Wealth International, Limited (trustprofessionals.com) : Where There’s W.I.L., There’s A Way

W.I.L. Offshore News Digest :: June 2009, Part 4

This Week’s Entries :

FLIGHT AND FIGHT

In the previous Digest’s lead piece, Lila Rajiva suggested that between “fight” and “flight” in response to the evolving and major problems in the U.S., it was time to consider the later – and to start doing the work that would make that option possible. The response she got was mostly positive, she reports.

But some responses contained “arguments that ought to have a stake driven right through them immediately.” Herewith are hammer and stakes.

My last piece, “Time to Run,” provoked a lot of reaction, almost all of it positive, but some negative.

The readers who liked it wanted advice on where to run. That is a tall order and I will come back to them in another piece.

Those who did not like it brandished a few arguments that ought to have a stake driven right through them immediately.

Here goes, point by point.

1.) Running away does not help.

Actually, running away is often the best response to a bad situation.

Speaking practically, when a dump truck turns into your drive, mows down your rhododendrons and heads toward you, do you stand your ground yelling Sicilian imprecations at the driver until he rolls over you too? Or do you leap aside nimbly, take a photo, and call a lawyer? You have as much chance getting through to the poisonous shills in D.C. with constitutional arguments, as you have charming a rabid pit bull with Shakespeare.

Speaking theoretically, your body and brain are hardwired to either put up or shut up, a “fight or flight” response built into the structure of the autonomic nervous system. That is the physiological term for what you think of as your “lizard brain.” Fight or flight is the either/or response that helped your ancestors survive. It is not the best way to tackle complex problems, but when it gets down to basic survival, it is a handy guide.

And how do you know when your survival is at stake?

Check your gut response.

[Just make sure you are not mistaking your complexes, fears, prejudices, and impulses for your gut.]

2.) Running away is only for the rich.

Actually, the only people who can afford to stay put are the rich. If they have a problem, they can afford the 400-dollar-an-hour suits needed to sort it out. If they cannot sort it out, they have the means to tie up their opponents in court long enough to do a disappearing act.

As for our dear leaders, fight the government in court, post 9-11, and see what happens if you are poor or middle-class.

Unemployed? The rich do not have to worry about jobs. They have money enough that they employ other people or live on their investments.

Dollar collapsing? No problem.

The rich have access to alternative investments and financial instruments you never heard of.

Too busy to watch the market and too confused to know whom to hire to do it? The rich have access to money managers whose kids have more money in their piggy bank than you have in your house.

The rich can afford not to worry about the government. They have enough to buy or bribe their way out of trouble anywhere. They have tangible assets that go up in value during inflation. They have antiques and jewelry they can cash in during a depression. They have income-producing businesses that free them from the whims of the job market. You have a 3-month safety net. They have enough to live out the rest of their lives comfortably.

And when they cannot, they have the contacts and friends who can bail them out or set them up in something else.

3.) Things are not so bad

Not as bad as what? The Great Depression? There are plenty of people who think we are in for much worse times than the Great Depression.

But what does it matter if things are not as bad, just as bad, or much worse than the 1930s? Leave the measuring and the hand-wringing to tailors with chubby clients. It is enough to say the times are likely to be as bad as any you are likely to live through.

Which is to say, bad enough.

4.) Things are worse elsewhere

This is pure hearsay. Most of the people who are telling you this have never lived anywhere but the U.S. And probably not many places in the U.S.

The airwaves are thick with pundits whose money is not where their mouth is. They are telling you to stay put and foot the bills at home. ...

They are telling you from France ... and from Canada ... and from Japan ... and from Singapore ... and from New Zealand ... and yes, from D.C. – and any of a dozen places where the far-sighted and the deep-pocketed fled long ago.

Or, they are telling you to stay put from inside the belly of the beast. They are part of the infernal money-machine on Wall Street that depends on yokels like you keeping the casino going. Meanwhile, the money managers have their assets in life-insurance or in a sock.

Don’t be a fool. If you want to know how things are somewhere else, talk to people who have lived there. Research the place. Go visit it. Go – or don’t go. But decide for yourself. Do not let someone else’s idle opinion decide for you.

5.0 It is too late to run.

Too late for what? It is never too late to visit a foreign country. If nothing else, it is an education of a kind desperately needed with all the chauvinism and xenophobia in the air. If you are young, it is the best possible time for you to try your chances abroad. Why stay home and let the government stick you with the bill for things you never bought? If you are a small business man, why market to a debt-racked population, when foreigners are sitting on piles of dollars, desperate to get something for their money? Why defend the values of the free market in a country that rejects it? Plenty of smaller, less grandiose countries have respect for hard work, foresight, innovation, and thrift.

It is easier to follow the old rules in a new language than it is to learn new and ever-newer rules in your old tongue.

Granted, if you are retired or have children, your situation is a bit more difficult. But that still does not mean you cannot weigh your options. No one is talking about pulling up your roots forever and fleeing to the jungles of the Amazon. But, if you are portable, why not consider living somewhere else, maybe part-time. It could save you some money and give you a perspective that could change your life. A U.S. passport is welcome in many countries and can be held along with the passport of several other countries. Why not take advantage of it? If nothing else, you will see how other people manage on much less than what we have here.

6.) Running away is shirking your duty.

This is a peculiarly despicable objection, coming from people who have done nothing at all in the way of duty to their community. The most sanctimonious about civic duty today were the greediest back then, in that orgy of government-backed gambling that wrecked the economy. It is akin to the taunts of treachery against antiwar activists, and it is completely false.

It is simply not true that you cannot help your country from abroad. The very fact of being an American abroad helps international communication. See for yourself, hear for yourself what others think. Judge for yourself, from how others live. And let them see, hear, and judge you. Know what your money has done unseen by those at home.

See the ravages, the blood spilled. See the good done. Find out what it once meant to be an American and find out what it is today. Join forces with activists abroad and learn that their struggles and yours are not different. There are many countries where electronic surveillance is not as far down the road as it is here. Your voice might grow bolder and more confident, far from home.

The rest of the world has its own problems, true. Some of them are grave. But it is here in the U.S. that activism is most sidetracked by partisan politics, insularity, grandstanding, and politically correct insanity. Really and truly, there are few countries in the world outside totalitarian regimes that are as conformist, pervasively and fundamentally, as this country.

I would rather live under a benign despot that left me to my own devices from day to day, than in a democracy where I am spied on and manipulated constantly. I may have theoretical rights, but much good they will do for me if they are strangled at birth by spies, PR flacks, and thought-police.

Meanwhile, half these so-called rights do not exist any more, even in theory. A government that monkeys around with habeas corpus, privacy, bankruptcy procedure, eminent domain, and contracts is signaling loud and clear that it has no respect for the rule of law. It is telling you as plainly as it can that it is arbitrary. It is telling you that it is a mass state and not a constitutional republic. It is telling you that it is on the auction block.

Which part of all that has not got through to you yet?

There are times to fight and there are times to sit out the battles for the sake of the war.

On the sidelines, waiting and watching, you who have left, you who will leave, may do more to keep alive the spirit of freedom abroad. There, in soil more fertile than any in your native land today you may discover America once again.

BREAKING NEW BOUNDARIES WITH A SECOND PASSPORT

Second citizenship/passport programs that can be purchased have all been driven out of existence, save those offered by Dominica and St. Kitts/Nevis. The nominal concern behind those pressures were that such programs offered some sort of sanctuary for criminals. As the author of this article notes, crime has been in existence centuries before the commencement of any form of second passport program and will continue in the absence of second passport programs in the event that they cease to exist. The real reason for the antipathy towards second passports is the usual one: Governments want to eliminate any and all escape hatches for their citizenry chattel.

Some entirely legitimate reasons one might want a second passport are explored. We also think that freedom for its own sake is a legitimate goal, and second passports are a vehicle which facilitate that.

The second passport program in the island of St. Kitts is known as a well conducted and regulated second citizenship program which is available to qualifying foreign nationals.

Second citizenship programs have come under heavy pressure from various political and social groups and organizations which are of the view that second passport programs facilitate criminals. With absolutely no intention to justify crime, I must say however, that in spite of the legitimacy of the concerns and some of the arguments posed, the fact is that illegal and criminal activities have been in existence centuries before the commencement of any form of second passport program and will continue to be one of the hideous aspects of human life in the absence of second passport programs in the event that they all fully cease to exist.

As an offshore consultant, the hundreds of inquiries received on a regular basis about second passport programs are intriguing. Some inquiries are out of curiosity, interest in the program and the possibility of obtaining a second passport, and others involve people who are simply seeking legal advice on immigration matters – some of course being out of my reach because they involve jurisdictions about which I have very little knowledge. I do make an extraordinary effort to respond to every inquiry I receive, but there are times when certain inquiries are immediately turned down simply because at the onset they seem “fishy,” and so those are diplomatically avoided.

When discussing issues affecting second passport programs, many consultants, myself included, will admit that the far-reaching benefits of a second passport attract people from countries in almost every nook and cranny of the world, and that for this reason, the necessary guidelines and strict procedures set for providing second passport services as an agent must be followed.

In the world we live in today, where almost nothing is void of some sort of challenge, the need to enact legislation regulating service providers, imposing convictions for the breach of standards, the people who may qualify as applicants and then economic citizens is clear. Such legislation is vital especially in light of the challenges faced with simple activities like shopping, where ills such as identity theft and credit card fraud threaten our day to day business and personal lives.

