Monthly Archives: October 2008

Forget Obama and McCain. Vote Gary!

Posted by on October 15, 2008

Top 10 reasons to vote for me over Omaba or McCain:

    10) More foreign policy experience.
    9) I don’t need no running mate. I’ve been doing it solo for a year and a half.
    8) Unlike Sarah Palin, I have a passport.
    7) Unlike Joe Biden, I write my own material.
    6) I’m younger than McCain and Obama COMBINED! (….wait, that makes no sense)
    5) I’ve seen the movie Maverick AND Hope Floats.
    4) I’m quite certain that I could beat either guy in a debate. (seriously, I could. I’ve doing it since 1984)
    3) Fulfill your obligation to celebrities who want you to vote, without having to choose the lesser evil.
    2) No long lines at the polling station.
    1) Dimples!

    There you have it. This is my last annoying post begging for your vote. Thank you to everyone who took the time to vote and to those who haven’t, you have your assignment. Voting ends on the end of the 15th.

    VOTE!

    On some other news, I have an article on Travelblogs.com on podcasting while traveling, and one at Boots N’ All on the World Heritage sites of the Australian Outback.

    I have my visa to Vietnam and will be leaving Phnom Penh on Friday to Saigon (Ho Chi Min City). I did some photography at the Killing Fields and Tuol Sleng prison. That will be its own post when I process the photos. (and I still have a LOT of photos from Angkor to go through).

On Poverty

Posted by on October 15, 2008

I have been meaning to write on this subject for many months now. The Blog Action day (October 15) sort of gave me an excuse to go ahead and do it.

Over the course of my trip, I’ve seen the most severe poverty I’ve seen in my life. From tin shacks in the Solomon Islands to stick shelters in Cambodia, I’ve seen some things which were truly shocking. Intellectually, you know these things exist and you’ve seen photos and television shows about it, but until you can see it first hand, it doesn’t really sink in.

I’ve spent a lot of brain cycles thinking about poverty on my trip. I have no answers, but I have come to some conclusions based on the things I’ve seen. I may very well revise this list in the future as I see and experience more, but I feel confident with the following observations.

Poverty is the default condition of humanity.
Go back even 100 years, and pretty much everyone on the planet was poor. Go back 200 or 1,000 years, and this was definitely true. I don’t think there are many people who would prefer to be a nobleman in ancient Rome versus an average person today. The question of “why is there poverty?” is the wrong question. Do nothing, and you’ll get poverty. The recipe for creating poverty is easy. The truly horrible poverty in the world today isn’t a result of prosperity which disappeared, it is a case of prosperity which never happened. The problem with poor in the developing world is that they still live a material existence similar to those 100 or 1,000 years ago did. The greater and more important questions is “why do some countries become rich?”, which incidentally was the same question Adam Smith asked 200 years ago when he wrote An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations..

Decades of civil war helped create conditions which lad to some of the worst poverty I’ve seen in East Timor

Decades of civil war helped create conditions which lad to some of the worst poverty I’ve seen in East Timor

Culture Matters
Cultural institutions may be the most important thing which determines the overall, long term prosperity of a country. This is good and bad. Good policies cannot overcome cultural institutions which prevent growth, and bad policies can be overcome by positive cultural attributes. I can give two examples of this: In Hong Kong I several times walked into or by a store which had bouquets of flowers all around. I thought someone might have died or perhaps there was a wedding. I eventually saw a card on some of the flowers written in English. The flowers were sent there in celebration of a new business opening. Look at the names of many Chinese businesses and you’ll see references to fortune, prosperity, and luck. Something about Chinese culture encourages entrepreneurship. When I was in Samoa, I remember talking to a cab driver. He mentioned that most of any money he earns (up to 90%) goes directly to his village. While he doesn’t mind helping his village and his family, there is little incentive to work or take risks because almost everything goes to the chiefs. Most of the GDP in Samoa now consists of remittances from people who left to work in New Zealand or the US, away from the village structure. Institutions which were developed to cope with a pre-industrial life do not always adapt to modern economies.

The girl on the left made me come the closest to crying on my trip. She and her friend were both orphans, but she couldn't speak and I believe was born with a cleft pallet.

The girl on the left made me come the closest to crying on my trip. She and her friend were both orphans, but she couldn't speak and I believe was born with a cleft pallet.

We Confuse Types of Poverty
We use the word “poverty” to describe people in the US who make less than $20,000/year. Earning that much would make you wealthy in most countries on Earth. Poverty here in Cambodia (where I’m writing this) describes a totally different phenomenon than what the word is used to described in developed countries. This is not to say that some extreme poverty doesn’t exist in the US and other developed nations (American Indian reservations, the rural south, Australian aboriginal lands come to mind) but from a strict material stand point, they are apples and oranges. We should develop a different word or vocabulary to describe the type of poverty which exists in the developing world.

