The long term impact of COVID-19

The Thinker by Rodin

Aboard the M.S. Nieuw Amsterdam, off Hispanola, May 11, 2020

We JoCo Cruisers don’t seem to be too upset about the coronavirus thing, here on Day 5 of our cruise. We have more pressing things to do, which is basically to nerd out with fellow nerds, something they don’t get to do much of once they are home. Life on the mainland is hardly like The Big Bang Theory. As best I can tell we two thousand passengers on the Nieuw Amsterdam have escaped the dread coronavirus and the COVID-19 disease.

The Dominican Republic let us into Santo Domingo yesterday where our activities went on without a hitch. Santo Domingo is the bright spot on the island of Hispanola: a chocolate city, thoroughly modern with crushing and relentless traffic. It’s a shining gem of a Caribbean city, despite being the oldest city in the Americas. Considering what Christopher Columbus did to the natives here (basically wiped them out, mostly through disease) you would think they would not revere him. But he is revered, and the current citizens of the Dominican Republic are mostly distant ancestors of slaves.

As for the Turks and Cacoas, they are giving our cruise ship a pass. We were schedule to stop at Grand Turk on Thursday, but that’s off. Instead, we’ll stop at Holland America’s private island, Half Moon Cay in the Bahamas on Friday instead. We can’t be kicked off an island that Holland America owns. We were scheduled to go there on Sunday, but stormy seas kept us from berthing offshore and tendering in.

I don’t blame the Turks and Cacoas for rejecting us, but it’s really kind of silly since no one on our ship is “presenting” signs of the virus. Another Princess cruise ship, one of those we saw leaving with us out of Fort Lauderdale, is sailing aimlessly off the coast of Florida. A cruise greeter at the Princess terminal apparently got COVID-19, so this ship is now suspect. Here on the Nieuw Amsterdam, we’re trusting to frequent hand washing and lots of Purell and doing our best to party on.

Our principle problem is there are lots of us in a confined space, so if one of us has the virus it is likely to get quickly passed on. It’s pretty clear that our government is clueless on how to intelligently manage this pandemic. There is some good news about this virus. Unless someone with the virus coughs in your face, you get it from touching surfaces that has the virus on it. The virus degrades with time, faster on certain surfaces than others. It looks like a virus could persist on a surface for 2-3 days. You shouldn’t get it from an air conditioning or heating system. Keep six to 12 feet away from people, wash hands frequently and avoid touching your face and most likely you won’t get it. Vigilance and regular hygiene are your friends. Act like a doctor who sees sick people every day and rarely gets sick because they wash hands before and after seeing you.

For us, success will be to make it home without the virus. Since incubation can take up to two weeks, if we make it then we probably won’t know for sure until two more week have elapsed. Even if not infected, getting home might prove problematic. Flights are being canceled. I had Wifi briefly in Santo Domingo (there is free public Wifi in much of the city) and so far no notices from JetBlue, our carrier home, on canceled flights. We’re getting a $50 per berth cruise credit, so my share went for Wifi here on the boat, where it is slow and costs a lot. Fingers are crossed.

We are fortunate to have Andy the epidemiologist and Tim the virologist on board. Both are paying passengers, but are spending some time giving us the straight dope, which mostly isn’t coming from the White House. My suspicion that we were probably safer on a tightly packed ship with lots of people doing proper sanitation than outside of it in a public that isn’t seems validated. Tim the virologist says even air travel is not that dangerous. Unless someone sneezes on you, the cabin’s HEPA air filters will keep viruses from hitting you. We’ve got sanitary wipes to clean nearby surfaces, in case the previous occupant was carrying the virus. Assuming authorities let us catch our flights, we should be fine. The dirty Fort Lauderdale airport we fly out of is more of a danger to us than this cruise ship is at the moment. We need to keep our distance from people there as best we can and wash our hands in the restroom frequently.

Markets though operate principally on fear, which is why they keep plunging. There’s no question though that this will all have an impact. A recession is a virtual certainty. Republicans and Democrats may come together to, temporarily at least, make employers pay sick leave for employees, at taxpayers’ dime most likely. The corporate welfare is likely to get larger as travel and other affected industries are likely to get bailouts. Maybe that will calm markets.

The long term impact of the coronavirus may be to convince people that looked unconvinceable to let government govern again. Joe Biden seems to be the primary beneficiary of coronavirus fear. Real relief may wait until January 2021 if he is elected, but in times like these sober people look a whole lot more vote-worthy than those at the extremes. That’s fine by me although Biden was never my first choice.

What I’m really hoping for is a political tsunami in November, so Democrats can regain all levers of government. Maybe next time we get a virus like this we won’t be caught so needlessly flat footed.

Post updated March 16, 2020 to indicate that coronavirus can persist on surfaces for up to a couple of days. Post updated again on April 12, 2020. It is now believed that in interior spaces the virus can persist in the air like an aerosol for an hour or more. So wear a mask and gloves when in these spaces.

Cruising in the midst of a coronavirus panic and economic upheaval

The Thinker by Rodin

Aboard the M.S. Nieuw Amsterdam, off Haiti, March 9, 2020

Markets are plunging and authorities are pleading for people not to get on cruise ships. So of course we are on a cruise ship. We merrily set sail on Saturday along with close to a dozen other cruise ships out of Fort Lauderdale. We’re on a Holland America ship again, but the difference this time is that rather than being one of the youngest passengers on the ship we are now one of the oldest.

