Monday, July 28, 2014

Caribbean Teaser

This post is not going to be that exciting. It is just sort of an obligatory few lines to set up a post for next month (which in my time delayed blog entering corresponds with where I am now).  So about two months ago Mac tells me that he is going to teach a week-long course on statistics in the Caribbean. In Antigua. As there was no way that I was going to let that pass me by, I obviously cashed in a few of the frequent flyer mega fund to come for the weekend. We found a condo within walking distance of a dive shop and bar and set up camp. Both the diving and dive guiding was mediocre but the captain had very entertaining stories like the time that his girlfriend called his wife and together they sleuthed out that he had capsized his boat and had been floating off the coast of the British Virgin Islands for the past 48 hours. He lived. The marriage sadly did not pull through. Here are the best of the worst in terms of the photos. I am hoping that I will get a few better shots from my current excursion. 

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Vandals at the Gate

So my experience in Tunisia can sort of be summed up as a series of taxi rides.  Sadly this is what my life has become when I drop into a country for a few short days to attend some meeting or another, and the only people I interact with are those serving me something at the hotel or driving me from one point to another. 

 There were some good ones (see below) and some not so good ones (the piss poor behavior of the guys hanging out across from the Sheraton make me feel much better about “random” airport screening).  And while it probably is not a good representation of the Tunisian people in general, it handily provides me with enough of a narrative thread to string together these pictures. 

So I get off the plane exhausted from a ridiculous trip from Monrovia, and hop into the first thing on the airport taxi line.  Despite a bit of miscommunication, we eventually get ourselves on the right path.  Just in time to watch the van in front of us crash hard into the car in the next lane and take off blazing.  Enter the unlikely buddy cop team of Driver and Economist. 

Coordinated through a series of gestures and grunts, he speeds down the fleeing car while I get the license plate.  Which we loop back to give to the perplexed but grateful Citron driver now missing a significant portion of their right front end.  A quick wordless nod to acknowledge a job well done and then we return to the previously schedule economic transaction.  

Due to a quirk of scheduling of Royal Air Maroc, I have the whole day after the workshop to spend tooling around the sites in neighboring Carthage.  In the midst of historic ruins and informative museums, what I really want is for the driver to stop at the graffiti covered door to one of the numerous residential compounds so that I could take a picture and cleverly name this post “Vandals at the Gate.”  Alas with my previously mentioned communication difficulties, I basically was gesturing at obscene or political graffiti in Arabic and making a camera motion.  He probably thought I was a sex fiend or a spook.  (I am not sure which is worse.)

One of thing of note - Carthage has lots of mosaic floors.  With my little pocket camera, I had to spend nearly 30 minutes to get the exposure right on this beautiful floor that I found in an underground chapel.  And then less than a hour later I come across this giant storehouse.  If I had been going directly back to DC, I might have tried to negotiate for one to replace the floor in my guest bathroom.  I am sure that my Global Entry status would not have been jeopardized by a little antiquity smuggling?

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Of Angolans and Anglicans.

It has been awhile I know.  This year just kind of got away from me.  First by beloved Nikon D40 finally gasped its last, so I am without a camera.  Also, as a very few of you may know, the World Bank is going through the first corporate re-organization in a generation.  (Happy to talk to you privately about my opinions but I am pretty sure the new machine doesn’t want me posting publicly about how their new bean-counting system completely undermines any chance I may have had to help countries measure or understand poverty – so I am not going to say that.)  In addition there have been property purchases and some personal life re-organization, and some things just didn’t get done.  So now that I have caught up on six months of ironing, it is time to restart the blog.  I am going to try to post about the trips I took earlier this year one a fairly regular basis until I catch up.  I am starting with the first two stops I made in a March trip which took me to Angola, Oxford (England), Sierra Leone, Tunisia, and Liberia.

So Angola.  I don’t get to say this often, but Angola isn’t really like anywhere else I have been.  It suffered through a horrific 27 year civil war which started when the Portuguese liberated their colonies somewhat fire-sale style after a 1974 coup d’├ętat.  (I learned it from watching you Dad, I learned it from watching you.)  The USSR and Cuba backed the Marxists, and the Americans teamed up with apartheid South Africa to back everyone else.  The Marxists won (as reflected in the flag which, despite being a gear and machete, representing farm and city, clearly is reminiscent of a previous era).
In any case, they got with the program fairly quickly and started hauling oil and diamonds out of the ground very quickly.  (Catch you on the flip side Karl!)  Currently it has one of the fastest growing economies in the world (20 percent per year – give or take), but still lags in development indicators (including some of the health and education basics).

