What It Means to Lead a Global Life (For Me, Anyway)

On my 18th birthday, I sent a message to a couple hundred people in my network who were older than me and asked them a single question: “What is the thing you most regret not doing when you were 18 years old?”

The recipients were a diverse bunch: entrepreneurs, writers, grad students, engineers, bankers.

One theme kept coming up in the replies: People regretted not traveling more when they were younger. For example, Dick Costolo, who later became CEO of Twitter, said: “I most regret not spending a year somewhere outside the US before going to college. I generally believe that spending a year abroad, anywhere abroad, offers you a much greater perspective on the world.” Venture capitalist Brad Feld said, among other things: “Not enough worldwide travel.”

At that point in time, I had never left the United States. Shortly after conducting the regret poll, I sought to address my lack of a passport—and preempt any late-in-life regret myself. I took some time off and traveled for nearly 2.5 months around the world. My trip had a twist: rather than stay at anonymous hotels, I crashed on the couches, beds, and futons of readers of my blog in countries ranging from China to India, Italy to Ireland. These readers took me into their homes, explained their cultures, and introduced me to a way of thinking that sometimes differed dramatically from my default worldview.

Traveling for the first time opened my eyes to many things, including to this: Entrepreneurial thinking comes in all shapes and sizes…and places. Until that point, I thought a “real” entrepreneur was someone who lived in Bay Area and created internet companies — someone just like me. Talk about living in a bubble. The blog reader who hosted me in Shanghai was just as adaptive, risk seeking, and networked as my friends in Silicon Valley and yet he wasn’t founding a new internet company. He was applying his entrepreneurial verve to his career as a digital musician. I began thinking: Perhaps entrepreneurship was more a life idea than a strictly business one; a global idea rather than a strictly Silicon Valley one.

Meeting entrepreneurial people around the world who embodied the best of the Silicon Valley mindset and skill set inspired my passion for The Start-up of You, the book I co-authored with Reid Hoffman. I spent two years of my life working on that project. In one sense, the book is about capturing the universal wisdom of the entrepreneurial mindset and skill set and making it accessible to a variety of people pursuing a variety of career paths—in a variety of countries and cultures.

Fast forward to today, I’ve traveled to 40+ countries. I’ve met with thousands of people in these countries. I’ve sat down with CEOs and bureaucrats, diplomats and educators, and too many entrepreneurs and investors to count. It’s been a whirlwind!

What began as an adventure in response to the wisdom of my network—travel while young, travel while you can!—turned into a major intellectual and impact project. And that, in turn, has created opportunities for me to contemplate and experience the phenomenon of globalization even more thoroughly.

The other week, I told a friend that I was committed to “living a global life.”

The first and most important part of a global life’s appeal is simplest: travel is fun. It’s fun in part because it’s a constant learning curve. So if you love learning, as I do, it’s hard not to love deciphering a culture and unpacking some deep rooted assumption somebody has simply because that’s the way it’s always worked in their culture. Sure, it can be disorienting to travel in a country in East Asia and discover that the street numbers of buildings are based on when the building was constructed instead of sequentially in order along a street. Or sure, it was frustrating to sit through 30 minutes of “thank yous” as the host of my event in Indonesia paid due respects to the various powerful people in the room, before calling me up on stage, leaving me only 30 minutes to speak. But the ideas behind that cultural norm—around hierarchy, respect of elders, status signaling, the power dynamic between speakers and audiences—are fascinating. And utterly fun to understand.

I Pledge Allegiance to…the Tribe That Is Humanity

Travel, in all its learning and fun, involves going out in the world. Yet, building a global life also forces you travel within. Travel has deepened my own perspective on how I relate to the strangers around me. Leading a global life, to me, means developing a worldview—a personal philosophy—that accommodates what you might call “cosmopolitanism.”

Kwame Appiah, in his book Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers, which I reviewed here, says a challenge of modern life is to “take minds and hearts formed over the long millennia of living in local troops and equip them with ideas and institutions that will allow us to live together as the global tribe we have become.” Robert Wright has argued that many of the problems in the world today could be attributed to our inability to understand the perspective of the other people in our global tribe. If we could put ourselves in the shoes of “strangers,” if we better understood the perspective of the person we’re fighting against or attempting to influence, we’d have a better chance at finding a “win-win” outcome. We’d more easily accommodate non-zero sum thinking. World peace, never a guaranteed thing, may well depend on our ability to increase a sense of “non-zero sumness,” Wright argues—more of a global consciousness—between and among the world’s population.

