The burden of size

I’m at the Lisbon airport, about to embark back to Madrid, where I’m living. During the last day of my trip around South America I had the opportunity to give an interview to one of the most important journalists of Uruguay, from the local newspaper El Pais. A person of great wisdom, with decades of experience interviewing people from all over the world.

It was truly a great pleasure to talk to him about Economic Sociology, Entrepreneurship and Emerging Economies. Together, we almost got to the conclusion that Uruguay could arguably not be considered an emerging economy, as we discussed about levels of corruption, bureaucracy and freedom to start a business in the country.

At certain point we caught ourselves wondering if violence and corruption in many places of Latin America weren’t easier to get hidden behind the crowds of the large and overpopulated cities. Murders and corrupt politicians (I put them in the same category on purpose) get protected by the anonymity within these large amounts of people, with illegal incidents flooding inefficient courts of justice incapable to solve problems before new ones arrive.

With little more than 3 million inhabitants, Uruguay has an upper class of about 300 thousand people. These people meet each other in theaters, movies and restaurants, knowing easily each other’s family members and actions.

Honor still has its value and people don’t want to see their names used in an inappropriate way. In Uruguay, it is still better to be a respectable medium or upper class citizen than a rich corrupt “ghost” that will have to avoid facing society and have his/her family and history marked.

I was thinking about corrupt and violent countries with small populations (there are plenty) to see if this naïve hypothesis would apply but it doesn’t. So the burden of size and the freedom to do wrong things in anonymity alone unfortunately does not explain these social problems. Religion doesn’t either. Education or lack of huge social inequalities perhaps?

Bus rides, from a Blackberry…

I’m in a bus, traveling from Galicia to Madrid, in Spain, a 6 hour road trip (about 500km). Now is 2 in the morning, and everything is great although I’m not very sleepy. Connected to the “world” via my smart phone, I’m taking the opportunity to test this WordPress application for Blackberry that I never used due to my constant lack of time.

The trip itself reminds me about the countless bus trips I took during my youth, including some unforgettable ones throughout Brazil, Morocco and India. When you remember those trips after so many years, it looks like they were much more pleasant than they actually were, a phenomenon certainly caused by this weird “aging” effect I’m suffering at the age of 35 (in the recent past, I still could list every single new year’s eve I had in my life, now they are starting to get all mixed in my mind).

Well, still, I have very good memories about those trips. I like bus trips, I can almost feel the tires touching the road, and this makes me feel more connected to our apparently vast planet Earth.

In Brazil, I remember a 500km bus trip I did from Corumba to Bonito, all within a single Brazilian State called “Mato Grosso do Sul” (and this was just like a third of the State!). That was “pure” nature… During the trip you could feel the Pantanal’s warm and humid air while seeing al sorts of animals around the empty bus.

In Morocco, I remember two increadible trips: one from Madrid to Marakesh (!), a 30 hour “non-stop” bus trip that would make anyone sick (curiously, the “border” between Spain and Morocco was inside the ferry boat our bus embarked). And another 10 hour bus trip to the Sahara desert directly followed by a 6h camel ride at night simply unforgettable, with one of the clearest sky I think anyone can see in the world.

In India, the experiences were not that “easy”. I couldn’t skip the city buses of Kolkata, were chickens, passengers and inconvenient stops for refuel inside the buses (with people smoking just steps away from the gasoline) would make anyone feel like being inside a surreal Spanish movie. More shocking indeed was a 30 hour trip from Kolkata to Siliguri (in Sikkim) in a bus with rows of 5 seats packed with people and luggage enough to make the place almost airless. I swear I felt I could die that day. In fact, me and some colleagues got really sick for 2 days after that trip.

This Spanish ride is so calm and comfortable that in 10 years from now I won’t probably remember this bus trip, but I will certainly remember the peaceful period I lived in this wonderful country.

Surviving the Ramadan in Iran

This is the last post my wife wrote during our trip to Iran in August-September 2010. She wroted in Portuguese at the time, to publish in her blog, so I translated it to English.

Ramadan is the month in which Muslims are fasting, including abstinence from any kind of food, drink, including water, and any kind of smoke. This is a ritual of cleansing the body and soul. The duration of Ramadan is a month, and some people do not do it for the whole period. Elderly, sick, women during menstruation, and travelers need not practice this ritual. The non Muslims can eat or drink, but not in front of people who are fasting.