Holland America passengers skews toward 60+, but it’s really more 70+, which is why we felt so young on our last cruise. The difference in this cruise is that it’s a themed cruise, a JoCo cruise to be specific. Having invested over $6000 in this cruise, we weren’t going to be deterred by the threat of coronavirus. We might have had we not paid all this money into it and had some way of getting it back. So armed with plenty of saniwipes in our carry on, we took our chances and boarded a JetBlue flight last Friday from Hartford to Fort Lauderdale.

There are hundreds of cruises still going on across the globe and last I checked only two had cases of coronavirus, both of the Princess Cruise Line brand. There were two Princess cruises going out of Fort Lauderdale with us. The two thousand or so of us passenger onboard the Nieuw Amsterdam may look odd. My wife is hardly the only woman around here with purple hair. In fact, it’s more normal to see oddly colored hair on this cruise than not.

This cruise is full of weird people and oddballs, the sorts of whom we used to meet at science fiction conventions thirty years ago when that was still a thing. Now there is plenty of evidence that the remainders of this tribe take this annual JoCo cruise instead. It’s aligned around a programmer turned nerdy song writer Jonathan Colton. There are plenty of polyamorous people on this ship, along with all sorts of other other odd people, but I’m betting they are much more a safe sex type than the general population at large. They are at least 90% white, average age probably somewhere around 35, the sorts that like to dress in costumes, decorate their cabin doors with quirky stuff, play endless role playing games mostly in the upper dining room, sleep little and frequently queue into long lines at the food court on the Lido Deck.

Time will tell if we suffer the fate of the two Princess cruise ships, but most likely we’ll be fine. Even before all this coronavirus started, sanitation has always been a high priority on cruise ships. Purell stations are everywhere and people are mostly refraining from touching each other and washing their hands thoroughly after bathroom stops or when leaving or returning to their rooms.

We’ve rented the whole ship so it’s been largely transformed for us. Generally, this is good. There is no annoying art auction and the shops and casino look eerily empty. Also largely empty is the promenade (Deck 3) which is usually full of walkers and joggers. I saw one lone jogger and a few others in deck chairs. It was the quietest place on this noisy ship.

Should I take it as an omen that we didn’t berth at our first port of call? It’s Half Moon Cay, Holland America’s private island in the Bahamas, and pretty much always the first port of call on one of their ships out of Fort Lauderdale. We weren’t spurned due to coronavirus fears, but because seas were choppy due to a strong low pressure system north of our ship. That’s why the captain changed course and this morning we found ourselves south of Hispanola where the seas are finally calmer.

Tomorrow we are expected to berth at Santo Domingo where we’ll have an outdoor concert. Last I heard, the Dominican Republic hadn’t refused our entry. That’s because no one was let on the ship sick. They took our temperature prior to boarding, and we had to assert we hadn’t recently traveled through suspect Asian airports.

Still, you never know. We don’t get much news on this cruise ship. Internet is prohibitively expensive, but we do get satellite TV and Holland America doesn’t block the New York Times site, in fact it subscribes to it for us. For the most part the passengers seem vigilant about hygiene but won’t let it affect their valuable social interactions. This cruise is a place to be your inner oddball, so it’s quite okay to be Corporal Klinger in high heels and hose around here. You are probably one of a dozen passengers with a similar theme. Klinger though was just vying for a Section 8. There are plenty of real trans people on this cruise. If you can’t figure it out from their somewhat manly appearance and breasts, their name tag suggests you use “they” as their personal pronoun. They look happy and liberated. For a week they can be accepted and be themselves. It’s going home to a much colder world that is the hard part for them.

If anything, I am the oddball around here. I’m dressed American-ish, my personal pronoun is He, and I’m not polyamorous, in costume, have a stuffed dragon on my shoulder or am particularly into the odd stuff most of these people are into. My wife is quite into this culture. I just kind of observe it all from the sidelines. I’m no redneck and believe in live and let live. In my sixty plus years, I simply don’t care what your color, age, body shape or your sexual orientation is. We all are here and should just get along. The only thing that gives me some heartache are self-identified Republicans and conservatives. I just don’t understand them.

And until Saturday when we return and are hopefully let off the ship, I don’t have to. We are living in a kind of private space on this cruise, mostly insulated from the real world which will probably come crashing back to us on Saturday. Any coronavirus is likely on shore, not here on the ship. There are board games and weird seminars and exclusive shows on the Main Stage every evening. It may be that for us the safest and friendliest place in the world, at least for the moment, is right on this ship with the coast of Haiti off the port side.

Expect a recession

The Thinker by Rodin

A recession is coming. It’s probably already here; we just can’t prove it yet.

The trigger was the emergence of the coronavirus and the resulting COVID-19 disease in late 2019 in China, but if it hadn’t happened it would have likely happened later in the year anyhow. As predicted it’s spreading all over the globe. People are already starting to hunker down. In some places it’s getting hard to find bottled water, toilet paper and hand sanitizer.

This is an overreaction. You don’t need bottled water unless the public water supply system goes out, which it won’t. And even if somehow the water is unclean, you can boil it. Fear of course makes people overly cautious, but it’s currently way overblown. It’s the fear that is driving down the stock market and making people buy too much toilet paper.

The world economy is now built on specialization and trade, so when China’s manufacturing sector takes an indefinite hit, it’s going to have large worldwide ripples. It’s already happening, but if you need proof you just have to look at Chinese ports, where little is going out or coming in. When items like rolled sheet metal don’t make it to manufacturing markets, value-added products can’t get produced. That will cause layoffs. But fear in general will cause people to be cautious with their money. The Fed can cut its discount rate by half a percent, but it won’t do much to solve the underlying problem.

