Category Archives: Travel

While the truth comes limping after


I have this friend who works for the Red Cross.


She just came back from West Africa, she was there during the Ebola outbreak.


One of her jobs was disposing of dead bodies.


Which, in an Ebola outbreak, is about the most dangerous thing you can do.


She would arrive in a village in a two-layer hazmat suit, dragging a tank full of chlorine.


People stopped shaking hands with each other in the first weeks of the outbreak. She would greet families whose relative just died by waving, standing two feet away.


Then she would go into their house, wrap the body of their mother or son or uncle in black plastic and take it away. Then come back to spray down the room with chlorine.


In most cases, it was already too late for the people living there. The virus was in their bloodstream, there was nothing she could do.


The chlorine was for the people who came after. She had to disinfect the furniture, the sheets, anything else the dead body might have touched.


Everyone in the village saw her arrive in her suit, saw her spray the home of the person who died. Noticed the strange smell, the clear liquid, the huge tub she kept in the back of her Land Rover.


They saw when, three days later, the people who lived in the home that got sprayed fell ill. When they died, someone else from the Red Cross would come, spray again, and more people would get sick.


After a few weeks, it started to look like causation. Someone dies, then foreigners come and spray this liquid, then someone else gets sick. Feeling became rumor, rumor became news, news became truth.


She saw a mob kill aid workers, pull them out of their trucks. She saw them throw rocks at politicians and doctors and NGO workers.


People there thought international pharmaceutical companies were deliberately infecting locals so they could test treatments on them. Given the history of West Africa, this is incredibly unfortunate, but also incredibly understandable.


When the outbreak was finally over, the president stood at a podium and repeated the rumors. He told crowds that international charities had brought the disease. That they were to blame for the thousands of deaths, the 18 months of chaos.


“There was so much anger after the outbreak,” my friend told me. “Sooner or later, it would point to him. He had to get in front of it.”


I know I’ve said this before, but I think growing up in America has left me unprepared to understand the world in a lot of ways. I’ve never lived under an autocrat, never experienced genuine fear of authority, never had to be fearful about what I say or to whom I say it.


I took these pictures last week in Tajikistan, a real life dictatorship.


You see pictures of the president everywhere. Criticizing him carries a five-year prison sentence.


He’s amended the constitution to stay in power forever, he’s changed the election rules so his son can take over when he’s gone.


About one-quarter of the national museum is dedicated to him. It runs through the country’s decades-long Soviet occupation in just a few pictures, skips its brutal civil war entirely, then spends room after room presenting the president as its salvation


It’s easy for me to forget that power does not only rest on force, but also on lies.


When the president took perpetual power, he didn’t say, of course, that that’s what he was doing. He hid behind a title—’Founder of Peace and Harmony: Leader of the Nation’—and a story about leading the nation to glory against big and greedy world powers.


He gave his people a way to explain away what he was doing. To excuse the power grab as essential, as justified, as normal.


I heard an interview years ago with the head of Cargill, a huge agricultural conglomerate.


One thing he said that stuck with me was that when you become a CEO, the first thing you lose is the ability to think out loud.


As the head of a multi-billion dollar company, your words have consequences. Loose ideas—”Maybe we should look into banning GMOs”; “bringing jobs back from Mexico is an interesting idea”—will spike your stock price, destroy your workers’ morale, remake your suppliers’ operations overnight.


The CEO said this aspect of the job felt like nakedness, like every thought and word was scrutinized. And he’s right, I guess.


As someone who’s always lived in the developed world, this is what power looks like to me. It is careful, restrained. It is those long pauses between words and before answers in Obama press conferences.


When I think about dictatorships, I usually focus on its victims. NGOs ransacked, opposition tortured, citizens running from footsteps in the middle of the night.


But even the worst dictators only make victims of a fraction of their people. They don’t just need fear, they need stories. They need reasons for everyone else, all the people between the boot and the crown, to shrug away what they see around them.


When Hitler wiped Czechoslovakia off the map, he made it a story of a German minority in need of his protection.


When Robert Mugabe liquidated his country’s economy, he told a story of turning back colonialism.


When Enhver Hoxha sent a third of Albania to the Gulag, the story was the need to prevent political dissent, to continue the country’s unilateral focus on development.


