Category Archives: Travel

Fitness, Marketing and the Search for Shortcuts

One of the weirdest things about my visit to the U.S. was all the comments I got on how I look. Once or twice a week, some random person would come up to me and ask me about my workout routine.

At the gym, 7 in the morning, this guy in his early 40s stops me as I’m leaving.

“Hey kid, I’ve got a question,” he says.

“Um, I’m 33…” I say.

“What do you do, or not do, to look like that?”

This happened other places too. A member of my rock climbing club invites me to dinner, asks me what—‘if anything’—I’m allowed to eat. A barista asks what diet I’m on, whether I do yoga. I order a drip coffee and he says ‘I guess you’re not allowed to drink Frappuccinos, huh?’

The first weird thing about these comments is that I’m not in very good shape. As I’ve chronicled here extensively, I don’t go to the gym with any kind of strategy or diligence. My eating habits are more Jurassic Park than Julia Child. Even with the dimmest of lighting, the generous-est of Instagram filters, I don’t even have one pack, much less six.

The second weird thing is how these compliments always came in the form of a question, as if I know something other people don’t. The guy at the gym that morning, he wanted to know exactly what my eating and exercise routine was, like there was some technique I had mastered or secret vegetable I was growing in my backyard. Even my friends, people I’ve known since I was 10, familiar with my indolence, my sitting-down tummyrolls, press me: “Come on, you’re drinking protein shakes, right?”

I never get comments like this when I’m in Europe. Ever. The obvious reason for this is because I’m closer to the median BMI there, plus so many standard deviations below the median height that no one even notices what kind of shape I’m in. But I’m convinced there’s something else going on too: Europeans aren’t marketed to as much as Americans.

I have no, like, data-data on this, but after living on both continents, I really notice how much more intermingled fitness and commerce are in the United States. In Copenhagen, everyone you see cycling has a modest, slightly rusted old bike. Men ride upright on ladybikes, women roll to work wearing jeans and high heels. In the U.S. it’s all titanium frames, spandex, shoes with those little clips on the toe. In Berlin, jogging is something you do in old sweatpants. In the U.S., it’s an activity that requires moisture-wicking pants and barefoot shoes.

It’s like this with diet too. Americans have entire categories of foods that Europeans don’t. Omega 3 energy bars, creatine powder, recovery drinks. Somehow we went straight from making these up to believing it was impossible to be in shape without them.

This, I feel like, is where the ‘what do you do, man?’ from baristas and fellow gymmers comes from. People think there’s a trick, a shortcut, a specific thing I’m eating or drinking or doing that keeps me (relatively) height-weight proportionate. Like I’m gonna say ‘asparagus water!’ and that will unlock the secret for everyone else.

That’s what marketing has sold us: Not a specific product, but the idea that there’s one we’re missing. Our bodies are set up to respond to our habits, the decisions we make 80 percent of the time. The economy, however, is set up to sell us something new every day, to feed us ‘superfoods‘, to sign us up for Crossfit, to tell us again and again that fit people don’t have better genes or routines, but make better purchases.

Like I said, I’m not in good enough shape to give out food or fitness advice, but what I told the Americans who asked me about my workout regime the last few weeks was that I try to eat lots of fruits and vegetables and do something exercisey that I like every day.

“Shit,” the guy at the gym said that morning. “I was afraid you were going to say that.”


Filed under America, Food, Personal, Serious, Travel

I’m in the New Republic Again!

This time talking a bit more about my trip to Dhaka:

I am in a tiny steel cage attached to a motorcycle, stuttering through traffic in Dhaka, Bangladesh. In the last ten minutes, we have moved forward maybe three feet, inch by inch, the driver wrenching the wheel left and right, wriggling deeper into the wedge between a delivery truck and a rickshaw in front of us.

Up ahead, the traffic is jammed so close together that pedestrians are climbing over pickup trucks and through empty rickshaws to cross the street. Two rows to my left is an ambulance, blue light spinning uselessly. The driver is in the road, smoking a cigarette, standing on his tiptoes, looking ahead for where the traffic clears. Every once in awhile he reaches into the open door to honk his horn.

This is what the streets here look like from seven o’clock in the morning until ten o’clock at night. If you’re rich, you experience it from the back seat of a car, the percussion muffled behind glass. If you’re poor, you’re in a rickshaw, breathing in the exhaust.

