Category: Travels

What should I ask Juan Villarino?

I’ll be doing a Conversation with him in early May.  He is often known as “the world’s greatest hitchhiker,” here is a NYT profile of him.  Excerpt:

Villarino has cataloged every ride he has ever caught: 2,350, totaling about 100,000 miles in 90 countries, or enough to circumnavigate the globe four times.

He is from Argentina, and worked for a while in a Belfast cheese factory.  He is described as from a “downwardly mobile middle-class family” and:

In Buenos Aires, three men tried to mug him, but when they realized who he was, the thieves gave him money.

And:

They [Villarino and his wife] continue to live on about $7 a day each and travel as they always have, leading a life almost entirely on the highway, without a fixed address or jobs or bills.

Here is his blog and also a link to his self-published book.  Here is his blog in Spanish.  So what should I ask him?

Mexico City travel tips

I’m a loyal MR reader and follower of your work.  I’m so grateful for your work and your generous spirit.  I’m sure you get inundated with email and other correspondence but I’m adding to the pile by requesting that someday you’ll post advice for a Oaxaca or Mexico City visit.  I assure you that it would be carefully studied and utilized.

Happy Easter!

Here are my tips for Mexico City, taken from an email I sent to a friend a while ago, note I start with food but do not end there:

“1. Your number one task is to find a seller of tlacoyos in the street. This is likely a solo woman with a stand, on a corner. They are all over Mexico City, though whether in Condesa I am not sure. The vegetarian offerings are no worse, also, with beans and blue corn tortilla and cheese.  Get these, and they are in general quite sanitary.  You simply need to ask around, they will not be in highly visible places. I think about them often.

2. Ask for “tacqueria” rather than tacos, the latter might lead you into a restaurant.

2b. Most food in Condesa will be fine but underwhelming, think Clarendon. Try to find street food there.

3. The street food is the best food there and it is safer to eat than the restaurant food (though the latter is usually safe too).

4. Try a sandwich once or twice, just ask around, no need for a fancy place, these usually close by mid-afternoon. My favorite sandwich is the Hawaii, though I believe that is a purely subjective judgment, I do not think it is the best per se. The whole bakery culture there is quite interesting and often neglected by food people but it is important.

5. When you take a taxi out to the pyramids, there is excellent food along the way, in the middle of nowhere, have the driver stop and bring you somewhere. The pyramids are one of the best sights in this hemisphere, by the way, better than those in Egypt I think. There are also smaller pyramid sites on the way to the big pyramid site, worth visiting and also near some superb food.

6. Favorite fancy place there is Astrid and Gaston, not cheap but it won’t bankrupt you either.  Peruvian/Mexican fusion, nice to sit in too.

7. If you need a break from Mexican food, the Polish restaurants there are quite good, that would be my back up choice. Of Asian food the Japanese offerings might be the best. French and German can be quite good there, though not original.  Avoid “American.” Other Latin cuisines will in general be quite good there, including the steakhouses.

8. Go to Coyoacan (a suburb, sort of, but not far) and see the Frida Kahlo museum.  The food stalls (“comedores”) there are not only excellent, but they look the most sanitary and mainstream of just about any in Mexico. Even your aunt could be tempted to eat there. A good stop, try a whole bunch of things for $1.50 a piece, you could spend two hours there eating and not get bored and get to sample a lot of the main dishes.  Also a fun hangout.

9. When we flew into the airport, we immediately asked the taxi driver to bring us somewhere superb for a snack. Of course there was somewhere within five minutes, right nearby. Do this if you can open a line of communications.

9b. Walking is often the wrong way to find great food there, unless you are walking and asking. Walking and looking doesn’t work so well, because you are on the wrong streets if you are walking to just be walking around. Vehicles are the key, or asking and then walking to follow the advice, not to follow your walking instincts.

10. Chiles en Nogada is a seasonal dish, superb, I am not sure if they will still have it but ask around and get it if you can. It is delicious and a real treat, not to be forgotten.

