Maverick Traveler

Location Independence, Geo Arbitrage, Individual Freedom

Category: Travel and Culture (page 1 of 7)

Did I Mislead People About Eastern Europe?

A couple of years ago, I wrote an article called, “13 Things They Didn’t Tell You About Eastern Europe.” The article contained my observations about the region as an Eastern European guy who had traveled to every single country and also spent plenty of time living in many of them as well. I discuss things that your typical travel guidebook and your run-of-the-mill travel blogger never talk about.

The article generated a lot of criticism and upset a lot of people. I was accused of things like lying and deception and was even labeled as an ignorant British/American tourist.

So, to set the record straight, I decided to reply to all the criticism in a new video.

If you enjoyed this video, definitely make sure to subscribe to my new channel. This way you’ll be notified of new videos before they drop on the blog (I’m also creating many videos for YouTube only, so they won’t even appear here on the blog).

The Most Dangerous Countries In The World

In this short video, I explain which countries are dangerous and unpredictable, which countries are relatively safe and which countries are super safe.

I also explain how you should behave when you’re abroad and the deeper reasons why some cultures/countries are more dangerous or safer than others.

Also, for the next 30 days, I will be putting up a video every day. Here are some of the topics that I will cover:

  • Travel and culture
  • Entrepreneurship and hustling
  • My proven productivity and anti-procrastination techniques
  • Life philosophy
  • And many more interesting topics

Here are some upcoming videos that I have planned:

  • What is the new “click economy” and how to easily profit from it
  • My 2018 planner and productivity tutorial (and a challenge for you to participate)
  • Why I prefer to only live in Tier-1 cities
  • Future travel plans (you’ll be surprised)
  • The surprising benefits of living in New York City
  • The biggest difference between America and the rest of the world

If you have some ideas for new videos, let me know in the comments below.

I will not be updating this blog with every single new video, so make sure to subscribe to my new channel here.

 

America’s Rampant Consumerism Is A Symptom Of A Fundamentally Broken Society

Two things happen when I return to America after an extended sojourn abroad: I experience a reverse culture shock, and I begin ordering lots of stuff online. The reverse culture shock was huge when I began traveling, but has diminished over the years as I’ve gotten used to quickly adjusting to American life. However, the urge to start buying lots of stuff has never diminished.

America has always been my “refueling station” during long living abroad stints. Back in 2011, I returned to The Land of The Free after living for a few years in Brazil. One of the first things I did was order a bunch of stuff online to replace worn out, lost or stolen items. A year later, I spent few months living in Miami Beach with a good friend who spends most of the year working abroad. Unsurprisingly, he spent most of his time also ordering packages on Amazon.

Buying things in America is extremely convenient. First, things like electronics are much cheaper here than abroad (electronics in countries like Brazil are 2-2.5x more expensive, but typically expect to pay 20-25% more in other countries because of higher customs fees and things like sales tax or VAT). Second, buying stuff is super easy. I don’t remember the last time I bought anything important at a brick and mortar store; everything I need is conveniently ordered online.

Thus, it’s no surprise that one of the first things I did after returning to New York after spending a year in Ukraine was to jump on Amazon and order a bunch of stuff.

At first, I bought only the stuff I really needed. I bought a new suitcase to replace one that was stolen in Ukraine last year. I bought new headphones to replace old ones that stopped working. I also bought some extra batteries for various accessories and a bunch of other miscellaneous items.

But then, something else happened: I began buying stuff that I didn’t truly really need and could live without. I bought audio equipment (including a nice microphone) and a bunch of random travel gadgets and tools. All of that was seamless thanks to something I thought I’d never sign up for in my lifetime: an Amazon Prime account.

Amazon Prime makes the process of buying anything you want magical. It’s like Uber for transportation. I put a bunch of stuff in my shopping basket, click checkout, and in two days or less, I’m unboxing the goods. Actually, many of my orders were in my possession in only one business day; few were even delivered the very same day.

This convenience makes it seductively easy to convince yourself into buying a bunch of things that you don’t generally need, things I’d never go to a physical store for. Ever dream of becoming a photographer? Forget about taking the bus or driving to your favorite camera store. Pick a nice DSLR/mirrorless camera, add a couple of nice lenses, a nice case or two, and in a day or two you’ve got the gear to become the best photographer.

Humans and products

There’s another reason why I’ve suddenly become addicted to consumption. This has less to do with conveniences like Amazon Prime and more to do with American culture as a whole.

When I lived in Brazil, I never had any desire to buy anything other than replacing underwear with holes in it. I had a cheap Nokia phone, no camera and no expensive gadgets of any kind. I might’ve had a TV in my apartment but because I was outside most of the time, I don’t remember watching it even once. I spent time walking around the city and meeting random people.

Looking back, it was actually one of the happiest and most fulfilled periods in my entire life.

The environment you inhabit influences you in a multitude of ways; as humans, we tend to mimic the people around us. When I lived in Lithuania or Ukraine, it was pretty rare to see people sporting the latest and greatest products. Most people either had old iPhones or cheap Chinese Androids. So, I didn’t have much of a desire to upgrade. From 2011 to 2016, I had an old iPhone 4S that was as slow as molasses with the battery lasting few hours. It made calls and sent texts, which was all that mattered.

Later, I returned to the US and noticed that my entire family (including my non-tech mother) were all sporting the very latest iPhones. I promptly picked up one as well. Money aside, it’s much easier to rationalize buying a new model when everyone around you has one.

Consumerism in America is so persuasive that products and service actually define people instead of the other way around. Recently, I was out with some friends in some Brooklyn bar. One guy mentioned that he noticed a cool new documentary on Netflix. A girl mentioned how she’s been enjoying Amazon Prime Video ever since subscribing to Amazon Prime. Amazon Prime seemed like a popular topic because someone else mentioned using Amazon Echo to order stuff by speaking to it.

That could be just people I know, but when everyone around you is discussing various products and touting their benefits and how they make their lives easier, it becomes much easier to pull trigger and order one yourself—especially when you have Amazon Prime account with its super quick delivery. Most of it happens subconsciously even without us being aware of it.

That kind of conversation would never take place in countries like Mexico, Brazil, Romania, Colombia or Ukraine.

Human connections

However, the biggest reason I never have the urge to buy stuff when I’m living abroad is that I don’t crave new products. My life is satisfying without them. I vividly remember the reverse culture shock I experienced just after returning home from Brazil. I had just landed in Miami and my friend picked me up from the airport. We drove to a friend’s house and entered his apartment. There were about three guys inside watching some sports game on a huge 65” TV.

Maybe you don’t find anything strange, but I immediately felt out of place. The weather outside was perfect, a balmy 75F (25C). The pristine white sand beach—one of the best beaches in the world—was a mere ten-minute walk. It wasn’t even that late. Yet, judging by this guy’s investment in a large TV, he loved spending time indoors. I immediately remembered that merely 24 hours ago I was in Brazil—seemingly on another planet—and spending time indoors glued to the TV when you have gorgeous weather outside is nothing less than an act of self-punishment.

This is why people are so addicted to their products in America. It gives them the connection that they otherwise lack. In New York City, where I’ve grown up, people are always zooming from place to place, either glued to their phones or listening to headphones, isolated and disconnected from each other. It’s truly a sad sight. In Colombia or Romania, I could easily meet people on the streets, but if I did that in NYC, people would think I’m crazy.

Humans are social animals. We must be able to form connections with others. There’s nothing more fulfilling than meeting and forming connections with like-minded people.

It’s only when you’re unable to satisfy these basic human needs that you’re forced to compensate in some other way. So, you get a Netflix membership to watch the latest and greatest shows and documentaries that feature people you can relate with. Or, you buy the latest and greatest iPhone so you can take pictures and share them on Instagram for others to see and connect with you.

When I lived and worked in San Francisco, I went shopping for random stuff almost every single weekend, spending several hundred dollars on “stuff.” But I could never imagine buying random stuff every weekend if I was living Rio de Janeiro, Bali or Kiev. Having a Netflix subscription while living in Rio or Bali? Constantly buying stuff on Amazon while living in Lagos, Nigeria? Although you lack the convenience, the psychological cravings are gone because you’re able to obtain them via the environment.

Products—at least those we don’t require for survival—help to compensate the isolation and atomization we feel as a result of living in a Western society where everyone is out for themselves and traditional human bonds are weak to nonexistent. Coupled with heavy marketing and advertising that aims to position those products as salvation to a society that’s desperately searching for meaning, and you have the perfect recipe for a robust consumer class.

Consumerism is tightly woven into the fabric of American culture. Unlike countries like Japan or China, whose economies are based on production, America’s economy is based on consumption. Everything is structured around getting you to buy the latest and greatest product. Black Friday can be seen as a spiritual gathering. Instead of going to a church, the choice of worship becomes the nearby Walmart or Target.

The inherent isolation and atomization of American society mean that we seek a certain salvation by purchasing products and service. Since everyone is doing their own thing, it’s hard to connect with people directly, so you’re left with buying products and services in order to form connections indirectly.

America is my Thanksgiving: a once-a-year opportunity to pig out and order everything that I wanted during the year but couldn’t because I was living in a country where capitalism and consumerism are decidedly at a lower priority as compared to forming rich human connections. Getting my hands on the latest and greatest gadgets and tools when I’m in America, and still enjoying life to the fullest when I’m not is truly the best of both worlds.

014: The Overpaid Traveler

For this podcast episode, I decided to invite my good friend and fellow traveler, Tim. I met Tim back in 2011 while living in Medellin, Colombia. We continued to stay in touch and have met up in different parts of the world throughout the years including Miami, Copenhagen and Estonia, just to name a few.

Tim used to have a rather unusual job with an unusual schedule: he worked for five weeks straight (16 hours per day) and then traveled for five weeks straight. The job paid extremely well (upwards of $1,500 per DAY and more). The money he made from working for five weeks allowed him to pretty much travel anywhere he wanted and do it in style, without a constraining budget. Some friends and I called him the “overpaid traveler.”

Nevertheless, the lucrative job came with many challenges that weren’t obvious at first.

Here’s what we discuss:

  • What made Tim get into this line of work
  • How he manages his relationships on this bizarre schedule (with friends/girlfriends)
  • How traveling changes you
  • What’s it like to work on an oil rig and live with a bunch of different dudes for 5 weeks straight
  • The craziest experiences he’s had abroad
  • How he plans his travels
  • Why Tim never documented his travels
  • Tim’s advice to his 22-year-old self
  • Why Tim no longer travels as much and what he’s doing instead

Enjoy!

You can follow Tim’s adventures here: https://instagram.com/intoxicationofadream

5 Problems With American Culture

There’s nothing I enjoy more than comparing different countries and cultures. I live for it. And there’s nothing more interesting than comparing other countries to one of the most polarizing countries in the world: America.

After all, a person in Rio de Janeiro, Copenhagen or Bangkok may not care (or know) what’s happening in Kenya, Cambodia or Bolivia, but even if they haven’t met Americans, you can still be sure he or she has formed a certain opinion about the country as a whole. They know American movie stars. They follow American presidential elections.

While the rest of the world is vastly different, one thing the rest of the world has in common is how similar they’re to each other—when compared to America.

Here’s what makes America special:

1. Inauthentic human communication

On my first week in Brazil, I met a beautiful girl at a checkout line in a local supermarket. Later that evening, about thirty minutes into our date, she smiled and told me that she likes me and that she’s enjoying my company. I was flattered—and shocked. Her words hit me like a tractor trailer at full speed. I couldn’t remember the last time someone was so open and honest. In fact, her honesty and openness made me feel downright uncomfortable.

This brutal honesty wasn’t limited to just Brazil. It also wasn’t limited to romantic relationships. In Eastern Europe, where I’ve been living for the past several years, human relationships are less about talking random words and more about “feeling out” each other. Not in a literal sense, but via non-verbal communication. For instance, one of the first things that I noticed about Eastern Europeans was how they would just shut up during a conversion while pondering a thought or a response to a question. Initially, these silences made me uncomfortable. But then I realized that these silences are an import part of communication, sometimes even more important than what comes before or after.

