The Price of Coffee in Venezuela

It’s all about the Benjamins! Er, uh Burgermins? What if, instead of evaluating a country’s inflation using good old fashioned economic data, an everyday consumable was used in its place? You may have heard of the Big Mac Index. If not, this indicator basically compares global prices for the McDonald’s original two all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions – on a sesame seed bun.

The Big Mac Index is proudly served by The Economist, and was created in 1986 in order to assess “whether currencies are at their “correct” level. It is based on the theory of purchasing-power parity (PPP), the notion that in the long run exchange rates should move towards the rate that would equalise the prices of an identical basket of goods and services (in this case, a burger) in any two countries.” Yada yada yada.

But today (well last year) Bloomberg created a similar index, except focused on Venezuela specifically. If you have a Netflix addiction akin to heroin, have abandoned cruel reality for the latest in VR or otherwise find yourself treading water in a world of ridiculous and absolutely senseless memes and are unaware, Venezuela has been experiencing what some economists are referring to as runaway inflation. Exact figures are difficult to pinpoint but most sources put the rate well into the triple digits.

So, a new Big Mac Index substitute was born: The Bloomberg Café con Leche Index. The index tracks a cup of coffee (with milk) in eastern Caracas. Bloomberg states its price has spiked to 1,800 bolivars, up from about 450 bolivars during a span of 29 weeks. This index would then peg Venezuelan inflation at a staggering rate of 1,155% during that time.

The approximation reflects wide variation and remains a “best guess”. Other estimations I’ve come across for inflation in 2016 range from here at 290% and cap here at 800%, while most mainstream financial outlets trend north of 700%.

The index is admittedly unsophisticated, but it does track a product which is consumed every day and is monitored regularly.  It’s not an attempt to liken the situation in Venezuela to a cup of coffee (or burger), but to provide a more tangible method of assessing the financial pressure that has been unfolding in Venezuela over the last few years.

Binge-learn Spanish by Watching Narcos

Narcos on Netflix is my latest obsession in premium television and actually, contrary to most the other non-essential shit I consume, Narcos serves a valuable purpose for me—Spanish practice. I’ve been a Spanish learning hobbyist? for quite some time. Always intensifying practice around an international trip, then making honest attempts during subsequent months utilizing new podcasts or maybe reading Spanish newspapers online. Wherever my abilities lie, the rhythm of the language and memories of past trips to Spain and Central and South America have cemented my desire for improvement.

As far as Narcos is concerned, I think the reason this show has fueled my latest Spanish binge is threefold:

  • Centers around drug trafficking
    Drugs are bad, mkay? Most shows centered around drugs tend to include a combination of money, violence and corruption. These ingredients lend themselves to an addicting cocktail of a TV series, much like those found in The Wire or Breaking Bad.
  • Grounded in historical details
    The wildest and most devastating part is the series’ focus on historical events—they’re often tragically depressing and almost inconceivable (see Palace of Justice siege or Avianca Flight 203 for examples). Absolutely there is narrative stringing some episodes along, as this is a Netflix original, but Narcos does establish historical characters and presents them in a moderately neutral tone.
  • Primarily Spanish dialogue
    Since it centers around Pablo Escobar and the influence he played in Colombian life generally, and the cocaine trade specifically, it is likely to be best told in Spanish. Obvious, I know, but would you believe the actor playing Escobar is Brazilian?

A few hours a week I am transported to another country, thrown into the fascinating, yet tragic history that unfolded around cocaine in Colombia and the profound impact it carried forward for more than two decades. The producers filmed much of the series in Medellín and Bogotá, and throughout they weave together bits of authentic photos and videos. Since you’re seeing actual footage and archived documents, the series appears more genuine as you see haunting videos of the aftermath of street shootouts and major bombing campaigns. 

The first season chronicles the brutal rise to Escobar’s dominance. It explores the ruthlessness of his empire and the ensuing exchange of violence between rival cartels, the Colombian police and populist guerrilla fighters. You see both sides of the law—a view from the Colombian government and its hired help from the DEA, as well as Escobar’s family and business associates. Throughout, the Colombian people find themselves caught in the middle, powerless to the situation. 