11. Treat breakfast as a chance at some street food, don’t fill up on a traditional breakfast, least of all a touristy Mexican one. It will always be OK, but rarely interesting, even if it sounds somewhat authentic. Get a tlacoyo or something in the street. Any food represented by an Aztec word will be excellent, pretty much as a rule.

The non-food tips I will send separately. But the food is all about improvising, not about finding good restaurants. Most of the mid-tier restaurants are decent but for me ultimately a bit disappointing. Either go fancy or go street. Don’t trust any of the guidebook recommendations for mid-tier places, they will never be bad but mostly disappoint compared to the best stuff there.

Non-food

The Anthropology Museum is a must.

My personal favorite museum is Museo del Arte Popular, the popular art museum downtown, but I consider that an idiosyncratic preference.

Visit the Palacio de Bellas Artes and the murals there, and across the street House of Blue Tiles, get a juice there and see their murals too. Then walk from there down to the Zocalo on the main street, there is the number one walk in Mexico for a basic introduction to downtown. In fact that is the first thing I would do to get an overview of downtown and the older part of the city, even though that is not where you will end up hanging out.

The mural sites are in general excellent, I believe the best one is called Ildefonso.

I often find male clothes shopping there to be highly profitable, good mix of selection and prices. Polanco is the part of town you would go to for that, right near Pujol and also Astrid and Gaston, in fact.

Hotel Camino Real is a classic site, you can get a drink there at night with the funny colored lights. The movie Bring me the Head of Alfredo Garcia was shot there in part, a great film. The Mexico City movie is Amores Perros, a knockout. Y Tu Mama Tambien is another, you probably know these already. I also like the old Mexican movies of Luis Bunuel, made while he lived there for a while.

The classic Mexico novel is Roberto Bolano, *The Savage Detectives*, a great read and one of the best novels of the latter part of the 20th century, the English translation is first-rate too, as good as the Spanish in my view.

I don’t like much of the music, but perhaps that is the point.  Control Machete, a Mexican rap group, works pretty good as soundtrack while you are being driven around the city.

The Alan Riding book, while now badly out of date, is still an excellent overview of the older Mexico, great for background, Distant Neighbors it is called.

Have a cabbie drive you around different neighborhoods, to see rich homes, poorer sections, particular buildings. Mexico City is first-rate for contemporary architecture although most of it is quite scattered, no single place for walking around it that I know of.

Art galleries there are good for browsing, often in or near Polanco, the wealthy part of town.

Insurgentes is a good avenue for cruising.

Avoid Zona Rosa altogether at all costs, bad stuff, lots of pickpockets, no redeeming virtues whatsoever, do not be tempted.”

Thoughts about Morocco

1. Fez is perhaps the place in the world with the clearest continuous connections to the time of late antiquity.  Maimonides and Ibn Khaldun worked there, and walking through the medina that is not hard to imagine — you can dine in a small restaurant in the home of Maimonides (recommended, most of all the vegetables).  Fez has the world’s oldest university, dating from the 859, and the world’s oldest continuously operating library, from 1359.

2. The country has been remarkably stable relative to the rest of the region, whether you take that to be the Middle East, MENA, or Africa.  But the nature of the associated stability lessons remains unclear, read more here.

3 Social capital is higher than it was during my last visit twenty years ago.  That said, every transaction is still a potential swindle waiting to happen.  And if any English-speaking Moroccan climbs into your train cabin, and claims his brother is the most wonderful guide in town and offers up his phone number…simply decline any further contact.  Especially if the guy has a scar on his face.

4. From the OEC:

The top exports of Morocco are Cars ($2.95B), Insulated Wire ($2.46B), Mixed Mineral or Chemical Fertilizers ($1.83B), Phosphoric Acid($1.14B) and Non-Knit Women’s Suits ($1B)…

It could be much worse, but the dangers of premature deindustrialization are real.  Their exports are too dependent on Spain and France, two countries with many other trading partners and also relatively slow growth rates.  Agriculture still accounts for 40-45% of employment.  Tourism continues to grow, but service culture in the country is not top-notch.  They export a lot of marijuana too.

