Category: Travels

Grenada notes

The for-profit medical facilities are impressive.  It is a quiet country, full of quiet people, and it is much safer than Jamaica (e.g., no one trails your every movement).  Women, but not men, will hesitate before answering questions.  Even a simple query like "Where is the beach?" will draw a puzzled stare from hotel staff in the lobby.  Eventually an uncertain answer will be forthcoming, even though the office is only three minutes from the ocean.  A Sunday drive through the countryside will reveal many cricket matches.  The rum factory uses something not too far from Industrial Revolution technology.  Many feel their country is threatened by Muslim terrorists.  Grenada is not wealthy but rarely does it look like a total dump.  You can visit the rotting hulks of Russian and Cuban transport planes.  Nothing is cheap, as even street food can cost well over $10.  At the Jerk Chicken Hut they sell your leftovers to the other customers.

The bottom line: If you seek a good introduction to English-language Caribbean culture — in a perfectly safe setting — and don't mind the non-bargain prices, it is definitely recommended.

The economy in Grenada

It's not good:

Grenada has been hit hard by the global economic slowdown with the two mainstays of the economy – tourism and foreign direct investment (FDI) – weakening significantly. Real gross domestic product is estimated to have declined by 7.7 percent in 2009, after 2.2 percent growth in 2008. Tourism dropped by about 13 percent year-on-year and FDI-related construction is estimated to have contracted by about 50 percent for the year, although the pace of decline slowed in the last quarter of 2009, reflecting an uptick in FDI inflows. Prices fell by 2.4 percent in the 12 months to December 2009, reflecting weak domestic demand and lower international food and fuel prices.

The current debt-to-gdp ratio here is 120%.  On Feb.1, they put in a fifteen percent VAT.  I am curious to see how long it takes them to spend that money and move back to major deficit mode.  Is there a systematic empirical study of this question?

Overall, it's hard to see where future economic growth will come from.  Grenada doesn't have enough night life to appeal to younger, non-yacht-owning American tourists, and wealthy British tourists and expats wonder why they should come so far, especially with such cheap European airfares and the use of English spreading globally.  The island doesn't seem to have much in the way of factories or light manufacturing.  Nutmeg is fine but doesn't hold a huge future and in the meantime the trees still have to recover from the hurricane.  One option would be to encourage more Indian and Chinese immigration.  Yet it seems to me the place is just well off enough that they don't feel compelled to make big changes and they will experience slow deterioration of their relative standing.

Concepción, Chile

I haven't been to Concepción since December 1989, yet I will never forget my trip there.  It was the first time I learned what was for me to become an important truth.  If you set off to a mid-sized city in South America — especially in the Southern Cone — your chance of finding an idyllic spot are high.  There may be, in a way, nothing to do there, at least not in the sense that your guidebook can report.  But it will feel so fresh, so undiscovered, so representative of the vitality of everyday life, that you will at times think you have stumbled upon paradise.  Everyone there will seem so apart from the world you know and there is a sudden (and quite silly) shock at seeing how seriously they take the world they know.  Plus they have superb vanilla ice cream and strawberries for dessert.

Here is the Cathedral, which was destroyed in 1939 by an earthquake.

America’s best BBQ?

Could it be Lonnie Ray's BBQ, in Harrisburg, Missouri?  That's about half an hour outside of Columbia, Missori.  I ate there yesterday and I am still staggered by the encounter.  It is one of the two or three best barbecue experiences of my life and possibly #1.  It doesn't seem to be written up by any of the standard sources (here is one good web review).

The proprietor, Mike, is also a true scientist and scholar and gentleman.  He studied with Mike Mills and he will engage you at length on how to render fresh lard, why Kansas City barbecue has declined, and the importance of the wood source.  He has studied — and I do mean studied — Texan, Kansas City, and even North Carolina styles.  The pulled pork was my favorite dish and I usually don't like pulled pork much at all.  Both the sauces and the atmosphere get an A+ as well.  He is now studying how to cook tamales.  If only everyone in the scientific community had his attitude.

I am serious in my claims for this place.

Here is their Facebook page, you know what to do.

Daniel Gross, Me, and the Efficient Market Hypothesis

Daniel Gross is at Davos and writes:

I noticed a piece of gray paper on the floor. It looked like it might
be currency of some sort–certainly not a dollar, but perhaps Swiss
francs or something else. I started to bend over to pick it up, but
then I caught myself. This is the World Economic Forum. It is populated
by hundreds of economists and by thousands of business people schooled
in the tenets of economics. This is possibly the most rational,
profit-maximizing concentration of human capital in the world. These
are the actors who make up an efficient market. And of course adherents
to the efficient market hypothesis famously don't believe in the
concept of found money….