Coronavirus was perhaps half the reason I sold twenty percent of my stocks and moved them into bonds on February 14, at just about peak market. Even then, it wasn’t too hard to see how this was likely to go. With the wholly inept response by the Trump Administration, it was clear that an intelligent response to the health crisis wasn’t going to be forthcoming. We could have been much better prepared than we were, but instead Trump cut the Center for Disease Control’s budget. Voters won’t forgive incompetence when it kills their family, friends and neighbors.

It’s also becoming clearer that this virus will not only put us into recession but turn into a pandemic. It’s pretty much there already. It’s not hard to catch and there is no vaccine available. Potentially 40-70% of us could contract it. For most of us, a bout of the flu will be much worse, but since it will spread so easily and has about a two percent mortality rate, it’s going to take a lot of lives.

There are 330 million Americans. It’s realistic that 10% of us will contract the virus this year, and there may be more next year. At a two percent mortality rate, it’s likely to kill about 660,000 of us this year, principally the aged and infirmed. This is just a ballpark figure, but it’s likely to be the biggest public health crisis since the 1918 Spanish Flu. I live in a 55+ community, with most of my neighbors probably 75+. If it gets me, it’s unlikely to kill me, but it’s likely to kill a few of my neighbors. Most neighborhoods will see at least a few casualties from this virus.

So of course we are going on a cruise. It’s hard to get out of as it’s paid for, but the cruise line won’t let in people cruise who fail a health check or who have traveled through certain countries recently. It’s unlikely to affect our cruise beyond perhaps being denied ports of call. But it’s still worrisome. 660 people on the cruise ship Diamond Princess out of Japan contracted the virus and 7 died, in part because Japan wouldn’t let them off the ship into proper quarantine facilities.

I’m not panicking. Prevention is mostly being vigilant, which means washing hands frequently. Still, cruise ships are great places to pass it on, as the Diamond Princess learned, because of the centralized air conditioning which can push the virus through the whole ship. In general, being in close quarters is not a good idea, and you can’t avoid that on a cruise ship.

Speaking of which, the travel industry will slump. Actually, it will go into a depression. And that will affect a large supply chain of its own, which will feed a downward economic spiral.

What can you do? Don’t overreact, but also take sensible precautions. Wash your hands regularly, particularly after touching foreign surfaces, with soap, for 20 seconds or more. A vaccine is probably at least a year away. This means you could easily get the virus anyhow, just realize that it probably won’t kill you, but it will be widespread.

With luck you can avoid it until there is a vaccine, but even when it’s available it will go to the elderly and infirmed first. One in 50 odds of dying is very good odds. Unfortunately, the way our society is ordered will make it worse here. So many workers have no sick leave, so they will come to work and spread it further. It’s the downside of a gig economy and our poor labor standards. Those who can will work from home. Those who can’t will bear much of the risk and be the principle carriers.

It also probably means that Trump will be a one-term president. He is managing this as ineptly as we feared. It won’t take too many MAGAers to die before their friends notice. It will help people put their prejudices aside and force them to understand the value of science again. At least I hope it will. It should.

The price of the never-ending federal shutdown

The Thinker by Rodin

Before we left for our vacation in Ecuador, I was wondering if two weeks later there would be anyone left around to let us back in. I was not particularly prescient in believing that the government would still be shut down. Still, our trip home from Quito connecting in Miami was nervous. Would TSA and Customs be on the job? Would we be able to catch our connecting flight on time?

It worked out for us, only because some gods decided to put us on TSA PreCheck. We were scanned leaving Quito but that’s not good enough for the TSA; if you are an international arrival, you have to go through TSA’s scanning. So when we finally got to TSA screening in Miami, it took less than five minutes, while the queue in the regular line was 15-20 minutes. So we made our connecting flight to Boston, but just barely, practically running the whole way to our gate (not easy when my wife has a bad knee).

On these international flights coming into the U.S. you must also go through Customs. There things were a bit alarming. It’s not that we had to wait a long time to get through Customs. It was just the opposite. Everyone was being hustled through at warp speed. You make your declarations at machines now. When we finally got to a customs’ agent, he never bothered to ask us a single question, just glanced at our passport and waived us through. It was just as alarming after we claimed our luggage. Yes, you have to claim them and check them again on your domestic flight. You drag your luggage past a few CBP agents who may ask to check your baggage. But they couldn’t be bothered. We had just come from Ecuador. We could have easily smuggled many kilos of cocaine in our suitcase. Perhaps dogs were sniffing the luggage before we picked it up, but the CBP agents looked like they didn’t give a damn. No one’s luggage was being pulled aside. I was left with the impression that our unpaid TSA and CBP agents were present in body, but not in spirit.

I also suspect that things are going to get worse. At some point this house of cards is going to collapse. There are already signs of it. Over the holiday weekend, 10% of TSA agents did not show up for work. Certain airports, like Atlanta (the world’s busiest airport), are already experiencing moderate to severe delays due to insufficient TSA staffing. Federal employees are not allowed to strike, but you can only test their patience so long when they are not getting paid. If this government shutdown goes on long enough, it may be rebellious federal employees figuring they have little to lose who gunk up the machinery of government that manage to break the logjam.

It’s clear that the shutdown is just going to drag on and get worse. It’s also clear that in particular Republicans really don’t care who they hurt. Some of them see government dysfunction as a good thing. If federal employees go homeless or people starve because they don’t get their food stamps, hey, it’s no skin off their backs. So it will probably take some major government lapse to move things, but even so there’s no guarantee. If hundreds get sick from E. coli infections because food inspectors are furloughed, or airplanes start crashing because federal authorities haven’t inspected them, maybe some action will happen. This shutdown shows every likelihood of continuing for months.

