Linking taxes to empathy

I look at how logical Ireland, Sweden, Denmark, Japan, Australia and the Netherlands are [because they enacted a carbon tax] and wonder how we in the US are still so positively stupid.

(I’m not alone in thinking so.)

It’s the one tax that both conservative and liberal economists agree on. You tax the amount of gasoline you use, the amount of garbage you don’t recycle (since it releases greenhouse gases once it’s sitting in a landfill), and the amount of energy you use to heat your home. The result: more money for the government (which wouldn’t be in such a fiscal mess otherwise), and less pollution. If you design it so that lower-income households are subsidized, it doesn’t lower consumption or increase inequality.

You can’t blame Obama entirely because any environmentally-progressive thing he might want to do would be vetoed by the Republican-controlled House (though it doesn’t mean he shouldn’t try). And you can’t blame Republicans in the House entirely because someone elected them. Could you blame the people that elected the Republicans?

I used to think that people who were homophobic, conservative, and tax-evading didn’t have the same access to good education. But then I remembered Alex. He and I went to the same public middle school and high school, and by his senior year, most of his opinions were already formed. He was smart and capable–he just didn’t care about most other people. And there’s the problem: no public school curriculum in the US teaches empathy.

Are all environmentalists good people? Probably not. Are all environmentally apathetic people “bad?” Certainly not. But for every person who opposes having taxes, I must ask: will they still refuse to pay taxes once they need the services of a fireman, policeman, public school teacher, or even sanitation engineer (garbage collector)? Once they or their children somehow end up needing social services support? Why should it be different for our shared environment and climate? Why do we need gigantic natural disasters to foster any significant action?

Do politicians cause famines?

So many great, honest quotes from John Githongo, who works on good governance in Kenya, from a November 2012 interview with the Economist about corruption in Kenya (that I wish I’d seen earlier but is still worth sharing):

A drought is made by God, a famine is made by man. Drought is big money for the corrupt elite—because it gives you the opportunity to import maize and other staples into the country and make a killing off of the backs of hungry people.

The key implication from his words is that imported maize (corn) and other crops are actually cheaper by weight than crops grown locally in Kenya, because agriculture (including fertilizers, pesticides, and good seeds) is often more subsidized in the US, the EU, and in other developed countries than in Kenya. As a result, political elites can make large profits fairly easily, in the name of helping people. This is more than just a problem of Kenyan political corruption, and probably wouldn’t change even if the level of corruption went down.

Kenya is more corrupt than other African countries. It’s our history. At independence, the state that emerged was a colonial one in many respects – small, aggressive, violent and engineered to serve the interests of only a small elite. Corruption can create an elite which creates a system of patronage that in itself produces a level of stability, where the goodies are being shared out by an elite, and a bit of it trickles down to the poor. Those poor who complain are locked up or killed, and that’s the way it has been for a long time.

I was surprised by this one, both for its honesty and its conclusions. China and its investors have been linked to corruption and exploitation in Africa, and particularly because they target mineral extraction and other resource-intensive industries. Extraction of rare earth metals and fuel result in huge profits but usually require well-educated [foreign] specialists; as a result, very few locals benefit in terms of jobs or payoffs unless contracts explicitly require paying a significant portion of profits to the community. Governments are often hesitant to set strict profit-sharing demands, though, for fear of scaring away investors.

But Kenya isn’t exactly at the center of the diamond, oil, natural gas, copper, coal, and other mineral extraction in Africa, even if the amount extracted is no longer zero. At the same time, Kenyan firms are said to devote 4% of all their sales income on bribes–enough to be hiring 250,000 new employees if the corruption were to stop. And Kenya isn’t actually the worst, according to many sources (though it’s hard to figure out exactly who is worst):

The World Bank’s CPIA Index on government transparency, accountability, and corruption surprisingly ranked Bhutan, St. Lucia, and the Cape Verde islands as having the worst corruption in 2011 (of the countries they were able to rank).

WB CPIA ranking on corruption worldwide for 2011. Darker red = more corrupt.

WB CPIA ranking on corruption worldwide for 2011. Darker red = more corrupt.

