May 2010 Archive
I've had a whirlwind two days in Beijing where I saw many of my favorite people, had my favorite Beijing street food, stayed at my favorite hotel, and reminded myself why this is one of my favorite cities in the world. I even had a cab driver serenade me in Dixie and the Battle Hymn of the Republic last night. It was just like being back home in the South....sort of.
Unfortunately, I am leaving in moments on a seven-hour train trip into China's Wild West. If the country really wants to impress, it will have wifi on the train. Meantime, keep an eye on TechCrunch for my posts on Indonesia, the rest of which should run this week.
...My book is due in two months. I have been paralyzed by that thought for about 30 minutes. Two-plus years of work and hundreds of thousands of dollars and countless hours on the road all coming down to whatever I finish up in the next two months. That is horrifying.
I had a horrific travel day yesterday. We drove nearly three hours from our bungalow in Bali to the Denpasar airport, where I lunged out of the car saying a far-too-brief goodbye to my husband to catch my flight to Jakarta. And then, I landed and began a brutal nine-plus hour layover. The Jakarta airport isn't the worst. It's not Nairobi, but it's a far cry from the comfort of Dubai. I was twelve hours into my travel day before I'd even boarded my flight to Beijing and I'd drafted four posts, read half a book, watched four episodes of America's Next Top Model and I generally wanted to cry. I know I just spent a few days in Bali relaxing, but good God I am just sick of spending six to eight hours sitting and wandering around in International airports.
But the great thing about time is it passes. And it passes more efficiently in urban China. If there's an airport you have to fly into exhausted and over the whole travel thing, it's Beijing. We landed at 6:30 a.m. (30 minutes early) and within an hour I'd not only cleared immigration, customs, baggage claim and successfully negotiated a cab in a place where no cab driver speaks a word of English, but I was checked into my favorite hotel, sitting on the bed, checking my email, drinking a diet coke and watching CSI Miami. One hour.
China isn't perfect. But on a day like today, I'll take mind-bogglingly-efficient.
I've said plenty of times that I think Jeff Bezos is the dot-com generation's Steve Jobs. And Amazon is like my Apple. I accept the fan boy mantle willingly. I love it as an author-- with Prime, the Kindle store and the site itself, Amazon has taken out more points of friction in the book buying process than anyone save Guttenberg and Louis Borders. I love it as a consumer. ECommerce generally desperately needs better check out usability and among big companies only Amazon has kept innovating, in my opinion. As a result we buy almost everything we can there. And people clicking through on my book link (TO YOUR LEFT!) and buying my book and other stuff has even netted my husband and I more money that a lot of jobs I've done. (That's more a sad statement on what reporters get paid than it is a happy statement on book sales.)
BUT, I've confused my adored site. I keep getting notes about selling back textbooks and other college-themed things that make no sense since I'm 34. Then I realized I've ordered (and mostly read) about 30ish political and economic books on other countries from Amazon, and frequently the only ones I can find are actually text books. But isn't that cool that Amazon sells them when clearly -- according to the algorithms-- only international studies majors and I buy them? Most of these I could never find anywhere else. No tuition required. Thanks, Jeff.
So, unfortunately I returned from a morning of spa treatments and meetings to find there was some pipe problem in my bathroom. There was no flooding but a horrible stench and the toilet was drained of fluid-- a shock since I'd been out all day and it has been totally fine my entire visit. I'm trying to put this in a non-TMI way, but I haven't had the slightest Delhi Belly or whatever you would call it here. (Bali Belly?) In other words, this wasn't a me problem.
This was frustrating since all my fresh laundry was in the bathroom finally dry. Trust me-- this was one horrific smell. Like the Seinfeld car/BO episode, I was worried it wouldn't go away.
I was frustrated, of course, but didn't even have a chance to get mad because the hotel management sprang into action moving me to a new room on the same floor while I ate downstairs and comping my laundry service to redo the clothes that were in the bathroom. No such thing as "island time" here!
I was hugely impressed with everything about the way they handled it and just wanted to give them public props. Things go wrong in hotels, especially in emerging markets. I have seen it all. But these guys turned a hugely negative experience into a hugely positive one within about two hours. We always use social media to complain about BAD customer experiences, so I'm a big believer we should use it to compliment good ones too.
