Travels in 2015

San Francisco is an amazing place to live in. But there’s so much in the world to see and so many interesting opportunities elsewhere that travel has become a big part of my personal and professional life.

2015 began for me in Maui. My first time in Hawaii, to ring in the new year with friends, proved to be as relaxing as Hawaii’s reputation promised.

Keynote speeches brought me to places like Cancun, Las Vegas, New Orleans, Nashville, Austin, and Seattle. For fun, I traveled to Turkey (amazing!), Egypt, Copenhagen, Tanzania (safari!), and the Balkans. No bad stops among them.

I was grateful to be included in the American Council on Germany’s Young Leaders fellowship and the Schusterman Reality Tech group in Israel. I got to know Germany and Israel well and became friends with young leaders from both countries. I hope to spend more time in each place.

I spent decent amount of time on the east coast of the U.S., for a wedding in Cape Cod (my first time there) and had extended visits in two of my favorite U.S. cities: Washington D.C. and New York. Closer to home, I was reminded of the never ending desert landscape of Nevada during my first Burning Man experience; the stunning beauty of the California coast at the Post Ranch Inn; and the perfect year-round weather of San Diego.

I’m on nodding terms with Dubai airport now, where I was twice in 2015, including an extended 8 day stint for work. Dubai airport now boasts more annual travelers than London Heathrow. And the city itself is unlike any other.

I ended 2015 — and rang in New Year’s 2016 just a few weeks ago — in Havana, Cuba. Have a great 2016, wherever your travels take you…

Lessons and Impressions from Cuba

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Totally fun to be driven around in this old car.

I spent New Year’s in Havana. Now seemed like an ideal moment to head there. Within a year, there’ll be commercial flights to Cuba from the United States. Tourism will boom. The island will get broadly available internet access. The old cars might be slowly replaced with modern cars. And so on. While great for the people of Cuba — always the most important consideration when contemplating the effects of globalization  — it will make it a less interesting place to visit as a tourist.

Havana is, overall, still quite poor. There aren’t any super luxurious hotels. There aren’t fancy restaurants, and the vast majority of restaurants are still government-owned. There isn’t widespread internet access or cell coverage, and that which exists is prohibitively slow and expensive (even for Americans). Credit cards aren’t accepted anywhere and the ATMs don’t work for foreigners. Outside of the old town in Havana, you see all the classic signs of poverty: run down homes, stray dogs, many people sleeping in one bedroom. One tour guide told us that the government monthly food rations hardly last a couple weeks.

The Cuban government is slowly loosening its authoritarian grip on its people. Just in the last few years people have been able to buy and own real estate. Just in the last few years they can now travel outside the country (other countries are reticent to offer visas but at least it’s no longer the Cuban government that’s the main problem). Just in the last few years international news and entertainment, illegally smuggled in via weekly shipments of USB sticks from Miami, has become de facto acceptable among sophisticated residents. More and more, it seems like Cuba is embracing elements of the market economy.

Some random impressions and lessons from the trip:

  • In the taxi from the airport to our casa particular — an Airbnb equivalent — we drove on smooth, paved streets, with “Hello” by Adele blasting on the radio. I was not expecting to hear Adele within 10 minutes of hitting the road in Cuba.
  • It didn’t take long to notice something different, though. A huge image of Che Guevera was lit up on the wall of one building as we drove into the city. And we began passing old American cars from the 50’s.
  • Cuba was super humid. Welcome to the Caribbean. The sweating was non-stop. Not fun. You take a shower, and begin sweating the moment you step outside.
  • The most crippling effect of the embargo for tourists — which persists, even as Obama has re-instated diplomatic channels — seems to be the stone-age banking system. No ATM machines accept American cards. Long lines to change money. No credit cards.
  • Learning about socialism — even as it slowly weakens under Raul, Fidel’s brother — was fascinating. Our tour guide was assigned a job after college by the government. He received food rations each month. “Why is this building so run down?” we asked someone. “Because the government hasn’t fixed it yet.” Can you imagine a government being responsible for maintaining every building in an entire country?
  • Although Russian cars are still on the road, there isn’t much fondness for Russia in general, obviously. After the Soviet Union collapsed in 89, Cuba’s economy — heavily subsidized by the Russians — plunged into a prolonged crisis. In the 90’s, food was scarce. Poverty rampant. They had to re-build their economy. In the 80’s, English was the language of the enemy. Today, Russian language is rarely heard in schools, and English is the clear secondary language on the island.
  • There are a bunch of fun, obvious tourist things to do in Havana. We had a drink at the Flordita bar, where Hemingway supposedly hung out and where the daiquiri was created. We enjoyed a meal in Havana’s Chinatown — Chinese and Mexican food serve as comfort food abroad for Americans. Hotel Nacional, the old famous hotel that played a cameo in The Godfather 2, sports a nice pool area and good views. Maybe the best thing we did was rent an old American Chevy for an hour, hire a driver, and just drive around in a convertible for an hour, feeling like we were in a time capsule.
  • There are two currencies in Cuba. This will be the source of societal unrest soon: uneducated taxi drivers who are driving tourists around and getting paid in the tourist currency — 25x the local peso rate — are making a lot more money than doctors and lawyers.
  • On the first day, as we hunted for a store from which to buy bottles of water, I asked someone where a supermercado was. Then I realized there weren’t supermarkets in Cuba. When we finally found a small market — filled with mostly generically labeled food — they were out of many staples. “There’ll be beer tomorrow, but not today,” the market owner told us.
  • Thinking of going to Cuba? This Medium post has a lot of good info for U.S. passport holders. It’s way easier than I thought it would be.

One of my beliefs about travel is that there are places that are good to live in, places that are good to travel to, and they’re not always the same place. Los Angeles is my go-to example: great place to live in, not a great place to visit as a tourist. Most poor countries are not especially enticing to live in, but those with fascinating histories, bright futures, or otherwise unique cultures, can be excellent places to spend a week or two as a tourist. Cuba fits in this boat. The recent Cold War-era history is super interesting. The economic structure of socialism is interesting. And the culture is still vibrant: dancing, music, cigars, and a generally friendly people. The locals seem unusually present in the moment since no is staring down at their phones. I found myself more present too, being off the grid for a full week. An unexpected benefit of visiting an unconnected island!