Human communication in America is woefully indirect and confusing. After all, we’re talking about a place where men have no choice but to pay $5,000 to some “guru” for a weekend workshop where they can learn how to talk to women. This may sound crazy, but, in the rest of the world, a man can just approach and talk to a woman directly.

Since people can’t communicate honestly and authentically, a common way of projecting this indirectness is sarcasm. Sarcasm is used to diffuse and deflect a question or statement. If you’re asked a personal question that makes you uncomfortable, you can ignore it or respond with a sarcastic remark. In this way, any attempt at authentic communication is immediately rejected and deflected.

Sarcasm has its purpose. It lightens up the mood and even demonstrates that you’re not threatened by an overly inquisitive person. But, like with anything, the problem with sarcasm is when it’s employed extensively instead of sparingly. That’s when it loses its potency and coats all conversations with a thick layer of inauthenticity and insincerity. The end result is superficiality.

The overuse of sarcasm is a mark of weakness. Communication is authentic when you’re putting yourself on the line in the face of possible rejection. It means being vulnerable. Not the type of vulnerability where you spill your guts to someone like an offended puppy, but as a way of saying that you don’t really care about the outcome and just want to say what’s on your mind.

It takes guts to tell another person that you enjoy spending time with them, find them interesting and want to develop a quality relationship. Conversely, it’s a lot harder to put yourself on the line and be honest with that person and risk possible rejection; it’s a lot easier to respond with some “witty” sarcastic remark that presents your point while simultaneously absolving yourself of taking responsibility for being open in the first place.

Before I extensively lived abroad, I used to think constant sarcasm and ball-busting was normal and even viewed it as a sign of strength, but after living abroad for many years, I now find endless sarcasm and ball-busting tiresome and immature.

2. The constant “us vs. them” mentality

I was once sitting in a coffee shop in some small town in New Jersey. I looked to my right and noticed a small and unassuming girl. I assumed she was super shy and probably doesn’t have a strong opinion on anything except the font she was using to design the website.

I was wrong. Soon, the conversation among us at the table shifted into politics and some upcoming election. As soon as someone mentioned that some democratic candidate might win, she got up and told everyone how much she hated Republicans. As she said it, she was filled with such zeal and hate that her face turned beet red.

Her abrupt reaction shocked me. I would’ve never in my life expected such a petite girl to react so vehemently. But that wasn’t even it. The real reason I was taken aback was because I had just witnessed a person react so strongly to something that wasn’t affecting her in any direct, personal way. She had a stronger reaction to some political candidate in an ivory tower than if some ghetto kid ran through the coffee shop and stole her expensive MacBook Pro laptop.

It’s been very amusing to return to the US after spending most of the year in Eastern Europe and then discuss the pros and cons of the current Ukrainian government with a random 50-something guy who happened to join my table at a packed Starbucks. He hated Ukrainian government with a passion. He also hated Putin and loved Merkel. The most interesting thing is that he’s never even been abroad.

America is a country where people seem to care about everything—with the overwhelming majority of these things not affecting their personal well-being in any way. The fact that everyone thought we were bombing Iraq (or insert another country here) because we wanted to bring them freedom is also amusing. I still don’t know how deposing Syria’s Assad could ever interfere with my ability to put words on the Internet or make YouTube videos.

You can be walking on the street anywhere from a huge city like New York to a smallish village in the middle of Oklahoma, stop a random person, and they’ll readily have an opinion on most things that are happening in the world. They’ll tell why they love (or hate) the Democratic Party, why Vladimir Putin is a great leader (or a vicious dictator), why the government should (or shouldn’t) deal with guns, why abortion should be legal (or illegal) and a ton of other issues.

The rest of the world doesn’t care as much. People rarely even care what’s happening in the neighboring countries. Brazilians might be pissed off that Argentina won more soccer matches than them, but a guy in Rio de Janeiro isn’t going to let his beautiful beach day be ruined by political news from the capital. Ukrainians might be pissed off at Poroshenko, but I’m not going to make any lifelong enemies if I supported him.

In the rest of the world, strong political opinions are mostly a luxury.

That’s a very good thing. It means that people are concerned with things they control instead of projecting their helplessness and frustration at the world via politics, cultural wars or anything else that enables the toxic “us vs. them” mentality. And if that means that that beautiful Colombian girl sitting next to me at a coffee shop won’t suddenly treat me like the lowest of the low because I said something about a local election, I’ll take that too.

3. Everyone has a narrative

On the night of October 1, 2017, a gunman opened fire on a crowd of 22,000 concertgoers in Las Vegas Strip in Nevada, leaving 58 people dead and 546 injured.

Over the ensuing days and weeks, people stayed glued to the TV sets while the media did their best to explain the reasons behind such a heinous act.

As it turns out, explaining something so complex such as a mass shooting to the public was deceptively simple. The known players resorted to its proven technique that uses to explain anything and everything: a narrative.

The beautiful thing about narratives is that you never have to look hard to find one. Whenever there’s some mass killing in America, the same old pattern repeats. The feminists are eager to tell you the massacre occurred because of “toxic masculinity.” The gun control advocates are eager to tell you the massacre occurred because of lax gun control. If the shooter is white, the left-wing media is eager to label the massacre as “white nationalist.” If the killer is a minority but non-black, the right-wing media will frame the massacre as an immigration issue. If the killer is black, it will be framed as a racial issue. Then there’s the government which is always eager to label the massacre as a  “terrorist act.”

All narratives have a single purpose: they take something very complex and simplify in a way that the public can understand. Narratives help people make sense of the world and their place in it.

However, what absolutely no one discussed at all were the personal motivations of the perpetrator. Maybe he had a bad day. Maybe he broke up with his girlfriend whom he loved. Maybe he was fired from a job. Maybe there was something else that happened completely unrelated to any of the explanations. Maybe he lost his entire life savings after playing in the casino.

(Obviously, if there were strong terrorist links, that would be different, but this was ruled out early on.)

Using simple narratives to explain a complex event is a symptom of a society that no longer views people as individuals with their own unique issues and problems, but as  collective masses that all think and act the same.

Nobody can know for sure what the killer’s motivations were, but it’s easy to sit on your soapbox and rant how what happened is somehow related to the society as a whole. In this way, they’re using the killer’s actions to promote their own agenda.

It’s like riding a Q line in New York City and getting a weird look from another passenger sitting directly across from you. Although you have no way of knowing why that person gave you a weird look (maybe it wasn’t weird after all), different people will interpret it differently. The problem is regardless what they think, they won’t ever know for sure.

In the rest of the world, such things are perceived very differently. If a man goes on a killing rampage in Russia, people would think there’s something wrong with him—not launch into a tirade about gun control. If a gang of kids robbed a beach in Rio de Janeiro, people will think they did it for the money—not launch into a tirade about “toxic masculinity.” If a Chinese guy stabs a bunch of people in Shenzhen, the explanation is mental illness—not the fact that he just happened to be of some “different” ethnicity.

4. Everything is filtered through gender, race, ethnicity, and/or religion

In 1994, a former football player was arrested for killing his ex-wife and her boyfriend. Even though the evidence overwhelmingly pointed to a guilty verdict, one of his lawyers, Johnny Cochran, successfully convinced the jury to frame the case as a race issue, in terms of “whites vs. blacks.” The defendant was acquitted a year later.

When viewed from this racist perspective, the overwhelmingly black jury ultimately acquitted the black defendant. (It also didn’t help that prosecution completely fumbled the case, although even if their case was airtight, it was still far from certain that they’d win).

When society’s actions are filtered by race, everything that happens can be explained away by race. It’s the classic “us vs. them” construct.

OJ Simpson is arrested on suspicion of killing his white ex-wife and her white lover? It doesn’t matter that there were no other suspects and he probably did it. He was arrested because he was black.

Obama elected as the President of United States of America? It doesn’t matter that he was elected on his own merit. He was obviously elected because he was black.

This affects each one of us in ways far beyond race. It means that whatever you do or say, there will always be people who’ll view your actions and accomplishments through racial and/or ethnical biases. For instance, I’m a white guy. As I recently found out, apparently that means I’m somehow “privileged.” That could be used against me in the form of reverse discrimination.

Or, maybe not. Because I’m also an immigrant from a poor Eastern European country. Fortunately, that gives me points and leverage, something I wasn’t aware of before. That means that a non-white person (ie, who’s not “privileged”) can’t easily accuse me of racism because I can accuse them of some kind of discrimination against poor and pesky Eastern European immigrants.

Unless you were living under a rock for the past few decades or so, you know there’s a gender war in the US. It’s gotten so bad that, now, the mere fact that you’re a man can be used against you and obliterate all your arguments.

This is an extreme example of a logical fallacy known as character assassination. As a man, you could have the most logical argument in the world. You could be absolutely correct that even Einstein, Nelson Mandela, and Jesus Christ would nod their heads in agreement. But the fact that you were born with a penis means that everything that you say can be discounted as nonsense.

Of course, all of this is one enormous clusterfuck. It’s beyond ridiculous. I’m not “privileged” because I happened to be born white. I wasn’t born with a golden spoon in my mouth and have to hustle like the rest of the world. If you tell me that I’m privileged means that you’re admitting to be disfranchised in some way. This leads to a race to the bottom mentality as everyone is busy searching for ways to “out victimize” each other.

Unfortunately, getting rid of this divide and uniting people isn’t easy. There are people who built up their entire careers on making sure this division gets stronger over time. Entire institutions have sprung up who owe their entire existences to these cultural divisions and work hard on entrenching them further.

As you might’ve already guessed, this isn’t really a case overseas. The ridiculous “mansplaining” thing is mostly limited to England and her former colonies. No one in Colombia, Brazil, Russia or 150+ other countries is going to accuse you of something simply because you’re a man who’s trying to explain something to a woman. Or a woman who’s trying to explain something to a man. Or a woman who’s trying to explain something to a woman. Or a man who’s trying to explain something to a man.

5. Always needing to prove yourself to others

Last month, I went out to a nice bar with a good friend. My friend was with his girlfriend who invited one of her female friends. Her friend and I immediately hit it off. She was witty and intelligent, the two qualities I like in women.

Over the following weeks, we saw each other few times. While I enjoyed spending time with her, I immediately sensed something was off. Most of her conversations revolved around work; she loved to talk about her clients, especially those who are richer and more successful than to her. She also liked to talk about her friends or relatives who ran profitable businesses and did very well for themselves.

I found this perplexing. She was a very successful young woman and yet she seemed so insecure that she needed to constantly remind me (albeit, so subtly) that she was surrounded by people who made more money that both of us would probably see in our lifetimes.

One day, it finally hit me: she was trying to impress me by linking herself to people who’re more successful. The fact that she’s connected to so many successful people is her way of elevating her own status in my eyes.

This is also something I noticed mostly specific to America. It’s ingrained in the culture for people to outdo each other by comparing not only their own success but also the success of people they know, whether they’re close relatives, friends or even clients.

To be sure, I have met people like this overseas. This was prevalent in big cities like Moscow and São Paolo where people are slaving away long hours and their lives revolve around work with little time to play. But even in these super capitalistic metropolises, I’ve met people who had a certain zest for life and derived their self-worth internally instead of externally.

Now, you’re probably thinking that I hate America. I don’t. It has its problems just like any other country. Since it’s inhabited by people of such diverse backgrounds, different viewpoints and beliefs are to be expected.

It’s just it’s nice to be able to connect with a stranger, whether in a coffee shop, a bar or while riding the subway. It’s even better to do that by being authentic and be able to say what you think and feel instead of carefully monitoring your words and actions because you fear your mere thoughts may inadvertently turn your newfound friend into a sworn enemy.