Second passport programs may be viewed from a negative standpoint, but defenders of economic citizenship may ask what is the difference between Green Card and Residency programs, which enable people of all walks of life and all countries to become citizens or permanent residents of a given country, while they fully benefit from all the social services that are made available to the nationals of that country.

Defendants may further argue that, among others, one major difference between an economic passport and one obtained through residency is the length of time that may be required to reside in the country before qualifying to obtain citizenship.

Unlike regular citizenship and residency systems, second passport programs also involve a monetary contribution and or an investment in real estate, due diligence is carried out before the person qualifies as an applicant and finally, the full application process is initiated provided that the investigations conducted on the individual and or a family were successful. In the event that a potential applicant fails the due diligence, he automatically disqualifies as a formal applicant for the program and consequently, economic citizenship.

Over the past few months, an increase in inquiries for second passport has been due to increased uncertainty and concern about the international global meltdown and the confidence that people have lost in the economic soundness and government of their countries.

I ask myself if governments should or should not possess the right to dictate where citizens should live and where they choose to transact and do business, because while I do not question the importance of taxes and human resource for overall social and economic development, extreme measures to restrict and sanction freedom of movement and free enterprise sound very dictatorial and protectionist.

The seriousness of the matter grows even more when, due to the global meltdown, corporate citizens are receiving the harsh end of the stick and are held responsible for inequalities within national economic and political systems.

For many of this class of citizens, a second passport appears to be the answer to many of their problems, especially when it becomes more and more evident that systems can breakdown and completely change with new governments and policies; and very often the direct or indirect impact of certain decisions made by government and international institutions are just as unknown as accidents or unexpected natural disasters. Today, risks do not only include fire and accidents, but political decisions, which also need to be insured against.

Besides businessmen and women, potential applicants of second passports worry about the future of their children and grandchildren. To them, getting a second passport can provide security in the event of war, famine, oppression or political unrest. As parents, many applicants do care for their own safety, but try as much as possible to ensure that the necessary steps are taken so as to safeguard their child or children’s future.

Both in the immediate and long term, immediately changing residence to be able to acquire a country’s citizenship may not be a wise choice or necessary. Economic citizenship works for people who may still be living comfortably in his homeland and want as much as possible to avoid becoming an illegal immigrant or a second class citizen in a foreign country only to obtain its passport after several years of living as an alien, plus to go through with extreme red tape before becoming a legal resident.

The possibility of being deported is also ever present. Where the economic resources are available, economic citizenship also becomes the best, most convenient and safe option. In this way, a second passport can be acquired, while continuing to live abroad and allowing the kids to continue their schooling at home or abroad.

In the case where an applicant is not enjoying a life of happiness and peace, then a second passport becomes the opportunity to begin a peaceful life, access education and career possibilities. These possibilities may not only exist in the country where economic citizenship is obtained, but also in a country of choice where citizens of the second passport can travel to visa free or enjoy certain benefits in education such as paying the regular national fees rather than international fees, and travel freely to other countries for employment or vacation.

The latter is especially the interest of investors looking into investing in real estate, resorts, boutiques and hotels, for example, within the Caribbean; CARICOM or Latin America. The opportunities are endless since the Eastern Caribbean Dollar is a stable currency, Caribbean countries are growing and top tourist destinations, while Latin American countries such as Panama offer wonderful retirement opportunities and a large market.

The picture painted of second passport programs may not be the most picturesque or perfect, but economic citizenship is not just a desire of thousands of misplaced and concerned people around the world but a practical and rewarding answer to many of the problems they face because of their nationality or uncertainties about the future which plague their minds.

The current two existing programs in the islands of St. Kitts and Dominica are properly regulated and legal, provided by registered agents who are authorized by the respective governments to act as intermediaries for providing the service. Authorized agents ensure that applicants are well informed about the requirements of the programs and the steps that must be taken in order to become a successful applicant.

A BUDGET TRAVELER’S GUIDE TO CENTRAL AMERICA

Overviews and opinions of Belize, Costa Rica and Honduras.

The first of a 2-part series on traveling cheaply in Central America, this article covers Belize, Costa Rica and Honduras while part two will cover El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua. Some blunt, and therefore useful, opinions contained herein.

I was first introduced to Central America and its wealth of pristine beauty after leaving grad school. At that point the need for a getaway and fresh exploration was at the top of my list. Also, I was mulling over the idea of joining the UN or Peace Corps as a volunteer, and so wanted more of a true perspective to living, working, and being in Central America and Mexico.

My fascination with all things Spanish (language, gorgeous men, and otherwise) began early in life, accelerated through my teen years and eventually led me to select the somewhat unexplored countries of Central America, along with Mexico, for my one-year low budget travel journey and adventure. This article provides a short and subjective overview (including my rankings) for anyone considering the same type of journey, and especially for the single female.

I traveled throughout 6 of the 7 countries of Central America until I ran out of money – which means I never made it to Panama! And this once in a lifetime adventure actually turned in to a repeat journey, when a few years back I somehow convinced my sister and husband to repeat this tour once again.

I rank the nations based on these two tours and including the opinions of my husband and sister, who are both knowledgeable travelers. Part one of the 2-part series introduces our overview and opinions about Belize, Costa Rica, and Honduras, and part two overviews Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua. To begin with, Central America is a relatively compact region, easily traveled and very popular.

Travelers are attracted to Caribbean beaches, Mayan temples and its “easy access” proximity to the United States of America. On the whole the region is bit overrated when compared to Mexico. It is an excellent place to learn Spanish and I highly recommend learning Spanish throughout your trip by staying at lost cost accommodations also offering Spanish language immersion classes. There are several in each country, and all are fairly low priced.

When compared to South America, Central America is a better destination in many ways, mainly due to beaches and beauty within a compact circuit, but it does lack many of the “wow” exotic factors and sights of South America which should not be missed. But that is for another article!

Belize

Relatively small, nestled in between México and Guatemala, Belize is the only English speaking Latin American country. It is fairly developed in relation to its neighbors, but in many places it has a very backwater feel to it. I have always considered it to be a bit “off the grid” myself, but that is part of its charm to me.

Most of the main attractions involve the sea and include the form of hundreds of Cayes, many with beautiful beaches and the 184-mile long (longest in the Northern hemisphere) barrier reef, complete with whale sharks, sting rays, multi-colored fish and clear blue water.

On the whole the Belize mainland is pretty much ignored, with the main focus of activities away from the beaches, being wildlife viewing or Mayan temples that are a little less grand than might be found in neighboring nations, where the tourists numbers at the sites are a lot lower. That does not mean the main-land is totally ignored, however.

The whole Caribbean atmosphere of the place ... spoken English ... and the very down to earth, friendly people makes Belize a great place.

San Ignacio is a beehive of travelers (although this does have something to do with its position on route to Tikal) and is a fantastic place. Elsewhere inland towns are less frequently visited and provide a great opportunity to get a little away from the Central American crowds and chill a little. The down-side however is that costs are much higher here than elsewhere in the region and considering this, most travelers stay less than a week.

The whole Caribbean atmosphere of the place, including the “Bob Marley” variety of spoken English and its very down to earth, friendly people makes Belize a great place when you are there – less so when you are counting the cost for excursions. Believe me; your time on the Cayes comes at a price.

What to take: The Cayes are covered in a white dirt that may or may not be sand; however, when the sun reflects on it, sun glasses are necessary for comfort. As mentioned before sun protection is important when on boats, snorkeling, etc.

Getting around: Old American school buses ply routes. These are fairly frequent and cheap if a little overcrowded. There are also some express buses, but distances are not too far. To get the Cayes you will find speed boat services (water-taxi) through-out the day. Prices are not cheap, but not unreasonable.

Guide book: Both the Lonely Planet and Rough Guide are popular and good. The Rough Guide covers Tikal and the Bay Islands so it may have the edge.

People: The locals on the whole welcoming and friendly. Other travelers are your normal crowd of Europeans, Americans and Canadians.

Highlights: The Cayes, diving is incredible, snorkeling, the reef – it is fabulous, the desert islands, sharks, sting rays, San Ignacio ... these are all highlights. One of my favorites is the caves and cave tours as well. Although the ruins are a bit ruined in some spots, they are still wonderful for the first time visitor to visit.

Lowlights: San Pedro and Ambergris Caye, Belize City, some tour prices and especially those of excursions. Many towns like Belmopan (the capital), pleasant as they are, are non-events unfortunately.

Visa Tips: U.S., Canadian, Australian, and EU passport holders do not need a visa.

Typical tourist trail: From México to Guatemala (or visa-versa) via Belize City to Caye Caulker to San Ignacio

The Cayes: Small islands.

There are hundreds of these off Belize, many of them picture perfect and uninhabited. When backpackers talk about the Cayes they generally mean Ambergris Caye or Caye Caulker as the two main Cayes. Ambergris Caye is far “richer” and a package tourist favorite, whereas Caye Caulker is smaller and is more backpacker orientated.

Dangers: Belize City seems to get a bad rap, but with normal care, it is no real threat. Most trips and transport use boats where the sun can be very dangerous – some very good water-proof block will make your life much easier. Sand flies and big black flies can also be a major annoyance on the Cayes, depending on the time of year.