Season two begins to look into the decisions which lead to the slow unraveling of Escobar’s Medellín empire.  As crazy and utterly brutal as his rise to the top is, the downward spiral of his reign is somehow even more riveting, especially once the viewer begins to get a glimpse “inside the mind” of Escobar during his last months on the run. 

Narcos makes it difficult to not want to improve (or learn) Spanish during/after watching. The series is addicting. The language is alluring. A planned season three and four are in the works, which no doubt makes it even more appealing as a continued alternative to the more conventional, and let’s be honest, less inspiring, language learning methods.

 

Original Index of Airbnb’s Most Hospitable Cities, Explained

Superhost to the rescue! That’s the Airbnb designation of an extraordinary host. They know better than anyone that bad reviews can kill you.

From my experience in booking an Airbnb (or hotel or any other accommodation) one of the things at the top of my checklist is a highly-rated experience from previous stays. If given a choice between a host with low average reviews or a newbie host with no reviews, I would likely roll the dice and stay with the unknown…and cross my fingers he or she is not a looney.

So where can you go to have the best luck with a stay? Read on, sister.

Back in 2013, and with just under one million trips completed in the United States (four million worldwide), Airbnb set out to find which cities contained the ultimate hosts. For reference, as of 2017, Airbnb guests have completed more than 150 million stays in over 65,000 cities worldwide.

Dessert first. Then the unexciting methodology will follow.

US Most Hospitable Index:
 (Mid-2013)

  1. Tampa, FL
  2. Mendocino, CA
  3. Eugene, OR
  4. Bend, OR
  5. Raleigh, NC
  6. Memphis, TN
  7. Madison, WI
  8. Nashville, TN
  9. Tucson, AZ
  10. Lake Tahoe, CA

Whattya’ see? Most are concentrated to a few regions across the U.S.

Maybe it’s the favorable weather in places like California, Florida and Arizona. Or perhaps it’s the proximity to outdoor activities in Tahoe, Eugene and Bend. Does sand-castle-making-access equal pleasant hosts, from Mendocino or Tampa? As pointed out by Airbnb, perhaps a college town like Madison, Raleigh or Nashville make for great reviews with laid back undergrads—host or guest. Are small towns friendlier? Four of the ten cities had populations in 2013 of under 160,000 and all cities are outside the top-20. Mellow hosts? By 2013, half the cities’ states allowed medical marijuana, which could make for a pretty easy-going host.

Those are just my fun facts mixed with an ounce (up to 8 in California) of speculation.

I posted Airbnb’s methodology in pretty lay terms below for the curious.

Index Methodology:

  • Used reviews to assist in determining most hospitable cities in U.S. (to quantify data)
  • The reviews are made up using the following categories:
    • Cleanliness
    • Check-in
    • Communication
    • Value
    • Accuracy
  • However, all reviews (1-5 stars) are NOT what make up the index*
    • The Index is determined by the percentage of trips which resulted in a 5-star review for all the previously mentioned criteria
  • Cities are limited to those which hosted a minimum of 500 trips in last two years
  • Only stays in which a guest booked a private room were used
  • The index also tried to control for guests by taking into account the guest’s origin

Airbnb Host Predictive Factors:
Airbnb tried to figure out which factors might be able to reliably predict a host’s score. To do this, they came up with a model based in probability. The full charts are interesting to see, but I’ve tried to cover a few highlights:

  • Younger guests (age 25-29) gave the most favorable reviews; older hosts (age 50-69) provided the best experience to guests
  • Guest factors based on gender weren’t much different, but female hosts tended to score a bit higher than the guys did
  • Stays under 2 nights or over 10 nights reviewed less often than the stays in the 3-9 range
  • The smaller the group, the more favorable the review
  • The further in advance a trip was booked, the more positive the review

Yes, the data was analyzed about 3.5 years ago. Things have definitely changed since then, as more cities have become available and Airbnb’s accommodations continue to outpace the growth of hotel chains.

The ten most hospitable is a great indication of where to stay, but it does leave me wondering where NOT to stay. A top-10 Least Hospitable Index would be perfect in order to avoid a disastrous weekend away.