5. The country has the (distant) potential to evolve into an Atlantic economy — check the map — and I don’t just mean the history of Rabat/Salé as a pirate state.  Nonetheless the actual trade of the nation paints it as a Mediterranean economy, and most Mediterranean economies have not done very well lately.

6. Moroccans do not seem very religious.  Counterintuitively, that may be why, when they are living in Europe, they are especially vulnerable to radicalization. They are not already “filled up with belief,” and experience anomie, which is then exploited by terror groups.  Arguably the same is true for Uighurs in China, by the way, who are recruited by the thousands for foreign ISIS crusades and the like.

7. More and more of the country’s gdp is concentrating in and near Casablanca, which is underrated as a visit.  The famous Grand mosque, as Yana pointed out, in fact resembles a cavernous mosque-clock tower-opera house-French railway station, with even some elements of a medieval cathedral.  Not all devout Muslims are happy with it.

8. The best bistillah is in Meknes, where it is moister and less sweet.  In Casablanca I recommend the seafood stalls in the Grand Marché, and the roast chicken joints, always with french fries.

Skopje notes

Skopje, capital city of Macedonia, is a dream world for lovers of concrete communist architecture.

Link here, photos recommended.  It seems it is also the roast pepper capital of the world, and this:

The city center holds concrete masterpieces sitting alongside every possible era of architecture from the last two millennium. An ancient Castle fortress looks down from one side, and the world’s biggest cross sits atop an inner city mountain on the other. On one side of the Vardar river that cuts through the city center, is a ancient neighbourhood that could be straight out of Istanbul. On the other, the city square with an enormous “Man On a Horse” statue (just don’t say it’s Alexander the Great, believe me) is a pleasurable and walk-able area normally bustling with activity. Connecting the two areas, is the Stone Bridge, built about 700 years ago – on top of much older Roman foundations. The layers and the contrast is unique for any city of this size.

Imagine a city that is part Habsburg in style, part Ottoman, part communist brutalism, and part Las Vegas/Venetian kitsch except it isn’t kitschy, and with a dash of 300 thrown in for good measure, distributed across dozens or is it hundreds of large statues?

The earthquake of 1963 is mentioned fairly often; it destroyed about 80 percent of the city.

Mother Teresa was born in Skopje, and there is a museum in her honor.  A good day trip from Skopje is the St. Jovan Bigorski monastery, some of the finest woodcarving I have seen.  It is striking to view the church in conjunction with the Saudi-financed mosque across the valley, thereby inducing one to ponder the use of stones to capture space in the game of Go.

I am told there are Macedonian enclaves in Totowa, Clifton, and Garfield, New Jersey.

The food is phenomenal, in addition to the roast peppers there are breads, baked pies, meats stewed with vegetables, white beans, stuffed peppers, trout, and Balkan cheeses, all with that farm to table touch.  Further to the south I recommend the garlic spread.

There is sexual dimorphism in Skopje, and I am told that Donald Trump is more popular in this country than in any other.

The major Macedonian exports are chemical goods, machinery, clothing, iron, and steel.  The measured unemployment rate is about 23 percent, and there is a comparative advantage in producing “fake news.”  There are varying estimates for per capita income, but about 13k (PPP) seems in the ballpark.

Politics was discussed and maps were shown.  To put a twist on the famous quotation about religion in India, when it comes to history, every Macedonian is a millionaire.

English proficiency is high, as Macedonian has only slightly more than 2 million inhabitants and none of the immediate neighbors has a language that is very useful elsewhere.  The people are very friendly and helpful, and it is quite safe here for a tourist.

On the television I watched the first quarter of “NBA Team Africa vs. NBA Rest of the World,” Serge Ibaka vs. Dirk Nowitzki, etc., a real game with refs and a crowd, does the NBA even tell the American market about contests such as this?

If food, architecture, and history interest you, visit the fresh and vibrant Skopje.