Costs: Including a few trips, but not diving you can easily spend US$50-70 per day or more, even if staying in cheap rooms. This cost is normally reflected in eating out and boat trips, not transport on-land using public buses.

Money: A US $ is worth twice that of a Belize $. This is a fixed rate and because of this simple and consistent exchange rate, U.S. dollars are widely accepted, but this means you should be careful to clarify which “dollars” you are talking about when negotiating prices. International ATMs are found around the country but mainly in Belize City. For this reason USD cash, a stock of ATM cash from Belize City and backup travelers checks are always a good idea.

Communications: Phone and internet are no problem

Accommodation: All levels of accommodation. However, cheap accommodation is never that cheap and normally of a low standard.

Hot water: Do not expect hot water unless you are paying extra for a private bathroom. Average daily cost: Between US$30 and US$50 depending on where you are. A little less if really off the beaten track.

Language: If English is not your first language then you may find the Belizean pronunciation a little hard to understand. Spanish is widely used around border areas.

Weather: Can be hot, cold, windy, wet or dry! The highland areas are beautifully cool. Hey, this is the tropics after all.

Books: Some secondhand book stalls, nothing too stimulating. Newsweek and Time can be found in Belize City.

TV: No problem. Its most everywhere and especially at the bars and hotels will that carry American cable TV

Food: Great food, although the cost of eating out will add up. It is easy to eat out and comparably speaking the prices are really good. Supermarkets are well stocked and prices are the pretty good.

Vegetarians: You will get along just great here. Especially if you will eat lots of the fine fresh fish that is available.

Hassle Factor: None – something I love.

Women alone: Women will get some attention, even in pairs, but on the whole it is harmless. If you are looking for romance, the men of Belize will certainly accommodate you!

Tourist factor: 8/10

Drugs/alcohol: Belize is pretty famous for its herb and it is widely available. Since most travelers hit the Cayes, it is here where you are most likely to be offered it. Given that (for example) Caye Caulker is so small with a police station right in the middle, risks seem high especially if buying off the street.

Despite the numbers of Rastas, pot is illegal and can land you in the sort of trouble that you should look to avoid.

Rating: 9.0/10 (What can I say, I am a sucker for eco experiences and fabulous nature spots!)

Costa Rica

Costa Rica gets a lot of attention as a travel and tourist destination, after all its name translates to rich coast, but more often than not it is over-hyped and as a country, somewhat overrated. It is not that it is uninteresting or unworthy of a visit it is just:

a) over-crowded
b) comparatively pricey
c) has similar activities and sites can be found all over the region and indeed world.

Costa Rica’s ignoble position stems from several sources. For one, being a democracy and thus peaceful and calm, coupled with large amounts of tourism dollars to market it guarantees it receives huge numbers of visitors, generally from North America – especially those who might consider anywhere else in the region as “too dangerous.”

These large numbers of wealthy tourists have the knock on effect of inflating prices and tourist targeted crime. Another factor is the trump card played by tourist boards pushing the national parks and wildlife which also appeals to many traveler’s sense of wanting to view wildlife.

As it turns out, in Costa Rica just like anywhere else, the only place to see large amounts of guaranteed wildlife is in the zoo and as beautiful and interesting as national parks are – with the exception of monkeys – if you go with high hopes of seeing loads of wildlife you will be sorely disappointed. Remember the focus is very much on flora rather than fauna.

With all that cleared up, let us look at why Costa Rica is so popular and the good reasons why. On the whole, the country is spectacularly beautiful with easy access to both coasts (unusual in Central America). In many places it is easy to have a good time if partying is your style and you do not mind too many gringos.

Although prices are higher than in the rest of the region they are still okay and quality does raise with prices. Accommodations are expensive in comparison, but there are lots of supermarkets so eating costs can be reduced.

However, the tours are what really cost, and some you can hardly avoid if you want to see the best of what is on offer. Still the demand for them means if you have the money to spend there is a beehive of activities (still reasonably priced) you can take part in, such as white water-rafting. Along with two coasts Costa Rica also has cool mountains and the chance for some good trekking.

25% of Costa Rica is national parks ... and by comparison Belize’s ratio is 35%. Costa Rica does have most things, but not everything as so often claimed.

Highlights: Volcán Arenal, if it is in an animated active state (you have to take pot luck here), the beautiful cool highland areas around La Fortuna and Monteverde (although the jury is still out on the cloud forest), Montezuma and the Nicoya peninsula, Puerto Viejo on the Caribbean coast and the trek to Chirripo Grande.

Lowlights: Petty crime, the cost of tours and the number of tourists. In the most “gringo-infected” area, which is the northwest (Province Guanacaste), there is more tourist-related thievery. In Costa Rica, with the exception of the public buses and the great Centenario rum, everything is more expensive relative to the rest of Central America. Almost twice as much as Guatemala and even more in relation to Nicaragua.

Visa Tips: Almost no one needs a visa, and you can stay for 90 days if from a more developed nation. However be sure to check ahead of time as for instance, Kiwis (New Zealanders) only get a 30 day stay.

Typical tourist trail: With many points of interest there is no trail as such, but most independent travelers take in San Jose, Jaco, Montezuma, Fortuna, Monteverde and maybe the Caribbean coast.

Getting around: Public transport is easy to use and a good standard. In more remote areas transport is normally limited to a few buses a day, making connections hard to meet. Many wealthier visitors hire 4x4 jeeps for their trip. This is a fantastic option, but just out of the price range of most budget travelers.

Guide book: Lonely Planet, Footprint or Rough Guide.

Dangers/Crime: Like in most touristy Latin American nations, petty crime targeted at tourists is high in Costa Rica. The developed feel of Costa Rica does seem to give many a false sense of security. Don’t let it. Now this does not mean there is more crime in Costa Rica than the aforementioned places, it probably means that there are more easily targeted tourists in Costa Rica. Luckily hardly any of these crimes are violent.

Nevertheless if you have all your stuff stolen this does not make everything alright.

On public transport keep any bags you have with you very close to hand if under your seat or above you chain then up.

It does not matter if no one else is doing it. Everyday travelers get off buses – which are frequented by professional thieves and stop everywhere – without their bags. Do not let anything distract you and keep everything together. Keep important documents on you in a money belt.

Weather: Yes, it can be hot, wet, windy, dry and in some spots, cold. Climate and humidity vary dramatically across the country. December to February, which is the best time to visit, is also the most crowded. Outside of these months heavy rain falls are sporadic depending on location and exact time of year. Just remember at least some rain is likely during your trip and for that reason at least an umbrella is a good idea.

Costs: US$30 and up a day for most travel excluding tours and activities. To give you an example of how the cost of these can add up: the short trip to see the Volcano from La Fortuna – at least US$30 (including hot springs), the 30km (Taxi-Boat-Taxi) shortcut ride from Fortuna to Monteverde (saves you a day compared to on public transport) again at least US$30.

At Monteverde canopy walks US$25, high wire rides much, much more. Add rafting to this and activity costs go sky high. There is a feeling in Costa Rica that with so many North American visitors on two week trips splashing money around, tour costs are just a reflection of what the market can stand and not good value.

Money: ATMs in most towns, even smaller ones. TCs and USD easy to change. Credit cards can be used in some circumstances and are worth having.

Tourist factor: 8/10

Accommodations: Among more expensive options catering to tourists, guesthouses and cheap hotels are plentiful. The price of these averages about US$25. In the high season many of the better rooms, especially in smaller places like Montezuma fill up quickly. In the capital there are many hostels, which charge about US$25-35 for a basic double room (no bathroom) and have many dorms (per-person from about US$10) cheaper.

These hostels generally have TV rooms, kitchens, sometimes free internet or breakfast, are always crowded and noisy with either music, drunkenness or backpackers sitting and having the same conversations late into every night. Some people love this, others hate it. And finally on the Caribbean coast, try beach huts and cheaper still, hammocks. These range from $10-15.

People vibe: The locals are fine, but quite varied from coast to coast. Tourists – there is a huge variety, as Costa Rica draws tourists from all over the world, but mainly from America and Canada.

Communications: Internet and phone widely available and excellent value of excellent quality in the capital.

Language: English is widely spoken by those who work in the tourist trade and on the Caribbean coast.

Books: Very good selection of first- and secondhand books in the capital and other major tourist haunts. Newsweek and Time are easy to find as are guidebooks.

TV: Plentiful everywhere. Hostels and better hotels will have American cable TV, cinemas are numerous in big cities.

Food: Many restaurants to cater for visitors, the meal of the day (casado) is a normally excellent value as are the cheaper restaurants (sodas) they are often found in. Be warned better restaurants seem to slap as much as 25% onto bills. At the other end of the scale commonly found bakeries and supermarkets make basic self-catering a perfect money saving option.

Tourist factor: 8/10

Vegetarians: Fine. Hassle Factor: Limited, more on the Caribbean coast.

Women Alone: Generally fine.

Drugs/alcohol: Pot is easily found all over Costa Rica, but best on the Caribbean coast in small backpacker resorts such as Puerto Viejo.

Rating: 7.5/10

Honduras

Honduras has two main focuses with most travelers failing to explore little else. The first is Copán, one of the largest Mayan sites in the region. Copán is an easy side trip from Guatemala and sits just over the border, helping to explaining its popularity.