Interestingly, the capital, Luanda, is the most expensive city in the world.  Seriously, more expensive than Tokyo or New York.  They have a Porsche dealership.  My standard hotel room was $450 per night and a Caesar salad and diet Coke from the room service menu is a bargain at a mere 42 US dollars.  Even the local restaurant across the street was charging 25 USD for a beer and some fish.  I might have been able to find cheaper food outside of the main downtown area, except I would have had to sell a kidney to afford a taxi (my trip in from the airport – probably equivalent to JFK to lower Manhattan – but in the middle of the night with no traffic – cost nearly 200 USD).  You get the idea. Other than that, it is a lovely country.  Government buildings are new, roads are clean and straight.  I have heard things are different outside the capital, but I shudder to think what it would have cost to investigate further.

From there I bopped up to Oxford for a conference.  Similarly to Angola, Oxford was also heavily damaged by strife during its history, specifically the Norman Invasion of 1066.  Since then they have been building tastefully appointed architecture and undergraduate pubs.  This blog post was actually delayed by me trying to think of something witty to say about my econ conference at Oxford, but alas, some things there is just no hope for.  Therefore I close with my favorite Oxford comma joke.  (I know – I am starting off slow.  They say it is just like riding a bike, but it really more like a unicycle – which I never learned to do in the first place).

Credit (or blame) to Andy Oler for the above.

Monday, October 28, 2013


The best stories will always start out with “it seemed like a good idea at the time.”  And it did.  The dodgy local African airline cancelled my flight at the last minute.  My rerouting options from Sierra Leone to the neighboring country of Liberia were overnighting in Ghana (bordering none of the aforementioned), transiting through Nairobi (which is the equivalent of flying from Boston to New York by way of Phoenix), or spending 10 hours in a no-booze no-internet airline lounge.  Or I could go overland.  It is less than 300 miles, and more importantly offers me as the World Bank poverty economist for these countries an opportunity to see something other than the nicest hotel in the capital and ministerial conference rooms.

So I contacted the Freetown WB office for a reliable SUV and driver to take me to the Liberian border, where another car would pick me up and bring to Monrovia.  I should have known when the car showed up for me to inspect.  I am kicking the tires and checking to make sure that it has 4 wheel drive, and this guy wants to show me the air-conditioning button and the seat covers.  I should have known when he shows up with the invoice less than 12 hours before we are supposed to leave and the price has increased $100 since my written quote.  I should have known when he was asking me if I knew if the ferries were running or if we would need to drive around the river. If nothing else, I should have at least had a premonition when I saw that his spare time cover was advertising the now-defunct three times weekly British Airways flight from Freetown to Monrovia...

But apparently I didn't.  Because at 5 am on Saturday morning, I got into his Land Cruiser anyway and we headed off.  The first five hours were easy.  The most exciting thing that happened was that we hit “National Cleaning Day” where essentially the government grounds the entire population for two hours at the end of the rainy season to clear the brush with machetes.  The police theoretically enforce the no-movement ban, but you can bribe your way into the President’s bathtub here for a crisp ten dollar bill, so that really wasn't much of a hindrance to progress. 

But we couldn't figure out if the ferries were running.  Everyone had conflicting information.  The river was too high.  The engines weren't working.  The boat sank.  Everything was fine.  So we decided to drive the long way around (by “we” I mean the driver since I really didn't have much to contribute to the discussion).  This meant a three hour detour on a dirt track through the national park.  Which was pretty but longer and harder going than the driver was expecting.  The first time we got stuck, I offer advice. The road was all washed out and soft mud.  You have to drop it into four wheel, get up a bit of speed, and push it to get up the embankment.  After the second time we slid down perpendicular to the road, I decided that it was time to matters into my own hands.  I got out and stood under a tree.  There aren't all that many random white women in remote rural Sierra Leone, so within minutes people had materialized to figure out what was going on.  Eventually a farmer, who judging by the traffic we saw could not possible encounter more than four mechanized vehicles a week, put down his machete and drove the car up for us.  We were on our way again, but I now knew that I was being captained by a dangerously inexperienced moron. 

