August 2008


Molletes, my breakfast today

…I wonder if it’s all a politically correct machine: They say that it’s “ethnocentric” to believe there are “good” cultures and “bad” cultures. That all cultures are neutral and we can’t judge them, but only from my subjective opinion do bad cultures exist. That using this universalist perspective, we cannot demand cultures to change themselves because morally, who are we to determine that their culture totally sucks?

But isn’t culture just your general attitudes toward the world, religion and environment and how you behave on an everyday basis? I’m not talking about race and ethnicity, I’m talking about how a group of people behave.

And why do some feel that it’s wrong to say that certain cultures are terrible. Certain cultures have problems that has got to change. What about drug culture? Ghetto projects culture? What if one cultures behaviors are so unproductive and improvident and dependent on the rest of us for sustanence that its impoverished people die from gunshot wounds and fiercely use up all the common resources and has so much delinquencies and universally undesired traits that it drains upon another, more well governed culture? What if one culture consistently has high mortality rates and low life expectancies because of the stupid idiotic and violent things they’re doing? (And is it really “ethnocentric” if I admit that some parts of my own culture also sucks, and needs to change? Debt culture in America? Obesity culture?)

Of course there are bad cultures!

Street view from my cafe

The mind of every man, in a longer or shorter time, returns to its natural and usual state of tranquility. In prosperity, after a certain time, it falls back to that state. In adversity, after a certain time, it rises up to it.” – Adam Smith, Theory of Moral Sentiments

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Spanish Words of the Day: lechónes” piglets | “ser la naquez, ser naco” to feel superior for having money, going to a privileged school, not giving back, superficial | “changarro” Mexican stall

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“Happiness is a state of mind when I’m able to perceive something ordinary as a miraculous event. An internal click or connection in my mind where things are more beautiful, more graceful, more special, and more fascinating than usual. I notice things on another level.

It doesn’t always happen, if I’m tired or had a negative day, then food is just plain food. It’s not a comestible art and delicacy that inspires other thoughts or associations.” — my response to the question what “happiness” is to me.

Photos from Thursday House Party | Click to Enlarge



As I’m posting these pictures, we’re watching “El Falsaficador” a German film (with Spanish subtitles) about a Jewish con artist who is imprisoned and forced to forge authentic British pounds and U.S. dollars for the Nazi Party to avoid torture and death in concentration camps. In the course of the harrowing plot, his Jewish friends get brutally threatened, humiliated (pissed upon), tortured and shot point blank…all of this is a biography based on true events. It sparked a somber and enlightening conversation about how cruel, sick and ugly human nature can be, and we began sharing horrific things we’ve experienced or seen in our own lives that has made us who we are.

Marcos was in Ethiopia and Kenya in the years of chaos and brutal civil violence, being on a plane stocked full of machetes, machine guns and weapons destined to fuel the war….and few days later witnessing his travel companion gunned down to death before him, and losing his dearest friends in that civil war. He was in Sudan, before it became what it was today, and his heart seemed to glow…and then darken. He reminisced about his youthful years wandering by foot through Afghanistan and India, and how affected he was by recent conflict in Kashmir, which had destroyed some of the most beautiful monuments of human accomplishment he had ever laid eyes upon. Then, being in Europe: Chechnya. Bosnia…things that summon tears and cries. A photo he has, of a family sitting in the worn down living room with soldiers. It is obvious from their faces that they had just seen something so grotesque, so wretchedly painful, their expressions are arrested in that terrible state.

(…And we talked about photo journalism, how it was composed like a visual haiku. I remembered “Beyond Borders” a movie that I very much appreciated.)

Here, too, in Chiapas and further south in Central America, he had classmates who’d become ambulant doctors who went with noble intentions to El Salvador or Nicaragua to help ailing victims, who returned home with psychological scars and extreme paranoias that had never healed because of violent atrocities the military made them do at gunpoint. They still live in fear. They were never able to live with the guilt of what they had done.

The topic saddened and depressed me, but was so enriching that I felt immediately grateful for it. We talked about courage…real courage…how each person reacts to events in their lives, how much of a person’s natural temperament comes from highly heritable genetics rather than circumstance. Whereas one may have great internal resources, the fortitude and resilience, to undergo tragedies and still see the best of things, others mentally break down. (It always astonishes me how many people become devastatingly miserable for years and years over the smallest things; or how many people simply ignore these heavier topics by ‘not letting it get them down.’ Well how do you empathize with humanity if you blissfully ignore these crimes and atrocities? That in itself is a tragedy.) It has to do with demeanor, discipline, and attitude. It has to do with transforming situations into privilege and what we hold dear.

