Category: Travel

Cash Back in El Salvador

Alex, Tyler and I rented a boat and our captain took us to a Salvadoran village, San Francisco, maybe 500 people. 

Speaking Spanish, our captain told us, "The majority of the people from this town are in the United States."  They sent back remittances, which explained the remodeled homes, the satellite dishes, the schoolchildren buying ice cream. 

I thought about Richard Rogerson's paper, "Indivisible Labor, Lotteries, and Equilibrium."  

Rogerson said that there's a high fixed cost of going to work (commuting time, putting on your game face).  So people's work lives will tend to be all-or-nothing: 40 hours or zero hours. 

In that kind of world, it's more efficient for half the population to work full-time rather for the whole population to work half-time; why should everyone have to get up early? 

Rogerson shows such people would rather have a work lottery: The people who draw the short straws have to go to work and have to share their cash with everyone who didn't work. 

The people of San Francisco are living in Rogerson's world: One family member draws the short straw and has to go work in the U.S.  She sends back most of her money, some of which is used to build a vacation/retirement home for the unlucky worker (A Philippine example here).

There is good work on the micro-level causes of remittances: Stark and Lucas for example. But the social causes are underresearched.  One study surveyed here found that even controlling for the usual individual factors, what mattered most was what town you were from.

Key quotes:

“[W]hatever factors governed migrants’ decisions, they operated at the community level"

"[F]urther research is required on the social determinants of remittances"

Rogerson's model is often right, we just don't know why.

Adventures in El Salvador

Tyler, Garett Jones and I visited El Salvador for a few days, just for fun. Here is a travelogue of some of our adventures.

The moment we exit customs Tyler grabs a driver and starts speaking in rapid Spanish. Neither Garett nor I are fluent but we are laughing because we know exactly what 100_5919Tyler is saying. Tyler wants pupusas and not pupasas turísticos but estilo familiar. The driver understands as well so we jump into his van and he brings us to a pueblo with about 8 or 9 pupuserías in direct competition–we learn later that this is the town speciality.  We get Pupusas de chicharrones, queso and lorocco, a herb that is hard to find in the United States.  Bien Gusto. Tyler is sated so we continue on to Suchitoto, the small colonial town that will be our base of operations.

The next day we take a boat tour of Lake Suchitlan, an artificial lake nestled among hills and volcanoes. We ask our guide 100_5939_editedto take us to a local village–it’s an unusual request but we are the only tourists in town so why not.

We climb a long hill, it’s blazing hot but we have a look around, get a drink and having seen all there is to see start to head back down to the boat.  That’s when we hear the sirens and gunshots–other people hear it as well and stop walking. Only now do I remember the advice from Apocalypse Now, “Never get out of the boat!”

Tyler asks the guide what is going on.  He isn’t sure either but he asks a local and tells Tyler it’s “the running.”  Tyler is puzzled and looks as confused as I am–this is not a good sign–the word has many meanings, it could be the running of the bulls, the running of the race, the running?  Well it seems not to be gunshots so I joke to Tyler that it would be awesome if it were the running of the bulls.

Not 15 seconds later I turn around and I am confronted with an angry bull bearing down on me.  It looks like this:


Tyler, Garett and I jump out of the way. What the hell is going on?!  With a second or two to recover, I realize the bull is being driven by a gaucho.  The bull is snorting and none too happy, the sirens and shots are making it skittish, but the guacho slaps it hard, gets it under control and then, as if in a dream, the gaucho and bull vanish around the corner. We breathe a sigh of relief.


The running of the bull–as Tyler, Garett and I have coined the event–however, was not the running.

It was at about this time that things started to get a little surreal.

100_5947The sirens are approaching, the “gunshots” are getting louder and we see a strangely dressed man coming up the hill towards us.  He appears to be tall, very tall, wait…am I in a Fellini movie?

The man is on stilts and is accompanied by a coterie of devils.

As the group passes, we are handed a handsome annual report with pictures of the mayor and the year’s accomplishments.  Ah, this is fiscal policy!  Now we understand.

We head back to the boat, pleased with our luck and well satisfied with the day’s events. 100_5953_edited

Addendum: If you go here are few practical things to bear in mind.  El Salvador is not geared towards tourists–this has positive and negative aspects.  On the positive side you can believe the prices you are quoted, there is not yet a “take the tourist for all they are worth” culture.  On the negative side, there isn’t much to buy. There aren’t many indigenous people and, in part because there isn’t a tourist market, there isn’t a strong artisinal culture, as there is in say Guatemala.  There are a few Mayan ruins but nothing as extensive as in Guatemala or Mexico.  Few people speak English, even at hotels and restaurants. The pupasas are great but the food variety is limited.  We were perfectly happy exploring for two days but this is one of the less exotic countries of Central America.

