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 had never run a marathon before so he became a laughing stock. 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 if 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.

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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

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(Pictures taken today from Art & Craft Festival)

 

 

 

 

The Precious Present

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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 was still living in the US, she probably will have thrown it away and bought 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

 

 

 

Anniversary

It was on June 17, 2008, I left HP. Eight years has passed.

It was on July 13th, 2015, I left Santa Clara, California to begin my Latin American trip. A year has passed. I left with just one carry-on bag and one pair of footwear.

My possessions

Some of my friends ask me when I’ll be back. I joke with them that I have nothing to come back to. No girlfriend, no wife, no kids, no job, no home, no car.:)

Job: Someone asked me the other day if I missed working. I told her that I do miss the social aspect of it. I have had a lot of time to read and think about a lot of things. As such, I wonder how I will handle various situations now. Last night, a friend of mine called to tell me that he was laid off from his job. I was fortunate to have quit on my own terms. You can only lose what you have.

Home: There were many reasons why I sold my one-bedroom home in Santa Clara. One reason is that despite the fact that I did not have a mortgage on it, I was incurring HOA fees every month. Fees that usually go up every year and for which I get very little value. One of my goals with my Latin American exploration was to have my accommodation expense be no more than my HOA fees. So far, I have succeeded. One could consider my model as either part of the tiny house movement or an alternative to it. By my model, I mean a model that owns virtually nothing. The world’s largest accommodation provider, Airbnb owns no real estate. The world’s largest taxi company, Uber owns no vehicles. The world’s largest retailer, Alibaba has no inventory or logistics. I am not saying my model is right. And even if it works out for me, it is definitely not suitable for everyone. What Airbnb & Uber are reflecting is that there is excess capacity and given the new economic realities, people are willing to consider alternatives to monetize that excess capacity. But it is not just about money either because that will not explain Couchsurfing. In my blog post – Universal, I mentioned about the disadvantages of connectivity. We’ve all witnessed it in restaurants, along the streets or gatherings among family and friends: Like mesmerized zombies, nearly every face we see is enthralled by the hypnotic glow of their smartphones. So, even though the amount of virtual interactions may have gone up, the intimacy of eye contact and actual face to face conversations has declined. As such, people are willing to open up their homes to strangers for free so that they can have meaningful conversations.

Car: I still had my car when I first left the Bay Area. I had found a company that will rent it out and pay me $325 monthly irrespective of whether my car was rented out or not. At that time, I was living in Ecuador renting a nice room with a view of the mountain for $170 a month including utilities, internet and use of the kitchen. You can say, I was living off my car.:) Unfortunately, a few months later the car rental company changed the terms and it was no longer attractive to me. At that time, I was also aware that auto companies were extending more and more subprime loans. Subprime borrowers have the longest loans (up to 8 years) and the highest interest rates. An automobile is a depreciating asset. If people are willing to walk away from their homes, what’s to stop them from walking away from their vehicles when they owe more than what their vehicle is worth? I expected the delinquencies to rise and a surge in repossessed cars. If I am right, cars may get cheaper. So, I sold off mine

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Volkswagon

(No! That car is not mine.Picture taken in Antigua, Guatemala)

Earlier this week was World Refugee Day. A new UN report says some sixty-five million people or one in every 113 people are refugees -the highest number on record. Like a refugee, I am living in a foreign land, without a permanent home and with only the things that I can carry. But that’s where the similarity ends. In my case, I chose to live like this for now. I have the freedom to travel, eat whatever & whenever I want, etc. About five years ago, no Syrian will have thought that they will be refugees one day. Our circumstances can change in an instance. We can be doing all the right things but either due to the actions of our leaders or others, our lives can be turned upside down. As such, I am grateful for everything that I enjoy now. I hope you are too.

¡Muchas gracias!

Food

Food

Fruits: Yet to come across anything ‘exotic’. You have the standard tropical fruits – packets of which they sell at street corners for 5Q or about 0.65 USD. Option to spice it up with lime, chili  and pepita molida (crushed roasted pumpkin seeds).

Prices - Packet of Fruits 5Q

Nuts: Sold by street vendors. Besides cashews, almonds, peanuts and pistachios, they also have habas (fried lima or broad beans without skins.)

Foods - Nuts

Flavor: Colombians don’t like chili and Panamanians don’t usually like ginger. I find Guatemalan food the best so far. I guess their proximity to Mexico must have influenced some of the spices they use. Antigua is a tourist hub and as such they have a myriad of restaurants serving international cuisine. I was even able to find a Korean restaurant and an Indonesian restaurant – a rarity in Latin America. The Bibimbap is the best I have ever tasted. His Gochujang sauce definitely played a big role. I intend to get the recipe for his secret sauce:)

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Food for thoughtThe above is a picture from the internet of a Mayan pyramid in Tikal, Guatemala. Most of the Mayan pyramids were temples to the gods. Egyptian pyramids on the other hand, were primarily tombs for the pharaohs. The pharaohs were buried together with luxurious items including pets and servants to ensure they have the same cushy life in their next life. A ridiculous ancient belief? If we cannot take our money and possessions when we die, why do some people today live their lives like they could?

Joe Heller is the author of the book ‘Catch-22’. Once at a party his friend came to him and asked, “Joe, how does it make you feel to know that our host only yesterday may have made more money than your novel ‘Catch-22’ has earned in its entire history?”
And Joe replied, “I’ve got something he can never have.”
Puzzled, his friend asked, “What on earth could that be, Joe?”                                                  And Joe said, “The knowledge that I’ve got enough.”