For most of the evening, I listened attentively, I weighed in, and added my own measly experiences… which while it spans many developing countries and interesting projects, always felt so limited and less valid. Of course, Marcos has decades ahead of me, spoke seven languages fluently, and as well as being a doctor and an anthropologist and well respected director of public health in poverty-stricken Chiapas and international stage, he had the privilege and ability of having traveled more than me… (here we are in Mexico, he is translating a German film to me in English.) And even then, he says that he learns so much from me every day—and here is the most remarkable aspect of human beings–we used irony to turn our tragic conversation into shared laughter. The relief of a joke.

I find it an *extraordinary* miracle that, anywhere in the world, I am so often accompanied by good intelligent souls who’re so fascinating and have such depth to their experience. They exemplify wisdom, genuineness, moderation and a tenderness toward others that is often lacking in the world today.

And later… a phone call from a woman named Maria. (The indigenous Mayans call our house when they feel ill, because not only does Marcos give them medical care without charge, but also they intuitively trust him.) He is attentive to local traditional medicines, and gentle to make them feel esteemed and dignified, he handles them with such respect, that they feel comfortable. He explains complex symptoms in lay terms…

Because of friends like this, I’ve forgotten what there was to be miserable, angry or sad about. The world, it seems, has every possible reason to be hopeful.

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“Fix You” – Cold Play

When you try your best but you don’t succeed
When you get what you want but not what you need
When you feel so tired but you can’t sleep
Stuck in reverse

And the tears come streaming down your face
When you lose something you can’t replace
When you love someone but it goes to waste
could it be worse?

Lights will guide you home
and ignite your bones
And I will try to fix you

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Personal Note: Rarely I find an exceedingly well-presented lecture that totally adjusts my perspective. This 20-minute talk was delightful, enlightening, fact based. Another reason to be happy.

Spanish Words of the Day: agravarse” to worsen | “manto de agua” water table | “escurrimiento” drainage | “temporalidad” seasonality | “estiaje” ebb tide | “cenit” zenith, peak | “pizca” pinch, in Mexico: harvest

Bits & Pieces: Panorama of San Cristobal

Click to Enlarge

Translated an interesting article all morning, then did my laundry. At 1pm, met with Felipe for lunch and went to the Museo Na Bolom to examine artifacts and specimens from the Tzotzil and Lacandon Mayan peoples from hundreds of years ago. There were so many rooms of things to see! Franz and Gertrude Blom were explorers/historians/anthropologists/archeologists who studied at Harvard University, then had expeditions funded by American societies in San Antonio and New York. They have an inspiring anthropological collection that dates pottery back several thousands of years, and metalwork and ceramic arts to several hundred. I especially admired the black & white photography exhibit.

Later we had afternoon coffee and cookies in the pleasant veranda at Agapandos, staying out of the rain. He talked about living in Korea, and Kenya… we may go to Guatemala together since he doesn’t speak Spanish, and things are always more fascinating when someone already knows the place. Not long after, I saw an elderly French couple who lost their way, so I accompanied them on a walking tour around Cuxtitali and to their destination. They’ll visit the ruins of Palenque tomorrow. Finally, I visited Taller Leñateros to say hello to everybody, and gave a talk to some tourists and inspire them to give some donations and purchase gifts. Loxa looks attractive and elegant as always, in her traditional Mayan embroideries and braids.

Tonight I am responsible for cheesecake dessert for a warm get-together at my house, we have already prepared the wines and cheeses and cured meats. On the weekend I am invited to two parties. Disappointed I won’t be able to attend the final showing of Palenque Rojo, Paco is a brilliant actor.

“Talk of the Town” | Jack Johnson

I want to be where the talk of the town
Is about last night when the sun went down
And the trees all dance
And the warm wind blows in that same old sound
And the water below gives a gift to the sky
And the clouds give back every time they cry
And make the grass grow green beneath my toes
And if the sun comes out I’ll paint a picture all about
The colors I’ve been dreaming of the hours just don’t seem enough
To put it all together, maybe it’s as strange as it seems
And the trouble I find is that the trouble finds me
It’s a part of my mind it begins with a dream
And a feeling I get when I look and I see
That this world is a puzzle, I’ll find all of the pieces
And put it all together, and then I’ll rearrange it. I’ll follow it forever

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Spanish Words of the Day:dar realce a algo” to enhance or add luster to something | “transcurrir” to pass by, to take place | “lidiar” battle, fight with, to cope with | “sobreponerse” to overlap | “acotado” limited, enclosed

Christian: That’s what I like about you, Victoria. You’re always positive.
Me: No, I’m mostly positive. Until I’m stuck in a corruption scandal. Then I’m so-so.