(By the way, do you see the devil at right, so oddly framed between the bars of the truck.  Why is he looking at me this way?)

100_5952_editedWe stayed in Suchitoto at a small (6-8 room) hotel called Los Almendros de San Lorenzo.  It’s run by a former El Savadorean diplomat who lived 30 years abroad and his partner, an interior decorator. Highly luxurious and recommended but anomalous, don’t take this as representing Suchitoto.

El Salvador has a very high murder rate, more than 10 times the US rate. Suchitoto, however, is safe and San Salvador seems fine for walking around in the main sections although every shop with anything of value has a guy with a shotgun standing outside.

On the way back from the village after the boat ride we were going to take the bus back into town.  We asked some locales where the bus stop was and they volunteered to give us a ride in the back of their truck.  Here’s a nice photo of Tyler (taken by Garett) as we traveled the bumpy road back into town.  I believe we discussed Mundell and optimum currency areas.


Words of wisdom

The best advice about how to conduct yourself at work is to know yourself, and get new information–from outside your own experience–about what is possible in the world. And that is what fiction, and plays, and poetry, and this blog, are about.

More here.  I thank Alex and Garett for having done a short (very short) jaunt to El Salvador with me; more on that soon.

Potential markets in everything business plans to bet against

The Lithuanian company Olialia, pronounced "ooh-la-la", is planning a holiday resort in the Maldive islands.

The firm hopes to pull in the tourists by employing only blonde staff, and offering direct flights to the island crewed entirely by blondes, including the pilots.

The article is here and for the pointer I thank Leonard Monasterio.

Are cruise ships saving the theatre industry?

Cruise entertainment doesn't have the best of reputations, but I took my maiden voyage earlier this year and it was a real eye-opener. I was there to review shows on board the Celebrity Eclipse, and both the productions and facilities were extremely impressive. The theatre itself was actually of a far higher standard than many of the West End's crumbling playhouses – more comfy seats, better sightlines, excellent acoustics and high-end equipment.

Celebrity spends up to $1m per show for three 60-minute productions on every ship in its line. Each vessel has a 1,150-seat theatre, employs a cast of 18, plus nearly 40 musicians, a stage crew of six and various other technical crew across the music lounges on the ship.

And cruising is a huge growth area in the entertainment business. Looking across some of the other lines – P&O has its own on-board theatre company with more than 100 entertainers, Royal Caribbean is staging cruise versions of Hairspray and Chicago, and elsewhere there are licensed versions of Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals or other popular shows such as Saturday Night Fever.

But no Chekhov.  The full story is here.

Kidnap Radio

The first rule of kidnapping insurance is that you don't talk about kidnapping insurance.

That's Seth Gitter summarizing some of the economics of kidnapping insurance over at the Blog of Diminishing Returns.  Seth also points us towards a story about Caracol Radio, a radio station in Colombia that broadcasts messages from families to hostages every Saturday night:

The show is called Voces del
Secuestro, or Voices of Kidnapping. (There are several other stations
in Colombia that send messages out on other days of the week). The
host, Herbin Hoyos, is a journalist who started this program in 1994,
after he was briefly kidnapped…

For more, see Tyler's excellent analysis of the economics of kidnapping insurance.

Which are the least bohemian cities?

Johan Almenberg writes to me:

I have a blog request: a list of the top ten least bohemian cities in the world. Why are some cities more conducive to bohemian lifestyles than others? Does rent control result in more or less of this? I would love to read your thoughts and hopefully so would other people.

Writing this from rent-controlled Stockholm which I believe deserves a place on the top ten.

I won't give him ten, but how about Kuala Lumpur as the world's most non-bohemian city, counting the free world only?  (Otherwise Pyongyang wins.)  It doesn't have much to do with rent control.  Dubai is an interesting choice but I don't think it counts as part of the free world.  Santiago, Chile does not strike me as very bohemian.  Better not nominate Prague!

In the United States, I would name San Antonio as the most non-bohemian major city, or maybe El Paso, with Atlanta as a runner-up.  Might there be somewhere very non-Bohemian in northern Florida?  Does Richard Florida have an index for this somewhere?

What are your picks?