My Last Journey Through Ukraine

Ukraine is a poor country, but that’s not obvious if you’re lucky to land in the capital’s brand-spanking-new international terminal. What was once an old and decaying Soviet chunks of plastic and metal, Kiev’s Terminal D had been completely rebuilt from the ground up and now rivals even the most modern Western airports. Once you pass passport control, clear customs, and exit the international arrivals, the scenery immediately changes from new to old.

While you’re adjusting to the new environment, you can’t help but feel that you’re on a set of a cheap Eastern European movie. There are old Ladas circling outside the terminals, shady Eastern European guys smoking and spitting on the ground. Soon, one of them will approach and offer you an overpriced taxi ride to the center.

Kiev is like a delicious cookie with a tasty inner filling that’s surrounded by a hard outer shell. There are several charming neighborhoods with fantastic restaurants and great bars, but in order to get there, you must first go through, what seems like an unending array of grey, soulless and depressing neighborhoods that all look, smell and feel the same. These are the Western equivalent of suburbs, but they hardly resemble the typical American suburb with its neatly trimmed gardens, surrounded by white picket fences, and, of course, neighbors with permanent fake smiles plastered on their faces.

Cross the bridge over the mighty Dnieper river, and you’re now entering the main part of the city. As you approach the center from the east, buildings gradually transform from the ugly ten-story Soviet ones that all look the same to the more aesthetically-pleasing—and more desirable—pre-Soviet ones. This transformation doesn’t happen all at once, but slowly and sporadically; every now and then you see an imposing five-story building that was either built during Stalin’s rule (сталинка) or built before the Russian revolution that transformed the mighty Russian Empire into communist utopia known as the Soviet Union.

***

The first thing you must know about Ukraine is that it’s not a very tourist-friendly country. The unforgiving weather (except for few hot months in the summer), the unending mass of grey Soviet-era buildings, the locals who don’t smile, don’t speak any English and couldn’t give two shits about foreigners, actually, forget about the tourist aspect—it’s not a friendly country period. Nobody goes out of their way to please you. In fact, nobody really cares about you.

Over the years, as Ukraine became one of my main home bases, I’ve written a lot about the region, mostly praising it for the easy lifestyle and low cost of living. But what I neglected to talk about were the nuances of the region, the little things that one begins to deal with once the tourist visa expires and one transforms from a fly-by-night tourist to someone resembling a resident.

Unlike every other country that I’ve visited and lived in, where I was a foreigner and needed to familiarize with the local culture before immersing myself head first, in Ukraine I automatically felt like a local from the very first moment I stepped out of the train right after crossing the border from Poland a few years ago. After all, I was born here and spoke the language fluently. This entitlement was foolish. Not being there during my formative years meant that I was a complete foreigner in the country that I called my own.

When I first arrived and settled in the capital, I made good friends with Maksim, a local guy in his 30s. One of the things I liked about him was the fact that he was the complete opposite of me. He was extremely outgoing, brash, street-smart, and even a little in your face sometimes. Whereas I’ve always considered myself idealistic with a touch of romanticism, Maksim was direct and realistic. He didn’t have time for petty bullshit and always called things out for what they were. Hanging out with him was an eye-opening experience.

Maksim and I spent many evenings hanging out, usually drinking beer at his favorite bar, discussing various countries and their cultures. Part of the reason we connected so well was that, like myself, he was also fairly well-traveled, having lived and worked in places like Germany, US, and Spain. Although he loved the West for the opportunities presented to him, he always felt at home in Ukraine and couldn’t dream of living elsewhere.

One of the stark differences between Ukraine (and most of Eastern Europe) and the West was how human relationships form and develop. Maksim harbored no illusions and viewed all relationships in Ukraine as mostly transactional in nature. “I do this for you and later on you do this for me” he explained, while making his trademark hand gestures in case I was confused. Regardless of the type of relationship, there was always an inherent element of barter.

In the West, people are generally well off, have jobs and can afford nice things. Everyone enjoys an acceptable standard of living, regardless whether you’re working for minimum wage or an investment banker. As a result, friendships and connections with people are more casual. A friend is an interchangeable accessory that you can swap out depending on the function. You have your running buddy, your hiking buddy, your workout buddy, your poker buddy, your tennis buddy, your fuck buddy, your wingman, your colleague from work and an assortment of other people that occupy a very specific role in your life.

But in Ukraine, because the underlying infrastructure is broken and corrupt and a good-paying job that lets you easily afford an iPhone isn’t something you’re automatically entitled to, who you know matters much more than what you know. Although it was relatively easy to make friends, it was difficult to know who your true friends were until you declined to do something they asked. That was the real moment of truth. One of the guys whom I’ve known for several years and considered a good friend once asked me to loan him money (his business was losing money, so he needed some “help”). I refused because I knew I’d never see that money again. From that point on, our relationship steadily deteriorated and today we barely speak to each other. A lady who cleaned my apartment was super nice to me from day one, treating me like her son. I thought that was because I was a nice guy who kept the apartment clean and washed the dishes. But, one day, as I was heading out, she stopped me and asked if I knew anyone who was hiring an accountant. Her granddaughter had just graduated college with top grades but couldn’t find a job. After telling her that I had zero connections with the local accounting industry, I noticed her mood suddenly deflate as though I had disappointed her in some major way. From then on, her attitude became much more businesslike.

Even my own relatives acted as though I was a rich American who was naturally obligated to shower them with money. When I stopped by my aunt’s place for the first time in over 20 years to see how she was doing, she seemed both happy and reserved at the same time. Her mood dramatically improved when I opened my wallet and handed her a crisp $100 bill. Maybe it wasn’t enough because the next time I saw her, she told me that since I was living in America for so long, I’ve become too “Westernized” and lacked generosity. Her granddaughter, who was around my age, was friendly to me, but then one day told me out of the blue that I was cheapskate even though I never asked anything of her. I realized how naive I was for thinking my relationships were unconditional when in fact they were fully conditional on me giving them money.

But, nowhere was this transactional element more evident than in relationships with women.

According to Maksim, Ukrainian women were the world’s experts at getting what they wanted from men. What they truly excelled at is in reading men. Not only did they know how to expertly decipher what men wanted, their motivations and desires, but they also knew how to simultaneously provide them with what they wanted while getting what they wanted in return. In the West, the feminist movement lobbied governments to create laws that favored both sexes equally (sometimes even favoring women at the expense of men). In Eastern Europe, women’s ability to artfully manipulate men to get what they wanted made things like feminism completely superfluous.

There’s a well-known stereotype that Ukrainian women are after Western guys because they’re a gateway to a new land with hard currency and a nice passport, preferably one that says “USA” on the front cover. Frankly, I’d be outright dishonest if I said that wasn’t true. It is true. After all, from a woman’s point of view, there’s no greater transaction in the world than marrying a man from a higher socioeconomic background.

Indeed, I’ve heard lots of stories where a Ukrainian woman married a Western (or Westernized) man. Unfortunately, many of these marriages rarely lasted beyond the honeymoon. One of my good friends in New York had a colleague who met a girl in Ukraine (his home country) and, after a (mostly) online relationship that lasted few years, married her and brought her to America. My friend even helped her settle in by arranging simple part-time work. It didn’t take long for her to show her true colors. Apparently working was never part of her plans: going shopping for expensive things with her newly made friends was. They were divorced a month later and she went back to Ukraine. Then, a few months later, I received an email from one of my readers who wanted to share a story about his experiences. It was almost the exact same story. He met a young woman in the center of Kiev. They Skyped for a year. After that, they got married and she moved to America. Six weeks later, she left him for a wealthier man.

This dilemma affected me personally. Although marriage wasn’t something I was specifically looking for, after many years of random and pointless dating, I was more than ready for something more serious and stable. After dating women all over the world, I also realized the advantages of having a relationship with a person from one’s own culture. The advice, however, that I’ve gotten was to be very careful. This came from pretty much everyone: family, good friends both in Ukraine and America, my dentist, random taxi drivers of all ages and even the doorman in my Kiev’s apartment had an interesting story or two to share. Marriage is risky as is, but the stakes are much higher when two people come from vastly different socioeconomic backgrounds.

Initially, I dismissed everyone’s advice because I figured I was dealing with overly cynical people. I couldn’t imagine being surrounded by people who wanted to take advantage of me in some shape or form. I also took some precautions by hiding my past and never openly telling anyone I had been living in the West since my early teens and had a US passport. Although this made building relationships trickier, it enabled me to find out the person’s true intentions before committing. The absolute last thing I wanted was to commit myself to a girl that I really liked, only to eventually discover that the only reason she was with me because I was her “golden ticket” out of the country and onto a world with unlimited opportunities. And the entire time she was just putting up with me because of a bigger payday down the road.

Being on guard all the time was taxing on my psyche. It also forced me to abandon my idealistic side and become a bit more realistic and understand that people’s motives can easily change when there’s a specific incentive at stake. For better or worse, it made me reevaluate how I structure and manage relationships with others.

***

Whenever I needed a break from the capital, I always packed my bags with swimming trunks and headed to Odessa, a southern coastal city on the Black Sea that also happens to be my hometown.

Odessa is one of the most well-known cities in Eastern Europe. It’s one of Ukraine’s main cities and easily one of the most beautiful cities in the region, with its beautiful opera theater recognized all over the region. Ask anyone from Lithuania to Bulgaria to Belarus to Russia and there’s a good chance that they’d not only heard of it but know something about it (or someone who was from there). All over Ukraine, when people find out I’m from Odessa, their eyes immediately light up and they begin recounting warm memories of their trips to sea.

Since my return to Ukraine six years ago, I’ve made several trips to there. Sadly, each subsequent trip was more disappointing than the last. My first time there, back in 2011, coincided with my first trip to Ukraine (and Eastern Europe), so I really had no clear frame of reference. Sure, it was typical Eastern Europe with the rusty city trains, potholed streets, and smoke-filled restaurants, but because of my limited experience in the region, I couldn’t really form an opinion.

But the more time I spent living in Eastern Europe (with stints in Romania, Bulgaria, and Lithuania, not to mention lots of time in the capital, Kiev), the more I realized that Odessa was really nothing more than another poor and undeveloped third world city (even more so than the rest).

First, the city is dirty and broken. There’s garbage on the streets and more dog shit on the sidewalks than I’ve seen in most other cities. (Buenos Aires has more). I haven’t seen much dog shit in other Eastern European cities, but in Odessa, you really have to walk carefully to not step into it. Maybe it’s a deterrent so people don’t get drunk in public.

There’s also the non-ending construction. A year ago, they closed off one of the main arteries of the city for reconstruction. The plan was to fix everything in two months, just in time for the summer season. A year later the work seems nowhere close to being finished. When they’re not ripping apart perfectly fine streets, they seem to be drilling in random spots all around the city. One day, I woke up and about five guys were drilling for something just outside my apartment right in the center of the city. Maybe they were looking for gold, I don’t know. After they finished for the day, I was left with a big ditch right outside my front window that blocked half of my view and remained so for the remainder of my stay.

The other main problem with Odessa is the people. Odessa had always had a reputation as a city of extremely friendly people. But, alas, I was wrong again because that wasn’t the case at all. Almost everyone that I met has been either plain inconsiderate, outright rude, or just didn’t give a shit about anything, a far cry from other Eastern European cities and Kiev especially. The service in cafes and restaurants, which I use as a barometer for the city’s general level of friendliness, was a complete joke. By comparison, in Kiev, the service has mostly been excellent. Everyone had always been helpful and understanding, and I genuinely felt welcomed everywhere. In Odessa, however, there was a general sense of apathy from the waiters and waitresses, so much so that you couldn’t help to feel that they’re doing you a favor by taking your order in the first place. To be sure, there were a couple of places where the service was acceptable and bordering on friendly, but these were exceptions to the rule.