Action may finally happen when sufficient numbers of businesses petition Congress to end it. Republicans do listen to business. The airline industry is already suffering, and they give lots of money principally to Republicans in Congress. Delta Airlines figures the shutdown has cost them $25M so far in January. Threaten to stop giving these politicians money and they may find the courage to do what is necessary. Or certain segments of federal workers forced to work without pay may find the courage to strike. How are you supposed to get to work if you can’t afford bus fare?

If TSA and CBP agents en masse stopped showing up for work, that would ratchet up the level of this crisis. The shutdown’s continuation depends of the patience and suffering of people who can’t exist in this state forever. If they strike then perhaps Trump, like Reagan with air traffic controllers, would decide to fire them all. Perhaps he’d send in the military to do their job. TSA agents though don’t have that much to lose. Most are paid around $30K a year, a pittance for a federal employee, plus they have to work at inconvenient times and at weird shifts.

I just don’t see how this ends. There is simply the absence of leadership to end it. Moreover we have a tone-deaf president that cannot see past six feet in front of him. Vladimir Putin must be ecstatic watching our great nation crumble into dysfunction.

Touring the Galapagos Islands

The Thinker by Rodin

If you are going to come all the way to the Galapagos Islands, you had better like nature. And hiking. And climbing over fields of lava rock. And sea lions, iguana, sea turtles and tortoises. And weird and interesting landscapes. You should not come here if you are looking for the amenities of civilization, like lots of fancy ethnic eating, dance clubs, Starbucks and skyscrapers.

They do try to cater to our tastes but it’s not the same. I ordered pizza for dinner the other night. The sausage was unspiced, the pepperoni uninspiring, the sauce nothing to brag about. There is “Tex-Mex” food which is pretty good. Just don’t expect much in the way of other types of cuisine. You can get sushi, but most other ethnic food except for Ecuadorian food is not available.

If you know anything about the Galapagos Islands, you will know that it is largely uninhabited. This is by design but it’s also something of a necessity, as it doesn’t make a great place for human habitation. Just 35,000 people live here in the Galapagos in three “port” cities, the biggest of which we are in at the moment: Puerto Ayora, on the south side of Isle Santa Cruz. Santa Cruz is roughly equivalent to Oahu without of many of its amenities, except for palm trees and volcanos. Puerto Ayora has 12,000 of the islands’ 35,000 people. This makes it roughly as big as the village I live in (Florence, Massachusetts), and the population of the entire Galapagos Islands roughly the size of the city of Northampton, Massachusetts in which my village resides.

Puerto Ayora tries its best to compensate. It has a beautiful marina, and the streets are lined with tourist related businesses. There are many shops selling day trips to the islands. There are also a decent number of restaurants. Without the tourist trade, it would be economically devastated. It’s mostly Americanos who come here, but many from mainland Ecuador come here too, as it is their primary place of escape.

It’s pretty easy to transact commerce even without knowing a word of Spanish. The merchants at least know just enough to get by, and since it usually involves dickering over price, they will often use a calculator to show their asking price. You might as well dicker over the price. It is generally expected, except at restaurants. There are some bars and nightclubs here too, but not too many as not too many are needed. You got to get away from the marina to find things like grocery stores and pharmacies.

If for some reason you want to move here, that’s virtually impossible. Even mainland Ecuadorians can’t move here. They want to keep the islands as natural as possible and really these islands would have a hard time supporting much more of a population. Your only hope is to marry a native Galapagos Islands resident. And then you would have to be temperamentally disposed to live around here without most of the amenities you may be used to. Moreover, prices are often high here. A pair of Levi jeans will cost you more than $100, a bottle of sunscreen more than $25. So a lot of residents wait for trips to the mainland or to the United States to stock up on these essentials, bringing back with them much more than they left with. The only bargain I found here so far was a local laundry service, found behind a small gate along a cinder block lined pathway. Total cost to clean nine days of sweaty clothes: $7.90.

So enjoy your time in the Galapagos Islands, just remember it will be short lived. There are always other islands to visit and hike, but many are far away and hard to get to. So instead take advantage of the nature close at hand, which includes a lot of sea lions. It’s hard not to find them as they will often be lounging on wharfs, beaches and rocks along the coast. They are certainly cute to look at with their tiny ears and big eyes, even if they are often in your way when you want to go somewhere.

Ecuador

The Thinker by Rodin

Mark Twain once wrote that travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness. This may explain our problem in the United States where sometimes even traveling to another state is considered exotic. 64% of Americans have never left the United States, and 10% of us have never left our state. It seems to me that those who most need to travel outside the country are the ones least able to afford to do so, which exacerbates our narrow mindedness. Happily, that is not our problem. If Americans do go to a foreign country, it is probably Canada, which I discovered in 2017 is largely the same but with roads that are well maintained. Europe is probably the main destination for Americans traveling internationally for pleasure. It’s much less likely that Americans will travel to more exotic destinations like Africa, South America or Asia.

A year ago this month my wife and I took a 16-day cruise, largely our chance to experience Central America from a comfy cruise ship and cruise-line sponsored tours. It helped expand our horizons, but this trip to Ecuador is a better experience. We’re in Quito, the capital of Ecuador, which also happens to be about 10,000 feet above sea level and about twenty miles from the equator.