Transparency International, in contrast, ranked Somalia, North Korea, and Afghanistan as tied for worst corruption in 2012.

The Sunlight Foundation's map of Transparency International data for corruption in 2012. Again, Kenya is not ranked as worst, though  there is clearly progress to be made.

The Sunlight Foundation’s map of Transparency International data for corruption in 2012. Again, Kenya is not ranked as worst, though there is clearly progress to be made.

Regardless of exactly how corrupt Kenya and other developing countries are measured to be, it is in everyone’s best interest to improve.

=========

Update: For an interesting take on the cultural/psychological/sociological reasons behind perpetuated corruption, especially in developing countries, see Kathleen Reedy’s freshly pressed post on corruption in Afghanistan.

Machu Picchu, the Atacama Desert, and Lima–the superlatives and the not-so-much

One of my biggest surprises during the trip to Perú was how much I enjoyed Machu Picchu. I’d come there expecting a relatively small archeological site, enough to see for an hour or two but not much more. After spending about 5 hours getting sunburnt and hiking on a broken toe, I still found it hard to leave. The ruins were massive, and the terraces (built both for structural support/erosion prevention and for planting crops) descended all the way down the length of the Macchu Picchu mountain (“old peak” in Quechua) into the valley. It still amazes me to this day how they were able to build such structures, much less descend and ascend to plant and harvest potatoes and other crops (I doubt llamas would have had a much easier time than humans).

Terraces descending down Machu Picchu, along with strange bright-red plants (which I'm guessing use something other than chlorophyll) that grew all along the mountain, but that I saw nowhere else in Perú.

Terraces descending down Machu Picchu, along with strange bright-red plants (which I’m guessing use pigments other than chlorophyll) that grew all along the mountain, but that I saw nowhere else in Perú.

There was something eerily beautiful about the blue-green mountains cropping up from the Urubamba Valley (the Sacred Valley of the Incas), with the Urubamba River meandering below and eventually flowing into the Amazon. It made me wonder what those people who had lived there in Inca times thought of their surroundings–did they ever tire of seeing the same mountains? Did they–or anyone else–grow immune to the beauty? How can someone train themselves to not take such things for granted?

A view of the city's ruins on Machu Picchu and Wayna Picchu ("young peak") in the background. I'm sure the view from Wayna Picchu would have been even more incredible; unfortunately, we didn't buy the tickets needed to ascend beforehand.

A view of the city’s ruins on Machu Picchu and Wayna Picchu (“young peak”) in the background. I’m sure the view from Wayna Picchu would have been even more incredible; unfortunately, we didn’t buy the tickets needed to ascend beforehand.

A rainstorm in the mountains just beyond Machu Picchu. I never realized how close the site was to the Amazon; it was humid even without the rain (with enough insects to prove it).

A rainstorm in the mountains just beyond Machu Picchu. I never realized how close the site was to the Amazon; it was humid even without the rain (with enough insects to prove it).

Andes butting up against clouds Machu Picchu, with the Urubamba flowing below.

Andes butting up against clouds near Machu Picchu, with the Urubamba flowing below.

In huge contrast to the lush trees, bushes, and flowers (with vines and epiphytes growing between branches) growing by Machu Picchu, the southern coast of Perú is anything but. With the Humboldt current rising up from Antarctica and bringing cool air currents up the coast, the coastal [Atacama] desert in southern Perú and northern Chile isn’t as hot as the Sahara or Arabian deserts, but it’s much drier (in fact, the world’s driest; we didn’t see so much as a cactus). We went sandboarding and rented sand buggies (think 1000-ft-sand-dunes-like-a-roller-coaster-but-real-life) at sunset; I probably wouldn’t ever ride a sand buggy again for fear of a heart attack, but it was completely worth doing once. Apparently, there are even dance parties held at night deeper in the desert, under a blanket of stars.

Before we raced with sandboards (like skateboards without wheels) down the dunes.

Before we raced with sandboards (like skateboards without wheels) down the dunes.

