.

The next morning, we flew out without any problems, short of a three-hour fog delay that left us grounded on the tarmac. I caught a ride into the city with Doug and Estela, where they gave me a postcard of their Colombian getaway and bid me adieu.

In the next post, I’ll talk about Varanasi and beyond.

Develop Economies’ Music Recommendation

Erykah Badu – Back In The Day (Sugar Free) Live on Dave Chappelle Show from Terry Shed on Vimeo.

The Freedom of Winging a Trip

What should we do next?

What should we do next?

In this post, I’ll take a detour from the travelogue to talk about the benefits of winging it.

After the wedding, people began to go their separate ways. The people with jobs prepared for their flights back to their homes where they would return to being productive members of society. Given my current status as a man of leisure, such responsibilities and obligations don’t apply to me, so I headed off to Pokhara, a lakeside town seven hours north of Kathmandu, with Ellie and Adea, two of the bride’s friends that we’d been hanging out with. In true flashpacker status, we rented a car and driver to take us to the city. I personally wanted to fly, but was soundly overruled when Ellie discovered that Yeti Airlines is ranked one of the least safe airlines in the world. So we set off for Pokhara.

Just before we left, I needed to find a place to stash my wedding clothes. My plan was to take an eight-hour bus ride from Pokhara to Varanasi, the holy Hindu city on the banks of the Ganges River, and I didn’t want to lug around dress shoes and a kurta for 20 days around Nepal and India. My friends couldn’t fit it in their luggage back to the US, and I didn’t know when I was coming back, so I got the hotel to agree to hold onto it until I got back, knowing that there was a small chance I would need to buy a new pair of shoes when I got back to the States.

This isn’t an important detail, except to illustrate one of the key themes of this trip for me: the tradeoffs for planning vs. just winging it. When I first started traveling seriously in 2009, I was much more of a planner than I am today. I would loosely plan a trip, booking a bungalow or hostel days in advance to make sure that I had a place to stay. On trips with friends, we’d have an itinerary, with a few days in each place before taking a bus or a flight to the next place. As I traveled more, my philosophy changed, along with my priorities. Increasingly, keeping my options open became more important, and freedom trumped certainty. Cutting my teeth in Southeast Asia helped – you can show up in Bangkok with your passport, wallet, and a toothbrush, and make your way around the region without ever picking up a phone or turning on a computer. But it is also something that is personality-driven, with Type A people putting more emphasis on the plan, and others preferring to go with the flow.

In the past, I’d winged a few trips, but had organized them around activities or events, which made jettisoning the original plan easier to do on the fly. In the Philippines, I spent a month island-hopping to hit the best dive spots. After spending four days in Coron, a major naval battleground of the Pacific Ocean Theater during WWII, I flew to Luzon and thought I would head north to a beach known for being one of the only places in the Philippines with good surfing. When I arrived at the Manila airport, I looked out at the nighttime city skyline, and remembered how much I didn’t like Manila. So I turned around, walked up to the Cebu Pacific counter and bought a ticket for Cebu that left an hour later.

Regions like Southeast Asia, with well-trafficked destinations, multiple low-cost airlines, and accommodation to fit every budget, enable this kind of travel. You may end up spending more money than you’d like or sleeping in a barely-passable hotel, but, as long as it is not peak season, you’re almost certain to find a bed in the place you want to be. It is a bit more difficult in Africa, but even there you can roll up to a place that attracts tourists – like Cape Coast in Ghana, Diani Beach in Kenya, or Zanzibar – and figure it out.

The downside of this approach is that you are more likely to experience some discomfort and added stress from not knowing what you are doing. Also, when you only have a limited amount of time and want to see a lot, plans are necessary. But the benefit of winging it is that you are completely free to do whatever you want, unconstrained by flight itineraries, hotel deposits, and, most importantly, plans. And that freedom, which it may cost you a little more in dollars and peace of mind, is invaluable in other ways.

In the next post, I’ll relay my adventures trekking in the Himalayas.

Develop Economies’ Music Recommendation

Travelogue: Nepal, Part 1


On December 3rd, 2014, I flew to Nepal by way of Istanbul for a wedding in Kathmandu. I’d spent the last week writing papers and preparing to leave school a week early for the trip. My flight was at 11 PM, so I had to leave for airport at 9. The Lonely Planet guides for Nepal and India I’d ordered the day before arrived at 4 in the afternoon, but I missed getting my new Capital One card with no foreign exchange fees by an hour. I grabbed the blue backpack that I carried for three years around Southeast Asia and Africa, which was filled with mostly cheap t-shirts and jeans that I wouldn’t mind jettisoning if I needed extra room, plus one pair of all-purpose dress clothes for the four-day wedding I would be attending, and took the red line to Logan Airport.

Being a Wednesday at 9:30, I breezed through security, found my gate at the international terminal, and ordered a whiskey on the rocks at the airport bar to pass the time until my flight. I’ve written about my affinity for airport bars on this blog. There is something about sitting at a cookie-cutter bar, listening to the boarding calls, and watching people come and go that brings you back to all the airports where you’ve done the exact same thing and makes you excited to head back out on the road. A half-hour later, my friend Jeff showed up and we ordered another drink. A man next to us tried to strike up a conversation. He was heading to Mumbai, and had spent a few years teaching English in China and Thailand, which we both took as a cue about the purpose of this man’s travels. After he yelled at us for some perceived slight, we finished our drinks and headed to the gate.

En route to airport with my old friend

En route to airport with my old friend

With the exception of the meal, the flight was long and uneventful. When I booked my ticket, I must not have been paying attention, because I thought I was required to select a meal option and chose the “bland meal”, which I took to be the default option. Of course, the bland meal is not the default option and is as bad as its name would imply. It consists of a piece of white chicken with no sauce of any kind, with a side of steamed spinach. When the stewardess on Turkish Airlines brought it to me, I was devastated. Fortunately, I was able to trade up for a regular meal, but only after everyone was served.

We arrived in Istanbul after a 10-hour flight to find that our connection was delayed, so we spent the next few hours playing the first of the many games of Uno that would be played over the next month. I’d bought it for another trip, and discovered that it is really the Cadillac of travel games. Gin rummy and spades are great two- and four-player games, respectively, but they can be hard to teach to someone who’s never played. Yahtzee, which I picked up when I visited two of my friends in Buenos Aires after college, is another excellent way to while away the hours with people, but one game takes a long time and requires a pen, paper, five dice, and a good rolling surface. Uno, on the other hand, is easy to learn and requires only an Uno deck. It is complex enough to not be stupid, but simple enough to let conversation take precedence over game play. And, given that a good travel game is merely the vehicle for the experience rather than an end in itself, Uno is among the best I’ve found.