As we bounced along the road and I passed the time picturing the various calamities that might befall the secretary who earned her kickback by setting me up with this idiot, it was getting later.  Immigration closed at six and if I didn’t make it, it meant a night at the border.  (More realistically a Ben Franklin to the border guards but I certainly would have made the driver pay it.)  Driver started driving faster.  I held on as we banged down the road, hitting the submerged sections way faster than I was comfortable with.  I had to remind myself that swearing at the help was a particular social faux pas in a country founded by former slaves, but somehow my “Careful Sir!” just didn’t get the correct level of urgency across.  Then we hit an unexpectedly deep submerged section.  The driver yelled “SHITE” as we rocked up on two wheels.  Sheer force of will and raw fear brought it back down, landing hard on the front left.  Crisis averted.  Except that hitting the rock bottom on the way back down severed the brake line.  That meant we went the next 20 miles to the closest thing that passed for civilization with the only braking options being downshifting and gravity.  

After a few more close calls that I will gloss over because I know by this point my mother is already furious with me, we arrived at the mechanic.  The staff was staffed by a lead mechanic, who was crippled from polio and could walk only with the aid of a heavy stick, and three henchmen.  I sat in the shade as they got the car up on blocks (tree trunks), got the wheel off, found the severed brake line, dug through the metal scrap heap to find metal tubing to the same width, cut the connectors off the broken piece, attached them to the new tubing, used a nail to widen the edges, then filed the whole thing down again the rusting metal shop table.  All in less than fifteen minutes.  This would have been extremely impressive if they had cut the tubing the correct length the first time.  Or the second time.  Or third.  Or really any of the first six or so.  As it was, the sun was starting to dip amid a scattering of metal tubing and cigarette butts as we set out again to cover the last 27 miles – supposedly the roughest road of the trip. 

After stopping only once to top off the still-leaking brake fluid, we seemed to me making some progress.  The terrain was getting much rougher though and I only had an hour left to make the crossing.  Then about 10 miles from the border, we hit a major snag.  We again came to a sharp incline of soft mud that the driver just would not try the appropriate speed.  After 15 minutes of sliding and fishtailing into walls, half the surrounding county had gathered to tell him what an idiot he was.  And to tell me that there was no way to make it in time.  With 45 minutes until 6 pm, and white smoke coming from under the hood, both I (and apparently the transmission) decided that enough was enough.  Leaving the driver to figure what to do with his car that now no longer either accelerated or braked, I climbed onto the back of a motorbike and off we went to try and cover the last 10 miles. 

The road was rough and at one point we went through a puddle deep enough that it washed over my ankles (three little boys cheerfully waved from the rock in the middle where they were fishing), but I finally had the one thing that I wanted all day – a good driver who knew the local roads like the back of his hand.  And while driving mach 1 down a muddy dirt road on the back of a motorbike with no helmet and holding your computer bag and with your 40 pound suitcase on the handlebars was probably not the most advisable thing that I have ever done, it somehow felt safer than sliding all over creation in that SUV…

And then it all worked out.  I made it to the border with less than five minutes to spare, but made it across.  I crossed into Liberia, climbed into a Toyota Camry, and rode down a perfectly smooth tarmac for the last two hours into Monrovia.  Then, head held high and visions of an ice cold beer dancing before my eyes, I walked into the nicest hotel in the city with feet that would have been considered dirty on a Peace Corps volunteer.

[Special thanks to Mac for filling in the technical details of the car problems – interspersed with some (perhaps justified) points about risk and judgment.]

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

II, Dominica

Okay, and I promised some diving pictures.  Diving here has been awesome.  In terms of what we actually see, it is on par with most of the Caribbean – except for the seahorses which are always otherworldly.  (I got a clearer picture here so that all of you that couldn’t find that last one would not have to go on seahorse-unfulfilled.)  But the visibility is crystal clear, there is no current, and the reef is completely healthy.  Makes a huge difference.  Plus there are only a handful of dive shops on the island so you are always the only people on the reef. 

