In praise of travel in middle-income countries

by on June 24, 2011 at 4:55 am in Travel | Permalink

Mexico, Turkey, and Brazil stand between “the developed world” and “the underdeveloped world.”  They are all diverse regionally.  They are different enough to be exotic, and wealthy enough to be comfortable.  On your trip you can move between worlds with ease.  They all have superb food and world-class sights.  They are not finished works, but rather they are in the process of creating themselves.  The journey is full of suspense.  Two of the three (not Brazil) are cheap to travel in.  Two of the three are safe.

Ankara is splendid, yet it receives few words of praise.  Imagine that by visiting the current city you would be witnessing a world from centuries away.  How you would swoon!  The markets, the intact buildings, the exotic foodstuffs, the political monuments, the dynamism of the human spirit there, fill in the desired travel cliche.  Suddenly you wake up and realize that you are viewing the Ankara of your own time.  Why should all of that swoon go away?

Drop your bias against the temporally proximate; ruins are ruined, Ankara is not.

ralph June 24, 2011 at 5:02 am

Lived in Ankara when it was modernizing. I’d love to hear why you think Ankara is splendid. That it is not. But it’s now functional for a capital, which it did not used to be. Mind, Ankara is a Turkish city, and Turkey itself is incredibly dynamic and wonderful and varied, as you note. I’m a big fan, in general, leave aside any comments on the government or military or the political far-right. In that context, Ankara is a lively, functional, Turkish city.

But “splendid”? a couple of things that seemed splended to you would help.

Personally, I loved going to the opera there, which was decrepit but which was also full of young Bulgarian (!) and Romanian and Turkish singers who were tons of fun.

ralph June 24, 2011 at 5:08 am

Actually, I think maybe I’m just having problems parsing your praise. :-)

Intact buildings? Did you expect something different? Ankara doesn’t really have any truly old markets unless you went to the bit pazar, and then down **into** the bit pazar. Few if any very old historical buildings or even building materials left not in the museum…. I still like the place, but I personally sing the praises of a bunch of cities and towns all over Turkey prior to Ankara. I loved for example your praise of Eskisehir; wanna really have some fun get to Van or Diyarbakir or Sanliurfa or Kars or …. one could go on.

Did I mention that this post is really spot on, though?

Rahul June 24, 2011 at 8:54 am

The praise would be splendid-er if it was a little more specific. In its current form you could swap out Ankara for about a hundred other ancient cities and it would read the same.

Tyler Cowen June 24, 2011 at 9:51 am

They are all splendid.

jim kopinak June 24, 2011 at 5:50 am

Long ago I read a fascinating book which covered the history of Asia Minor from the Hittites through the Graeco-Roman through the Islamic to the modern Turkey present (circa 1950).
Would it still be possible to tour through Turkey from Troy to Sinope to Ankara to Sardis to…etc?

Ahmet Cihat Toker June 24, 2011 at 6:31 am

@jim: it is possible. i am sure you’d find a good tour company. but i would recommend you try covering the route with turkish inter-city busses. due to their popularity, the competition is very high, and the quality of the buses are very good. i am talking about personal entertainment on each single seat and free wifi, along with drinks and finger food.

I’d recommend the route Istanbul-Troy-Ephesus-Sardes-Gordion-Ankara-Hattusas-Sinope. For someone interested in history, this trip wouşd only be considered as a preview though.

As someone born and raised in Ankara, I am also trying to parse Taylor’s praise. Perhaps, I never will be able to, since I will never be able to see Ankara from the eyes of someone who visits it for the first time. Still, its nice to hear such praises from someone like Dr. Cowen. And I am glad my mother city still can be considered splendid, after the invasion of shopping malls of the last 5 years.

Rahul June 24, 2011 at 8:57 am

Why are (some) inter-city buses in the 2nd and 3rd world so much nicer than in the US? Has anyone been on an American inter-city that provided “personal entertainment on each single seat and free wifi, along with drinks and finger food.”?? Darn! Even our planes and trains don’t have that!