There is no lack of motivation
All over South East Asia I’ve seen people working, hustling, and doing what they can to make ends meat. In Phnom Penh I was struck by how the street level of almost every building is in some way devoted to commerce. Every village I went through in Indonesia and the Philippines had people selling and offering services in addition to farming. You often have large numbers of people competing in the same line of work, because the work has a low capital requirement for entry. Massage parlors, tuk tuk drivers, food carts, and roadside gasoline vendors are all good examples.

Despite the per capita GDP numbers, you could find extreme poverty in Brunei directly across the street from the National Mosque and a mile away from the largest palace in the world.

Despite the per capita GDP numbers, you could find extreme poverty in Brunei directly across the street from the National Mosque and a mile away from the largest palace in the world.

Numbers Lie
When I go to a new country, I always look at economic data for the places I visit. I have concluded that for the most part, they do not really tell the story of where a country is at economically. The best example of this was when I crossed the border between Brunei and Malaysia. On paper, Brunei has almost twice the per capita GDP of Malaysia. When I crossed the border into Malaysia however, instead of seeing a poorer country, I thought the average condition of houses, roads and buildings was better than in Brunei. Anecdotal evidence is really a much better indicator, even if it is much harder to work with for academics. Condition of roads, state of the power grid, mobile phone usage, home construction techniques, number of cranes you can see in major cities, are all better indicators than the quantitative ones you’ll see in reports.

Conclusion
I don’t believe there is a silver bullet policy which will bring people out of poverty. While the recipe to make poverty is easy, each country has its own set of issues to face: different governments, different cultures, different ethnic mixes, different histories, different geographies, and different sets of resources.

Organizations like Kiva.org I think are great ways to do something on a personal level. They use techniques which I believe are much better than the heavy handed “give stuff away for free” approach which often destroys local crop markets, making matters much worse.

There is much more I could have written on this subject, but a blog post should only be so long. This will definitely be a chapter in my book which I’ll be writing in 2009.

It’s the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine

Posted by on October 12, 2008

Like everyone else, I’ve been paying attention to what has been happening to the financial markets the last few weeks. It is pretty easy to get depressed about how things are going down. Because of the profile of this website, I get a lot of emails from people asking questions about traveling. Recently, I’ve been getting questions from people asking if they should continue with the plans they had for traveling. Many people have planned trips and now are having doubts about going. My answer to everyone is unambiguous and straightforward:

Go, and go now.

The question is a simple one: do you want to be around for the good times or the bad times? Why in the hell do you want to stick around for a depression, then take off once things start getting better?

Right now in Cambodia I can, if I want, easily live on $20 a day. That’s $10 for my own room with AC and a bathroom, figure $1-3 per meal. Toss in a bit more if you want some drinks and to take a tuk tuk around town, and you are still looking at not much. Hell, i could cut that figure in half if I really wanted to. Had I never left on this trip, I’d be paying a mortgage on a house (HA!), paying $4 a gallon for gas (all-time high), car insurance, property taxes, and much more for food (also an all-time high).

If you want to know exactly why sitting at the edge of Mount Bromo makes you better, I can’t tell you, but it does.

If you want to know exactly why sitting at the edge of Mount Bromo makes you better, I can’t tell you, but it does.

I sold my house (good move), have no debt, and other than an IRA, have nothing in publicly traded stocks. Financially speaking, I’d rather be here, than there.

But all the talk of money and finances aside, in the end, none of that really matters. The ultimate asset you possess is what is between your ears. Traveling can only help you. It won’t make you dumber. The experience you gain is easily worth the equivalent of a bachelor’s degree, if not more. It isn’t just the knowledge you pick up about other people and places either. With limited internet and almost no television, I’ve plowed through more books, audiobooks and podcasts over the last 19 months than I have the previous five years. I’ve been reading a lot of history, but also a fair amount on monetary policy, business in China, and even some fiction (which I seldom read). I’m a better photographer, I’ve learned some basic Photoshop, and have even gotten my feet wet with video editing. I’m certainly have more skills now than the day I sold my house.

If there is one person who I’d have to credit for giving me inspiration for my trip, it would have to be Jim Rogers. Jim was the partner of George Soros and made a ton of money as an investor. After they sold their investment firm, he took several trips through China on motorcycle as well as an around the world in 1990-2 and in 1999-2002. (He makes me look like a travel noob). While he clearly demonstrated his investment chops before he took his big trips, he subsequent travels certainly haven’t hurt. Watch this video of him back in November of last year (part 1 and part 2). He basically predicted everything that is happening today and put his money where his mouth is. My of his perspectives on foreign markets came from having been there himself. He and his family recently moved to Singapore so his daughters could learn Chinese.

