Turkey: Impressions and Lessons

Istanbul feels like a city on the verge of cracking into the A-list of tourist destinations in Europe/Middle East. I was lucky enough to have a week to check out whether the city lives up to the hype. It did, and I learned quite a bit. Here are some high level thoughts on Turkey followed by a more touristy blow by blow of the trip.

  • Turkey is a modern, secular republic that in theory embraces freedom of religion. Yet its population is 99.8% Muslim, its land is home to a tremendous amount of religious history, schools teach only Islam in religion class, and a call to prayer in Arabic that blankets the city five times a day serves as a reminder of the religiosity of the place.
  • It’s one of the world’s oldest civilizations. America seems so very, very young when compared to much of the world, but especially in places like the former Ottoman Empire. Yet, Istanbul as a city feels modern, hip, energetic. It’s that guidebook cliche of a city “blending old and new”—a cliche that stands true for Istanbul.
  • Given its long history, perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised by the country’s far-reaching cultural and commercial exports. Think of the number of words before which the preface “Turkish” adds unique meaning: coffee, towels, desserts, carpets, baths.
  • Istanbul seemed eminently livable. The Turkish people are quite friendly and helpful, the city struggles with traffic but taxis and public transit seemed ample, there’s obviously a lot of physically beauty to take in throughout the city, and the food is solid. (There’s virtually no ethnic food in Turkey, so it’s solid Turkish cuisine.) Istanbul’s geographic location and full service airport means it’s easy to go anywhere in Europe or the Middle East. The government has announced it intends to build the world’s largest airport outside the city. All this to say: to live in Istanbul for a spell of time would be a lot of fun for anyone.
  • This past week was the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide. It’s unfortunate that the Armenian issue captures so many headlines in the U.S. media when the topic is Turkey, given how much else is going on the country. But it’s high time for Turkey to acknowledge the issue so everyone can move forward.
  • I like to say that entrepreneurship is everywhere. “Everywhere” includes Turkey — very much so. There are a few good VCs in Istanbul who are backing many bright, ambitious Turkish internet entrepreneurs who are creating meaningful companies. Despite the fact that today’s Turkish internet entrepreneurs seem focused on the local domestic market, I could imagine the country eventually becoming a launch pad for globally ambitious startups given Turkey’s quasi-European, quasi-Middle East status.
  • Cultural quirks. I’m a sucker for small cultural quirks that remind us of just how arbitrary our own customs are. I often notice these quirks in restaurants. In Korean mid-tier to low end restaurants, for example, I love how a pitcher of water is often kept near the front and you can go and re-fill your water cup as much as you want. In Turkey, the restaurant quirk was the moist toilette: each restaurants has their own branded toilettes and you get one with almost every bill.

From a tourism perspective, there’s so much to see and do in Istanbul.

To start, it’s pretty easy to get there. Turkish Airlines now serves a non-stop from San Francisco (in addition to LA, Boston, Washington, Houston, Chicago, and New York) and introduced passengers to Turkey from the moment we took off. For example, the flight attendants spoke minimal English — just like most people in Turkey! — and moist toilettes were included in every meal.

Upon arrival, there are a few blockbuster tourist attractions that everyone does on their first jet-lagged day: head to the Sultanahmet district and visit the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia. The history behind the Hagia Sophia is singular; it’s striking to see both Christian and Islamic iconography in the same building, as it served as both a church and a mosque at different points in history before recently being converted into a museum. The Blue Mosque was massive and beautiful. Every time I step in one of these buildings I behold the power of religion: religious passion has compelled so many thousands of people in so many parts of the world to labor for so many years on end in order to build enormous, architecturally stunning monuments to their gods.

Side note: One can’t help but notice the sexism when you enter a mosque: women must put on headscarves and they are not to pray in the main praying area, which in the case of Blue Mosque holds 3,000 (!) people. Instead they must organize themselves in a small, off-to-the-side “women’s area.” When you examine the sexist story of creation and the present-day customs/rules of many religions (Christianity, Judaism, and most others I’m aware of) it’s not hard to understand the origins of sexism today.