The scariest thing about these stories is not that they are lies, but that there is a tiny bit of truth to each of them. Dictatorships do not do away with veracity. They do away with proportionality.


As someone who has never seen this up close, I find it hard sometimes to see the big lie surrounding the small truth. I’ve never been trained in this, never had stakes in knowing how.


I asked my friend how she stayed the whole 18 months in West Africa. How she survived.


“We removed all of our emblems,” she said. They stopped wearing uniforms. Took the stickers off the trucks. “And then,” she said, “we got back to work.”


Filed under Personal, 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

Zimbabwe: Where US Dollars Go To Die



I am not curious or intelligent enough to know why this is the case, but the dollar bills in Zimbabwe are fucking filthy.


The official currency here is the US dollar, the Zimbabwe dollar doesn’t even exist anymore. The stores don’t carry change, they just round up to the next dollar with lollipops, chocolate bars or mobile phone credit.


Some of the bills you get are barely readable, and they all have that leathery, grandpa texture of something that’s been wrinkled and stroked a thousand times too many. I went to the cash machine yesterday and got a wad of twenties that ran the whole filthiness rainbow.


Also, there are $2 bills everywhere here. I thought those were a myth.


Next time anyone talks about ‘dirty money’, this is the first thing I’m going to think of.


Filed under Pictures, Travel

‘You’re Not Paying in Cash?’: Booking a Flight on Air Zimbabwe

Air zimbabwe

First I go to the Air Zimbabwe website and click ‘Online Reservations’. Error 404, this website does not exist.

I call Air Zimbabwe.
‘Hello?’ A woman’s voice.
‘Hi, I’d like to book a flight.’
‘Please hold.’

The line goes dead. I call again. This time, I get an automatic answering system. I press 7 for reservations. Click, wait, ring-ring. Ring-ring. Ring-ring. After four minutes, I hang up.

I wait an hour, try again.  I get the ‘hello’ lady.
‘I’d like to book a flight,’ I say.
‘When are you leaving?’
‘This Sunday.’
‘Well, if it’s not urgent, can you call back tomorrow?’

I call again the next day, 8.01, right after they open. I get the same lady, she takes my dates, destination, last name.
‘So do I pay over the phone, or?’
‘You have to go to our booking center in Harare. Or the airport, whichever is closer for you.’

The next day I go to the booking office in Harare. It’s open-plan, desks on one side of the room, counters on the other and a couch in between where at least 10 people are waiting. They  seem to be lined up to talk to the booking agents at the desks, so I go straight to the ‘pay here’ counter.

I give the counter-lady my reservation number and tell her I  need to pay. She tells me I have to go to the desks.

I sit on the couch for 15 minutes, then I’m called to one of the desks. I give the desk-lady my reservation number. She tells me the times of my flights have changed, each one has been bumped back 30 minutes. She also tells me the flights are half the price they told me on the phone. She rips a corner off a piece of paper, writes my reservation number on it. ‘Pay at the counter,’ she says. 

I go to the counter-lady again, give her the scrap of paper. She prints out my booking from an old printer, one line at a time. She rips off the little hole-punch strips from both sides, staples it to my flight tickets. I pull my credit card out of my back pocket.

‘Credit card? You have to go back to the desks.’

I wait 15 minutes on the couch again, get called by the same desk-lady, give her back the scrap of paper. She looks at it, types it into her computer.

‘I gave you the wrong price,’ she says. Now the price is back up to what the phone-lady quoted me originally. I give her my credit card and she pulls out one of those old swiper-things. She asks me to write my address on the piece of carbon paper and sign it. K-chunk, k-chunk, she prints out my booking again.

Then she leaves and goes to the other side of the room. I can see her talking to the counter-lady behind the glass. I wait 10 more minutes. She comes back, hands me my receipt and my tickets.

‘Thanks,’ I say.
‘Have a lovely trip,’ she says. ‘Next!’

Photo by Flickr user maarten-sr


Filed under Travel

Wall, Street: Walking in African Cities


For me, ‘Sub-Saharan Africa’ used to conjure up images of thatched huts and dust roads, but in the last few years most of the time I’ve spent here has been in cities.


This, for example, is Harare, Zimbabwe. From above it is basically Tulsa.


Condos, fast food, bad traffic, cute cafes, fratty sports bars.


