Burning Man 2019

I’ve been meaning to go back to Burning Man ever since my 24 hour stint four years ago. But each year since then, a few months before the event I’d start doing my research and quickly become overwhelmed by the complexity of it all: Finding a ticket, finding a camp, figuring out transport, etc.

This year, I was fortunate to find a last minute ticket and camp via a friend (under 10 days before the start!), so I pulled the trigger, spent more money than is probably rational, and managed to squeeze in three full days on the playa. It wasn’t the full week experience but it was enough time that I feel like I have a richer and more accurate understanding of the Burning Man project.

Here were my impressions from my first trip — about awe, hardship, and values.

Overall impression this year: A good time! A couple highlights followed by other smaller scale impressions:

Late night bike ride to the temple

At 10pm one night, the guys in my RV and I went to a dance party, which was fun and populated with people I knew, but after an hour I realized it was like any other dance party (except worse because it was only electronic dance music!). Yet the rest of the playa boasted only-in-Burning Man art and people and crazy costumes.

So I bailed on the party and went to find my bike to go explore.

To combat the nighttime gusts of wind and playa dust, I wore goggles over my eyeglasses. In general, dust-in-eyes challenged me more than dust-in-mouth, so I wore goggles more than my mask. A friend helped strewn flashing lights on my bike. On my body, I wore white basketball shoes, tall green teenage mutant ninja turtles socks, long white tights as underwear, cat shorts, a cheap fur vest over my open chest, an Arabic style scarf wrapped around my neck that I could pull up to cover my mouth when needed, and colorful flashing bracelets wrapped around my upper arm. Finally, a headlamp to guide my way. Don’t bike at night without a headlamp.

I proceeded to bike solo around the playa from 11pm – 2:30am. I passed art cars firing blames of fire out of pipes, I passed stationary sound camps blasting thumpin’ EDM for the enjoyment of revelers who were likely enjoying an LSD trip in turn, and hundreds of other cyclists randomly meandering the playa. As I went further out into the desert and away from the formal camps, I stumbled upon the temple, a regular structure on the playa (newly and differently built each year) where people write mini-obituaries onto the walls and tape photos of loved ones who died in the past year. Here’s more about the temple and a short 5 min video overview.

In the front of the temple this guy, a guy was playing on a full sized piano. He was hitting the keys, but it was silent to the naked ear. I took in the sight: a guy, caressing a piano, in front of a temple — enveloped in a desert at 1am. I routinely tried to remind myself that nothing I was seeing was in any way normal: recognize the absurdity and then let it give way to awe… Anyway, a woman in front of the temple was handing out wireless headphones. I put a pair over my ears, and in beamed the live sounds of the piano player in front of me. I walked through the temple, hearing the piano music in my ears, and started reading the obits. Some postings were quite moving. I was especially taken with the love letters that people posted to their now-deceased dogs. I spent an hour reading, absorbing, resting, and reflecting at this beautiful monument erected to honor past lives. Really touching.

Sunrise

On morning #3, I woke up at 4am and headed out on bike to deep playa, near the small fence that represents the outer border of Burning Man territory within the vast, identical desert that’s all federal land. It was about a 30 minute bike ride from my RV to the outermost fence of the playa.

By 4:45am or so, I noticed the “first light” as the sun ever-so-slightly woke up, and by 5:30/6am it was a full sunrise serenade, in which I saw the glowing ball rise up from the ground above the desert landscape, in a matter of minutes it transformed pitch darkness to perfect brightness. After another 30 minutes, that clear, crisp brightness settled into a shiny, blistering brightness that persisted for the remainder of the day.

Many people had assembled to watch the sunrise. You could tell who had stayed up all night versus the people who just woke up early, like me. People’s attire varied: Some were dressed for the chilly night, some were dressed more modestly knowing that by 8am it’d be hot as hell and you wouldn’t want to be lugging around a heavy jacket in the sun. And of course one couple near me was fully nude, both man and woman, the man sitting and hugging his partner from behind to stay warm.

Tycho, the electronic music artist (who I ended up meeting again in the airport flying home later in the day), DJ’d a set of “sunrise” music, and people danced. From there, we wandered over to the 747 — half of a real-life 747 airplane stationed in the desert — where there was more music being played, and being dancing and milling about outside the aircraft.