Chongqing travel notes

1. Especially outside the immediate center of town, it feels as if something wacky is always happening.  Someone is screaming, backslapping, bumping fists, or screaming while backslapping and bumping fists.  Interactions appear to be random, highly intense, and short in duration.  The following interaction is more intense yet.  It reminds me of that old Humphrey Bogart movie “Beat the Devil.”

2. Every cabbie seems to know a random person standing on a street corner, who somehow mysteriously signals to that cab to be picked up, even if said cab already is delivering a Western passenger to some other location.  Shouting ensues, the random person is moved along in the cab only a short distance, always along the Westerner’s route, and then the person is let off again.  With a shout.  Rinse and repeat.

3. It is a better city for street food and stall food than is Chengdu.  The tastes are stronger and spicier, though I believe the peaks of Chengdu are higher and more subtle.

4. Don’t just stick to “the peninsula,” also travel to the alternate sides of the city’s two rivers, the Jialing and the Yangtze.

5. Haagen-Dazs is much more popular in China than in the United States, at least at the retail level.

6. “Sun Zhengcai, the former Communist Party chief of the Chinese city of Chongqing, is under investigation by authorities, the Wall Street Journal reported Saturday, citing people it didn’t identify.”  He had been considered a possible successor to Uncle Xi.

7. On my flight from Kunming to Chongqing, I witnessed my first “facial surveillance” arrest.  Just as they were about to let us off the plane, two policemen appeared at the entrance, with a copy of a facial surveillance photograph.  (Before you board any plane in China, they photograph your face plenty, and match it to various databases.)  They walked down the aisle, turning left and right, looking for the passenger who matched the photo.  They found him and escorted him off the plane, with the crowd watching nervously.  He showed neither surprise nor did he protest his innocence.

8. An excellent room in a five-star luxury Chongqing hotel, with view and upgrade to a larger suite, costs $70 a night.

9. Nearby is “the world’s longest cantilevered glass skywalk.

The city’s “mind-blowing overpass has five layers, 20 ramps and eight directions,” good photos at that link.

Here is Wikipedia on Chongqing, by one measure it is China’s most populous metropolitan area.  “Its population is already bigger than that of Peru or Iraq, with half a million more arriving every year in search of a better life,” and that was written eleven years ago.

India Fact of the Day

In India it is illegal for the police to arrest a woman after dark. The law apparently stems from a case decades ago when a woman was arrested at night and raped by the police. The law doesn’t seem like the second-best way to prevent police rapes let alone the best way. But what should an enlightened court do? Rape is already illegal. The courts create law but the law doesn’t rule. Thus, instead of obliging the police to control themselves the law gives women the grounds to refuse arrest. Imperfect but perhaps easier to monitor.  In India the state is so weak that third and fourth best solutions may be the only ones possible.

My Conversation with Mark Miller

Mark is the most brilliant food mind I have met, here is the opening summary:

Mark Miller is often called the founder of modern southwestern cuisine, but his unique anthropological approach to food has led him to explore cuisines in over 100 countries around the world. He joins Tyler for a conversation on all that he’s learned along the way, including his pick for the most underrated chili pepper, palate coaching, the best food cities in Asia, Mexico, and Europe, the problems with sous-vide, why the Michelin guide is overrated, mezcal versus tequila, the decline of food brands, how to do fast food well, and why the next hipster food trend should be about corn.

Here is the text, audio, and video.  Mark is a blizzard of information density, and I don’t know anyone else who has his experience with the food world, most of all with Asia, Mexico, and the American Southwest.  (You may recall he was an interlocutor in my dialogue with Fuchsia Dunlop, and so we recorded this session with Mark afterwards.)

I thought the highlight was Mark’s six-minute riff on tasting chiles, it really shows Mark in his glory — this is one of those cases where I definitely recommend the video over the text:

Elsewhere in the conversation, see why he picks Seoul, Tokyo, and Bangkok as the three best world cities for food tours.  And:

COWEN: You don’t need brands, right?