Fast forward four hours and we are boarding again. By this point, we’d rendezvoused with Aditya, another friend of Ashaya, whose wedding we were all going to attend. We knew that Ellie and Adea, two of Ashaya’s friends from her time at the World Bank who we’d never met before, were on the same flight to Nepal, so we began playing rocks, paper, scissors to see which of us would approach random pairs of girls who seemed sufficiently socially-conscious and erudite to be Ashaya’s friends and ask them if they were by chance heading to a wedding in Kathmandu. Jeff lost, and the first one turned out to be a case of mistaken identity, so we chalked it up to a lost cause. When we finally boarded, two girls pointed at us and asked if we were heading to Ashaya’s wedding. With the five of us aboard, we settled in for a 7-hour trip aboard a quarter-filled plane. I traded in my second bland meal for the chicken, stretched out across four seats, and slept the rest of the way to Kathmandu.

When we landed at 11 in the morning, we were greeted by Kamal Rana, Ashaya’s uncle and an employee of Nepal Airlines who worked at the airport. He took our passports, led us through the VIP lane of customs and immigration, brought a porter to take our bags, and took us to the van that would take us to our hotel. This was the first of four encounters with Mr. Rana, who shepherded me through Tribhuvan International Airport in a fraction of the time it took the rest of the poor, friendless masses.

Ashaya put us up at the Shanker Hotel, formerly a palace located in the heart of the city. The place had a lot of character, with old unique rooms, a bar called the Kunti Bar, and killer pool bar surrounded by a grassy field. After dropping off our stuff, Jeff and I headed out to try to meet with a few of our friends, but missed them by a few minutes. Without a cell phone or Internet, finding your friends in downtown Kathmandu is next to impossible, so we found an upscale lounge bar on Durbar Marg called Mezze by Roadhouse, ordered an Everest beer, and used the wifi to discover that our friends had gone to a store called Monalisa Textiles to pick up kurtas for the formal event the next day and had already left for Ashaya’s house.  So we went the same store, bought our kurtas, and went back to the hotel to freshen up and head to Ashaya’s house to catch the tail-end of the mehendi ceremony and meet our friends.

ZZ gets her mehendi game going strong.

ZZ gets her mehendi game going strong.

The house – located in an area referred to as Bhatbateni, after the eponymous supermarket – is beautiful. Bustling with 20-30 workers and a full band, and decorated with brown and orange colors and icons designed by Ashaya of two elephants holding a heart, the place was a beehive of activity. After 24 hours of travel, it was nice to finally see Ashaya and the rest of the crew, who were busy getting their mehendi tattoos – floral patterns for the ladies, the image of Ganesh for the men. I respectfully declined, though in retrospect, it was probably a mistake.


Ashaya and crew dancing on stage

With four hours to kill between the ceremony and the party, we all went back to nap before grabbing a drink at the Kunti Bar. Aditya wore a white linen suit straight out of Miami Vice, and I had on my all-purpose blazer and slacks. Everyone else wore their kurtas and saris, as white people are wont to do at traditional South Asian wedding events. We were joined by the rest of our Shanker crew – Graham, Yscaira, and Kaia. After making the van wait for an hour, we finally piled in and left for the party.

The party was in full-swing when we arrived. With two fully-stocked open bars, a military band playing jazz songs, and several hundred people milling around, I set about to get a drink. We were told by our friends that we would need to perform a dance on stage when the bride is introduced. “Just follow what she does,” I was told. At that point, I decided I wanted no part in this, ordered a Ballantine scotch on the rocks, and convinced Jeff to hang back with me while the rest of our friends made fools of themselves on stage in front of 200 Nepalis.

Eventually, the combination of an open bar with a never-ending supply of Ballantine and aggressive peer-pressuring by Brandon, the husband of one of Ashaya’s friends, got the better of me, and I wound up in rough shape back at the Kunti Bar, where we were all playing a terrible drinking game called Ibble Dibble, which sent me on a downward spiral that was fortunately cushioned by my bed two floors up.

Jeff, Ashaya, Adea, and myself during the party.

Jeff, Ashaya, Adea, and myself during the party.

The next day was the first of the main wedding ceremonies. The groom’s family comes to the bride’s house, where an engagement takes place, followed by the actual wedding. We headed over to the house for gift-giving ceremony and watched as people streamed onto a stage with two couches for the couple to present them with gifts. After a hearty lunch of Nepali food, we headed back to the hotel to spend the rest of the afternoon at the pool bar at the Shanker.

The ceremonial stage

The ceremonial stage

As a rule of thumb, when you leave Boston in December for a landlocked city that is 75 degrees and sunny and stay in a hotel with a pool bar, you not only try to maximize your time there, you do things to make it seem even more ridiculous than it is. To that end, I ordered a Singapore Sling – my go-to pool-bar drink, after Hunter S. Thompson ordered one at the Polo Lounge in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas – put on a playlist created by a friend called “Sexy 80’s Pool Party”, and broke out the Uno deck. A few drinks later, the rest of the crew showed up in their saris and kurtas, so I headed back to get ready before leaving for the party.

Ashaya and Yscaira at the pool bar at the Shanker

Ashaya and Yscaira at the pool bar at the Shanker

The second night turned out to be as lively as the first, with an open bar and several hundred people milling around the compound, drinking scotch and mulled wine, watching a slideshow of Ashaya and her friends through the years, and listening to the band and DJ. One of the uncles – colloquially referred to as “Crazy Uncle”, who I subsequently found out was the CEO of the largest steel company in Nepal – saw that the young folks were fading, and took it upon himself to take shots with everyone and tell the DJ to put on pop music and create a dance party, which took the party to another level. At midnight, another wedding ceremony began, with the parents of the bride washing the feet of the couple, to the soundtrack of “Timber” by Pitbull.

The crazy uncle

The crazy uncle

We had most of the following day free to check out Kathmandu and the surrounding area. The Shanker crew piled into two cabs and headed first to Durbar Square, where we wandered the streets, dipped into shops to look at fabrics and gurkha knives, walking down narrow alleys that opened up into huge squares with Buddhist stupas and Hindu temples sprinkled everywhere. The buildings are old and rundown, with brightly painted doors and chipped paint. Street dogs are everywhere, and sacred cows wander around, doing whatever they please.