In the United States, you tend to think of the Americas as the U.S. and maybe Canada. This first real trip to South America though proves it is something else entirely: the Americas are mostly Hispanic. There is far more Spanish spoken in the Americas than English. The only other major language spoken in the Americas is Portuguese in Brazil. It has 200 million people, so there are more English speakers than Portuguese speakers in the Americas, but probably not for too much longer.

Happily English remains something of a universal language, but that doesn’t mean that most people speak it. It does mean that if someone has learned a second language, it is likely to be English. On this tour of Ecuador, we have a nice personal tour guide/translator provided by the touring company. My Spanish is more than forty years old and I haven’t had much need to practice it. I can stumble through the basics but I can’t hold a meaningful conversation in Spanish. In the past this was a big barrier to travel, but today it is less so. You can carry the Google Translate app around on your cell phone and if necessary you can use it to broker a conversation with someone in a foreign tongue. You can even point it at signs and it will translate them, at least a lot of the time.

Having spent a couple of days in Ecuador though I am feeling my mind broadening and my prejudices narrowing. If you think of South and Central American the way Donald Trump does, presumably as with mostly shithole countries, you would be largely wrong. We have seen some pretty impoverished countries like Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic, but no one would characterize Ecuador that way, at least not once you have actually been here. A closer match is Costa Rica and I suspect Argentina and Chile that I have yet to explore.

You could perhap call Ecuador second-world, but it feels more first-world than second-world. Quito, its capital, is thoroughly modern while its old city (a UNESCO heritage site) is charming. You see mostly new cars on the road, and actually fewer junkers than you see in the United States. You also see car models and brands not in the United States, lots of nice looking but probably cheap cars from places like China and the Czech Republic. None of the worst stretches I’ve seen here quite compare to the poverty you will find in many places in Appalachia. While there appear to be fewer rich people here, there also appear to be a lot fewer poor people, at least as a percent of the population. Wealth inequality feels less of an issue here than in the United States.

Things do take some getting used to, of course. For one, Ecuador is on the equator. Days are always twelve hours long, within fifteen minutes or so anyhow and the sun is usually overhead, casting little in the way of shadows but plenty in the way of ultraviolet radiation. There are a lot more diesel cars on the roads, in part because the state subsidizes diesel fuel. It’s ridiculously cheap, like about $1/gallon. These subsidies may be coming to an end. It may explain the protestors we heard chanting next to the Presidential Palace, just a few blocks from our hotel.

The Americas look a lot like Donald Trump’s worst fear: brown people, with some black people thrown in, who are mostly descendents of people we largely exterminated in North America: the natives. Many people here can trace some ancestry from Europe, but the general population evolved from the Aztec, Inca, Mayan and other races that predated colonization. How many of us in the United States aside from Elizabeth Warren can claim any Native American blood?

But really these are terrific people: religious, hard working, courteous and respectful for the most part. That’s not to say they are better or worse than the rest of us; they are just the same with a darker skin hue than some of us are comfortable with. They succeed when they form governments that lift them up and fail when they don’t. Ecuador, like many South American countries, is getting an influx of refugees from Venezuela, which is collapsing. Ecuador though has always had some things working in its favor. Its wealth is largely a product of its oil revenues and previously its plentiful plantations and gold. Its government is not without corruption, but it’s a lot less corrupt than most and its leader generally work for the people, while sometimes lining their own pockets. It’s a mosaic of different geographical regions, from the Amazon, to Pacific beaches, to a cloud forest, to the Andes Mountains. This is my first experience with the Andes and they impress: tall, incredibly steep and full of volcanoes, some active. San Francisco’s hills have got nothing on Quito’s. I’ve never seen steeper roads or mountains with more severe slopes.

In short, Ecuador is pretty neat, at least what we’ve seen of it so far. We went into the cloud forest yesterday (which means you drop down to a lower elevation where clouds are usually at) to a town called Mindo, did some walking, took a chocolate tour, enjoyed a good lunch at a nice restaurant and noted the many potholes when you get off the main roads. Mindo is just 22 miles from our hotel, but it took two hours to get there along the impossibly twisting roads you have to take.

I suspect if I had to live somewhere in South America, Ecuador would be a logical place. It’s pretty modern, pretty to look at, more affordable than most places in the U.S. and the people seem to be doing pretty well overall. Yes, there is poverty in places. You see lots of entrepreneurs walking amidst the often stalled traffic selling bags of fruit, bottles of water and windshield cleanings. You see sporadic homeless dogs and poor people in the plazas, a site that looks familiar to every place I’ve lived in America too. You also see some delicacies that would turn off most Americans, like deep fried guinea pigs on a stick. (I haven’t found the courage to try them, but I doubt they taste bad, given their popularity.) In fact, there are expat communities of U.S. citizens here, mostly along the coast, and there are gated communities aplenty in Quito’s suburbs you can probably buy into at a great cost savings compared to U.S. real estate prices. You would have to learn Spanish, but it’s not that hard to pick up. You can often figure out the signage. Ecuador also has some conveniences that Americans would like. Gas is sold in gallons, their currency is the U.S. dollar and there are plenty of fresh vegetables and fruit from the many stands close at hand. Also, you won’t need to change appliances. Current is 120 volts and the plugs are the same as in the USA. You just have to like mostly brown and predominantly Catholic people.

So there are plenty of good reasons to visit Ecuador although few Americans do. It’s not that far away. Our flight from Miami took about three and a half hours. You might find yourself charmed and decide that maybe the good old USA isn’t nearly as great as you and Donald Trump have been led to believe.