With the Humboldt current also come nutrients that rise up and support marine life (and all the rich seafood you’ll encounter in Peru). Unfortunately, the waters seemed too warm for some… when we were in Paracas (on the southern coast, by the desert) and went out on a small boat into a bay, dead jellyfish and rotting algae littered nearly every inch of sand within twenty feet of the shore. The jellyfish were deep red and easily the largest I’ve ever seen; I can only imagine that the other marine life are just as fantastic.

Layers of jellyfish and algae drying above the sand, apparently killed by warmer water temperatures near Paracas, Perú.

Layers of jellyfish (each about one foot/30 cm in diameter) and algae drying above the sand, apparently killed by warmer water temperatures near Paracas, Perú. The entire beach reeked of rotting eggs; these algae probably produced hydrogen sulfide (causing the smell) as they decomposed.

And then there was Lima. As I mentioned in my previous post, I preferred Cuzco to Lima. Maybe it was the fact that cuzqueños took more pride in their culture, and were able to because they were more geographically isolated, while residents of Lima were more likely to be immigrants and often held the view that imported products and ideas were generally superior. Mostly though, it was the more obvious income divide, the traffic, the grime, and the lack of duende/soul in Lima’s architecture. But of course, there were still places to see and enjoy: my favorite neighborhood in Lima was Miraflores (considered relatively affluent), and in particular the coast: it was refreshing to get away from the simultaneously hectic and dazed, almost claustrophobic city center. There’s also a park further up the Miraflores coast (Parque del Amor, or Love Park) with gigantic statues and Gaudí-esque tiled walls, like a bit of Barcelona in South America.

Along the coast of Miraflores, Lima, Perú. The monkey design is probably reminiscent of the Nazca Lines farther south in Perú.

Along the coast of Miraflores, Lima, Perú. The monkey design is probably reminiscent of the Nazca Lines farther south in Perú.

Friends standing at the end of a path through thick patches of morning glory, overlooking the Pacific.

Friends standing at the end of a path through thick patches of morning glory, overlooking the Pacific.

A "sun traffic light" in Miraflores, measuring the level of ultraviolet radiation and its danger to you based on your skin color (this probably wouldn't fly in politically-correct USA.)

A “sun traffic light” in Miraflores, measuring the level of ultraviolet radiation and its danger to you based on your skin color (this probably wouldn’t fly in politically-correct USA.)

Library patrons reading outside by the train tracks near the Casa de la Literatura Peruana. I really liked this set-up, and the building in general--who wouldn't want to read outside on a warm spring day?

Library patrons reading outside by the train tracks near the Casa de la Literatura Peruana. I really liked this set-up, and the building in general–who wouldn’t want to read outside on a warm spring day?

The outside of the Convento de San Francisco in Lima (in imposing Spanish baroque style without an inkling of Inka), which also has large catacombs downstairs. It also had courtyards inside with some beautiful contemporary Peruvian artwork on display.

The outside of the Convento de San Francisco in Lima (in imposing Spanish baroque style without an inkling of Inka), which also has large catacombs downstairs. It also had courtyards inside with some beautiful contemporary Peruvian artwork on display.

Archeological ruins in the middle of Lima (in Miraflores). On the other side of the street were more ruins, as well as a traditional restaurant where Lady Gaga was apparently having lunch that day.

Archeological (pre-Inca) ruins in the middle of Lima, in Miraflores. On the other side of the street were more ruins, as well as a traditional [and expensive] Peruvian restaurant where Lady Gaga was apparently having lunch that day.

The main cathedral in Lima (Catedral Basílica de Lima), right next to the president's palace in the Plaza Mayor. Intricately carved, wooden balconies were common in both Cuzco and Lima, though I imagine they're not the best thing to have during Peru's frequent earthquakes.

The main cathedral in Lima (Catedral Basílica de Lima), right next to the president’s palace in the Plaza Mayor. Intricately carved wooden balconies were common in both Cuzco and Lima, though I imagine they’re not the best thing to have during Peru’s frequent earthquakes.