We have been diving mostly at a dive shop called East Carib Divers run by a former East German uranium miner and his adorable French wife.  They have little bungalows right on the beach so you can wake up 15 minutes before the boat leaves and still have time for coffee.  And our room has a tree growing in the middle of it.  Mac has been doing his Advanced course and I have been taking pictures.  Life is pretty much as follows: wake up, dive, eat coconut, dive, gourmet lunch on the beach, quick wade across the channel for cold beer at the domino player bar, sunset on the beach, and huge plates of local food for dinner in the nearby village.  (At this pace my wetsuit is going to need to be let out.) 

And even though the seahorse is probably going to be the crowd-pleaser, the moray with the nose shrimp is probably my favorite dive picture that I have ever taken.  

For those that found the seahorse right off this time and still want a challenge, I have flounder...

And the angriest little puffer fish in the Caribbean (even puffed up he is smaller than a grape).

And finally for Elin, Elysia crispata, or the lettuce sea slug.  They come in common, or as the fish guide says, the much more rare "blue variety."

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

I, Dominica

I remember in grad school that at the first brown bag lunch we had, a public official came from Dominica came to speak with us about the problems his country was facing.  They were a poor little remote island basically was subsisting on banana exports and aid money.  They wanted to develop a tourism industry but they have almost no beaches (rock coastline), somewhat of a downer in the Caribbean market.  And it is sandwiched between two French speaking islands (it is anglophone) with an airport is the size of a gum wrapper that can’t take jets.  Plus when you say “Dominica” most people think you are talking about the Dominica Republic.  As this was early in my development career, I thought recommendations needed to be grounded in statistics and hard evidence, so he came away empty-handed.  But the pictures on his powerpoint looked epic so, then and there, the selfless humanitarian in me decided that I would one day go and help bolster the nascent sector. 

This was now eight years ago, and there still isn’t anyone here.  And unlike Bangladesh, which has been using the slogan “come before the tourists get here” since the 1970s, eventually they will come.  This place is unreal.  There are two main types of activities here – hiking through unspoiled rainforest to swim in pristine waterfalls, or diving on incredible reef in crystal clear water.  Mac and I have indulged in copious amounts of both.  As to ration the material, I am going to stick to the non-diving adventures here first.

For the first week, we rented this tiny little cottage up on the hill overlooking the forest and rocky cove.  Our adventuring was a bit limited since we were still working, but I have to pass on to management that I am much more productive with a majestic sea view.  We managed to sneak in a few short hikes to secluded mountain waterfalls and lunch at one of the beaches where Pirates of the Caribbean was filmed.  (I think Johnny Depp personally may account for a measurable percentage of total tourism revenue.)  There is a woman selling cold beer, and fish with avocado and breadfruit.  (You very much could have left me there.)  Other than that – we were the only ones there.

And not that weekends in DC aren’t cool and all – but here you can snorkel on Champagne reef – which in its own right would have been a great site but due to the island’s ongoing geothermal weirdness, it bubbled like a glass of champagne.  It is tough to describe how decadent it feels to be snorkeling with swarms of tropical fish in champagne.

Then there was Boiling Lake.  Considered the “premier hike” in an island that is pretty stacked in that department, with was memorable.  You start by walking through the forest, then it is up and down and up and up and up and down and down some pretty fierce hillsides, until you reach the “Valley of Desolation.”  In the middle of the lush green hillside, the burbling sulfur gases mix with the mud and natural water to make its own little oasis of hell.  Which takes 45 minutes to slog across.  And the one piece of advice that the lady that sells cold beer at the trailhead gave us – other than “you be startin’ a bit late now ya?” was “nae step in the sulfur pools – melt you shoes.”  Sage advice as it turned out.

Once you get to the top there is – as advertised – a boiling lake – which appears to be made of mildly noxious skim milk.  (You may be interested to know that this is in fact the second largest boiling lake in the world – second to Frying Pan Lake in New Zealand.  This is interesting not that there is necessarily a bigger one but that there is a list of such things.) 