But I'm a
connoisseur of economic irrationality. And so I bent down and picked up
the paper. On one side, the grim visage of Queen Elizabeth. On the
other, Charles Darwin. It was a 10 pound note, worth about $16.25. Just
lying on the floor, unmolested by Nobel Prize-winning economists, CEOs
of Fortune 500 companies, and financial journalists.

Gross concludes the efficient markets hypothesis must be false.

The same thing happened to me once except I wasn't at Davos, I was walking in New York near Wall Street and I saw a green folded up note that looked to be money.  I too paused and thought of the old joke that if it was money someone would have picked it up already, but I picked it up anyway and took a closer look…..alas, it was a cleverly folded piece of paper designed to look like money when dropped on the sidewalk, although it was actually an advertisement.  Kudos to Eugene Fama, I thought on that day.

Perhaps our different experiences account for some of our differing economics views.

Hat tip to Ezra Klein.

My history with Haiti

Looking back fifteen years or so, I regarded Haiti as an extreme which people did not dare visit.  I had the image that if I walked down the street someone would come along and lop off my arm with a machete.  I wondered if visitors could go out without armed support.  Somehow I felt that if I could manage a trip to Haiti, I could deal with many of the life problems which would, sooner or later, come my way.

I also imagined the place was full of lush trees, which is the direct opposite of the reality.

I set off in (I think) 1993.  The place was popular as late as the 1970s, but by then hardly any Caribbean guidebooks covered Haiti at all.  My friend Christopher Weber, the investment writer, ended up coming with me at the last minute, maybe as more of a dare than anything else.  Plus he had the longtime dream of visiting the remote Haitian city of Jeremie, because of its association with the family background of Alexander Dumas.  

Upon arriving, I realized the country was relatively peaceful, provided you were not there in times of elections, coups, or demonstrations.  The terrain is so crowded, and white people are so conspicuous, it is (was) hard to get into trouble.  Plus Haitian crowds are known to knock down and kill petty thieves on the spot.  There's just not enough room for anyone to mug you, at least if you exercise due caution.  Nor, for that matter, were there very many beggars, since usually there was no one to beg from. 

Despite oppressive poverty (other than India, I've never seen anything comparable), there's simply a remarkable feeling there and most visitors to Haiti end up sharing this understanding with other Haitiphiles.  I've long wished I could explain this.  I've since been five times, though never to the north.  I also started collecting Haitian art and reading everything I could about the country and going to Haitian concerts.  

For the last ten years I've been afraid to go, mostly because kidnappings started on some of the roads.  Finally, it seemed safe enough and the economy was improving.  Over last weekend, in Miami, Natasha, Yana and I drove around Little Haiti, ate a wonderful meal, and bought some Haitian gospel and compa CDs, which served as the soundtrack for the rest of the day in the car.  I was all set to plan my next trip back.

Neither Chris nor I ever made it to Jeremie.

My visit to Yemen

With Yemen in the news I thought I would recount my trip to the country in 1996 or so.  I spent five or six days in Sana'a, the capital, and I remember the following:

1. At the biggest and best hotel in town, no one spoke English or any other European language.

2. Most of the women wore full veils.  This allows them to stare at foreign men, and make lots of direct eye contact, without repercussion.  The younger girls looked like this.  I've never been stared at more in my life, by women.

3. Virtually all of the men carried daggers in their sashes.

4. Most of the people seemed to get stoned — every day, all day long — by chewing qat.  I recall reading that qat supply amounts to about 20 percent of the economy.  This estimate suggests that three-quarters of the adult population partakes in the habit, every afternoon.

5. The country has the most amazing architecture I have seen, anywhere.

6. The best restaurant served fish doused in red chilies, with a vaguely Ethiopian spice palate for the other dishes.  You eat with your fingers.

7. Most of the people lived what was still a fundamentally medieval existence in a medieval setting.  The center of town felt like how I had imagined the year 1200 in Baghdad.

8. Yemen has perhaps the biggest problems with water supply, and vanishing aquifers, of any country.  Qat cultivation makes these problems worse and for many years Yemeni government policy subsidized water extraction.

9. At the time the capital city was quite safe, though German tourists would get kidnapped in the countryside on a regular basis.  The Yemenis had a reputation as very hospitable kidnappers.  Usually the kidnappers would hold the tourists in return for promises about infrastructure.

10. I was accompanying a World Bank mission and had access to "the government driver" (singular), and a Mercedes-Benz.  He did not speak any English or any other language besides Yemeni Arabic.

11. With the possible exception of the Bolivian altiplano, Yemen is the weirdest country or region I have visited.

12. The last decade has not, overall, been a good one for Yemen.

13. In the fall the climate was very nice.

Nicaragua notes (avoid walls!)

The keys to eating well here are: avoid walls, seek corn, and bow down to the finest white creams and cheeses you are likely to find.  They use cabbage frequently and well and they are not afraid of sour tastes.  Fried chicken is a treat and they sprinkle white cheese on top of that and on your french fries.  It is an under-mined cuisine.