Road-tripping in Perú

Three weeks ago, I spent seven crazy, sleep-deprived days flying and driving around southern Perú with nine other friends. I could probably write a 50-page essay on my impressions, but I will try to sum it up crudely in a few words:

llamas-donkeys-bowler hats-ponchos-coca leaf tea-Inka heritage-ceviche-income disparity-tourism-poverty-agriculture-Andes-desert-terraces-writing on mountainsides-generous people-promising path to development-Lima < Cuzco

Even today, most Peruvian women of non-European descent (i.e. indigenous) wear knee-length skirts–even in the cold, even when they’re farming in the fields. Why? Because Peruvian women were traditionally judged by the size and strength of their calves, as an indication of how capable they would be as farmers, and therefore as good wives. The farms I saw while driving around Lima and Cuzco had tractors, yokes with oxen, and everything in between–but most of the manual work still seemed to be done by women.

In the cities, tourism was certainly a big industry–in Cuzco, it accounted for 60-95% of jobs, depending on who you asked–and not everyone was happy about it. Judging by the graffiti, some Peruvians felt like they were sell-outs, catering to foreigners instead of preserving traditional occupations. But tourism revenue can also have its benefits: when my friends and I were walking by the historic center of Cuzco (the traditional seat of the Inca civilization, and a city which, by the way, is much more impressive than most parts of Lima, the capital), we were approached by two siblings, trying to sell us hand puppets that their mother had made.

After one of us caved in and bought a few, things got more interesting. The boy, 7, told us that he wanted to be a musician, architect, scientist, chemical engineer, and writer (in roughly that order) and was better at multiplication than we were at that age. (We decided to motivate him by buying a bottle of Coke and some mints for a little experiment. It was a bit anti-climatic; I think he almost expected the mini-explosion…) As for his younger sister, she told us about how she’ll be performing Gangnam Style in her first-grade class. This is a city in the middle of nowhere, between the towering Andes and the Amazon. The tourists brought McDonalds, and the internet brought Gangnam Style; I’m thankful the government (and likely private funding) brought decent schools.

To give you an idea of how little of Perú I saw (and how much remains to be seen.) Most of my travels revolved around Lima, Cuzco, and Paracas.

To give you an idea of how little of Perú I saw (and how much remains to be seen.) Most of my travels revolved around Lima, Cuzco, and Paracas.

I can go on, about how the residents of Cuzco still seem proud and a bit resentful of the Spanish conquest, even 500 years later, while the residents of Lima seem to have forgotten … or of how we saw someone unloading alpaca stomachs from an unrefrigerated truck, still dripping blood, into the main bazaar in Cuzco … or of how we ran into a herd of lambs crossing the road near Moray (close to Cuzco). But instead, I’ll just show a few of the thousands of photos I took in this warm, photogenic country.

Flowers with the Catedral peaking through, at the Plaza de Armas, Cuzco. As simple as it was, I was elated to see such color after the gray fall/winter at Stanford.

Flowers with the Catedral peaking through, at the Plaza de Armas, Cuzco. As simple as it was, I was elated to see such color after the gray fall/winter at Stanford.

The historic center of Cuzco, Perú (Plaza de Armas)

The historic center of Cuzco, Perú (Plaza de Armas)

A beautiful courtyard in Cuzco. The storeowner decorated it himself; unfortunately, the squalid room where his family was watching TV behind me didn't look nearly as clean or beautiful.

A beautiful courtyard in Cuzco. The storeowner decorated it himself; unfortunately, the squalid room where his family was watching TV behind me didn’t look nearly as clean or beautiful.

The Plaza in Cuzco at night.

The Plaza in Cuzco at night.

A man dressed up as an Inca king posing for photos in Cuzco.

A man dressed up as an Inca king posing for photos in Cuzco.

The outskirts of Perú; poverty that was in clear contrast to the clean, well-restored historic quarter. The neighboring hillsides were all covered in eucalyptus, fast-growing but sucking the soils dry.

The outskirts of Cuzco: poverty that was in clear contrast to the clean, well-restored historic quarter. The neighboring hillsides were all covered in eucalyptus, fast-growing but sucking the soils dry.

Donkeys munching on succulents by the roadside near Moray, Perú.

Donkeys munching on succulents by the roadside near Moray, Perú.

Moray with the snowy Andes in the background. It was springtime at this point.