JasonL June 24, 2011 at 9:31 am

Last time I took a Greyhound, I was propositioned by an elderly prostitute with meth issues and a hobo vomited on my backpack. Does that count?

Evan June 24, 2011 at 10:52 am

After years on Greyhound with similar experiences to JasonL’s, and having been on wonderful intercity buses in Mexico and Brazil, I wondered the same thing. My explanation is that personal automobiles have relatively low market penetration in those countries. As a stable, meth-issue-less middle class person in Brazil, you may very well not own a car but may have the money to go visit the beach in the next state over. That’s the situation for enough people that there’s demand for a clean, well cared for transportation system. In the US, buses are the single cheapest way to travel long distances, and you’re unlikely to take one unless you’re totally out of money (students, the meth scene) or don’t know any better ( the wide-eyed German backpackers you’ll see sometimes). Watch for BMT’s buses to get steadily sketchier as the middle classes acquire cars.

John Thacker June 24, 2011 at 11:03 am

Yes. See this article in Florida.

The half-million dollar coach is equipped with 27 individual leather seats in a bus designed to accommodate twice as many seats, a spacious arrangement with WiFi connections, LCD movie screens and a GPS tracking system.

There’s actually been a resurgence in nicer buses in the US in the last few years, from operators like Megabus, BoltBus, and the Red Coach mentioned in the Florida article.

Andrew Montgomery June 24, 2011 at 11:18 am

Because there is competition from the aviation sector (and in some areas, from trains). People who are time-poor and cash-rich will always fly. People who can’t afford the flight will drive their own car. The only people who take inter-city buses are those who can’t afford their own car. That’s generally not a demographic you want to associate with, at least in the USA.

In countries where the urban infrastructure doesn’t demand car ownership, a wider demographic uses public transport.

Ahmet Cihat Toker June 25, 2011 at 3:50 am

The Turkish low-cost aviation sector experienced a boom a few years back. Still, they are not hurting the bus companies’ performance. As far as I can observe, car ownership is also high, say compared to continental Europe.

I think the difference is Turkey’s size (comparable to Texas and Louisiana combined). The longest flight takes 1.5-2 hours. This leaves many routes not being served by planes.

Another reason is the amount of luggage that the travelers carry on with them. Go to any bus station in Turkey, you’ll be amazed by the amount of luggage an average traveller carries. It is customary to bring lots of food (dried beans, fresh vegetables, sweets etc…) from home towns to the big cities.

Josh M June 24, 2011 at 11:41 am

The US is catching up; just skip Greyhound. E.g.: http://us.megabus.com/default.aspx

Rahul June 24, 2011 at 11:51 am

I thought Megabus was only a notch above Greyhound. Isn’t is supposed to be a ” low-cost bus service”, no-frills etc.? The Ryanair of bus-world.

In Chicago Union Station even put up a sign asking Megabus passengers not to stand and wait in its terminal.

John Thacker June 24, 2011 at 1:05 pm

Megabus is fairly significantly above Greyhound, but not as far above as some competitors like Florida’s RedCoach.

In Chicago Union Station even put up a sign asking Megabus passengers not to stand and wait in its terminal.

This is merely because Megabus doesn’t pay for station access; a large part of the reason why these new bus services are cheap and successful is because they use free curbsides for their pickup rather than paying for bus stations and terminals.

Canadian_Brain June 24, 2011 at 11:20 am

I’d recommend a slightly different route, along the southern shore. Bergama (modern Pergammon -sp?) is a lovely city, and much less visited than Ephessus, with great historical sites. I really enjoyed some areas along the lycian coast as well (Kas, Fethiye, and Antalya are all pretty).

Ahmet Cihat Toker June 25, 2011 at 3:38 am

@Canadian_Brain

I did mention that my route would only count as a preview :) I tried to come up with a route that included Jim’s cities.