Traveling to an Islamic country in the middle of Ramadan can be an experience somewhat difficult. For those who are not accustomed, make a meal at 10am and another one at 20pm, spending the entire day under a blazing sun walking everywhere and not drinking hardly anything, may be sacrificing more than it seems. The problem is that in this period, tea houses and restaurants are all closed, as there is no demand, and people spend more time praying. So the only place where you can eat are in hotels, which are also not many. And when you’re doing a walk in the other side of town, it is not very exciting to go back to the hotel, eat and start over. On our second day in Teheran, we were waiting for the taxi outside the hotel with a bottle of water in hand, when the receptionist came to warn us that we could not drink or carry the water on the street and if we wanted to drink water we should enter the hotel.

The way we found to circumvent the hunger and thirst was to pack a bottle of water and some potato chips (our favorite was the Vinegar with salt) in our bag. And the trick was to eat well hidden, behind a tree or something, so nobody would get offended and we did not starve!

But after all we had a lot of fun eating potato chips around the country feeling that we were consuming something illegal.

Persepolis, seat of the first Persian Empire

Again, another post from my wife, written during our trip to Iran in August-September 2010.

Shiraz is a city located in south of Iran. It is considered the heart of the Persian culture for over 2,000 years. It is one of the most important cities in the medieval Islamic world during the Zand dynasty. The reason we went to Shiraz is because nearby are two very famous archeological sites: Pasargadae and Persepolis.

On the way to Pasargadae suddenly appears at the end of the road in front of us a super striking image. The tombs of the 4 Achaemenid kings Naghsh-e Rostam, dug into the cliff. They are huge and very perfect, and below are some drawings of the kings in battle.

The Pasargadae trip is not an obvious choice for tourists as it is 90km from Shiraz and the ruins of the city that remained are very small and not as well preserved as those of Persepolis. The city was built in the empire of Cyrus the Great around 546 BC but was destroyed by a massive invasion of Macedonian Alexander the Great. In the empire of Darius I, the city was abandoned and the population moved to Persepolis. In Pasargadae is still possible to find the tomb of Cyrus, which consists of six floors and stone that was once surrounded by beautiful gardens. We could not come to Persia and do not know the famous city quoted in Manuel Bandeira’s poem “Vou-me embora pra Pasargada…” (“I’m off to Pasargadae”).

Returning to Shiraz we made the obligatory stop at Persepolis (Perse = Persia, polis = city), which is simply amazing! The ruins are huge, which shows the city’s size, its grandeur and dominance of the empire. Everything is so well preserved that it is easy to imagine what life was like back then. It is as if we were back 2,500 years ago. The reason for their preservation is that over the years and several earthquakes that happened in the past, the town was completely submerged by sand and rediscovered only in 1930. For lovers of history, is a compelling place!

Back in Shiraz, we did a fast tour that took us to interesting places. We visited several mosques, which are very similar. Bazaar-e Vakil is smaller than that of Tehran, but more noble and organized. The smell in there is very peculiar, because the spices take care of the environment. It’s nice to see the shops, where products are all piled up, forming a mega colorful vision. Which is pretty typical here are the shops where you can create your very essence of perfume, but you can feel that the Iranians are not experts at it!

My most memorable experience was visiting in Shiraz mosque Aramgah-e Shah-e Cheragh, exclusive to Muslims. The entry of people from other religions is not allowed, but with the help of a guide you can get there. This mosque is one of the most important of Iran, because one of the main religious leaders of the Islam was killed inside it. There are some basic rules: women must wear the chador, there is a separate wing for women and men, and everyone must remove their shoes. As in the Persian palaces we visited, the decoration of the mosque consists of tiles of mirrors that shine and expand the very colors of the environment. Upon entering the mosque we finally came across the scene we had expected: the moment of prayer, with women scattered everywhere, facing Mecca, kneeling and bowing their bodies to the ground, praying with great force. In the center is the Bogh’e-ye Sayyed Mir Mohammad, a sort of cage made of silver and gold where the tomb of the two brothers of Ahmad Mir is (I imagine they are very important people, like saints for Christians). What I found most amazing is that women are pushed and almost climbed on top of one another to lay their hands to this cage while praying with a lot of pain, apparently to ask their advice or blessing. They made a movement of touching their hands, their foreheads and then kiss the cage in thanks. The word I would use to describe this scene is fervor. I think this was the first time I really thought: “I’m in Persia!”