Moray, about 1.5 hours driving from Cuzco. The Incas used this site to experiment with agriculture at different elevations & temperatures. As we descended down to the center, we started peeling off our jackets--pretty incredible for a many hundreds-year-old experiment..

Moray, about 1.5 hours driving from Cuzco. The Incas used this site to experiment with agriculture at different elevations & temperatures. As we descended down to the center, we started peeling off our jackets–pretty incredible for a many hundreds-year-old experiment.

A salt mine near Cuzco. Saline water from hot springs flows into a canal and gets distributed to each of these pools, which are owned by members of a communal enterprise. The salt is collected after the water evaporates and then sold. I'm still not sure what else besides salt is there, but it tastes pretty good!

A salt mine near Cuzco. Saline water from hot springs flows into a canal and gets distributed to each of these pools, which are owned by members of a communal enterprise. The salt is collected after the water evaporates and then sold. I’m still not sure what else besides salt is there, but it tastes pretty good!

Standing on the salt mines. For some reason, the white sides reminded me of white-washed walls in Greece and the Middle East.

Standing on the salt mines. For some reason, the white sides reminded me of white-washed walls in Greece and the Middle East.

Next post–Machu Picchu, Lima, and Paracas. Next time I visit–the Amazon (Puerto Maldonado) and areas further inland and to the north. I’d love to hear about other places as well though!

The Innards of Waste Dumps

Ever wondered where your aluminum Pepsi can goes after you throw it out? Or your blue pen and old notebooks? Yesterday I visited the PSSI (the Peninsula Sanitary Service, Inc.), which handles Stanford’s recycling and waste management, to get a better idea of where our waste goes. Sure, it smelled like rotting spaghetti sauce at some points, but I found glimpses of beauty there too. (Side note: this is probably not representative of all sanitation/collection facilities; I think the images would vary hugely if I were to be in another country, and even a different part of the U.S.).

Shooting into the sun, dumpster-diving style.

It could almost pass for a rose.

Apparently Sierra Nevada is very popular on campus.

Close-up of a dumpster; it made me think of Chinese characters.

Tin cans and a stray campaign poster.

This bunch will thankfully be recycled, or “diverted from landfill,” as some would say.

A PSSI employee; he seemed simultaneously noble and humble.

The current “divergence” rate, or amount of waste that isn’t going straight into the landfill, is currently 65% or so at PSSI–pretty decent, especially when compared to Houston, Texas (3% !!! = actively opposed to recycling anything). Nonetheless, there is still progress to be made.

One promising corner of the industry is the increasing use of biogas from landfills being used to generate electricity (where it is naturally emitted from the decomposition of our apple cores, banana peels, and cotton gym socks). Half of Sweden’s natural gas vehicles are now fueled by biogas, but the U.S. lags worse than a snail in taking advantage of this resource. Capturing biogas from landfills seems especially promising for inland states, like Colorado, Idaho, Kansas, and Nebraska, who cannot simply ship their waste to China or to Eastern Europe the way that coastal cities do.

Other interesting tidbits: the funding for California’s waste management agency comes from taxes for filling landfills. But as waste management facilities like PSSI become more efficient, less money goes to the agency, and there is less funding for investing in projects to further improve the waste stream. It seems like it ought to be an important consideration when designing policy that you shouldn’t create perverse incentives. Hopefully this would be taken into consideration for biogas projects (which also presumable depend on the filling of landfills to be functioning and profitable.)

The Cars Are Submarines

I can’t help thinking that in all the years I’d spent in New York City, I’d never experienced a hurricane or a tornado. But over the past few years, New York has seen tornados, hurricanes, record-breaking blizzards–in short, some of the most severe weather in centuries. All the houses in my neighborhood, and many others, lost power, and didn’t regain it for days, if not weeks. My parents’ car, and every other car in a 5-block radius? Submerged like submarines and completely useless. If you want to see climate refugees, look no further than Brooklyn, NY.