I can’t remember the last time I’ve been awake for and consciously attended to a sunrise. While it wasn’t a kind of spiritual experience for me in the way others have described it at Burning Man, I’m glad to have done it. Definitely memorable.

Some other scattered impressions:

Bike is a game changer. First time around, I had no bike. This time, I had a crappy, way-too-small-for-me bike, but it worked. Being able to do what 99% of people at Burning Man do — bike around the playa — unlocked all sorts of new experiences. Next time I’ll try to get an electric bike.

Scheduled workshops/sessions. I didn’t go to any scheduled workshops. There are a ton every day on all sorts of topics, from the G rated to the X rated. But I didn’t feel like I had time to do more than serendipitous drop-ins at a couple camps. I also lacked the confidence that I could actually reach specific destinations on time given my shoddy bike and uncertain geographic sense of the playa. But had I stayed a couple more days, my grasp of how the city was organized would have been better. I was feeling like I had picked up on the layout by my last day…

Picking up food on offer. Hot dogs, smoothie, tacos. All offered by different camps as I biked by. It’s hard to go hungry on the playa. I made friends by offering hand sanitizer to the people in front and behind me in line while waiting for food.

People are aware of the irony of Burning Man. No one I spoke to denied the highly capitalistic elements of Burning Man; the lack of racial diversity; the humor of the principle of “self-reliance” when people truck in hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of technology to survive for a week. I probably haven’t spent time with true hardcore burners, but from my conversations, people don’t take themselves or the “mission” of Burning Man irrationally seriously.

It’s more fun with friends. You can only do so many hours outside in the heat; as a result, there’s plenty of downtime, chill time, etc. in the RV or camp area. When I go again, I’m going to try to organize several friends to go at the same time and coordinate being in the same camp. Makes a difference.

Surprisingly asexual. Sure, there’s a lot of nudity at Burning Man. Plenty of topless women and a fair number of guys letting it all hang out — especially in the gay neighborhood. But I found the nudity weirdly unerotic. Maybe because you’re in a constant state of feeling disgusting at Burning Man — sweat, dust, sleep deprived, etc. The nudity feels practical more than sexual. To be sure, I didn’t go in the orgy tent or attend the other adult-theme sessions (see earlier point about not being confident in my ability to get anywhere on time).

Money makes it all more comfortable. An RV with functional air conditioning is infinitely more enjoyable than an outdoor tent that’s exposed to the elements. Flying in or out to Black Rock City airport (the landing strip right on the playa) also shaves hours of time of the journey into the desert. Neither an RV nor a plane is cheap. Duh.

Back to reality…at the airport. My flight out of the playa from Black Rock City airport was delayed for 3 hours. There were several charter flights to Oakland scheduled back-to-back; all delayed. When the staff person announced that a flight scheduled for 1pm was going to depart before a flight originally scheduled for 12pm, people on the 12pm flight flipped out. It was amusing to see all the groovy community-love vibes of the playa revert almost immediately to mainstream airport customer service outrage. It reminded me of a meditation retreat I went to many years ago. A couple hours after the retreat ended, a heated argument that broke out in the parking lot between two meditators — one of whom accused the other of blocking his car and impeding his departure. It was as if all the loving-kindness mentions from the previous 3 days had evaporated instantly.

The 747 on the playa at night

Scuba Diving in Roatan

During a dive descent

Roatan, Honduras has more Americans than Hondurans, it feels like, and the Hondurans who are there have stunningly good American accents on their English.

That is to say that Roatan is a super easy Caribbean getaway (2 hour flight from Houston) for Americans who want world-famous scuba diving and snorkling. Last year, we went to Cozumel, Mexico for July 4th scuba. This year, Roatan. Very similar destinations.

I preferred the scuba in Roatan. Both places are stunning, but Roatan’s current isn’t as strong so it’s not all drift diving. Either place is good for beginners like me. The food in Cozumel, Mexico is better, likely because it’s an overall more developed country and likely maintains higher standards for quality food sourcing and prep.