All in all, the trip was about ten rough miles roundtrip.  I was thoroughly coated in mud from the knees down – plus in a fit of primal ecstasy at actually reaching the top I used some volcanic mud to paint clipart tribal tattoos on my face and arms.  In summary – I was dirty.  Luckily in addition to the nice lady selling cold local beer – the Titou Gorge was at the base of the trail.  Straight out of Indiana Jones.  You swim about 100 feet through a very deep very cold very narrow very dark chasm to this ethereal sunlit double waterfall.  Then back as fast as you can because you just swam 100 feet against strong current in very deep very cold (fresh) water and you had already exhausted from hiking  10 grueling miles and god damn if you were going to drown before you got that beer.  But at least you were no longer dirty. 

I have attached a couple pictures of this and a few sundry waterfalls.  And this caterpillar (pseudosphinx tetrio if you are Elin Grimes) which ate (with a few friends) our entire frangipani tree in four days.  After which they became hawkmoths which are similar to very small very stupid bats without sonar.

I am going to have to whittle down the diving pictures from the few hundred that I have accumulated before I can write the next installment… 

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Le papillion et l'hippocampe

So let me say it up front and get it out of the way.  I am working from the Caribbean for the month of August.  Now if everyone is done chuckling, it really isn’t as bad of an idea as it sounds.  I spent the last two months lining up outputs from the consultants, and now I have a month to put them together.  Working part time and taking some vacation as well.  I work for my most productive four (or six or whatever I am feeling that day) hours, and then go play.  If it rains, usually I would be upset because it was raining on my vacation, now it is all cool, because I just spend that day working, and take a sunny Thursday off.

My partner in crime, Mac, and I spent the first two weeks of our month on the island of Guadeloupe.
Guadeloupe is a French overseas protectorate, which means it is like the Puerto Rico of France except they get to vote in parliament (which makes it one up on the District of Columbia).  There are a couple of them, so Guadeloupe is the one shaped like a butterfly (or two volcanic islands connected by the land bridge but this is France after all and that is nowhere near sufficiently poetic).  In addition to my previously mentioned productiveness, we have been filling in the days hiking, sunning, diving, beaching, driving, cliffing, volcanoing, waterfalling, and drinking copious amounts of Caribe beer.

Basically this post is really just a vehicle for me showing off my dive pictures.  (It may not have the packed sea life of the Pacific or Red Sea, but the viz is crystal.  And on the upside, its most sectarian conflict is over whether to drink French or Trini beer.)  In addition to the flamingo tongue sea slug and the puffer fish with the weird eyes, I also got the biggest sea horse that I have ever seen.  He is a bit hard to see in the pictures (natural camouflage blah blah blah), but you can just make him out.

The cliffs along the ocean are nice and dramatic for hiking, and one is never really that far away from a golden beach if it gets too hot.  Then there was one sort of ill-fated decision to hike the local active volcano (every island has got one) in the rain.  The sulfur mixed in with the low hanging clouds and basically left us in a foul smelling hazy for three hours.  I am attaching a photo so you can see how happy I was to get to the top, and looking, as Mac rather generously described, like a wet puppy.

Fortunately there was a nice bar at the bottom that served Ti Punch – which is a fruity island favorite when served in tourist bars but is just a shot of cane rum with lime and sugar when you stop in the roadside pirate bar (ie what Jimmy Buffet drinks the night his wife leaves him).  But it took care of any lingering chills right quick.

So that is Guadeloupe – catching a southbound boat tomorrow afternoon…

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

To rip off the official slogan: sLOVEnia

 Thirteen years ago this summer I graduated college and embarked on a three month backpacking trip around Europe that would be my first taste of life on the road.  This week, I plied some of the same train routes that I took all those summers ago, visiting a friend in Munich before heading over for a conference in Ljubljana, Slovenia.  And, while I am a grown-up now, with my roll-aboard competing for valuable luggage rack real estate with those overstuffed backpacks, some combination of nostalgia and the majestic scenery of the Julian Alps led me to revisit those carefree days… by making mainly ill-advised decisions to go rock-climbing and jump off a bridge.