A fabric seller in Kathmandu

A fabric seller in Kathmandu

While tame in comparison Indian cities, Kathmandu is a chaotic place. With few perceivable driving or walking rules, the streets are polluted and loud, as drivers honk anytime a person or animal ventures close to the car. Vendors sell everything from jewelry to raw fabrics, silver pots to knives, art, trinkets, and more. Inlaid statues of Ganesh and other Hindu gods are tucked between old doors and alleyways, and passing pedestrians will briefly pray at the shrine before ringing a bell and moving on. Not dissimilar from other big cities in developing countries, like Bangkok, Manila, Phnom Phen, or Accra, it is best described as ordered chaos.

Children outside the Kumari Ghar in Durbar Square

Children outside the Kumari Ghar in Durbar Square

One fascinating part of Durbar Square is the house of the Royal Kumari, known as the Kumari Ghar. In Nepali culture, the kumari is the tradition of worshiping young pre-pubescent girls as manifestations of the divine female energy or devi in Hindu religious traditions. She is selected through a rigorous process from a particular caste, and must have perfect features, which have quite poetic descriptions, such as a neck like a conch, a body like a banyan tree, a chest like a lion, and a voice as soft and clear as as duck’s. The philosophical basis for her existence is seriously heady:

“The worship of the goddess in a young girl represents the worship of divine consciousness spread all over the creation. As the supreme goddess is thought to have manifested this entire cosmos out of her womb she exists equally in animate as well as inanimate objects. While worship of an idol represents the worship and recognition of supreme through inanimate materials, worship of a human represents veneration and recognition of the same supreme in conscious beings.”

The Kumari comes to the window of her palace, to which she is confined until she reaches puberty, once a day to allow visitors to view her. We waited for a half hour to catch a glimpse of the living goddess, but unfortunately, like the elusive snow leopard, she never showed. So, content with the fact that we almost saw a living goddess and having mixed feelings about perpetuating an arguably exploitative, anachronistic tradition, we searched for the highest possible bar we could find to regroup, have a drink, play Uno, and plan the next move.

Uno in Durbar Square

Uno in Durbar Square

Once we had our fill of tourism for the day, we headed back to Ashaya’s house for another key part of the wedding ceremony, when the bride is ceremonially led around a structure built specially for the occasion, and is taken to a horse-drawn chariot with the husband to leave for the house of the groom, where she will stay for the rest of the ceremony. During this ceremony, the women cry as she is led from the home for the last time (ceremonially), and the band plays a loud and, at least to these western ears, eerie repetitive song. The two prominent instruments are a nadaswaram, which is a kind of non-brass horn that has a tinny sound like a muted trumpet that you might see a snake charmer play, and a sringa, which is a giant semi-circular horn that you’d find in an old James Bond movie and is blown loudly over and over again. We watched as the chariot took off and the procession followed them to the house of the groom’s uncle, who hosted the groom’s party, since the groom’s family lives in Baltimore and doesn’t have property in Kathmandu.

The bride

The bride

That night we headed to another party at the groom’s family’s house. By this point, two days of wedding parties and sightseeing and a 12-hour time difference were beginning to take its toll on me and my friends, and the spirit that drove the first two nights had largely subsided. Fortunately, when we got to the party, we were greeted by a much more subdued party and “The Essential Kenny G” playing, on repeat, all the way through. I had a brief moment when I thought to myself, “Is this the Kenny G version of ‘My Heart Will Go On?’” The answer was yes, so I made a mental note that that was a funny music choice, and moved on to the bar. The night ended early for us, and we crashed early.

The Shanker crew outside Bodhnath Stupa

The Shanker crew outside Bodhnath Stupa

The next morning we headed to the Boudhanath Stupa, referred to as the “monkey temple” after its simian inhabitants. The climb to the top was treacherous, with twenty flights of steps leading to the top of a large hill at the outskirts of Kathmandu. The temple is certainly impressive. It is one of the largest ancient Buddhist stupas in the world, and it dominates the skyline. It was built in the 8th century AD by the Tibetan emperor Trison Detsan, along a trade route between Tibet and Nepal, serving as a resting place for many Tibetans who traveled through and, in the 1950s, the neighborhood of choice for Tibetan refugees seeking asylum in the country.

After spending an hour exploring the stupa and checking out the shops, we headed to another Durbar Square in a smaller city called Patan. This was my favorite part of the Kathmandu Valley. With old brown buildings built in the 1600s by Newari kings, the Patan Durbar Square is beautiful and clearly rich with history and culture. We lazily explored the square for an hour, before finding a place to sit and plan the next move. We jumped into two cabs and headed back to Thamel Square, the beating heart of Kathmandu, to check out a few shops and head back to the hotel to prepare for the final party of the four-day event.

Patan Durbar Square

Patan Durbar Square

When we arrived at the Officers Club of the Nepali army, I looked around at a party of 1,200 people and thought to myself, “Wow, this is a big party”. There were bars everywhere, and a buffet line that made me wish I hadn’t eaten that day so that I could take advantage of the Indian, Nepali, Chinese, and Italian food that was there in abundance. Almost as soon as we got there, the party started winding down, so we headed back to the hotel, where we threw an impromptu party for Ashaya and her new husband.

In the morning everyone said their respective goodbyes as we all went on to the next legs of our journeys. Ellie, Adea, and I were driving up to Pokhara, a lakeside town at the foot of the Annapurna range in the Himalayas that was 7 hours to the north. Jeff, Graham, and Yscaira had another day before flying out, and everyone else was set to leave that day. Four days and a lot of ceremonies later, the next chapter began.

Develop Economies’ Music Recommendation

The Ethical Obligations of Writing About Poverty and Conflict

The district Kailahun, where the crisis in Sierra Leone began. (Credit: Caroline Thomas)

The district Kailahun, where the crisis in Sierra Leone began. (Credit: Caroline Thomas)

I. A Long Way Gone

The other day I finished reading “A Long Way Gone”, the autobiography of Ishmael Beah, a child soldier during the country’s civil in the 1990’s. After his village was attacked by the rebel army known as the RUF (Revolutionary United Front), Beah remained in a small town called Mattru Jong, before fleeing another attack. Eventually, he made his way across the country to a village controlled by the national army, where he becomes a drug-addicted soldier who murders and tortures people who are unfortunate enough to find themselves in his path. After two years as a soldier, he was rescued by UNICEF, brought to the capitol city of Freetown, and rehabilitated. But the rebels soon invaded the capital, and Beah fled to the U.S., where he was taken in by a woman he’d met while speaking at the UN a year earlier.

The story is raw and violent. The book became a hit, selling well over a million copies and launching a career for Ishmael Beah as an advocate for child soldiers around the world. He has spoken before the UN and other international bodies, started an charity group called Children Affected by War (CAW), and become the most famous advocate for child soldiers in the world.