Scuba diving continues to enchant. It’s a whole ‘nother universe down there. I’m not yet committed to climbing the ladders of higher and higher dive certifications but being a casual amateur is fun and provides an obvious adventure outlet on trips to warm destinations. I continue to struggle with equalizing my ears; if I ever stop diving, it’ll be because of my ears.

July 4th week also continues to be a good week to travel out of the States. When the holiday lands in the middle of the week, tons of people seem to take the week off. I think getting out of town for a few days during the week of the 4th is a new tradition…

Finally, I read Blake Couch’s latest novel Recursion on the trip. It’s a page turner that reminded me of Stephen King’s time travel book. I preferred Crouch’s previous book Dark Matter but this one was still sci-fi provocative.

The Sacred Valley of Peru

“The reasons the Incas called this the ‘Sacred Valley’ are all around you. Discover them in each of our explorations.”

So read the welcome note left on a desk in our hotel room. It rang true: The mountains and fields and Incan terraces surrounding the hotel amounted to quite an awe-inspiring scene.

I’m not sure I was even aware of the Sacred Valley of Peru prior to this trip. I knew about Machu Picchu, and I suppose if you had mentioned the Incan empire, I would have had vague awareness of the history. But five days of hiking and biking around the valley guided by experts brought the history and culture to life. The history of the Incan trails is pretty interesting, and it’s cool to be able to still walk on many of the trails, many of which were built over 500 years ago.

Most intriguing to me was how the Incas saw God in nature. Mountains were God. Trees were God. Rain was God. Many of us feel a sense of awe in nature. Turning that sense of awe into a full religious fervor is something else entirely. Archaeoastronomy is apparently the study of “how ancient peoples incorporated the sun, moon and stars into their daily lives.” The religious connection to the mountains is multiplied by Peru’s insane weather. As someone told Mark Adams in his book below, “I was in the Sacred Valley in 1983 when a hailstorm knocked out ninety percent of the corn crop in fifteen minutes…So if your perception is that the mountains control weather, you’re going to try to make those mountains happy.”

Machu Picchu itself is a sight to behold. Of course, it’s famous, so it’s crawling with people, which distracts a bit from the sacred vibe. It’s still awe-inspiring to see a mini stone city nestled amidst the Andes. And it’s hard to imagine thousands of men carrying thousands of heavy stones to build the buildings, with no modern stone carving tools. The purpose of Machu Picchu is debated among archeologists and historians to this day. Maybe it was a mini temple. Maybe it was simply the home of the Inca. Maybe it was meant as a stop on a longer pilgrimage. Who knows.

In Johan Reinhard’s book — quoted by Mark Adams in the book I link to below — he suggests that “trying to understand places like Machu Picchu and Vitcos as individual, self-contained sites misses a larger point. These monuments were built in relation to the sun, the stars, the mountains—and to one another.”

There are many microclimates in the Valley, and hikes, bike rides, and car tours available at different elevations. On our last day, we climbed to 14,000 feet and experienced a moonscape-like set of lakes and paddies nestled in the the high Andes mountains. There were no other people; just alpacas and shepherds. The whole scene felt quite distinct from the river trails in the basin of the valley.

Overall, I’d rank this part of Peru up there in terms of outdoor activities combined with historical interestingness. (Note that the city of Lima is generally not a recommended stop for tourists and my one day there on the way home didn’t move me to challenge that recommendation.)

The book “Turn Right at Machu Picchu” by Mark Adams is a really engaging tour through Peru and the Sacred Valley from a modern travel writer. The first 20% is slow going, but the last 80% was excellent. Recommended reading if you’re traveling to Peru and aren’t aware of Hiram Bingham’s explorations. Here are some highlights from my Kindle reading of the book:


Measured in square miles, the country is not especially large. On a globe it looks like a swollen California. Within that space, though, are twenty-thousand-foot peaks, the world’s deepest canyon (twice as deep as the Grand Canyon), unmapped Amazon jungle and the driest desert on earth. Peru is an equatorial country that depends on glaciers for drinking water. It’s one of the world’s hot spots for seismic and volcanic activity. (Both Lima and Cusco have been leveled by earthquakes; the country’s second-largest city, Arequipa, sits beneath a smoking peak that could blow its top at any time.) Scientists have calculated that there are thirty-four types of climatic zones on the face of the earth. Peru has twenty of them.