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… “And what makes you think they act the way they do?” asked the patient director on a particularly almost-ready-to-give-up day a few weeks ago. Miguel and Clara (names changed) royally screwed up, and twenty-three clients who could have brought serious income left the workshop feeling cheated and ripped off. While we normally charge $300 per person for the course, they couldn’t reason the group discount, and started fluctuating the prices, and demanded the full $6900. The potential clients spun around and left, annoyed. I had been hustling to convince people to walk to the store, and here was our own team members turning them away.

This was the last thing I needed to hear while we were drowning in debt. Some of the sheer inability to cope with commercialization as well as the resistance to overcome their financial mire had plagued me. It was as if the whole idea of major d-e-b-t didn’t signal red crisis to them at all. The director was asking me to consider, to attempt to get inside the minds of the people and their mishaps. It wasn’t as malicious or as complex as the scandals that happened in Corporate America, but the petty lies and excuses that had accumulated seemed to point to an absolute crisis in ineptitude as far as commercialization went.

I was reminded of the Australian aborigines, or some poor communities in the Philippines. No matter how great and intelligent the ancient culture was, part of me suspected that these contemporary cultures were actually promoting poverty and destitution such that (1) nobody had anything and (2) nobody wanted to do anything about it. Sometimes I wondered if in this region, under-achievement and being a screw up was the point… like poor black ghettos in the United States. I was so exasperated, but I had to chuckle at what it reminded me:

Hehehehe…okay, nothing could be that bad…Mayan indigenous have many redeemable qualities, people are nice and hard working. But dude, I’m just sayin’…day in and day out: they couldn’t work smart, and they’d make excuses for it. Just as the irascible patient tells white lies to the doctor, so too, as I confided with my friends what was happening, they wondered aloud how I could tolerate this stupidity charade for so long… toiling intensively to bring them target revenues that would leak out of our organization again.

…”Well I think Mayans lack a constant diet of role models, healthy organizational patterns, and motivating inspiration, the sensitive ability to prioritize and measure the pulse of the changing business climate seems woefully absent.” I thought about myself… every time I faced difficulties or worries that seem to consume my attention, there are always videos, photos and articles that put my work into perspective, and encourage me to see things more optimistically, and give me a pattern to work with. And it got me thinking about things I didn’t know how to put into people: Curiosity. Passion. Heart. Commitment.

And I thought about growing up in the Golden State, how all those rags-to-riches stories and heroes became part of the mythology that somehow inspired me to believe that big ideas and success were possible for me too. Not plausible, but possible. Las Vegas. The Gold Rush. The Hearst Publication Empire. Hollywood. Silicon Valley and the Internet. The Pacific Railway. SpaceShipOne. George Clooney who grew up in Kentucky. Even that Sriracha Sauce which started with a poor Vietnamese cook, or that mochi ice cream idea that came out of Little Tokyo. Even nutty ideas that seemed not to exist elsewhere: Playboy Mansion. Disneyland. Maybe they were improbable for models of success, but at least we were marinated in the message that we could become something in life, do something that impacted the world, we could think big and do really amazing things if we sacrificed and focused. We questioned. Billionaires? United Nations? Why not me? Why couldn’t I live under two dollars a day in Africa—I had to try, and I did.

And that was a fundamental difference: children in Chiapas didn’t grow up looking at the stars wondering if they could be astronauts or build empire companies. Technically this place (which so much natural resources that the entire Mexican nation sustains itself from drawing from Chiapas reserves) had a history which dated earlier than California, and yet… here we are in the “Third World” while the Golden State had an economy stronger than that of the country of France. I know, you can blame the American CIA for dirty tricks, but there’s got to be something more than that…


Diego, Javier, Gaby and Valerie

Advice About People I’m Writing For Myself

1. Collaboration often involves interdisciplinary teams, and I guess “interdisciplinary” means very different schools of thought. Some people demand order and punctuality, others need wide room for error. When there are preferences, cliques, rash judgments, and uncomfortable moments… most people immediately feel like they are the innocent party of unfortunate things happening to them. Keep in mind if someone is acting up, most of the time they aren’t intentionally trying to make your day suck. Oftentimes, thy truly perceive that some event happened that justifies their response…or…they just might be having an rough day. So give them the break they need. Mostly a lot of people do not feel adequately understood or acknowledged. When dealing with sentient beings with moods and emotions, it is good to *seek* to understand people, what informs why they act that way, and always interpret the best intention they have to offer.