On few occasions, I even doubted whether I was really in Europe and not in some place in Africa or India. Earlier this summer, I saw a dead woman laying on a city beach, located a mere fifteen-minute walk from the downtown. She looked to be about 50 or 55. It was the first time in my life that I saw a dead woman lying in the middle of a public beach. I had no idea how’d she got there, whether she drowned an hour ago or it was a corpse that’s been rotting on the beach for a week or more. In fact, no one else seemed to care either. People walked around the dead body without paying much attention at all, as though seeing a dead body laying on the sand was an everyday sight. Several people, realizing a valuable piece of real estate was available right next to her, unfolded their beach blankets and began suntanning. Kids ran around, throwing frisbees over the dead woman’s body.

An intelligent-looking elderly man and a woman who were suntanning next to us must’ve gotten fed up and called the police. An hour or two later two young guys in uniforms showed up, looked around, snapped a couple of pictures and disappeared. I looked over and saw an ambulance parked in the parking a lot. Ten minutes later, the ambulance was gone. About five hours later, as the sun was setting and people were getting ready to go home, five or six policemen showed up and snapped more pictures. Then, two more guys showed up, put the woman on the stretcher and carried her to a newly arrived ambulance.

At this point I realized something important: I was no longer in Europe. I was somewhere else. Although this country is geographically in Europe, and people look European, from a cultural standpoint, the country is easily 20-30 years behind, if not more. I mean, can you imagine seeing a dead woman laying on a beach in Barcelona for an entire day? A beach in France? A beach in Miami? A beach in San Diego? Of course, anything is possible, but I can guarantee you that people at those other cities would probably take notice and do something instead of blindly walking around the body as though nothing was wrong. Police would also show up immediately and remove the body.

I couldn’t remember the last time I felt so embarrassed. I felt sorry for all of those people who spilled their blood during all those revolutions. If the people fighting for a better life in Kiev’s central square (Maidan) knew how degenerate and backward the rest of the country was, they would’ve easily had second thoughts about the whole revolution thing.

To be sure, you do run into interesting and friendly people every now and then. The elderly lady who lived in my building treated me like her own son and offered to sew together my BJJ kimono’s torn sleeve after I asked her for the nearest atelier. I made good friends with one of the taxi drivers and he gave me solid advice about the city and even offered to show me around.

But the biggest problem I had was trying to understand how such a beautiful city by the sea can feel so cheap and low grade. Almost as though the city was built by a certain type of people but was now inhabited by a completely different type of people. It was a serious cognitive dissonance. In almost every city I’ve been, there’s been a connection between the city and its inhabitants. New York projects power and wealth and is inhabited by people like bankers and investors walking through a maze of skyscrapers that project power and wealth. Rio de Janeiro projects sun, beach, and relaxation and is inhabited by tanned, friendly people who embody those qualities. Not Odessa. It’s a beautiful city that projects cultural sophistication but is inhabited by people who wouldn’t know what culture was if it hit them over the head.

Ultimately, what consoled me was the fact that I was in southern Eastern Europe, which was the poorest region of all of Europe (Moldova, a mere few hours away, is Europe’s poorest country). And, while Odessa is certainly nicer than all of the surrounding cities, you’re still dealing with the same corrupt regional government, the same backward small city mindset and the same lack of sophistication and culture as the rest of the region. A good way to describe Odessa is it’s more of an overgrown village than a sophisticated city with a pedigreed culture. It’s too big to be a village but too culturally unsophisticated to be a proper city.

***

Having spent the majority of time in Kiev and Odessa (plus a quick trip to Lviv in the west), I’ve always wondered what the rest of the country was like. After all, Ukraine is the biggest country in Europe by territory (excluding Russia which is both in Europe and Asia). Do other cities feel similar to the capital? Are the people different? More or less friendly? So, I set out to find out. Earlier this year, as the snow was finally melting with the spring rapidly approaching, I packed my bag and grabbed a taxi to the train station. I boarded the train and headed east.

Kharkov is Ukraine’s second largest city. It’s also the country’s former capital and its most easterly city. Being only 30 miles from Russia’s border, it’s an overwhelmingly Russian-speaking city, and during my stay there I didn’t hear a single Ukrainian word even once. The locals even have a slight Russian accent, with vowel intonations more reminiscent of how people talk in St. Petersburg than Kiev. It boasts huge squares and one of the largest parks I’ve seen in this part of the world.

People seek the meaning of life in different places. There are people that go to India, to places like Goa or Varanasi. Other people restart their lives in the tropical Thailand. Some move to South America, where I spent over six years living and traveling. A good friend of mine is obsessed with everything Chinese and is traveling around southern China. Another friend moved to Japan, where he’s been living for more than ten years.

My search for the meaning of life was always associated with Eastern Europe. Sure, being born there had probably something to do with it. But, more than anything, I wanted to find a place with some sort of moral fabric, where family values still existed, where people kept their word and didn’t flake at the last minute, and where people actually spoke to each other instead of endlessly refreshing their Facebook feeds that’s so common in any Western city. Going to a place that had resisted capitalism and the corrosion of humanity that comes along with it so fiercely for so long didn’t seem like a bad idea. In a way, I viewed my trip to Kharkov as a sort of a spiritual crusade.

As I quickly learned, I went too far. While I did see couples and friends actually talking to each other instead of being glued to their smartphones and met people who were so direct that they made my easygoing nature feel like an obvious insecurity (if you were able to get close to them in the first place), the tradeoffs were too much to bear. Everything about the city felt barren, nondescript and, for a lack of a better word, excruciatingly boring. The center had a huge square, but it didn’t feel like I was actually in a vibrant city center and instead in a big open space with no beginning and no end. The service in the restaurants was bordering on arrogant. In fact, the entire city was strange and weird as though everyone hated themselves for being there perhaps because being there was their eternal punishment for not achieving better things in life.

For the first time in the country, I even felt like an outsider. Unlike elsewhere in the country where I’ve always managed to fit right in (and why shouldn’t I?), people somehow knew I was different. A couple of young guys in the supermarket checkout line nervously stared at me. A young girl who was walking her little dog gave me an unfriendly look while I waited outside a cafe. A well-to-do couple in a nice Italian restaurant would periodically look at me while I was flipping through the menu. An old lady, whom I helped cross the street, looked at me with a scorn as though I was the enemy of the state before briskly walking away without thanking me. It was as though everyone was hinting that I didn’t belong and that I should go back where I came from.

If there’s a lesson here, it’s that spending time on the eastern edge of European civilization puts everything in perspective like nothing else out there. I’ve been to every single Eastern European country. I’ve been to dozens of Eastern European cities. I used to think that Vilnius or Kiev or Riga or Sofia or Bucharest or some other Eastern European capital had a backward feel to it, but, man, was I wrong.

Actually, this place was a potpourri of stereotypes that showcased everything that, for better or worse, represented authentic Eastern Europe that was frozen in time. It was the real deal, not some sanitized version. The badly shaved guys in their Adidas tracksuits and cheap sneakers driving souped-up Soviet-made cars or older BMWs. The poorly lit столовые (self-service restaurants) in the basements. The grannies who pushed and shoved you in line to buy bread in darkly lit Soviet-era grocery stores. The poor-to-almost-non-existent, “I don’t care what you want, but I’m not helping you” service. The complete absence of smiles or any sign friendliness. The perennial grey weather that only added to the overall gloomy mood of the city.

Whereas Odessa was an insecure city that was desperately trying to be something else, Kharkov was as secure as they come. It had a formidable “take it or leave it” approach. Either you liked it or you didn’t, but it wouldn’t go out of its way to please you. It really didn’t give a fuck about you or anyone else.

Generally speaking, Eastern Europe is pretty beat up. When you live there, you give up a lot of the comforts and conveniences that you take for granted in the super comfortable West in exchange for new experiences. As a result, you’re forced to grow and become a better, more self-aware person. It has certainly impacted me in a million different ways, experiences that I certainly wouldn’t trade for anything. But there’s a limit to how far you can go before the cons begin to overtake the pros. It’s like moving to the middle of Africa and living in a hut without water, electricity, roads, supermarkets and much else. Sure, you can do it. But why would you want to?

Ultimately, I came to the conclusion that I had to be either crazy or desperate to live in a place like Kharkov. Most people already think I’m crazy for leaving America in the first place and, while there’s some truth to that, I still value a comfortable living. My needs are very modest. I need the basics like a roof over my head, water, electricity and nice supermarkets that sell fresh bread, but I also want a comfortable city where people smile and I feel welcomed. Culture is very important. I’m definitely not crazy enough to live on the edge of civilization where the latter is woefully missing.

The saddest thing was that I really wanted to like this city. I truly did. I came with an open mind expecting to find a city with a rich history that I would enjoy. In the end, I hated it. And I wasn’t just displeased by it as though it was some dish at a restaurant that was poorly seasoned. I hated everything about it. I hated it with a burning passion. I hated the decaying architecture. I hated the poorly maintained roads. But most of all I hated the complete and utter apathy of the people. I thoroughly disliked the narrow-minded provincial mentality that was so prevalent in both cities.

After about a week in this strange and confusing city, I caught the express train back to the capital.

It was a sunny and warm day when I exited Kiev’s main railway station. After an unusually cold winter, spring was finally in the air. Being back in the capital never felt so good. More importantly, I was awash with gratefulness. It was one of the first times in my life that I realized that even though things can be far from ideal, they could be a lot worse: I could be living in Kharkov or some other degenerate shithole.

Ukraine disappointed me in ways I never imagined nor expected. But the capital lured me back in. Returning there had this feeling of comfort as though I was sitting on my parents comfortable couch and eating my mom’s delicious home made food after sleeping in dirty hostels and random apartments all over the world. Most importantly, Kiev was everything the other cities were not. It was the perfect size, not too small that it felt like an oversized village and not too large that it felt an overcrowded megapolis. It felt sufficiently cosmopolitan and cultural that I never felt like I was in some old Soviet-era movie, but yet was also quintessentially Eastern European, providing that perfect cultural dose that made you stronger without outright killing you. The people were much friendlier and open-minded. I also discovered a nice neighborhood that was just perfect.

Later on, as I was boarding a flight in the capital’s beautifully remodeled international terminal, I knew there was at least one place in this country I could potentially live long-term without going crazy.

How The American Dream Is Being Outsourced To The Rest Of The World

Fred Wilson, one of the most influential and well-known venture capitalists, recently wrote in an article called “Jurisdictional Competition”:

We have watched the blockchain companies in our portfolio struggle to adapt their business models, financing approaches, and more to US laws. We have been working with them to come up with creative ways that they can continue to operate in the US while executing the crypto playbook. It has been quite challenging. We are for whatever is best for the founder and the business they create and have no preference for US domiciled companies. We have invested in Canadian companies, Estonian companies, French companies, Dutch companies, German companies, and likely a lot more. Investing in a Swiss-domiciled company or foundation would not be a big deal for us.

Fred Wilson is referring to the maze of confusing legal and financial rules one must navigate in order to invest in cryptocurrencies in the US. Meanwhile, other countries such as Switzerland are stealing America’s thunder by creating special jurisdictions where the laws are the laws are easy to understanding, thus fostering innovation and growth.

In 1990, when my family and I immigrated to America from the Soviet Union, it was as though we had just won the lottery. At the time, the Communist experiment was spectacularly imploding from the inside; in less than a year, what once a unified and powerful country would break up into 15 smaller pieces (republics).

The collapse didn’t happen overnight. For several decades leading to it, Soviet Union was an economically-troubled nation. It was a common sight to see shelves in the supermarkets void of almost everything but the absolute essentials (sometimes even the essentials were missing). During the collapse and the crisis that followed, things would only go from bad to worse. People’s entire life savings would be erased overnight and unimaginable poverty would sweep throughout the nation.