Horse and donkey carts have not disappeared.  Few people speak English.  Many women carry baskets on their heads to transport goods.  I stayed in what is arguably the country's nicest hotel and my room was $100 a night.  The place was empty.

Nicaragua is wealthier than Honduras but much poorer than El Salvador or Panama.  Here is a garbage dump in Managua, La Chureca.  The economy is likely to shrink two percent this year.  On the bright side, the drug trade doesn't (yet?) have so much of a hold.  The lower income classes seem to do better in terms of social services than in many other countries of comparable wealth.

Leon has one of the best Latin American town squares for cute children, street musicians, balloons and ringing bells, and flirtatious teenage social life.  The Sandinista murals are maintained.  There are few international chain stores of any kind outside of Managua and even most of Managua is under-chained.  People will insist of getting you back the change you are due, even when you tell them to keep it because you don't want to wait for them to get it from their uncle across the street.

Appreciating the country boils down to how much you can enjoy a very direct feeling of genuineness all around; Nicaragua is a hidden jewel, at least for tourist visitors.  

I did not see anyone smoke, not once. 

Managua

With over 600 barrios, a definitive breakdown of Managua safety is a book in itself.  As a general rule, don't ever walk more than a few blocks anywhere in Managua.  There are almost no police during the night time and with no centre there are few places where the streets will be busy.  The Metrocentro area is safe, but it's still best not to walk alone.  The only place that lends itself to walking is the malecón and central park area of old Managua, but do not walk here at night under any circumstances.  Even during the daytime take precautions, don't carry any more than you need and avoid walking alone.  Be careful when visiting the Catedral Nueva, which is next to a barrio with many thieves.  Having said all of this, in comparison with other Central American capitals Managua is safe for the visitor, although theft is common at bus stations and outside the more affluent neighborhoods

That's from my guidebook.  It seemed fine to me.

Berlin memories

I first visited Berlin in 1985, while traveling with Randall Kroszner.  We drove to West Berlin by car and we were terrified for the few hours we were underway in East Germany.  Randy did not drive over the speed limit once.  I was hardly a communist sympathizer but still I was unprepared for the day trip to East Berlin.  I saw soldiers goose-stepping down one of the main streets.  In the stores old ladies yelled and swung their brooms at me.  Many buildings still had bullet marks or bomb damage from World War II.  In a restaurant we ate a rubber Wiener Schnitzel and shared a table with an East German family; they did not have enough trust in their government to speak a word to us.  I was unable to spend my mandatory thirty-mark conversion on anything useful; I carried back some Stendahl and Goethe but didn't want the Lenin.  This was in the capital city in the showcase of the communist world.   

My biggest impression was simply that I had never seen evil before.

In the summer of 1990 I stayed in a dorm in East Berlin.  Everyone seemed normal.  Cute girls smiled.  Yet there were few signs of modern German life as a Westerner might understand it; it was as if I had stepped into an alternative science fiction universe.  The Vietnamese ran the street markets and Russian still mattered.  

In 1999 I heard an emotional performance of Fidelio there and most of the audience cried.

I like spending time in Berlin.  But I am never sure I like Berlin itself, West or East.  Berlin is Germany being imperial.  Berlin is Germany looking toward the east.  Today Berlin is Germany pretending it is normal, while not yet having a new identity.  Here is Kurt Tucholsky (in German) on Berlin.  Here is a silly quotation about Berlin:

“Berlin combines the culture of New York, the traffic system of Tokyo, the nature of Seattle, and the historical treasures of, well, Berlin.”

Here is the Berlin Sony Center.  Here is the Reichstag.  Here is the Jewish Museum.  Here is Knut, from the Berlin Zoo.

Markets in Everything: Media

From a new paper by Di Tella and Franceschelli:

We construct measures of the extent to which the 4 main newspapers in Argentina report government corruption in their front page during the period 1998-2007 and correlate them with the extent to which each newspaper is a recipient of government advertising. The correlation is negative. The size is considerable: a one standard deviation increase in monthly government advertising (0.26 million pesos of 2000) is associated with a reduction in the coverage of the government's corruption scandals by almost half of a front page per month, or 37% of a standard deviation in our measure of coverage. The results control for newspaper, month and individual corruption scandal fixed effects.

In Maharashtra, India a recent report indicates that transactions costs are considerably lower:

The deals were many and varied. A candidate had to pay different rates for ‘profiles,’ interviews, a list of ‘achievements,’ or even a trashing of his rival in some cases. (With the channels, it was “live” coverage, a ‘special focus,’ or even a team tracking you for hours in a day.) Let alone bad-mouthing your rival, this “pay-per” culture also ensures that the paper or channel will not tell its audiences that you have a criminal record. Over 50 per cent of the MLAs just elected in Maharashtra have criminal charges pending against them….

Hat tip to catfish for the second item.