“But if the mules do get in front, let them go because they’re stupid and they do stupid things. Of course you know not to stand within”—here he spread his arms wide—“of a mule. I saw a kid a few weeks ago with a hole kicked in the side of his head. He’ll probably get better because he’s a kid. I’ve seen adults with dented skulls that are never going to heal.”

When Bingham saw [Machu Picchu], it was largely in ruins, torn apart by Spanish religious fanatics infuriated by Inca paganism and generations of Andean treasure seekers looking for Inca gold.

“For two weeks out of every year, the sun comes straight down this corridor,” John said, sweeping his gloved hands backward as if he were a matador ushering in the solar bull. “It’s right on the June solstice line, the point where the sun rises on the shortest day of the year. And it’s a straight shot to Machu Picchu. The Incas probably hung some sort of golden sheet or reflector at the end of it to reflect sunlight back to Machu Picchu. Can you imagine how spectacular that would have been? Machu Picchu would’ve still been dark, waiting for the sunrise, when the reflection would just shoot across the valley! “And in that direction

The masonry, like that of most Inca masterworks, tilted slightly inward and tapered as it went up. “Owing to the absence of mortar,” Bingham wrote, “there are no ugly spaces between the rocks. They might have grown together.”

There’s an old kitchen maxim that squid should either be cooked for two minutes or two hours. A similar rule could be applied to Machu Picchu. With a good guide—there are dozens of them lingering by the front entrance—a visitor who’s short on time can see the highlights of Machu Picchu in two hours. A visit of two days, though, allows enough time to take in the site’s full majesty.

One of the major factors in the rise of archaeology had been the birth of the public museum.

“Of course. What’s the difference between Bingham and a huaquero at this point? Nothing. Bingham was very clever at marketing himself. He managed to make himself look like the discoverer. That’s a legend that needs to be completely thrown out.”

Aside from a small group of scholars, administrators, and lawyers at Yale, almost everyone with an interest in Machu Picchu agreed that the artifacts Bingham took should be returned. There has long been, however, some (politically incorrect) doubt about Peru’s ability to take proper care of its antiquities. The National Museum in Lima was notoriously robbed of hundreds of irreplaceable objects in the late 1970s. The Museo Inka in Cusco had twenty-two gold pieces stolen in 1993. One well-known explorer I spoke with recalled handing mummies and artifacts over to the INC, only to return later and learn that they’d been lost or stolen. In 2008, a pair of vendors operating a souvenir shop off the main plaza in Cusco was found with 690 Inca and pre-Inca artifacts; they’d been hawking them on the Internet.

Just now, when we thought there was practically no portion of the Earth’s surface still unknown, when the discovery of a single lake or mountain, or the charting of a remote strip of coast line was enough to give a man fame as an explorer, one member of the daredevil explorers’ craft has “struck it rich,” struck it so dazzlingly rich, indeed, that all his confrères may be pardoned if they gnash their teeth in chagrin and turn green with envy. Perhaps the most extraordinary thing about that extraordinary sentence is that it happened to be true.

The irony of Bingham’s prosecution is that he really was smuggling artifacts out of the country, hundreds of them—just not those that Valcárcel had accused him of. The previous year, the historian Christopher Heaney has written, Bingham had negotiated the purchase of 366 Inca artifacts from Tomás Alvistur, the son-in-law of Huadquiña’s owners. After a bit of haggling, the antiquities were smuggled out of Peru and arrived in New Haven, where they outshone the pieces that Bingham had excavated at Machu Picchu. … “Frankly, Bingham didn’t find shit. He bought the Alvistur stuff.” This was the collection of 366 artifacts from the son-in-law of Huadquiña’s owner. “Machu Picchu was completely sacked before Bingham was born. Far and away the best stuff that Bingham got out of Machu Picchu he didn’t find—he bought. The funny thing was, Bingham snuck that stuff out and they wanted to keep it a dirty secret. But that stuff legally they can keep. It’s the other stuff that has to come back.”