2. When there is a trying circumstance viewed from several different perspectives, there is usually a kernel of truth—but often slightly exaggerated or with certain pieces missing—in what every one thinks of each other. They are simply seeing things through a mental filter. Most of the time when someone sets up a case, you really can’t deny that side of the story. But I notice that once people start framing others in a certain light, they will continue to seek evidence to support that even if the context has changed and the person is no longer acting that way. We forget that everyone is adjusting to a new place, in the process of learning about life, undergoing other issues, minor adjustments, changes…some have an identity to defend, others are more easygoing. We want to believe in characteristics, that that person is just “that way” but it helps me more to believe that someone acted that way under x, y, z context… that when a circumstance changes, a persons actions also change.

3. You must take an active role in gluing together a group, and yes, it’s going to take quite a bit of energy and resources. Letting it “blow over” often doesn’t work. Chasms widen, emotions deepen…like a rip in the mesh, if left alone it actually gets worse in people’s minds, or there is total disengagement or avoidance. A incident can brew into a storm in an imaginative thought proces…that slightest notion that someone doesn’t like you becomes entrenched after a while, and affects the way you act around him or her. Therefore a lot of tiny, thoughtful action has to be taken to keep a happy, cohesive group. Be genuinely warm. Our unconscious gestures and subtle expressions betray what is unspoken and in our minds. Little everyday gestures on your part (such as sharing food, writing a personal note/email, going out of your way to get chai/origami/a special medication shipped in for someone else, or helping someone get something done) shows that the other person matters to you, and it works miracles. Even after unintentional tiffs or little scuffles, it’s important to extend open invitations to people, to especially avoid the (perceived) exclusion of people.I remind myself that our lives are preciously short and shouldn’t be wasted on trivial slights on our egos. Just like lovers need to display tokens of affection, so too, do colleagues and friends.

4. I vote for more discriminating perception, less judgment, bite that tongue before premature advice. It is not that people are cliquey and closed-minded and ignorant. (Okay sometimes just a little.) But more, human beings seek constant reaffirmation of who they are, and they seek the companionship of people who reinforce their identity. And people like who they can laugh and joke with, which is one of the the hardest aspects of any language. On the surface it will look polarizing. But if there is water, and oil, and you want to be the soap, take special care to notice things about people’s identities and appreciate them, to delight in their jokes, support the person they have grown into, the dreams they have. Affirm who they have become, and then talk about differences. Because so often, we take things personally when opinions seems to threat who we are at the core.

5. Honor what feelings others confide in you. I really like one-on-one talks or groups of three, and I like to help people do very ordinary things, spend time going to the market or helping with their chores. If there are chasms and you want someone to open up, it’s unhelpful to never be there and suddenly blurt: “How are you doing?” and expect them to engage in a real conversation (Automatic one-word dismissive response: “Fine. Good.”) Or announce, “We need to have a private talk,” (It gets people’s worst defenses up.)

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“Say” John Mayer

Take all of your wasted honor, every little past frustration
Take all your so called problems, better put ’em in quotations
Say what you need to say

Walking like a one man army fighting with the shadows in your head
Living out the same old moment knowing you’d be better off instead
If you could only say what you need to say

Have no fear for giving in, have no fear for giving over
You better know that in the end, it’s better to say too much
Then never to say what you need to say, again

Even if your hands are shaking and your faith is broken
Even as the eyes are closing do it with a heart wide open
Say what you need to say

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Spanish Words of the Day: “balbuceos” mutterings | “torbellino” whirlwind

…To wake up to glorious cloudscapes in the mornings. Isn’t this what makes life worth living? The rain is falling and it makes me enormously motivated and concentrated to finish my work. But first! Let me procrastinate by posting on my photo blog.

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…The human potential has no limits. What a person can do with his or her body, his or her mind, together with the concentration of willpower and a relentless pursuit of excellence can produce marvelous feats of acrobatics, athletic performance, and exquisite inventions. Watching the Olympics produces such a strong, resonating conviction in me that, if every four years young athletes prove that they can surpass world records that seemed unbeatable before… then what does that imply for the entire human race? It’s inevitable that things keep getting better and the mind keeps getting sharper with each successive generation. Is it not demonstrating the case for each one of us to improve upon the benchmark set by our predecessors, that instead of worrying and criticizing each other, we ought to be setting new remarkable standards in the frontiers of achievement? Challenge me.

… Whether in ethics, in performance, the process of workmanship or simply in the designs we produce… putting in that extra effort to strive for excellence makes us distinguished. Maybe even within the blog I write. Something a little extra- from -ordinary. Part of the human capacity for delight, joy, pride, and character comes from surpassing a personal best… and if you can combine that with increasing the lot of the have-not’s, well you sleep even better at night: very satisfied. It is in that philosophy that I find myself committed to philanthropic projects in developing countries that involve challenges such as language barriers, behavioral adaptations, being way from friends and family, and orienting to new conditions.