Across the ocean, America was prospering. Although the narrative of the Cold War explained it as the triumph of capitalism over communism, one trip to America from inside the Iron Curtain, and you’d wonder why the war even lasted as long as it did. America had everything. It made everything. It sold everything. It was thriving. Its supermarkets were always stocked with any kind of products imaginable and, best of all, you’d never need to wait half of the day standing in line to buy a loaf of bread.

America’s triumph was far from an overnight success. Here are some things that contributed to its special place in the world:

Free market economy/private ownership of property

In America, anyone was free to make, buy and sell whatever they wanted as a result of a market-driven economy. If someone out there wanted what you might be building, you now had a great incentive to make this stuff because it would guarantee profits.

That may sound obvious to most of you reading this, but many countries certainly didn’t function this way; it was the government that controlled what and how much of it got produced. For example, in the Soviet Union, you couldn’t open a business, import goods from abroad and sell them to customers. Not only was importing stuff from abroad not allowed, but you couldn’t even start a business in the first place — it was against the law.

Not being able to start a business had much bigger implications: it meant that you couldn’t participate in the economy and chart your own path to success. People naturally felt helpless and were at the mercy of the all mighty state who was responsible for their economic well-being.

Freedom of speech

Right now, you can go on the Internet and read news sites, magazines and blogs dissecting pretty much any topic, whether it’s about government, politics, religion, celebrities or anything else. That’s why you can bitch at your next-door neighbor, have a war of words with some anonymous guy on Twitter, and even complain to the President of the United States all before lunchtime and never get arrested or worse: sent to the gulag.

This is something that Americans take very much for granted (witnessed by the amount of controversy about this very topic), but the fact of the matter is that the rest of the world doesn’t operate this way. Obviously, this didn’t exist in places like Soviet Union or other authoritarian states. But, even now, many other democratic countries have forms of censorship in place that limit what you can say in a public discourse.

Rule of law

Last, but not least, none of the above matters if there are no laws — and people adhering to them — protecting you and the fruits of your labor. For instance, open a business in Russia, become moderately successful, and, there’s a good chance a couple of burly guys in black leather jackets will knock on your door tomorrow. They’ll demand you pay them for “protection.” The more successful you are, the higher in the hierarchy you’re “protected.” Big businesses are “protected” by security forces inside the government.

In America, work as hard you want, make as much money as you want or can, pay your taxes on the profits and everyone is happy. It’s that simple. That’s called the rule of law.

America’s organic democracy

America conquered other ideologies and won the race for the world’s hearts and minds chiefly because it was able to build a functioning society where people did what they wanted. The fact that I could open my own business, make money my way, and then bitch and moan at the government about anything that pisses me off without any repercussions against me or my family is a fairly novel concept.

That wasn’t a straightforward accomplishment. For most of the 19th and 20th century, the rest of the world (except for a few European democracies such as England) experimented with lots of different government systems from Monarchism to various collectivist ideologies such as Nazism, Communism and Socialism. What they all had in common was that they sacrificed the individual for the well-being of the state. That’s why in the Soviet Union, the government could send a random guy who disagreed with the state to a forced labor camp in Siberia (gulag), and nobody would see it as a big deal. Things like private property and human rights were mostly philosophical terms instead of real, tangible rights protected by the state.

Can you imagine the outrage that would take place if this happened in the modern world? In England? In America?

What made America’s democratic system unique and powerful is that it wasn’t created overnight as the response to something specific, but developed organically all the way from the time America gained independence from Britain.

But America wasn’t stupid. Those who were in power perfectly understood that American way of life was the envy of the people living in more repressive regimes. In a way, America itself became an image, a brand that sought to influence people around the world either directly (by stimulating immigration) or indirectly (by pressuring foreign governments to align with America’s ideals). People wanted to be free, or at least feel free, but if that wasn’t possible in the society they lived in, they yearned to immigrate to one where it was possible.

After the collapse of Soviet Union, countries which were previously supporters of Communism copied America’s political system to the best of their abilities. They had no choice. Embracing anything else, like some unproven ideology without true believers, was politically suicidal. In 1970, half of Europe was free-market with private property rights while the other half was Communist with none individual rights whatsoever. Today, almost all of Europe is democratic, with strong support for private property rights and free market capitalism.

As more and more countries embraced democratic ideals, democracy became more or less a commodity that any country with a president and parliament can claim to be their own. For instance, while the democratic system in Ukraine is far from the established democracy in America (the former was only established in 1991), it’s really hard to argue that Ukraine isn’t a democratic nation in the same way that Spain or Italy. As someone who’s living in Ukraine now, I certainly have the same freedoms that I enjoy in America.

Internet and the democratization of ideas

There was something else around the corner that would greatly change the way the world would forever function: the Internet.

Unlike democratic institutions which made people feel free, the Internet helped people in two main ways: it connected them to each other, fostering real-time communication via instant messaging tools and, second, it democratized data and information, making it available to everyone in the world.

So, with just a click of a mouse, a guy in Bangladesh suddenly had access to the same information that a venture capitalist in Palo Alto. A girl in Argentina could learn about programming or politics via an online classroom sponsored by a prestigious American university, something that was previously limited to Americans who could physically attend that university.

The result was meritocracy on the grand scale. When you have collaboration spanning countries and borders on a scale never before imaginable, you can build things on a scale never before possible. When the entire globe is interconnected and everyone understands each other (by speaking English), a person’s country of origin starts to mean very little.

The new struggle

That last part about a person’s country of origin not meaning much is crucial. There’s a new war brewing, but this isn’t the typical war with tanks, planes and the Marines. This is not a war where armies of one nation fight armies of another nation. It’s a war of ideas. The recent major events such as the Brexit, Trump’s election, Catalonia’s push for independence, the rise of the far-right parties in European countries are all symptoms of this new war. It’s important to understand that each event didn’t happen in isolation. Everything is part of an interconnected system.

The ultimate prize is a new world order. It’s pitting those who’ve successfully been able to build new wealth via the Internet and globalization against those who’ve been left behind in the dust. It’s a war of people and multinational corporations who’ve harnessed the power of globalization to reach economies of scale versus those that have not.

For the vanquished, the toughest part was the realization that the country they’ve come to love, the country where they paid taxes all their lives is simply yet another nation-state on this planet that instead of looking after the interest of its citizens, is a tool controlled by the elites for the supremacy of the global economic pie. After all, it’s tough to be a nation-state at a time when nation-states are desperately fighting for existence. The Internet and, its partner in crime, globalization are essentially making the nation-state an extinct species.

If I’m moving too fast for you and you’re not quite sure what’s going on, just follow the money. As always, big businesses and the wealthy understood this better than almost anyone else. Some years ago, The Wall Street Journal published an article where it wondered whether “the rich really need the rest of America.” Just last month, IBM reported that it now employees more people in India than in the US. The world’s most valuable company — Apple — is increasingly eyeing the high growth market of China than the more mature markets in America and Europe. America’s big businesses don’t really care about Americans. They’re going to places with cheap labor and/or consumers who’ll buy their products.

And, one of the world’s premier venture capitalists, Fred Wilson, who’s an American based in New York City, doesn’t have much of a preference in investing in companies in his own country; he’s willing to invest in great cryptocurrency companies regardless where they’re on the planet.

Individual sovereignty

While big businesses and high net worth venture capitalists were one of the first to understand how this new wealth is created, it has also impacted regular people in crucial ways.

When my family and I immigrated to America, we were escaping a repressive regime that severely limited the individual’s rights, making the individual subservient to the state. Every single citizen was just a cog in the machine. No matter how much you wanted to carve your own path in life, you couldn’t just start a business and make money your way, you had to live by the rules of the state.

Those days are long gone. A few years ago, I’ve returned back to my homeland to discover a completely different society that’s getting more and more vibrant with each passing day. Knowledge and technology that may have originated in America or elsewhere in the West are quickly picked up by the rest of the world. There’s absolutely nothing that a Harvard grad living in New York City has over an ambitious young man in Kiev, Ukraine or Vilnius, Lithuania. There’s nothing that a programmer working at a startup in Palo Alto, California has that someone living in Barcelona, Spain or Lagos, Nigeria can’t learn via few Google searches.

Every co-working place I visited while I lived all over Eastern Europe is brewing with young and ambitious guys coding away and planning world domination.

The collapse of communism resulted in the commoditization and spread of democracy across the globe. This resulted in open societies where individuals are free to run their lives they way they want. As I sit here in my cozy apartment in Kiev, Ukraine, I feel exactly as free as I did in my old apartment in New York City, my loft in Medellin, Colombia, my beach apartment in Rio de Janeiro, or my apartment in the historic part of Vilnius, Lithuania.

The psychological feeling of freedom is only one part of the puzzle. Not only do I need to actually feel free, but I also need to be able to control my economic destiny. I need to be able to build stuff that I want and have an impeded access to markets where I can sell my goods and services.

That’s the democratizing effects of the Internet. No matter where in the world I am, all I need is a laptop, an Internet connection, and my ingenuity. I don’t need anything else. My addressable market isn’t limited to a city, a state, a country — it’s the entire world. It’s the entire fucking planet. Borders are becoming meaningless. It really doesn’t get better than this.

The specific country from where I operate doesn’t matter. Today I’m in Ukraine; next week I could be in Bali, and next year I could be relaxing in an apartment in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. In fact, often times, what I find more important isn’t the language that’s being spoken on the street, but whether I have a comfortable table and chair for deep, meaningful work. Oh, and, of course, the speed of the Internet connection matters a lot (Eastern Europe has spoiled me with 50Mbps).

For many years, there was a rush of people trying to immigrate from poorer countries to richer ones. Ukraine recently got a visa-free access to the entire European Union after trying for many years to be accepted into the big boys club. There are also many Ukrainians who’re itching to immigrate to America.

This is a different type of immigration than my own. America is no longer much of haven for those running away from a repressive regime because there aren’t many repressive regimes left. New economic opportunities have created an entire class of self-made entrepreneurs in places like Ukraine and Lithuania who would never give up their own culture, friends and food for a new life in some foreign land.

Those who want to immigrate have very different motivations. Their motivations are more psychological than life or death. The majority of people that are thinking about immigrating are mostly those who’ve failed to build anything worthwhile in their home country and want a new beginning somewhere else. And America isn’t on top of their list anyway; most other countries are fine as long as they have a nice passport and hard currency, whether it’s Germany, Australia, Denmark or even Lithuania. These people are looking to reset their lives and not to escape a totalitarian government that’s one step from imprisoning them for a random joke against a dictator that was overheard by someone sitting next to them in the cafe.

An average Ukrainian, Lithuanian or Bulgarian man or woman doesn’t wake up in the morning and say, “My country is infringing my human rights, I must find a way to escape to America.” This may have been true 30 years ago. Not today.

Many people mistakenly think that America is a place where infinite money grows on trees. They think that the moment they’ll at New York’s John F. Kennedy airport, they’ll immediately get a job and make a lot of money. What no one tells them is that America is just another country. And that they’ll have to adjust to this brand new country with its own unique ways of doing things, a country made up of atomic individuals with little to no shared values, a country where everyone is fighting for a slice of a rapidly diminishing pie. Where I lived in Brooklyn, NY — a hotbed of immigrants — I’ve met Eastern European immigrants who worked 14 hours per day, making a little above the minimum wage. Half of that covered their rent with a big chunk of whatever remained going to the tax man. The myth that you’ll become famously rich in America just for being in America is just that — a myth. In fact, it could be one of the greatest myths ever invented.

In fact, the immigration that I’ve been noticing lately has been mostly in the other direction. When I lived in Brazil, I’ve met a handful of people who moved to America many years ago, went to school there, built a business or two and, then, for one reason or another returned back to their home country. I’ve been noticing this trend all over Eastern Europe as well; a good friend whom I met in Denmark where he was living and working at that time, has returned back home to Lithuania, a former USSR republic, a modern European state that has absolutely nothing in common with its Communist past.

