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

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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 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.

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

 

 

 

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🙂

Picture1

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.
Food2

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…