Lessons and Impressions of Egypt

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After a week in Dubai for business, I headed over to Cairo for the RiseUp Entrepreneurship Summit. The conference was stunning in its scale. Some 4,000 registrants crowded into several sprawling campuses to network, listen to speakers, and get exposed to the entrepreneurial dream. I also spent a day being a tourist. As always, the locals on the ground were exceptionally nice and helpful and oftentimes inspiring.

Here were some of my takeaways from visiting Egypt for the first time.

Pure chaos. From the moment you land in Cairo, you begin to spot cultural norms that are telling. After the plane touched down, while it was still moving and taxi-ing to the gate, the local Egyptians just got up and started taking their bags out of the overheard compartments. The flight attendants didn’t bother to try to stop them. Then, upon exiting the airport and getting in my driver’s car, the driver noticed me looking for a seatbelt that doesn’t exist. “Don’t worry,” he says, “You don’t need one. You’ll see.” We began our seatbelt-less drive into downtown Cairo. We never moved faster than 15 MPH. The traffic is so stifling that even if there were an accident no one would get hurt since everyone’s moving so slowly. The slow speeds don’t stop folks from honking, though. The honking squeals non-stop throughout the city as cars maneuver on roads without lanes and pedestrians attempt to cross streets with no cross walk signal.

One day, with a guide, we stopped and watched a bunch of drivers attempt, through sheer force, to convert a two-way street into a one-way street to accommodate the direction they were heading. Quite literally they all just turned into the two way street and took over both lanes in order to block the cars trying to head down the street toward them. The tour guide, an Egyptian who’s traveled a lot internationally, cursed his compatriots for ignoring most the basic rules of the road. And then he said wistfully, “The thing I love most about the U.S. is how cars pull over to the side when emergency vehicles flash their sirens.”

When I relayed these anecdotes to some locals, they affectionally referred to Cairo as “organized chaos,” a phrase that didn’t totally resonate. I found the chaos more energy-draining than energy-adding — especially as a pedestrian.

The legacy of the revolution. “There was no Egypt for the couple years after the revolution of 2011,” one local told me. By which he meant: laws were not really enforced. Uncertainty reigned.  The uprisings — which gave rise to the broader Arab Spring — ejected an unelected despot but created a power vacuum then filled by the Muslim Brotherhood, who were subsequently overthrown in a coup by the military. During these years of tumult, the civic institutions of Egypt eroded. Smart people left. Tourism plunged. The country is trying to pull itself up and out of all this. It’s a work in progress. Those who have stayed are committed to defining the next chapter in Egypt’s history. They are the reason for hope.

Entrepreneurship ecosystem. Many smart people who feel powerless to change the politics of the country are turning to entrepreneurship instead. And many people who are simply lifelong entrepreneurs through and through are stepping up and beginning to organize themselves. There’s a nascent entrepreneurship ecosystem in Egypt led in large part by the remarkable Ahmed El Alfi, who’s renovated the Greek Campus to be a hotbed of startup activity in Cairo. He also launched the regional startup accelerator Flat6Labs. My good friend Chris Schroeder (who’s in the photo above with me) wrote a book that is the definitive account of 21st century middle east tech entrepreneurship — it features Alfi. On the flip side of most of what’s broken in the middle east lies an opportunity for an entrepreneur to build a solution. Opportunity is the flip side of frustration.

Interestingly, one entrepreneur we met with described his very impressive business as a “form of resistance” against the government. Resistance through capitalism; resistance through global trade. It’s quite moving to hear these sentiments and quite true, I think. Running his company is one of the best ways to shape Egypt’s future with the values that he believes in. This motivation does complicate a traditional business analysis of his company, though, since it’s not purely — or even primarily — being driven to maximize shareholder returns.

The word among Egyptian entrepreneurship ecosystem leaders is that what’s holding back the entrepreneurs is lack of capital. Money hasn’t caught up with the talent yet. Seems likely. Markets tend to be efficient…eventually. In Silicon Valley, where capital for startups is abundant, perhaps too abundant, we tend to forget just how special it is to have dozens of investors compete for the opportunity to invest in a startup. Growth markets like Egypt seem to be a couple institutional, mid to late stage investors away from an environment in which most of the credible local entrepreneurs can raise seed and early stage funding from local investors (and get terms that are ever more founder friendly). Will these investors be funding billion dollar Silicon Valley style unicorns? Not for awhile, but that’s not the only way to generate great venture returns — and it’s certainly not the only model for building a great business.

One small but interesting regional dynamic: Given the overall volatility in the middle east, Dubai has emerged as a regional hub that attracts the most international talent and capital. More than one Egyptian entrepreneur prefaced a conversation with me in Cairo by saying, “I haven’t moved to Dubai because…” Where the best local talent ends up will determine which ecosystems thrive.

I didn’t spend enough time in Egypt to make any meaningful conclusions about what’s happening there economically (and certainly politically). But the shift of geo-political power from west to east, the rise of a global middle class empowered by technology, the faster spread of innovation through interconnected populations — these are some of the central stories of our lifetime. Egypt will be part of this story. American investors like Dave McClure recognize this macro trend and are putting their money where their mouths are. More from Silicon Valley will follow. Why? Because entrepreneurial people chase opportunity even when there’s risk — perhaps especially when there’s risk. And the next great opportunity is on the frontier, where billions of people are coming online with smartphones…

Pyramids. As Richard Nixon might have said, the Great Pyramid of Giza is a very great pyramid indeed. So amazing to see the scale up close and personal. It’s a short drive from Cairo and it’s a great time to visit because of the lack of tourists.