To be sure, this isn’t all America’s fault. The world is changing to the point where the individual country matters less and less. Let’s say you’re thirsty and need water. You enter a store, but the only water they have on the shelves is the expensive Evian brand. Being thirsty and not having other options, you have no choice but to purchase that. But what if you entered the store and saw lots of different brands, both cheap and expensive. There was also the store’s own brand that was cheaper than the rest. Which one would you buy? Water is water. It’s just a commodity, so it doesn’t really matter what fancy label is on the bottle. America is that expensive Evian water that people no longer need to buy.

America’s main challenge is being nimble enough to quickly react to the rapidly changing world. Being at the top of the economic food chain for so long, it lost some of that competitiveness that it now imports more than it exports and funds budget shortfalls by printing money. The fact that it’s home to so many successful companies means it doesn’t need to try as hard as other places to keep them there. It’s like an enormous ship, and once it assumes a certain cruising speed, it’s really hard for it to turn around and go somewhere else. Other more nimble countries or cities are free to swoop in and steal some of its thunder (and business) which they’re effortlessly doing.

Once the beacon of the free world, America has been reduced to just another nation-state, one with its own advantages and disadvantages, its own rules and laws, and its own freedoms and limitations. If guys like Fred Wilson with access to seemingly unlimited capital see it this way, there should be absolutely no reason that a mere mortal like you or me who wants to carve out his own piece of the global economic pie should see it any other way.

The Most Dangerous Country In The World

The West is known for its predictability and safety. Thus, one of the first things that you discover when you venture outside the West is that the rest of the world is less organized and less predictable. As a result, the feeling of safety diminishes and, with that, the feeling of danger increases.

There are various degrees of danger. I’ve lived in dangerous countries. I’ve lived in countries that didn’t seem dangerous on the surface but could become dangerous any moment. Last, but not least, I’ve also lived in very safe countries where the chance of someone breaking down your door in the middle of the night was as remote as winning a Powerball lottery.

A country’s level of danger can be deceptive. For instance, if you’d ask an average person living in America or in another Western country, if Eastern Europe is dangerous, the answer would almost always be “Yes.” Everyone has heard a thing or two about the various killings happening in countries like Russia or Ukraine. But, in fact, my experience has been that Eastern Europe is actually safer than the rest of Europe and the West in general (except Scandinavia).

On one extreme, you have Scandinavia which is extremely safe. Denmark is the safest country I’ve ever lived in. Denmark is the only place in the world that I’m aware where you could leave a bicycle on the street without attaching it to something, go to some store and still have it waiting for you when you return. When you walk around Copenhagen, Denmark’s capital, you see parked bicycles everywhere. Sure, I’ve heard stories of people stealing bikes. Whispers. Unsubstantiated rumors. Perhaps if you have a very expensive bike, it might get stolen, but a regular bike that I bought for $100 or so was never stolen.

Do the same in most places around the world (even if you chain it to some pole), and there’s a good chance it won’t be there when you come back. In Brooklyn, NY, where I grew up and lived for many years, leaving your bicycle outside—chained or not chained—is an automatic “donation” to your community.

There are two main reasons that explain Denmark’s stellar safety. First, Denmark is a relatively rich country. Unlike in other developed countries, that wealth isn’t just concentrated at the very top but is distributed across its population. It’s simply not worth the hassle to steal someone else’s bike when an average person can earn the money needed to buy one in just a few hours of labor.

The second reason has to do with the mentality of the population. Denmark is an extremely meritocratic society. Danes’ favorite word is “fair.” I’ve done business in the country, and most of the agreements and resolutions were hinged on whether something was fair or not. Thus, it’s no surprise that, to the majority of Danes, it wouldn’t be “fair” to steal someone else’s bicycle.

The rest of the world, however, isn’t so “fair.” The world isn’t made up of Denmarks; things are much more complicated. Latin America is a good example. It’s a continent of colorful countries with proud people, but also a home to some regions that can become super dangerous very quickly. The best word that comes to mind is unpredictable. Of course, I’m lumping up many different countries together, and the regions do vary in their danger levels: Venezuela is more dangerous than Colombia; Brazil is more dangerous than Chile. But there are very few Latin American countries that are as predictable as its European counterpart: Spain.

I spent several years living in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Rio de Janeiro is one of the most picturesque cities in the world; indeed I can’t think of a single place that matches it in terms of raw natural beauty. When I first moved to Rio de Janeiro, the safety advice I’ve received was simple and effective: blend in. That meant I needed to mimic the locals and not try to stand out too much. And that’s exactly what I did. I bought Havaianas flip-flops, a cheap T-shirt, and some cheap shorts. No Prada or Armani apparel. Apart from the fact that I was a bit too light-skinned for a Carioca (a native of Rio de Janeiro), I didn’t look that much different from locals.

Rio de Janeiro can seem fairly safe one minute but can get very dangerous the next. I suppose that shouldn’t surprise many as the city is surrounded by favelas (shanty towns) that are so enormous that some of them have their own McDonalds and Post Offices. Staying away from the favelas and walking around the city’s main neighborhoods, you really don’t get the feeling that something bad might happen. Nevertheless, there’s always a chance. It’s as though something is always bubbling below the surface.

Many of my good friends were robbed. Naturally, some of it happened at night. But, a couple of good friends were also robbed in broad daylight. A good friend was once walking around the busy center at noon and a man approached him with a knife and demanded all his valuables. Another friend was robbed while relaxing on the beach during the day while surrounded by other people. I’ve also heard of several hostels in an affluent area getting robbed by an armed gang.

Rio de Janeiro was the only city where I never left my apartment with things I was willing to lose. My expensive iPhone, my watch, my credit cards, and everything except just the minimum cash needed to pay bus fare was always securely stored in my apartment. Come to think of it, it always just felt strange carrying around a phone in your pocket that a local would need to work for three months (or more) just to be able to afford. Thankfully, I was never robbed, although I did have close calls when a large group of favela kids ran towards me just as I was walking back to my apartment at three in the morning.

In Colombia, a good friend was robbed of all his belongings when two guys on a motorcycle approached his taxi while he was en route home. These occurrences are so common that drivers are advised to not stop at red lights when driving at night.

From Russia with love

Eastern Europe operates under different unwritten rules. When I first came to Ukraine and rented an apartment, my host spent about fifteen minutes explaining to me the neighborhood, pointing out the shops in the area and the hidden food joints. He then proceeded to tell me about the safety aspects of the country. He told me that, unlike in other countries, the chances of getting robbed on the street were low, I just had to watch out for petty theft and street hustlers.

His advice was prescient: about four months later, someone entered my place (it was a different apartment) in a nice part of Kiev and stole my luggage. I say “entered” because there were no signs of forced entry and the door was locked the same way that I left it. They must’ve had a copy of the keys. The previous night I left Kiev and took a night train to another city for business. When I returned the next day, I experienced one of the biggest shocks of my life when I noticed my entire suitcase was missing.

In this sense, what can happen in Brazil (and other parts of Latin America) doesn’t often happen in Eastern Europe. You probably aren’t going have an armed gang descend on some beach in Odessa in southern Ukraine, or a bunch of armed robbers break into a hostel in the center of Kiev. Theft happens in a more subtle way, usually without you noticing or being present altogether.

Easy Asia

The safety situation in Asia is closer to Eastern Europe than to Latin America, although it’s much safer than both. In Thailand, the things you should really watch out for is avoiding getting ripped off at the various markets and other annoying situations. On one of my first trips to Thailand in 2004, I hailed a cab and instructed the driver to take me to a travel agency. Unbeknown to me, the driver purposely drove me to a completely different travel agency. Upon arriving, I smiled at the driver and pointed out that this wasn’t where I wanted to go. The driver smiled back and then shook his head as though he had no idea. It wasn’t a big deal as I ended up buying my tickets there anyway.

In Bali, I rented a small house just outside of the central city of Ubud. It was a remote part of town without any other houses around. Around my house, young kids liked to stay up late night, relaxing on their scooters and listening to music. One night, the lights in the house went out. I panicked, my Eastern European instincts kicked in, and I thought I was about to get robbed; the equipment I had in the house was easily worth several thousands of dollars, enough to cover many months for a typical villager’s salary. Nothing happened. Five minutes later, the lights went back on, and I continued working.

Thinking back to that experience, I realize just how much I overreacted because the chance of an armed robbery on a Buddhist island of Bali was extremely remote. All the villagers know each other. So, if something happened, there would be a good chance everyone would know who did it and punish them appropriately. And, besides, why would they do it in the first place?

This partly explains why you could rent a really nice scooter for the entire month without needing to leave a deposit. If you want to rent a scooter almost everywhere else around the world, you must leave an arm and a leg as the deposit. After all, how are you going to steal that nice scooter if you’re located on one big island?

Of course, keep in mind that I’m talking about the developing countries of Southeast Asia and not their super-rich East Asian cousins such as South Korea, Taiwan or Japan. In Japan, there’s so little crime that the bored police force doesn’t know what to do anymore.

Predictability and freedom

I’ve noticed an inverse correlation between safety and freedom. In Denmark, the chance of a street attack or an armed gang swooping on your apartment is pretty much nil, but on the other hand, Denmark is an extremely boring and plain country. The standard of living is high, but that doesn’t mean it’s a particularly enjoyable place to live. And, indeed, when I lived there, I couldn’t really break into Danish society; I was always a foreigner and all my friends were foreigners. The moment I finished the project, I caught the first flight to Bulgaria where I immediately felt at home.

America may not be the safest country in the world, but it’s easily one of the most predictable countries in the world. If you’re attacked or your house is broken into, police will do their best to find the perpetrators. There are laws and regulations and everyone is expected to follow. There are courts that work (at least better than other courts). If someone steals money from you, you can sue them in small claims court and get your money back. And, say what you want about “free speech”, but America’s freedom of press is the envy of the majority of the world’s citizens.

But, like in Denmark, all this predictability and stability comes at a cost. The US government is involved in all of your affairs, from the moment you’re born to the moment you die. Things like privacy are being eroded at an alarming rate in the name of terrorism, national security or some other buzzword.

Weak governments

People perceive a country to be less organized and more dangerous usually because of a weaker government and nonexistent rules and regulations. Eastern Europe is the perfect case study. Why is Eastern Europe different than Western Europe? Because of the weak and ineffective government. The police are a joke. The courts are a joke. The legal system is a joke. The tax system is a joke. The infrastructure is a joke. The “anti-corruption committees” that seem to be in fashion in Ukraine and Russia’s parliaments these days are the biggest joke of all. Everything is a joke.

So, what happens when you have a weak and an ineffective government? First, increased corruption by moneyed interests (oligarchs, etc). When the government is weak and broke, private money nicely greases the wheels of power. Second—and this is crucial—the day-to-day functioning of the country falls back on its citizens. Citizens are forced to rely on one another like never before. The fact that you can walk around in a “third world” city like Kiev, Bangkok or Medellin at midnight without the risk of being jumped by a bunch of hooded guys means that society is somehow held together by certain values.

When the government is ineffective, people are forced to become more resourceful. They need to take more responsibility for themselves. I’ve written before that one of my most interesting observations when I was in Russia$ was the fact that people don’t hold you by the hand and explain everything to you like what happens in America or Western Europe. That’s because Russia’s government is weak and ineffective, forcing people to fend for themselves.

That’s also why there’s a strong sense of masculinity in places like Russia. It’s not because men read self-improvement blogs all day, it’s because there’s no other option for survival.

The price of safety

Safety, predictability, self-reliance move in tandem. The safer, the more predictable the country, the less exciting and free it is. Unless I’m stealing lots of money from some oligarch or stirring up some revolution (I have to be an idiot to do either), I feel pretty free in Ukraine. Same for Thailand or Bali. I’m free to do things that I could never dream of doing in the West. The government has bigger fish to fry than to worry about small fish like me.

