Method in Madness

Crazy House
Picture of what is popularly known here as the “Crazy House” – an unconventional building designed and constructed by a local architect.

When I first arrived in Vietnam, I was so scared to cross the streets here. Having spent most of my life in Singapore and the US, where traffic is orderly; here it is chaotic, with vehicles coming from every conceivable direction. A local gave me this advice then: “Just close your eyes and cross the streets. Either you end up on the other side of the street or you end up in the hospital.” He was of course joking but there was some truth to it. After observing how the locals crossed the streets and many times ‘cowardly’ following beside them, I noticed that the motorists had an uncanny ability to navigate around you. You just have to be resolute and move forward – without dithering or hesitating, and you do end up on the other side of the street 🙂 Limited anecdotal experience it may be, but I have not witnessed a single accident. There is order in what appears as chaos.

I met an American who has been living here for the last five years. Over the years, he had lived and traveled in many parts of the world and decided to settle here. He told me that some of his friends back in the US, had asked him mockingly: “How safe is it over there in that Communist country?” His reply was that it was safe for young kids to walk back home on their own after school. That it was safe such that security personnel collecting money from the bank’s vault do not come bearing arms or in an armored vehicle. Some folks may say they are trading freedom for security. But are they?

Dalai Lama on Peace
On a wall on a cafe here

Singapore has compulsory national service. Consequently, Jehovah’s Witnesses (JW) who conscientiously object to military service are sent to prison. While JW is deemed as an unlawful society in Singapore; they are not in Vietnam. The Catholic cathedral in Dalat is about 1.2 km or 0.75 miles from where I am staying. The first mass every day is at 5 am and I can hear the church bells ringing at 4:45 am. Nobody complains about it. Isn’t that tolerance and religious freedom?

Dalat - Coffee Shop Widmills
On a wall of another cafe here 🙂

When I was stuck for a night in Beijing on my way to Vietnam last year, I experienced personally the Great Firewall of China. I knew that Gmail, youtube, and some other sites could not be accessed in China. I assumed I could circumvent it via my VPN, but I was wrong. In Vietnam, anyone can access their Gmail or youtube.

Yes, there are things that I don’t like here. That’s true for every country I have visited or lived in.  But,  I rather keep my “eye on the doughnut and not on the hole.”  I rather try to go with the flow in what appears initially as chaotic. I rather enjoy the liberty in what may be assumed to be repressive.

To those celebrating Easter, HAPPY EASTER!

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Yes! Easter is celebrated here 🙂 7 am mass at the Cathedral in Dalat.

 

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Back in Việt Nam

 

Tam Cuoc6

I am back in Vietnam. Tam Cốc to be precise. The above is a picture I took of a picture. Obviously, the original was taken by professionals on a perfect day and is touched up as well. Here is what  Tam Cốc looks like from where I am staying…on a foggy morning…

Tam Cuoc4

Recently, a friend of mine posed a question to me: “I would love to know how you occupy yourself in a foreign country with time on your hands and sightseeing is no longer on the agenda.”

Others have asked similar questions in the past and I have kind of answered those with counter questions in a blog post

I would attempt to answer the question; again not with a model answer but with some more questions or things to think about.

(Background information: Many of my friends are nearing the retirement age. As such, they are wondering how they would utilize the time, once retired. In a way, they are fortunate. For some, perhaps even for the majority, retirement may not even be an option because of financial constraints. For others, they may not have made it to the retirement age. They did not get to do the things they had put off until retirement because they passed away before they reached that milestone. It is a luxury to be able to ponder what to do with time on our hands. I am told by a local, that people working on this back-breaking task in the fields here would continue working till they die.)

Tam Coc countryside (1)

The short answer to my friend’s question: Years ago, I identified key areas to spend my time on.  It is irrelevant what they are because what  I have deemed as the most important thing in life may not be the same as what you may have concluded or may eventually conclude. Once you have identified the most important thing in life that warrants your time and energy – you can go on working on it – regardless of where in the world you are. As mentioned in a previous blog post – for me, being elsewhere outside of California or the US is primarily a cost consideration. Some call it geographical arbitrage.