Technology helps with this. Individuals have more and more opportunities to directly connect to each other – and thus become more empathetic of each other. Whether it’s someone in Canada using Kiva.org to make a small loan to a micro-entrepreneur in Colombia, or an online retailer in Brooklyn using LinkedIn to source a UI designer in Latvia, our new digital platforms are inspiring us to create deeper connections with each other.

Travel helps, too, for appreciating the perspective of a stranger. Some of my most poignant realizations of the adage that “we’re all in this together” have come in real life conversation with locals and discovering anew that human nature is human nature no matter where you go. The cultural differences that make travel fun are, at another level, quickly overshadowed by what we have in common with each other: we all stare up at the same moon.

Within America, the extent to which I emphasize or de-emphasize my differences with “strangers”—nationalistic fervor or the opposite—has shaped my view of active policy debates such as immigration and trade. Consider that one consequence of a free trade agreement is that while my “fellow American” is out of a job at an air conditioning plant in Indiana—a real example that’s been in the news recently—a worker in Mexico has new opportunities to rise up the economic ladder. Is there a moral reason that air conditioning plant should stay in Indiana forever? Do I forfeit my status as an American if I don’t reflexively privilege the experiences and conditions of other Americans over that of individuals from other nations?

These are questions and challenges without easy answers, and I’m certainly not trying to convince anyone here of an argument one way or another. My point is that leading a global life for me doesn’t just mean getting on airplanes and traveling. It means wrestling with these sorts of questions—questions that cut at the heart of one’s personal ethics and in many cases bear on domestic political choices.

The Second Smartphone Revolution Connecting the World

Perhaps one of the best ways to create new webs of mutual interdependence and collaboration among the world’s population is to strengthen the economic links between local tribes.

It’s a profound time to do so. Over the next decade, around five billion people will connect to the Internet for the first time. Or to put it another way, in less than ten years, the already-sprawling Internet, currently at around 2.5 billion participants, is going to be triple the size it is now.

For any consumer in the world, this is fantastic news. The Internet is about to see a huge influx of human capital, a five billion node upgrade to our global network. More brains connecting to the global grid means more people developing technologies that will benefit everyone. As Alex Taborrok writes in his bookLaunching the Innovation Renaissance, thanks to the rise of China, India and other developing countries, we will now have literally billions more people who can work on a cure for cancer, or develop a self-driving car, or achieve a new breakthrough in physics. Ideas and innovation, no matter where they originate, eventually benefit all of humanity.

As an entrepreneur and investor, this is a huge opportunity: to help usher in the new wave of global innovation such as the Alibabas of the world. Massive entrepreneurial successes from outside Silicon Valley is turning Silicon Valley into Silicon Planet. This is a point my friend Chris Schroeder stresses in his 2013 book about Middle East entrepreneurship Start-up Rising. While countries like Egypt and Tunisia and Turkey are experiencing degrees of political turmoil, there is a less visible though highly inspiring entrepreneurial story in play in the region as well. Just look at Souq’s billion dollar valuation the other month. Elmira Bayrasli’s book, From Other Side of the World, maps Chris’s point of view to every corner of the world. She tells remarkable stories of entrepreneurs from far flung places that lend intrigue to her claim that “the next Steve Jobs and the next Apple, Google or Facebook is as likely to come from Nigeria, Pakistan or Mexico as Silicon Valley.”

Some of these growth market entrepreneurs will create businesses that simply make life more enjoyable and convenient, often porting solutions that already work in Europe or America to their home market (“The Instacart of Chile”). Some will create businesses that are new and fun—for example, they’ll help us attain levels of grooming less advanced civilizations were never able to manage. “Haircuts,” Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen write in their book about the new digital age, “will finally be automated and machine-precise.” And some businesses will be truly profound: pharmaceuticals tailored to a person’s unique genetic structure, or microscopic robots that will patrol our circulatory systems for early signs of cancer.

In any case, much of the disruptive power of these businesses will arise not from the exotic technologies of tomorrow, but rather from a more quotidian device we already take for granted in the developed world: the old-fashioned smartphone. With billions new smartphone owners on the way from all corners of the globe, Fred Wilson recently predicted we’re on the cusp of a “Second Smartphone Revolution” that will unleash the next wave of successful entrepreneurs and venture capitalists.