The second focus is the Bay Islands which are touted as budget Caribbean and rightly so with beaches, tropical islands, widely-spoken English and inexpensive wonderful diving. This also helps to make these islands one of the world’s most popular backpacker hubs.

As for the rest of Honduras it does hold a few surprises and beautiful (sometimes difficult) routes through hilly countryside. Gracias for example is a pretty colonial town with many trekking options surrounding it, not to mention a beautiful alternative route to the capital.

So most go head straight for the blue waters of the Caribbean, but remember that this is a very well traveled region so you are never really off the beaten track, nevertheless the hillside paths of Honduras are interesting and a good chance to find some space to yourself.

Highlights: Copán, the Bay islands (especially the diving and the chance to see whale sharks), Gracias and trying to get off the beaten track a little. The Parque National La Tigra often comes highly rated and is a good way to see a cloud forest without the crowds or expense of Costa Rica.

Lowlights: The capital and major cities, plus the occasional crowds, sand flies and mosquitoes in different area.

Visa Tips: Nationals of almost all developed countries do not require a visa.

Typical tourist trail: From Guatemala to Copán to San Pedro Sula (overnight stop) then on to a Bay Islands (Roatán being the most popular, second to Utila). Many will then transit through Tegucigalpa, the capital.

Money: ATMs in major towns including Copán and on Roaán. Stock up where you can or take TCs and/or cash. Not all banks will take traveler’s checks.

Getting around: Chicken buses (old American school buses) ply most routes, along with more standard looking buses often called express because they are not suppose to stop so much, but they still do. On major routes such as between San Pedro Sula and Tegucigalpa you can find nice, genuine express, AC buses although they are more expensive.

The road system in Honduras is in fact probably the best in Central America. However, head into the hills and roads soon deteriorate and become very winding. You will of course need to take to the water to get out to the Islands. To major islands this is not a problem, but internal flights to and from the islands which can often take you as far inland as Tegucigalpa or San Pedro Sula are good value and save lots of time.

Guide book: Multi-regional guide.

Reading: A must is The Mosquito Coast, set mainly in Honduras. The story tells us chronicles the “adventure” of a family whose father takes them all to live in the Honduran jungle. This is a stunning book and a great read. The story is fantastic; a mixture of sarcastic humor, adventure and emotion.

Dangers/Crime: Parts of Tegucigalpa can be bad for theft. Mosquitoes and sand flies can be an annoyance on the Caribbean coast. Walking off into the countryside around Copán is not advised.

Costs: US$20-40 per day, a little more on the Bay Islands.

People vibe: The locals are fine. Other travelers tend to be budget travelers from all over the world: as always many northern Europeans and North Americans. The Bay Islands have even more North Americans.

Tourist factor: 8/10

Accommodations: There is a wide range of accommodation. You can normally find a nice room for US$15-20. Nice rooms at the cheaper end are difficult to find in big cities.

Communications: Internet easy and plentiful in major cities and Copán. On the Bay Islands internet is available.

Books: Basic English language book shops in Tegucigalpa and book exchanges on major islands.

TV: Most good hotels have American cable TV and so do some of the cheaper ones

Tourist factor: 8/10

Food: Fine, more expensive on Bay Islands. Major cities are overrun with American fast food restaurants.

Vegetarians: Fine.

Hassle Factor: None really.

Women alone: No real problem.

Drugs/alcohol: Alcohol is more pricey on the islands as other things are. Weed can of course be found on the Caribbean coast and larger islands.

Rating: 8/10

The next part of this series will cover El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua.

FLORIDA ACCOUNTANT PLEADS GUILTY IN UBS TAX FRAUD CASE

First U.S. citizen facing criminal charges stemming from UBS records.

UBS, with the permission of the Swiss government, agreed to provide the U.S. with the names and account information of 250 to 300 U.S. customers – whose account holders apparently committed U.S. tax fraud under Swiss legal guidelines. Falling under the Swiss definition of fraud were acts such as opening accounts in the names of ficitious companies. The first prosecution falling out of those disclosures has now commenced, and the man facing the charges pled guilty.

UBS is fighting the broader effort by the IRS to force the bank to disclose the identities of 52,000 additional U.S. customers of UBS with Swiss accounts totaling $14.8 billion. Switzerland has agreed in a new tax treaty which broadens the circumstances under which it will share tax information with the U.S., so this will certainly be a case to watch.

Swiss secrecy has bent, of that there is no doubt. The question is whether it has broken.

A wealthy Boca Raton accountant – the first U.S. citizen to face criminal charges stemming from UBS records obtained by the federal government – pleaded guilty ... to filing a false tax return. Steven Michael Rubinstein, an accountant for a Coral Springs yacht company, admitted to the felony charge in federal court in Miami.

According to court papers, Rubinstein hid money in a UBS Swiss account under the name of Hybridge International Ltd., a sham company in the British Virgin Islands.

As the Obama administration steps up pressure on offshore tax evaders, the federal government’s case serves as a shot across the bow for thousands of UBS clients who hold secret offshore Swiss bank accounts. Many have been stepping forward to make voluntary disclosures to the IRS and paying civil fines to avoid criminal charges.

“Today’s guilty plea resolves the first prosecution of a UBS client based upon records received from UBS pursuant to the historic deferred prosecution agreement executed earlier this year. In accordance with this agreement, UBS has disclosed the identities of wealthy Americans who were illegally hiding money to evade U.S. taxes,” Jeffrey H. Sloman, the acting U.S. attorney for Miami, said in a statement.

“More prosecutions are expected to follow, as we continue to hold accountable those who conceal money and assets in an effort to avoid their income tax obligations.”

Robert E. Panoff, an attorney for Rubinstein, could not immediately be reached for comment.

According to court documents, between 2001 and 2008 Rubinstein managed his UBS account through e-mails, phone calls and personal meetings with UBS bankers – including at the Art Basel Miami event on Miami Beach. He traded securities valued at more than 4.5 million Swiss francs, or about $4.1 million; converted investments from U.S. dollars to British pounds; deposited and transferred funds to and from Swiss accounts; and repatriated about $7 million into the United States to build his Boca Raton home, the government said.

Rubinstein is slated to be sentenced September 30. He faces up to three years in prison and a maximum fine of $250,000, or twice the amount of either his financial gain or the IRS’s loss. He remains free on a $12 million bond.

In February, UBS entered into a deferred prosecution agreement. It admitted to helping U.S. taxpayers hide accounts from the IRS and agreed to pay $780 million to the U.S. government. As part of that pact, UBS, in a stunning blow to bank secrecy, agreed to provide the United States with the names and account information of 250 to 300 U.S. customers.

Name released appeared to have committed U.S. tax fraud under Swiss legal guidelines.

UBS provided information on those clients to Swiss banking authorities, who, in turn, decided it could be released to the United States because those account holders appeared to have committed U.S. tax fraud under Swiss legal guidelines.

However, the IRS is pressing forward in a civil suit against UBS that seeks to force the bank to disclose the identities of 52,000 additional U.S. customers of UBS with Swiss accounts totaling $14.8 billion. UBS is fighting that broader effort.

A federal judge set a hearing for July 13-15 to hear testimony from UBS and the federal government to decide whether to force the Swiss bank to turn over the additional records. UBS has said doing so would violate the laws of its own country.

Meanwhile, Switzerland agreed in a new tax treaty in June to broaden the circumstances under which it will share tax information with the United States, aiding the Obama administration’s efforts to crack down on offshore tax cheats.

The veil on UBS private banking operations began to lift in May 2008 when federal prosecutors in Fort Lauderdale unsealed an indictment against former UBS banker Bradley Birkenfeld, a Bostonian who worked in Switzerland. Federal investigators say his primary duties were to find new clients in the United States.

BLACK MARKET SHOPPING: A CRITICAL SURVIVAL SKILL

A little introduction to black market shopping, which everyone may have to learn if the prognostications of economic collapse come to pass. As the author notes, the “black market” is really the free market – without the “protection” of overlords who call themselves members of something called “the government.” The rules are a little different, but not that different.

Editor’s Note: This urban survival technique from [The “Golden Trumpet”] is about how it will be necessary for you to deal in the black market. The black market is actually the free market. Governments everywhere try to control free markets. That interference leads to the creation of black markets. In good times, black market activity is confined mainly to illegal products and activities such as drugs and sex. When chaos strikes, government will enact controls dealing with everything, which will create shortages of, and restrictions on, even legitimate products and services. This will lead to a massive increase in the black market. You will not be able to get many vital products and services in the legal or so-called white market; you will have to buy and sell in the black market.

Here is what GT has to say about the black market – the free market:

The most important and the the most civilizing activity in a society is trade. Free and open trade has brought untold benefits to everybody at large. Unfortunately, governments like to interfere with free trade and so you get black markets. When the dollar finally collapses because it is worthless fiat, you are going to see an explosive boom in black markets. It is the only way you will be able to accomplish urban survival.

You may not want to participate in the Black Market. You will have no choice. Right now (~2000) Argentinian citizens are only able to survive and get the food and other stuff they need by shopping in the black market. The banks are closed. A lot of people cannot get the money they deposited to pay their bills. They barter because things are so uncertain. There is a risk markup, the sort of markup associated with black markets.