There are plenty of cool things to do in Istanbul that aren’t at the front of the guidebook. Two highlights.

First, a hamam — a Turkish bath. The hamam near the Hagia Sophia is the most famous, most expensive, and oldest (created in 1556!) in Istanbul and for my money was very much worth it. In the men’s side of the building, I was led to a locker room where I changed into nothing but a Turkish towel. From there I walked through the beautiful marble building into a bath area where I was told to use a deep, gold colored dish, dunk the dish into a bin of hot water, and pour it over me. It was all quite elegant in fact, and with steam escaping from the marble under and enveloping me, I felt immediately relaxed. After 10 mins, my therapist showed up to conduct the scrub and massage. He said, “This is best hamam and I am a very good server. I will take good care of you.” With speed and forcefulness, he poured more water over me and then wrapped a loofah-like mitt around his hand and began scrubbing me all over. My back, my arm, my hand, my legs, my chest, my forehead. It was a massive skin exfoliation exercise. Then, he led me to a marble table and instructed me to lie on my stomach. From there, he poured lots of soapy water all over. Big soap suds expanded in size and rose up over my body, kind of like a bubble bath carpet rolling out over my back. He took his loofah mitt and scrubbed more skin. The hamam was physically  intense. The scrub was thorough and at different intervals the therapist slapped me to indicate the close of one segment of the scrub. Although utterly relaxing and an amazing culture experience (in contrast to my Beijing massage some years ago), it’s not for the physically unfit and or for those men made easily uncomfortable.

Turkish breakfast

Second, a food tour. I don’t know why I haven’t done a food tour before in all my travels. It was a highlight of Istanbul and an amazing way to get to know the city geographically, culturally, and even economically. Five of us and an expert tour guide from Taste of Two Continents went to 12 restaurants and street vendors and tasted traditional Turkish food, winding our way through back alleys and less trafficked areas of the Asian side of the city. It wasn’t high end foodie food — it was the food Turks actually eat at home and at restaurants. For breakfast, we bought a simit and a number of different local spreads. The guide explained that traditionally such an expansive spread of breakfast options was prepared by the woman of the house. As women have been integrated into the workforce, they don’t have the time to prepare such a breakfast, and so the “classic” Turkish breakfast is going the wayside of quicker on-the-go options. One example of appreciating economics and demography through food. While Turkish coffee is famous, it’s tea that actually dominates. The average Turk drinks four cups of tea a day (Chinese black tea) and you’ll see people drinking it at all hours of the day. For desserts, the baklava is as delicious as advertised. Their special blend of ice cream requires a fork and knife to eat. But it’s Tres Leches, Latin America style, which wins as the most popular dessert in Turkey right now for some reason.

Cappadocia. We took this photo. Such a different landscape.After five nights in Istanbul, we headed to Cappadocia, the second most popular tourist destination in Turkey. About a 75 minute flight from Istanbul, it’s famous for a moon-like landscape, with huge rock formations jutting out of the ground that look like tall chimneys with “fairy” tops. Below the ground are vast underground cities, complete with rooms and tunnel networks that could hold up to 20,000 Christians who escaped underground they were persecuted by Muslim conquerers. We got unlucky with the weather and so weren’t able to hot air balloon — the most popular activity there — but hiking around the area, above and below ground, was still cool.

Bottom Line: Turkey is a great place to be a tourist — Istanbul is an awesome city. And increasingly, it’s an opportunity-rich place for technology entrepreneurship.