If you want to include south Turkey, I would definetely suggest Aphrodisias and Sagalassos. Sagalassos is a gem waiting to be visited. Just think of a newly discovered Ephesus in the Alps.

baki June 24, 2011 at 6:52 am

Having worked in Ankara,Tyler’s comments make very little sense. I can only assume that Tyler must have had exceptionally persuasive company while in Ankara, which would not be much of a rare find since Ankara is the “ass-kissing capital of Turkey for winning government contracts”. That’s really the only thing Ankara is famous for (along with the inferiority complex of its residents caused by coming from one of the very few large cities in Turkey not located next to a large body of water)

dearieme June 24, 2011 at 7:27 am

“They are not finished works”: which countries are? Unless you mean “finished” as in “all washed up”.

Vik June 24, 2011 at 7:49 am

2 of 3? You mean 1 of 3, correct? I am sure walking around the favelas at night is absolutely the non-frommer’s experience.

Usems June 24, 2011 at 9:58 am

As someone who has lived in both Brazil and Mexico, I was wondering which one of the two he was referring to as safe…

andres June 24, 2011 at 10:15 am

Outside the favelas of the major cities in Brazil, the interior is relatively safe to travel, I guess this was what Tyler meant

Mik June 24, 2011 at 1:37 pm

Major cities in Brazil safe? I guess that’s why my friend currently working in Rio has to go to special arenas with security guards to do his running (if he want’s to use his relatively new Nike shoes) – and I do not think he was ever contemplating to do the running in favelas.

For safe I can accept Turkey. Mexico and Brazil, no.

Arthur June 25, 2011 at 8:47 am

You can walk alone at night in Rio’s best neighbourhoods without any trouble. Some places are dark and this is a problem. But apart from that the best neighbourhoods are quite safe and even the favelas are getting safer as the government is expelling drug dealers from it. Sao Paulo’s best neighbourhoods are even safer.

Rahul June 24, 2011 at 8:39 am

Two of the three are safe.

Puzzled. Is he going to get mugged in Brazil or Mexico……

FYI June 24, 2011 at 8:59 am

You and Vik beat me to the punch. I think Tyler was implying that Brazil was safe (does anyone think Mexico is safe?) and I wonder where he got that idea from. Americans are a big target as far as getting mugged or even sometimes kidnapping (even though the latter is becoming less common). I am always very concerned when I go back to visit and my portuguese is still fluent… And the idea that you can stay away from trouble by only visiting the rich areas of Sao Paulo or Rio is not true. There is violence all around – taking the subway for instance is a big no-no.

Manoel Galdino June 24, 2011 at 10:47 am

Brazil is surely violent, but rich areas are not. At least, much less violent (which is actually sad, because poors again have more problems than rich ones). In any case, the subway in São Paulo isn’t dangerous at all. The problem is that it is too crowded in rush hous. But that’s another problem.
The problem for a foreigner is that he doesn’t know which areas are safe or not.
ps.: I live in São Paulo.

FYI June 24, 2011 at 11:24 am

Yes, much less violent but still quite violent for american standards (unless you live in New Orleans or Detroit I guess). I totally disagree with you that SP subway is safe. Heck, walking on Av. Paulista is not safe. The only true safe areas are the isolated suburbs (Alphaville and such) but tourists have no reason to go there.
ps: I lived in SP for 24 years and still visit. My niece was kidnapped a few months ago in Vila Mariana, which by all measures is a ‘nice’ area in SP.

Rahul June 24, 2011 at 11:34 am

So what is the origin of violent crime in a country? What makes essentially similar countries on other metrics so different in crime?

Doesn’t seem to be income. Nor inequality. Maybe drugs? But Turkeyites can grow hashish and opium as well.
Unemployment? Doubt it; India did nicely on unemployment without having much violent crime. Education? Not sure. Stable polity? Maybe.

