Juan is sometimes considered the world’s greatest hitchhiker, and this was one of my favorite installments in the series. We talked about “the joys of connecting with people, why it’s so hard to avoid stereotypes (including of hitchhikers), how stamp collecting guides his trips, the darkest secrets of people he’s gotten rides from, traveling and writing books with his wife, the cause of violence in the Americas, finding the emotional heart of a journey, where he’s going next…” and which country has the most beautiful women (and men). And why Colombia and Transnistria are two of his favorite places to visit.
Here is the transcript and audio.
Here is one excerpt:
VILLARINO: As a rule of thumb, I always like to say that you stop cars with your smile and not with your thumb. There are actually a lot of things you could do to improve your chances of getting a lift.
It’s not like go there, stick out your thumb, and get a ride. Definitely, smiling as a car is passing — it’s a really important thing. Then there are very subtle things that people wouldn’t guess that have an impact, and they do…
For example, a driver has on average three seconds to decide whether he’s going to stop or not. He sees you, he’s driving maybe 80 miles an hour, and you suddenly pop out. There are a lot of things going on unconsciously through his mind to decide whether he’s going to stop or not. You have only these seconds to convey any message of trust, and so you have to do things.
For example, one is smiling. The other one is, when you manage to get eye contact, then I reinforce. Let’s say, I’m showing my thumb, but I also switch my hand signal and point it to the direction in which I’m going as I’m smiling. This makes a more personalized link over the general link you are already doing, which is thumbing.
Then the way you are dressed, the way your backpack is positioned . . .
VILLARINO: Oh, yeah. Scandinavia.
COWEN: Those countries have plenty of cars. Why are they so slow?
VILLARINO: That’s amazing. To be hitchhiking in Scandinavia, you see all this row of Volvo cars passing you by [laughs] and they will never ever stop.
I had talked to a Swedish friend of mine, and she just said, “Yeah, I wouldn’t stop either,” she said, “because it’s so cheap and affordable to have a car. Then if someone is hitchhiking and doesn’t have a car, you would think he has second intentions or something wrong is going on here.”
COWEN: Would you describe yourself as a workaholic hitchhiker?
VILLARINO: Yes. [laughs] I am. People would be so surprised to see how much time there is involved on the backstage behind the screen because you hitchhike, you have books, and you have a blog. The blog is so time consuming.
Juan had the very best answer I thought as to why the New World is more violent than the Old World, overall. It starts with this:
VILLARINO: Probably because in our evolution as territories, we have had violence as a part of it much more recently in the timeline. We were conquered by means of powder. I think that’s probably in the genetic of our culture. I hope not.
Strongly recommended, and I hope to read and see more of Juan in the future.
Alesund, Norway is one of the most beautiful small cities in Europe. The setting is picture-perfect, and much of the architecture was redone in 1904-1905 in Art Nouveau style, due to a fire that burned down the previous wooden structures. The Art Nouveau murals in the town church deserve to be better known.
This time around, Norway seems vaguely affordable. The food is “good enough,” especially if you like cod. Dark chocolate ice cream is hard to come by. Driving to the puffins takes 3-4 hours, though they are not always to be seen.
That is my latest Bloomberg column, here is the opener:
I sometimes wish the market supplied “travel guides as if microeconomics really mattered.” Most guides outline the major sights and the best hotels, but what about the little things that make up so much of the value of a trip? Here’s my handy introduction to the micro side of travel, based on my recent 10-day stay in Ethiopia. You should consider investigating these same factors before choosing a destination:
How are the sidewalks?
I enjoy walking around cities, but it’s not just the quality of the architecture or the vitality of the street life that matter. The quality of the sidewalks is a central consideration, especially in emerging economies. What good are the sights if you are looking down all the time to avoid a slip or a broken ankle because of gaping holes? Sometimes major thoroughfares have no sidewalks at all.
I am happy to report that in Addis Ababa, the capital city of Ethiopia, the quality of the sidewalks and street paths is high enough to sustain productive walking with your head held high. Most of the time. B, and B+ outside the capital.
There is much more at the link, definitely recommended.
The movie was more or less watchable, in the modest sense of that term.
The subtitles were in Arabic, and the very nice theater was about 1/5 full. And yes it was in 3-D. No one seemed to react to the film at all.
The cinematic references were to Kubrick’s Paths of Glory, Snowpiercer, various James Bond movies, Enter the Dragon, and of course the other Star Wars installments, though never in interesting ways.
One of the characters did not understand subgame perfection.
At one point in the movie they happen across a bunch of people who are dressed like they could be in rural Ethiopia.
Woody Harrelson at times looked like Peter Sellers.
The leader of the rebel alliance was the best character.
By the end of the film, I didn’t seem to mind the whole thing, though I can’t explain why not.
My opinion of George Lucas continues to rise.
Yes there is Mary, Jesus. and the (Monophysite) Trinity, but beyond that literally every day I hear about the following from a very religious populace:
The Ark of the Covenant: “The Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church claims to possess the Ark of the Covenant, or Tabot, in Axum. The object is currently kept under guard in a treasury near the Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion. Replicas of the Axum tabot are kept in every Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo church, each with its own dedication to a particular saint; the most popular of these include Mary, George and Michael.”
St. George, slaying the dragon, he is prominent in church paintings.
Days of fasting, 55 a year, and thus Ethiopian restaurants are very good for vegetarians and vegans.
Addendum: from the comments, by Yves-Marie Slaughter:
55 is only the number of days of fasting during Lent, prior to Easter.
Total number of fasting days for a ‘normal’ Christian per year, would be closer to 155…
A monk may fast more than 200 days a year.
By the way, pork is prohibited altogether.
Gonder was at the height of its prosperity at the turn of the eighteenth century, when it may have had a population of seventy thousand. Emperor Fasilidades, who founded the new capital around 1635, obviously hoped to create a strong center around which the remnants of the Christian north could rally. He picked a beautiful site, a flat volcanic ridge at seven thousand feet surrounded by mountains on three sides, but with easy access to Lake Tana in the south. Gonder’s climate is warm during the day, cool at night, its two streams afforded plentiful water supplies and its hinterland abundant wood and produce.
Enough of an urban economy arose to sustain architecture, music, poetry, literature, painting, calligraphy, and educational, religious, and social institutions. The emperors appeared in considerable state, surrounded by courtiers, clergy, and soldiers…
The aristocracy and the monarchy supported the artists and artisans who put up buildings, illuminated manuscripts, decorates the interior of churches and palaces, and worked stone, wood, or pottery. The town’s castles and other monuments were built of hewn brown basalt blocks and contained features that derived from Axumite and Zagwe times as well as Portuguese models. They were concentrated in the center of the town, and provided a sharp contrast with the traditional round, thatched, mud wattled homes of the people.
That is all from the excellent Harold G. Marcus, A History of Ethiopia.
I’ll be there, in a bit of time, and I’ll have the chance to get outside Addis Adaba. What do you all recommend to me? And where and what should I eat? I thank you all in advance for your counsel and wisdom.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.”
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:
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.
I’ve been to Morocco before, but never Fez. What do you all recommend?
Here is the first of our MRUniversity videos made in India! It was a lot of fun to make. The video introduces the Balassa-Samuelson effect (also called the Penn effect) and why we need purchasing power parity corrections. Eventually, we will update our entire Development Economics course to the same production quality. Enjoy!
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.
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.
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.