Yet, as it turns out, his story may not actually be true. In 2008 – a year after the book was published – an Australian newspaper published a 4,000 word expose claiming that the attack on Mattru Jong, which kicked off a chain of events leading to him becoming a soldier, occurred in 1995, not 1993 as he had claimed. This would mean that he was only a soldier for a few months, rather than the two years he discusses in the book. Beah and his publisher denied the accusations, and the two groups have been trading barbs back and forth ever since.

The specifics of the chronology are not that important. There are plenty of explanations, not least of which is that a 13 year-old addicted to drugs and brainwashed to kill might be granted a little leeway in ability to recall specific memories. But it did get me thinking about the role of narrative in shining a light on things that might otherwise go unseen.

II. Nicholas Kristof and the “Bridge Character”

This is a topic I have written about extensively in the past. At the time, I watched international development experts criticize Nicholas Kristof for writing stories that oversimplified complex conflicts and using “bridge characters” to widen the story’s appeal. Kristof would distill the war in the DRC to a fight over natural resources, leaving out the messier parts about the oppression by the Belgians during the colonial era, or the assassination of Patrice Lumumba and the installation of pro-Western dictator, Mobutu Sese Seko, who drove the country into ruin, or, most recently, the fact that much of current conflict might be traced back to the Rwandans, who, up until a few months ago, were the darling of the international development community. If he took the time to explain the Byzantine web of cause and effect, people would simply tune out and go back to not being able to point out the DRC on a map, much less empathize for its people.

For writers like Kristof, good intentions justify the means. If you have 750 words every week through which you need to convince an audience of millions to care about something they don’t have the patience to really understand, then you do everything you can to pull at the heartstrings of your readers and draw them in not with discussions about the roots of the conflict, but about the young, usually white, recent college graduate who started a clinic serving victims of the war. Through their story, people begin to pay attention.

In an interview with Outside magazine, he explains how he decided to frame his stories the way he does:

So I turned to the field of social psychology, trying to understand how I could craft my writing so that it would generate a response rather than a turned page. Over the past 20 years, there have been many studies that shed light on this question, and, increasingly, I’ve come to believe that those of us who care about human rights and global poverty can do a far better job in our messaging. Like Pepsi, humanitarian causes need savvy marketing. Indeed, they need it far more than a soft-drink company.

Good people engaging in good causes sometimes feel too pure and sanctified to sink to something as manipulative as marketing, but the result has been that women have been raped when it could have been avoided and children have died of pneumonia unnecessarily—because those stories haven’t resonated with the public. So for God’s sake, let’s learn how we can connect people to important causes and galvanize a robust public reaction.

I think he has a good point. The cause du jour is often not always the one the demands the most immediate attention.

People demonstrate violently in the street in Bangui, demanding that President Djotodia steps down following the murder of a magistrate shot dead the night before. 30 minutes later, the Séléka arrived and fired into the crowd, killing two men and wounded one.  (Credit: William Daniels)

People demonstrate violently in the street in Bangui, demanding that President Djotodia steps down following the murder of a magistrate shot dead the night before. 30 minutes later, the Séléka arrived and fired into the crowd, killing two men and wounded one. (Credit: William Daniels)

Everyone, for example, knows about the civil war in Syria, which does not even have significant advocates. But very few people, I would guess, know that the Central African Republic, a small country in a conflict-ridden region of Africa, is about to explode into civil war, prompting fears of genocide and mass murder. This report is from the Guardian newspaper last week:

A massacre of the innocents is taking place in the heart of Africa as the world looks the other way.

One man describes how his four-year-old son’s throat was slit, and how he saw a snake swallowing a baby. A woman explains that she is caring for a young girl because her mother went searching for medicine and was bludgeoned to death with Kalashnikov rifles. A young man tells how he was bound and thrown to the crocodiles, but managed to swim to safety.

This is the world of horrors that the Central African Republic (CAR) has become. Thousands of people are dying at the hands of soldiers and militia gangs or from untreated diseases such as malaria. Boys and girls as young as eight are pressganged into fighting between Christians and Muslims. There are reports of beheadings and public execution-style killings. Villages are razed to the ground.

Never much more than a phantom state, the CAR has sucked in thousands of mercenaries from neighbouring countries and, France warned on Thursday, now stands “on the verge of genocide“. Yet many would struggle to find the country on a map, despite the clue in its afterthought name.

If you count yourself among the few people who knew this story, consider yourself among the most informed in the world. But, as I will explain in the next section, graphic descriptions of conflicts can sometimes become controversial as well.

III. The Fog of War in the DRC

A friend of mine, Laura Heaton, wrote an article for Foreign Policy magazine a year ago called “What Happened in Luvingi?” It is about her trip to a rural village in the DRC that had been attacked by a rebel group, which allegedly raped 387 women over the course of the four-day attack. The conflict in the Kivu region of the Eastern DRC was notable for its violence, yet even by these standards, this was exceptinally brutal. Even worse, there was a group of UN Peacekeepers stationed nearby that failed to protect the village.

The village of Luvungi in the Democratic Republic of Congo

The village of Luvungi in the Democratic Republic of Congo

The event galvanized a massive response from the interational community. In many ways, it was a bellwether moment in the conflict, drawing the spotlight to rape as a devastating tool of war. It highlighted the ineffectiveness of the UN and its Peacekeeper program, and brought huge attention to the conflict as a whole.

When my friend went to the village three years later to investigate, she spoke to the village elders, who told her much of what she already knew, but refused to let her speak to any of the women. That night, her translator spoke to one of the women who had allegedly been raped and discovered something startling. It turns out, much of what was claimed never actually happened.

In reality, there were probably a few instances of rape, though it was probably closer to 10 than the 400 that was claimed. But by inflating the numbers, the notoriety generated by the event generated a tremendous amount of support for the community, in the form of money, healthcare, and supplies. If the true story came out, it would mean an end to all that.

This is an example of the slippery slope of hyperbole. Undoubtedly, the horrific nature of these crimes drew the world’s attention toward a problem that, up until that point, it had been able to ignore. The sheer scope of these mass rapes meant that people had to start watching and caring. But, at the same time, this particular village drew resources away from other affected areas that may have needed them more. The same ethical question remains: is exaggeration in the name of raising awareness justified?

IV. The Current State of the Debate

These three anecdotes highlight the complexities of the awareness debate. Does Ishmael Beah risk doing more harm than good to a cause if he exaggerates his experience? Does hyperbolizing an event risk diverting attention away from other, more pressing issues, or does it provoke outrage from people who would never have tuned in in the first place? Does the disproportionate attention given to particularly egregious events, like rape and crimes against children, create perverse incentives from groups in desperate need of support from the international community? These are complex and difficult questions to answer.