Puzzling matter indeed. Is there any consensus about this?

FYI June 24, 2011 at 1:05 pm

It is a great question and I am not sure anyone really knows. However, one thing to mention is that culture (and I understand that this is a generalization) matters a lot. I can only comment on the differences between Brazil and US but I think these are interesting because certain areas of Brazil are similar to the US in some ways… but the actual experience of living in these countries is extremelly different.

I was actually trying to explain to an american the other day the dangers of traveling to Brazil and it ended up in a discussion about how crime in Brazil is ‘different’ than crime here in the US. You might have your car stolen in Seattle or your house burglarized in Houston, but these same crimes in Brazil usually involve a level of violence much higher. For instance, it is not uncommon (again it happened to my family) to have thieves trying to steal your car while you are stopped at a traffic light and if you try to drive away or refuse to open the door, they will shoot without hesitation. Many people are killed this way in the richer areas of SP and Rio. Same thing happens to almost all petty crimes in Brazil: the escalation between something small and a murder is incredibly tenuous.

How did this happen? Well, my guess is that the ‘criminal class’ finds alot of support in brazilian culture. The idea that people become criminals because society forces them to do so is highly accepted and it passes as common sense nowadays. The fact that their police is so corrupt and government overall is so inept creates this kind of bond between regular folks and criminals: they are all victims of the abuse coming from the top. Religion unfortunatelly also plays a role in all of this. Brazil’s Catholic church is one of the more socially liberal that I know of and they openly blame poverty on the rich. Just another cultural incentive to have people turning to crime without thinking twice.

Rahul June 24, 2011 at 1:44 pm

South / Central America and Africa seem to have high violent crime as compared to similarly poor places from say, Asia or the Middle East. I’m not sure if this is borne out by hard data. But if it is I wonder why.

Would FYI’s Brazilian explanations be applicable to other countries on the continent?

Kevin June 24, 2011 at 2:25 pm

I don’t know if this is still true, but years ago when I visited Brazil a Brazilian explained one difference about crime there was that many Brazilians who would not steal from another Brazilian wouldn’t hesitate to steal from a tourist. He attributed this to a kind of cultural chip-on-the-shoulder arrogance/jealousy, and that many Brazilians resented ‘rich’ tourists. Brazil was much less violent then, but the threat of violence seemed pervasive. I remember four California surfer dudes taking their boards to a crowded public beach, and mid-morning three of them went to get some water while the fourth stayed with their boards. Five Brazilian surfers strolled up, and while one stood over the lone Californian, the other four picked up a board and walked off in different directions. Hundreds of people watched it happen, and ignored it. The police just shrugged their shoulders when it was reported. There were also reports of people having taxi drivers who would drive them to the edge of town, take their money, and leave them by the side of the street, and anyone stupid enough to wear a backpack on a bus usually found that the bottom had been slit and the contents emptied in the jostling. There just seemed to be this attitude that you take what you can when you can if the risk of getting caught seemed sufficiently low. I work with several Brazilians now, and they love their country, but even they recommend traveling there only with a native Brazilian.

Rahul June 24, 2011 at 3:05 pm

I’ll report a somewhat contrary observation from India. Tourists are, of course, soft targets. Not much violent crime but lots of pick-pocketing, bag lifting, petty theft, swindles etc.

The difference is if and when you get caught: The communal outrage (and the proportional mob lynching) is far worse when a thief is caught targeting a white man. It’s a combination of the hospitality-to-a-guest and remnants of colonial respect I think.

blah June 24, 2011 at 3:50 pm

@Rahul,

My own experiences in India are very contrary to your statements. A very young boy was repeatedly attempting to pick-pocket me to the point where I had to swat his hands from digging into my front pockets. Despite yelling at him repeatedly (he would not stop following me through the flower market in Kolkata), not an eyelash was batted by any merchants or shoppers.