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Spanish Words of the Day:aferrar” to anchor, to moor | “sacapuntas” pencil sharpener | “cachita, cachetón” cheeks, chubby-cheeked | “imprescindible” essential, indispensible | “afianzar” to consolidate | “echarpe” a shawl, stole

This week was pretty great, really, and I’ve taken some pictures to show you what delights me about living here.

Yesterday I went out with travelers from Israel, the US, New Zealand and two girls from France… and of course the conversation went to everyone’s favorite fixation: “Bashing America.” But switching modes from a predominantly Spanish world to an English one, I learned that I perceive the world very differently from lots of people.

For instance when I asked how was their experience of California, my new acquaintances noticed the politics, lack of gun control, how Americans ‘never’ traveled outside of their county much less the country, or how ‘superficial’ and ‘fake’ people from Los Angeles are–I’m from L.A.–because the museums didn’t have the depth of New York (to them.) And that San Francisco was “a city concentrated with freaks.” They kept quoting Michael Moore’s documentary 911, and Borat. And that’s mainly what they took away from their experience of the United States. It really was a whole conversation of surprises for me. I notice that even though people may inhabit and live in the same place and walk through the same areas (in the previous conversation California, but we can also extend it to Chiapas) somehow with the things we pay attention to…and with filters of things we don’t notice…it’s like living in parallel but separate universes. Our subjective worlds rarely touch.

Right now in San Cristobal there is heavy rain, and my mind wanders to the natural cycles and the weather that brought it here, to form puddles. They say that the amount of water on the planet is more or less constant. And perhaps sitting in front of a computer, I can wonder about semiconductors and how silicon is really only sand and brains…and if so, then why doesn’t Namibia have more glass or silicon factories! Or the symphonic process of how this notebook computer is assembled just-in-time. I find it very hard to be always critical or cynical about the world in which I exist…maybe sometimes, but then I notice the miracles. My new friends noticed that time goes on a slower pace and things “aren’t working,” “aren’t happening.” For me, things are buzzing all around me.

Totopo, El Cachorro | El Bosque | Cheery Chocolate Cupcakes

British Vogue Fashion | Walking Outside | My Burberry Tote With Flowers

Orange Blooms At Home | More Happy Cupcakes | Potted Foliage

Good Place To Chill & Read | Andador Arco de Carmen | Dinner Table

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I am the happiest man alive. I have that in me that can convert poverty to riches, adversity to prosperity, and I am more invulnerable than Achilles; fortune hath not one place to hit me.” Sir Thomas Brown, Religio Medici (1842)

The great source of both the misery and disorders of human life, seem to arise from over-rating the difference between one permanent situation and another… Some of those situations may, no doubt, deserve to be preferred over others; but none of them can deserve to be pursued with that passionate ardour which drives us to violate the rules of either prudence or of justice; or to corrupt the future tranquility of our minds, either by shame from the remembrance of our own foibles, or by remorse from the horror of our own injustice.” Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments

Related: Psychology of Happiness (Watch Video)

Thanks Pete!

And how did you know that?” the 30-something Italian traveler asked me, a small table gathered around the savory crepes we had ordered last night. We were in Kinoki, a prosperous and hip indie theatre and tea salon in San Cristobal, where incidentally, almost all the employees were Argentines (except two Mexicans from the capital.) She and a group of Argentines intently wanted to know about investments, government bonds, passive income, how could travel and talk about buying a Texan ranch with Pete. Since everyone was nearly ten years older than me, I wondered incredulously, ‘How do you *not* know that?

…My reaction, and what was happening around that table, inspires the following post. First draft.

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Foreign Weeds

…Here in Chiapas, Mexico, I had noticed a trend that most successful and profitable businesses had one thing in common: they hired a bunch of Italians or Argentines to do the work. The Mexicans that were hired were ones who had experience in the capital, Cancún, Aculpulco, or Playa del Carmen. Indeed, for a region that was said to lack job opportunities, after it was rumored that I had resigned from Taller Leñateros and looking for something worthwhile until October, it seemed that everyone in charge of cooperative projects wanted to know if I could join their team, and I was introduced as the organized and hardworking girl who by now knew all the hotels and sales points in the city. It confirmed my suspicion…in a beautiful indigenous territory where foreigners were allowed to come in and out…we would out-compete the locals.

Putting myself in their place, if I were running a smart endeavor in Mexico and my goal was to achieve growth and sustainability, the first thing I would do is grasp at the Israelis, the Japanese, the Chinese, the Italians, the Argentines…it wasn’t really racial bias per sé. They knew more about building a flourishing business from their culture, from what parents taught their children, and their attitudes toward work and being pleasant to work with. From the basic fundamentals of their everyday behavior, they were far more reliable and you can depend on them to close the sale and keep the clients satisfied.