Embassy areas that feel like war zones. It’s eerie to walk around the row of embassies in Cairo, including the streets around the U.S. Embassy. It’s quiet because armed soldiers walk around on blocked off streets. Ginormous blocks of concrete stack up along the roads. Our tour guide reminisced that when he was a kid growing up in Cairo he would go over to the American embassy on the weekends and watch movies in the grass yard inside the courtyard, right under the American flag. American kids would pass out candy. Today, you can hardly see the flag from the outside, obscured as it is by the concrete and barbed wire. Our guide asked wistfully, “What has happened to the world?”

Selfies for everyone. A striking moment in the gate area flying from Dubai to Cairo: A woman fully veiled in a burqa making multiple attempts at the perfect selfie.

Trump in the Muslim world. Muslims are listening to Donald Trump’s bigoted proposals. The damage to the American idea is incalculable.

Lessons and Impressions from Israel

During the Israel-Gaza Conflict last summer, something interesting happened on my social media feeds. Certain friends began consistently sharing articles in support of Israel. Certain friends began consistently sharing articles criticizing the Israeli government. The only thing that my smart friends, who otherwise agree with each other on most issues, could agree on in this case? That the media was horribly biased against their position.

Floating in the dead sea, one of the tourist highlights of a week in Israel

Floating in the dead sea, one of the tourist highlights of a week in Israel

I stayed out of the fray last summer because I was — and still am —uneducated on the complex history surrounding the state of Israel. Plus, even if I knew more, I’m not sure I’d have anything new or useful or deep to add to the analysis. But, I’ve resolved in recent months to try to address my underlying ignorance. I read From Beirut to Jerusalem, which was a terrific introduction. I’m currently reading Righteous Victims. And most importantly, a couple weeks ago I traveled to Israel in person and spent a week in the country.

I’ve been interested in visiting Israel for some time. Jewish culture was all around me growing up in San Francisco. Although not Jewish myself, I had many Jewish friends, learned about Jewish culture, food, and song in school, and attended about a dozen Bar Mitzvah ceremonies in the seventh grade. But seeing a place in person elevates your appreciation of the culture. There’s nothing like being on the ground.

It was a highly structured, very busy week sponsored by the Schusterman Foundation. We were 50 entrepreneurs — all but one hailing from SF, NY, or LA — traveling around together meeting with various former government officials, tech entrepreneurs, and touring the sights, for 14 hours a day, seven straight days. The week we were there happened to be the beginning of the recent uptick of violence in Jerusalem.

Here are my lessons and impressions from the trip.

Continuous context for a week. For seven days, I was in the same place with the same people: continuous context. That’s rare, especially for those of us who lead portfolios of many activities. What’s more, the entire agenda was fixed by others, so I made no decisions about how to spend my time — all the way down to when the wake-up call was set for my hotel room. You end up with an opportunity to really engage and be present in the moment. It’s an all-too-rare experience that I wish I had more often. It’s what I love most about these sorts of leadership fellowship trips: it’s an opportunity to go deep, continuously, in the same place with the same people on the same topics.

Vulnerability in group settings. Throughout the week, we delegates spent time together in small groups to reflect on the trip and share stories from our lives. These small group discussions brought forth some of the most poignant moments of the entire experience. People shared deep, dark secrets, and everyone else respectfully listened and sympathized. As tears flowed and hugs were exchanged, I felt emotionally connected to certain people in a way that was surprising. I hardly knew these people — why did I feel, in one sense, so close? It’s what happens when you put the same people through an intense, foreign experience for at least 48 hours; when there’s structured time to open up and share; and when there’s a facilitator who can guide the protocols.

A land of contradictions. I had three competing impressions of Israel when I stepped back and reflected on where, physically, I was standing. First, for billions of Muslims, Christians, and Jews, the land of Israel contains some of their most sacred sights. People spend their life savings to travel to Israel and connect with a religious heritage that stretches back millennia. Israel is holy and old, I thought. Second, walking the modern streets and gorgeous beaches of Tel Aviv, you feel like you’re in a reasonably cosmopolitan, advanced society. Israel is secular and new, I thought. And the third feeling I had, when I realized I was just a couple hour drive from Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, Jordan, is that Israel is smack dab in the middle of the most volatile place in the world: Israel is so, so fragile.

The desert induces awe. I’ve written a lot about awe. I’m intrigued by the idea of making awe-inspiring experiences a focal point in planning a life. On one of our last nights in Israel, we drove out deep into a crater and walked on our own path away from everyone else. It was a perfectly still night, a bit warm (I was wearing a t-shirt), totally quiet, and sparkling clear sky dotted with thousands of stars. I wish I could have spent hours there, just staring up, and thinking. I separately felt goosebumps — one practical manifestation of awe — when we arrived in Jerusalem by bus. As we crossed the checkpoint and began driving into the holiest place on earth, our tour guide said, “Ladies and gentlemen, look out the window to your left. Welcome to Jerusalem.” Then he blasted this song on the bus speaker system. Drop the mic.

Is Israel like David or Goliath?  In one sense, Israel is a country surrounded by other countries that say they want to annihilate it. Anti-semitism continues to rumble around the world. Only 60 years ago, six million Jews were exterminated in the holocaust. The Zionist story was deeply improbable; despite its worthy success so far, it arguably still is improbable. Israel, then, is David. In a different sense, Israel is by far the most stable, most rich, and most militarily advanced country in the region. It maintains the military and economic backing of the global superpower in America. While Palestinians languish in poverty, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem are positively first world economies. Israel, then, is Goliath. The metaphor you gravitate to reveals a set of bundled attitudes on Israel/Middle East politics in general.

Two state solution pessimism. A former spokesperson from the Israeli government spoke to us on our first day to offer assorted views on the current “situation” — the euphemism used to describe the current unnamed waves of violence. She sounded off on Israeli politics, the history of the middle east, the demographic situation, the various religious groups within Israel, and the U.S./Israel relationship. After an hour of remarks and Q&A, one idea was strikingly absent from the discussion: a state for Palestine, or the two-state solution in general. Not mentioned once. I found that incredibly revealing. There is not a lot of optimism among Israeli intellectuals that there’ll be a two state solution anytime soon.

