Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Books #9 and #10: Superfreakonomics, Chinese Whispers

Superfreakonomics is the excellent follow-up to Freakonomics by economist Steven Levitt and journalist Stephen Dubner. The anecdotes and innovative ways of examining topics unrelated to conventional economics are interesting, of course, but what I found most useful was a definition of economics.

In high school, I was told that economics was the study of the allocation of scarce resources, which was a definition even duller than a class which consisted of curves which moved right or left depending on which way Ms. Petrie's hand moved on the overhead. Needless to say, I appreciated why George Bush (the Elder) had once dismissed Reagonomics as "voodoo economics".

Levitt and Dubner's definition of economics as the idea that people respond to incentives is far more cogent and interesting. It can be used to consider problems other than the mundane gibberish about how many seasonally adjusted jobs were created this month or what should be done about interest rates.

As for the book itself, suicide bombers and prostitutes get all the hype, but their takedown of children's car seats is most interesting. Despite the fact that car seats are mandatory by law in many developed countries, including for adolescents in some cases, they rightfully point out out the laziness of entrusting children's safety to an awkwardly designed piece of equipment that no one knows how to use, which in turn is held in place by a seat belt, which is designed to hold adult human beings in place, not car seats.

The other book I read while traveling this past month was Chinese Whispers by the Globe and Mail's Jan Wong. Much of the book is yet another look at the by now obvious reality that, yes, once China was desperately poor and Communist but has now embraced the free market. As a result, people that were once poor are now rich. If you've read nothing about China in the last 5-10 years, you might find that aspect of the book riveting, but otherwise it is trite.

What makes Chinese Whispers a great book is that, first, it takes a look at Beijing. The affection I have for Beijing is probably not shared by most people, but they should share it. It is a deeply historic city, the product of detailed planning, which is why its central sites are on a north-south axis and it develops around the old imperial palace in concentric circles. Coupled with its shameless commercialism, communist interlude and chilling winters, and it's easily one of the most fascinating cities in the world.

Wong's story intersperses Beijing's vast, fascinating history with her own history. She was a student in China during the Cultural Revolution. Not only that, she was a sincere communist who considered Maoist propaganda to have value. As a result, she ratted out a student that wanted to live overseas. Wracked with guilt, Wong revisits China 30 years later to try and find out her fate.

Wong does a service in telling the story of the Cultural Revolution, an odd misnomer for what was essentially a genocide. In addition to the roughly million peopled that died, there were many, many more whose lives were ruined. Promising careers turned into backbreaking labour in factories and farms in the middle of nowhere. Chinese Whispers does a good job of tracing lives that were jarred by the Cultural Revolution and, depending on circumstances, recovered or finished in ignominy.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Death on Twitter

On Thursday, someone shared the following post on Twitter: "My younger sister disappeared at about 1 am last night near the Mapo or Dongjak bridges (in Seoul). The only thing left behind was her cell phone and ID. Even if you think you saw her, please send me a message. Thanks."

I'm not sure why I found it so striking. I do find that the Koreans I follow on Twitter tend to be more community-oriented and less wit-oriented than the Westerners I follow. I've seen Koreans post far more personal details (phone numbers, workplaces, neighbourhoods) than a Westerner ever would. To see something so personal unexpectedly, without being pointed to it after-the-fact, was rare. Out of simple curiosity, I followed the woman.

She posted messages throughout the day wondering where her sister had gone. At 6 the next morning, she was following up on a lead that said her sister had spent the night at a hotel. By mid-morning, however, she'd said that there had been a mistake. A few hours later, at 2 pm, she wrote:

"There's a shelter by the Mapo bridge where many people jump to their deaths. As a result, there are a lot of suicide notes there. Even the police don't know why it was built. I wish it wasn't there. People kill themselves there daily. I wish we didn't build places like that."

The next message, at 5 pm, said: "Thanks, but we just got a call saying that we found her. Thanks to everyone who helped. We've found her body."

Maybe a few years ago I would have questioned whether discussing this sort of thing on the Internet was appropriate, but by now it's plain (particularly in Korea) that the Internet occupies the same technological space as a telephone. Granted, I'm able to find out personal details as a complete stranger, but if the Internet is good enough to help you find someone, it's good enough to report that you lost someone.

The last thought that occurred to me was suicide, which is strange of me. Pretty much every Korean I know can tell me about one friend or acquaintance that committed suicide. More than 10,000 Koreans commit suicide each year. Last year alone, a famous actress, a famous model and the previous president were among the nearly dozen celebrities who committed suicide.