In the era of social media – of Twitter, Facebook, and the fast, fleeting, viral stories that circulate – you see general feel-good awareness-raising more and more. The website Upworthy shows feel-good videos of people doing the right thing in the face of adversity, allowing people to feel better and perhaps more informed about certain social issues. The story of Batkid in San Francisco, where 20,000 people helped turn San Francisco into Gotham City to make a five year-old’s wish come true, is another example. These are human issue stories that draw attention to a larger cause, but also, by their very nature, provide a narrow lens through which to view it. Childhood leukemia is something terrible that we should work hard to solve. But perhaps there are other more treatable ailments that are overshadowed by the story.

The marketing of causes by Upworthy.

The marketing of causes by Upworthy.

I think that, on-balance, simplifying issues to give them a wider appeal and increase the likelihood that action will be taken is a good thing. I don’t think that technocrats will base their policy recommendations on the writings of Nicholas Kristof, Bono, and other cause advocates. Instead, I think these advocates provide cover to policy-makers who face an electorate that needs a reason to care about these issues. Similarly, feel-good stories shared on Facebook and Twitter help to make people generally more compassionate. They expose them to real stories that allow them to experience empathy when thinking about controversial issues like gay marriage and immigration reform, where the basic rights of historically-marginalized groups are debated. The threat of being labeled a bigot carries more weight when the threat of your bigotry going viral on Facebook is real.

So, in conclusion, while I would love for the journalism of Jeffrey Gettleman and the research of Esther Duflo to have mainstream appeal, I know that will never be the case. In the meantime, if sharing Upworthy videos on Facebook makes people more compassionate, and Nicholas Kristof and Ishmael Beah inform people about injustices they would never have known otherwise, that is just fine with me.

Develop Economies’ Music Recommendation

A Tribute to My Friend, Ravi Ramrattan

Me, Sue, and Ravi

This weekend has been difficult. I found out yesterday that a friend was killed in the senseless, horrible attack in Nairobi. He was a great person and meant a lot to many people. He had a profound impact on so many people’s lives that I would not even begin to understand how to chronicle it all. So I will settle for talking about the time I knew him.

I met Ravi early on in my time in Nairobi. I was grabbing a drink at a bar called Sierra Brewery with another guy named Ravi (Ravi Bungoma, after the town he hailed from in Western Kenya) who was applying for a job at my company, and he brought along Ravi Ramrattan (also known as Ravi Mumias). He worked for an organization called Innovations for Poverty Action at the time, and was stationed at a sugar factory in a town called Mumias a few hours outside of Nairobi.  I remember thinking that this guy was exceptionally smart. Subsequently, I found out he had bachelors degree in mathematics from the University of Cambridge, a masters degree in financial economics from Oxford, and another masters in econometrics and mathematical economics from the London School of Economics. After teaching statistics to graduate students at the London Business School for a year – at the tender age of 26 – he decided to move to Kenya to commit himself to the cause of poverty alleviation.

After six years in London, Ravi moved to Mumias, a rural town of 33,000 people in Western Kenya, where he spent a year and a half implementing an academic study at the Mumias Sugar Factory. Ravi ran a study evaluating the impact of a conditional cash advance and a cell phone based extension system on sugar cane farmers. Using a randomized controlled trial – the methodology used by pharmaceutical companies to determine the efficacy of a drug – Ravi tried to determine whether this particular development intervention generated additional income for the recipients. After picking up three degrees from some of the most prestigious universities in the world, he moved from London to a rural town in Western Kenya to help people he’d never met.

A few months after I met him, he moved from Mumias to the big city to take a job as an economist with an organization called Financial Sector Deepening, which, despite having one of the worst names imaginable, had the noble goal of “supporting the development of financial markets in Kenya as a means to stimulate wealth creation and reduce poverty.”As part of his role at FSD, he worked to develop the capacity of financial institutions in the country in order to make them more inclusive. When I found out he worked with microfinance institutions, I took every opportunity I could to goad him into an argument about whether microfinance worked. This is something I did whenever I met people from Innovations for Poverty Action. But with Ravi, I always left with my ego bruised from the intellectual drubbing he would deal me.

Ravi with his many academic distinctions

Ravi with his many academic distinctions

As a wannabe economist myself, I took every opportunity I could to take advantage of his incredible wealth of knowledge. During one trip down to Diani Beach on the Kenyan Coast, four of us sat on the terrace of our rented house and waxed philosophical deep into the night about income inequality in America (as we did).  My friend Dylan and I argued one side, while Sean, Ravi’s roommate at the time, argued the other. Ravi sat quietly, and, whenever we would reach an impasse, which happened often, Ravi came in to break the tie. After all, he knew way more than we did and was probably amused at how badly we skewed the facts to our favor.

Another funny thing to me about Ravi was that, somehow, he was a phenomenal dancer. I could never figure out how it was possible that he was able to bust so many incredible moves on the dance floor. I remember one night a big crew of us went out to a club in Nairobi called Gallileo Lounge, which, other than having a star in the logo, had nothing to do with astronomy. I was standing on the dance floor, not dancing, because I’m a terrible and highly self-conscious dancer, watching Ravi dance with our friend Woubie, and thinking to myself “My God – this is amazing.” In a somewhat legendary story, he was supposed to have a dance-off with one of the cab drivers who had been told of his prowess. It never came to fruition, I’m told, but everyone knows who would have won.

Ravi and Woubie getting down with a few of our friends

Ravi and Woubie getting down with a few of our friends

When I heard the news, I was crushed. I was with my friend Sharon, who lived with Ravi for a few months in Nairobi. For two days, we felt helpless, having to watch from afar. Being together made it easier to deal with the news. We decided to get dinner at an Indian restaurant to honor his memory, and spent the dinner sharing stories. Like his plan to start a hot sauce company, or his nickname, “The Lion of Mumias”, after a halloween costume from years prior, or the fact that he blasted the same Bollywood song all of the time. Even among the crew we’d assembled in Nairobi, which contained some of the more unique people I’ve ever met, he was in a league of his own.

I find it deeply ironic that Ravi would end up having his life taken by the people he most wanted to help. He spent a good part of his life studying economics, training himself to not only understand, but quantify the impact of development interventions on poverty alleviation. If you implement a project – whether it is microfinance, clean water, or education – it might work, and it might not. But, more importantly, if you don’t understand the results, you are destined to potentially throw money and people at the wrong solution. Ravi’s work, in particular, uncovered the true impact of these interventions, providing the academic foundation to replicate them around the world.