Extended version:  I don’t experience boredom or loneliness, but I  do experience discouragement and doubts. Discouragement because I don’t see improvement in myself after all this time and effort. Doubts because I am not 100% certain that I am on the right path;  if I am actually living out my vocation in life. A few have actually said that I am ‘wasting my life’. I can only continue to examine my life on a regular basis and make any necessary changes. How one judges oneself, or how others judge a person is not important – if there is a higher authority judging us. So, ultimately, I guess, it is a question of faith. What do you really believe in? And does your thoughts and actions, and hence how you choose to spend your time concur with that belief? It is easy to find activities to fill up one’s time. The challenge is finding the ‘right’ activities.

At the greyhound races, as soon as the doors open, the greyhounds charge off with speeds in excess of 40 mph. They chase after a ‘rabbit’ with such gusto. I wonder if they know that the race was designed such that they will never be able to catch the rabbit and even if somehow they caught it, that it is fake. It is merely a mechanical rabbit.  Is whatever we are chasing with all our time and energy, real or worth pursuing? Anyway to be certain of it?

Comments, advice or suggestions are welcomed.

Cảm ơn

 “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it.  But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it”  Matthew 7:13-14

 

HAPPY NEW YEAR

Goals

Currently, I am in Singapore. Though I detest the heat and humidity here; I always cherish the time I get to spend with family and friends. I would probably be here until early February, after which I plan to return to Vietnam.

Wherever you are, I wish you and your family a HAPPY & PROSPEROUS NEW YEAR.

Adiós México & Xin chào Việt Nam.

After about a year in Mexico and close to two years in Latin America, I have headed east – Dalat, Vietnam to be precise. Ajijic or Guadalajara is a good place to be from Nov – April. May onwards it gets hotter and the rainy season begins. When I left Guadalajara, daytime temperatures were exceeding 90F. I was looking forward to a more pleasant weather in the SF Bay Area. But the heat wave swept the Bay Area and temperatures were reaching 100F. My ill luck continued as my flight to Vietnam via Beijing was delayed and consequently, I missed two connecting flights. Air China provided accommodation at a hotel in Beijing. However, the hotel staff informed me that I had to share a room with a gentleman or pay $25USD if I wanted a private room. This was my worst flying experience in my itinerant history. I tried to make the best of my unexpected stay in Beijing by visiting the Great Wall of China. The whole city seemed to be blanketed by haze or smog. Is the progress really worth it if you can’t breathe fresh air or look up to see clear blue skies?

Great Wall of China7

aaa(Spelling and grammar errors are common in China.)

I arrived in Dalat to a welcoming breeze and lush greenery.  Just like most places I have lived in Latin America, this location is also a city of eternal spring and the food basket for her country.  Elevation: 1,500 m (4,900 ft). Although it is the rainy season here too; the temperature is more pleasant 19C – 23C or 66F – 73F.

Dalat2

I have managed to secure a private room at a similar monthly rate as the one I had in Mexico. The differences are:

  • Dalat has better showers and toilets. Good hot shower temperature and pressure.. Unlike most Latin American places I have stayed, I can get hot water on the kitchen and bathroom faucet as well.
  • The shower is not separated from the toilet. That is, there is no shower curtain or door. Hence when you shower, the whole place including the toilet bowl gets wet.20170627_183855Other observations:
    • The avocados are big/long and shiny.20170627_102516.jpg

    So far, I have come across three different kinds of dragon fruit or pitaya as it is known in Latin America:

  • Dragon Fruit in Vietnam is relatively large and pink on the outside with either white or red flesh.
  • dragon
  • Pitaya in Colombia is yellow on the outside with white flesh and is sweet.
  • Fruits - Pitaya
  • Pitayas in Mexico are the smallest with various skin and flesh colors.
  • Fruit - Pittaya
  • I have found the Latin American fruits and vegetables vendors to be more honest than the Vietnamese counterparts.
  • The traffic here is just crazy. No traffic lights, frequent roundabouts and motorcyclists riding haphazardly. I guess there is a method to this madness because I have yet to see any accident.