Ultimately, safety, at least outside truly desperate and failed states (e.g., parts of Africa, Middle East) where you don’t even have the basic infrastructure in place, is more of a psychological notion. Often times, people want to “feel” safe than to rationally understand that one country isn’t more dangerous than another. Because safety is intimately tied to your well-being, a big component is based on emotions.

In order to feel “safe,” you have to give up certain aspects of your lifestyle. In countries like America or Denmark, you give up predictability, excitement, and self-reliance. Since the government is stronger and more organized, you give up various personal freedoms that the government now assumes “for your protection.”

That explains why my two and a half years of living in Brazil was also one of the most memorable times in my life. Even my endless writing about Brazil barely does the country any justice. Brazil isn’t the safest place on the planet, but living there was one of hell of a ride. Comparing to other countries where I’ve been, Brazil is truly in a league of its own.

My current sojourn in Eastern Europe has gone on much longer than I initially anticipated. Initially, it was a bit difficult to get used to such a traditional society where everyone needs to assume a responsibility for their actions. Now, I can’t imagine living any other way. It’s sure a far cry from the psychological straightjacket I experience whenever I return to an increasingly evolving police state called America where freedom is something a politician recites and not something one experiences.

Life is a series of tradeoffs. If you’re willing to accept a certain level of personal responsibility, become more self-resilient and learn how to fend for yourself, you automatically grant yourself access to a wider world and, along with it, far richer and more colorful experiences, all combining into a great quality life at a very steep discount. From a personal development standpoint that might not be such a bad thing.

Big Western Cities Are Designed for Billionaires and Their Cheap Wage Slaves

My last year’s sojourn in Thailand prompted me to view the world in a completely new way.

I spent a total of three months living in this amazing country. I started out by settling down in Chiang Mai, Thailand’s fifth largest city. Chiang Mai is one of those cities that’s just perfect for getting in, setting up camp and getting stuff done. The city’s major draw is that it’s not a huge and polluted megalopolis and also not some tiny and boring village. It’s super affordable (a nice apartment can be rented for only $250/month), very friendly, has tons of great restaurants (one of the best Mexican food I’ve ever had outside Mexico) and easy to get around. It’s also home to one of the most thriving digital nomad communities anywhere.

After spending a couple of months in Chiang Mai, I flew to a small tropical island in the southern part of the country near the Malaysian border. It was my reward for two months of hard work.

The island was so small that you can cross it from one shore to another in just thirty minutes. It’s probably one of the smallest islands in Thailand, a blip on the map compared to the more well-known islands such as Phuket (which has an international airport and shopping malls) or even the smaller Ko Samui (which also has an airport). In a way, it felt like living in a tiny village.

After sun tanning and eating delicious seafood on the island, I flew to the capital city of Bangkok. It was the perfect place to wrap up my three-month sojourn in this country. Bangkok was a big change from the calm village lifestyle of the past several weeks. The city is bigger than life and easily one of my favorite cities in the world. It’s a city that’s perpetually growing and changing; buildings are sprouting out like mushrooms, people are rushing from one place to another, everyone is trying to make money any way they can.

My rented apartment was a small condo in an area that was full of hotels. While I was walking around the area, I noticed that the people who worked in the hotels looked different from the affluent people who shopped in the fancy malls or dined in the nice restaurants. They seemed a lot friendlier too. My Thai friend explained to me that the people working in hotels were actually from a different part of Thailand, mostly from the improvised north. He also told me that most of the people in the services industry which mostly caters to tourists—from hotel front desk employees to the waiters in the restaurants—were also likely not from Bangkok but from the poorer parts of the country.

It was at that point that I realized something that had escaped me for a long time: big international cities are epicenters of globalization. In other words, what I saw wasn’t a city, at least an “organic” city like Chiang Mai. What I actually saw was a place where all kinds of different people mixed together, working at various jobs, jobs that didn’t exist back in the smaller city, jobs whose purpose was to serve a completely different class of people.

It was as though I had descended down on Earth from some distant planet and was witnessing an experiment unfolding before my own eyes. An artificial city of some sorts whose goal was to deliver the maximum value and returns to investors. Lots of money was being injected from inside Thailand as well as from the rest of the world. Lots of labor was imported from the rest of the country as well as from outside the country. And, coupled with technology and planning, many things were being built at breakneck speeds: hotels, office buildings, shopping centers, residential buildings, etc.

Extreme capitalism

The most extreme example of this type of experiment is Dubai, a city I visited back in 2012. Dubai is extremely successful and prosperous. A big part of that is because of the oil, but also because of the productivity and openness to foreign trade, labor, and ideas. Almost all the services are run by foreigners. The police force is made up of Pakistanis. The teller who sold me tickets on the metro was Asian. The waiters in the restaurants were usually Filipinos. Not to mention the countless Western expats working for international oil companies.

My friend took me to a really nice restaurant in an affluent part of town. The restaurant had an Italian name and served Italian food. But apart from some Italian chef’s framed picture on the wall, there was nothing else Italian about the restaurant. The hostess was Filipino. The waiters were Indian. The chefs were Pakistanis. The security out in front was Egyptian. I suppose the food was Italian. In any case, it was pretty good.

Locals (Emiratis) don’t work. They’re wealthy and don’t need to work. In fact, I remember reading somewhere that the only place they work apart from government functions is the passport and customs control in the international airport. They’re usually out and about, eating at restaurants, shopping and socializing with friends.

Dubai works. It’s extremely safe. There are no income taxes. There’s minimal bureaucracy for things like forming your own company and getting a residence permit. The weather is warm year-round, great for those who hate cold weather like myself. (It gets pretty hot in the summer, though the strong and universal air-conditioning sort of makes up for it.)

The biggest problem with Dubai is that it sucks for those who aren’t going there for work. The city feels superficial. It sorely lacks a cultural aspect that defines cities like London or Paris. It’s also very expensive, about on the same level as New York City—if not more. And, if you’re a single man, brace yourself for a difficult time as it’s not exactly a great city for dating. (The latter seems to be a common theme in rich, capitalist cities.)

Dubai is certainly an extreme example of a city that’s meant to make money but sucks for everything else. Everything about it is designed for bringing in capital and labor and converting that into something great. In fact, most Western (and some non-Western) big cities around the world are very similar. They’re agents of capitalism, highly engineered for productivity and the maximization of investor returns while sorely lacking in the “quality of life” department.

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The Russian meat grinder

New York City, San Francisco, and Moscow

There’s another wealthy capitalist city that immediately comes to mind: New York City. I spent over a decade living in NYC and it’s still my home base in America.

I’ve met tons of people around the world who’d kill to work and live in New York City. Obviously, one of the bigger reasons is the higher salary. But why is the salary higher? Because the cost of living is higher. Why is the cost of living so high? Because it’s a place with a massive confluence of money (i.e., Wall Street) and lots of people who’re feverishly working, trying to build something new. This cooperation of money being invested into productive labor leads to prosperity. That’s why everything is more expensive.

Then there’s San Francisco, a city where I spent eight years working for all kinds of companies, big and small. San Francisco always seems to be in the middle of some tech boom. Now is one of those times. There’s a lot of investment money that’s flooding the local economy. As a result of the influx of high tech workers from around the world, renting a small apartment in an average neighborhood would set you back anywhere from $3-4,000/month and up. New York City and many other big world cities are the same way. Expensive, chaotic, filled with opportunities for up-and-coming people fresh out of college, but also have their downsides such as increased crime and chaos.

San Francisco is a picturesque city with comfortable weather year-round, but there’s little reason to live there if you’re not building your own multi-million (or billion) dollar startup or investing in one. As the result of all the capital flowing into the city, it’s being priced out for everyone who isn’t in the tech space. In fact, even tech employees are having a hard time making ends meet.

Last but not least, there’s Moscow, a city that has been completely transformed from the central planning capital of the Soviet Union to a rich capitalistic city. Moscow is rich chiefly because Russia’s wealth is concentrated there. While I enjoy visiting Moscow, it’s definitely not a city I’d ever live in. It’s just another huge and unfriendly megapolis. Russians even have a nickname for it: мясорубка (meat grinder). It’s an apt nickname because meat grinder is what you go through when you live and work in Moscow. People work long hours and barely have enough to get by. It’s a place of great inequality: on one side, you have very rich people looking to even make more money and, on another hand, you have people who’re struggling just to survive.

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Making the rich even richer

Great places for rich or up-and-coming

What all these cities have in common is that they’re great places for the super rich, super ambitious who want to become rich or die trying, or for those who have no other options but to slave away, trading their time for money aka the “9-5” lifestyle. New York City is expensive because there’s a lot of wealth in the form of productivity and lots of money being moved around. It’s home to Wall Street and the seemingly unlimited funding potential that comes with it. If you’re someone from a poorer country such as Afghanistan or Venezuela, you can do a lot worse than to move and live in New York City.

San Francisco is rich because it’s the world’s high tech hub. That’s the place where the greatest tech innovation happens. It’s home to almost all tech giants (e.g., Facebook, Airbnb, Twitter, eBay, Intel, Google, etc, etc) mostly because there are lots of tech employees and venture capitalists. Tech employees move there because there are lots of tech companies who want to hire them. This positive loop creates powerful effects that are hard to duplicate anywhere else.

But if you aren’t part of this economy, if your main source of income is from somewhere else (like worldwide clients), then you’re effectively inflicting a pay cut by choosing to live in such cities.

For example, let’s say you have an online business that’s generating $2,000 per month (a modest income, since most online businesses make a lot more). Here’s a trivia question: is $2,000/mo a lot of money or not? Answer: it depends on your purchasing power. Okay, but how is purchasing power determined? It’s determined by your productivity to others.

If you’re surrounded by more productive people whose skills are in higher demand than yours then your purchasing power will be lower. Conversely, if you’re surrounded by people whose skills are in lower demand than yours, then your purchasing power will be higher. Of course, that’s a massive oversimplification because I’m not accounting for many more variables.

A modest income of $2,000/mo is more than plenty in places like Chiang Mai, Buenos Aires or Bogotá. But if you’re planning to live in New York, San Francisco, or Moscow, you’ll have a very difficult time trying to make ends meet. Of course, you need to build out a modest passive income which, with the right tools, is actually pretty straightforward.

Don’t get me wrong. I like New York City. I think it’s truly a world-class city where you can have pretty much anything you want (for the right price). But as someone who makes almost all the money online and not from the local economy, my money is naturally worth less there than somewhere where the local economy isn’t as developed.

Since I’m not a hedge fund manager, a merger and acquisitions specialist, or a high-priced corporate attorney who needs to close multi-million (or multi-billion) dollar deals, living in NYC automatically devalues my income. There’s little reason for someone like me to pay the entry fee by residing in the city while getting little benefits in return. From a business standpoint, living in a city like NYC would be a very poor ROI (return on investment).

So, if I can have a much higher quality of life in places like Buenos Aires, Kiev or Chiang Mai, what’s the point of spending more somewhere else? To be sure, a city like Kiev might not match New York’s caliber of Broadway shows, but as the capital of a big country, there’s plenty of cultural things to see and experience.

What makes cities like Buenos Aires, Kiev and Chiang Mai (and many others) so alluring is the fact that they’re just normal cities without a huge influx of money that demolishes everyone else’s standard of living. They are desirable because they’re the exact opposite of cities like New York and San Francisco.

Power of globalization

All of this is happening because of a force called globalization. Regardless what you may think, globalization is unstoppable. As the world interconnects, capital goes where the returns are higher. If a company can make quality shoes cheaper in China than in America, it will make them in China. If a high tech startup needs to raise funding, it needs to go where the money is; most likely that will be San Francisco. It’s economics 101.