*Lost*: commentary on the final episode

Most of all, it reminded me of Jacob's Ladder and especially Michael Powell's Stairway to Heaven (A Matter of Life and Death), two movies worth rewatching in any case.  The final scene, while the credits roll, is simply that of a plane crash with no survivors.  I view the show's cosmology as reflecting the existence of all possible universes and we get to see, and live with, a few of them.  That includes the universe where they all die in the initial crash, the universe where they all die in the hydrogen bomb explosion, the universe where the hydrogen bomb creates an alternative reality, the universe where there really is a miraculously surviving "Oceanic Six," the universe where the main island narrative happens, the universe where it is all a dream of Jack's, and bits of others as well.  This Leibnizian move "explains" the show's numerous unanswered questions, such as those about the lottery numbers and many more.  It was possible, so it happened, toss in the anthropic principles as well.

The most striking moment of the final episode was when Locke tells Jack, quite sincerely, that he does not in fact have a son.  The question remains how the different universes fit together or interact and in some manner it seems they do.  The final episode is extremely effective in bringing out the dreamy and speculative tones of many of the previous episodes.

Most of all I viewed the ending as tragic.  It was not mainly about any particular account of the metaphysics of the island.  It was about how few couples had the chance to actually live together, love together, and stay together.  The perfect reunions of the couples in the "we're all dead" scenario only drove this point home.  I found this contrast moving.

At the end, the door is left open for Jack (the body of Jack?) to become the next smoke monster on the island and you can spot some clues to this effect, such as Jack's body being strewn on the stones in the same manner as it was for The Man in Black.

I saw two major weaknesses in the denouement.  First, Widmore is dispatched too summarily in the penultimate episode.  That thread of the story is not so much hanging (which would have been OK), but rendered irrelevant.  Years of dramatic gravitas were swept away in a single, hastily executed murder scene.  Second, Ben is a weak and poorly defined character in the final episode and runs around like a puppy dog, with no clear moral stance.  Since he usually dominates any scene he is in, this is strikingly incongruous.

Overall I thought it was the best final episode of a series I have seen, with close competition from The Sopranos.

Markets in everything

British actor John Cleese of Monty Python fame opted for a daylong cab ride halfway across Europe after the dust plume from an Icelandic volcano left him stranded.

Cleese paid $5,100 for a Mercedes taxi Friday from the Norwegian capital, Oslo, to Brussels, said Kjetil Kristoffersen, managing director of Publicom, his agent in Norway. Cleese was in Oslo to appear on the talk show Skavlan.

The article is here.  Cleese and Monty Python, of course, were the original inspiration for the MR "Markets in Everything" series.

Temporary Marriage in Shiite Islam

ON A DUSTY MORNING in the holy city of Qom, I went looking for a shrine in a walled cemetery of martyrs known as Sheikhan. The graveyard's walls are lined with glass cases containing the framed photos of soldiers felled by the Iran-Iraq war. The shrine, I'd been told, is a hangout for women seeking temporary marriage, an intriguing mechanism in Shiite Islam for relieving sexual frustration. In the Islamic Republic of Iran, sex outside of marriage is a crime, punishable by up to 100 lashes or, in the case of adultery, death by stoning. Yet the purpose of a temporary marriage is clear from its name in Arabic–mut'a, pleasure. A man and a woman may contract a mut'a for a finite period of time–from minutes to 99 years or more–and for a specific amount, mehr in Farsi, which the man owes the woman.

Interesting throughout, from Mother Jones.

Where should you wish to visit in a hurry?

Here is the reader request:

A friend remarked that on his trip to Cuba, the inclusion of modern buses imported from China had started to erode the charm of the vintage car culture we associate with the island. This is one factor, among many (including the possibility of the embargo being stopped), that made her travel to the island before it changed too much.

What other countries (or cities) are undergoing signficant change and will be presumably very different in a few years from now? Which ones would you travel to if you had the chance now before they underwent that change?

Here is my list of places to visit in a hurry:

1. Cuba

2. Bali, Laos, and Cambodia, which are all losing traditional culture.

3. Any wildlife or game reserve.

4. Yemen (maybe too late already?)

5. Tibet and possibly Bhutan

I can't bring myself to put North Korea on that list.

Here is my list of places which will only get better to visit:

1. China (air pollution will diminish, reading MR might become easier)

2. India (pollution will diminish, sanitation will improve)

3. Greece (someday will be cheaper)

4. Canada, New Zealand, and Australia: they don't have much old stuff anyway and what they do have will be preserved.  The U.S., in contrast, was interesting in the 1950s (or the 1920s) in a way these places were not and many aspects of that period are being lost. 

What suggestions do you have?  Iraq definitely belongs to one list or the other, we just don't know which.