You may have already shopped in the black market. If you have ever bought illegal drugs or sex, you have shopped in the black market. Those markets are extremely violent but there is an unwritten rule. You can kill your competitor or other dealers, but the customer must be protected from the violence. I judge this from my own observations. In the business district, every day at lunch, I see yuppie businessmen buying drugs. These people want drugs and are willing to pay big bucks. They do not want the violence that comes with the drug trade. They are so wimpy they could not mentally deal with the violence. The violence is handled far away from the customer view. So no violence. What happens is you have a very quick sale – so fast if you are not looking for it, you will miss it. Someone drive up to somebody standing on a street corner and in less than 30 seconds, a trade has been made. Drugs for cash. This is one of the urban survival techniques that will expand in all products and services when the monetary and credit collapse creates chaos.

The black market will probably be more civil and polite than you probably imagine. Yes, the potential for violence, for being ripped off and worse is there, but I do not think it will necessarily be a major factor.

What will the black market consist of? Mostly people will be buying food, medicines, and other necessities. They will spring up automatically. Let us say the local supermarket has been cleaned out. The parking lot of that store will still be a place where people will meet and barter. The people of the neighborhood are used to going there to shop, so naturally it will turn into an open air market.

As it gets harder to buy things you need legally and openly, the black market will increase. In Italy, the black market has gotten so big, it probably would turn out to be 1/3 of the economy if you could count it accurately. Things you would expect to be handled in the white market, such as light manufacturing, gets done by hundreds of thousands of individuals working out of their garages. If you have a real good workshop, you can match the quality of any mass produced product and achieve quite an output. ...

As I said in the beginning, trade is extremely important to your well-being. No matter how much you have prepared, you cannot have thought of everything you need and so you will have to trade for it. I can see you entering the black market in one of two ways. Either a medical need or to help your neighbors. A medical need does not have to be an emergency. You might think you should add to your survival disaster kit or to your survival first aid kit. You could need something as simple as just a bottle of aspirin. It is the simple things like that you tend to forget, that you forgot to put on your preparedness checklist, but if you need it, you really need it. If the stores are closed due to looting, how do you find it? It will be out there somewhere on the black market.

The next example that could get you into the black market is you want to help your neighbor. You have prepared but they have not. What is the best way to help them? From long experience, I learned it is best not to just give away things if you want to help somebody. You may have intended the help to be one time only. If you just give away stuff, the neighbor may expect to to helped whenever he needs it and things could get ugly. In the situation I envision, by trying to help your neighbor by giving away your stuff, you end up in front of the local commissar to explain why you not really a hoarder.

Trading with each other instead of giving charity will be better for the both of you. By trading, both of you will have to trust each other instead of it being a one-sided relationship where betrayal lurks. Neither you or your neighbor may have much to trade. The one thing you can trade however is mutual protection. You protect me from the looters, including the government, and I will protect you. It is a start. A start that build trust. The trust will be important because both of your lives, and the lives of your families, may depend on that trust. What better way to start trusting than by agreeing to protect each other?

When the economy collapses, it will take time for the black market to start up. That will be a very dangerous period. Since you have not had time to build up trust, how do you keep yourself safe? First, if you can – wait. Wait and watch to see how the black market develops. Like all markets, it will have ways of knowing who can trust and who you cannot. You will see in the beginning some people ripping others off. These people do not realize that dealing in the black market is going to be a long-term relationship. For the rip-off artist they get a very short term advantage. Sooner or later, their greed will get them killed. Or no one will deal with them and they go hungry. You do not want to be hungry in that situation. As in Africa, if you are hungry, and if there is a famine, that means death!

Since both your life and the lives of the ones you will be dealing with are on the line, your word must become an absolute bond. Most people, and I am guilty of this too, make promises but fail to keep them. These are simple things like promising to call a friend or business relationship the next day. Or being on time for an appointment. I am becoming aware of doing this and so try not to do it. If you are in a situation where your life depends on your word, not keeping small promises is a very self defeating. It is very easy to promise these small thing. If you break the promise it is a very noticeable lapse of trust. Your life depends on who trusts you, so unknowingly, you could have thrown your life away. It gives others a very good excuse not to deal with you.

Another question: How do you know who to deal with? Before entering any deal, ask yourself: “Will I regret this?” If I have any doubt I try not to enter the deal. Another deal, another bargain, will always come along later. However, the regret you feel for making the wrong deal can last a lifetime. This is good advice not only when things are crashing around you but worth following today.

Last question: What if I get ripped off? In the black market, you do not have the options of getting refunds or having the seller make good in some way. For example, if you buy a bag of dope and it turns out to be talcum power, you been ripped off. The best thing you can do is take it as a learning experience and not deal with the seller again. Otherwise, if you seek recourse or revenge you open a can of worms. You will very likely encounter the violence of the drug trade. It is not worth your life to correct things.

I cannot foresee the future so my version of what it will be like to deal in the coming black markets may be accurate or may be wildly off. I just hope I gave you something to thing about.

Thank you.

The “Golden Trumpet”

THE COLUMBUS ERA 14922009

It looks like one thing is certain, the Columbus era has ended and most of the world thinks that is a good thing.

In this valiant and largely successful attempt at a thumbnail history of “the West,” American and now Thailand resident Scott Kelly explains how America rose to its position of preeminence, and culminates in the conclusion that that position is now past tense.

This does not in principle have to be an awful transition for the average American, except that America’s elite parasitical class will resist the decline with all its citizens’ resources. A deeper question is whether that class has allowed the fact of the decline to puncture its culture of illusions. Reality is a tough enough taskmaster, but the elite’s relationship with reality is approximately that of Cool Hank Luke’s with authority.

On the evening of August 3, 1492, an Italian named Christopher Columbus departed from Palos de Frontera, Spain, in a flotilla of three ships. They were traveling under a Spanish flag and were headed west across the Atlantic Ocean. Their goal was to find a shorter passage to India.

The world was much bigger than Columbus had expected, with a continent and another ocean betweeen Europe and India. They never got to India, of course. Yet, with his small fleet, and with a modest crew, it is now clear that Columbus had embarked on a journey that would change the world.

When arriving in the new world on an island he named San Salvador, now part of the Bahamas, Columbus named the indigenous islanders there “Indians,” a misnomer that is still in use. In later journies Columbus would become a failure as a Governor administering this and other islands and he died still believing he had reached the east coast of Asia.

If not for the pure luck that America had gotten in the way, Columbus would have been consigned to being just another obscure footnote in history. But without knowing it, Columbus was taking one of the first steps to a establishing a world dominated by Europeans, and later their biggest power – the United States.

It can be argued that in the years since, as a result of Columbus and others from the age of exploration, to the age of colonialism, to the “global village” of today, that the world has been dominated by Europeans and their descendants. That great journey of “white men” who have surveyed, conquered, and vanquished the world for the past 500 years is something I call “The Columbus Era.”

It can be argued that that epic period of time is now coming to an end. Other powers, particularly in Asia are in the forefront, while economic power is now being dispersed around the globe.

Yet, until just two years ago, it could be said that the established order was still in place. The G7, a rich man’s club of nations seemed to still control the world. Their only non-white member – Japan, had been alone as the only “developed” economy in Asia. We could until so recently believe that the Europeans and their offspring were still in charge.

Then we went into crisis, with a global economic meltdown started by con-men and cronies in Washington, D.C. and New York, as well as their compatriates in London. Soon it spread from the capitals of world finance, to just about anywhere in the world there was trade and money. Within a few months the crisis and its aftermath had truly exposed the weaknesses of the existing status quo. The emperor had no clothes.

Yet, in America they continue on as if it is business as usual – by printing more money, and looking for more wars and conflict. Yet, they really do not hold all the cards. America, is in dire straights, and if they cannot continue to borrow money from foreigners, well, the house of cards could fail.

China says that Europe and Asia should trade without the dollar.

In March, China – the largest holder of U.S. treasuries and bonds, has said that Europe and Asia should trade without the dollar. This is a momentous event, for the dollar has been the world’s reserve currency, and its downfall will have dark ramifications for the U.S. and its economy. Some say this is the beginning of the end for the dollar. We will soon be in a multi-polar world, that will no longer be dominated by people from the West. The East is rising, and they will claim their share of the world.

The Last Colonial Days

Due to some fortunate historical anomolies, Hong Kong and Macao were still administered by their colonial masters long after independence elsewhere in the world. Thus, even in 1980 when I first arrived in Hong Kong I was able to witness the last days of colonial rule in Asia. In those days, just being a white man was the key to opening doors in business, clubs, and society. It was the waning days of the British Empire, and I was glad to be a part of it.

In the early ‘80s it was also a good time to be an American expatriate, particularly in Asia. Stunning cities of today like Seoul, Singapore or Hong Kong, were then relatively sleepy backwaters, not yet part of the rich world. When I first went to Seoul they had just started to manufacture their first car. While in Singapore they were just building their shiny skyline, and Hong Kong still had people living in squalor, all over the place.

Most people thought that Americans and Europeans were the good guys and that the Russians were the bad guys. I also remember Hong Kong Chinese shaking their head in disbelief as China had deteriorated to one of the world’s poorest countries, while America, an upstart, was so rich.

They attributed it to our system, which they admired due to its transparency and perceived lack of corruption. It was the right time to be in a growing, vibrant, yet welcoming region. People like me with a degree from a prestigious university in the U.S. or U.K. could easily land a good job in Hong Kong or Singapore, despite a lack of cultural or linguistic knowledge.