“Dialogue with the other side.” A common refrain from enlightened observers and nearly all of the solution-oriented Israelis we met with: Peace in the region will only happen if the two sides, Israelis and Palestinians, engage in dialogue with each other in order to improve mutual understanding and remember the other side’s humanity. I wholeheartedly agree. As Peter Beinart recently pointed out, “Talking endlessly about a group of people without talking to them is a recipe for dehumanization.” But while dialogue and mutual understanding sounds good in theory, you don’t hear about it happening very much in practice. Take our trip as just one example: Over the course of seven 14 hour days in Israel, our group spent a total of 30 minutes hearing the remarks of one Palestinian teenage entrepreneur. The teen entrepreneur worked on a business idea with an Israeli as part of a non-profit bootcamp. He was the only Palestinian we heard from and we didn’t have the time or space to dig deeper into his perspective or the Palestinian perspective in general (which, as I understand it, begins at fundamental starting point that they are being occupied — a word that didn’t come up over the week). I’m curious how much philanthropy is devoted to the cause of connecting Israelis and Palestinians to engage in a real exchange of views…

Morality binds and blinds. At its worst, the political debates in the middle east seem to consist of two sides talking past each other, building up straw man arguments, finding confirmatory evidence to support their pre-existing views, and beating the other into intellectual submission. Why? Both sides, quite understandably, assign strong moral, religious valence to their views. And once morality enters the picture, forget trying to have a rational discussion. As Jon Haidt says, morality binds and blinds: “It binds us into ideological teams that fight each other as though the fate of the world depended on our side winning each battle. It blinds us to the fact that each team is composed of good people who have something important to say.”

Complexity doesn’t mean moral equivalence. “You should leave in a week with more questions than answers,” our guides told us when we arrived in Israel. It’s certainly the case for me. Our main tour guide, the amazing Michael Bauer, did a great job describing the complexities, dueling viewpoints, and deep religious convictions behind many of the more extreme points of view in the region. Is there one single capital T truth about Israel, its people, its landmarks, its history? No. But that doesn’t mean we should throw our hands up and excuse ourselves from making any sort of judgment call. Surely at certain moments in history certain actors were more clearly in the right or in the wrong?

12105748_10153702463709108_6079581157327907623_nForget the past. “No one agrees about the past. Perhaps we can agree on the future,” one Israeli told us. Shimon Peres, a Thomas Jefferson like figure in Israel, told us the same: Don’t think about the past. Only try to invent a better future. Something about this sentiment struck me as very American.

The Israel tech scene. Eric Schmidt said recently: “Tel Aviv is a close second to Silicon Valley. Nowhere in the world is comparable, not even Boston and New York.” It’s a genuinely impressive entrepreneurship ecosystem, with sophisticated investors, serial entrepreneurs with big exits, and the support of a nation that embraces and indeed uses the phrase “startup nation” at every turn. Consumer internet and vitality-dependent products are less a force in Israel due to its size. Hard sciences and deep tech reign. We had a fun time hearing from Waze co-founder Uri Levine — he’s already started several more ventures since selling Waze to Google and is plowing some of his fortune back into the ecosystem by investing in scores of other entrepreneurs. Successful entrepreneurs backing the next generation is a classic sign of a healthy ecosystem. The only sad part about Israeli tech? That there seems to be so little interchange of ideas, capital, and talent between Israel and its Arab neighbors who are also experiencing a boom of entrepreneurship.

Department of Cultural Norms, an On-Going Series.  After a listening to very moving talk by a holocaust survivor, we took a picture with him at the museum. We assembled for our group photo shoot, surrounding the survivor. Then a museum rep said, “Okay guys, ‘Survive’ on 3! 1, 2, 3..Survive! It was super jarring. I think it was a classic lost-in-translation cultural moment in terms of how Americans understand the significance of the 1-2-3 routine when taking group shots. Culture can be so subtle sometimes.

Voice Projection. I’m beginning to think that your ability to project your voice is a top skill for life success. At countless times in the trip, I failed to hear someone — or the opposite, I did indeed hear very clearly a speaker — because of a person’s ability to project their voice that could be heard by 40 people around a big circle. In business, literally being heard in a large, crowded conference room is not actually something everyone can achieve.


Big thanks to the good folks at the Schusterman Foundation for sponsoring the trip, Erik Torenberg for the heads up on the trip and playing co-facilitator, and the various other participants and new friends for the insights and the laughs.

Other lessons and impressions: Indonesia | China | Greece | Argentina | Korea | Turkey

Balkans | Chile | Cyprus | Germany | UAE | Italy | Qatar

Burning Man 2015: Impressions and Lessons

“Burning Man is Silicon Valley. If you haven’t been, you just don’t get it.” – Elon Musk

I’ve heard variants of this sentiment from many friends over the years. So I’ve intended to go to Burning Man when the opportunity presented itself. 2015 was that year.

I should preface my impressions of Burning Man with one important qualification: I was only on the playa last week for 24 hours total. Due to the last minute decision to go, I didn’t have time to prep, arrange proper sleeping accommodations or fix my schedule to enable a proper multi-day stay. All I brought fit in a school-sized backpack which contained two Whole Food sandwiches and some cliff bars. I “slept” in a friend’s mid-size rental car. Most important, I didn’t have time to go to any of the famous lectures, classes, and other one-time events that tend to require a bit of pre-planning over a few days. So me commenting on Black Rock City (the name of the pop-up city that the festival represents) is like someone commenting on what a major city is like based on a short layover in the airport in between flights.

Me on the playa

Me on the playa

All that said, I did spend a full dozen hours walking around amid dust storms during the day and night. I did talk to a bunch of burners. I did check out dozens of camps and art installations and I did my time on an art car. I think I earned the right to have at least a few impressions.