In a second experience – just a day later – while on a sleeper train from Kolkata to Varanasi, I was woken up in the middle of the night and had a rifle pointed at me by the police, who demanded a “luggage tax.” I told them to eff off and threatened to wake up the entire train, but the sleepy passengers around me didn’t pay it no never mind. Probably they were relieved not to be the targets themselves. I finally relented and paid the vermin 30 Rs.

Rahul June 24, 2011 at 4:35 pm

@blah

Maybe I’m generalizing from urban India. In any case, I was being anecdotal. No hard numbers.

FYI June 24, 2011 at 6:39 pm

Kevin,

Foreigners are still a target. The only difference is that now they are not as special as before since the local population is also a target without any kind of break. The one thing foreigners have against them here is the complete lack of understanding of how brutal these criminal are. A brazilian is at this point trained not to react in any way. Foreigners sometimes think they can reason with these people and I think (no data) get hurt in a larger proportion.

Manoel Galdino June 25, 2011 at 10:56 pm

Some of your claims aren’t based on data but only anecdote. Unofrtunately the plural of anecdote is not data. Most good neighbourhoods in São Paulo (Pinheiros, Vila Madalena, Jardins) have one or two homicide in ten years.
On the other hand, there are a lot of property crimes as you said.

Finally, about the subway, my claim was that when you are in the subway you are safe, not in areas sorrounding it. And, as I said, never heard of anyone being killed in areas next the subway.

Miley Cyrax June 24, 2011 at 4:36 pm

@FYI
The US poor/criminal class also gets a lot of encouragement from liberals who are content on blaming crime and poverty on the rich.

@rahul
I think it’s quite obvious that countries in certain areas or whose people hail from certain areas have more violent crime than other countries, even adjusted for income. I wonder why…

Mercy Vetsel June 24, 2011 at 4:36 pm

I don’t think either Mexico or Brazil is safe, but as long as we’re speculating into the mind of Cowen, I assume he meant Mexico and Turkey. Mexico is safer than Brazil in that Americans can generally travel about freely without armed guards.

-Mercy

Matt June 24, 2011 at 10:03 am

I was going to suggest that Russia is similar, though I then thought about how it’s really a pain in the ass to visit (w/ visas and registration and the like) and that it’s not cheap, at least in the way that most non-Russian speakers can do it, and while you can get excellent food in Moscow (and to some degree in Petersburg, and some other places if you know where to look) it too can be really expensive and is usually not Russian food that’s good, so it’s hard to say the food is good, at least for most travelers. So, don’t include Russia, despite the fact that it _should_ be a place to include on a list like this.

Greg Rehmke June 24, 2011 at 10:31 am

The chapter on Istanbul in Doug Saunders’ book, “Arrival City,” tells the amazing story of millions migrating and self-organizing to create the the vast new city in the surrounding land. More here: http://arrivalcity.net/

blah June 24, 2011 at 10:32 am

I have spent several weeks each in Brazil and Turkey, traveling about, but have never set foot in Mexico (not purposely, just haven’t made my way there yet.)

Is Mexico really in the same category as Brazil and Turkey in terms of development? This is an honest question. My impressions of Mexico are colored only by friends’ descriptions, photos, and movie footage (e.g. “Y Tu Mama Tambien”) – in other words, probably not entirely accurate but not entirely off either.

mm June 25, 2011 at 10:52 am

Mexico GDP per capita: $8,143
Brazil GDP per capita: $8,230
Turkey GDP per capita: $8,215

Mexico unemployment: 5.6%
Brazil unemployment: 7%
Turkey unemployment: 9.1%

Mexico GINI coefficient: 46.1
Brazil GINI coefficient: 57
Turkey GINI coefficient: 43.6

So, yes, these countries in terms of income are as similar as you could get, with Mexico having less unemployment, and Turkey and Mexico both having less income inequality than Brazil.