You can read through the original data set that Airbnb provided here and draw your own conclusions.

 

The Force is Strong With This One (Dollar): Top 3 Destinations to Spend Your Buck

Imagine the US dollar has been lifting weights over the past 10 years, wearing an oversize hoodie and sweatpants. Today, the dollar rips off its shirt, heads to the beach and reveals its 6-pack abs and all around muscular physique!

Yeah, that’s the dollar I want to travel with, too.

Historic gains have been ripping through the S&P 500–the index is up almost 90% over the last decade. Like the US equity market, the dollar is also Superman-strong. As a U.S. citizen, or anyone holding USD, your buck has the potential to take you further than any other time in the recent past. I’ll show you just how much you can stretch that equivalent, value-menu Jr. Bacon Cheeseburger!

First, I evaluated the top traded currencies of 2016 to get an idea of how four quarters stacks up against the equivalent currency. Second, I noted other currencies which appear to be on sale and offer tremendous value.

Taking a longer term view, I figured how much the dollar has gained (or lost) from 2007 to 2017. For example, the exchange for the dollar to the Great British Pound was 1USD=0.49GBP, on average, over 2007. Today, that average exchange rate for 2017 is 1USD=0.81GBP.

I took this approach because I am much more interested in the value the current dollar represents today, over a period of a decade, than a year-over-year change. In a word, perspective.

I’ve come come up with a top-3 list of cities to visit, based on where the USD represents an extremely great value, considering the 10 year time horizon.

Buenos Aires, Argentina
Ten Year Value: 1USD=15.73ARS vs 1USD=3.11ARS
caminito-351167_960_720

All things being equal, your dollar will give you nearly 5X the value it did back in 2007. That’s insane! Sure, inflation has rocked Argentina over the past few years, but the value the dollar provides here cannot be ignored.

Vegetarians look away! Argentina knows a thing about a great steak, as its annual beef consumption ranks second to only neighboring Uruguay on a per capita basis. Make nice with a local and get yourself invited to an asado. Check out this mouthwatering page for all the details.

Expect great weather throughout March with temperatures ranging from 65-80°F (18-27°C), with an average around 71°F (22°C). Perfect for your street tango encounters.

An AirBnB along the famous Avenida 9 de Julio in March averages $45-$75/night for 2 guests. These rates are for an entire private home/apartment.

Cape Town, South Africa
Ten Year Value: 1USD=13.38ZAR vs  1USD=7.06ZAR
helicopter-1218974_960_720
The dollar has consistently grown stronger over the last 10 years with regards to the South African Rand. Today, your greenback affords almost double what it did back in 2007.

Take the cable cars all the way to the top of Table Mountain. With views of the bustling harbor and Cape Town Stadium to the north, this mountainous lookout provides incredible views of the South Atlantic Ocean and the port city below.

Swartland, a region about an hour north of Cape Town, has shot into the spotlight in recent years. Plan a trip here and see where some of the country’s best wines come from. And remember, since your buck goes twice as far, toast a second glass (or bottle; no one is judging).

Moscow, Russia
Ten Year Value: 1USD=59.1RUB vs  1USD=27.2RUB
moscow-1556561_960_720
Experience the crushing power of the Kremlin. You’ve no doubt seen colorful pictures of Saint Basil’s Cathedral, but the view from the cathedral into Red Square is one of the most impressive anywhere in the world. The surrounding fortress walls command dominance and offer a glimpse into the importance of the complex throughout its storied past.

Despite Moscow being quite an expensive city, if there ever was a time to visit, it’s now. Do yourself a favor though and visit during June, July or August, as these are the only months the average temperature is agreeable and hovers between 60-65°F (15-18°C).

Sure, the dollar is quite strong in a host of countries, but these three offer exceptional value and should be included in anyone’s travel itinerary if overall value is the objective.

You will notice that Mexico, Brazil, and other countries represent a great opportunity as well. However, these countries have consistently been less expensive over the long-term. I’m advocating taking advantage of large fluctuations in otherwise expensive destinations while you can.