Me, I’m sitting in the back of a CNG, a three-wheeled motorcycle shaped like a slice of pie and covered with scrap metal. I’m here working on a human rights project related (inevitably) to the garment factories, but whenever I ask people in Dhaka what their main priority is, what they think international organizations should really be working on, they tell me about the traffic.

It might not be as sexy as building schools or curing malaria, but alleviating traffic congestion is one of the defining development challenges of our time. Half the world’s population already lives in cities, and the United Nations estimates that proportion will rise to nearly 70 percent by 2050.

Of the 23 “megacities” identified by the United Nations, only five are in high-income countries, places with the infrastructure (physical, political, economic, you name it) to deal with the increasing queues of cars snarling up the roads. Mexico City adds two cars to its roads for every person it adds to its population. In India, the ratio is three to one.

Dhaka, the world’s densest and fastest-growing city by some measures, and its twentieth-largest by population, is a case study in how this problem got so bad—and why it’s so difficult to solve.

I realize that it’s problematic for a rich white foreigner to visit somewhere for a short period of time, then come back and start making sweeping generalizations about it. I hope this doesn’t come off gawking, like ‘look how fucked up poor countries are!’

I’m amazed when I travel for work how not-different the problems of developing countries are from our own, how the solutions we propose for their cities (‘build more roads y’all!’) would be considered simplistic and utopian in our own. I hope a little of that comes through. Or at least that I conveyed how incredible the traffic in Dhaka is. Because that shit is bonkers.

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Filed under Personal, Travel

Thoughts About the Politics of Zimbabwe Over Pictures of Its Scenery


I just got back from a week in Zimbabwe.


I took these pictures last year, when I visited Victoria Falls for a few days.


Going on a safari is a shitty way to get to know a country.


But so is visiting its capital.


I’ve never met a country with such a suicidal set of national policies.


Zimbabwe has an acute liquidity shortage. There is not enough money to go around. The unemployment rate is 80 percent. Its per capita GDP is among the lowest in the world.


Yet instead of bending over backwards to attract investment, its politicians are stepping forward to repel it.


The country has a policy called ‘indigenization’—All foreign companies must be 51% owned by Zimbabweans.


In other words, to invest here, you have to give away the majority of your company. You don’t get to pick who you give it to or what they do with it. You are asked to simply simply fork it over, and trust what the government does with it.


Not to sound all Tea Party about it, but that’s fucking insane.


The only companies willing to invest here are Chinese and Russian ones. And only under conditions of total secrecy. None of the investment contracts have been made public.


There was a scandal last month when it was revealed that some of the government officials who were cut in on these contracts were earning $500,000 a month.


I remember talking to a private equity guy last year just after my first trip here. I asked him if he would ever consider investing in Zimbabwe.


He told me he hasn’t looked at the country in years. ‘You can’t even read the fucking Wikipedia entry without losing money’ he said.


You can hardly blame him. The most important thing for investors is certainty. And that’s in even shorter supply than currency here.


And yet somehow, people tell me that Zimbabwe is doing better now than it was last year.


I ask my Zimbabwean colleagues about this and they tell me it’s because of the election.


‘For the last four years we had a coalition government’, they tell me. ‘Mugabe’s party and the opposition sharing power.’


‘It was chaos. Each minister would tell you a different set of government priorities, depending on which party he was from. Right, left, legal, illegal, you never got a clear answer.’


‘Since Mugabe won the last election, at least we know what to expect.’


‘What, for everything to keep getting worse?’ I ask. ‘At least’, they tell me, ‘we can plan for that.’