Nick Bradley June 24, 2011 at 10:34 am

Traveling in Mexico was nice before everything cost as much as it does in the states…at least in any city half-decent for tourists. Why go to Cabo when it costs the same to go to San Diego???

Rahul June 24, 2011 at 11:40 am

Mexico puzzles me. The poorer people seem to have an Indian standard of living but get paid American wages and pay American prices.

Mikeaz June 24, 2011 at 11:20 am

Mexico is an interesting place, it has modernized a lot in the last 15 years but spend time in TJ or most areas outside of tourist meccas and the developing status starts coming out. Driving along the baja is an eyeopening amazing experience.

Last year I backpacked through the Ukraine and had a similar amazement.

Romulo June 24, 2011 at 1:18 pm

If you have lived in Ankara and you make a serious effort, the city and food can be great. I lived there for one year and visited frequently the proceeding year. I found that visiting it was a lot of fun since my friends had done the legwork that I had been too lazy to do the year before. Once the gems were discovered, the city can be as much fun as most major cities. If you like soccer then your fun will be magnified. Also, Ankara (and Turkey in general for that matter) is an extremely safe city, especially when compared to the Americas which has vicious, endemic violence. Muggings, stabbings, and murders occur in Ankara, but with a frequency that is laughable, even by American city standards. For men, who don’t need to fear being groped in public transport or harassed, Ankara is a load of fun, especially if you know any Turkish and engage Turks on the dance floor/bar/club.

All around Ankara you find hideous buildings but the occasionally interesting modern behemoth really demonstrates the progression to a much more tasteful (most malls excluded) modern style. The reinforced concrete blocks that comprise the majority of Ankara are juxtaposed with some impressive structures. I know that this will make me sound uncouth, but some of the shopping malls are astounding displays of architecture and of the advancement that Turkish modern architecture and construction have made.

As for food there are two restaurants that are legitimately in my top ten eating experiences. I urge anyone visiting the city to visit my close friends year old blog that covers the dining scene. (Eating Ankara at eatingankara.wordpress.com) Kalbur, Recep Usta, Çukurağa Sofrası especially, are fantastic dining experiences that will not quickly be forgotten.

Baki’s comments about the inferiority complex is spot on. The first complaint of Turks is the absence of a sea. I thought this was ludicrous until I moved to Istanbul and realized how pleasant it is to see ships go by, watch the sunset, and cross continents on a boat. The latter, a daily occurrence for me for a year, never lost its novelty.

Would I be as effusive as Tyler? Absolutely not. Istanbul is not substantially more expensive than Ankara (to visit at least), and it as a city that enthralls every person that visits. Ankara is a city you can only romanticize in an exercise in self deception. Lets just say that I have done that sufficiently and now only have fond memories and positive praise.

Memnon June 24, 2011 at 9:47 pm

On the theme of travelling in middle-income countries I must recommend Malaysia, which doesn’t have the civilizational backstory of Anatolia, but which has English, high-speed trains, gigabit internet, rain forests and at least three major cuisines.

Erik June 25, 2011 at 12:06 pm

Fascinating thread. Brazil is fine as long as you know where and what to avoid. The same advice applies to many countries including the USA. Manoel Galdino hit it bang on.

Warning to unilingual Americans: your lack of communication competence and that all too frequent persistent sense of the White Man’s Burden makes you especially vulnerable. If in doubt, stay at home.

Turkey is evolving into a regional political powerhouse. It is amusing to contemplate that one day Turkey may save the culturally superior west–with its fascination for colonizing inferior people–from itself.

Rahul June 25, 2011 at 12:51 pm

too frequent persistent sense of the White Man’s Burden

What does that mean in the safety of travel context?

Gene Callahan June 26, 2011 at 7:18 am

I always appreciate that travel context is so safe.

Erik June 28, 2011 at 11:30 am

Rahul,

Condescending arrogance is a dangerous attitude on unfamiliar streets.

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