He was doing a travel blog and podcasting back when everyone was still using Geocities. I remember going through his entire site over the course of a day. I spent hours going through all his entries. This site is not small part due to what he did.

But I digress…

My point is, if traveling is something you want to do, don’t let the current climate deter you. If anything, it should spur you. You are responsible for you. No one is going to make you better. Once the dust settles, and it eventually will, you can come out of it in better shape than you entered. One way to do that is to go see the rest of the world.

It is especially important for Americans to do this, because quite frankly, we are not very good travelers. While every Dutch and British kid goes off on some gap year trip after high school, the number of Americans you meet traveling is very small. The experience will make you stand out all that much more when you get back.

And if you aren’t American, you owe it to yourself to visit some part of the US which isn’t New York, Las Vegas, Disney World or LA. Yes, the way we treat tourists at the border is stupid and I apologize on behalf of the Immigration and the Transportation Security Administration, but we are much better once you get past the government doorknobs who work at the airport. Lots of Europeans tend to avoid America, I think because they think they understand it from TV. Trust me, you don’t. Its a big country and every region is different.

Pnow in Phnom Penh

Posted by on October 10, 2008

I’ve made it to Phnom Penh. I took a boat from Siem Reap down Tonle Sap, which was interesting. It was a very leisurely trip with most of the passengers on the top deck the entire time. Almost the entire length of the trip had elevated homes (shacks) on the water. Almost everyone who lives there fishes for a living. From what I saw, everyone fishes, including men, women and children.

Phnom Penh itself is unlike any city I’ve been to on my trip. I’ve been to poor countries before, but none had major cities in them (Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands and East Timor). The power here goes out several times a day. One major intersection I was at today had no working traffic lights. There are few if any stores as you would find in most cities (even Siem Reap had convenience stores). Even the “nice” parts of town aren’t that nice compared to cities like Manila or Jakarta.

There is a definite French influence here. I have read that in the early 20th Century, Phnom Penh was the nicest city in all of SE Asia. I can believe it. The street naming scheme is almost, but not quite logical. The names of some of the streets are odd. One is named after Charles de Gaulle (makes sense, former French colony), one after Mao, one after Yugoslavia’s Tito. It is like they were trying to suck up to countries in the 60s and 70s and just never renamed the streets.

The city is pretty cheap. I can stay in a room with a bathroom (and hot water) for $10/night. A meal is $2.50 and I’m sure I could go cheaper if I really wanted.

Tomorrow I’ll be getting my visa for Vietnam and visiting the Killing Fields and the genocide museum. The guesthouse I’m staying at shows the movie The Killing Fields every night, which gets to be a bit much.

I don’t plan on staying here for too long. I’ll probably head to Saigon as soon as my visa is approved.

I NEED YOUR HELP!! Last Week for Voting!

Posted by on October 8, 2008

This is the final push. You’ve probably seen the little black square on the side of my site for the last few months. They announce the winners on October 16, which means there is only one week left for voting.

If you enjoy my site and what I’m doing, please take 30 seconds to vote if you haven’t registered, get your friends and family to toss a vote my way.

The top 3 vote getters were made random and hidden for the remaining two weeks. When the votes went hidden, I was down by about 60 votes.

This would really mean a lot for a guy sitting in a dingy guesthouse room in Cambodia.

My Aching Ass (or, the Cambodian Motorcycle Diaries)

Posted by on October 7, 2008

I’m going to write a more detailed account of my day with photos soon, but wanted to post this quick summary of my trip to Preah Vihear.

I spent 14 hours on the back of a small motorbike yesterday, and about 90% of the time we were on dirt roads. Some of the time I wouldn’t even call them roads, just “puddles of mud” where people traveled. By the time we were done, I was in excruciating pain from sitting on the bike for so long. I’ve been back over half a day and my tail bone is still sore. I hurts to sit.

My ass cheeks developed some sort of rash or something and they hurt too. We had to drive through rain for about 30 min and everything I had got soaked. It eventually dried, except my pants, which meant that my ass had that wrinkled texture on top of everything, you get when you are in water for too long.

All the exposed parts of my body are burnt, I literally burned my right calf on the tail pipe of the motorbike, I got one of the toes on my left foot pelted with a rock that felt like getting shot with a bb gun. My knees hurt so bad after the trip from being locked in place for so long, I could barely walk.

Oh, there were AK-47s, rocket propelled grenades, mine fields and lightening….but that will have to wait for the rest of the story.

On To Preah Vihear!

Posted by on October 4, 2008

I’ve pretty much seen all most of the temples in the Angkor complex at this point, including many of the smaller sites away from the main park which few people visit. I even went to one site located in a monestary where there were zero tourists, zero people selling stuff, and zero government officials. It was pretty neat.