 I guess that’s the secret right? Knowing when it is enough. Endless accumulation for something that you cannot enjoy once you are dead is pointless. Too much is just as bad as too little.  In 1793-1794  countless members of the French high society were guillotined. In the 1970s, Communists in Cambodia  slaughtered the affluent. There is a Taoist parable of grave robbers who hammer the corpse’s forehead, break his cheekbones & smash his jaws, all because the dead man was foolish enough to be buried with a pearl in his mouthAnd yes, most of the pharaohs’ tombs were robbed too.
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Hola Guatemala

From Rooftop2

At the moment, I am in Antigua, Guatemala – a city designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It sits at an elevation of 5029 feet (1533 metres), which keeps the city from getting too hot in the summer*. The 1773 Santa Marta earthquakes destroyed much of the town resulting in authorities deciding to relocate their nation’s capital to a safer region. Strangely, after the authorities relocated, Antigua has not registered any major earthquake. Thanks to regulations the city has been able to maintain its 16th-century Renaissance grid pattern and Baroque-style buildings. All the streets in Antigua are cobbled. All of these adds charm to this city.

*A Guatemalan, born and raised here told me that temperatures in Antigua were never above 24C. In the past couple of years, it has easily exceeded that. I keep hearing the same stories everywhere I go. For example, when I was in Medellin, a guy told me that when he was growing up, the temperatures in Medellin were never below 20C and never above 25C. However when I was there, there were many days where it was above 25C. They had noticed the changes only in the last couple of years. Perhaps the search for a city of eternal spring is futile?

Lake Atitlan2

About two hours by a shuttle ride is Lake Atitlán, a lake described by Aldous Huxley as “It really is too much of a good thing.” I guess it must have looked different when he saw it. On my way there I overheard a conversation about the current President of Guatemala. Jimmy Morales before taking office this year was Guatemala’s most famous television comedian. Guatemala might not be the only one to have a TV personality for President…

Random Ramblings – Esperanza

Peace talks are going on between the Colombian government and the rebel group. Some Colombians don’t seem supportive of it. When asked why, they say that the government is being manipulated by the rebel group, that some of the bad things that the rebel group were involved in is still going on and that there is no justice if all these rebels do not go to prison for what they did. I try not to get involved in politics, especially when I am a foreigner and the discussion is not in a language I am fluent in. Nevertheless, I could not help offering my 2 cents: I asked them what the alternative was. Shouldn’t they give peace a chance? I also told them that when we think of justice, we should not restrict ourselves to think only of the retributive aspect of justice. There is also  the restorative aspect of justice. In restorative justice, the perpetrators request amnesty from civil and criminal prosecution in return for admission of the truth. I asked them if they knew what happened in South Africa after the abolition of apartheid & encouraged them to read about the Truth & Reconciliation Commission  as an example of  restorative justice.

What I said did not make any difference in their stance. I could not help wondering if peace was possible.

Outside of Colombia, things are not that rosy either – at least based on headline news. Massive earthquakes in Ecuador & Japan, droughts in Venezuela, India etc. and global temperatures smashing previous records. Recently, the chief executive of insurance market Lloyd’s of London warned that manmade risks  had become bigger threats than natural disasters. Any reason to be hopeful about the future?

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When the Crash of 87 happened, it was a big deal, especially then. With the passage of time, looking at the above chart, you will notice at least 3 things:

  1. The 1987 crash is only a blib.
  2. Every subsequent crash appears to be of a bigger magnitude.
  3. Despite the pessimism that may be prevailing aftermath of any crash, the market eventually recovers and continues on its rising trend.

Human progress is the same way. Two steps forward, one step backwards. No matter how depressing things may seem, eventually mankind reverts to its path of gradual betterment. So, even if XXX becomes the next President of US, and there are cyber-attacks, pandemics and acts of terrorism – eventually they too shall pass and mankind will continue chugging along. It is important to have this mindset, this hope.

Decades ago a scientist performed an experiment with some rats. He threw them into a bucket of circulating water to determine how long it took for the rats to  give up & stop swimming. The average time was 15 minutes.

He then repeated the experiment with a new group of rats. But this time,  he “rescued” the rats just after they had given up swimming (around 15 minutes). They were dried off, fed and allowed to recuperate before he threw them back in the bucket of water. Guess how long it took them before they gave up?

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(Spanish translation: There is always HOPE )

These rats were  able to swim for up to 60 hours before giving up. Clearly the earlier 15 minutes was not a physical limitation. The scientist, Curt  Richter attributed this miraculous  difference to  “hope”.

A la esperanza/To hope

 

 

 

Random Ramblings – Part 1

A couple of weeks ago when I talked to one of my friends, he encouraged me to be more ‘talkative’ with my blog posts. I’ll oblige him today with an attempt:)

When I was in Panama, I met an American girl who was just there to get some dental work done. She said it was much cheaper for her to do it in Panama than back in the US. Medical tourism is a burgeoning industry. Besides cost, there is another reason why it is burgeoning. Some drugs or treatments are not available or legal in their home country & hence people have to travel abroad.

The owner of the place that I am staying, Dario  has a son-in-law in Texas who is suffering from ALS. Edravone is a drug that appears promising in delaying the progression of ALS. Unfortunately, that drug or treatment with it is not allowed in the US. So, Dario’s son-in-law is currently in Colombia to undergo treatment with Edravone. I do not know how often he will be required to come to Colombia for the treatment. In any case, it makes me wonder what is the point or meaning of a ‘developed’ country if people either cannot afford medical treatments or even if they can afford it, cannot get it because it has not been approved.  I understand that  FDA is responsible for protecting the public health by assuring the safety, efficacy etc. of drugs, medical devices etc – hence their hesitation in approving certain drugs or treatments. However, the irony is that data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that more people die from legally prescribed drugs than from illegal drugs. Makes you wonder about the significance of ‘legal’.