First impression? Awe. The awe was felt most acutely at night, standing atop an elevated platform at the “altitude camp,” looking out at the city beyond. It really is a city: 80,000 people who have set up tents and RVs and camp sites, with their pop-up structures and art installations. At night, the lights on each camp shine for as far as the eye can see. It reminded me of driving to Las Vegas and seeing all the hotel lights as you approach the city. Except at Black Rock City the lights go on forever and ever in every direction.

Anyone with libertarian sympathies can’t help but be in awe of the scale of self-organization and self-reliance. Tens of thousands of people show up, build an entire city, and then take it all away, not leaving a trace. To be sure, there is a central power structure — the founder and a “committee of six” who make key decisions — along with some full time staff in San Francisco and a $10mm+ annual budget. But there are also thousands of volunteers who, in my conversations with them, did not appear to be all too coordinated with the powers that be. And of course 95% of the work that makes Burning Man what it is — the art structures, the supplies, the events, and so on — is voluntarily offered and coordinated by the 80,000 participants who derive meaning, not money, from their efforts.

Second impression? Hardship. Dust storms make challenging those mildly important tasks of breathing and seeing. Dust particles pollute your lungs and eyes; wind bites at your face and chafes your lips. The desert climate means you sweat during the day and shiver during the night. Pilots who charter planes to Burning Man call the area “Afghanistan.” What’s remarkable about Burning Man, as others have said, is you have some of the nicest people on earth populating one of the most inhospitable places on earth for a full week. And because you’re not allowed to buy or sell anything on the playa, all you have to deal with this hardship is what you bring with you, including food and water and face masks and lotion for chafed feet. Oh — and your cell phone won’t get service, so forget about calling your loved one for help. There are several moments where you ask yourself, “Why on earth did I come here?” Then you see a Pacman art car driving around in the desert night and you think, “Oh yeah, to see that.”

Third impression? The values. Radical inclusion. Radical self-expression. Leave no trace. A gift economy. They’re stated values but as we all know, stating values is easy. After all, one of Enron’s core values was integrity. Walking the walk on values is harder. Best I could tell, the Burning Man values really do permeate the behavior of those who attend. The Burning Man values are good values: the world would be better if more people adopted them.

Would I go back for longer? Yeah, I’d go back. I’d sleep in an RV. I’d coordinate in advance with friends to meet up. (Because of how you must dress to deal with the wind and sand, and the sheer scale of the place, serendipitous social occasions with friends doesn’t happen unless planned.) I’d schedule time to go to different lectures. And I’d spend at least 3-4 nights in order to get the full experience. To do it this way, it’d be expensive. Several thousand dollars, probably. I get the irony in that. As one friend put it, Burning Man is, in a funny way, an homage to capitalism: it’s sufficiently expensive to participate that it’s people spending their fruits of capitalism to participate in what otherwise feels like a non-capitalistic experience.

I’ve said it before after certain trips and I’ll say it again here: awe is an amazing emotion. Burning Man induces awe: at human creativity, at people’s willingness (including your own willingness) to push themselves amid harsh conditions, at the power of cultural norms and values to shape an entire population. Burning Man is worth seeing for yourself. I know there’s more for me to see.

Book Review: Dark Star Safari by Paul Theroux

books_feature-18968While traveling to Africa a few weeks ago, I read Dark Star Safari: Overland from Cairo to Cape Town by Paul Theroux. Theroux is probably America’s most famous travel writer yet I had not read any of his books until now. Dark Star Safari was excellent and I recommend it for anyone taking a trip to the giant continent. It’s the travelogue of his overland journey — car, bus, animal — from the northern tip of Africa to the bottom.

He does it on the cheap: he reports from wretched-smelling train cars, rat infested hotel rooms, and dusty, poor villages where clean water is nowhere to be found. I read portions of the book in comfortable hotels or cars in Tanzania, often whizzing by the abject poverty. Theroux doesn’t make you feel great about that, but maybe that’s a good thing.

Theroux lived in Malawi back in the day and he doesn’t mince words when he returns and finds the poverty just as bad, the aid programs just as ineffective. Foreign aid diehards should be prepared for tough medicine from Theroux who at one point says that the only people who can fix Africa’s problems are Africans themselves.

The writing is lovely. His descriptions vivid. Below are my Kindle highlights. (And here is my post from 2009 about Theroux road trip in America and my own road trip impressions.)


Some countries are perfect for tourists. Italy is. So are Mexico and Spain. Turkey, too. Egypt, of course. Pretty big. Not too dirty. Nice food. Courteous people. Sunshine. Lots of masterpieces. Ruins all over the place. Names that ring a bell. Long, vague history. The guide says “papyrus” or “hieroglyphic” or “Tutankhamen” or “one of the Ptolemys,” and you say “Yup.”

One of the problems I had with travel in general was the ease and speed with which a person could be transported from the familiar to the strange, the moon shot whereby the New York office worker, say, is insinuated overnight into the middle of Africa to gape at gorillas. That was just a way of feeling foreign. The other way, going slowly, crossing national frontiers, scuttling past razor wire with my bag and my passport, was the best way of being reminded that there was a relationship between Here and There, and that a travel narrative was the story of There and Back.

Now a complex infrastructure was devoted to what had become ineradicable miseries: famine, displacement, poverty, illiteracy, AIDS, the ravages of war. Name an African problem and an agency or a charity existed to deal with it. But that did not mean a solution was produced. Charities and aid programs seemed to turn African problems into permanent conditions that were bigger and messier.

The greatest part of my satisfaction was animal pleasure: the remoteness of the site, the grandeur of the surrounding mesalike mountains and rock cliffs, the sunlight and scrub, the pale camels in the distance, the big sky, the utter emptiness and silence, for round the decay of these colossal wrecks the lone and level sands stretched far away.