A view of lower Manhattan during Superstorm Sandy. Source: AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews

I’m thankful for the early warning system and the efforts that went into informing people ahead of the storm. But it was not nearly enough. Several hospitals lost power after the generators were flooded; some, like Coney Island Hospital, which caters largely to South Brooklyn’s low-income, immigrant, and elderly populations, won’t be open until at least January. What’s worse, most patients–as well as nearby residents–weren’t ordered to evacuate. After the over-precaution for Hurricane Irene, people were hesitant to leave their homes for another merely heavy storm. Now, they have left their homes, but mostly because they don’t have a home left to stay in.

I can’t begin to imagine how much worse it must be to live in the Caribbean or Southeast Asia, where intense hurricanes, cyclones, and monsoons are an annual occurrence. I would think that communities would become more resilient and neighborly over time, the way that New York has become after Sandy, but there’s evidence to the contrary. Ether Duflo and Abijit Banerjee, two economists at MIT, found that many people are less likely to help in times of need because they don’t want to start a cycle of reliance. This point (mentioned in their wonderfully insightful book Poor Economics) about avoiding taking on other people’s financial burdens–even when they’re your parents or siblings–jars with my upbringing. Nonetheless, these findings have significant consequences for economic development. Perhaps storms in the developing world have costs like these that we can’t see or measure, but that may be harder to overcome than the mess that we in New York are continuing to face.

On Humility and Power

I haven’t posted since getting the unexpected honor of “Freshly Pressed” two months ago (thanks to everyone for your kind comments!)… in part because I hate disappointing people, and wouldn’t want to disappoint a now slightly-larger group of followers. But also because I had no idea how many people a few photos from Italy could reach, something that HONY probably realized this year.

A small sample of the reach of WordPress–reaching millions of places I’ve yet to visit.

A person could see this wondrous map and think a number of things:

  • Photos break the language barrier.
  • Some places, like North Korea, Papua New Guinea, Bolivia, and Greenland still have no access to the internet [or even the electric grid].
  • People living in these places have better things to do than read blogs.
  • A good chunk of us want to be in Italy right now.

As I begin the job hunt, I can’t help thinking about how to have the biggest positive impact. Not in the white-man’s-burden kind of way, but helping people where and when they want to be helped. I’m not sure that photography is the only way to go, but I think it needs to be part of the equation. A recent Lens blog post (among a stream of others) profiled an artist that wants to do just that–turn art into stronger activism. Several others (on violence against women in Norway, sexual abuse in South Africa, and domestic violence in the US) are possibly even more powerful. Just some food for thought…

Istanbul–City of Contradictions

Welcome to Istanbul (more specifically, Hagia Sophia)

In the spirit of awesome global cities, here are a few photos from a week spent in Istanbul this spring.

As my neighbor on the flight there said: Paris is a beautiful city. Istanbul is an ugly city with beautiful places.

I might have to agree, to a point: Istanbul still feels like a developing country, even in Taksim (a lively neighborhood near where we stayed)–but the beauty of the mosques on every other corner and the ability to cross over to another continent [Asia] on a 30-minute ferry more than make up for it.

There’s so much I can say about Istanbul and my time there–equal parts getting ripped off and finding many warm, hospitable people; eating great kebabs and shaking my head in disbelief at how popular fresh-squeezed pomegranate juice is in Istanbul (in case you’ve never tried it, it’s the most sour taste I’ve ever encountered); the mix of secular European and religious Middle Eastern influences, possibly skewed by the many Saudi tourists with their women in full head-to-toe burqas and hijabs [some with no eye openings]… I could go on for days.

Inside Hagia Sophia.

Hagia Sophia at sunset (sorry, I’m a big fan of ancient brick and mortar).

The New Mosque (actually still centuries old, from 1665 to be precise)

Inside the New Mosque.

By the river, eating “fish bread sandwiches.”

The Cisterns.

Within a building of the Topkapi Palace.

Twilight, outside the Sultanahmet Mosque.

What the rest of Istanbul often looks like…

Looking out onto the Bosporus at night, from the European side.