Data compiled from: http://fxtop.com/en/historical-exchange-rates.php?MA=1

How to Visit China Without a Visa

100% possible to do, but a little misleading. Technically, you will be issued what is known as a Visa in Transit upon arrival. But you do not need this prior to arrival.

But first, a little background…

It’s 9:45 in the morning on a Friday in November. I’m jamming away at my keyboard at work, still slightly foggy and desperate for another cup of coffee. Instead of caffeine, I decide that printing out my literary for an upcoming trip will produce (almost) the same effect and allow myself to mentally escape work for a few minutes. Print. Get up. Fetch. Return. PANIC.

I return to my desk but immediately get up and rush to the end of the aisle, dash down the hall, fling open the stairwell door and enter silence. I’m furiously reading over a few specific words and then rereading as if hoping a change will transpire through my repeated disbelief. I need a visa to travel to China.

Yes, I know you’re wondering how I could’ve been so foolish as to not know I needed a visa in order to land in China. But, in my joy of a cheap fare, agreeable layovers and the sweet PTO I had requested, I had forgot a pretty damn important detail. I once thought myself a savvy traveler but now…not so much.

What do I do now? I was determined to bring my visions of steaming Shanghai soup dumplings to fruition. So I did what any efficient person with an internet connection would do: Fire up a Google search to see if there was some way around the red tape. Some loophole I could squeeze myself into.

alley
Old City of Shanghai
These were the options so far:

Option 1: Drive to consulate to get visa
This meant driving to Chicago (where the Chinese consulate that served my state was located). The drive would take 4 hours and from what I knew, they are unable to process a visa same-day even if I did make it there.

Option 2: Re-book flights and visit some other time
The re-booking fees would come to half of my original ticket price and also not include any additional fees incurred if the new flight was more expensive. And they all were. I had got a killer deal.

All initial searches came up with the same result: “You need a visa, dumb-dumb”. No help there. I called my brother, whom I was to visit, and gave him the terrible news. After some back and forth, we each continued frantically searching online for ways in which to beat the system, or uhh, arrive legally.

We eventually stumbled across a sort of technical visa aka Option 3. Originally, the visa was good for 24 hours—I think intended for long layovers for which people did not want to obtain a traditional visa. The Chinese government then rolled out a new provision with a window of 72 hours. Then in January of 2016 they decided to expand this temporary visa to 144 hours, in order to increase foreign visitors, boost spending yada yada yada. But, it also gave last minute, ride by the seat of your pants types a process to follow to gain entry. Legally.

There’s something slightly unnerving about driving some four hours to Chicago, then taking a 13 hour flight to Shanghai not knowing if I would be deported upon arrival. But I took the risk and detail how you can too.

You can follow this link to the Shanghai immigration website where I read their official guidelines. What follows is not an interpretation based on the rules, which I kept finding on guides and other forums.[1] But instead is the real deal, I did it, and so can you guide!

visa stamp.jpg
Transit visa stamp aka freedom stamp
You can stay in China for a period of 24, 72 or 144 hours without a traditional visa.  Each time frame has its own stipulations. The wider the window, the more rigid the rules.

24 hour Visa in Transit
72 Hour Visa in Transit
144 hour Visa in Transit

I will use information from the Shanghai General Station of Immigration Inspection website, as the Pudong Airport in Shanghai is the transit point I used.

This was my scenario and how I worked it out:

I had booked a direct flight from O’Hare Airport in Chicago to Pudong Airport in Shanghai with a return flight from Pudong to O’Hare. I would arrive November 6th and depart Shanghai November 13th. In order to execute the 72 hour Visa in Transit, I needed to buy an onward ticket to a third country within that time frame. The 72 hours comes in to play like this:

The 72 hours begins the immediate day after you land. I was landing Sunday the 6th, so the “clock” wouldn’t start until Monday at 12:00AM or 00:00. Before I left the U.S., I bought another round-trip ticket from Shanghai (Pudong) to Hong Kong. As noted in the guidelines, Hong Kong does count as a separate country from China, even though it’s an “autonomous territory” of the People’s Republic of China. The flight would leave Shanghai November 9th at 4:45 pm and depart Hong Kong back to Shanghai the 12th of November.