See? Just a government building. Other than the dudes out front selling fish, this could be anywhere


When you get to the suburbs, though, is when you’re like ‘oh huh this is a hella different country’.


Everything is designed for cars, that’s nothing new, but it’s also designed for protection. All the streets look like this: Wall, street, wall. The only variety is whether they are tipped with barbed wire, electric wires or broken glass.


I know we all hate on LA for being pedestrian-unfriendly, but compared to here, it’s Venice.


Without a car, walking through Harare is like reading a book of blank pages.


Whatever might be happening here, it’s doing so behind walls. Restaurants, hotels, nightclubs, apartment buildings, as boring as they look looking in, it’s no better looking out.


I never thought of window shopping and personal safety as mutually exclusive, but here, it’s one or the other.


Filed under Pictures, Travel

So far Zimbabwean billboards


are even better than Zambian ones

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Filed under Pictures, Travel

Your Lion Eyes


Today I went on a safari!


Which, as it turns out, is basically Jurassic Park, but the animals are younger and it doesn’t all go horribly wrong.


The look on its face is ‘argh I can’t eat you’. This is the same face I have when I walk past bakeries.


It looks disappointed to be the only animal in this park that can’t kill you.


They purr when you pet them! For an extra 100 bucks, you can cuddle with them for an hour. This is 50 percent more than I usually pay for simulated intimacy, so I passed.


I did not know this, but our guide told us ostriches are extinct in the wild, they can only be found in captivity. And, if Berlin is any indication, the frozen aisle.


These looked majestic and powerful until our guide told us the car behind us had paid extra to hunt them.


They seem to not like engine noise, so about 80 percent of my photos are of antelope butts.


‘Are you done shooting?’ the guide asked. ‘The other car is about to start shooting.’ I hope it cost more than the cuddles.


Filed under Personal, Pictures, Travel

I’m Not Here: The Billboards of Zambia

I’m in Kitwe, Zambia, this week, and one of the constant sources of bafflement and entertainment is the billboards. They’re everywhere, but mostly vacant, and mostly advertising themselves.

‘Advertise here’ billboards are nothing new, of course, but what amazes me about these is that each one is different.


On the way from Kitwe to the Ndola airport, an hour’s drive, you see about 65 of them, and they never repeat. Each one has a different message, a different photo, a different font, even though they’re all advertising the exact same thing.


I keep trying to think of an economic explanation for this, a reason why they wouldn’t be at least partially standardized. It seems like a lot of extra work to design and print 65 billboards one time each, at least as compared to one billboard 65 times.


But the world is full of mysteries! Maybe they want to show off their range, maybe they want to try to catch your eye in as many ways possible, maybe they have a bored PR intern. Or maybe they just want to increase the world’s supply of stock photos of adorable children. As corporate responsibility goes, they could do worse.


Filed under Personal, Pictures, Travel

Why Do All My Pictures of Northern Europe Suck?


In the eight years I’ve lived in Northern Europe, I don’t think I’ve taken one good picture of it.


The problem, I’ve concluded, is the flatness.


Not just the low altitude. Even at its postcardiest, the land here seems to merge with the water, then with the sky.


Last year I read this Stephen Jay Gould essay where he talked about how the human mind is designed to notice variance over constants.


Like how the roar of a waterfall is ignorable, but a drippy faucet, a fly trapped in an empty room, is unbearable.


It’s easy to come up with examples of this in hearing, but harder with seeing.


Lately I’ve been trying to explore my surroundings more. Get out of Berlin, bike quaintward, see how northern Germany looks after the freeways thin out.


I wish I could say I’d discovered some hidden gem, a town, a forest, rich in history, poor in gift shops.


But I really really haven’t. Everywhere you go, it’s water, land, sky, different amounts but always the same mixture.


Back home, the scenery makes you feel tiny. You’re a speck on a mountain, a dot in a lake.


Here, it makes you feel tall, like you’re the only punctuation in a long sentence.


Maybe that’s why all my pictures all look the same. I’m used to looking for the drip, when everyone around me is listening to the roar.


Filed under Berlin, Germany, Pictures, Travel

What Is ‘Semi-Industrial’ Food?


One thing that fascinated me when I was in Portugal was the ubiquity of the ‘Pastelarias’, the little cafes—one espresso machine, four or five wooden tables, pastries behind glass—on nearly every corner.