BTW, this was exactly the kind of thing I was talking about in my post about the trickiness of booking hotels online-- this level of service is an intangible only a recent personal recommendation can provide. I have another example of an intangible of good customer service that only someone who has stayed in a hotel for several days can tell: How much of the staff remembers you. The gold standard-- as I've written-- is the Opposite House in Bejing where a doorman and manager recognized me *five months later* when I came back, greeting me by name and asking how the book was going. But today, when I went downstairs for lunch amid the bathroom chaos the girl at the hostess stand asked why I'd missed breakfast. I have only been to that restaurant twice before and they do a massive volume of people at each meal. THAT was impressive. Getting this kind of thing right just makes you feel like Eloise especially when you are living in a hotel for a week or more. And it makes me feel a lot less lonely spending so much time away from home.
Here's the kicker: Both the Opposite House and this room at the Shangri-La were under $200 a night, making them two of the best values I've had in some 30 weeks of international travel. Thanks guys.
Lest you get the idea my life is glamorous, here's how I spent part of my morning: Doing loads of sink laundry. Many people don't realize that my husband and I are bootstrapping most of my book research, and, well, it's the end of the process and I'm economizing where I can. Have you seen how pricey hotel laundry service is?
BTW- I am totally undercutting any street cred I just built with that photo by going to a spa in the morning. I SWEAR IT IS WORK. I met with Martha Tilaar for my book today who was first described to me as the "Indonesian Oprah." She doesn't have a TV show, but has built a business on making Indonesian women look and feel beautiful and was instrumental in establishing the Miss Indonesia pageant-- no small feat for the world's largest Muslim country.
This is research only. I won't enjoy it. Not one bit. No really.
Look, I've spent 50-hours in a plane this month. I deserve a spa treatment, right?
I mean that in a good way. My two immediately previous trips were to Brazil and Cape Town, South Africa, and while the high-growth entrepreneur, venture capital and tech scenes are emerging in each, the countries themselves feel more....I don't know, stable. I don't mean that in terms of security or politics, but more in terms of infrastructure, urbanization and basic quality of life. The cities aren't teaming with people who are in the process of a mass-migration, with unfinished roads and a new skyscraper going up every minute. They're cleaner, less smoggy, and, well, feel more developed. Even the rural, central parts of Brazil felt that way. They also feel calmer.
But the more "emerging" of the emerging markets are in a tumult of rapid opportunity and fast change, flying by the seat of their pants. They're more Wild West. They can be more frustrating but also more electric. And, I've traveled enough over the last year to learn that they just feel and smell a certain way the second you step off the plane. Just look at the picture, above, taken from my hotel window-- it looks like half-a-dozen different cities, all in different stages of development and mashed into one. I love how being in these places-- just soaking them in-- feels.
I have little more that's too intelligent to say about Indonesia to say after just a day in Jakarta. But I do know this: The food has been great, and I had high expectations. I mean, Indonesia was partially colonized for its spices, right? So I'll save more salient thoughts about Indonesian entrepreneurship for later and just give you some food porn now.
Dinner will take a bit longer to show you. My guides took me to a place where you point to coolers full of live seafood, a guy with a basket pulls out what you point to, and then they grill it up with delicious sauces. It was a huge room full of tanks and coolers, and a bit overwhelming to decide.
Shrimp? (Look at their little eyes glowing!)
They are actually called bamboo clams and were squirming around, oozing in and out of these husks, and surging up into the air when the guy would splash water on them-- just to show how fresh and alive they were. Creepy.
But it turns out, delicious.
Here's what we selected. Somehow I didn't think to take pictures after they were cooked. Probably because I was too busy eating.
Of course, Mr. Creepy...
and this handsome guy...
and these fellas...
For scale on those prawns, check out the woman standing next to them. They're like the Barry Bonds of prawns!
I left Cape Town yesterday (depending on which time zone I count) to fly to Indonesia—which is almost the same travel distance as I originally came from San Francisco. Thank goodness Cape Town didn’t disappoint because it wasn't exactly on the way.
It is one of those cities like San Francisco and like Rio that is just naturally, visually stunning and is filled with people who are just infectious. I am planning to write several posts for TechCrunch about the entrepreneurship there, you know, when I get five minutes to sit and write something. (Well, something smart.)
In the meantime, some closing images of two of the things I loved about Cape Town.