Milan & Genoa: A Colorfully Sophisticated Hodgepodge

Following a weekend in cold, cloudy Edinburgh, I spent the next weekend in Milan and Genoa (Genova in Italian). Expecting cold stone buildings reminiscent of Paris in another “world capital of fashion,” Milan instead surprised me with its color, warmth, and friendly people, and a distinctly more relaxed charm than Paris. I still associate it with walking by the business district and seeing a 50-60 year old man, well-groomed, in a well-fitting black suit and crisp white shirt–and a neon orange silk tie.

A Genoa skyline

A colorful building along the coastal highway in Genoa

The beach in Genoa

Another Genoa skyline… coherent in its eccentricity

One of the many colorful old buildings/palaces in Genoa

The entrance to a residence in Genoa

Walking down ancient roads in Genoa, as in Milan.. tiled streets that reflect the afternoon light, and colorful stone buildings that are simultaneously imposing and charming

The Duomo of Milan

Inside the Duomo in Milan

The beautiful covered market near the Duomo in Milan

Inside the covered market/gallery

The castle [fortress] of Milan

One of the main canals in Milan

The skeleton of an ancient temple/church in central Milan

A typical lunch spot in downtown Milan–eating street food surrounded by old stone buildings

Edinburgh: A Long Time Coming

Some people fall in love with Indonesia for its orangutans, others with France for its food–and I, with a country that most would name “unexotic” at best. I’ve wanted to go to Scotland since I was about 10 years old; I had neither Scottish ancestors nor living relatives to relate to, but rather, only an inexplicable fascination with its early history of conquests, tribesmen, and magical stories.

Well… maybe being exotic isn’t everything. After visiting Edinburgh for [sadly] only 3 days, I could see why so many writers were inspired while living in Edinburgh… the views from Carlton Hill are breathtaking, and the moody skies are straight out of a gothic novel. I had to wear fleece gloves to sleep at night and three sweaters to explore during the day [and this was in May] but the people of Edinburgh couldn’t have been warmer and more hospitable.

From the top of Calton Hill–the best view in the city.

Eerie lighting over the remains of Craigmillar Castle in Edinburgh.

Edinburgh Castle sitting atop the basalt top of a former volcano.

St. Margaret’s Chapel, the oldest building in Edinburgh (within the fortress walls of Edinburgh Castle), dating to the 1100s.

The Salisbury Craigs, on the outskirts of Edinburgh, right before a thunderstorm.

Having lived in France (where “socialism” is a positive buzzword) and in the US (where it isn’t), I had mixed emotions about state-sponsored healthcare, education, construction, etc., especially after witnessing firsthand the many ways in which it failed in the former Soviet Union. But if a positive, purer example of socialism were to exist, Scotland might be a great starting point. (To clarify, by positive I mean that the population doesn’t abuse the system and overwhelm the economy). I encountered a fair share of immigrant families and the elderly, but virtually nobody who was either very rich or very poor. Despite the brisk wind, frequent rain, and decades-long economic downturn, people were content.

By the Princes Street Gardens on a rare sunny day.

There were many charity shops benefiting Goodwill- and UNICEF-like organizations, but there were also plenty of small businesses and private ventures, many with names borne of a distinctly Scottish humor; all in all, I got the impression that the Scots were both extremely proud of their origins and history, at the same time that they were wise enough to open their borders and communities to new influences. (Of course, this was not always so: Scotland also saw “witches” burned at the stake, different tribes turning against each other, and more recent incidents of ethnic violence, often targeted at South Asian immigrants.)

Aside from the scandalous bits I picked up about Scottish culture (like how a “real man” wouldn’t wear any underwear beneath a kilt), I also got a better sense for why, perhaps, Edinburgh worked. Because the city center is fairly compact, there’s a sense of community among the pubs and coffee shops, a sort of beckoning that leaves even foreigners feeling welcome. The eroding, darkened stone buildings hint at the city’s age, but the greenery throughout the city is so lush that you don’t want to stay indoors. It’s a great balance between the brown–historical buildings and business parks–and the green–the many urban parks and open spaces. It finally made me realize that a city girl doesn’t always need to escape to a forest to be inspired by old trees.

This post (and my visit) has been a long time coming, but I hope to post again soon–next time about Italy.

A typical street corner with typical self-depricating humor (in this case, along Cowgate.)

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