Friday, May 1, 2015

Two Perspectives on the BRICs

Here's something I wrote for my company newsletter about my travels:

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Over the past two years or so, I've been fortunate enough to travel to each of the BRICs: Brazil, Russia, India and China. This group was identified by economists in the early 2000s as the four countries with the greatest potential to become the largest and most important economies in the future. Here were my experiences (no economic charts of GDP, I promise):

The first thing you notice about a country is what you can tangibly detect with your five senses: see, smell, hear, taste and feel. I will never forget the gilded gold surfaces that seemed to cover everything in St. Petersburg like a glimmering sheen, nor the smells of a Mumbai food market blocks away from the world's densest slum. I remember the rich yet simply seasoned broth of a freshly slaughtered chicken caught in the dusty dirt roads of Anhui, China; my bones rumbled by the beating of the African-origin Olodum drums in a street festival in Salvador's historic Pelourinho district. These things stay with you long after your souvenirs and trinkets collect dust in the attic.

But I am getting ahead of myself. Before you even arrive, you must find a (preferably legal) way into the country. I was lucky enough to visit India just months after their modern electronic visa-on-arrival program was launched: I applied online and received my visa confirmation in 18 hours. On the other hand, getting a Brazilian or Russian visa is an exercise in surreal absurdity, which required what I would describe as bureaucratic near-extortion in the case of the latter (in Brazil's favor, I guess it's not unreasonable for the consulate to close without warning to watch their own World Cup matches). I think I'd rather wait for Godot.

The next thing you notice is how much you take language for granted. Some countries are luckier than others: Brazil, China and Russia have high literacy rates, relatively homogenous populations and standardized languages/dialects. Each language has its own sound and rhythm: from the dancing vowels of Portuguese to the syncopated consonants of Russian to the whining singsong of Mandarin. On the other hand, India is a miniature United Nations within itself: each region has a different religion, ethnicity, cuisine and unrelated language. Ironically, this means that English has become the most popular "bridging" language in India out of all the BRICs, which results in surprising ease for English-speakers to survive in India.

Finally, I have to say something about the people. There are endlessly creative and productive ways that the citizens of the aspiring world powers manifest their skills. Of course, you can observe the results of their labor in incredible megaprojects such as China's high-speed train, which has enabled millions of migrant workers to visit their hometowns on a regular basis; and Brazil-Paraguay's hydroelectric Itaipu Dam on the IguaƧu, which generates more power than the entire country of Paraguay consumes. Yet there is also the simple industriousness of the everyday citizen, which can be found by using Uber to hail a Lada driven by an ordinary Moscow resident as well as the sophisticated leather and plastic-recycling industries operated out of Indian slum-dwellers' homes. Take the brutally efficient subway in Moscow and you will never wait on the platform for more than 3 minutes (which is not something I can say in supposedly fast-paced NYC). Despite the vastly different social and economic development models, the BRICs all depend on its citizens for its resourcefulness, from whom I felt a sense of limitless and immense capability.

What you hear in the Western news about the emerging world is sometimes sensationalist or even frightening. Yes, there's poverty, bureaucratic mismanagement and even wars. However, based off my experiences with the people, I have no doubt in my mind that the BRICs are well on their way to becoming the global powerhouses of the future.

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And here is Conrad's thoughts on Brazil:

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Each bullet pt is a day

  1. I arrive at Sao Paulo, which is kinda like the NY of Brazil. There were some interesting architecture as well...
  2. I had to do some unforeseen work and stayed in the hotel the whole day... I was literally so busy I had to order room service for a burger at 3pm for lunch. It was actually surprisingly good. Then I go eat Churrasco (all-you-can eat Brazilean bbq) for dinner.
  3. Everyone arrives, we go shopping in Sao Paulo and Chico and I get Havainas slippers (a famous Brazilean brand of slippers?). The Havainas chafe my toes. I experience buyers regret. We take the overnight bus to Rio.
  4. In the morning, Andy almost mistakenly sits on a homeless person sleeping in a tarp while smoking cigars at a beach; then we hike up a 2000m elevation mountain to look at the Jesus statue; at night we learn how to dance samba at a night club
  5. We went biking and I had explosive diarrhea- that was an interesting combo, and the first of my epicly bad biking experiences. We then flew to Fortaleza that night
  6. We stayed in Cumbuco (a 2000 person beach town close to Fortaleza) and learned kitesurfing for 3 days. It was very nice and peaceful, and we had very great learning conditions. We all got epicly tanned and burnt. In the afternoon, we go on a sand buggy ride, sand butt boarding and highlining and take lots of failed selfies because we lack the technical expertise... I manage to do work after all this...
  7. After kite surfing, I stay and eat street food while Andy etc go to explore Fortaleza. I try to get Korean fried chicken and fail. I sleep all day and feel happy.
  8. On the last day of kitesurfing, we manage to get up and surf for ~10-20 meters. We go demolish an all crabs meal and then bus to recife
  9. Recife is where we learn how to mountain bike... from Andy... on urban streets because it was so bumpy... and Andy only teaches us what to do after we have spent 3 hrs dodging NYC-type traffic, cycling on highways and riding through potholes and going up and down huge pavement ledges. We are talking about a 15cm wide by 10cm deep drainage systems. A moat between the car traffic lanes and every single pedestrian pavement that we need to somehow vault across each time... We have totally worked in our Havainas- perfect fits and no more chafing. Unfortunately Chico's Havainas breaks. We also contribute to a bike imbalance between the islands of Recife. We eat Churrasco to replenish our energy.
  10. We go to Porto de Galinhas (a beach 2hr bus ride away) and molest seahorses. I drive a manual sandbuggy. I see somebody wakeboarding with a jetski and I am green with envy.
  11. We go to Olinda (lots of baroque/1600s-1800s buildings that then got burnt down by the dutch). We stumble into a school parent teacher open day. I realize that we are going to have to walk up and down steep hills for 3+hrs to look at churches. I become dejected and gloomy. Then I become delirious. We sit down for a beer and then lunch and have good philosophical discussions about goats. I become happy again. Then we fly to Salvador. We bring beer and also try to mix our own Caipirinha's on the flight and learn that domestic flights in Brazil don't serve/allow alcohol. When we get to Salvador, we eat the most epic hotdogs ever (according to Andy).
  12. We visit a market place, learn Capoeira (dance fighting), and watch epic dance shows about Brazilian gods. We go eat Moqueca stew.
  13. We go to a beach. Tuesday night is the designated party night for our region, so we mix our own Caipirinha's and go watch real life Capoeira and party in the streets. We watch a drum group and join a rave.
  14. The rest... is interesting as well. My phone gets stolen. We almost get robbed. I am traumatized. I miss my flight.

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