The story of entrepreneurship and innovation is always a story about humans. More precisely, it’s a story about humans organized into networks. Networks turn epiphanies into memes, memes into movements, and movements into lasting cultural change. Networks equip entrepreneurs with a superman suit—it’s the entrepreneur’s network that is the source of her market intelligence and financial capital and all the other things that enable her to create great change in the world. A global network is the ultimate superman suit.

In my view, Silicon Valley is and will remain for a long time the preeminent network of innovation. I’ve spent the last 15 years company building and engaging in the ecosystem here in the Valley and I don’t intend to stop.

But what’s equally exciting is how many other entrepreneurial networks are forming around the world. From Chile to Turkey, Indonesia to Kenya. Technology is connecting these ecosystems together so everyone can learn from each other, thus accelerating the flywheel of global innovation. Tomorrow is going to look radically different than today – and not just because we’re all going to have fantastic haircuts. Networks, and the entrepreneurs embedded in them, will reshape virtually every aspect of human culture.

The Story of My Lifetime?

I’m not sure how many Americans of my generation, when they look back on their 18th birthdays a couple decades hence, will regret not traveling.

On the one hand, travel keeps getting cheaper and easier. The smartphone and internet revolution will continue apace. And the new entrepreneurial ecosystems and rising global middle class are producing exciting economic opportunities.

At the same time, the current political climate in the U.S. is strikingly nationalistic. Xenophobic rhetoric comes from politicians from both sides of the aisle who want America to turn inward and erect barriers. Talk of a “global tribe” seems out of step with the current American milieu.

To me, this makes the task of building a global life as important as ever. I want to embrace the fun and learning that comes from exploring new cultures. I want to develop a philosophical point of view about my obligation to “strangers” versus “my fellow Americans.” I want to support, indeed help create, the economic linkages and entrepreneurial communities that sustain a global, peaceful tribe.

Impressions of Japan, Spring 2016


Shibu Onsen, Japan

Tokyo was the first Asian city I visited, back in 2006, and it left a strong, positive impression. Last week, 10 years later, I was able to refresh that impression by visiting Tokyo (and other parts of Japan) during the famous Cherry Blossom season. Such a fascinating place.

At times, Tokyo makes New York City feel slow. The underground subway stations manage to whisk eye-popping numbers of passengers through its stalls, people everywhere, every crevice, utter chaos. The electric flashing lights on certain streets of Tokyo makes Times Square feel dull. From a sheer numbers perspective, Tokyo is the largest metropolitan area in the world and you feel this scale frequently as you meander the city.

At other times in Tokyo, off the main roads, the city feels eerily quiet, even peaceful. There is no honking — ever. There are beautiful, green gardens, either outside people’s homes, or in large public spaces. Few people yap on their phones; no one plays music loud enough in their car to hear it from the sidewalk. And of course, the overall zen aesthetic lends a certain peacefulness to the urban design.

Chaotic yet calm. It’s the first oxymoronic trait of Tokyo that comes to mind. There are others.

The most famous paradoxical trait of Japan — and it’s a cliche of travel guidebooks — is old and new. There are temples and roads and traditions that are thousands of years old. There are working restaurants and shops in Kyoto (I went to them) that have been operated by the same families for 300+ years. There are ancient customs about family, food, success, and more that still govern modern behavior. Yet, at the same time, Japan has for many years also been proudly on the technological frontier, its people embracing technology in ways that have been captured in many a viral Facebook video or BuzzFeed post. For example, a Japanese couple’s wedding is officiated by a robot. Toilets that do crazy things while you’re sitting on them. Etc etc. The techno-charged culture that is Japan, but probably soon — the techno-culture everywhere.

As a tourist, there aren’t many better places to visit. Exploring these oxymorons — or are they paradoxes? — makes for a fascinating experience. Japanese culture is riveting. And the process of exploring the culture couldn’t be more pleasurable. Everything is clean. The quality of customer service is probably the best in the world. All the infrastructure just works. There’s basically no crime in Japan. There’s no trash on the streets either, despite an odd lack of trash cans in public places, which speaks to the power of social norms for people to pick up after themselves. Taxi drivers are unfailingly polite and are the opposite of corrupt (the cabbie from the airport into town actually reduced the fare from what the meter said because the route qualified for a lower flat rate!).

I found myself feeling quite healthy by the end of a week or two in Japan. The cities are walkable (I walked 15-20k steps per day) but more importantly, the fish-heavy food diet makes you feel light. My favorite meal was a nondescript sushi place in Shinjuku, where the sushi chef made 10 pieces with his freshest fish, carefully giving instructions on when to use soy sauce and when not to.