Filed under Personal, Pictures, Serious, Travel

Being American Makes me Bad at Visiting Other Countries

Sometimes I think growing up in America makes me incapable of understanding the mentalities and challenges of other countries.
This is Armenia.
This is too, only zoomed out a little more.
I used to think that Poland was the most geographically unfortunate country in the world, but now I think Armenia takes the crown.
Before it was a country, Armenia was a group of people, a cluster of Christians on a small, jagged patch of the South Caucasus.
Stuck between the Persian, Ottoman and Russian empires, the land under them got passed back and forth, conquered and divided, burned down, built up, bargained for, traded, given away. Always the subject of history, never its designer.
Most of us know ‘Armenian’ as the word you hear before ‘Genocide’ every once in awhile, but we’re less familiar with why so many Armenians were living in the Ottoman Empire in the first place, how the lines on the map hopscotched under them dozens of times as the great powers traded their territory back and forth.
Armenia’s national symbol, Mount Ararat, isn’t even in Armenia. It’s in Turkey, across a border Armenians aren’t allowed to cross.
After World War II, Armenia was unified, but under the control of the USSR. In 1991, it finally got independent, became its own master for the first time in 70 years. These days it’s no longer a client state, just a poor, landlocked country that has closed borders with two of its four neighbors.
To the right, Azerbaijan is pissed at Armenia over an ongoing border dispute from the early ’90s. The two countries don’t even have embassies in each other’s countries, no trade or cultural exchange whatsoever. They communicate through intermediaries, like a couple going through an ugly divorce.
To the left, Turkey not only supports Azerbaijan, but still refuses to admit to the aforementioned genocide. Borders are closed there too.
So Armenia can only trade to the top (Georgia) and bottom (Iran).
But in the middle, away from all the economics and the politics, you don’t see any of that. All you can tell about Armenia is that it is one of the most beautiful countries on earth.
You get the feeling the Lord of the Rings movies were actually shot here, and that New Zealand is just faking it for the tourism.
The country is also, considering all the factors stacked against it, doing OK economically as well.
A per capita GDP of $6,300 ain’t Belgium, but it ain’t Burundi either. The infrastructure is good, and since 2008, the country has grown at around 5 percent a year.
On the overall tale of the tape, though, Armenia’s biggest advantage is probably its diaspora.
Only 3 million Armenians live in Armenia, but an estimated 8 million live outside of it.
Every year remittances, tourism and investment come home from the US, Lebanon, Australia, Italy. The joke here is that Armenians are successful everywhere except Armenia.
The population is still shrinking. All those Armenians living abroad, everyone’s got a friend or a cousin or a company that can give them a reason to leave.
The countryside is dotted with half-empty villages,
factories someone switched off when the USSR abandoned them and never switched on again.
Maybe it’s because I’m American and maybe it’s not, but I find it difficult to process the sheer depth of Armenia’s roots–and its conflicts.
I think of the citizens of my country as a ‘people’, I guess, but not in the ethnic or religious or historical sense, not the way Armenians feel connected to their past.
The idea that the land where I grew up, where my grandparents come from, could be taken by another country and locked to me, is utterly unfathomable.
This, I think, is why I struggle to understand conflicted parts of the world like the South Caucasus or the Balkans: Nothing here reflects the relationship I have to my own country, nothing reminds me of myself. There’s this part of me that hears about the conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia and thinks ‘Why don’t they just get over it and move on?’
Which is shitty and myopic. And maybe why I like visiting this part of the world so much, why I’m so keen to come back, why I find the reasons to ignore that question in my head so fascinating.
It’s like reading fiction. I’m entering this world that my imagination doesn’t permit me to invent, but doesn’t want me to leave.
Not until I can see myself in it.


Filed under Personal, Pictures, Travel


I was randomly in Antwerp last weekend.
There is in fact no other way to be in Antwerp.
I have this weird fascination with places that are local tourist attractions, but not quite stellar enough to attract international visitors.
Antwerp is firmly within that genre. Lovely, but like 53rd on most peoples’ ‘Must See in Europe’ list.
Not that it matters. I was in a trying-to-finish-an-essay fugue state, and I barely did anything I couldn’t have done at home.
I got up at five every morning, wrote for like seven hours, then ventured out, ravenous for breakfast and scenery.
Antwerp has a surplus of both, though if you bike far enough in any direction, it starts to look like True Detective.
But I sort of like that, how Antwerp goes all ugly at the edges.
It’s a reminder that European cities, no matter how pretty they are in the center, need cranes and shipping containers and rusty train tracks to keep them that way.
Antwerp got rich after WWII, it was one of the only ports unbombed during the war. This is where a lot of the Marshall Plan donkeys came in.
Now the port host a different kind of donkey, tourists like me, our dangling cameras, our insipid questions, our temporary interest.
I realized as I was on my way to the airport that chatting with my AirBnB host was the longest conversation I had all weekend.
‘What are you doing here in Antwerp?’ she asked. ‘As little as possible,’ I replied.
‘Well you’re in the right place,’ she said, and handed me the keys.