Till next time…

Know thyself

ECUADOR      PANAMA      COLOMBIA      GUATEMALA      MEXICO

With regards to last week’s blog post, first, thanks for all the kind comments.Second, I like the approach the successful investor Howard Marks takes when it comes to cycles. Here are excerpts from one of his recent memos:

 ”Knowing where you are in a cycle and what that implies for the future is very different from predicting the timing, extent, and shape of the next cyclical move.”

“Cycles are self-correcting, and their reversal is not necessarily dependent on exogenous events. The reason they reverse (rather than going on forever) is that trends create the reasons for their own reversal. Thus I like to say success carries within itself the seeds of failure, and failure the seeds of success.”

It is possible, that a predicted ‘crisis’ does not come to pass at the anticipated time or severity because the majority of the population are expecting it. To quote another great investor, John Templeton: “Bull markets are born on pessimism, grown on skepticism, mature on optimism, and die on euphoria,” he said. “The time of maximum pessimism is the best time to buy, and the time of maximum optimism is the best time to sell.”

Interestingly,  Templeton identifies four ‘turnings’ too: Pessimism, Skepticism, Optimism and Euphoria. One reason the US stock market has not crashed is because the majority of the population are not optimistic or euphoric about the stock market. A ‘crash’ is usually identified as abrupt double-digit percentage drops in a stock index over the course of a few days.

Moving on…

A week or so ago, I was at the local cultural center. On the notice board, there was a note on the Bhagavad Gita. Most of it was in Spanish but it did have a small section in English. A sentence there served as a good reminder to me: “The first relationship is with oneself and then follows the relationship with the beings, objects, and situations around us.”

poster-gita

Later that day, I met up with a fellow traveler. Call it synchronicity but he told me about a system for self-discovery. It was developed by a Canadian after a mystical experience. Hmm. Woo Woo? Their website did say the following:“It is not built on belief or faith but is a logical, empirical system that offers you the opportunity to experiment with its mechanics and find out for yourself if it works for you.”. Here is my over-simplified understanding of a sliver of a very complicated system:

  • Just like there are 4 seasons in a year, 4 cycles or turnings, there are also 4 types of human beings:

o    Manifestor (Initiator)

o     Generator (Workhorse)

o     Projector (Guide)

o     Reflector (Undefined)

  • The majority (about 70%) of the population are best as workhorses. This is followed by guides (about 22%), initiators (about 8%) and undefined (about 1%).
  • Initiators are the ones that come up with breakthrough ideas and projects. But they don’t “build” it. That’s what the workhorses are for. Guides have the innate capability to understand others and hence to guide them. Knowing what type you are is a step towards living a life without unnecessary resistance. Example: No point for a sloth to try to be a cheetah. It will end up being bad at both. An enlightened sloth realizes its place on earth and is unperturbed by the society’s impression on it. Even though it is “speed-challenged”, it does not mope in self-pity.
  • Knowing which type of human being you are is just one step. There are strategies involved with each type. For example, the strategy for “guides” is to wait for an invitation. When it comes to important decisions in life like work, relationship etc. it is best that “guides” are recognized for their value and invited.

There is more to the above system than what I have covered here or know about. Like the Briggs Myers’ personality test and meditation, this is just another tool among many out there to help us know ourselves better.

There is the belief that one can do anything one set their mind to. Hence, it is possible by sheer willpower and brute force that one who is a workhorse becomes a successful initiator. The question is: At what cost? What did that person give up by taking an alternate path? Going back to the sloth example, scientists are discovering that some species of fungi found in sloth fur could eventually be a potent force against certain parasites, cancers, and bacteria. It was the very lack of speed of the sloth that allowed its fur to be a conducive environment for these fungi. Imagine if the sloth had yielded to peer pressure and to keep up with the Joneses, mustered all its energy and picked up speed. Okay, perhaps not as swift as a cheetah but fast enough such that it was no longer a cozy home for the fungi. Wouldn’t that be a loss to society? Scientists did not know about the value of the sloth or the fungi before. Likewise, society might not come to appreciate someone or something until years later. Sometimes, we ourselves may not recognize our own value. But neither does the sloth know that it is harboring microorganisms or that some of these microorganisms will serve to benefit mankind down the road. You never fully know the impact your word or deed may have on another.