MILLER: You don’t need brands anymore. The consumer used to have brands as guide and trust. Today there are other ways of developing that. We’re in consumer level 3. Consumers are defining brands, and how brands get used. I think that the idea of brand is probably — you’re an economist — dated. [laughs]

There is this:

MILLER: You go to a bus station in Monterrey: you can see a hundred of the best tacos in the world.

The questioner was Megan McArdle.  I enjoyed the entire exchange immensely, and hope you do too.

How to organize your first day in a new city when you are traveling

An MR reader sends me this request:

You land in a new city – an urban area – without other commitments.
What’s the first thing you do?
What’s your first day look like?

The first thing I do is make sure blog is ready for the day to come (though that is usually pre-arranged if I am traveling).

The second thing I do is decide whether the country is worth wasting a meal on breakfast.  I might just skip it.  If not, the next thing I will do is get breakfast.  I evaluate breakfast options by walking and by sight, not by using the internet, as I find that old-fashioned method better training for all that life brings us.

Then I try to walk through at least two neighborhoods, to get a general sense of the city.  More importantly, I can then later take some time over lunch without feeling I haven’t seen anything yet.  These neighborhoods should be connected to the main drag in some way but not the main drag itself.  The main drag is often boring, though essential, and it is more likely to get a fuller treatment on day two, with only a quick peek on day one.

The best art museum will come after lunch, and then be followed by more neighborhood walking, perhaps in a more distant part of the city.  A major food market will come on day two, a vista or city lookout will come on day three.  It means less if I go to either right away, because I have less information about what I should be noticing and looking for.

The real question is what to postpone, not what to do.  Don’t attempt the most fully integrative experiences right off the bat, because you are squandering some of their potency.

Can Nigeria teach the West a thing or two?

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, here is one excerpt:

The reports of Boko Haram and terror killings are well known, and they reflect the interlocking and sometimes deadly combinations of regional, religious, sectarian and ethnic identities in the country, not to mention extreme inequalities of income and opportunity. Yet Nigeria has about 180 million people and is larger than Texas. The violence is the most frequently reported story in the West, but the underlying reality is far more complex and shows positive features.

For instance, the city of Lagos is in many regards a marvel of religious tolerance. Nigeria is about 50 percent Muslim and 40 percent Christian, and the area surrounding Lagos is also highly mixed in terms of religion. That may sound like a recipe for trouble, but in matters of religion Lagos is almost entirely peaceful. Religious intermarriage is common and usually not problematic, as is the case in many (not all) other parts of Nigeria as well. Many top Nigerian politicians have married outside their religion, kept two separate religions in the family and enjoyed continued political success.

Consider the scale and speed of this achievement. Lagos, with a population of about 20 million, is larger than many countries. It is the most commercially oriented part of Nigeria, and it grew so large only in the last few decades, as it attracted entrepreneurially minded people from many parts of Nigeria and other African countries. By one estimate, 85 new residents arrive every hour. That may sound chaotic, but in essence Nigeria has in a few decades created an almost entirely new, country-sized city built on the ideals and practice of religious tolerance. The current president, Muhammadu Buhari, is a Muslim who was supported in his election by many Christian leaders, on the grounds that he would fight corruption more effectively. His running mate served as a Pentecostal pastor.

There are several other points, including an assessment of on the ground safety (better than you might think), do read the whole thing.

The Decline of Car Culture

UMTRI: About 87 percent of 19-year-olds in 1983 had their licenses, but more than 30 years later, that percentage had dropped to 69 percent. Other teen driving groups have also declined: 18-year-olds fell from 80 percent in 1983 to 60 percent in 2014, 17-year-olds decreased from 69 percent to 45 percent, and 16-year-olds plummeted from 46 percent to 24 percent.

Cars used to represent freedom. Today WiFi does. The decline of young drivers is likely another reason the roads are getting safer.

Hat tip: @counternotions.

Addendum: Steven Kopits argues (youtube) that this has more to do with lack of employment of young people than with a change in culture.