The truth about Bingham, perhaps the only thing Paolo Greer and Eliane Karp-Toledo would have agreed on, is that he did something less romantic but ultimately much more important than discovering Machu Picchu. He saw the ruins, quickly determined their importance (if not their origin) and popularized them to a degree that they couldn’t be blown up with dynamite or knocked over in the search for buried gold, as Vitcos had been. Would Machu Picchu exist if Hiram Bingham had never seen it? Of course. Would it be the same Machu Picchu we know today? Almost certainly not.

Similarly, if he’d never published Lost City of the Incas, would Bingham have been accused of stealing credit for the discovery? No. Was he the original Indiana Jones? Not exactly. But if he hadn’t published Lost City of the Incas, would the character of Indiana Jones ever have existed? Probably not, at least not in the form we know.

Impressions of Vietnam and Taiwan

(Hoi An – Photo Source)

I spent Christmas and New Year’s in Vietnam (Hoi An and Ho Chi Minh City) and Taiwan (Taipei). Wonderful trip. Here are some impressions:

Vietnam generally:

  • Vietnamese people are obsessed with food. We were told that the average person eats more than three times a day. And in between eating sessions, they discuss past and upcoming meals. A country where the locals are obsessed with food means culinary delights await tourists — so if you visit, prepare to eat your way through the country. Where in Vietnam you’re traveling will bear on your food experience. It turns out that the Vietnamese people are highly regional in their tastes. More than one Vietnamese person said she can’t stand the food in other parts of her country; indeed, she and others bring coolers of food with them when they travel domestically. (I saw several of coolers at the airport in the domestic terminal.)
  • How to tell whether one of the innumerable side-of-the-road food stalls/mini restaurants is a good one? One food tour guide offered this tip: look for dirtied, used up napkins on the ground underneath the tables. Locals will toss their used napkins on the ground, and a surplus of them on the ground indicates that a) there have been many customers at the establishment, b) the cook has been so busy cooking that she hasn’t had time to go pick up all the trash.
  • For large people like myself, eating at the side of the road produced an amusing visual given the chairs seem to be made for kindergartners — they’re truly miniature.
  • The Ken Burns documentary about the Vietnam War — or “The American War” as they know it in Vietnam — is incredibly informative. Haven’t finished the whole thing yet but well worth watching before traveling to Vietnam.
  • Americans who travel to Vietnam tend to have the War as a primary frame of reference. For baby boomers especially, cities like Da Nang recall memories of events from the war. I’d guess that visiting Vietnam is partly an exercise of morbid curiosity for American baby boomers. For me — the war was before my time — Da Nang is simply the airport you fly in to in order to visit Hoi An. By contrast, among many Vietnamese people themselves, the War is mostly old news. Of the 100 million people in the country, ~25% of them are under age 18. There seems to be very much a look-forward mentality among the young.
  • Vietnam is known for being cheap for U.S. dollar holders and we felt that almost every time we tried to spend money. $20 for 90 minute massages. A solid lunch would cost a few bucks. Manicures and pedicures for mere dollars.

Hoi An — A lovely small town on the coast, that’s peaceful and safe and boasts good food and 200+ tailors that make cheap custom clothing.

  • This food tour in Hoi An was excellent.
  • Our guide joked that men in Vietnam are very lazy. She then pointed out that at each cafe, in the middle of the day during the workweek, you’d see dozens of men sitting in the outdoor cafe smoking cigarettes and staring at their phones. It was true. In Vietnam claim about war being reason men flushed from workforce, and then women took over, and stayed in charge of the house.
  • The regional noodle dish (is it a type of pho?) is Cao Lao and it was excellent. The water for car lao comes from a well in the area that’s 1,000 years old. If the water isn’t from that well, it’s not cao lao. Or so the story goes.
  • A few years ago, Anthony Bourdain traveled to Hoi An, ate a Bahn Mi sandwich at a local place, and declared it the best Bahn Mi in Vietnam. Today, that restaurant has a line that circles the block. We didn’t go in but it made me wonder: Is that Bahn mi actually the best? Was Bourdain just in a good mood when he ate it? How many sandwiches did he really try in the country?
  • The old town is lovely if a bit noisy with all the scooters honking, but bike a few blocks outside town, and you’re in the real Hoi An. Bike a little further out and you’re in remote rice paddy fields and corn fields, where chickens run around and stray dogs roam amid the peace and quiet.
  • There are 200+ tailors in Hoi An who make custom fitting clothes for you. It’s the most famous tourist activity in the town and deservedly so. The tailor experience was professional, the clothes cheap but high quality, and of course all custom fitting. I got a suit, a few dress shirts, a blazer, and trousers — all for cheap and all fit to my body.
  • Being in Hoi An for Christmas was kind of funny. The country is 90% Buddhist; no one around us seemed to celebrate Christmas. The hotel informed all guests that there was a “compulsory Christmas Eve dinner” that would cost $110 USD per person (!). At the dinner buffet, there was a huge ice sculpture that spelled the word: “X-Mas”. Tinny Christmas music on the speaker system. And staff kept saying “Merry Tristmas” — I guess because ‘Ch’ is hard to pronounce. Reminded of the podcast episode about the factory in China that manufactures most of the stuff found in American dollar stores, including Santa Claus trinkets. There was a line about one of the workers in the factory, surrounded by Santa Claus figurines seven days a week, marveling at Americans’ obsession with someone who apparently is a kind, portly man.