On this blog, I have spent many posts pontificating about the links between poverty and terrorism. I thought a lot about why this work is important, and what broader impacts it would have beyond just improving lives.  For people living hand-to-mouth, life is a series of struggles often ending in tragedy.  Anger, resentment, and despair are a volatile combination in the minds of young men and women who see little hope for escaping their situation.  For Al-Shabab, these young minds can be manipulated to pick up arms.  By stoking latent frustrations at the injustice of poverty and promising a sense of a community, brotherhood, and commitment to a higher cause, a recruiter can more easily convince a young man to become a cold-blooded mass murderer.

Unlike incomes or educational attainment, likelihood of radicalization is not something you can quantify. But I do believe that its real. And, though I never talked to Ravi about it, I’m sure he’d agree. He committed himself to serving the poor, and made the choice to move to Kenya for years to help the less fortunate. He moved to a small town in Western Kenya to study the roots of poverty, and returned to Nairobi to work for an organization whose mandate was to promote financial inclusion across the country. I have no doubt that Ravi would have continued this journey, taking it to the highest levels and influencing global development policy in one way or another.

But his life was cut short by evil men. Whether they’d been manipulated or radicalized doesn’t matter much to me. They took from the world a great person who wanted to make the world a better, more inclusive and equitable place for the most downtrodden and marginalized people. He could have done anything, but he chose this life. He chose to help people he’d never met to attain something better for themselves and their families. A nobler cause, I do not know.

Over the last few days, the outpouring of support has been overwhelming.  While the good works he did will remain, the community that has rallied around him over the last few days perhaps reflect his greatest legacy.  As the people who knew him – from his youth in Trinidad and Tobago, his college and grad school in London, or his years in Nairobi, when I came to know him – have moved to different parts of the world, they have kept him in their memories.  And this week, the diaspora of people whose lives were touched by Ravi are getting together all over the world to remember him.  That, to me, is a source of comfort.

Impromptu gatherings to remember him have popped up in Boston, New York, and Washington DC. When I tried to organize one in San Francisco, I was worried Sharon and I would be the only ones around.  Within a few minutes, I was added to an email chain of 10 people who had already begun to plan one. Right now the count stands at 25.

So, if you are in San Francisco this Friday, we are going to celebrate his life over dinner, and then go dancing at Little Baobab – a fitting tribute for such a great guy.

My deepest condolences go out to his family and the friends who loved him.


ravi in the fields


ravi and woubie2







Rest in peace, my friend.

Rest in peace, my friend.


Develop Economies Is Published, Makes $200!

A little more than a year ago, someone from Gale Cengage publishing emailed me to ask if I would be willing to allow them to publish a blog post I had written many moons ago, titled “Why DIY Foreign Aid Amateurs Are Necessary.”  It was a response I had written to another blog post in Foreign Policy titled “Don’t try this abroad,” which, incidentally, was a response to an article from the New York Times Magazine by Nicholas Kristof titled “The DIY Foreign-Aid Revolution.”  The Foreign Policy article was written by Dave Algoso,  author of the thought-provoking and prolific development blog, Find What Works, which I highly recommend (warning: it is wonkish).  (Interestingly, I later met and hung out with Dave in Nairobi, where we both worked – the development blogosphere is small indeed).

But I digress.  Gale-Cengage sent me the following email:

Dear Josh Weinstein:

Plans are now underway for the introductory volume of At Issue: Is Foreign Aid Necessary?, volume 1 (AIFAN-1) scheduled to be released in fourth quarter of 2012.  AIFAN-1, with 112 pages, will be published by Gale, a part of Cengage Learning, (, a provider of high quality educational and reference materials to libraries. We are expecting to produce 2,500 hardcover copies of this reference work to sell at $33.71 and 1,500 paperback copies to sell at $23.85 each.

Books in this anthology series focus a wide range of viewpoints onto a single controversial issue, providing in-depth discussions by leading advocates. This series provides a quick grounding in the issues and a challenge to critical thinking skills. The viewpoints are selected from a wide range of highly respected sources and publications.  To help students more easily access the material, we title the articles, insert subheads, omit notes and references, and, if necessary, do some minor editing (for style, to clarify time references and names, etc.; any deletions-usually done because of our length requirements-are indicated with ellipses), and insert an editorial cartoon, graphic, or quotation from another source, which will be identified and set so as to be obviously from another source.  We credit the original source on the first page of each article.

We seek your permission for non-exclusive, all-language use for print, online, and e-book in the global market  for this edition and for future editions of AIFAN-1, and for incidental promotional pieces. Attached is a Permissions Agreement which identifies the material we wish to use.

Needless to say, I was somewhat shellshocked.  What sort of low-rent, bush-league operation would ever in their right mind want to read, let alone publish, the mindless dribble that makes the pages of this blog?  I felt a bit like Woody Allen (or Groucho Marx), dismissing the legitimacy of any publication that would publish material written by me.

Regardless, the prospect of being published in a real book that would be read by real people was enticing.  I emailed a friend of mine and asked him what the thought.  His response:

Obviously let them publish it. It makes your blog seem so much more legit.

Typos courtesy of my IPhone.

Of course, when he says that it will make my blog seem “more legit”, he doesn’t know just how un-legit it actually is.  For example, take a look at this comment that was left on a post I wrote called “Crisis in Cote D’Ivoire: How Political Instability Alters Trade Patterns”:
Faced with the reality you see above, I decided to do it.  So I took a look at the edits they had made and cleaned it up a bit more.  Normally, articles posted to this site are, by rule, never checked for spelling or grammatical mistakes.  Given that this article would be preserved in eternity for all time, I needed to make sure that future generations didn’t have hard evidence that Develop Economies is a barely literate joke of a development blogger.  So I made a cursory review and send the following email to my contact:
Hi Nicole,
Here is the final version and the signed release.  Please make these final edits and go ahead with the article posting.  Apologies for the delay.  I will be looking forward to taking a look at the final product.  Please let me know if you have any questions.
Also, is there is a standard fee that you pay contributors?  I was ideally hoping for $100.  Please let me know and I will send the permission form as soon as I hear back.
– Josh

Until that point, it hadn’t occurred to me that I might actually get paid for something like this.  As it stood,  I would have been happy to simply have been plagiarized, much less paid for my writing.  So I asked for $100, skeptical that they would even oblige me that.

Remember that, by this point, they explicitly told me that they would be selling 2,500 copies at $33.71 and 1,500 at $23.85, which totals $120,050 in revenue for Gale Cengage.  Now, I did a little research on gross margins for publishing companies, and the only data I could find said that the publisher earns profits of about 15-20% of the retail price.  Using the more conservative estimate – which could be total BS, since I settled on it after 5 minutes of Google searching – the gross profits for the publishing company would be about $18,000.  At the time, I hadn’t performed this calculation, which would have made my $100 request equivalent to a modest 0.5% of profits, and 0.08% of revenues.  Fortunately, Develop Economies writes for the thrill of it.