“Knowing oneself” can take many forms. Today, with a cheek swab, science can provide a guide on what sort of foods will be beneficial for us or even how one should exercise. Example: The PPARG gene is responsible for differences in unsaturated fat metabolism. I know that I have the genotype that does not do well with unsaturated fat. But there are others whose genotype implies improved metabolism of unsaturated fat. So, two people making identical diet and lifestyle choices can manifest different health outcomes because of the differences in their genetic dispositions. ‘Bad’ genes do not automatically lead one to a certain disease. Genes merely load the gun but our lifestyle  fires it. Knowing your genetic blueprint can help you to make informed diet choices relevant to you.

It may be good to know where we are in the various cycles. But it is more important to ‘know thyself’. It is a sad day if Google and the likes know us better than we know ourselves.

To end on a humorous note, a picture of a T-shirt I came across in Antigua, Guatemala:

poster-google

Cycles

Based on feedback, I am adding an index so that readers can jump to my posts on a specific country easily:

ECUADOR

PANAMA

COLOMBIA

GUATEMALA

MEXICO

_________________________________________________________________

Cycles4blog

(Picture of the handout from the talk)

A gringo group here in Ajijic, Mexico organizes a talk every Sunday. The topics for the talk cover a wide range. Recently, I attended one on the topic of Generational change: The Fourth Turning. The talk was based on the work of authors William Strauss and Neil Howe. I have not read the book. However, after the talk, I did listen to some interviews with the authors and read excerpts from their book, etc. Here are just some points:

  • It is US centric.
  • There are four kinds of turnings: High, Awakening, Unraveling, and Crisis and they always occur in the same order. The authors compare the secular rhythm to the four seasons, which inevitably occur in the same order, but with slightly varying timing.
  • Each season or turning lasts about 20 years. So, a human living to eighty or above will experience all cycles.
  • We are probably in the fourth turning now, which began with the 2008 financial crisis. In their 1997 book, the authors predicted that “sometime around the year 2005, perhaps a few years before or after, America will enter the Fourth Turning.”
  • The last Fourth Turning began in 1929 with the stock market crash. It ran until 1946 encompassing both the Great Depression and WWII. Previous Fourth Turnings culminated in the American Revolution and the Civil War. These events put the entire society at risk.
  • The point of maximum crisis is usually about 3/4 of the way through the Fourth Turning.
  • The Crisis can be economic, cultural, religious, military, or all.
  • One of the key elements in a Fourth Turning is that a point is reached where the public realizes that their institutions are dysfunctional and they come to the conclusion that they are increasingly vulnerable with the current status quo. A point is reached when large groups of public coalesce to support a strong leader to tear down the existing economic and social construct and replace it with something else. The result may be better, or far worse, but the public will nevertheless demand something different.
  • In order to recover, it will require everyone to “sacrifice” and to say, “We’re in this together.”
  • The ending of the fourth turning is followed by the first turning which is characterized by strong institutions and a strong sense of community.

My take: The notion of cycles is not new and they are several kinds of cycles (credit cycle, business cycle or economic cycle). William Strauss and Neil Howe are attempting to identify a recurring generational cycle in American history and how society is likely to respond to these events in different eras. It is the response, not the initial event, which defines an era. Their theory has received both praises and criticism.  The sad thing is that even if there is validity to their theory and the vast US population is aware of it, we are still likely to respond in a ‘rash’ manner for the reason George Orwell aptly noted:

“Each generation imagines itself to be more intelligent that the one that went before it, and wiser than the one that comes after it.”

Reading about hunger is totally different from going hungry for several days and not knowing when your next meal will come from. Likewise, the lessons from history are seldom really learned by many until they experience it themselves. But that do not have to be the case and I hope we will respond better. One area which I certainly hope we will succeed this time is not to engage in another bogus war, irrespective of how compelling the case might appear to be.