It is easy to see why America was admired. For America was a different country 30 years ago, as it was a country to reckon with on all fronts, and still very much the center of world commerce, technology, and politics. At the time America had recently withdrawn from Vietnam, and were at the time not fighting any major wars. China’s spectacular rise had not yet materialized, and only America’s complicit little surrogate – Japan, was the power in Asia to contend with.

My Hong Kong girlfriend, who was working for a Japanese company at the time, said her boss marveled that the USA could be so successful in controlling the world. He used to tell her, they (America) had developed a system where 10% of the people (who were smart) could lord it over the world. And, since people in Hong Kong or Japan were smarter, it was only a matter of time when they got their chance too. They just needed a system and some political clout too. Their day would come he assured her, maybe within the course of another generation.

Yet, it could be said, that with the exception of Japan, the world and its balance of economic power had not changed much for hundreds of years. There was the “West” and Japan, and everyone else. Of course there was the USSR and their empire, but it was mostly irrelevant.

The West (Europe) and America in particular were seen as a beacon of hope and optimism for the world, and remained so up to the time of the Tiananmen massacre. As you may recall in 1989 that many of the student protestors admired and emulated America’s ideals, and the Goddess of Liberty they built was inspired by the Statue of Liberty.

I did not know it, nor could not have predicted it at the time, but the sun was setting on the white man’s empire. The British and Europeans were in retreat, yet, they could take comfort that they had been replaced by an even bigger power – America. So not all was bad. The English language was on the rise, and just about anything related to pop culture was spreading through the younger communities in all of Asia. Even black Americans such as Michael Jackson would get a rapturous welcome in Tokyo or Taipei.

Yet, it did not take long for Asia to start to reassert itself. China’s spectacular growth and other “tigers” meant that East Asia was becoming the center of the economic world. Even after the troubles of the Asian economic crisis in the late ‘90s, Asia rebounded, and has gone from strength to strength.

It is clear now that Western companies are losing their grip in Asia, particularly to the Japanese and Koreans, and also now to the Chinese. The Europeans can compete with high end products, but the vast majority of goods now seem to be made in Asia.

Meanwhile, those of us in the West with our cars and big screen TVs, do not mind working hard, but certainly will not do so for the same wage as a lowly Chinese. Well, that is a pretty arrogant attitude and will soon be an impractical approach. The market will surely equalize things, and it will not be long that American wages do not look so high as they do now.

So what happened? Don’t we have a right to maintain our higher standards of living despite our lower effort, and comparable I.Q. ? Should not someone in Hannover or Phoenix get paid more than someone in Shanghai or Manila for doing the same exact work? As you might expect, someone in Manila thinks they should certainly be compensated for doing the same work so they can live as well as their colleagues in the West.

A Bit of History

Back in 1492, Columbus had arrived on an island in what is now part of the Bahamas. We refer to this as “Columbus discovering America” despite the fact that the all the continents had been inhabited by people for over 10,000 years. Even all the islands of the Pacific were habitated. And, despite four voyages by Columbus to the new world, he actually never set foot on what is now the most powerful country in the world – America.

But, the white man had arrived. Not only in the “New World,” but soon everywhere. And he would never leave. And, to this day, we have never thought to consult the Navajo, Inca, and Mayans, Igarot, Javanese, Hottentot, Bahraini (and others) whether they wanted us to be there in the first place. It was our destiny.

Hundreds of years ago it was not preordained that the Europeans would conquer the world, for at the time the whole of the European economy was smaller than either that of India or China, and money was tight for such an extremely risky venture. Also, much of the technology that was utilized by Columbus and others, many that we consider to be Western inventions, were in fact, the inventions of the Arab Middle East, Persia, India, and China.

Also, only about 70 years before Columbus, much larger Chinese fleets commanded by Zheng He (a Chinese Admiral) traveled from China to East Africa and the Middle East. Their ships were 10 times as large as Columbus’s vessels, and they had comparable technology. Actually, the Chinese discovered Africa and Australia before we did, and they could have easily gone East instead of West and gotten to America as well.

So, why did Europe conquer the world, while other places, particularly China did not? After all, China was larger and in many ways more technically advanced. It is a question for the ages, and one that has been asked by the proud Chinese pretty much continuously over the last 500 years.

The fact was China was stagnant and riven with internal strife. Meanwhile, Europe was on the move, and was resuming its place in the world after years of slumber. Much of the rennaissance was based on rediscovering much of the legacies of Greek and Roman civilization which had been lost throughout the Middle Ages, or Dark Ages.

We also must thank the Arabs as they had translated much of the Wests’ intellectual inheritance into Arabic. These works were then translated into Latin, Italian and other languages to enable people like Da Vinci, Huygens, Newton, and Galileo to reach the heights of scientific accomplishment. In addition to previous European knowledge, the Arabs also brought such new technologies such as the compass, gunpowder, and algebra, as well as chemistry and the manufacture of paper, which were among the most critical tools that the Europeans needed to conquer the world.

Actually, this transfer of knowledge was a result of the Arabs from Morocco colonizing in the West. For over 500 years, an Islamic caliphate ruled large areas of Spain and Portugal and such places as Granada are a testament to their architecture and technology. This goes along way to explain why Spain and Portugul were the first in Europe to sail the seven seas.

In fact, Europeans were not the earliest seafaring colonizers, just the most recently successful. Even Asians had come to Africa over 1500 years ago, when people from what is now Indonesia (Borneo) arrived and then occupied the island of Madagascar. This was a sea voyage that is over twice as long as that of Columbus and his crew. Their terraced rice fields remain in Madagascar to this day, and much of the population are their descendants.

However, Columbus and his voyages were the beginning of a larger more extensive cultural journey. It was a seminal event. For never again would the Westerners be beholden or intimidated by the heathens of the world. The white man had arrived and would soon conquer the world, and dictate the terms of engagement.

Of course, for most of the world this was the opening of the largest can of worms ever seen, as for many of the worlds indigenous populations their first contact with Europeans meant death by new weapons or germs. The Carib Indians of Dominica who met Columbus in 1492 were decimated by disease and war. They were not alone, as this same story was repeated throughout the America’s for the next few centuries. They were the first casualties of what we now call globalization.

From now on the world will be a bit more messy, yet the fact remains, that never in the course of history have so many lives been changed and influenced by just one race of people. We can see evidence of this everywhere. From the fact that oil is priced in dollars, or that English is spoken in Singapore and India, and Brazilians or Koreans are mostly Christian.

Even the Chinese national anthem is played on western musical instruments, and the Indian Army emulates the British down to the last tassel. Even when the Chinese meet Vietnamese, the West will intrude, as the Vietnamese utilize a Western derived alphabet. For anyone in the world, just to post a simple letter or send an email requires the use of “our” alphabet. They just cannot get away with doing it “their way.” They are dependent to use something from the West on daily basis.

The legal and economic systems of the existing world order are dominated by Europe, America, and its surrogates such as Japan and Australia. Western music, literature, and movies, continue to be popular throughout the world.

Meanwhile, the whole world has either embraced much of what the West has had to offer or been intimidated to do so. Few societies could make the transition from feudalism to steam engines and electricity. For most, the transition was bloody, and unstable. For it meant out with the old, and in with the new – on a wholesale basis, including political economic, and social norms. Sadly, for many countries it meant throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

So much of modern western culture as it is expressed globally is simply an extension of commercial interests, clothed in the sheeps wool of democracy. Thus, from British railroads, to American burger joints, much of what the world sees of “us” is simply the existence of our successful commercial endeavors. When many discuss “the West,” it has mostly been a shorthand for what is modern.

If we look at Afghanistan now, there is this underlying belief that whatever it is that we bring to them, well, it is better than what they have or could make themselves. We never consider that just maybe they do not want to have what we have, or be just like us. We cannot even consider that what “we” do, is not necessarily right or appropriate for the downtrodden masses. It would not make sense if they did not want to eat hot dogs, and watch TV as we do.

Who does not want modern anyway? Actually, there is a lot to be said for ice cream, cars, and computers. Yet, the fact is that we foisted it on the world, without their asking. Hell, we knew what was good for them, right?

In the case here the “we” is really the Americans, and their perceptions of the world. All the European partners have soured on nation building in Afghanistan, and have come to the realistic conclusion that Afghans will always be Afghans. That if Alexander, Ghengis Khan, Tamerlane, the British, and the Russians would fail, well, the writing is on the wall.

Yet, it always has not been so bad. After all, almost all former European colonies have gained their independence, and were able to retain what was good from their colonial masters if they desired. And, despite not asking for the invasions, disease and dislocations that we have wrought, much of the world by the 20th century had forgiven us for our transgressions. In recent years, these former colonies had their confidence restored, and many soon even welcomed our return as businessmen and missionaries.

It could be said, that from our perspective certainly, and from many of the vanquished, that the world is in many ways a better place because of Europe and then America’s influence in the world. Yet, it is the victor who has always written history, and from the victor’s standpoint, things are surely better – right?

Maybe the world is better, but we have not improved. Although we did not invent hypocrisy, we certainly perfected it. Just a few months ago at the UN General Assembly the President of the U.S. (head white man) chastised the Russians (almost white men) for invading Georgia without provocation. Gee, have I not seen an unprovoked invasion before, and by who?