But the ubiquity wasn’t the most interesting thing about them, it was the uniformity.


Each of them appeared to be an independent business. They didn’t have the same brand name or the same décor.


What they did have, though, was the same pastries. Not, like, a similar selection. The exact same pastries. Same size, same shape, same flavors, same perfect little char-marks on the custard, everything.


It wasn’t til I saw the same pastries in a grocery store that I started to get curious about what was going on. Most of these little hole-in-the-wall bakeries aren’t big enough for proper baking equipment, and seem understaffed as it is.


I was convinced that all these cute little bakeries were actually frauds, they were getting shipments of pastries from some suburban warehouse every morning, putting them in the window, tricking me into thinking they’re all charming and artisanal.


I imagined some vast conveyor belt near a suburban motorway. Chinese workers sweating into hairnets, mechanically charring an endless line of snack-size custards.


It turns out it’s not as bad as that. In a random bookstore I came across a coffee table book called ‘The Design of Portuguese Semi-Industrial Confectionery’, and I learned some things:


First, Portugal not only has the highest number of food establishments per capita, but also has the highest percentage of people who eat breakfast outside the home every day. This is why, I eureka’d, it’s the only European country I’ve been to where cafes are open before 8am.


Second, there’s not some beltway warehouse making millions of pastries every morning and trucking them into the city. It turns out there’s a standardized baking school curriculum, and a strict licensing regime for confectionery makers.


Not only that, but a lot of the pastries are made with powders and mixes (even the eggs, ew), minimizing the time and skill required to make them.


These three things—high demand, standard methodologies and effort-free production—mean pastries are a viable and profitable business model.


Due to the country’s history as a trading post where a lot of these recipes originated (the book’s version was that when Portugal Inquisitioned out the Jews starting in the 16th century, they all went to Vienna and became bakers), this business model is supported by government policies on opening hours, licensing, taxes, etc.


If you’re gonna pick something for government subsidies and high standards, you can do worse than pastries. Still, I don’t know if bags of Bisquick and buckets of egg whites are any more edifying than a giant suburban croissant factory.


The sustainable food movement wants to increase the availability of food that is ‘local’, ‘handmade’, ‘fresh’. These pastries are all of those things, at least technically, but there’s something about the process that leaves a bad taste in my mouth.


Metaphorically speaking, I mean. Literally, the taste they leave in my mouth is delicious.


But maybe that, more than anything, is what foodies should be afraid of.


Filed under Food, Personal, Pictures, Travel

On Quitting My Job


Last week I was in Lisbon for work.


Well, one day for work. I went the weekend before and walked around before I had to get my game face on.


This is my last business trip for my current job. I put in my notice last week.


They say changing jobs is as traumatic as losing a loved one or getting a divorce.


I’ve never had either of those things happen to me, so I have nothing to compare this to.


Lisbon is a good place to walk around and ruminate.


The city is basically a series of hills, installed to allow it to view itself.


Even the locals look impressed.


For about 300 years, the Portuguese were a major European power.


Profitable pillaging, royalty in the tabloids, franchises in Asia, Africa, the Middle East.


At the time, Portuguese people must have thought it would go on forever. Conquest, expansion, power, wealth. Just follow the trend line from past to present to future.


Then in 1755 an earthquake shook Lisbon to the ground.


The empire never quite recovered. While Lisbon rebuilt itself, it lost its colonies to resistance, competition, neglect.


Now, for all its charms, Portugal is a minor power, alone, its former colonies still speaking its language, but no longer singing its anthems.


I was in Portugal to have meetings, shake hands.


Knowing it would be the last time didn’t make me do it any different.


‘Looking forward to working together’, I would say, realizing later I was lying. 


My boss asked me why I was leaving, and I told him ‘I think I’ll be happier doing something else’.


and he said, ‘You’re young enough for that to be a good reason. But just.’


I’ve got a bunch of projects lined up, but nothing permanent.


When I tell people I quit, the first thing they say is ‘You’ll be fine!’


I think that’s true. This weekend, looking outward from Portugal, it sometimes felt true too.


I’m not afraid for my future, or of it. I just wonder if that’s what you think right up until the ground starts to shake.


Filed under Personal, Pictures, Travel, Work