And a rotating trolley car ride up Table Mountain. Best part of this video may be the semi-inane tourist banter in the background. It’s the same everywhere isn’t it?
The weird thing was that I was in no way scared, even though I was terrified when I went to Sugar Loaf mountain in Rio. Must have been all those shady Endeavor entrepreneurs I was with…;)
My big regret is that I didn’t go to Robben Island on this trip, especially since I’d just finished Nelson Mandela’s biography and watched Invictus on the plane. But I only had one sunny day and not enough time. Hoping I get an excuse to come back and bring Mr. Lacy.
Damn you, emerging markets!
Americans just hate soccer. It's boring. And I say this as someone who goes to 20+ baseball games a year. (When I'm actually in the US that is)
And yet somehow I am not only excited about the World Cup, I feel like a total nerd for coming-to-and-then-leaving South Africa just before the World Cup. WORSE: I am really having some angst about who to root for.
A few problems:
1. I really don't understand how the World Cup works or know what countries are still in contention.
2. I fall in love with every country and have been to too many countries this year.
3. Entrepreneurs from different countries keep asking in passing if I'm rooting for them. I don't know how to answer. (See also #1)
If you can help me with any of these, please leave it in the comments.
This is a cross-post from TechCrunch. I haven't been doing that a lot lately on this blog, but this post was important to me. I've learned a lot about poverty and strength over the course of this book and this post deals with a lot of issues I've been thinking about a lot over the last few months. (All photos taken by me.)
On the eve of my last trip to Brazil, I was watching an episode of CSI: Miami where David Caruso was tracking a violent drug kingpin in Rio. Every time they mentioned the favelas—the infamous slums that crowd Rio’s hills—his partner said breathlessly, “The most dangerous part of the city.”
Sadly—unlike nearly everything else on the over-the-top CSI franchise—the depiction of the favelas wasn’t an exaggeration. It’s essentially a war zone between drug kingpins and often-corrupt police officers, and many life-long Rio residents have never entered one. One in five people living in Rio’s slums have lost a family member to the drug war—and nearly as many blame the police as they do the drug dealers, according to Janice Perlman’s research in the excellent book “Democratic Brazil Revisited.”
It was a staggering lesson in the different types of poverty in the emerging world. While it’s hard to match the lack of infrastructure like water and sewage systems in an Indian slum, there’s little that can compare to the violence of a Rio favela. So it was understandable, as I entered a Rio favela a few weeks ago that my guides kept impressing on me that a year ago I couldn’t under any circumstances have come here. One year ago, a cab wouldn’t have taken me here. One year ago, no one would even deliver pizza here.
What’s changed in a year? Specifically, the city is doing something about the problem, embarking on a project of “pacification.” As it was explained to me, newly-trained, SWAT-style cops take each favela back, driving out the drug dealers, by any means necessary, in a recognition that the situation isn’t just a bad neighborhood, it’s an urban war-zone. Being new to the force, these police officers have a clean slate with the residents of the favela, and so are able to continue to protect it, keeping the peace. So far, eight favelas have been pacified. Residents I spoke with talked about the relief of being out from under the daily violence: Suddenly they can be a part of the city. But many are still wary. “This is the best I’ve seen the community in a long time, but I’m still scared,” said Nivea Mendes of the pacified favela Babilonia. “Very few people trust the government. They are just out for an election. I’m still skeptical.”
Put another way, even though they’re physically gone, the drug dealers still have power in these neighborhoods—for now. There’s another tactical problem with pacification that never would have occurred to me: Violence aside, the move basically shoved the richest people – the criminals - out of the favela, creating a need for a new livelihood for merchants and survival-level entrepreneurs (like the boy to your right and his family) in these neighborhoods. This is where technology is coming in.
For more than ten years a non-profit organization called CDI has been giving favela residents a different kind of freedom, setting up computer labs and offering training in everything from basic computer services to IT skills. CDI has built more than 800 community centers in thirteen countries giving more than 1.3 million people access to the Web, the bulk in Brazil and many for the first time. There’s an emphasis on sustainability—each community center charges for Web access and courses, but the rates are affordable for even the poorest Brazilians, as little as a couple of dollars per course. There’s also an emphasis on personal sustainability, with most people using the labs to learn marketable skills, write resumes and hunt for jobs. (Mendes runs the computer center in Babilonia; her picture is at the top of the post.)