Travel Reminds You: “This is Just One of Many Possible Worlds”


A few years ago, Alain de Botton wrote a book titled A Week At the Airport, about his time living at Heathrow airport for a week. Below’s an excerpt from the book in Harper’s magazine that resonated. It’s a special feeling when you return home from a long trip and put your head down at night and then think back to the place where you woke up. I remember when I once woke up in a small village in Costa Rica where there was no hot water, I then traveled all day, and by night was lying in bed in rich San Francisco. The contrast in my environments was striking. De Botton:

There used to be time to arrive. Incremental geographic changes would ease the inner transitions: desert would gradually give way to shrub, savannah to grassland. At the harbor, the cam- els would be unloaded, a room would be found overlooking the customs house, passage would be negotiated on a steamer. Flying fish would skim past the ship’s hull. The crew would play cards. The air would cool.

Now a traveler may be in Abuja on Tuesday and at the end of a satellite in the new terminal at Heathrow on Wednesday. Yesterday lunch time, one had fried plantain in the Wuse Dis- trict to the sound of an African cuckoo, whereas at eight this morning the captain is closing down the 777’s twin engines at a gate next to a branch of Costa Coffee.

Despite one’s exhaustion, one’s senses are fully awake, registering everything—the light, the signage, the floor polish, the skin tones, the me- tallic sounds, the advertisements—as sharply as if one were on drugs, or a newborn baby, or Tolstoy. Home all at once seems the strangest of destinations, its every detail relativized by the other lands one has visited. How peculiar this morning light looks against the memory of dawn in the Obudu hills, how unusual the recorded announcements sound after the wind in the High Atlas, and how inexplicably English (in a way they will never know) the chat of the two female ground staff seems when one has the din of a street market in Lusaka still in one’s ears.

One wants never to give up this crystalline perspective. One wants to keep counterpoising home with what one knows of alternative realities, as they exist in Tunis or Hyderabad. One wants never to forget that nothing here is normal, that the streets are different in Wiesbaden and Luoyang, that this is just one of many possible worlds.

(Hat tip Steve Dodson.)

Experiencing Hawaii for the First Time


Having spent most of my life in California and loving to travel, it’s been an odd fact that I had never been to Hawaii.

Well, it’s a fact no more. I had a lovely New Year’s in Maui with good friends, food, and books. And no email or Twitter for five full days, which is always a refreshing respite.

Hawaii is indeed magical in winter time. A few theories. First, the climate: it’s warm there when it’s cold here, with no humidity. Second, the spirit of calm. It’s the natural Hawaain culture, I suppose. More important is the fact that pretty much all the tourists are there to simply chill out is infectious. Most of Hawaii is tourist central and they spread the chill out spirit in all the restaurants and beaches and hotels. Third, unlike Mexico, you don’t have to worry about passports, cell phone plans, currency and so on — further reducing possible stress in a beach front vacation.

(There’s a lot of natural beauty in Hawaii, though I must say, I didn’t come upon many nature scenes in Hawaii that we don’t have in beautiful California.)

Happy 2015.

Lessons and Impressions from Korea

koreaRecently, I spent a week in Korea to speak at the World Knowledge Forum in Seoul. It was fun spending time with the other speakers, such as David Epstein, author of the provocative book The Sports Gene, and friends Tyler Cowen, Jeff Jarvis, and Andy McAfee. Prior to the event in Seoul, I spent a few days in Jeju island on my own, just reading and hanging out.

My big picture, touristic impressions of Korea:

  • It felt very similar to Japan, which isn’t surprising given the country was ruled by Japan in the early 1900’s. Korea is wealthy and boasts advanced infrastructure—just like Japan, a rare thing in Asia. So it’s a super easy country to navigate, tourist-wise. I should note that Korea didn’t seem as weird as Japan, at least on the surface. Korea felt more Western in certain cultural respects whereas Japan is all its own.
  • 60 years ago Korea was one of the poorest countries in the world. Today it’s one of the richest. Despite a jaw-dropping economic transformation, indeed one that’s notable in all of human history, today’s Koreans do not seem exceptionally self-confident about their economic future. Several folks I spoke to worried about whether their culture accommodates entrepreneurship. They see their famous tech giants as imitators more than innovators. These anxious attitudes may, of course, actually help explain their past and potential future success: Koreans are incredibly hard workers, they believe mightily in education, and they take success very seriously. It stands to reason that business leaders would not rest on their Samsung and Hyundai style national laurels and instead collectively stress about their economic prospects.
    • If there’s one reason for Koreans to stress, it’d be because of the demographic trends–it’s the most rapidly aging country in the world.
  • In terms of the local labor market, you might think ideas in The Alliance would not be relevant. It’s true that Korean companies have been “families” for most of recent history. The company-man, die hard loyalty, and so on were strongly held beliefs for decades. But it’s changing. As companies seek to adapt to the global economy, they’re implementing more flexible labor compacts. Most young Korean workers today, according to surveys, say they’d switch employers if there were a better opportunity, and most say they don’t feel particularly loyal to their current employer.
  • Some of the restaurant customs are interesting. Most restaurants have water dispensers that you use to re-fill your glass on your own or they put a pitcher of water on the table right after you sit down. For a water guzzler like myself, this is a great perk. Less fun is Korea’s default choice of napkins. They use the thin, small square napkins that are used in Chile as well. It’s so odd–the napkins are skimpy so you have to use three or four to wipe your hands of even the littlest bit of sauce. At least in Korea, unlike Chile, several causal restaurants will put a mini-trash can at your table so you can dispose of the dozens of napkins you use as you use them!
  • I do not like kimchi.
  • “Selfie sticks” — if that’s what they’re called — are all the rage. On Jeju Island, where I spent a couple days, everyone hiked with a selfie stick that held their phone camera out at a distance to take a nice selfie. One odd consequence is that nobody asks anyone else to take their picture, a usual moment of forced social interaction amongst strangers.
  • I didn’t make it to the DMZ on this trip. Next time.
  • A college degree is a commodity. 98% of young Koreans have degrees from a junior college or university–the highest rate in the world. Amazing.

All in all, Korea doesn’t have any show stopping tourist attractions. But because of its importance to the global economy, it’s a country and culture worth understanding.

Flying there, I read a great general survey book on all things Korea by Daniel Tudor called The Impossible Country. The perfect pre-read for anyone visiting who needs to brush up on their basic history and culture. Below the fold are my extensive highlights from the book.


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Impressions of Italy, 2014 Edition


(Beginning a long bike ride at the top of the Basilica of St. Frances in Assisi.)

I was in Italy last week for a wedding. It was my third time to the country. What more can one say about Tuscany? It’s a stunningly beautiful part of the world. A few general impressions:

  • Food. I’m trying to minimize bad carb intake. This makes Italy challenging. I ate more pizza in a week than I have in a long time. Italian pizza has few toppings on it — bread, bread, bread — but on the plus side, it is cheap. For one dinner we ordered 23 different pizzas and it cost less than 200 euros. The pasta and mozzarella was delicious, per usual.
  • Driving. For the first time, I drove a bunch on Italian highways, from Rome airport through Umbria and eventually to Florence airport. Italian drivers are, as the stereotypes suggest, quite aggressive. The tailgating is insane. One of the funnier things we noticed while driving was that there were frequently signs on the road that showed the name of the city you were leaving – crossed out.
    • The 20/euro/day fee for a GPS device from Hertz in the car was well worth it, given that I didn’t want to turn on data on my U.S. phone.
  • Electric bikes. I biked 6.5 hours from Assisi to Bavagna in central Italy. It was an amazing ride; it was mostly on custom built bike paths that were well marked. Highly recommend biking in the area. A special novelty for me: electric bikes! Felt and rode like a regular (albeit slightly heavy) bike. Pull a button as you pedal and the back wheel accelerates. This made treacherous hills accessible, and allowed us to cover more terrain in less time.
  • “Free” healthcare. An old, rusty fence slashed my leg on a hike and I went to the hospital in Siena to get a tetanus booster. The emergency room experience was a delight. Best of all, it was totally free! I signed a short form, they took my passport number, I got the shot, and left. Thanks, Italian taxpayers.
  • Side of the road prostitutes. Prostitutes advertised their services in the most random of back roads. Given that the trade is illegal in Italy, I suppose they’re optimizing for roads that see traffic but are not frequently visited by the police.