Demystifying Iran

As promised, another post from my wife about Iran, written while we were still there. She published it in Portuguese and I translated to English last weekend. This was in the end of August 2010.

Sao Paulo – Madrid – Istanbul – Tehran. At the airport in Istanbul, I felt that the experience had begun. Several women fully covered, men kneeling on the ground praying toward Mecca, the smell of people who did not enjoy much taking shower… and several people who looked like relatives of Saddam Hussein!

We arrived at the Ramtin Hotel and the first myth was exposed – nobody asked our marriage certificate. The hotel has excellent facilities, huge rooms, internet working very well, despite the blocked sites like facebook, We went to know the first touristic spot, the e-Mellat Park, after a 4km walk. Although long, it was pretty fun, as we began to understand where we were. In general, Tehran is somehow similar to São Paulo. The city surprised us, is cute, clean, well maintained, with modern buildings. Very different from what I had in mind.

Of course everyone who comes to Iran or go to any other country, has a different experience from mine, but I want to relate here the discoveries I made in a country which I was totally inexperienced and believed it was just what I saw in TV news.

The best of Iran, no doubt, is its people. They are very nice, fun, friendly, honest, responsive and willing to help. Except for the “honest” they are very similar to Brazilians. While we were still planning the trip, we exchanged emails with some Iranian colleagues who we had never known personally. They not only gave us all the tips, as they did help us in finding a tourism agency in Tehran to negotiate the best prices. They invited us to dinner at their house, with typical food and drinks. Inside their homes, women can dress normally, with arms, legs and hair shown. Our guide gave us a CD of typical Persian music, and our other guide gave us a bunch of typical grapes (all in exchange for nothing). Taxi drivers loved to know where we came from, and like all men they loved football and knew a number of Brazilian football players. This was always the first subject we discussed in a taxi, with the help from our Persian phrasebook from Lonely Planet.

Iranian women are very beautiful. As they can only show their faces, they take great pride in showing their makeup and accessories. One curiosity is that Iran is the country with the largest number of women who do nose plastic surgeries and eyebrow tattoos. Regarding clothes, women who do not use the “chador”, they use a cloth which is called “manteau”, which is a dress to the knee, linen or denim, which can vary greatly on the model and color, but always with a pair of pants underneath. Women who choose to wear the chador are generally older, more conservative, or whose family is in that tradition. Users of “manteau” take great pride in the type of tissue they use, to differentiate themselves from others; it can be plain, colored or printed. This thing about the scarf is curious. To cover the hair is a rule imposed by the government and culturally accepted, but many women have sought a way of breaking the rule entirely. They make a loud and large coke head, and this causes the tissue to be half of the head backwards without falling, leaving the hair and fringes appearing. They can be very sensual.

Men are also super fashion, 80’s style. They dress shirt with short sleeves, plain or printed, basically tight to their bodies, and pants with slight opening legs. Another option is a tight pair of jeans, style John Travolta in “Saturday Night Fever”.

The traffic is crazy! The bikes ride on the sidewalk, even in the opposite direction. The headlights do not have a reason to exist, because nobody respects. To reverse is also common. We took a taxi to the hotel to let us backed up to 50km per hour, 2 blocks, in a super busy city avenue. The guys all honking and he did not care… Wow! Again, we were in the car of a friend of ours when he stopped at an intersection when a motorcycle came, knocked on people, and still came out cursing. Another common thing that may seem alien to our customs is shared taxis. Do not be surprised if you are inside a taxi and a stranger enter for a ride in the same direction.
The national hobby in Iran is the picnic in parks or in any corner that has some green space. Unfortunately, because it is Ramadan, we had no opportunity to experience this.

Just like São Paulo, I do not think Tehran is the best place for sightseeing. It has some cool museums, towers, parks and bazaars (as is the 25 de Março Avenue in São Paulo, with the same blend of people, mess and dirt. There, people sell everything from cheese grater until camping tents and rugs at 15,000 dollars).
The impression I had, so far, is that the atomic program or stoning, are matters that are in the news anywhere in the world except here. The Iranians do not live it or care much about it, here is an immense calm, people are happy, in peace. The question that remains in my mind is: “-How far the information that reaches us in Brazil or elsewhere in the world is skewed or has an American political interest behind?”