The whites, teachers, diplomats, and agents of virtue I met at dinner parties had pretty much the same things on their minds as their counterparts had in the 1960s. They discussed relief projects and scholarships and agricultural schemes, refugee camps, emergency food programs, technical assistance. They were newcomers. They did not realize that for forty years people had been saying the same things, and the result after four decades was a lower standard of living, a higher rate of illiteracy, overpopulation, and much more disease. Foreigners working for development agencies did not stay long, so they never discovered the full extent of their failure. Africans saw them come and go, which is why Africans were so fatalistic. Maybe no answer, as my friend said with a rueful smile.

Urban life is nasty all over the world, but it is nastiest in Africa—better a year in Tabora than a day in Nairobi. None of the African cities I had so far seen, from Cairo southward, seemed fit for human habitation, though there was never a shortage of foreigners to sing the praises of these snake pits—how you could use cell phones, send faxes, log onto the Internet, buy pizzas, and call home—naming the very things I wanted to avoid.

That was my Malawi epiphany. Only Africans were capable of making a difference in Africa. Everyone else, donors and volunteers and bankers, however idealistic, were simply agents of subversion.

No objects I had seen in any African museum (Nairobi, Kampala, Dar es Salaam, and Harare) could compare with the African objects in the museums in Berlin, Paris, or London. Of course, much of that stuff had been looted or snatched from browbeaten chiefs

Visiting the Balkan Ghosts

Graves in Sarajevo, with everyone's death year around 1995.

Graves in Sarajevo, with everyone’s death year around 1995.

In his book Balkan Ghosts, a travel log and mini-history of the Balkan countries, Robert Kaplan writes: “The more obscure and unfathomable the hatred, and the smaller the national groups involved, the longer and more complex the story seemed to grow.” It captured perfectly my reaction after reading the book and learning about the histories of Serbia, Croatia, Bulgaria, Bosnia, Albania, Turkey, and various other neighbors. So much fighting over territorial, ethnic, or religious differences that appear to be so inconsequential relative to the bloodshed.

Much of the fighting has to do with perceived historical grievances. Kaplan writes:

Macedonia defines the principal illness of the Balkans: conflicting dreams of lost imperial glory. Each nation demands that its borders revert to where they were at the exact time when its own empire had reached its zenith of ancient medieval expansion.

I read the book because I was visiting Montenegro, Bosnia, and Serbia. I recently got back from the trip. Seeing the places in person, as usual, made me engage with history that I probably ought to have known but hadn’t prioritized knowing till now. Travel makes you do that. It also makes you keep up with a place in the news after you leave. 80% of The Economist used to be uninteresting to me; now, when I flip through and see one of the random articles about, say, Indonesia, I’ll read it, because I’ve been there.

Sarajevo was haunting. It’s a small and pretty city, especially the old town. And quite cheap. But to be in Sarajevo is mainly to see grave yards all around and to visit museums dedicated to a genocide that happened only 20 years ago. Normally, when you think of the horrors of history, you think of grainy black and white photos. The slaughter of Bosnian Muslims (by Orthodox Christian Serbs) happened in the era of color video and color photos. It was so recent that there are people alive right now in Sarajevo who are missing all the men in their extended family.

The Srebrenica massacre museum really emphasized Western negligence during the ordeal. The cowardice/incompetence of the U.N. peacekeepers was a surprisingly recurrent theme. After the U.N. declared Srebrenica a “safe city,” thousands of Muslim men gathered there, thinking they were safe. In fact, they made themselves a convenient target for the Serbian army who overpowered the hapless peacekeepers and executed 8,000 men and boys in 48 hours. The photo embedded to the right hangs on the wall as you exit the museum. You can’t help but reflect on the costs and benefits of humanitarian interventions.

After Sarajevo, I went to Belgrade. The Belgrade tour guide referred to the 90’s as a “terrible, sad time” where people on all sides made mistakes. He expressed remorse for the 1,000 Serbian civilians killed during the NATO air strikes. No mention of Muslims.

Neither Belgrade nor Sarajevo maintain blockbuster tourist attractions. Sarajevo is prettier; Belgrade maintains a Soviet aesthetic. The Bosnians and Serbians I met were all hospitable and intelligent. In both places I think you visit for a history trip: to learn about Tito and communism, to learn about the Balkan wars, to try to keep up with who hates who for which ethnic or religious reasons, to try to figure out the difference between Catholicism and Orthodoxy.

Here are Tyler Cowen’s impressions of Belgrade. We were there together at a conference. I, too, am very glad I made it to Serbia. And I hope there can be lasting peace in the region.

Full highlights of the Kaplan book below the fold. It’s a good book to read before a visit.

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Impressions from an African Safari

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I recently completed a six night safari in Tanzania (in addition to three nights at the base of Mount Kilimanjaro hiking around). I enjoyed the trip very much, in part because it was unlike any other travel experience I’ve had. Cities can blur together: I’ve been in a million churches, gone on a million city tours. Traversing the African Savannah is something else entirely.

At the most macro level, being in the wild among the animals brought to mind one phrase: state of nature. Every wild animal is simply trying to survive. Well, that, and trying to breed healthy offspring. To achieve these two goals, they’ll attack, ally, retreat, advance, betray, and coordinate. Sound familiar? It’s impossible to be on safari and not think of how similar we humans are to the animals in the wild. How so many of our base instincts are exactly the same as the cheetahs and vultures and elephants: we’re just trying to survive. And we like to have sex.

In the wild, it’s a brutal, Darwinian life. There’s always a chance the wrong predator comes upon them at the wrong time and it’ll be over in a poof. In such an environment, you have to always be on guard. We saw lions trying to sleep but every 10-15 seconds the would pop their heads up and look around carefully. We saw zebras standing in a special group formation with their heads turned in a certain way so that, between the four of them, every angle was covered in case an enemy attacked.