Bottom Line: Tuscany is Tuscany: one of the most beautiful, pleasant places in the world. And as is the case for a lot of Europe, when I’m there, I feel like I’m living in a museum.

Impressions of Dubai


I spent a few days there recently. Some generous hosts had me give a couple talks; thanks to them for having me. Some quick impressions of the city:

  • Add “largest/tallest/biggest in the world” in front of any basic landmark in Dubai and there’s a decent shot it’ll be true. Everything in excess.
  • The winter months, when I was there, are quite pleasant weather-wise. Perfect, actually. I hear summer is unbearable.
  • The infrastructure is super advanced and the overall feel is cosmopolitan — 80% of the people are expats. But so long as the internet is censored, as it is in Dubai, it won’t quite feel 21st century.
  • Two days is probably all you need for basic tourism. A day in the city; half day to lounge around; half day for a safari in the desert. Worth seeing it all.
  • The entrepreneurs and businesspeople I met tell me that the transience of the population makes it hard to retain talent for very long. Few people are “from” Dubai. Makes sense. Dubai seems like an amazing place to post up for a few years and use as a Middle East hub, or even a gateway to Asia and Africa, but maybe not a long term place to build a life.
  • The real estate bubble is back, folks. Very, very back. The reason? Expo 2020. I’m not joking. Everyone I talked to talked about Expo 2020, and when I asked two smart people, separately, what was fueling the run up in real estate prices, their answer was the same: Expo 2020. It’s become the catch-all rationale to build build build.
  • Despite the opulence of the city, Dubai airport is not over the top. Some parts of the airport even feel just average, which is unlike the rest of the city. And Dubai/Emirates Airlines, while amazing in so many ways, loses out to Hong Kong/Cathay Pacific in terms of overall experience.

Visiting the Panama Canal

“The creation of a water passage across Panama was one of the supreme human achievements of all time, the culmination of a heroic dream of four hundred years and of more than twenty years of phenomenal effort and sacrifice. The fifty miles between the oceans were among the hardest ever won by human effort and ingenuity, and no statistics on tonnage or tolls can begin to convey the grandeur of what was accomplished. Primarily the canal is an expression of that old and noble desire to bridge the divide, to bring people together. It is a work of civilization.” – David McCullough

A couple months ago, I watched a video on Bill Gates’s blog about his visit to the Panama Canal. He called it one of the Top 10 places he’s been to, and given that he’s been to a lot of places, this caught my attention. My Mom and I headed down there for a weekend to see the Canal and greater Panama City, and I’m happy to report that it is now on my Top 10 list too — even though my overall list is probably considerably shorter than Bill’s!

The flight into Panama City at night was beautiful. Out my airplane window, I saw dozens of ships lined up in the water, waiting to enter the Canal Zone. The next morning we explored Panama City. It’s the most developed city in Central America. Half of the tallest sky scrapers in Latin America are in Panama, we were told. The water is drinkable. The taxi drivers are professional and friendly. The malls are as fancy as anywhere in the world, and all the usual A-list hotel brands have outposts along a main strip. The old town is lovely to stroll around in, and it’s one the part of Panama City that does feel genuinely Latin American, so long as you ignore the eye-catching streak of sky scrappers visible across the water.


The Canal is the main attraction, of course, and it’s worth setting aside an entire day for the effort. Before going to the Canal — or even if you can’t go — read David McCullough’s book The Path Between The Seas. It’s the authoritative account of how the canal got built against all odds. McCullough starts by recounting the French effort to build a canal in Panama. After 20,000 French died and untold tresaure expended, the French gave up. Then he masterfully recounts the debate in America’s government about whether to attempt to build something that almost everyone said was impossible. Then he covers the actual construction, the enormous public health challenges that were overcome, and the eventual mind-blowing triumph — the most impressive civil engineering project in history.