In that sense, what I saw unfold on Twitter was not exceptional, simply another tragic suicide playing out with more visibility than normal. The reasons for why people here commit suicide at an epidemic rate are no doubt complex, but probably are related at least somewhat to the fact that this is one of the unhappiest countries in the world despite its progress and development. What struck me was that it happened in front of me in this case, with such abruptness.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Almost half of Canadians would deport legitimate refugees

According to an Angus Reid poll, "48 per cent of [Canadians] would deport the passengers from the Sun Sea. That’s even if the refugee claims are found to be legitimate and there is no discernible link between the migrant and a terrorist organization." Thirty-five percent of respondents would have the charity to allow refugees who earned the right to stay here, to actually stay here.

An embarrassingly high portion of us would rather send legitimate refugees back into danger than lose our tough guy image. I bet a lot of these heartless assholes are immigrants themselves who like feeling superior to those on the outside looking in. Others, I guess, are more ordinary racists and xenophobes who feel that our country is overrun by immigrants, unemployment is too high and other talking points from CFRB 1010 with no connection to reality.

The National Post reported this weekend that the country that sent the most refugees to Canada this year is Hungary. Of course, these Hungarians presumably arrive by planes or cars, not all at once on national radio. Also, they're white and reasonably well-off (over 99% of this year's claimants were rejected), so there's less reason to hate them. On the whole, absorbing 500 refugees, and even another 5,000 needy, desperate people is no big deal.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Third World chic

I didn't think people actually rode on the sides of buses until I got to Nepal. I could be wrong, but it seemed that buses there don't actually have doors, so someone must stand on a step outside the bus to see if someone wants to get on. People do ride on the tops of buses, but I think those buses were a class below the one I took, something billed as a "video coach".

As the bus rumbled over bumpy, pot-holed roads, even the supposedly beautiful city of Pokhara was an urban nightmare. It was neither urban nor natural. There was garbage everywhere, and most of the land was neither paved nor grass. It was typically filthy dirt, verging on mud, covered in garbage of different kinds. Buildings, too, were somewhere between half-constructed and full-constructed. They were scattered across the landscape, not forming a block of buildings, but imposing themselves every which way.

I find something interesting and redeemable in the vast, sprawling cities of the developing world. Lahore, Delhi, Beijing and Sao Paolo all charm of some kind in spite of their flaws. Urban Nepal may have been hideous, but the people were surprisingly cool. The conductor of the bus is a prime example. His rattail was not otherwise commendable, but coupled a shirt advertising some sort of heavy/death metal, it was impressive. If someone younger and hipper were to hang out of a bus, it goes from being an embarrassing reality of a poor country to the sort of quirk that someone might decry one day.

Gradually, I began to notice that people weren't as poor in style as their country was. There was a lot of bleached hair, a lot of band shirts, and even some Nepali goth. The disdain for school uniforms was also duly noted and appreciated, for how well-done it was. For a relatively isolated country, I felt that Nepalis are more in-touch than their counterparts in a comparably poor country like Pakistan with the totality of world culture, more like Latin America or Africa than a staid South Asia.

ABC, easy as 1-2-3

My hike to Annapurna Base Camp (ABC) in the Himalayas was both surprisingly easy and simply surprising. The base camp is located at 4130 m (14,000 feet), about halfway up the 8,000-metre Annapurna peaks, the tallest of which is the 10th-tallest mountain in the world. In contrast to the Annapurna massif, the world's deadliest mountain, the hike to base camp was described as relatively easy for anyone who had a week on their hands and a pair of shoes on their feet.

Most people did the walk up in 4-5 days, though the Lonely Planet guidebook I soon came to resent for its roundabout directions and cavalier advice suggested as many as 6 days to go up, and as many as 10 days for the whole trip. I was hoping to squeeze it into 6 days and was later embarrassed to think that I found it doubtful. Lonely Planet projected that the hike would take 42 hours in all, though I think most people can do it in 30 like I did, simply spread over more or less days.

As I approached the base camp, I wondered just what it would be. Base camps on their own aren't particularly interesting. At Everest Base Camp, for example, you can't even see Mount Everest, and there's really nothing to do if you're there for sightseeing as opposed to an expedition to the peak. For all my repetitive reading of the guidebook, I hadn't noticed that Annapurna base camp doubles as Annapurna Sanctuary.

I'll always remember when the meaning became clear to me. Annapurna base camp is otherwise a handful of huts and colourful prayer flags on a wide, flat grassy valley surrounded by a massive glacial valley and some green hills. It was cloudy all morning when I got there, but when I turned to leave in the afternoon, the clouds cleared about halfway. It was enough to realize that Annapurna Sanctuary is effectively a panorama of towering Himalayan peaks: Annapurna I, Annapurna South, Hiunchuli and Machapuchre. The view didn't last long thanks to the clouds, a reason that no one visits in the rainy summer, but having the mountains unveiled by the clouds was its own experience.