To my surprise, the publisher then took mercy on me and actually negotiated up my fee.  I received the following email the next day:

Hi Josh,

There isn’t a standard fee, but the average fee is about $200.  🙂
As you will be paid as an individual, not a corporation, the publisher will need a W9 to issue you a check – please find a copy of the brief form attached.
I’ll also note that you are to receive a complimentary copy of the book – please be sure to include the address to which it should be sent.
Now, I am not sure why she included the smiley face.  Perhaps it was because she had forwarded the email around to everyone in her office with the heading “Look at this moronic rube!”  That, or she thought she was actually dealing with a child who did not grasp the concept of money.  Either way, I was stoked that, despite my terrible negotiating skills, they decided not to take complete advantage of my ignorance.  So, thank you Gale Cengage publishing for not completely taking me to the cleaners.  Or, if you did take me to the cleaners, then thank you for not telling me and making me feel like a moronic rube.
Unfortunately, that email was sent in May of 2012.  After at least a dozen emails asking me to kindly send them a copy of my W9 and me making excuses about how I didn’t have access to a printer, I finally submitted it yesterday.  I felt a bit like Ty Webb in the movie Caddyshack, with uncashed checks for $75,000 strewn around his apartment.  But, finally, it is done and, in 4-6 weeks, I am going to hopefully get a big check like the ones in Happy Gilmore, which I will frame and put on my wall to constantly remind me to heed the advice of Maury Ballstein in Zoolander: “Screw ’em.  Hold out for more!”
In any case, hopefully the book will hit stores soon, so it wouldn’t be a bad idea to camp out for a few days to make sure you get your copy.  Given that it is titled “At Issue: Is Foreign Aid Necessary?” I would imagine it is going to fly off the shelves.

Develop Economies Music Recommendations

What “Why You Should Travel Young” Misses

Kiserian, Kenya

In an article titled “Why You Should Travel Young,” Jeff Goins makes the case for seeing the world while you are unencumbered by the responsibilities of adulthood.  Career, marriage, children – these all stand as barriers to experiencing the wide world.  For the most part, I agree with a lot of the things he says about the merits of travel.  But I think he misses the larger meaning and importance of the experience.

Goins begins by offering advice to some poor soul who is deciding between returning to graduate school and “moving to Africa.”  Without hesitation, he tells the girl to blow off school and hit the road, for the personal growth she will achieve under the tutelage of experience beats the knowledge she will gain in school.  Why?  Because the excuses we make “allow us to be cowards while sounding noble.”  Perhaps this person had substantial student loans or an obligation to provide for her family.  Either way, it’s a bit harsh I think.

But I do think Goins’ final point – that travelling widens our perspective and generates empathy for things we might not have understood had we not sought them out – is valid.  He sums up his thesis in the last few paragraphs:

Traveling will change you like little else can. It will put you in places that will force you to care for issues that are bigger than you. You will begin to understand that the world is both very large and very small. You will have a newfound respect for pain and suffering, having seen that two-thirds of humanity struggle to simply get a meal each day.

While you’re still young, get cultured. Get to know the world and the magnificent people that fill it. The world is a stunning place, full of outstanding works of art. See it.

You won’t always be young. And life won’t always be just about you. So travel, young person. Experience the world for all it’s worth. Become a person of culture, adventure, and compassion. While you still can.

These are all fair points, most of which I agree with.  Like a picture worth a thousand words, seeing the conditions most of the world endures and the daily struggles of the poorest of the poor give you an appreciation for things you didn’t even know you were lucky to have.  I don’t fully agree with the idea that you need to see works of art in person to become cultured.  But I would say that being exposed to different music, clothing, dance, and food also gives you an appreciation for the breadth of tastes in the world, and a better understanding of how tradition and history influence culture and vice versa.   And, lastly, I think the spirit of adventure is inherent to some degree in travelers.  But the number of stamps in your passport is hardly an indication of your adventurousness.  And it is in this last point that I think Goins misses the virtues of travel.

Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo

A couple of years ago, the American Psychological Association published a study explaining that people who had lived abroad tended to be more creative than people who stayed at home.  Using a cognitive performance test called Duncker’s Candle Problem, researches demonstrated that current and former ex-pats thought about problems differently than their counterparts.  There is the obvious problem of causality – does going abroad make you more creative, or do more creative people go abroad?  Either way, the correlation is real.

But there is a caveat.  To gain the benefits of travel, you have to not only live in a new place, but also immerse yourself in the culture.  The Daily Telegraph explains:

According to the study, creativity levels were unlikely to be high in people who had travelled abroad for a short period of time, or who had not attempted to adapt to the culture they were living in. But creativity was far more prominent in people who had made efforts to learn the language of their new home.

“Interestingly, high levels in creativity only seemed to show in people who had lived abroad, and not in those who had a superficial exposure to foreign countries through travel, “said Professor Maddux.

“In order to widen their creative abilities, it seems that people have to really try and fit into a different environment, and learn how to do things in a totally different way.”

In other words, only by pushing yourself outside your comfort zone can you really expand your cognitive abilities.  Goins is right that you can develop a strong sense of empathy and compassion from only a short stint in a place.  But to establish habits that will outlast your time in the wild, you have to fully commit.  Taking a walk in the streets of Paris or seeing the Great Wall of China will not cut it.

Wedding in Kumasi, Ghana

Seeing the world and going to cool places is great.  But, like Lao Tzu said, the journey is the reward.  Living in France or China or Ghana does not inherently make you more creative, or adventurous, or compassionate, or cultured.  The process of adapting to a new environment and opening yourself to new experiences is the real reward of immersing yourself in a new country.  Adaptability and openness are the root of the attributes the author of “Why You Should Travel Young” values.  One follows the other, but not always.

And this, I think, is the larger lesson I gained from my life on the road.   I have a vivid memory of sitting at a chop bar in Tamale, the capital city of Northern Ghana, with a few friends who worked with Engineers Without Borders Canada, an innovative development organization.  They were talking about how much the pigs in the villages they lived liked eating shit.  One guy told a story about getting typhoid and having to get up every 10 minutes in the middle of night to relieve himself outside his hut in the pouring rain.  Each time he returned to the spot, it was freshly cleaned, having been visited by the local pigs.  Clearly, these kids were having a much different experience than mine.  Here we were, living in the same small part of the same small country in the same small region of the world.  And yet our experiences were completely different – the result of their willingness to go all in and immerse themselves in a life altogether unfamiliar and uncomfortable in the hope that, by living it, they would understand the life.