From these places where time is money

Benjamin Franklin’s famous quote “time is money” summarize very well what I observe when exposed to places such as New York, Amsterdam or London. It was in those cities, among few others, that the monarchs, politicians and entrepreneurs of the last centuries “invented” capitalism. I am spending this weekend in London due to an MBA fair and a couple of meetings and again, as usual, I always get surprised to see how this quote is intrinsically present around these places.

Just a stupid example: do you remember when, during hotel check outs, you had to wait for somebody to verify what you consumed from the refrigerator in your room? Some hotels just ask you about it so they can avoid this “verification” cost. Well, in this Hilton I’m staying, they’re using an automatic refrigerator that counts the things you consume so nobody needs to verify any consumption or to ask you anything about it. The curious thing – for me – is that I always see something like this when I visit one of those places where “time is money”.

In most of the so called emerging markets and even in some developed markets this is not the case yet. Things are changing fast, but usually, still, time is definitely something else than money. Just ask a Brazilian during carnival or a Spaniard or an Italian during summer. I remember the case of an American entrepreneur who moved to Bahia – in the Brazilian Northeast – during the 1960’s. Since salaries were so low and everything was so cheap, he had the idea to build a factory over there and export something I don’t remember now. According to his memories, he started paying little money to the employees but they didn’t perform well and couldn’t keep coming to work for more than two weeks. So, he started a productivity bonus, paying bonus to employees in the case they reached some objectives. It didn’t work either. He raised the bonuses and dropped objectives but employees still didn’t show up or were not committed to the work. So he gave up bonuses and simply raised the salary of everybody. Still, after few weeks or months people would get tired of the work and would abandon the job. The conclusion was that people didn’t really need money to live relatively well in the coast of Bahia at that time. They preferred to have their time to sleep, play cards or whatever without money than struggling to get a salary, whatever it was. I think you see what I mean: time was not money at all in Bahia back then. The funny thing is that I read this story while staying in a ryokan – little hotel – in Japan. Do you know why I found this book there? Because this guy decided to leave Brazil and go to Japan to start his business. He ended up being a successful entrepreneur in Japan and I was reading his memories.

Setting the destination: Iran

As promised, the first post my wife wrote about Iran back then, before the trip took place in August 2010.

Why Iran? That was the question I heard most recently. Two months ago, my husband and I decided to do a different trip. The chosen destination (by him): Iran. Friends and family always asking: “-Why Iran?”. As I also was not 100% convinced and kept asking the same thing, so I always let him answering. The arguments are: 1) he will give a lecture on Entrepreneurship in Emerging Markets, and the only region that he did not know in first person was the Middle East, 2) We have a world map at home with a stick in the countries we already know and that region was very clean; 3) We wanted to visit an Islamic country; 4) We have a pact to make exotic trips and trips to “dangerous” countries before having babies; 5) We like to break paradigms and we were intrigued to know more about Iran, its atomic program and stoning, the only information that arrived about it in Brazil, and finally 6) With him, I go to anywhere in the world, even to Iran.

Once convinced to make that trip, I began to be immersed in its culture. I searched for information in various media: internet, magazines (“Carta Capital” had a very nice story and “Viagem e Turismo” too), TV (“não conta lá em casa” cable TV show), movies (“Persepolis” and “White Balloon”), books (“What I did not tell” by Azar Nafisi – one of the most famous writers from Iran, “O Irã sob o Chador” recently released in Portuguese, this book was written by two Brazilian journalists who traveled to Iran alone with our best travel companion, Lonely Planet), and also talked to some Iranian colleagues who live there and here in Brazil. I was impressed with the amount of interesting information that we found.

Being armed with so much information, I began to prepare psychologically for the trip. I found a country with a culture very different from ours, especially regarding the role of women in society. Some things made me really impressed at first. The woman cannot show the body, or wear clothes that show their silhouette. The typical outfit is the chador, a long black coat with a scarf on the head, also black. It should always cover their hair, arms and legs. Men and women cannot go hand in hand and they must never touch each other in public. A woman cannot look to a man in his eyes, otherwise he’ll think you’re insinuating. There’s a specific police, known for its violence, which is overseeing the women to ensure they are using the proper cloth and avoiding contact with the opposite sex. To sleep in the same hotel room, the couple must present a marriage certificate. And worst of all, in a dinner with an Iranian couple, the woman should not speak unless she is considered by an Iranian as a “half man” (whatever what that means!).