The Tokyo Swallows baseball season had just started. Going to a baseball game in Japan, where the fans are considerably more intense than American fans, is a real treat. It was great to bear witness to the amazing, coordinated cheers — the fans chant cheers that last a couple minutes, in perfect unison, a different song for each player. The utterly coordinated and seemingly rehearsed fan activity is one expression, perhaps, of the broader cultural norms of homogeneity and community.

On this visit, I got outside Tokyo and Kyoto and the Hakone mountains and into some of the smaller onsen hot springs districts. When you stay at a hot springs ryokan, a traditional Japanese inn, you take your shoes off in the lobby and walk barefoot or in sandals throughout the inn, wear a kimono even at meals, eat delicious local meals served in the hotel, and — when you’re not busy making sure you’re adhering properly to all the rules and customs! — you can bask in the relaxing glow of traditional Japanese culture. The hot springs water themselves are soothing and supposedly cure various skim ailments.

The final tourist note would be the cherry blossoms. They were in full bloom during the trip. Stunning! Perhaps even more stunning was the country’s collective obsession about the blossoms — or the sakura. Every store offered sakura-branded or sakura-colored trinkets. Starbucks rolled out Sakura colored treats in the way they do Pumpkin Spice themed items during Halloween in the States. Every Japanese person I talked to found a way to bring up the cherry blossoms. And at the cherry blossoms themselves, in the parks, it was the local Japanese taking the most photos. It reminded me of Chileans’ collective pride in the sur de chile, the tranquil towns of the south of that long, beautiful country. In Chile, it was only at a matter of time before a local would ask you, “¿Conoces el sur de chile?”

This is the best history of Japan overview I’ve seen. In fact, one of the best history videos in general I’ve ever watched:


A macro economy that’s been sluggish for 15-20 years, a deeply challenging demographic situation, and the persistence of certain norms that inhibit entrepreneurship, such as an aversion to risk and immigrants — these factors lead some to be pessimistic about Japan’s economic prospects. The Japanese people themselves are not the most optimistic bunch by disposition, it seems. That said, there are some obvious strengths in the educated workforce, legacy of innovation, sophisticated financial capital, and its geographic position relative to its dynamic SE Asian neighbors. Demographics is not destiny. And I met with some entrepreneurial investors in Tokyo who are working to reinvigorate Japan’s entrepreneurial energy, and it left me with hope. I’d love to see Japan thrive.

The book that Rakuten founder Mikitani-San and his father wrote is a good guide to the types of reforms Japan needs to implement to make it a more entrepreneur-friendly country.

Relatedly, here’s a piece from Politico yesterday on re-visiting the “Japanese Way.” By turning away from global culture and immigration, they’ve stagnated yes, but they’ve also not had to deal with a lot of the problems currently afflicting America and Europe. I’m not particularly bullish, long-term, on the insular approach. And I’m hopeful globalization can prevail. But the Japanese model is an interesting, decidedly different approach, and one that’s certainly worth understanding for all its pros and cons.

Lessons and Impressions from Colombia (2016)


I first visited Colombia in 2009 with about 15 other young leaders from North and South America. We met with then-President Uribe, then-minister Manuel Santos (the current president), former president Gaviria, and various other economists, business leaders, and journalists from around the country. The hot topic at the time, as it had been for years, was security. FARC, the guerrilla group that at one point controlled huge swaths of land in Colombia, was in decline, though still causing problems. Then-President Uribe got much of the credit for the improving security situation. Riding this popular support, he was petitioning the country to amend the constitution in order to enable him to serve a third term and continue implementing hard-nosed security policies. It was an interesting time to be there. After we left, the people ultimately rejected Uribe’s plan (much to the relief of those who cared about Colombia’s democratic institutions) and instead elected Santos, his defense minister, to succeed him.

In the years since, Colombia has continued to thrive. I visited again a couple weeks ago. To my delight, discussion about amending the constitution to enable strong-hand security didn’t come up once. Sure, security and drugs are still part of the country’s story but less and less so. Instead, there are other, more uplifting themes to talk about: an emergent middle class of 15+ million people (out of a population of 48 million); an economy that benefits from market-oriented policies (unlike some of its neighbors); a substantial regional entrepreneurship ecosystem; tight relations with the hemisphere’s superpower, the United States. On this last point, a local paper I saw in Bogota had the huge headline “Colombia’s New Best Friend” above a picture of a smiling Obama and Santos. (By the way, I believe the U.S. Embassy in Bogota is one of the largest in the world after Baghdad, Islamabad, and Beijing.)