This brings me to my biggest problem with Goins’ article on travel.  If the way to become compassionate, cultured, and adventurous is to become open and adaptable, then you don’t have to fly across the world to reap the rewards of travel.  I would say that you can gain a lot of those same benefits just by moving to a new city, changing your routine, and making a concerted effort to consistently live outside your comfort zone.  In doing so, you will open yourself up to new experiences, your perspective will change, and you will begin to see the world differently.  And this, to me, is the best part of travel.

Summit of Mt. Nyiragongo, Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo

The Nile River, Jinja, Uganda

Koh Phangan, Thailand

Lome, Togo

Seoul, South Korea

Seoul, South Korea

Boracay, Philippines

Rangoon, Burma

Sydney, Australia

Mt. Nyragongo, Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo

Bantayan Island, The Philippines

Stonetown, Zanzibar, Tanzania

Lake Wanaka, New Zealand

Jerusalem, Israel

Ephesus, Turkey

Barcelona, Spain

Saigon, Vietnam

Kumasi, Ghana

Buenos Aires, Argentina

London, England

Kep, Cambodia

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The Idea of Travel as a Search

At the summit of Mt. Nyiragongo, a volcano outside Goma in the Democratic Republic of Congo

That is what Ilan Stavans and Joshua Ellison posit in the their essay, “Reclaiming Travel,” featured on the New York Times philosophy blog, The Stone. The literary professor from Amherst and editor of a literary journal lament the packaging of travel and its reduction to a commodity, rather than a unique experience marked by uncertainty.  A cruise ship, like a guided tour through a historical site or an all-inclusive stay at a resort, is a known entity where the only action required is putting down a credit card and showing up.  Not having to seek out an experience makes people complacent and prevents them from actually understanding the place they are visiting.

On top of Treble Cone in Lake Wanaka, New Zealand

The result, according to the authors, is a dramatic shrinking of the world, where accessibility leads us to think we understand people and places, when, in reality, we are just consuming specific perceptions of the world.  In their conclusion, Stavan and Ellison explain what they feel are the implications of this effect:

This lack of awareness is even more pronounced when it comes to different cultures. The media bombards us with images from far-away places, making distant people seem less foreign, more relatable to us, less threatening. It’s a mirage, obviously. The kind of travel to which we aspire should tolerate uncertainty and discomfort. It isn’t about pain or excessive strain — travel doesn’t need to be an extreme sport — but we need to permit ourselves to be clumsy, inexpert and even a bit lonely. We might never understand travel as our ancestors did: our world is too open, relativistic, secular, demystified. But we will need to reclaim some notion of the heroic: a quest for communion and, ultimately, self-knowledge.

Our wandering is meant to lead back toward ourselves. This is the paradox: we set out on adventures to gain deeper access to ourselves; we travel to transcend our own limitations. Travel should be an art through which our restlessness finds expression. We must bring back the idea of travel as a search.

For the most part, I agree with the authors in their distaste for pre-packaged travel experiences, but I also recognize that this isn’t for everyone.  Most people travel to get away from the daily grind and relax, see the sights, and enjoy themselves.  Most people don’t want to deal with the struggle that is really only enjoyable in retrospect and causes unnecessary stress (which, one can get under control, through stress management courses from a legacy rehab).  So, while I enjoy the discomforts of travel as much as the next person, I understand why people would not want the same experience in the three weeks of vacation they get every year.

At a soup restaurant in Chiang Mai in Northern Thailand

The authors get this point, and address it in the article:

Travel is a search for meaning, not only in our own lives, but also in the lives of others. The humility required for genuine travel is exactly what is missing from its opposite extreme, tourism.

Modern tourism does not promise transformation but rather the possibility of leaving home and coming back without any significant change or challenge. Tourists may enjoy the visit only because it is short. The memory of it, the retelling, will always be better. Whereas travel is about the unexpected, about giving oneself over to disorientation, tourism is safe, controlled and predetermined. We take a vacation, not so much to discover a new landscape, but to find respite from our current one, an antidote to routine.

Riding back from Ngong Hills in Kiserian outside Nairobi, Kenya

They are right about why most people travel, but wrong in their judgment of the merits of modern tourism.  The kind of travel experiences the authors advocate are difficult to condense into a week or two.  It is possible in places where the comforts and conveniences of modern travel don’t exist, but, in more trafficked places, it requires a lot of effort to remove yourself from the grid and connect with the people in the places you are visiting, particularly when you don’t already know people who live there.  It has been much easier for me to have more authentic experiences, since I usually have friends or friends of friends who can show me around.  I am lucky in that respect.

I like the idea of travel as a journey.  But sometimes people just want to relax take it easy.  And who can blame them?

Develop Economies’ Music Recommendation

Happy Father’s Day (Develop Economies Becomes a Book)

Just shy of three years ago, this blog came into existence.  It had a very simple layout and was located at  Over time, it grew in both scope and traffic, precipitating the move to a more professional layout and a re-branding as Develop Economies, a name I came up with at the spur of the moment.  This week, the blog will reach half a million pageviews, which is something I never could have imagined.  And in the beginning, there was only one reader – my dad.

Today is Father’s Day, so I want to talk a little bit about the support my family gave me through this process.   After college, I started on a more traditional path, working as a strategy consultant for three years in Boston, before moving all my belongings into the family basement and leaving for the Philippines.  In the last three years, I have traveled and lived all over Africa and Asia, with seemingly little direction other that pursuing fulfilling jobs where I am challenged and doing meaningful work.  And, while he doesn’t always approve of the places I choose to go, at the end of the day, what matters most to him is that I am pursuing the things that I am passionate about.   One of the best manifestations of that support has been through this blog.

In the beginning, my father was the one and only reader.  He used to comment on my articles under different pseudonyms – mostly characters from the Ayn Rand novel Atlas Shrugged.  I am not sure he really cared much about the posts on development, but read them anyways because he enjoyed my writing and wanted to learn more about what I was doing.  The posts about travel and culture appealed more to him, but, again, he was happy to read and comment on it all.

A few days ago, after nearly three years living abroad, I moved back to the United States for good.   This blog serves as a record of those three years, and it charts my own personal and professional growth.  So, for Father’s Day this year, I am going to publish Develop Economies – all 200,000 words – into a book.  This will be the final post in that book, even though I will continue to write posts for the blog.  It is a way of showing my gratitude for the support he has given me these last few years.

So, thanks for the support dad, and happy Father’s Day.