Filed under Personal, Pictures, Travel

Doing Development in Dhaka

There’s this Bjork song, ‘Pluto’,
Where she sings ‘I’ll be brand new. Brand new tomorrow’.
I listened to this song a lot last week, jogging through Dhaka in the early mornings.
Six am, before the horns and the smells and the stares.
I always go jogging when I travel for work.
Headphones on, faster than the walkers, slower than the drivers, I feel invisible, apart, a non-participant.
There’s this book on systems theory, ‘At Home in the Universe’.
Where it says that any complex structure—an ecosystem, an economy, all the cells in a living body—are more than the sum of their parts.
No matter how much you know about the laws governing each component, you can never predict how they’ll react if one of them changes.
Like, we all know how the post office works.
And that if all the post offices in the country closed forever, we wouldn’t get our mail.
But, says systems theory, a million other unforseeable things would happen too. Maybe would start collecting our letters when they bring us books. Maybe we would get rid of paper altogether.
What would happen to all the post office workers, the factories that make those little carts they carry around, all the stamp collectors?
Like the proverbial butterfly flapping its wings, maybe we would look back 10 years later from the carbonized remains of our downtowns and say ‘it all started the day those fucking post offices closed.’
Or maybe something great would happen. Or maybe nothing.
The point is, no matter how well you understand any one of the parts, the relationships between them are too complex to predict. When you hold something up to the light, you dim everything else.
I’m in Bangladesh to do a project on the garment factories.
Everyone I meet here tells me they are sick of foreigners coming and asking them about Rana Plaza. We are more than our disasters, they say.
I agree and then I apologize and then I ask them about Rana Plaza.
This is what I am here to do. This is my place in the system.
Just days after the accident, they say, the delegations started coming.
Senators, MPs, CEOs. They tour factories, they express into microphones their melancholy and their concern..
I am part of the second wave. I am here to fix it. I am here to pull this part of the economy away from all the others and make it better and then put it back.
One of my colleagues does factory audits here and everywhere and I ask him about what he sees, whether things have gotten better.
Whenever you raise standards, he says, some companies will become sophisticated to reach them and others will become sophisticated to avoid them.
That is how it works, he says, we are here to stack rocks in the riverbed. Where the water goes after that…
And I think about this as I am jogging and I do not feel invisible.
Maybe he’s right. Maybe calling something complex is just an excuse to ignore it.
Maybe people who do good, real good, know the limits of their powers and apply them anyway.
Maybe they look  at Bangladesh, a country trying to hard to make itself a nicer place to live.
And they learn to listen to the part of it that tells them, I’ll be brand new.
Brand new tomorrow.


Filed under Personal, Pictures, Serious, Travel, Work

Zimbabwe Dollarized. How Does the U.S. Feel About That?

The rainbow of 20s you get from the ATM in Harare

Here’s a section that got cut from my New Republic story about the use of the US dollar in Zimbabwe

Wait, so a country can just adopt the United States’s currency without our permission?

“The U.S. government has never taken any overt position on dollarization, formal or informal.” This is Benjamin Cohen, a political economy processor at the University of California Santa Barbara, former Fed employee and the author of some articles I’ve been reading to try to understand how one country just gets up one morning and starts using another country’s money.

Ninety percent of the world’s $100 bills, Dr. Cohen says, are in circulation outside of the United States. Dozens of countries are considered  to be “highly dollarized,” meaning more than 30 percent of their money supply is in dollars.

Unlike Zimbabwe, which has formally adopted the dollar, most countries use the U.S. dollar informally, in parallel with the local currency. A few years ago I was in Cambodia for work, and found that the local currency, the riel, was only used for small stuff like meals, transport and entertainment. Anything major—a TV, a plane ticket, an iPhone—prices were quoted and paid in U.S. dollars.

It’s not just Cambodia. These sorts of arrangements are commonplace throughout the Middle East, Latin America and Southeast Asia. People use the local currency, but keep U.S. dollars as a hedge against inflation, like Tea Partiers hoarding gold.

According to Cohen, the United States has no reason to prevent these arrangements. Not only does the U.S. dollar provide a quarry of monetary calm for citizens of inflating nations, the U.S. actually makes money every time our money leaves our borders. “Seniorage,” as the economists call it, is the profit the U.S. earns every time a foreigner ‘buys’ a dollar for a dollar (It costs 6 cents to print a $1 bill. If you print one, then use it to buy something that costs a dollar, you’ve just earned 94 cents profit. That’s seniorage.).