The labs are run by someone in the community, and each class is required to take on a civic project using technology and the Web. One favela had a problem with rats, so some teens taking the class video-taped the infestation, edited the footage together and showed it to the city government, who would normally never venture into the slum to check things out. The trash was cleaned up, the rats went away, and babies stopped getting sick from the bites and scratches. We talk about the Internet changing the world a lot in Silicon Valley, but it has changed life for a lot of these people.
The exciting thing is the correlation with entrepreneurship and these labs. It’s not just the skills they learn, it’s a sense of empowerment that comes from technology. When I first started traveling for this book, I expected to find tons of entrepreneurs who’d grown up in slums, but in most countries that hasn’t been the case. Sure, there are plenty of examples of “entrepreneurship” in the purest subsistence-level form—traders, hustlers, drivers, tire shops and the like. But residents have told me the day-to-day struggle of life is so overwhelming, that the idea of starting a high-growth company is tantamount to colonizing the moon.
In Brazil, though, I’ve met several entrepreneurs who came from slums, two of which I wrote about in this post and another in this one. Like great entrepreneurs anywhere, these guys are the exceptions. But clearly, there is something about even the hardest life in Brazil that still allows people to dream big. And, increasingly, technology and companies like CDI play a big role in this. Each of these entrepreneurs trace back the early days of his company to tinkering and, essentially, hacking; one with computers, one with planes and advertising and one with bureaucracy. Computers, mobile and the Internet are the best canvases to hack and allow that hacking to have a bigger impact.
I’ve written about this kind of computer outreach into slums in India as well with NIIT’s Hole-in-the-Wall program and the proliferation of mobile phones and services, and I’ve also written about the serious investment Rwanda is making in bringing technology to its poorest citizens. But a lot of people are dubious about how much good this does people who, on the surface, have bigger problems. I recently finished reading a book called “In Spite of the Gods: The Rise of Modern India,” that rather sarcastically mocked the idea that emerging markets should invest in technology in poor areas when there are more immediate needs like food, water and employment.
The author, Edward Luce, has lived in India and admittedly spent far more time there than I have. But we’ve clearly seen different countries. The last time I was in India I traveled to several villages and slums with SMSOne, a mobile news company I wrote about back in November 2009. In a half-urban slum outside of Pune, I met a woman who sold vegetables on a darkened street near a dirty river. (Pictured at her home to your left.) On the eve of SMSOne’s launch in that neighborhood, she was so depressed about her economic situation she poisoned herself. SMSOne’s mobile reporter heard about it and rushed her near-lifeless body to the hospital—not that either of them could afford any care.
His first 140-character story was about her situation and the community—usually mired in their own day-to-day struggle—rallied around her, paying her medical bills, convincing her that her life mattered. She said, through a translator with babies crying in the background of her one-room home, that things are better now.
The community has dozens of stories like this: The woman who had blood cancer and needed donors, the little girl born with a hole in her heart and her parents couldn’t afford surgery (pictured to the right), and the community that all pitched in once the read these stories in 140-character SMS bursts. I went from the tire shop to the local temple to the winding streets of the neighborhood with the SMSOne reporter hearing these stories over-and-over again from the people who live there. The people who before SMSOne didn’t feel like a true community despite sharing the same crowded patch of India. It was striking how similar each story started to become, given how dramatic each was on its own.
Frankly, Luce’s attitude is why rich people shouldn’t be the ones making the decisions about what poor people need. It’s haughty to assume technology is the domain of only the privileged or that it is even used the same way by people living in dramatically different circumstances. The Internet gives people a voice and when you’re rich maybe you take that for granted. But in the slums of Brazil and India, I’ve literally seen it save lives.
An unforgettable portrait of the emerging world's entrepreneurial dynamos Brilliant, Crazy, Cocky is the story about that top 1% of people who do more to change their worlds through greed and ambition than politicians, NGOs and nonprofits ever can. This new breed of self-starter is taking local turmoil and turning it into opportunities, making millions, creating thousands of jobs and changing the face of modern entrepreneurship at the same time. To tell this story, Lacy spent forty weeks traveling through Asia, South America and Africa hunting down the most impressive up-and-comers the developed world has never heard of....yet.
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