I also visited Tonle Sap, which is a big lake in centeral Cambodia. The lake is unqiue because every year it shrinks and grows dramatically with the season. The level of the lake can go up and down over 12m. There are people who live on the lake in floating houses. They have floating everything including stores, schools, newspapers, hospitals and temples. Many of the people who live there are Vietnamese, not Cambodian.

Tomorrow I’ll be off on my biggest adventure in Cambodia. I’ll be taking a 200km motorbike journey to Preah Vihear, an ancient temple on the border of Thailand, older than Angkor Wat and the location of many historic events, including the final surrender of the Khmer Rouge. The ruins are on top of a 1,500 foot cliff overlooking the rainforest below. It was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site just this year.

Preah Vihear was the location of a small border conflict in July between Thailand and Cambodia. There are also still land mines in the area. Thankfully, the area around the temple, the roads and paths have all been painstakingly cleared. The secret is to just not wander off into the forest, which I wouldn’t do even if there were no land mines.

Also, talking about recent military actions and land mines makes a long trip on a dirt bike seem like a much bigger deal than it really is.

…And the Grinch’s heart grew 3 sizes that day

Posted by on October 3, 2008

I’m not really an emotional person. Those who know me might even agree in more stark terms than that. I’m not into causes of any sort. I’ve seen poverty on my trip (Solomon Islands) and some places which it seems that God has forgotten about (East Timor). Nothing however, has quite had the impact that the last few days in Cambodia have had.

  • Today at a temple, I saw a little girl, maybe about 10 years old who couldn’t speak. She had a cleft pallet. As she went about playing with a younger girl (they were both orphans) she could only grunt and make noises. Wasn’t even speaking Cambodian.
  • I’ve seen dozens of people with limbs blown off from landmines. Even if the landmine victims are more in sight begging or performing for money (they often play local instruments), there are still way more amputees here than I’ve ever seen anywhere on Earth, many of which are double amputees.
  • I went to a floating city today and saw a woman in a small wooden boat paddling with what looked like a 2×4. She had 3 kids in the boat which was loaded with stuff. She was going to all the boats trying to sell drinks and snacks for $1. As she came up to my boat, I realized that in addition to the kids and the boat full of stuff and the 2×4, she had an infant child in her lap.
  • There are lots and lots of orphans here.

All of this should be placed in the context of the fact that I haven’t even been to the killing fields museum yet.

I’ll confess to being a sucker for these type of hardcases. I’m not one to buy crap which is being sold at temples, but I have no problems giving a buck or two to a guy with no arms…or buying some bananas from the lady with her kids in a boat. I even purchased notebooks and pencils for an entire floating school today. (in the end, I just felt sort of bad for disrupting their class).

I don’t want to paint too bleak a picture of Cambodia. This place is probably leaps and bounds better than it was after the Khmer Rouge were done here. Traveling outside of Siem Reap today, in a very non-touristy area, I saw a fair number of new homes and construction. There were still a lot of people in shacks made of sticks, but there does appear to be progress, albeit slow. Cell phones and motorbikes are also pretty wide spread. No one seems to be starving.

I have photos that go with most of what I’ve written here, but it is going to take a while for me to get photos uploaded and I’d rather write this now than wait for photos. I’ll probably just share them later on when they are ready to go.

Angkor WOW

Posted by on October 1, 2008

Buddha at Angkor

Buddha at Angkor

I just got back from my first visit to Angkor Wat.

Wow.

Traveling as long as I have, I think i tend to get jaded having seen so many things. I really wasn’t too sure what to expect at Angkor, but whatever my expectations were, they were exceeded.

Angkor is a really special place. What I found so amazing was just how much of it there is. The actual Angkor Wat is only one temple among many. The whole Angkor complex reminds me of Nara or Nikko, Japan. You can see ruins everywhere. When everything here was new, it must have been the most beautiful place on Earth. (I’m sure sometime between then and now, Angkor fell out of style and was considered the ancient Asian equivalent of shag carpet and wood paneling.)

I burned through both memory cards on my camera (4gb and 2gb) in about 5 hours, a new record.

I’m going through my photos as I write this. Some are really amazing. Some of my best work ever. I have no idea when I will be able to upload these as the internet in Siem Reap is horrible. I may also not be going to Phnom Penh directly as I am going to try and visit another less visited temple near the Thai border (or I may wait to go back to Thailand as it is actually easier to go from Thailand, even though the temple is in Cambodia).

I sweated so much today that everything I had on me was drenched. I am going to have to put my wallet and iPod in a plastic bag tomorrow. I also have to bring a towel as my glasses got so dirty from sweat, I couldn’t clean them. Its hot, humid, and I’m lugging around my camera and tripod.

Up again early for more tomb raiding.