This sounds like it shouldn’t be a real thing, but the US earns $20 billion per year from all those $100 bills held internationally. Not a huge proportion of GDP, but hey, free money, right?

The other upsides are obvious. Every time another country uses our currency, it reinforces the U.S. dollar as world’s preferred international currency, just like every time someone drinks a Coke or eats a Big Mac it reinforces the status of those brands.

Foreign countries using our currency even gives us diplomatic power. Panama, one of the first countries to formally adopt the U.S. dollar, froze in its tracks when the U.S. cut off access to hard currency in the late 1980s to put pressure on Noriega.

The only real downside of foreign countries dollarizing, for the U.S. at least, is that it creates a headache for the Fed. The more countries dollarize, the more the Fed has to take them into account when making monetary policy. A million calculations go into the decision to raise or lower interest rates, and the last thing the Fed needs is to add the interests of Cambodian iPod salesmen into the mix.

One of the more significant downsides is if a dollarized country suddenly reintroduced their domestic currency, it might flood the market with millions of now-unneeded U.S. dollars, reducing the value of all of them. It doesn’t even have to be a whole country. If the dollar was used widely enough, huge purchases of dollars by foreigners could significantly affect its value.

This is why, Cohen says, the U.S. takes a policy of “benign neglect” toward foreign countries that want to formally or informally dollarize. You want to buy a bunch of dollars and give them to your citizens in exchange for your old currency? Fine. You want to encourage your banks to offer accounts denominated in U.S. dollars? Have a blast. The U.S. isn’t going to be particularly helpful in helping you set this up, but they’re not going to stop you either.

Ten countries (East Timor, Ecuador, El Salvador, Panama and a bunch of small island nations) are formally dollarized, meaning the U.S. dollar is their official currency (most of them have their own coins though).

Zimbabwe is formally dollarized in that all government spending is in U.S. dollars, but it also recognizes the euro, the British pound, the Botswanan pula and the South African rand (why the Mozambican metical got left out, I have no idea). Stores accept payment in whatever currency you have handy, and sometimes give you change in a different currency than you paid.

One of the things that always surprised me about Zimbabwe was how it just switched to U.S. dollars one day, without any relationship to the U.S. Federal Reserve. It was even under sanctions at the time. Can it just do that?

“It’s totally normal to switch to the U.S. dollar without any relationship to the Fed,” Cohen says. “It doesn’t require an application. Anyone can buy paper money, and anyone can get a dollar bank account. Their own country may restrict those things, but the U.S. doesn’t.”

When Ecuador officially adopted the U.S. dollar in 2000, it carried out a mass currency conversion. The central bank sold their U.S. treasury bonds to the U.S. for cash, brought the cash back to Ecuador and gave Ecuadoreans a window in which to exchange their sucres for U.S. dollars. The U.S. didn’t orchestrate, nor condemn, this process.

Like an introduced species, the U.S. dollar tends to take over an increasingly large percentage of the economy. The only country Cohen knows of that has de-dollarized is Israel, which introduced the U.S. dollar in the late 1970s as a parallel currency, and only managed to get rid of it after a series of economic reforms reinstated confidence in the shekel. Lots of informally dollarized countries, like Argentina, go through waves of increasing, then decreasing dollarization in line with citizens’ confidence in the local currency.

I have no idea what any of this means for Zimbabwe. As I say in the New Republic story, bringing back the Zimbabwe dollar is seen by economists (including the head of the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe) as a bad idea, but that doesn’t mean it won’t happen.

Dr. Cohen’s written a bunch of interesting, easy to read articles on dollarization from the US perspective

 Thanks for the interview!