…In the meantime, bad news had circulated as warnings. Of another Mayan-Mexican who ditched her employer without notice the moment when her boss needed her the most… or another who shows up to work an hour late every single day… or another who couldn’t be counted on to simply do inventory correctly and understand basic arithmetic. Yes they were uneducated, but they couldn’t be bothered to take responsibility, and they fib a lot. Even if you overpaid them, even if you tried to teach them (and plenty of business owners really come with all sincerity to give Mayans the benefit of opportunity) but many of the adults from villages don’t want to learn, or can’t learn, or have an ingrained resentment, and gossip at work… in which contrasts severely certain foreigners who know how to win as a team and understood what it was to give service and great treatment to clients. And the locals see their opportunities shrinking, and they call it discrimination.

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Racial discrimination? Or realities of capitalism?

A bit of both. It reminded me of the Chinese in Tibet, which in reality, wasn’t so much of a “takeover” as it was the simple fact that foreigners and travelers crawled all throughout Tibetan territory, and almost everybody who came sympathetic to the Tibetan plight sooner or later wound up in Chinese operations instead because they were sick and tired of being ripped off, cheated, and treated rudely by Tibetan operators. Oftentimes, it was infinitely more reliable and economical, and therefore preferable, to work with the migrant Chinese, the Indians, even the Nepalese and Burmese… than Tibetans…who rightfully then claim that they’re being outrun and clobbered by foreigners on their territory. It also reminded me of foreign enterprise in Bolivia.

Well, quit messing around and giving yourselves a bad reputation,” I wanted to scream then, myself having undergone a series of hostile cartels and Tibetans who wanted to ditch us by the highway without taking us to our destination. “You’re creating a whole negative stereotype for those who really want to do right!!” They wanted to charge us a ridiculous price (in US dollars, of course) for the sixty kilometers to see Mount Everest. They had wanted to charge double the Chinese price next door. It was the same struggle with the Chileans and indigenous in Bolivia.

When traveling in Chiapas, Mexico… one can easily feel frustrated with simple business transactions. With Mayans things were (more often than not) delivered late, promises weren’t kept, and just when you wanted something most, they deliberately inflated the prices several hundred percent…hey, because you’re the rich foreigner, and technically your ancestors owed them big you’re not like them: You’re Mr. ATM Moneybags. I remember once, after having gone over fourteen times to a shop to ask for a box of chai tea, an intense craving I had and was willing to pay a premium of double for, they wanted to charge me $300 (whoa, hello!) for the box and had the nerve to insist they were being honest and good people and that was the base price it costed them. Are you kidding me?

(Annoyed that this shop had fooled me to make 14 separate trips in anticipation for the box they’d promised, I had had the product shipped to me from the United States instead and never went back again. And told all my friends so too. Word-of-mouth is devastating to indigenous enterprise.)

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Gringo Attitudes

In Taller Leñateros, the English version of the product cost $100 more than the Spanish version (most clientele don’t speak Spanish) and often if something was in demand at the right price, they’d increase the price to the point that nobody could afford it. Just last week a client who wanted to purchase $5000 in merchandise huffed away buying nothing because an associate couldn’t give him the 5% discount he asked for because there was no defined “rule” that gave her the flexibility to authorize this and she wanted to wait until the Saturday meeting to gain a consensus approval from everyone. Even though logically, if they could give 30% discounts to their own, umm…. And yes it looked like greed. Yes it looked like they were taking advantage of you.

And it wasn’t something you could really get angry about, because then they’d quit. Or they wouldn’t show up to work. The reality was, they were rather unsophisticated and narrow-visioned with international business practices that mostly they were thinking of that short term one-time transaction, and not thinking of the long-term relationship. Logically if you have a series of returning customers, the yield of that trusting reputation becomes very profitable over time. (The regular customer at Starbucks is “sold” and can be counted upon to keep buying every week.)

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Trouble With The Unquantifiable

The intangible elements—investing in good publicity, making the client feel that he got a good value, developing a multisensorial and memorable experience, getting everyone in the city to recommend future business your way—seem to hard for them to grasp. As far as the indigenous Mayans understood what foundation I had been building (emailing everyone for appointments, thanking them, courting clients, and creating a superior experience for them) mainly they believed my entire contribution over three months was decorating boxes and making maps—only the visible, physical, concrete evidence of my efforts. The many customers who did end up walking in and purchasing, and left enormous amounts of tips, the sudden and inexplicable surge in sales and profitability… well, to them, was probably the Mayan gods… so we had even more ceremonies, even more candles, even more prayers. *Whaps forehead in frustration.*