On my most recent trip, the itinerary was heavier on entrepreneurs. Based on both anecdotal meetings/conversations and more comprehensive statistics and trend lines, I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that Colombia has established itself as a top entrepreneurship ecosystem in the region. There are meaningful businesses being built there and, like Dubai in the Middle East, talented entrepreneurs are using Colombia as a base to serve a broader regional population. That’s a critical dynamic: because the individual country markets aren’t large enough to sustain large enterprises on their own, the country/city that becomes a hub for regionally-ambitious entrepreneurs becomes very powerful indeed.

As is typical with emerging ecosystems, lack of capital is an issue. As one local investor put it to me, Colombians understand Colombia but are not in general as familiar with early stage, high risk entrepreneurship. Tech people — Silicon Valley people, say — understand high risk entrepreneurship investing, but do not understand — and do not care to understand — Colombia. Too few people fall in the middle of that venn diagram. More on these themes, later.

For now, here are some other quick impressions from my handful of days in Bogota and Medellin:

  • Gone are the days of being fleeced by a crooked taxi driver who sees Gringo Dollar Sign when you get in the car. Uber is a game changer: cheap, plentiful, safe, convenient. And talking to my Uber drivers revealed some of the more interesting conversations with locals I had during my stay. One driver was the local sales partner for Box. Another was an entrepreneur attempting to start the Kayak of Colombia. Another was a pop singer. They all knew Uber was based in San Francisco (“Where ya from?” “San Francisco” “Oh, where Uber is!”). They loved Uber as a force for good in helping them make ends meet.
  • Colombia offers dollar holders predictable lifestyle arbitrage. I took UberX for 10 mins and it cost me $1.50 USD. A reasonably upscale hotel (24 hour room service, modern fitness center equipment) will run you $85 USD a night.
  • There are five countries that drive the economic conversation in Spanish-speaking Latin America, it seems: Chile, Argentina, Peru, Mexico, and Colombia. (Brazil is its own category.)
  • Speaking a foreign language that you’re not fluent in can be thrilling and depressing — sometimes within the same conversation. When I would complete a full conversation or transaction in Spanish, I beamed inside with pride. When the conversation or context switched out of a predictable hospitality zone or polite chit chat, and the other speaker realized my language limitations, it was depressing. The intensity of the depression depended on whether the other person’s English was better than my Spanish; so long as my mediocre Spanish was better than their English, I had some consolation. All in all, after Cuba for New Year’s and then Colombia the other week, my tourist Spanish is pretty proficient (I navigated some travel hiccups perfectly in Medellin airport, where no gate agents or airline reps spoke English!), and I suspect a couple months of focused study would get me to business proficient.
  • Over the past decade, Colombia has benefited from Argentina’s political instability (and economic stupidity) in terms of talent, trade deals, and the like. I met and heard about several Argentines who had made their way to Colombia to build their careers. That said, with the new government in Buenos Aires, there seems to be something of a revival of hope about Argentina. We’ll see if some of their exported talent returns home.
  • Why are Medellin women supposedly the most beautiful in the world? I asked a local that question and he gave me two reasons. First, breast implants. Like in Korea, teenage girls in Medellin are encouraged quite openly by friends and family to think about “enhancing” themselves. Second, Medellin was historically the base for some of the more powerful drug cartels. The drug kingpins imported the most beautiful women in the country (and region?) to Medellin to keep them company.
  • The Mayor of Medellin is a charismatic fellow, and in a speech to an entrepreneurship delegation of the Global Entrepreneurship Congress, he reminded us of a pretty startling fact: in 1991 Medellin was the most dangerous city in the world. One year, Pablo Escobar killed 4 out of the 7 presidential candidates. Today, Medellin is an innovation hub. Anyone who thinks the fate of a city or country is pre-determined should visit Medellin. The end is not fixed.
  • Travel is a constant learning opportunity. I love taking note of little cultural nuances. It’s a reminder of how arbitrary any one country’s norms are. Little of what we do in our native country is The Right Way to do something; it’s just the way somebody way back did it and generations since have copied it. In Colombia, as one small example, people send tons of audio messages via WhatsApp. Look around in a crowd of people and you’ll see somebody holding the phone to their mouth (but not to their ear) recording audio messages. I can’t remember the last time an American sent me an audio message; in Colombia, after 24 hours on the ground, I had already received three.

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


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


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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