Filed under Random, Serious, Travel, Work

Things I’ll Never Understand

One of the reasons I think I’m not ready to have kids is that I wouldn’t be able to answer their questions about life basics.
Why is the sky blue, where do mountains come from, etc.
I don’t know why I know so little about this stuff. I went to high school, college, grad school (twice!). I have read books, sometimes even for fun.
But when confronted with nature, the real kind, still and un-narrated, I can’t explain any of the whys or hows.
I spent Christmas this year in Madeira.
It’s island off the coast of Morocco that, for random historical reasons, is an autonomous region of Portugal, like a little European Hawaii.
I knew very little about it before I visited. But now, because I have been there, I am interested in it.
It was discovered in the early 1400s, uninhabited, a spike of volcano that wriggled up out of the Atlantic, then spend the next 5 million years getting ground back down to sea level.
This process is apparently ongoing. Most of what’s sticking out of the water is hills. The old joke among the locals is ‘The only flat surfaces on Madeira are vertical.’
The climate is perfect for growing sugarcane, so the early years were spent terracing the hills, creating stairstep cropland, cultivating it one stripe at a time. All the agriculture is still done by hand. 
Sugar crashed when Europe discovered Brazil, the Caribbean, slavery. Madeira converted its little sugar plots into little vineyards. 
That worked til the 1890s, when a disease wiped out all the grapes (think Irish potato famine, but this time the victims were warm-weather alcoholics). 
The economy crashed, most of the island emigrated.
Nowadays they still grow crops—those are banana trees down there—but mostly they cultivate tourists, people like me who fly all the way here for the weather and the pictures and the differences.
This narrative, the path Madeira took  here, it makes sense to me, it’s full of people and businesses and a big economy that goes boom one century and pfffft the next. 
That’s the story of everywhere, basically.
But then I bike to the top of a mountain on this very same boom-and-pffft island and I am holding my boyfriend’s hand and we are looking together at a bunch of lava rocks sticking out through a beach and I realize that I have no idea why some rocks get ground into sand and others don’t.
And then I’m thinking that if I was at the top of this same mountain, holding my son’s hand instead of my boyfriend’s, this is the shit he would ask me about, the rocks and the sun and why is the water that shade of blue and how many stars are there in the sky and I have no idea how to answer.
Or maybe he won’t ask me, maybe we’re not the kind of society where we do that anymore. Maybe he’ll stand on that mountain and look at that beach and use his free hand to whip out his little tablet or whatever and he’ll read the Wikipedia entry about lava and we’ll stand there and neither of us will say anything.
And maybe that’s better for both of us. I can’t explain how anything works when it’s really small or really big or made of rocks, when it can’t tell me how it works itself.
But hey, if he ever wants to know how the island’s GDP is calculated, I’m right next to him.


Filed under Pictures, Travel

Why Is Zambia So Poor?

IMG_1678 - Version 3

I have a piece in Pacific Standard Magazine (well, the website, not like the magazine-magazine) about my trip to Zambia:

Like Tolstoy’s unhappy family, every poor country is poor in its own way, and everyone I meet has a narrative, a creation myth, for how it got this way and why it remains so.

I will spend the next 10 days meeting NGO activists, government officials, and business representatives. They will tell me that Zambia is terrible, that Zambia is fine, and that Zambia is getting better, respectively.

I’m not here to determine which of those statements is true. I’m here for the numbers, the information I can’t get back home. Somewhere between the handshakes, the spreadsheets, the PowerPoints, the annual reports, a story will emerge about Zambia, a story of a country watching its mineral wealth disappear, a country making everyone rich but itself.

I can tell we’re getting close to Kitwe because the number of people crossing the highway increases. The highway has no streetlights, the only light is from the cars, and about halfway there we start to see silhouettes of people in twos and threes running across the road. Our driver never slows down, even as the groups increase to six, seven people, crossing our headlights, stopping in the road to let a car whiz by, running again. I could ask him to slow down, but instead I just look.

There are people there who know a lot more about Zambia’s poverty than I do. If you’re interested in making a donation to any of the organisations I profile in the essay, get in touch and I’ll give you their info.


Filed under Essays, Personal, Travel, Work

Why Don’t I Give Money to Poor People?


Originally posted on The Billfold

“Hey, you want necklaces? I sell you necklaces!”

He’s dishevelled, but not more so than most people you see on the street here. He’s wearing a bright green soccer T-shirt, a team I’ve never heard of, and a goatee. He introduces himself as Paul.

This is Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe. I am backpacked, sunglassed, earbudded, on my way to the waterfall. The only way I could be more obviously a tourist is if I had a fanny pack and an “I ♥ Zim” T-shirt on.

“Thanks, but I’m not interested,” I say. I may have actually physically waved him away.

He walks with me for a few minutes, pushing necklaces, wooden giraffes, 50 billion Zimbabwe dollar notes into my chest. I repeat the same thing: Sorry, not interested. Sorry, no.