You should also be asking: “- So why Iran, are you crazy?”. Actually, after everything I’ve read I became really curious about it, and started to get excited. And to make this trip a little more exciting, the next day we bought the air ticket, we found out that it was going to be Ramadan, one month of fasting and intense prayer where Muslims (including non-Muslim tourists) cannot eat or drink anything from sunrise until the sunset. Seventh reason to go to Iran: loss weight!
We took some care in planning the trip to bring the marriage certificate in English, booking good hotels with internet, making contacts with Iranian friends, researching the costumes of the women at the time to pack and the most impotant, take an official shirt of the Brazilian football team. This is an ace in the hole we Brazilians always use in such trips. Never fails!

Finally it was time to embark, and we just had to hope that everything was going to be all right!

First news from Iran

After great excitement waiting for what would be found in Iranian soil, I must confess I got a little disappointed in a positive way. I am here just for three days now but life in Teheran look less chaotic and stressing than Sao Paulo (Brazil) or most of the Latin American capitals.

It is true that women need to cover their heads, cars and motorcycles don’t respect anything (actually they have their own crazy traffic norms) and information is controlled by government (TVs, radios and internet). However, my sensation after watching people on the streets and talking to educated Iranians dismantle a certain myth previously studied in western magazines and books: that life under such an oppressive regime is unbearable and women are not free. People can leave under those circumstances quite calmly and happily. We humans get used to anything. We, common people like me and you, will always find ways to date, work, have fun and survive despite of the environment. And people who are enjoying power will always create ways to remain in power. This is what happens here: people survive living their lives quite pleasantly and governments try to keep their power indefinitely (through the excuse of religious tradition).

Bazaar in Teheran

Bazaar in Teheran

I am not defending the dictatorship imposed to this country by their religious leaders. But I must confess that people can have a quite normal and happy life under their rules, both men and women. On the contrary, I must say that not being able to access information just because it gets filtered by somebody before it gets to you is revolting for anyone who has the minimum sense of criticism. You feel like treated as a child who knows nothing about life and therefore somebody has to protect you from biased information. And this is not a pleasant feeling for a short period of time; I can’t imagine feeling that for decades. But people over here overcome that too, just like I finally found a server that allowed me to publish this post via WordPress.

The ignorance that divides people

Everything is ready for my first vacation trip to Iran next week, August 2010. I go with my wife for an apparently exotic trip, which people tend to label at least as adventurous. That is what has most impressed me from the moment that my wife and I decided to make this trip: the enormous social pressure to change our idea and completely abandon an itinerary that is already planned and partially paid.

In Brazil, over the past years, the name Iran leads to a direct connotation of danger, radicalism, development of weapons of mass destruction, unfounded stoning, and violations of women’s rights. This connotation was apparently constructed by the international press in general and then followed by the stupid national press (which curiously does not question facts), a press composed by journalists who normally do not have time to do their jobs with dignity (they are always in a hurry, writing articles like sausages in a production line).

As the result of this lack of information, some of our relatives, near friends and acquaintances have come almost begging for the cancellation of our trip, asking us to change our destiny for something softer like Turkey or Jordan, if it is to stay in the Islamic world.

This social upheaval that has prompted with unexpected frequency our curiosity about Persia and its historical and cultural path have scared us more, despite all the research done so far to ensure that there is no danger in a tourist trip to the country in recent years. That is, it is simply another case of prejudice and racism that the Western world itself says to combat in extreme hypocrisy.

Stop! Enough hypocrisy! Who are we, Westerners, to question what should be the role of religion or of women in Iranian society? In the United States the death penalty still exists in conjunction with a mass of millions of fat and ignorant compulsive consumerists that make up this country “model” (model for whom?). In Brazil, a few weeks ago a woman who seduced a famous footballer and got pregnant to get money from him was quartered and thrown to hungry dogs by former police officers who are constantly hired to “disappear” with people, for money also. It is somewhat ironic that a woman becomes pregnant in exchange for money and an ex-cop too kill for money. Basically, the same money initially conceived by the beautiful victim as her direct access to wealth and fame was the money that made her to be cut into pieces to feed hungry rottweilers.

The Western world and our democracy (a concept totally unrealistic) is not as exemplary as people around here are led to believe. It is important to learn more about the Islamic world and Iran before creating harmless stereotypes that do not contribute to the development of the world as a whole. And if we criticize, we should do it directly, considering the weight of the local religion and culture and finding ways to modernize the social and theological debate on the issue.

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