Certainly, George W. Bush is not a man who concerns himself with the burdens of comprehending history. Yet, if he did look back he would see that the world may be returning to its past of chaos, confusion, and multiple powers. For the uni-polar era of U.S. world domination seems to have passed with a blink of an eye on Wall Street. For W.’s plan of invading foreign countries by using the money borrowed from foreigners never was sustainable. The foreigners have always known that, even if he did not. After all, it was their money he was borrowing.

Yet, if we go back to the time of Columbus, the world was a far more complicated and diverse place. Although the great Eurasian landmass had seen contacts between East and West for thousands of years, there was nothing resembling a “global village,” and few large empires. The idea of a nation state was not very developed (there were exceptions) nor were such modern concepts as human rights, or equality.

Europe was a fractured and divided continent, with most control still in the hands of the church and landed gentry. Asia had two major cultural and economic powers, India and China, and other large powers such as Turkey and Iran. They all had contacts among each other and with the rest of the known world. China had recently embarked on their great voyages to Australia, Mideast and Africa, but were now in a period of relative isolation. While the Ottoman Empire straddled East and West. The Americas were mainly tribal and undeveloped, as were Australia and Africa.

Technologically, Europe, the Middle East and Asia were at parity, with no one region able to dominate another. Yet, that was about to change as Europeans were aggressive both commercially and culturally. They came to conquer, and as they saw it, they were the only ones who really had God on their side.

Yet, there were successful conquerors before, we just do not acknowledge it. The wide arch from Morocco to Indonesia is dominated by Islamic cultures – it seems they had God on their side too. This happened prior to Europe’s re-awakening and colonization of the world.

In fact, the great conflict between Christian Europe and Islam had been going on for centuries – remember the Crusades? It is just that Europe was not able to conquer and colonize then, so it has been consigned to the ash-heap of history. Ever heard of Sinbad the sailor? Well, this is based on Persian, Arab, and Indian folklore of actual voyages from throughout the Indian Ocean.

So what made Europeans different? I guess the answer is, Europeans were the first to conquer all points of the globe, and they also developed industrially where resources were required from just about everywhere. Europe was very diverse culturally and economically. Columbus’s crew was multinational, and his benefactors had borrowed money from Jewish financiers in Germany. So this, was not simply a Spanish voyage, for even Columbus was Italian. Thus these competitive nation states kept trying to outdo each other in their enslavement of the world.

Thus, within 30 years of Columbus’s success, the Portuguese, Dutch, French, British, and Danish had sent ships to the New World, and the competition was in full swing. Sadly for the Incas or Aztecs; their great empires would be devastated and destroyed by this contact. As for Columbus, after declaring that all of the lands belonged to Spain (he did not ask the locals) he then proceeded to enslave the local population of Hispaniola to the point of rebellion. Some refer to the enslavement and killing of the native Taino people as genocide.

So, from this modest beginning, the world would never again be the same. If the Taino people could speak from the grave I am sure they would have some advice for the Chagossians who were expelled (30 years ago) from their residence on Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean (it is now a U.S./U.K. military base). Western imperialism is alive and well after all.

As I live in Thailand, it is possible to see the huge influence that western culture and technology has here. I can walk to a Sizzler restaurant or Starbucks, and enroll my child in a British or American run school, and then come home to watch CNN or BBC on TV. My daughter hardly knows that she is not in America, and refuses at times to even speak Thai.

For the people here, the vestiges of Western influence are everywhere even though Thailand was never colonized. The government buildings in Bangkok are modeled on those in Europe, and their parliamentarian debates are among men in suits and ties, and women in skirts. Children compete to be the countries best violinist, and they aspire to go to universities in the West, particularly in the U.K. or the U.S. Many schools offer a curriculum, in both Thai and English languages.

And, Thailand is not alone, pretty much the whole world is embracing English as a second language. Yet, I imagine that it will be years before the average American is educated simultaneously in both Chinese and English, if ever.

This is a story that can be duplicated throughout the world. Yet, despite this seemingly replication of European systems, it is alas, only a veneer. The Thais are fortunately still Thais in character and behavior. And, driving a Toyota, or watching Manchester City on TV is not enough to have them change their stripes. The same can be said of Mexicans, Serbs, or Turks.

So, we have seen a progression of Western Empires from Portugal, Spain, Holland, France, England, and now America. Each have enforced their view of reality onto the world. They have always done so from a position of strength, whether economic, technological, or cultural. At its peak the sun never set on the British Empire, and at its peak (about now) the American Empire has over 700 military bases overseas.

However, over the last few years, the American government has done much to damage the goodwill that white people as individuals had built up through the years. The aggressive stance of using the military to engage the world at gunpoint has not won us many friends. Sadly for Europe, they are equated with America in most ways, as America is really just an extension of what Europe is and was.

But it is not the economic legacy and modernity of the West that will be missed. It is the moral authority and ethical behavior that many wanted to emulate. After all, Europe and then America were seen as societies where there was more fairness, less rigidity, and more chances for the little guy. When I first came to Hong Kong they marveled at the fact there were so many educational opportunities in America from Junior College to University, many of them almost free. They envied our democratic institutions, and transparency, as opposed to the back room dealings of Hong Kong or intrigue of China.

Yet, much has changed now. Although Europe still has some credibility, we as Americans are not held in high esteem any more. In addition to their contempt for our economic policies that have resulted in the financial meltdown of Wall Street, they see no value in our form of democracy either. Friends of mine who were educated in the states, and 20 years ago very pro-American, now refuse to send their kids to school there, and avoid business trips due to what they perceive as the beginnings of a police state. These are the same people who would be most disposed to spread our values, and embrace our culture, and they are rejecting it.

Meanwhile, with our economy in crisis, I am hearing from people in China say such things as “don’t worry, America will never be a third world country.” Very comforting, indeed.

Now it is obvious that change is in the air.

Now in the year 2009 it is obvious that change is in the air. Asia is on the rise, and if America is on top of the world now, it is only doing so with tenuous grip, as the winds of change buffet it from its perch. When America goes down it will take much of Europe with it. For when America stumbles, Europe, Australia, and other outposts of the white crusaders will be tarnished as well.

Who will Asia emulate now? If America’s brand and panache is degraded and thus devalued, who to look at for inspiration now? Maybe nobody. They will mix and match from many sources, rather than just rely obediently on answers from a white man.

We see other powers on the rise, particularly China. The successful Olympics and the associated publicity has put China on the world stage, maybe this time for good. I was in China during the Olympics, and watched the opening ceremony in Shenzhen among some baffled, yet proud observers. This ascendancy had been so long in coming, and with so many false starts, that many Chinese saw their could not believe their eyes. Such a spectacular Olympics ceremony, it was almost too good to be true.

There was a quiet confidence among the crowds, that yes, China was back, and the Chinese people could be proud again. When the opening ceremony show ended my wife said “that was terrible, they have no respect for anyone.” She was referring to the Londoners, not the Chinese. Her point was that since China made such an effort to impress the world, the British did not have the courtesy to reply sufficiently in kind. Their silly “Red London Bus” show, with David Beckham kicking a football, well, that was another injustice visited on Asians by the West.

Well, China has arrived on the world stage, and their success in undeniable. It sure will not be easy for London to eclipse this Olympics, as China has raised the bar. Actually, “the bar” has been raised many times before. In 1964 Tokyo made their debut, and quite impressively, and the same could be same of Seoul in 1988.

But this is China, which raises the stakes to a whole different level. After all, China has a larger population than all the Olympic host countries of the last 100 years. Got that? More than all of them combined. Also, at this Olympics, China won the most gold medals, by a large margin. America will most likely have to get used to being number two.

From the Chinese perspective they have been playing catchup with the West for 500 years, and have almost always failed to impress. Not this time. Even though the Olympics were a Greek invention, and most of the sports, and all of the rules, were set up by white people in the West. This time they beat us at our own game, yet on their turf.

That is the way things have been. The West has defined the world, and dealt with others by using their own rules. In most instances, such as banking, commerce, law, music, military, and politics, we were the “gold standard.” In fact, nothing could really be accomplished without the West’s blessings. Thus, we have never felt shy about imposing our values or systems on others – after all we were superior. The most extreme example was the time of Western conquest and colonialism.

However, this realization by the West that China is capable of doing anything we can do, really puts the world on notice. China and its over one billion people are poised to change the world. And, they are not alone. The so-called BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India, and China) together have the people, money, skills, and motivation to change the world order that had excluded them for so long.

I look upon this paradigm shift with a bit of trepidation. After all, I am an American White Male. I say three strikes for the status quo. The existing world order and its glass ceilings suits me fine, as all the negatives really do not apply to me. Yet, I recognize that when others are beating us at our own game, they deserve our respect.

Yet, I am among the first generation to witness the precipitous decline of the West compared to the rest of the world. This has been a long time coming, and for many it is the first time to negotiate with the white man on equal terms. For past colonies of European powers such as Indonesia or Brazil, and dominated countries of the American empire like the Philippines and Korea, this is a welcome change. They actually believe some of the idealism that Europe and America espouse, and hey, maybe they deserve to be treated fairly.

The fact that others are now our equals and can achieve much if not all that we can, is not so bad. It does not mean the world is going to go to hell. It just means that like a parent watching their kids grow up, we are simply losing control over our offspring, and that they will rewrite the world in their own image. For those of us in the West, that does not mean we eat any less, but maybe it means the free ride is over. For the old world order is now gone.