The locals were not linking the connection between how we efficiently worked and behaved every single day to the profitability of the entire team. They suspected that people who became rich did it by illegitimate or dirty means, and they were suspicious about wealth. Instead of overcoming common problems, we were embroiled in an immature but nasty witch hunt over blaming who took the used pan and utensils in the kitchen three weeks ago, and implicating one another over a few (less than half a dozen) missing postcards and notebooks in the store….which, um, *I dunno*… Considering we don’t have sophisticated security measures and inventory math isn’t exactly people’s forte…probably it might’ve been one of the thousands of visitors who stole it? And honestly, they’re cheap postcards, we’ve got $5 million debt to think about here!!! And nobody is concerned about the bleeding inexplicable phone bills and utilities bills we’re paying. (So often with the way Mexican Mayans resolved things by accusations in meetings and the sort of priorities they had, we might as well all be on the Jerry Springer Show. At least we’d be paid for that.)

To say nothing of more complex and abstract concepts like good governance, management, just-in-time supply chains, investments, dividends, and active and passive income… these things that my new Argentine and Italian friends were avidly asking me about last night. They wanted to know, how did I possibly know?

…It’s probably what her parents taught her about earning money ever since she was a kid,” my Argentine friend reasoned, “the Chinese are like the Jews and the Irish, they start working them when they’re kids. She’s super organized, saavy building that network and works insane hours. Made a hell of a lot of sales and tips, I saw it too. People come in looking for her. managers of hotels and restaurants.

…And what was I going to do now with my time, could I join their business? That’s really good that I quit, would I like to know another cooperative they’re working on? In fact, they said, if I wanted to go to Argentina or Italy, they’d refer me.

—-

Is Poverty Really External Discrimination?

And so it got me to thinking about inequality, bias, capitalism and culture. Weeks ago the indigenous were griping that foreigners like me who came to Mayan territory weren’t respecting The Mayan Way. Or the Mexican way. That when I perceived a good opportunity for our cooperative I’d seize it without first waiting for the Saturday meeting to wait for a consensus (which would delay for up to three weeks, and lose the customer… nevermind the amazing revenue for everyone, I had broken the time-honored rules, broken protocol.

Look, Victoria, we’re not in California. You can’t just make quick decisions like that, it makes us nervous. You have to talk to all of us, one by one, if we’re not here, you wait. All of us have to agree before you do something. You’re in Mexico, you’re in our land.

Which is fine… until your moneyed customers aren’t Mexican either. When globalization makes borders more porous, if talent from more competitive cultures could freely come in and out, smart businesses will hire people who’ve got their act together and work faster, better, and close the deal and make the clients happy… and guess what: they’re foreigners who can serve with your foreign clients. And here, I’ve noticed in one of the hippest enclaves in a Mexican town, all the employees are Argentines. And boy are they so much more fun. One of them hands me a free beverage with a smile, courtesy of the house, hoping to entice me on board to another cooperative. Wanna go to his friend’s Ashanti yoga class? I’ll consider it, I agreed. Let’s all go to the Italian Trattoria tomorrow. (Contrast this with the locals who tried to charge me $300 for the box of chai that I really really wanted. Punks, I’m never going back there again, I was telling my friends not to, either.)

—-

Looking Ahead and Beyond

…They say that not much has changed in Chiapas, one of the poorest states of Mexico, for the last fifty years... characterized by its indigenous Mayan population, it still lacks health institutions, financial lending institutions, the low life expectancy hasn’t changed, there’s still a high infant mortality and malnutrition. Oh but except. Except for San Cristobal the royal city. The only thing that has changed, and rapidly within the past five years, is the gentrification and increasing domination of expatriate foreign enterprise. With investment and more transparent and proper business models, foreigners from industrialized countries are moving in and Mayans are forced out into the periphery out of sheer inability to afford their own place, with much of the tourist capital going straight into the cash registers of American, Japanese, Italian, Mexicans-from-DF… of course causing bitter resentment among the locals.

Certain Mexican-Mayans agreed: “our people, really lack discipline, people don’t really want to work and they won’t show up. I’m telling you because I know how they are: we like to go out, get drunk, go to parties meet girls, they get really bothered if you want them to work. Instead of really being productive, everybody is gossiping or engaging in office politics. Actually much of Mexico is like this, we’re sitting on a land that’s so rich in resources that nobody bothered to try anymore. Did you know that for the Olympics, we hired a whole team of Chinese coaches and professionals to train our athletes in preparation for Beijing? In the end, nobody wanted to commit to that many years of hard work. We’ve only won two gold medals in a population of 106 million and a middle tier country If you see Jamaica and its 3 million, or Cuba with its 13 million, and how many world class medalists they’ve produced with the poverty and lack of infrastructure or government support they have… it’s humiliating. Anyway, I don’t like the Olympics, it focuses too much on competition. What about happiness, what about enjoying life? Having a loving family with lots of siblings? Food is pretty good in Mexico, eh? You’ve got to think about the the present.