The trip started in Munich last weekend, where less than two hours after stepping off the plane, I was sitting in the Englischer garden with a liter of beer in my hand.  Next day it was off to do what turned out to be warm up hiking in the Volderalpen (foothills) in southern Germany.  I am told that Bavaria is apparently the Texas of Germany.  And hiking for Germans is a bit like fishing for Americans (in that it is an excellent reason to be drunk before lunch).  Our 9:30 am train to the mountains certainly had its share of the “it’s noon somewhere” crowd.  But the day was complete with lederhosen (not on me), hills, cows, and all other things lusty and robust and Bavarian.

Then it was off to the Slovenian capital of Ljubljana.  Now admittedly this is a consequence of growing up in the ‘80s and coloring all those countries with the same red crayon, but I was expecting amber glass and overpasses (the staples of my post-communist stereotypes), but I was shocked to learn that no one actually mentioned to Slovenia that it was supposed to be behind the Iron Curtain.  My tour guide explained that Slovenians had always considered themselves to be much more like their nearby cousins in Austrian and Italy (which, if you were a robust Bavarian hiker, got an early start, and packed a full six-pack, you could reasonably walk to).  And perhaps not surprisingly they were the first ones over the boards into the EU, a choice that they are perhaps rethinking these days.

So Slovenia has beautiful architecture and a wine industry.   And, since it is Europe and you can do these things, they permanently closed the downtown to traffic, making it essentially a walking and biking city.  They have a massive city park that you run on wooded trails until it is prudent to take the “bear warning” signs seriously.  Plus they have a castle and a dragon bridge, which links to the city’s history in that it is supposedly where Jason (of Argonauts fame) slew a dragon (or, if you are Catholic and willing to allow a healthy amount of suspension-of-disbelief in your miracle stories, St. George). 

But that is not even remotely the best bits of Slovenia.  After wrapping up at the conference, I decided to take a two-day stop in Bled on my way back to Munich.  Bled is famous from having Slovenia’s only island (which they of course put a church on) and for being close to Slovenia’s only national park, Triglav, which contains the incredible Emerald River and numerous ways for your knees to remind you that you are no longer 20 years old. 

The Emerald River is named for the Wizard-of-Oz color of the water (which I tried to capture with the camera but could not get the color quite right).  And my 12 hour day tour of the park included hiking, swimming, rafting, viewing of ruins of WWI fortifications (when Triglav was very close to the front lines), waterfall, taking a train through the center of a mountain, and, as I mentioned above, jumping off a bridge.  The bridge jump wasn’t an obligatory stop on the trip, but we were going anyway because the two 20 year old Australians with us were quite keen on the idea.  They say the bridge is somewhere between 35 and 50 feet above the river, depending on the water level in the dam.  And, as there was no additional charge for this little adventure, and the van was going to be stopped anyway while the Aussie kids jumped, what excuse did I really have not to?  (It is the same rational that leads me not to count the free oatmeal raisin cookies at the lunch seminar towards my daily caloric intake.)  And I guess it was a long way down, but I don’t really remember, because I was too busy focusing on the fact that my heart stopped the millisecond that I hit the water.  Jumping off bridge – not a problem – landing in 100 ft deep snow melt – huge problem.  Though it either effectively iced my aching knees, or temporarily shocks my system into worrying about other things. 

So how to follow that up the next day?  Well, the tour company offered half-day “Intro to Rock Climbing” lessons.  The class was taught by a guy named “Boogie,” who was closer to my father’s age than mine, had a steel gray crew cut and not an ounce of fat on him, and was clearly at least partially descended from the mythical wood sprites and faeries, because he was small enough that he and I wore the same size shoe.  I didn’t fall off the mountain – mainly thanks to ropes and Boogie.  Boogie’s assessment is that I had some natural ability, but that I needed to do more push-ups.  This coming from a guy that probably does sets of 10 in between mouthfuls of his morning muesli. 

Then it was a bit more hiking on the afternoon, and an evening at the annual Bled Festival, which featured a Rolling Stones cover band, sausage made from every sort of woodland creature (aren’t black bears endangered?), and capped off by thousands of candles being floated in eggshells on Bled Lake (which looks incredible and photographs like crap).

And now I am on a train back to Munich and then back to the really real world of Washington DC.  Every time the train doors open I take huge gulps of Alpine air, as I have heard reports that the weather in DC has been a bit “sunny side of hell” lately…