One of the best ways to survive in state of nature is to coordinate with your allies. Indeed, complex social hierarchies exist within every species in the bush to facilitate how they move across the plains, how they split up food, how they defend against an attack, and more. Seeing broad-scale coordination made for the most interesting moments on safari. One day, in Serengeti National Park, we witnessed extraordinary acts of coordination among lions and among buffalo. We were driving along and came upon a rocky hill upon which a pride of twelve lions were lying, about 50 yards from where our car stopped. Meanwhile, a little to the east, more than 300 buffalo were migrating across the low-cut grassy fields, presumably in search of water. The buffalo were walking together, two abreast, in a long line that stretched as far as the eye could see. They walked in a large troupe to make themselves more formidable to their enemies. Unfortunately for them, their route was taking them right next to the rocks the lions were perched upon. As the buffalo approached they smelled the lions and stopped. Lions are the strongest and most feared animals in the wild; it felt like every time we asked our guide about a given animal’s enemies, he answered: “…and Lions.” A lion beats everything. That said, even a large pride of lions can’t handle hundreds of horned, ~800lbs buffalo at once. So the lions didn’t attack. Similarly, while 300 buffalo could easily scare off a single lion a large pride was too much — they’d suffer too much loss — so they were scared as well. Both sides had teamed up and it led to a multi-hour standoff: they just sat there, staring at each other in a ready-to-fight position.

One of the lions slipped off the backside of the rock and departed the face-off. About 20 minutes later, about 150 yards away, there were loud animal screams that we could hear from our safari car. The lion who had left earlier killed a zebra. Upon hearing the news, all but one of the lions methodically retreated from the rocks by slipping down the backside to go eat the killed zebra. The young ones interposed themselves between the strongest males and females in the line for protection. When the lions arrived at the scene of the dead zebra, they began roaring and gently fighting with each other like all siblings do at the dinner table, eager for the bigger portion. Meanwhile, the buffalo formation near the rock formation ultimately turned around began to retreat. Well, most of them anyway. It had been a couple hours and we needed to drive on, but our guide predicted that one or two of the buffalo would be slow to leave the scene, or would simply ignore their leader’s advice to retreat. The lions would snatch that last, lonesome buffalo when his family/friends had gone too far ahead.

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The state of nature is brutal. But it’s also a thing of beauty. Of course there’s the surface level beauty of bearing witness to a giraffe munching the green leaves of a tall tree or watching a zebra rolling around in the dirt to mark its territory or spotting an elephant nuzzling with a newborn baby elephant. More than that though, there’s simply taking in the fact that gazelles and giraffes and crocodiles and salamanders and leopards and a thousand bird species are all living together in one complex, interdependent ecosystem. We learned how every living organism in the African savannah eats a particular grass or animal, gets eaten in turn by some other animal, relies upon various flies or birds for cleaning, and so on. Pretty amazing.

Cecil the Lion is in the news. It’s upsetting in part because of this ecosystem interdependency. As described here, when poachers kill the most grand lions or the biggest-tusked elephants, they’re not just killing a single animal. When you kill a male lion, infighting in the pride will lead to the killing of other cubs. When the lion population declines, the population of wildebeests and zebras grows larger than normal. When there are too many wildebeests, there’s too much grazing of grass. This means less vegetation for the birds to eat, and so on and so forth. Millions of years of evolution has refined the food chain. You can’t mess with one part of it without messing with all of it. Here’s my previous post on what happened when wolves were taken out of Yellowstone.

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The vastness of the parks of East Africa, the interconnectedness of the ecosystem, the decentralized coordination and allying among the animals, and of course the physical beauty of the animals and the landscape: all were sources of awe for me on the safari. Awe is a good thing and any trip that inspires it is a trip worth taking.

Examining the U.S.-Germany Relationship

Last week I participated in the Young Leaders Conference in Berlin, sponsored by the American Council on Germany. The conference brings together about 20 young leaders from the U.S. and 20 young leaders from Germany for a week of meetings in Berlin with the goal of deepening the ties between the two countries and ultimately building a relationship between the next generation of trans-Atlantic leaders. I was honored to be a delegate.

We had the opportunity to meet with several high ranking officials in the German government, including the Minister of Finance Wolfgang Schäuble, minister of interior Thomas de Maiziere (equivalent to the United States’ secretary of Homeland Security), national security advisor Christoph Heusgen, the U.S. Ambassador to Germany, and other officials. Our conversations were off the record, but here are some of my lessons and insights from the week:

  • Henry Kissinger once famously asked, “When I want to call Europe, who do I call?” Today, the answer appears to be clear: Germany. Germany has the most dynamic economy in Europe; Germany is the country that’s increasingly leading foreign policy in the region, especially around issues like Russia/Ukraine. During the Greek crisis, it was Germany dictating the terms.
  • “The biggest threat to European unity is nationalism,” said one senior German official. The recent economic stress in the E.U. has highlighted perceived cultural differences between the countries. Some Germans see the Greeks as just lazy — work ethic is a culturally charged issue in Germany. The Finnish can’t understand why people/countries wouldn’t pay their debt on time — debt is culturally charged issue in Finland. Etc. One senior official said, “I always tell Europeans who think they are very different from each other — say, Italians and Germans — to travel to Japan. Then tell me how different they are from other Europeans.”
    • Nationalism is on the rise within Europe but not as strongly in Germany because of its “complicated history.” Germany’s “complicated history” came up at several points in our conversations.
  • If Europe can’t stay together as a union, its influence as a region on the global stage will decline. The individual states are not powerful or important enough on their own. But what does it mean to stay together as a “union”? Can it have a common currency without fiscal union? One official we met argued that Europe needs nothing less than a strong federal government chartered with taxing and spending authority over all the states. See: the US of A. Problem is, in Europe there are many languages, many distinct cultures, and a long, long history. I’m not holding my breath.
  • The German people’s view of America runs along generational lines. Older Germans remember U.S. involvement in WWII, “tear down that wall,” and the re-building of the country post-war. Younger Germans know 9/11, George Bush, Iraq, etc. One senior official put it well: “The  modern U.S.-Germany relationship cannot be based only on memories.”
  • NSA spying on German officials, including Merkel’s cell phone, came up over and over again. All of the Americans on the trip were surprised at how upsetting the spying scandal was to the German government and German people. Although I don’t know what the Americans gained through the spying operation, it seems incredibly unlikely that the benefits outweighed the costs. The damage to the trust and cooperation between the two countries appears to be immense. “Are we friends or just partners?” This is a question Germans asked over and over. There’s a difference in their minds. Friends cooperate in all sorts of ways that partners would not; friends do not spy on each other.
  • I entered the conference a bit skeptical of the relative importance of the U.S.-Germany relationship versus the bilateral relationship America has with China, Mexico, and others. Is Europe as a whole as important a foreign policy priority for the U.S. as Asia? No. I walked away from the conference still of the view that the primary U.S. foreign policy focus, as Barack Obama suggested in a “pivot to Asia” speech in 2011, ought to be China and Southeast Asia. And that Latin America, for economic, security, and cultural reasons, is also a more logical higher priority than Europe. But my time in Germany did persuade me that the shared values of the U.S. and Europe make the two places ideal partners to take on common challenges in Asia and elsewhere in the world. If Europe stays united — a big if — then as a trade partner, Europe would be America’s largest market. If Europe stays united, and we can pool the combined resources on both sides of the Atlantic, the rest of the world’s challenges in the middle east, Africa, and Asia look manageable. The U.S. and Europe are all democratic, capitalistic, rich, and maintain common “western values.” They will have an easier time working together. It’d be foolish not to proactively invest in the trans-Atlantic relationship.
  • “Co-opetition” is a phrase you hear a lot in Silicon Valley. For example, Netflix and Amazon compete on certain product offerings (like movie streaming) and yet cooperate around many products at the same time (AWS hosting Netflix movies). In an interconnected world, companies at scale often have to maintain these sorts of complicated relationships. For countries, it’s the same. America is often positioned as a “competitor” to China. But that’s misleading. The U.S. and China governments cooperate on a million fronts in ways that lead to co-dependency. More importantly, companies in each country do a tremendous amount of business with each other and are utterly committed to peace and stability for this reason. All this to say: “Competition” is a funny word to use in isolation when discussing global trade and politics.
  • If you want to understand geopolitics today, who are the actors that matter? Historically, nation-states ruled. Then came international governance organizations and large multi-national companies. Today, the internet has empowered the masses. And social networks like Facebook have “populations” of more than a billion people. Does a Facebook engineer who makes it easier to turn your profile picture into a gay flag (as happened after the Supreme Court ruling) possess more power in shaping social/political issues than a high ranking elected official who gives a speech on the same topic? The levers of power are changing.
  • A lot of the elites in Germany seem dismayed that “the people” hold irrational or unwise views. For example, most German elites support TTIP, the free trade agreement that’s being worked on between U.S. and EU. But many German people are opposed. How do you reach them and better market the ideas around trade and globalization? I didn’t hear a single German government official ever mention social media… (Of course, there’s a similar dynamic in the U.S.)
  • Speaking of TTIP, it was striking just how often that topic came up in our discussions in Germany. And yet, there’s very little coverage of TTIP in the U.S. We’ll see if that changes once the trans-pacific trade agreement is buttoned up.
  • The labor market in Germany, while more flexible than France’s, is still inflexible when compared to the U.S. It’s hard to fire people. The German Work Councils were referenced with pride by a couple senior officials. I need to learn more about them.
  • Exercising leadership means making decisions that some will disagree with. Thanks to its actions on the Greece deal, Germany is now receiving the sort of criticism the U.S. is accustomed to. Germans say they’re ready to lead and the officials we met with said, “Yes, and we’re ready to take the criticism.”
  • Our understanding of modern politics depends so heavily on public opinion surveys. In the U.S. and Germany you routinely hear people cite stats like “40% of Americans think Germany is doing the right thing in the EU.” I need to learn more about public opinion surveys, survey statistics and methodologies, and how reliable they really are at capturing mass sentiment.

Finally, geopolitical musings aside, I really like traveling to Germany as a tourist. The people are friendly and helpful and there’s so much to see, do, and eat. Many thanks to all the Germans who made our visit to their country so fun and so enlightening.

(Photo credit: Patrick Cooper)

Returning to Zurich

At the age of 17, I ventured out of the U.S. for the first time to participate in an exchange program with a Zurich school. I was lucky to be placed with an excellent family in an excellent city. My first impression of “the rest of the world” sparkled with Swiss cleanliness and punctuality, Swiss mountain views, Swiss helpfulness and friendliness, Swiss wealth. It wouldn’t take long, in the years after, for me to discover that Switzerland has few peers. Most of the world maintains no self-obsessed standard of excellence; indeed, much of the world is far poorer.

I’m glad I started in Switzerland: it’s an especially forgiving place to be introduced to foreign travel. On that first trip, I lost my passport (!), got disoriented repeatedly, and didn’t know the meaning of basic German words like Danke. I remember hearing some punk teenagers rapping in German on the train and thinking, “Whoa, it’s possible to rap in other languages?!” My naiveté was for all to see. But being naive means there are opportunities to learn, and the opportunity to learn led me to catching the travel bug. The following year I spent 13 weeks traveling in Europe and Asia, and the rest is history.

Over the years, I’ve returned to Zurich five or six times. Members of the family I stayed with in Zurich have spent time San Francisco and we’ve become good friends.

Last week, I spent a few days in Zurich and re-connected with the place and people. Over the course of a long term relationship, you see how people change. How they date, how they seek meaning, how they approach their careers, how they change their mind, and how elements of their core stay the same. It’s rewarding.

Cities don’t seem to change as much. Zurich as a city seemed more or less unchanged. I’m sure locals notice all the subtle changes; I didn’t. The train stops are the same, the trams look the same, the stores are familiar, the streets are their usual clean, efficient selves. It’s a fact of the developed world, I suppose.

As someone who’s a generalist in many respects, I love having a depth of understanding of certain things, including both people and places. Zurich and its people are in that category for me. It’s a wonderful oasis in Europe.