If you have read the book or do read the book, The Fourth Turning, I will appreciate you share what you learned. If you found the topic covered in this blog post, not of interest to you, let me know what you would like me to blog instead 🙂
Poster - Buddha quote

A local restaurant has a blackboard where they write a quote and periodically change it. The above is a picture of one such quote.

Against the Wind

IMG_20160812_115547“Everybody seems angry a lot of the time, and always in a rush!! Sometimes you can get dragged along with it. How can we reverse that and make people aware of the present?!?”

That was the question that was posed in response to my last blog post. It is an important and perennial question that I decided to dedicate a blog post to offer my humble 2 cents.

Get out. Not all battles are worth fighting. Not all races are worth being in. One always has the choice to get out. After all, even if you win the rat race, you are still a rat 🙂

Run at your own pace and style. If for some reason one is unable to get out of the mad rush, one should run at their own terms. Australian farmer, Cliff Young was 61 years old, a vegetarian, a teetotaler and a virgin when he announced he wanted to take part in the Sydney to Melbourne race. He became a laughing stock. because he had never run a marathon before. While other contestants were younger, had run similar races before and were running with ‘proper’ running shoes sponsored by famous brands, Cliffy ran with his gumboots. Many professionals commented that his technique was considered “incorrect” because instead of running, he traipsed along with a leisurely shuffle. But Cliffy won first place, breaking the race record by 9 hours! Later, people who studied his running technique called it the ”Young Shuffle”  and has since been adopted by some ultra-marathon runners because it expends less energy. A true minimalist 🙂

There were many times when Cliffy was at the point of giving up. He stayed true to himself and hence avoided being ‘dragged along’. When people lose it and scream at us, we are not obligated to react in the same way. The better approach will be to allow them to release steam and once they are done to respond calmly. Let that be the style.

IMG_20160812_115530

Practice makes perfect. There are some religious practices that at fixed intervals throughout the day; stop whatever they are doing no matter how busy they are, to pray. Just taking this few minutes off reminds them why they are really on earth for or the purpose of their toil.  It is easy to get caught up in the heat of the moment and lose perspective. It will do us good to use any ‘agitated’ moments as cues to pause and take a deep breath.  True change takes time and deliberate practice. In the book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell says that it takes roughly ten thousand hours of deliberate practice to achieve mastery in a field. Is it not reasonable to expect the same if we wish to chisel and mold our character?

Change begins with us: Every time, we board a plane we are reminded of the following advice: “Secure your own mask first before helping others.” The rationale is simple: We can only help others if we are not helpless ourselves. Everything begins with us. If we are calm, it will be easy to achieve calmness in our homes. If there is calmness in our homes, there will be peace in nations. If there is peace in nations, there will be peace in the world. Imagine a tiny hut with its doors and windows shut. You light a candle. It is pitch dark outside. If you open the window, is the vast darkness of the night going to overcome the light from the candle or will the light from the candle pierce the darkness? The challenge for each of us then, is to become that ‘light’.

Paz

IMG_20160812_115508

(Pictures taken today from Art & Craft Festival)

 

 

 

 

The Precious Present

Presentation1

The average price of a Big Mac in US$ in various countries in Jan 2016:

USA: $4.93

Canada: $4.14

Australia $3.74

Singapore: $3.27

Mexico: $2.81

Vietnam: $2.67

Colombia: $2.43

Malaysia: $1.83

Source: http://www.statista.com/statistics/274326/big-mac-index-global-prices-for-a-big-mac/

What’s the price of the Big Mac at your place?

The Big Mac index can be a rough guide to determine if currencies are at their “correct” level. If you are a digital nomad, it is one of the factors that you consider in determining which country to visit next. Some people call it geographical arbitrage. In short, it is an attempt to achieve similar quality of life at a fraction of the cost. Of course quality of life means different things to different people. For some it is having a big house, fancy car and paid help to clean the house and manicure the lawn or garden. I have a different set of criteria. Irrespective of the criteria, people by choice or otherwise are living in places with lower cost of living to stretch their savings. Every $1,000 per month reduction in retirement spending reduces your savings need by roughly $300,000.