Everywhere it’s different but the same. In San Francisco it’s the guy who could visit his sick sister in Portland if he could just get 10 bucks for the bus fare. In Paris it’s children with their arms out. In Istanbul it’s amputees on a sheet of cardboard, literally begging.

And my answer is always the same: “Sorry.” I don’t know when I started saying this, when I stopped bothering to lie about being out of spare change, when I stopped thinking before I said it.

Right after Paul peels off, I take what I think is the turnoff to the falls. The path peters out, I turn around and when I get back to the road, Paul is there.

“Where are you trying to go?” he says.

“Just to the park entrance,” I say.

“Oh there’s a shortcut just up there to the right,” he says. “It’ll only take you five minutes. Make sure you make it to the gorge before dark. Spectacular, man, spectacular!”

I thank him, and realize that as he was talking I was thinking oh, he’s a person.

You’re not supposed to give beggars money. That’s the conventional wisdom, right? You don’t know what they’ll spend it on, you might be encouraging them to stay on the street, you’re not addressing any of the structural issues that got them where they are. I used to live in Copenhagen, and whenever I got panhandled (yes they have panhandlers in Denmark), I wanted to roll my eyes, like, all this free money in your country and you want mine?

Needless to say, that attitude is a lot harder to maintain in Zimbabwe. It’s even harder to maintain for me, considering I am here working for a human rights organization. How do I justify spending two weeks in Harare attending conferences, meeting NGOs, working on statements and recommendations to make this country less poor and then, the minute I’m on vacation, neglect to do the one thing I’m actually equipped, actually qualified to do: Give it some fucking money.

The sun is setting when I come out of the park, and Paul is at the exit, soliciting another tourist. He sees me and breaks off.

“How was the park, my friend?” he says.

“Good,” I say. “How’s business?”

“Not so good today,” he says, the full bouquet of necklaces still dangling from his hand. “Look, can you help me out, just with a dollar? I’m hungry.”

I feel like Paul has taken his mask off, he’s talking to me outside of his role as a street vendor, like we’ve both stepped out of character for a second and it’s just us, man to man. I give him two bucks. He thanks me profusely, leaves without asking for anything else.

Two hours later I see him again. This time I’m on a trail behind Victoria Falls’ fanciest hotel. I’ve just eaten a French croissant pudding that cost 7 times what I gave to Paul.

“My friend!” he says.

“Hi Paul,” I say, weirdly happy to see him. I’m travelling alone, and he’s the only person I’ve spoken to all day.

“Hey, do you have some dollars for me?” he says.

“I just gave you two,” I say,

“But I ate with those, man,” he says. “Can you give me some more for dinner?”

As much as I hate to admit it, this irks me. I already gave you money, dude, coming back for more just makes me feel like a mark—like this is a business model. If you don’t get tourist money with merch, get it with sympathy.

“Sorry,” I say.

Later, I wonder what outcome I was actually trying to protect myself against. Giving money to someone who is demonstrably worse off than me? Maybe Paul used that money to buy himself lunch, maybe he didn’t. What am I, USAID? Who cares what he spent it on. If those two dollars (or 10, or 20) magically disappeared from my back pocket, I never would have noticed. Why am I Jay Gatsby when it goes to making me better off, but Ebeneezer Scrooge if it does that for someone else? All that shit about enabling, it’s just an excuse for me to keep what I feel is mine.

In development circles, everyone is all excited about this “just give money” thing. The idea is: Poor people know better what to do with their money than we do, so if you want to help, don’t tie a donation to some entrepreneurship scheme, behavior modification, Excel-sheeted output, just hand over some scrilla, no questions asked.

Apparently it worked in Uganda, another country I have visited to do development work in the daytime and say “sorry” on evenings and weekends. If this idea is real, maybe I should be refusing all the conferences and acquiescing to all the beggars.

I have no idea what I should do. When I travel to developing countries for work, should I set a daily amount that I can afford, say $20, and hand it out randomly? Should I start donating regularly to charities who do that? What is, as the MBAs say, ‘best practice’?

I am in Victoria Falls for two more days. I will probably run into Paul again. He will probably ask me for money, and I will probably give some to him. I might even give him enough to try that French croissant pudding.


Filed under Personal, Travel