There are so many stats about the construction and end result. Here are a few:

  • “Its cost had been enormous. No single construction effort in American history had exacted such a price in dollars or in human life.”
  • With the $10,000,000 paid to Panama and the $40,000,000 to the Compagnie Nouvelle, the United States had spent more for the rights, privileges, and properties that went with the Canal Zone—an area roughly a third the size of Long Island—than for any actual territorial acquisition in its history, more than for the Louisiana Territory ($15,000,000), Alaska ($7,200,000), and the Philippines ($20,000,000) combined.
  • The Panama Canal construction cost approximately 26,000 lives. This includes lives lost during both periods of French and U.S. construction.
  • Largest overseas effort in U.S. history.
  • Construction of the canal would consume more than 61,000,000 pounds of dynamite, a greater amount of explosive energy than had been expended in all the nation’s wars until that time.
  • “The spoil from the canal prism, it was said, would be enough to build a Great Wall of China from San Francisco to New York. If the United States were perfectly flat, the amount of digging required for a canal ten feet deep by fifty-five feet wide from coast to coast would be no greater than what was required at Panama within fifty miles. A train of dirt cars carrying the total excavation at Panama would circle the world four times at the equator.”

But as McCullough says, no recitation of stats could do justice to the grandeur.

To be sure, the actual visual of the canal when you’re there is not as breathtaking as the Grand Canyon, or even the Great Wall of China or the Sistine Chapel. The canal is alive and functional — a centerpiece of global commerce — it’s not a national park or historical piece. That’s why it’s helpful to have the historical and political background to fully appreciate the impressiveness.

We went on a partial boat tour — you’re in an actual boat in the canal and you cross through two sets of locks which raise up the ship by 85 feet by pumping 27 million gallons of freshwater into the locked off area in less than eight minutes. I’m glad we were in a boat and not viewing the canal from the Miraflores Locks museum, but I’m also glad we didn’t spend the full seven hours riding across the entire canal. It’s not necessary to get a good sense of what’s happening.

As I learned about canal on the tour, I reflected on how little I knew before my trip. I cannot remember ever hearing about it in school. I remember studying the building of the Hoover Dam, and man-made flight, and entering outer space, and learning about other science achievements. Yet, even though the Panama Canal is as or more impressive than any of the above, it doesn’t seem as prominent in the history books. Most likely this because the U.S. government has blood on its hands in Panama: it seized/stole the land from Colombia in order to ensure the Canal was built, an event which kicked off a series of shameful intrusions in Central America sovereignty.

It’s worth learning more about. And given how easy it is to get in and out of Panama, it’s worth visiting in person.

At the end of the McCullough book, there’s a moving quote by John Stevens, who was chief engineer at the Canal from 1905-1907. His faith in the human intellect and its creative capacities remained undaunted, Stevens wrote soon before dying. The great works had still to come: “I believe that we are but children picking up pebbles on the shore of the boundless ocean…”

Other direct quotes from McCullough’s book below.

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Nassim Taleb on Living in the City vs. Country/Nature

On Facebook, he writes:

I have a question about true vs constructed preferences, wondering if some of my personal observations are general. Feel free to share your own.
Places held to be touristically either uninteresting or unattractive (or not particularly special) are associated in my personal memory with a lot better souvenirs than places held to be attractive. These “attractive” places evoke boredom (after the first contact and “wow! how beautiful” the scenery), rich farts, gold-diggers, Saudi “princes” in convertible Italian handmade sports cars, tourists being fleeced by locals, etc. This is easily conceivable based on habituation: inside a café, trapped in conversation, you forget that you are in West Philadelphia. Kahneman had a paper indicating that people who live in California are not really happier than those in the rest of the country, but don’t know it, and live under self-sustained myths. After a brief period, you treadmill to baseline. But as with people who are in California telling themselves that they have to be happier, because that’s the prevalent belief, we end up living in a postcard-like system of constructed preferences.
I agree that being exposed to natural beauty, once in a while, brings some aesthetic contentment, or episodic visits to the country bring some relief. And I accept that it is better to have some fractal dimension (trees, nature) in one’s permanent landscape. But I wonder if, for day-to-day life, one needs much more than ample sunlight and view of trees outside the window: beyond that, no postcard life can be a tradoff for absence of trusted and warm neighbors, plenty of relaxed friends, stimulating conversation, ability to walk places, and a consuming activity.
When I look into my personal raw preferences, I feel I prefer Brooklyn to the South of France, ugly West Philadelphia to the scenic Amherst (Mass), Milan to Florence, and Clerkenwell to Kensington. Question: Do we tend to follow the current culture as punishment?

(Hat tip: Ted Gonder)

India for a Second Time


(After meditating inside the Lotus Temple in Delhi, a beautiful structure built by people of the Bahai faith but free/open to people of all orientations for prayer and meditation.)

A common dilemma when scoping international travel is whether to travel to a new place or re-visit a place you’ve already been. Early on in my life, my passport alarmingly unwrinkled, I prioritized the new — fewer days in each country, more countries. More recently, I prioritized the old — more days in countries I’ve already been to (e.g. Switzerland, Japan, Chile). These days, I am feeling slightly more interested in travel novelty. Of course, unless you’re a full-time traveler, why you end up in one place or another is a function of many criteria, such as where your work demands take you. But the broader idea of where you are on the novelty/familiarity continuum is an important one and plays out in my life across all dimensions (work, friends, relationships, travel, food, etc.). I think pretty actively about the extent to which I turn on the novelty spigot in any particular dimension.

This past week, I visited India for the second time, and while work brought me there (keynote speech), I in part agreed to do it because I wanted to have a second go-around as a tourist in this massive, complex, important country. I wanted more depth. India in 2006 kicked my ass. I had some great moments — riding in the back of a rickshaw for the first time in Bombay with a blog reader who was hosting me; going to a Bollywood film with a different blog reader; seeing India Gate in Delhi; seeing first hand the remarkable entrepreneurial energy and optimism of the Indian people that persists today. But gosh, the poverty was so in my face, so ubiquitous, so loud, that it overpowered all my experiences, and when I think back to the memories I have of that trip, the visuals that predominate are naked kids playing in huge piles of trash on the side of the road, stray dogs everywhere, diaherrea, Air India’s definition of airplane seats. These were reasonable reactions, I think, given it was my first time, and it was two weeks at the end of a long six week Asia adventure.

On this trip, I spent only a couple days on tourism activity (so I had more energy) and was steeled to the India realities. I spent a day in Delhi and a day in Agra. In Delhi, I visited and meditated in the Lotus Temple and attended the Kingdom of Dreams Jhumproo show in Gurgaon. In Agra, I visited the Taj Mahal and Red Fort. All told, I enjoyed it.

This time around, I noticed India’s beauty more often. I don’t mean this in some vague travel guidebook sort of way (“the culture is beautiful”). I mean that several times I had a very specific reaction to something that caught my eye as beautiful. For example, I noticed the saris (dresses) the women were wearing. The saris were truly beautiful. I noticed how most transport trucks were painted front to pack in rainbow colors. Imagine if the big trucks that lumber up and down the U.S. highway corridors were each wrapped in technicolor paintings or artistic graffiti of flowers. At the Kingdom of Dreams show in Guragon, I noticed the big bold costumes, and how good random people’s voices were as they belted out Hindi tunes from the seats.

The Taj Mahal was beautiful too, of course. But it’s the #1 tourist attraction in all of Asia (outside of Thailand sex tourism). Your expectations are so high and the actual experience of visiting it is so affected by the thousands of other people gawking at it next to you, that subtle perceptions of beauty are not exactly in the cards. Rather: Get in, take photos, look at the incredible marble carvings done by hand, and then get out, all without someone pick pocketing you.