A few months ago India sent a spacecraft to the moon. They did so without being beholden to anyone. China is now the world’s largest automobile market, bigger than the U.S.

America particularly has demonstrated that we do not have the perfect system, and that we can fail just as spectacularly as everyone else. And, it turns out the world is not as homogeneous as we may think. Not everyone wants a hamburger in their freezer and credit cards in their drawers. Maybe there are alternatives to the one size fits all crony-capitalist model that we seem to have run aground. Maybe China, India, and others will have some new ideas to put us back on track.

Besides, life is not just about money and fast cars. Most of the world has always known that, it is just that we may have forgotten our roots. My Grandmother knew where she was from, and she was frugal and hard working. For her government was an abstract with whom she wanted no part of. She was happy with her local life, and local friends. She did not even enjoy watching TV, visiting doctors, or taking on debt. Yet, she was part of the generation that really solidified American culture, in a good way.

And, the funny thing is, America through the behavior of Americans like her, was admired for our ideals, our political system, and our culture. No, not the Britney Spears culture, but the one of generosity and tolerance, that enabled millions of immigrants to assimilate and join the American dream. No other country has absorbed so many different and diverse people so successfully. For years, youth and intellectuals around the world looked to America as a shining light, and example of how to run a society. They valued our opinion, and in many ways we kept this exalted status until just recently.

Yet, recent generations in America have truly believed that the worlds’ people want to emulate not just our economy, but our pocketbook. This is of course only partly true. Sure everybody wants to live better, and money is a requirement. But as we have seen in Europe and Japan, they have taken a more moderate route, as they try to retain the old, without penalizing the new.

America though has always had the belief that if it sells, and makes money it must be good. Yet, this model has gone astray, as for years now we have been borrowing money from foreigners to keep our house of cards afloat. And, now that the warts have been exposed, just where are our ideals? I guess out to lunch.

You may recall when the Nez Pearce Indians were relocated by treaty, that the paperwork was signed not by the leaders of the tribe but by their “lawyer”. Effectively, their land was sold right from under their feet, by a traitorous member of the family.

Something like that is happening now, the American people are being committed to buy companies and take on mountains of debt without being asked. There is a government “lawyer” or elected representative to sign the paperwork on their behalf. But the result is, you now have new mortgages to pay, forever, without your consent. I am sure that Sitting Bull is happy to see us suffer.

American politicians, and Wall street elite are morally, ethically and financially bankrupt. It is no longer a model for the world.

America is in the process of a socialistic experiment to bail out billionaires with the middle class’s hard earned money. We have simply done again what is expedient, yet, it will only defer the day of reckoning. American politicians, and Wall street elite are morally, ethically and financially bankrupt. It is no longer a model for the world. When the people with money (foreigners) start to call in their debt, you cannot blame them for being a bit smug. We have been warned that our reckless habits would one day not go unpunished, well that day is coming soon.

For the fact is that money has no conscience, only people do. You cannot expect an unrestrained free market to resolve all the worlds’ problems. The world has been there before, and what has come about – Marx, Stalin, and Mao. Thankfully, nobody of such stature is on the horizon, and maybe this time the world will be more measured in their response to the global meltdown.

But the fact is, for America, it will be the first time in generations where they will have to deal with the world on equal terms. That means no more dealings exclusively in dollars, and as they go cap in hand to beg, they better be contrite. Yet, knowing the attitude of the bankers and Washington elite, I am not optimistic, as they continue to assume they control the world.

The major consequence of this crisis is that America will no longer have the resources to finance their military adventures and empire. This costly endeavor is simply not sustainable. They will have to choose their battles more carefully, and withdraw from most of the world. This is not unlike the British after the second world war, but the difference is that America has over 700 military bases, while the British only had 40.

Yet, the world will carry on, and there is no reason to panic. In Thailand even with the foreigners owning banks, retail stores, and property, life goes on. As much of the world has found out, having foreign corporations owning much of your economy is really not a bad thing, and it will not be too bad for America either.

As far as your grandchildren, well, now is not too late to write them a letter of apology for the lower standard of living you have consigned them to. Maybe they will learn to speak Chinese, or get a Ph.D. in Physics, and maybe the Engineering School at Berkeley will start to have more whites enrolled. Or maybe not.

Yet, we can thank Cook, De Gama, Newton, Galileo, Nelson, Edison, Darwin, Nelson, Disraeli, Mountbatten, Roosevelt, Einstein, and others, for we did have a good run. 500 years of being top dog. But, it looks like one thing is certain, the Columbus era has ended, and most of the world thinks that is a good thing.

For me, I am not so sure if that is good, for I was quite comfortable with the old world order, and I am not sure if what comes next will be better. After all, the American system is a somewhat benevolent one when compared to India, China or Russia. Yet now, not only China or India, but other countries are rising, and they are not only changing the balance of power, but they have also altered the balance of perceptions as well. The world is a different place.

What if Columbus was around now, just what would he do? My guess is that he is in lots of debt for a failed investment in a gold mine, and is lucky to be collecting the dole in Genoa.

SHORT TAKES

Sea Shells Used to Clean Up Heavy Metals

Technique could save millions of lives in coastal cities in developing world.

On the banks of the Saigon River in Vietnam, researchers have just completed tests on a new way to combat water pollution that could save millions of lives in coastal cities throughout the developing world and in regions such as the Caribbean.

In factories on the outskirts of Ho Chi Minh City, Stephan Kohler of the Graz University of Technology in Austria and a team of researchers have cleansed water tainted with toxic metals like cadmium, zinc, lead and iron. And they have done it using nothing but one of the cheapest, most abundant material around: seashells.

Like many developing countries, Vietnam is plagued by poor water quality – millions of the country’s inhabitants still lack access to clean drinking water, largely because local companies cannot afford expensive filtration systems to treat wastewater.

Kohler’s team has found that pouring metal and acid-laden water over a bed of crushed clam or mussel shells provides an easy fix. The shells are made of aragonite, a form of calcium carbonate (CaCO3) that readily swaps out its calcium atoms in favor of heavy metals, locking them into a solid form. The shells are naturally basic, too – when dissolved they have a pH of 8.3.

“If pH gets below neutral 7 the shells start leeching metals and become toxic again, and that is a problem,” Kohler said. “But if you are worried about that, you can always add extra shells to keep the pH above neutral.”

The team’s technique stems from work in 2003 by Manuel Prieto of Oviedo University in Spain, who first showed that shells effectively remove cadmium from water. “The idea of using aragonite shells arose because abiogenic aragonite is not an extremely abundant mineral,” Prieto wrote in an email to Discovery News. “Moreover, in the North of Spain we have a very important seafood canning industry (cockles, mussels, clams, etc.) and shells are the most important wastes of that industry.”

Prieto’s work focused on removing cadmium in a controlled laboratory environment. Kohler’s team has now expanded that to include a suite of heavy metals, including lead, a potent toxin. Their work in Vietnam also shows that the technique works on wastewater produced from real-world factory processes.

Developed countries can afford more sophisticated filtration techniques and likely will not resort to using shells. But Kohler and his team believe that coastal communities in the developing world will be able to greatly reduce the public health risk posed by toxic heavy metals in their water supplies.

Linux For Children

I recently took possession of a pair of older PCs – the natural consequence of nagging one’s older relatives to get something a little more “post-Columbian” – and of course my first instinct is to refurbish one as a Linux PC for my nephew and niece, ages 7 and 5. My nephew, especially, is computer-obsessed, and I figure that giving him a complete child-friendly, education-focused PC might encourage some more productive “play” than he gets using mom and dad’s PC.

Kid-Friendly Linux Distributions

Believe it or not, there are several distributions of Linux intended for use by children as young as 3 years old. Child-oriented Linux distros tend to have a simplified interface with large, “”, colorful icons and a specialized set of programs designed with kids in mind. ...

Cook Islands government says new authority will improve offshore finance sector.

Cook Islands Government official says setting up a financial services development authority will improve the way problems in the offshore finance sector are handled.

Parliament will shortly discuss the Financial Services Development Authority Bill which will set up a statutory body to be responsible for marketing the Cook Islands as an offshore financial services destination.

The sector was once black listed over money laundering concerns but the Cook Island’s government brought in legislation which satisfied the international watchdog groups.

Lorraine Allan from the Cook Islands Financial Supervisory Commission says in recent years the industry has suffered from a lack of growth and this new agency will ensure the country keeps up to date with international developments in the offshore finance industry.
“At the moment in the Cook Islands there are six trustee companies and they really deal with the government singularly on issues rather than having a uniform approach and this will give them somewhere to go and the industry’s concerns can be dealt with in one sort of single form.”

Amazon Shrugs

As online shoppers know, sales tax is usually not collected by the online merchant when the buyer is in another state. This is because of Supreme Court decisions holdings that the Constitution’s commerce clause prohibits “states from compelling out-of-state mail-order houses to collect use taxes on sales to in-state residents,” because the foreign merchant has insufficient contacts with the state. The State of North Carolina was not too happy about this. It threatened to compel Amazon to start collecting sales tax for purchases made by N.C. residents on the grounds that Amazon has a sufficient presence in North Carolina by virtue of paying commissions to N.C. residents via its “Associates” affiliate program. In response, Amazon has shut down its affiliates program in North Carolina, as of last Friday.