Ho Chi Minh City – The commercial center of Vietnam in the south.

  • In the relative calm of Hoi An, some other travelers mentioned that HCMC was crazy loud and chaotic given the number of scooters and their penchant for ignoring street lights. “Try crossing the sidewalk and not getting killed by a scooter,” one traveler said. Perhaps because of that expectation-setting, HCMC seemed much more livable than I expected. Yes, there are a thousand scooters a second whizzing by when you try to cross the street, but it’s manageable, especially in the more built up neighborhoods.
  • Pizza in Vietnam? Two foodies recommended 4 P’s Pizza in HCMC. Japanese-inspired pizza where all the cheese — not easily found in Vietnam — is homemade. It was delicious.
  • The food/motorbike tour of the city was a hoot. College kids take you around on scooter (you ride behind them) and you visit all their favorite local haunts. Felt like a very authentic way to see the city through a young person’s eyes, and eat some delicious street food.
  • Preferring more “active” / adventure travel to museums or buses, we did a bike/kayak tour in the Mekong Delta area, biking through the rural backroads, and riding in a boat through the floating markets — it was an awesome way to see this part of Vietnam and get a workout in at the same time. A small highlight: Throughout the day, anytime we passed young kids on bike, they’d yell out “Hello!” while standing on the street watching us. They had a giant grin on their faces — they seemed genuinely fired up to see us westerners in the area.
    • The floating markets are going away. Used to be top tourist attraction of the Mekong Delta — to see the locals buy and sell on the markets. Now it’s just tourists who cruise by with a small number of vendors. As the local roads and other infrastructure have improved, it makes more sense for people to leave their houseboats and sell their goods elsewhere.
  • The War Remnants Museum offered powerful exhibits about the Vietnam War, even if there was a real propaganda dynamic. Exhibits relating to how Agent Orange affects the 4th generation of Vietnamese were particularly moving.
  • In HCMC, there was a general sense of growth and prosperity: people are busy, working, economy growing. A new subway system is on the way. New skyscrapers being built. Lots of potential.
  • Grab (the Uber of SE Asia) was everywhere in Ho Chi Minh city. Dominant. Go-Jek (Uber of Indonesia) has just entered.

Taipei:

  • My one word description of Taipei is “livable.” Efficient public transit, clean streets, good infrastructure, no homeless people, no litter. It’s a very green city. Lots of parks, green public spaces, and a sense of clean freshness everywhere. The national airline is EVA — Evergreen Airlines — perhaps that’s the hint. If I had other work reasons to be there, I’d be delighted by the opportunity to live in Taipei.
  • The city didn’t feel overly crowded. especially when compared to other big first world Asian cities I’ve been in (Seoul, Hong Kong, Tokyo). Even in relatively busy areas, neither people nor cars made much noise.
  • Eating at the night markets was billed as a primary thing to do. At the Shihlin night market near our hotel — the largest in the city — there were plenty of tasty food stalls. But standing and eating is tricky for me. I prefer to sit and eat over a table with silverware. The night market was a very fun scene but not quite as as extraordinary as it was hyped to be.
  • There were at least five Nike stores in the Ximending shopping neighborhood — all legit stores, not counterfeit. I’ve never seen so many Nike outlets in close proximity to each other. After passing the first three stores, by the fourth time you see one, you break down and enter and buy something.
  • Someone in Vietnam told us that Taiwan is “America China” whereas Hong Kong is “British China.” Sports is one area where this shows up. In Taiwan, baseball and basketball dominate.
  • Taipei doesn’t have blockbuster tourist attractions. We didn’t see very many non-Asian tourists in the city. Taipei seems like a place people love to live in, but it’s not at the top of most Westerners’ travel lists.
  • There’s a strong food culture, with night markets, hole in the wall shops, and high end restaurant offerings. Dumplings, various noodle dishes, stinky tofu, lots of pork. The Taiwanese people are very focused on food, according to our local food guide, and this makes a delightful place to eat as a tourist.
  • The big local news while we were there was President Xi’s speech about Taiwan unification with China. Via the local newspapers, it seems many Taiwanese people remain quite wary of China and are eager — although not especially optimistic about — continued U.S. support.
  • Globalization continues to shrink the differences between countries. For example, Din Tai Fung — the famous dumpling restaurant of Taiwan, which we went to and enjoyed — now has a location in San Jose, CA.
  • Airbnb inventory was limited in Taipei. Those that exist offer odd formulations — e.g. 6 single beds in two bedrooms, or 4 queen beds and one bathroom.
  • National Palace Museum has a nice East Meets West exhibit that showed artifacts exchanged between China and Western explorers and how that exchange deepened an understanding of the other’s culture.
  • We bore witness to the city trash truck pull up playing ice-cream-truck music, and residents hustling out to drop off their trash. Exactly as described in this 99% Invisible episode.
  • Good food tour in Taipei. Walk the streets and eat!
  • Random: I was complimented on my chop stick use multiple times across Vietnam and Taiwan. It happens frequently when I’m in Asia. People in Asia may not realize how much chopstick use there is in the U.S.

Bottom Line: Vietnam and Taipei are lovely places. More broadly, Christmas/New Year’s continues to be a great time to get out of town. The past six years I’ve gone overseas during this time of year. It’s the least disruptive time to travel and be off the grid because so many other people are doing the same. Already thinking about where to go in 12 months…

Scuba Diving the Great Barrier Reef

It was a blast living on a boat for two nights (a “liveaboard”) and diving 10 times in the warm waters of the Great Barrier Reef off the coast of Cairns, Australia.

Our schedule was: Wake up at 5:30am, dive, eat breakfast, read a book on the sun deck, dive, read, dive, eat lunch, read, dive, read, go to sleep. Repeat.

It was my first time diving post certification. My ears still aren’t fully equalized, but beyond that, I had no issues and was able to really relax into the experience. Swimming amidst the fish and coral is really something.

Here’s a ~1 minute video I created with photos/videos from the dives. My iMovie for iPhone directorial debut…

Impressions of Morocco

Locals lined up to see the King drive by in Marrakech

Locals lined up to see the King drive by in Marrakech

I spent 10 days in Morocco (Marrakech and Fes) over Christmas and New Year’s. Some of my impressions:

  • Quite a beautiful country, physically. The old towns of Marrakech and Fes — the endless alleyways and crevices, and of course the souks — are quite something to take in. You feel transported back in time as you walk the streets and interact with shop keepers whose families have owned the little candy store or butcher or scarf outlet for more decades than you can count. Outside the cities, the red desert landscape is punctuated by the Atlas mountain range.
  • Food tours continue to be a highlight of my trips. The Marrakech city food tour brought us to hole-in-the-wall couscous restaurants that would have been impossible to find otherwise, and brought us face to face with the (whole) cooked head of a sheep. The eyeballs are a delicacy. I can only speak to the taste of the cheek meat…
  • Rug negotiations. Morocco is known for their carpets. Rug makers spend years in the mountains hand weaving gorgeous rugs that eventually find their way into the dozens (hundreds?) of rug shops in the cities. Then, the rugs are hawked aggressively to the large numbers of French and Spanish tourists wandering the alleyways. “You want rug? Low price. Only the best price.” That sort of thing. Once inside the shop, the game of salesmanship and negotiation is fun to watch. They’ve been selling rugs for so long that you can bet that every word and expression offered during the display of rugs and discussion of colors, etc. is a refined technique with the aim of moving product.
  • Morocco is a Muslim country, so there’s no alcohol served in most restaurants and you don’t see people drinking. (It makes New Year’s Eve a rather sober affair in Morocco.) That said, Moroccan wine is produced and consumed in huge quantities in the country…
  • Men rule. During the day, the cafes are occupied almost exclusively by men. The stores are manned almost exclusively by men. “The women are at home,” our driver told us.
  • Beautiful chandeliers and wall designs. Even in the most podunk restaurant in a non-hip restaurant, the light fixture will be some crazy ornate work of art. The Moroccan aesthetic is very popular in the U.S. — as a luxury good. In Morocco, the Moroccan aesthetic is…everywhere.
  • All hail the king. The King of Morocco, who’s usually stationed in Rabat, came through Marrakech when we were there. News spread and soon thousands of people had lined up along the street to see him. Hours and hours and hours passed. Shops closed. Streets were blocked off. We were stranded — unable to cross a street back to our riad given the road closure. Finally the king’s motorcade whizzed by, the people on the street waved, and two seconds later it was all over. When we asked a guide about the scene later, he said shutting down the economic heartbeat of a city for a full day just so people can catch a glimpse of the king is nuts. “It’s why the government likes its people illiterate and uneducated. They’ll blindly be entranced by the king,” he said.
  • Morocco’s riads (hotels inside the medina) all offer hamams; getting your body scrubbed down feels great. It’s crazy how much dead skin comes off. Hamam and regular Swedish massage are dirt cheap in Morocco so you can help yourself to multiple servings of each.

Marrakech is a three hour flight from London. It’s well worth a visit. Read the memoir  “Dreams of Trespass” on the flight over.

Happy 2017. I hope it’s a fun and peaceful year for you, wherever you are…

Impressions of Malaysia

A stop on the KL food tour

A stop on the KL food tour

Malaysia is a country of 30 million people that co-anchors the SE Asian economy with Indonesia. It’s also a place known to have great food and friendly people. So I was delighted to have the opportunity to visit there for the first time recently to give a couple talks.

I was only in Kuala Lumpur so it’s probably more accurate to say I was in Kuala Lumpur rather than Malaysia, as the smaller towns and countryside are quite different from the capital city. (The most striking example of this distinction in Asia is the grand canyon of a difference between “Beijing/Shanghai” and “the rest of China.”)

Kuala Lumpur was more relaxed than I was expecting. A few years ago I spent several days in neighboring Jakarta, a city that overwhelms you with traffic and chaos. KL felt positively tranquil by Jakarta standards.

There isn’t a must-see attraction in KL. There are plenty of striking skyscrapers to gawk at; all the luxury hotel brands with posh buildings; some nice looking mosques; various museums, an aquarium, and so on. The malls are fun and huge and contain everything: movies, nice restaurants, casual restaurants, salons, coffee shops, all sorts of retail, banks, and more. Just wandering around a massive Malaysian mall gives you plenty to look at and think about.

The Kuala Lumpur food tour is very much worth doing. We tasted Malay, Chinese, and Indian food in places where there wasn’t a tourist in sight. A food tour remains a favorite way for me to see a city, learn about its culture and economy, of course taste some of its food. I’ve done them in Istanbul, Copenhagen, Kyoto, and now Kuala Lumpur. It’s great for non-foodies: they tend to emphasize cheap local eats.

Malaysia is predominately Muslim and seemingly a bit stricter about religious rules than its neighbor Indonesia. In Malaysia, if you’re not Muslim and marry a Muslim, you legally are required to convert — a requirement that’s uncommon in other Muslim-majority countries. Also, the local scandal of the moment in KL, as it was relayed to me by a few secular locals, was a boycott of Auntie Anne’s restaurant. Yes – the Western chain that sells those delicious hot dogs and pretzels. The reason for the boycott? The phrase “hot dog” on the menu. Dogs apparently are sacred to some Muslims. Thus, the phrase “hot dog” offends. Strange world. Strange times…

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

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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:

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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)

Panoramica_Centro_De_Medellin

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.