While I noticed beauty more this time, it’s not like the poverty disappeared in my seven year absence. One weird but reliable litmus test I came up with a while ago for “you know you’re in a poor country when…”: on the drive from the airport to your hotel, how many random piles of rubble do you see on the sides of the road? Abandoned construction and demolition activity is pervasive throughout the developing world. India is no exception to the rubble rule. But rubble is the least of the attractions/problems on the side of the roads in India. You name it, India’s got it. Want to see people taking a shit? Just look out your car window. Pumping the ground for water? Yup. Burning trash? Of course. Sleeping in tents? Sure. Beggars with their arm cut off, holding out a cup? Certainly.

There are hundreds of millions of poor people in India. I wonder how much better-off Indians talk about it, or even notice it. When I asked my guide about poverty in Agra, he told me that many of the beggars are actually not poor, but rather professionalized beggars. Replace “many” with “some” and I’d agree. But he seem on the whole unmoved by it all. He grew up in Agra. He’s been there his whole life. He’s never been outside the country. It is what it is for him. We are all fish in water when in our own countries and cultures.

One lesson from this trip is the value in spending targeted money to make certain complexity go away. In 2006, I tried to take the train from Delhi to Agra. But when I arrived at the train station, I entered a scene that resembled an unruly drunk crowd at a Mike Tyson Las Vegas fight. The decrepit station packed with people as far as the eye could see, with no one queueing whatsoever to speak with the agents, ridiculous smells, and touts surrounding me, following my every step, pitching me on a rickshaw ride or pulling at my pockets or trying to get me to buy some stupid pin with the India flag on it, leaving me so confused and exasperated that I left the train station and vowed to walk aimlessly in Delhi for as long as it would take for the touts to give up and leave me alone. This time around, an air conditioned car pulled up my to hotel, a car that featured cold water bottles and towelettes, and over the seven hours of roundtrip driving I listened to several of my favorite podcasts and dozed off peacefully. An English speaking guide met me in Agra, hopped in the car, and took me around the sights. And the whole day cost me roughly $315 USD.

From the safe confines of the car for many hours, I had plenty of time to contemplate the traffic around me. The traffic situation in Delhi is a mess, though not as bad as in some places, like Jakarta. Cars don’t drive in lanes. Enough roads in the city/country do not have lane markers that no one seems to have internalized the helpfulness of staying in place as opposed to drifting across the full width of the highway. In the book Traffic, I recall reading that when people change lanes they think they’re optimizing for their own speed, but it rarely turns out that way, and all the lane changing causes slower overall speed on the roads for everyone. Amusingly, most trucks in the India on the back bumper contain the words “Blow Horn” — encouraging other cars to honk their horn to alert them to their proximity as they drift around. At least the honking in India tends to be practical; in China, where car honking is maddening, I think it’s more habitual than anything.

Three other random points: 1) Last time, it was only at the end of my visit that I realized that Indians rock their head side-to-side to indicate acceptance, agreement. I thought everyone was mocking me. This time, I knew exactly what was happening! 2) As in China, everything in India is wildly overstaffed. The medium sized hotel gym had four people staffed there, trying to be helpful, when I was the only person there. It’s like this all over. 3) Russ Roberts’ must-subscribe podcast recently had a conversation with noted economist Jagdish Bhagwati on the India economy. Ignore Bhagwati’s LOL-worthy self-regard (“this article I wrote would be what would be cited if were to win a Nobel prize”) and there are some interesting nuggets on the pro-trade, free market reforms he claims led to Indian economic growth in the 90’s, and some of the current reversing policies that may be responsible for the recent slowdown.

Finally, a thank you to all the Indian business leaders and HR managers I met the first part of the week. An extremely impressive group, and left me optimistic about the future of India. I’ll be back.

Map of the Day

(via Reddit)