About 20 years ago, Blue (my landlady), was burnt out from work. She approached her financial advisor to determine if she could retire with what she had. She was advised to work 10 more years and save $50K per year so that she could at least have half her lifestyle at retirement. Blue decided the present was far too precious. She ignored the advice and retired. Geographical arbitrage made it possible for her to retire sooner without sacrificing the quality of life she wanted. She has no regrets.

Blue told me that Type A personalities won’t survive here unless they change. She was a Type A and she changed – once she understood how the locals think and feel. According to Blue, when a doctor sees a patient here, the doctor gives undivided attention to the patient, without looking at the watch or in any hurry to dismiss the patient so that they could go on to the next patient. Yes, it sucks for the patients that are waiting outside but they benefit when it is their turn to see the doc. If a worker tells you he will come mañana (Spanish for morning or tomorrow), he may or may not. It is better to accept mañana to mean ‘not today’. You see, if the worker had some family matters to take care of, he is going to take care of that first. And family does not just mean immediate family. It includes extended family.

It is common to find at the weekly market, at least one person selling spare parts from used products. Blue mentioned that once a part in her blender broke and she was able to find the replacement here. She told me that if she were still living in the US, she would throw it away and buy a new one.

All of the above is not unique to Mexico. I will say it is similar to other Latin American countries as well, or at least the ones that I have visited so far. The locals are living embodiment of the “The Power of Now”. Rather than be  worried about the future, they enjoy the present. They don’t wait until certain conditions are met in the future to be satisfied. Apparently, there’s an old Mexican saying that “North Americans live to work, but Mexicans work to live!”  I cannot help but wonder how many of the millions who read the book, ‘The Power of Now’, have put into practice what they gleaned out of it. It is said that the man who does not read good books has no advantage over the illiterate. I will qualify that to say that anyone who does not put into practice whatever they learned from reading has no advantage over the illiterate either.

(Latin America has its own challenges. But I rather shed light on worthy considerations because there are sufficient media coverage on all that is wrong.)

Hasta Mañana

Answering questions:

Just like the US, there are no sales tax here when you buy at the Farmer’s Market or when you purchase groceries. Two years ago, Mexico imposed ~ 10% tax on sugary drinks.

There are no official numbers of gringos here. The estimate is around 10,000 who are permanent. During the winter months, it gets a bit higher. Those who have decided to make this place their home usually end up buying their homes.

Hola Mexico!

View from the Living room.

That’s the view from the living room/kitchen. Beyond the garden are Lake Chapala and the Sierra Madre mountains. Lake Chapala is Mexico’s largest freshwater lake. Elevation: 1,524 m (5,000 ft) . It is 3:15 pm now and the temperature is about 79F (26C). At night it will usually drop to around 63F (17C)

The landlord of this house whom I am renting a room from is also from Santa Clara, California; used to work at HP and is an author. Synchronicity?

It is hard to have meaningful and deep conversations with my limited Spanish. Consequently, I was beginning to miss the English speaking crowd until now. This enclave has a sizable population from US and Canada. Among the many activities they organize is a fortnightly meeting for authors or aspiring authors  to read sections of their writings and get feedback from the audience. I have been very impressed by what I have heard so far. I would not be surprised if someone here produces a bestseller.

The gringos here are also involved in activities that benefit the local community:  Education in art, computers, English and a student aid program.

Food - From Farmer's market

The above are items that  I bought from the weekly farmer’s market. Let me know what you think about the prices:

Mixed Greens                     20 pesos (~$1 USD)

Blueberries                          45 pesos (~$2.42 USD)

Cilantro                                10 pesos (~$0.54 USD)

California Rolls                 46 pesos (~2.47 USD)

Sprouted Black Beans     15 pesos (~$0.8 USD)

Hummus cake                   15 pesos (~$0.8 USD)

Tofu                                      30 pesos (~$1.6 USD)

 

Adiós Guatemala

I left Antigua, Guatemala late last week. Usually, I stay about 3 months in every country I visit. I made an exception in this case because of potential risks due to volcanic eruptions and earthquakes. As a city, I really liked Antigua. It was not too crowded nor too isolated. It had the right balance of locals and foreigners and a good selection of food.

Glimpses of Antigua, Guatemala