I had all of Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday (72 hours) in order to exit the country via flight to a third country that was not the original country of origin (the U.S.) and was a country included in the rules. That left me with about seven hours to spare applying the 72 hour transit visa.

Once you leave the transit country (China) and land in the third country, the clock and 72 hour rule start over. What I mean is, upon returning to China from Hong Kong, I could apply the same 72 hour Visa in Transit policy again. And I did.

andrew, friends Hong Kong.jpg
Obligatory stop in Hong Kong to make visa work
Guidelines to follow:
The third country cannot be the same as the country of origin aka where you started from. You can’t go USA => China => USA, even if your visit in China is less than 144, 72 or 24 hours. You have to follow something like this: USA => China => Hong Kong => China => USA with both times in China being less than 72 hours.

Print out an itinerary or a flight booking with a confirmed seat of an onward flight with you. I was asked for this at every immigration check and once at the ticketing counter when getting a boarding pass while leaving Hong Kong. This is absolutely necessary to prove to immigration that you have an actual flight and will be leaving/arriving. Basically, no country wants to be stuck with you.

Print out your original confirmation. This should come without saying because the second onward flight in this reservation (the one back to the U.S.) is the onward flight that applies to the second 72 hour transit visa and allows you to leave China again.

Make sure your third country does not require a visa. Or if it does, GET IT. Hong Kong is very lax in this aspect of immigration and currently allows citizens of 161 countries to enter and stay visa free for varying lengths of time with a majority of these at 90 days.

Keep old boarding passes. These can help confirm your other printouts and may speed up the process.

Leave more time than you normally would. A lot of immigration agents and ticketing agents are not familiar with these rules, as they are fairly new. I was held up a few times for longer than I would’ve with a normal visa, but that’s a small price to pay.

Use the special Visa in Transit lane at immigration upon arrival in China. The ones in Shanghai are labeled on signage as 72-hour Visa-free Transit. Look to queue here.

Be sure to check which airports you’re allowed to use this Visa in Transit for. Not all airports in China allow this, but the major ones in Beijing and Shanghai do. You can also check other methods of entry/exit, as I believe this special visa can be applied to arrival via airplane and then exit via another method, like a cruise ship.

You’re technically only allowed to be in certain municipalities/ provinces depending on what airport you fly into. For me, I could only be in the Shanghai Municipality, Jiangsu Province and Zhejiang Province because I landed in Shanghai. So check this.

My tickets departing from and then back home to the U.S. were both with United on the same booking. My tickets to and from Hong Kong were also on the same booking. I do not know if there are rules to this specifically, but I would assume as long as you show that you have onward flights out of China within the time frame, you should be good to go.

One other thing to know in China: Police registration
Most hotels and paid lodgings (maybe not a sketchy hostel or dodgy AirBnB host) register you with the local police ahead of your arrival. This is standard. However, if you’re like me and staying with family or friends at an apartment, it is required by law to register at a local police station. Yes, a lot of people do not do this and nothing happens to them. There is a fine that can be imposed if you’re caught. But for me, my brother was working one of the days I stayed there, so I went to the local station and registered. It took under 15 minutes even though he didn’t speak English and I don’t speak Mandarin. All it took was a few head nods, some pointing, and a signature. I searched online for what to bring in to confirm my brother’s legal residence, but apparently it varies widely by the district you’re in. This is what I brought:

  • Passport with a printed copy
  • Printed copy of my Visa in Transit sticker from my passport
  • Copy of the first and last page of my brother’s lease agreement—this was advised on a couple different forums and I was able to obtain it easily, so I brought it.
  • Copy of all my flights—they did not look at these.

The guy behind the counter gave me a registration of temporary residence form and had me sign it. A few keystrokes on his computer later and that was that.

If you’re in a bind like I was, or you simply do not want to shell out the $140 for a visa (more if you have a company do it for you), or figure out the logistics of visiting your state’s designated consulate during the week (most likely out of state), wait three days to process, and then return again during the week to pick it up, consider this an alternative.

1. Shout out to FlyerTalk where I actually did find someone who said they had recently used this process. This was ultimately what swayed me to go ahead with my flight to Shanghai.