A short visit to Minneapolis-St. Paul

The Thinker by Rodin

Life can be busy when you are retired. For me it’s been busy in a good way, meaning I took a mini vacation last week. This had the effect of keeping me from blogging. It meant a 4-day trip to Minneapolis-St. Paul to attend a reunion related to my last job.

Our hotel turned out to be a mile away from the Mall of America (MoA), so when we weren’t doing tours or attending a banquet we were often at the mall for dinner and to gawk at its immensity, its indoor amusement park and its four levels of shopping. It’s so big that there are two or three stores for some retail brands in the Mall. I guess they want to make sure they have you coming or going.

The MoA is definitely worth a visit, even if you are not into malls or shopping in particular. If it’s available for retail, it’s probably somewhere in the MoA, if you can find it. Thinking of our tiny Hampshire Mall, I’m guessing you could fit a hundred of those in the MoA and still have a floor or two to spare.

The trip was a good change of pace. Minneapolis-St. Paul is a beautify area, at least near the end of summer: prosperous and clean where the run down houses are few and the streets look regularly swept. If life were longer I might want to move there. It has it all: two major cities close to each other, light rail connecting cities with the burbs, three major rivers including the mighty Mississippi, bluffs along the rivers, major arts, sports and events venues and 10,000 glacial lakes to choose from within the state.

It’s also got history of sorts. St. Paul was a big gangster haven during and after Prohibition. We took a Gangsta Tour that included a tour guide who was also an actress. She stayed in character the whole time as we looked at a speakeasy built into some sandstone cliffs and saw houses where various mobsters and gangsters hung out. She played the sister of a woman married to the mob and provided colorful insights into the mobsters of the time. St. Paul was known back then as a safe city, not meaning it was a particularly safe community but that gangsters could hang out there with impunity as long as the police got their payola and you refrained from open violence.

Today the biggest scandal is probably Garrison Keillor’s (“A Prairie Home Companion”) alleged sexual harassment. He did well enough though to buy a fine home in St. Paul’s most exclusive neighborhood: Summit Street, which we drove down. He shares this street with previous luminaries like F. Scott Fitzgerald and Sinclair Lewis.

With Hurricane Florence wreaking havoc on the Mid-Atlantic States, I was a bit anxious about flight delays. Thankfully we had direct flights between here that were on time, making our air travel relatively painless for a change. Florence did eventually catch up with us here in Florence, Massachusetts. It resulted in three inches of rain yesterday and the report of one missing woman who was stupidly swimming in the local Mill River. They are looking for her body on the river.

Back to more germane topics in the days ahead.

Report from some so-called “shithole” countries

The Thinker by Rodin

Seeing Central America has been on my bucket list of a long time. Curiously Central America is largely not visited by cruise ships, but that’s changing. This Holland America 15-day cruise we’re on is mostly about getting up close and personal with Central America, or as close as you can get given that you will see it generally through shore excursions provided by Holland America.

I have been to so-called “shithole” countries before. Nothing I’ve seen so far quite compares with what I saw in the Philippines in 1987, when I was sent there on a business trip. It’s been thirty years and fortunately I’ve heard that tremendous progress has occurred there since then. I was quite appalled by the trip, even though I knew what to expect. A “shithole” country should almost by definition lack modern sewage systems. That was true of the Philippines back then, with some exceptions in Manila. Waste was generally dumped into the street and sewage for the most part into the rivers and tributaries, and most of the shacks that compromised housing lined these water sources. Cars had no emissions system so the atmosphere too was simply a toxic dumping ground, making areas in Manila in particular toxic to the lungs. The most appalling part was the lack of public education. It was a privilege available only to those who could afford it for their kids and most could not. So kids mostly grew up in the street, and were tempted into the abundant trade of services for the American seamen that I encountered. If you wanted to have sex with someone underage, it was not a problem. It was a grinding poverty where kids often smoked in the streets and worked hard to part us Americans from our money.

I was informed by some of the U.S. Navy people I worked with that as bad as the Philippines was, nearby Thailand was worse. Lots of people died there from completely preventable diseases. Things like netting to keep the mosquitoes off their bodies at night was unaffordable. People literally starved in the streets. Everyone was too inured to it all to care about it. I never saw any bloated bellies in the Philippines, except from many a pregnant teen, some of who I suspect were pregnant due to the presence of frequently visiting U.S. sailors.

On this cruise we have visited Colombia, Panama, Costa Rica, Guatemala and Mexico. The closest country here to what I witnessed in the Philippines thirty years ago was Nicaragua. But Nicaragua was still an improvement. They have a public education system, not a stellar one, but it exists. They also have universal health care, again not great health care, but it’s there and can be used by anyone though with some delays and perhaps some issues with the quality of health care. In that sense Nicaragua is ahead of the United States. There are still people in our country that cannot get health insurance, and if Republicans get their way the uninsured rate is likely to soar again. In that sense some reverse migration may be in order.

Nicaragua is the largest and most populous country in Central America. You can see in the local markets sanitation standards that would be unacceptable in the States. You can see stray dogs in the street and sometimes malnourished horses along the sides of the road. For most, housing consists of a shack or shanty with a corrugated metal roof, often with cinder block walls but often less. But unlike other countries I’ve visited, there are plenty of reasonably maintained highways and there are lots of cars, buses and trucks running around. Unlike the Dominican Republic that we visited four years ago, most of the roads are paved. If the potholes aren’t fixed they aren’t too bad and you can drive around them.