What I found constantly surprising about the hike was its alternation of surprisingly remote with surprisingly worldly. I spent six days inside the Annapurna Conservation Area, a place with little electricity, no roads, few phones and no Internet access. Everything you see inside was carried by an animal or, once you get over 3,000 metres, by a person. This helps to explain why prices at the base camp are triple or more what they are in urban areas. For a lifelong city dweller who doesn't get out much, it was nice to spend six days in what was definitely not a wilderness experience, but at the very least was not an urban experience.

At the same time, the trail is surprisingly accessible. If you consider that the largest village of maybe 10-15 consists of 5,000 people, and that the nearest village is typically an hour or two away, I felt that there was an astonishing amount of garbage on the trail. A typical conservation area back home has less garbage than the main path on the Annapurna Conservation Area, where its hard to get lost simply because the presence of garbage confirms that you're going the right way. Most of it, however, I'd attribute to Nepalis rather than tourists, who tend to stuff their piles of garbage in garbage cans provided in the villages.

There were also, of course, other things like the standardized menus present throughout the hike. Pizza is a constant, as are French fries. The $7 pizza I enjoyed at Machapuchre base camp (3700 m) was the first time (hopefully not the last) I've had tuna on a pizza, and was definitely in the better half of pizzas I've had. If you're thinking of going on the trip, let me recommend the Chomrong Cottage for its Time Magazine-featured chocolate cake.

So, despite the dire warnings in the Lonely Planet book, there were no helicopter evacuations, no lethal altitude sickness, no yaks running me over the edge of a trail, and so on. However, it's easy to see how remote treks in Nepal can combine wilderness, weather and an impoverished country (Nepal's GDP per capita of $1200 ranks it ahead of a handful of countries) to produce disaster. Still, most people who die in Nepal die for reasons that could've killed them anywhere: rock slides and falls.

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Man giving dumpling to cat is going to Kathmandu

It took 24 hours , countries and one trip in an unmarked black car, but I made it to Nepal. As the plane descended through the dense cloud cover over Kathmandu, I saw the slums, the buses and the ancient cars and realized that I was back. It had been over 16 years and 18 countries in between, but I am finally back in South Asia. The mustaches, the ceiling fans, the slow movement without regard for time which dictates a portion of my life in Canada now dominates it.

Getting off the plane, I was hoping that the touts which invariably ravage tourists would leave me alone. Having not shaved in five days and having a nice tan from the Korean summer, I thought I could blend into the population. Of course, my brand-new 35-litre backpack and general look of bewilderment kind of gave me away. "Hola!" remarked one shark of a taxi driver. "Are you from Chile?" With a population of just 16 million people, it was kind of an odd choice, but the novelty was lost on me. I was crushed.

As we drove through past amputees lying on the street and people calmly walking through traffic driving on the right side at times, on the wrong side at times, I realized that there was nothing Pakistani, Indian or Nepali about me. Of course, my parents could have told you that for free, but I had to learn it for myself with my own hesitation at crossing the street, at indifferent bureaucracy, at random, unmarked streets and overall disorganization.

Kathmandu itself is kind of a nightmare, a sort of retrograde Seoul. Consider that with the lush green pint-sized mountains in the distance, the buses polluting jet-black air and dense cloud cover in its summer monsoon season, it is what Seoul was fifty years ago. There's even the peculiar, unique population that lives in the shadow of two giants in India and China. Of course, not everything comes back to Korea even though I'm from there.

The nimbleness of life here surprises me. The way high school students in oppressive navy uniforms pick their way on the sidewalk between filthy puddles on one side and corn roasting on the other amazes me. The way people manage to cross streets without police direction and do so calmly (I give myself away as a Westerner when I run) frightens me, and I don't even know what to say about the breeze that gives as much as it takes, taking the edge off the eat much as it whips the dust on the ground into my teeth.

Tomorrow I leave, hopefully only to look black for when I fly out of here. There's a lot of beauty in this country, but it definitely isn't here. Kathmandu is a lot of things, a sort of resilient, utilitarian concrete treehouse for those with the savvy to negotiate it, but it's definitely not the reason I came here. Without the natural beauty in this country to pull in the gora, it would be the equivalent of a regional Indian city.

That means the architecture is intriguing, if sometimes in a morbid sort of way. There are a lot of colonial-style buildings, if not colonial relics, that are decaying in a way that makes them seem like they're 500 years old. They're often set against hideous, shiny modern buildings that are cut off from the rest of the city with high walls and security guards. The faux-colonial buildings of the classical style make do with rusty gates and high-minded if somewhat worn signs indicating their government or educational function. The rest of it is low-rise utilitarian, neither ugly nor pretty, simply existing on politely-written, tastefully-coloured signs in Devangari and English.