And so there we are. Happy poor people with big families.

But then I remember the regional reports I’d been translating. The high suicide rates. The premature deaths. Not having enough provisions to survive natural disasters. The little indigenous kids I had seen to have round protruded bellies from malnutrition. The domestic abuse and wives being left to bleed to death. That’s not happy. It is so hard for me to fathom, I suppose coming from an East Asian perspective that plans decisions and investments so long term even compared to average Americans, how the relentless pursuit of today’s happiness could really result from their everyday choices

I came home gazing at the stars and nebulae at 2 a.m., and the ranchero music kept pounding in the neighborhood, thinking of ideas for poverty development. I felt sad for the local people. Not pity, but it broke my heart. I didn’t know what to do. With the way things are going, without subsidies the Mayan indigenous will inevitably be smashed by globalizing competition in a capitalist setting, and it’s not because there hasn’t been people who wanted to teach them or help them learn. It’s not discrimination or lack of sympathy, it’s the enormous difference in parenting and the education we learn from childhood at home that makes certain people far more prepared for the rapidly changing business environment of modern commerce than others. And even though the locals are generally sweet and amicable in casual settings, over prolonged relationships and in business settings they are making it really really really hard to help them: not only do they operate on a agonizingly slow sense of time, but their sometimes their business interaction with “other people” is characterized by a deadly combination of (1) mistrust and (2) suspicion and (3) envy. (It’s hard for them to empathize with foreigners as living breathing human beings just as they are, who want good things for low prices just as they do.)

—-

Real Life Parable

Let’s charge $250 for that.” “No, $400. They’re gringos, last time I heard a gringa woman was willing to pay $1000,” you can hear them discuss right in front of your face as a client. You’re sitting there, astonished they’re determining how to price gouge you (right before your presence! What, are they insulting your intelligence?)

You, not being an idiot and having traveled and asked around, know that the market value of such a service is considerably less than $150 but you were willing to pay premium just to support the Mayan locals. Yet they seem to be oblivious to the fact that you’re willing to purchase at that higher price, more as an act of philanthropy and generosity for Mayan locals livelihood, not because you’re so ignorant as to not understand what is and what isn’t a good value on the market. Your goodwill dissipates, and you leave annoyed.

“You see, it’s discrimination against us indigenous,” they remark after you’ve left, “they come to our land, they’re sitting on tons of money and they want discounts from us. The foreigners so rich and they can’t give us more, they just want to go to foreign businesses.

And in Lhasa, Tibet… violence erupted in vicious anger. They’ve burned shops and restaurants and killed in rage and resentment, only then to be brutally repressed by the more powerful military as a too-harsh reaction. It’s the foreigners, they’re imposing on us, they’re trying to change who we fundamentally are, they’re marginalizing us, they won’t buy from us because we’re Mayan indigenous. The rich bastards are trying to press down the prices and we can’t make a living.


Um excuse me,” I delicately suggest, “you might want to try and update your practices, work harder and better to make the client satisfied so they’ll come back to buy things and say wonderful things about you and bring more clients.” They smiled and passively agreed, ignored me, and in a few days I hear them complain: “who is she to come here and impose her standards on us, in our territory? We’re working hard enough.”

And they resent why foreign enterprise multiply and prosper, so they keep praying to their gods for more business.

—–

Excerpt from a Paper Making Guidebook

“Cuando las pequeñas empresas tienen problemas para encontrar financiamiento, existe un elemento económico al que pueden recurrur: la innovación. Y nótese que decimos “un elemento económico” y no un elemento “artístico”, “estético” o “técnico” -al menos no solamente. Según la opinion actual de los economistas, la innovación sigue siendo, quizás, el componente más importante del éxito en las pequeñas firmas o pequeños emprendimientos (como suponemos que será el nuestro referido a la fabricación de papel artesanal, justamente por su carácter artesanal.) A pesar de las vaivenes económicos, las empresas inteligentes invierten más recursos en investigación y desarollo. Los pequeños negocios siempre siguen innovando en áreas altamente competitivas, y de esa manera, cuando tienen problemas o se encuentran estancadas, logran salir a flote.

…Es una idea básica la de cuidar lo que poseemos, y cuando emprendemos cualquier tipo de actividad, esto cobra mayor sentido. En un emprendimiento debemos cuidar muchos aspectos tanto personales como organizacionales, que son bien diferentes entre sí pero tiene igual importancia para el progreso: (1) cuidad de la economía (2) cuidad de los recursos materiales y humanos (3) cuidado de la propia salud mental y física.”

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