Guatemala is not that much better than Nicaragua, at least if you look at their statistics. We saw security guards in most establishments. But the roads are quite good and well marked and it’s clear there is a significant middle class, who often drive to the coast on the weekend to enjoy the beaches there. They cause traffic jams too, and we were caught up in one on Sunday. There are plenty of first-world establishments along the sides of the roads too, and we stopped for lunch at one classy place (Pueblo Real) along the Pan American highway. Few can afford new cars, but plenty of people have after-market automobiles that were crashed in the United States and restored and look new. A car is something of a status symbol and plenty of families have them. Obviously it’s beyond the reach of many, so these depend on private bus systems instead. They are everywhere but unlike the jitneys I witnessed in the Philippines, these are essentially blinged school buses that are well maintained and presumably quite affordable. There was some air pollution, but it was mostly due to burning the sugar cane so it can be harvested. The automobiles all seemed to come with their emissions control systems intact.

As I mentioned in a previous post, Costa Rica is the jewel of Central America, such as it is. If Central Americans aspire to live somewhere in the area, Costa Rica is probably it. Costa Rica would still be seen as somewhat rough by most American standards. But the curious fact is that if anyone’s standards are slipping, it’s the United States’. Our educational standards are beginning to resemble Nicaragua’s more than Costa Rica’s. This is symptomatic of our refusal to invest adequately in our own human capital and infrastructure. And Donald Trump’s disdain for “shithole” countries has the effect of making us more like one of these countries every day.

As I have noted in many other posts, immigrants both legal and illegal have allowed Americans to maintain much of their standard of living. To the extent the Trump Administration succeeds in its war on immigrants, expect it to drag our economy down. Immigrants keep our productivity booming and inflation away. In any event, it’s unlikely Trump has visited some of these countries that I’ve visited on this cruise. He would probably refer to them as “shithole” countries, but I wouldn’t. I wouldn’t characterize the people there as lazy either. What they mostly lack is fertile educational soil to reach their potential, which is generally denied to them by the landed aristocracy that is essentially in charge in most of these countries. Some countries like Costa Rica have made huge strides, but most seem mired in slow progress at best. The real obscenity is that systematic forces by people like Donald Trump are keeping them from realizing their full worth.

As for Trump, his ignorance is appalling but not the least bit surprising. He and his fellow Republicans though are exacerbating their problems, not helping to solve them.

Costa Rica vs. Nicaragua

The Thinker by Rodin

Costa Rica is supposed to be the jewel of Central America. Disembarking at Puertarenas on Friday, it didn’t give that impression. Puertarenas is on the west coast of the country. Its black sand beaches made it look sort of dirty. A recent tropical storm has left a lot of deadwood along its beaches too. The black sand comes courtesy of the many volcanoes in the country, a couple of which are usually glowing on any given night. A drive on our tour bus showed a city that looked at best second world. After completing a short train excursion along a track lined with shanties, the Costa Rica we saw gave more of an impression of Haiti than Central America’s shining jewel.

It’s likely true that had we disembarked at the ritzier and more touristy areas a bit north and west of where we were docked our experience would have been more positive. As our train also wended its way through melon fields and coffee plantations, our tour guide explained why things were not quite what they seemed. The shanties we saw were overwhelmingly put up by Nicaraguans, citizens of Costa Rica’s country to its north. Just as in the United States it is beneath most Americans to do farm work, so it is today for most Costa Ricans to engage in that kind of labor. Some of these guest workers were here legally. Many more were not. In any event, Costa Rican law allows for squatters to at least try to construct homes on available plots of land. If after ten years the property owner doesn’t throw them off it and they can prove they have lived there that long, they can claim ownership of the land. Given that you could be thrown out at any moment, there’s not much point in overdoing your house. In any event, many of these Nicaraguans worked the nearby fields. Without their presence and the willingness to work for wages that can’t be paid to a citizen, like migrant workers in the United States, the melon fields we saw would not get harvested and probably not planted.

It wasn’t always this was for Costa Ricans. In the 1940s after a civil war started within the army, two things happened. First, the populace was so upset by the civil war that they abolished their army, the only country to do so in the Americas. Second, they elected a progressive who introduced social security and universal health care. Nine percent of a Costa Rican’s wages go into this system. Employers pay twenty percent of an employee’s wages into it. The money not spent on the military was channeled into education instead. A middle class that was virtually nonexistent in the 1940s emerged, took root and now consists of most of the population. Like the Scots, Costa Ricans learned that investing in education pays long term dividends. Basically these progressive policies totally transformed the country.

Costa Rica is thus a country that hovers somewhere between second world and first world status. Our first impressions were definitely wrong. Even the most modest shanties have satellite antennas on the roofs and Internet access. So what we saw was actually a country on the rise with a high cost of living but where most were upwardly mobile, and expecting things to remain that way. It’s also a country blessed by a peace that seems to elude the rest of Central America. This plus its tropical climate, rich soil made possible from its many volcanoes and its abundant rainfall makes it the place to be in Central America. And in truth, if you’ve traversed places like Detroit or rural parts of Alabama and Mississippi, the United States looks just as bad, if not worse. So we’ll be back to explore more of Costa Rica.

Nicaragua on the other hand is Central America’s poorest and largest country. If so if doesn’t look it. Its shanties looked comparable to Costa Rica’s, but were perhaps more numerous. Most roads were paved. The port city of Corinta where we docked seemed busy, in spite of its fifty percent unemployment rate. You can find a stray dog or two in the streets or a wild horse along the sides of the road, but also plenty of cars, trucks and motorcycles, as well as people on bikes.

What you might expect to find in such a poor country but won’t is much of a crime problem. Nicaragua has the lowest crime rate in Central America, in spite of its poverty. There is no drug trade here because (as our guide told us) no one can afford drugs anyhow. If people have a vice, it’s alcohol, not cigarettes. It does have plenty of corruption. The most profitable profession is not businessman or lawyer, but politician. The corruption seems endemic. Daniel Ortega, a former Sandinista, is now in his sixteenth year of rule, having originally led the communist Sandinistas to overthrow the country’s long-reigning Somoza regime. Ortega is now largely not seen, as he has Lupus which makes him avoid daylight. His wife was elevated to Vice President and is effectively running the country. In short today there is little difference between the right-wing Somoza regime and life under Ortega and the Sandinistas, except a lot less repression of dissent. There is a public health service and a free public school education is available to all. But the public schools are poor and under funded. Their health care system while universal also suffers from issues, mainly timely access to services. It’s perhaps not surprising then that the influence of the Catholic Church is waning and evangelical churches are moving in. Approximately sixty percent of Nicaraguans are now Catholic.

You would think then that Nicaragua should be avoided, but its tourism business is booming. If you are looking for a cheap place to retire, Nicaragua should be on your list. Real estate is dirt cheap, prices are low, crime in low, gangs that inhabit nearby countries like El Salvador and Honduras don’t exist and you get a drier climate than in Costa Rica, at least along its west coast. I can’t see retiring there, but I can see why Americans who like tropical climates and need to stretch their retirement dollars might want to find a gated community in the country and call it home instead. You might say that Nicaragua is something of a bargain if you can deal with the general poverty and corruption. It’s quite a pretty country too.

Transit of Panama

The Thinker by Rodin

Circuiting the Panama Canal is pretty awesome, but probably more awesome if you are an engineer, since it’s easier to appreciate the feat accomplishment. These days we tend to take engineering for granted. But having traversed the Panama Canal Wednesday for my first and likely last time, it was still impressive. Opened in 1914 it suddenly made getting between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans much faster and less hassle. The transit is hardly free. It cost our cruise ship about $120,000 to make the journey just one way. You can’t charge it to your business AmEx card. You can’t wire Panama the money either. It must be paid in cash in Panama using an agent.

Considering we went through the same locks the first ship used more than 100 years ago and with little in the way of obvious improvements, my immediate reason for being impressed is that it has been working reliably for more than a century. That in itself is stellar engineering. Even the Brooklyn Bridge has undergone major maintenance that shut it down from time to time. Our cruise ship, the MS Westerdam is more than 800 feet long and about 140 feet wide. It fit snugly but completely inside the locks. Turned over to Panama in 2000, the American presence is still obvious during your transit. The locks were built to accommodate 1000 foot ships and you can still see along the locks distances measured in feet along the side of the locks. There is some new stuff, though. Just two years ago, in 2016, a new set of locks was opened for even longer and wider ships.

We have a historian on board who gave us an abridged history of its history and construction. It was standing room only at the Main Stage of our cruise ship for the lecture, but it was still impressive to go through the locks in person. As you sail in through its Caribbean entrance at Colon, what you mostly notice is the vertical distance covered by each lock. It takes three locks to ascend the eighty or so feet to reach Gatun Lake, a lake created as part of engineering the canal. The original intent was simply to not use any locks. That turned out to not be viable because of Panama’s consistent rain and the continuous erosion issue that introduced. Speaking of rain, it rained when we went through, but only briefly. It rains pretty much every day in Panama, so it’s not usually a question of whether it will rain, but how much. How much is usually a lot.

They have the equivalent of a cog railroad along the side of the locks to tow vessels through the canal with no worry that the ships will hit the sides of the locks. It’s old tech but pretty impressive nonetheless to watch. It was hard from our ship to see the lock fill with water due to its girth. But you can still feel the effect as you move a significant vertical distance over about eight minutes. Eventually you end up on Gatun Lake and for a while transit becomes serene and predictable. There are two more sets of locks to transit before you hit the Pacific Ocean.

You would think that you would head east to west coming from the Caribbean Sea, but in fact you go north to south due to the shape of the isthmus. Panama, like Colombia that we visited briefly the day before, is very much a tropical rainforest.

So much of the magic of the Panama Canal has to do with how they solved the basic issue of its hydraulics: create artificial lakes and make huge, indestructible locks. One of the biggest engineering challenges was cutting through what remains of the continental divide when it goes through Panama: the Culebra Cut. It took a lot of dynamite, a lot of hauling away rocks with a portable railway of sorts, and a lot of lives lost. About 5000 people, mostly from the Caribbean, died constructing the American attempt to build the canal. Many more died in an earlier attempt by the French But its completion signaled a new age in history: the end of an age dominated by Europe and one dominated by the United States. With the completion of the canal, the U.S. proved it had the right stuff.

When you’ve completed passage perhaps the most impressive part is looking out at the vista of the Pacific Ocean: seemingly limitless and in our case sunny and under fair seas. Considering that twelve hours earlier you were in the Caribbean Sea, it’s an impressive transition. It’s not hard to understand why the Panama Canal is seen as one of the ten wonders of the modern world. So scratch that off my bucket list. In addition, this is my first excursion by ship on the Pacific Ocean.

We had a brief stop in Cartagena, Columbia, so brief that we elected not to take a tour and didn’t make it past the cruise terminal. It is a thoroughly modern city, just thoroughly tropical. For our ship to make its date with the Pamana Canal, we had to leave shortly after noon.

Our next stop is Puntarenas, Costa Rica and some exciting tours there. We won’t arrive in San Diego until January 20. You might think we could get there a lot sooner, but there are 5000 miles or so of coastline to traverse with plenty of port stops in between.