Globalization is the reason for the concentration of wealth in certain cities and not others. A city like Buenos Aires (a very picturesque, pleasant and livable city) will unlikely become super rich anytime soon. At this point, it doesn’t have much to offer to attract the world’s wealth. Although that may change in the future. Same for cities like Chiang Mai, Vilnius, Belgrade and Kiev. They’re just ordinary cities with an ordinary local economy. They’re beautiful and cultural. They provide a high quality of life without draining your bank account. And they don’t require you to toil 120-hour weeks for some overly ambitious startup in order to afford to rent a tiny apartment (or room).

So, unless you’re a super rich billionaire who’s looking to make more billions, or an ambitious entrepreneur who’s looking to make those billions or die trying, or someone whose mission in life is to slave for the previous two, you can do a lot worse than to live in a place where globalization has improved the quality of life without also destroying the moral fabric that furnishes the city with its beautiful soul.

The Road To The Global Citizen

Travel has always been in my blood. Perhaps it was something about learning about the exotic far away worlds via first-hand experience instead of reading about them from some books. Maybe it was the perennial desire to explore coupled with imagination and curiosity. Most likely a combination of the two. In any case, here’s an overview how it all happened and what’s next.

2005

I spent most of the 2000s living and working in Northern California. While living there, I always wanted to explore the vast expanse of the land to south: Latin America. Naturally, my first extended backpacking trip was to Central America back in 2005. I invited a good friend to come and we boarded a flight to El Salvador.

Since we were both working, we only had four weeks to explore this part of this world. It proved to be enough. We were able to backpack all through the region, in the process visiting all the countries except Belize and Costa Rica. (Belize was never on the radar and I considered Costa Rica to be too Westernized.)

The country that I looked forward to the most was Panama. As a relatively developed country, the country sure didn’t disappoint. It had everything: great food, developed infrastructure, and a vibrant nightlife.

On the other side of the spectrum, I’ve also spent the night in one of the most dangerous cities I’ve ever been to up to that point: Tegucigalpa, Honduras. There was hardly anything to do in the city and we were strongly advised by the locals to stay inside after 10 pm. In addition, we also spent a night in one of the worst hostels I’ve ever stayed in. There were cockroaches everywhere and the mattresses were paper-thin. No wonder the night at the hostel only cost $1.50. Funny, how I still remember that hostel so many years later.

2006

After the Central American adventures, I returned back to the US. I took sporadic trips to Mexico, which was (and still is) one of my favorite countries in the world. I mostly drove down from San Francisco to San Diego, met a friend, and walked across the border to Tijuana. I enjoyed Tijuana, Ensenada, and Rosarito. Although I wanted to explore the entire Baja California peninsula, that never happened for one reason or another.

2007–2008

In 2007, I quit my lucrative job and began eyeing longer travels. There was a city that I wanted to visit for a long time: Mexico City. Being a city guy all my life, Mexico’s capital with its 15+ million population always enticed me with a sly grin.

I was living with a roommate at that time, so I sub-letted my room and flew to Mexico City. I spent about a week in the capital and then took a bus south, exploring states Oaxaca and Chiapas followed by the city of Merida before ending the trip in Cancun. In Cancun, I flew back to Mexico City and caught a flight back to San Francisco.

The Mexican trip was a turning point in my life. It made me realize that this is the kind of lifestyle that I wanted to pursue. After my roommate moved out, I officially ended the apartment lease and flew to Mexico.

After living in Mexico City for most of the year, I flew to Bogota, the capital of Colombia on a one-way ticket. At that time, Colombia wasn’t a country that many people visited, which made the prospect of living there both interesting and exciting at the same time. After spending some time in Bogota, I moved to the central city of Medellin which I made my base for few months. During that time I took side trips to Cali in the west and the Caribbean Coast in the north. I also had a chance to briefly visit Venezuela. Back then it wasn’t a socialist hell that it’s now. It was a relatively pleasant country to spend time in, although I still preferred Colombia.

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2009

While living in Colombia, I met an Italian road junkie who spent about a year traveling all over Brazil. His stories about Rio de Janeiro and other cities piqued my curiosity, and I made it a mission to visit the country soon. After wrapping up my time in Colombia, I flew back to NYC to recharge and see family.

After a month in NYC, I was itching to get back on the road. At that point, I had very few belongings and there wasn’t much keeping me in America. So, I bought a one-way ticket to Rio de Janeiro.

I spent about a week in a Rio de Janeiro hostel before finding an apartment in Copacabana. I spent about three months living there before meeting a cool Mexican expat in Ipanema located half a block from the world famous beach. We hit it off right away, and I one of the rooms in the flat.

What followed would be one of the best times of my life. I spent my days relaxing on the beach, training Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (where I received my blue belt from the world-famous instructor Ricard De La Riva), and enjoying the vibrant Rio parties at night.

In Brazil, I began working on a couple of business ideas. After lots of trial and error, I learned many lessons that eventually helped me understand how to build a profitable location-independent business.

2011

My initial plan was to spend only three months in Brazil, but I ended up leaving this beautiful country after a bit more than two years. I would’ve stayed longer, but I always knew that my stay in the country would be temporary. First, there were plenty of cultural differences, plus the slow life in Rio annoyed my European upbringing. (I could’ve probably lived in Belo Horizonte, though). I flew back to NYC and thought about my next plan of attack.

One of the benefits of spending lots of time in Brazil was making lots and lots of acquaintances who came to visit Brazil from all over the world, mostly from Europe. One of my friends, a French-speaking guy from the Caribbean, who was living in London, emailed me to tell me I was welcomed to stay in his London apartment.

Having never much explored Europe, I figured this was the perfect opportunity to spend some time on the continent with locals. What followed was a whirlwind trip through the continent where I covered almost every country in about six weeks.

England. Spain. Netherlands. Belgium. Germany. Austria. Denmark. Sweden. Estonia. Latvia. Lithuania. The Czech Republic. Slovakia. Portugal. Romania. Bulgaria. Poland. Ukraine. Italy. Croatia. Montenegro. And a bunch of other countries that I might’ve missed.

In 2011, I returned to Ukraine, my birth country, a country that I haven’t visited since I left it in 1990. It was both amazing and surreal at the same time to be in a country where everyone spoke my native language. At that point, my Russian was terrible and embarrassing. One night in my hometown of Odessa, I had trouble reading off the menu on the first try. My friend even joked that perhaps we should ask for an English menu. I guess there’s a difference between speaking few casual friends to your parents and visiting the country and interacting in the language in completely new ways.

A month later, I flew out of Ukraine and met up with a close friend in Venice, Italy. We traveled a bit through Italy and then both flew to Croatia. In Croatia, we explored the beautiful coastal region, enjoying cool beaches and eating great food. After that, we flew back to Rome. In Rome, my friend returned to the US and I returned to Ukraine. I spent a couple of months in Ukraine and returned to NYC.

2012

If 2011 was the year of backpacking and rapid travel, 2012 proved to be the year where I would spend more time living in various countries. I started off the year by flying to Spain, where I had a close friend living in Barcelona. I spent a couple of months in Barcelona before heading up to Denmark to work on a project with a guy whom I met in Brazil.

After spending a couple of months in Denmark, I flew to Bucharest, Romania where I lived for a couple of months. I really liked Romania. I wrapped up my time in Romania and returned to Barcelona.

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2013

I left Denmark in the summer and moved to Lithuania. Lithuania was one of the first countries in Europe where I setup a real base. I rented an apartment, found a cool coffee shop from where to get stuff done and began having a normal life. I also resumed my Brazilian Jiu Jitsu training.

I enjoyed my life in Lithuania. Although it’s geographically located in Eastern Europe, the country felt truly European unlike its eastern neighbors of Russia and Ukraine. The capital, Vilnius, felt truly modern with a comfortable standard of living.

When the summer rolled around, I traveled a bit to Bulgaria, Turkey, and Ukraine.

When I returned to Ukraine in late June, we had a “Maverick Retreat” where I met up with some dedicated readers of the site and we talked about permanent travel, life, and many other interesting things.

2014

I continued to live in Lithuania, but I also explored other countries as well. During this time I visited Russia, Bulgaria, Romania, and Serbia.

In Russia, I visited St. Petersburg, a city that I wanted to visit for a long time. St. Petersburg was awesome. It felt “grand” in every way. The streets, the boulevards, everything about the city feels big. The parks seemed bigger than many middle-sized European cities. And, because it’s so far up north, it’s a great way to escape the scorching heat in the rest of Europe.

In late September, when the weather suddenly went from warm to cold (the summers are short there), I flew to Belgrade, Serbia. I liked everything about the country. The people, the food, the ambiance. Everything about the city really clicked. Belgrade is one of those cities where I can see myself living for many months.

2015

After living in Lithuania for several years, it was time for a change. In the summer, I flew to Barcelona and stayed with a close friend in the quaint and historic Villa de Gracia neighborhood. As the summer was coming to end, I caught a one-way flight to Moldova, a country where I’ve never been and was itching to explore.

Unfortunately, I didn’t think much of Moldova. It’s was extremely poor and run down. The capital, Kishinev, had like one or two main streets with the rest of the city looking like it just endured some kind of war (there was no war). As the richest part of the country, I couldn’t even imagine what the rest of the country might’ve looked like. I left Moldova and took a train to Ukraine’s capital, Kiev.

It was my third or fourth visit to Kiev in as little as five years, but something about this time felt different. First, I was tired of traveling. I was burned out. I had come to the edge of Europe and, apart from Russia, The Caucasus region, and Central Asia, there wasn’t much more to discover. I didn’t want to return back to Western Europe and I didn’t want to head further east. Besides, it felt good to stay in Ukraine. It was affordable and I had no problem communicating.

At the end of the summer, we had another “Maverick Retreat.” It was a great way to meet-up like with other like-minded men in one of Kiev’s outdoor restaurants. It was a great way to connect with like-minded individuals.

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2016

I continued living in Ukraine, but then decided to do something new and exciting. It probably had to do with a very depressing winter. I bought a one-way ticket to Bali, Indonesia. This wasn’t my first trip to Asia; I visited Thailand for about two weeks back in 2004. But I’ve never been to Bali. In fact, up until few weeks before the trip, I didn’t even know where Bali was.

I really liked Bali. It was one of the friendliest and exotic countries I’ve ever visited. I spent two months living in Bali. After Bali, it was time to visit another place I really wanted to explore: Chiang Mai.

While in Bali, I officially unveiled the Maverick Mentorship, a program where you get access to me and my network in a series of custom-tailored 1–1 tutoring sessions. It was the result of mentoring men for over five years while traveling all over the world.

I did spend some time in Chiang Mai back in 2004, but I barely remembered anything. I can’t even remember in which part of the city I stayed. Back then I was just a random traveler; this time I would be coming to actually live. I landed, quickly found a great apartment and settled into a predictable routine.

Per visa rules, foreigners are only allowed to stay in Thailand for three months (two months + one-month extension), I ended up spending two months in Chiang Mai, two weeks in southern islands (Koh Lipe) and wrapped up my trip with the last weeks in Bangkok. I then flew to Mumbai, India.

I had a brief stay in India, where I walked around Mumbai and had delicious Indian food. After that, I returned to NYC. In late 2016, I returned to Ukraine where I’ve been mostly living until this day.

Maverick Retreats

Throughout my travels, I’ve organized meetups for members of this site. We had one in Barcelona, Vilnius, Kiev and Chiang Mai. Each one was progressively bigger. The last one in Chiang Mai was a bit bigger than the previous ones.

These retreats were a great way to connect and compare notes with some of the other permanent travels on various topics such as business, travel and the general ins and outs of this lifestyle. I look forward to doing more of this as time goes on in different parts of the world.

Bootstrapping on the road

Traveling this long combined with the experience from working in Silicon Valley furnished me with a unique experience when it comes to building online businesses. Throughout my travels, I’ve met lots of self-made guys who built all kinds of businesses. In fact, this has been one of the most rewarding parts of being a permanent traveler. What was most surprising, however, was the fact that many of these guys make a ton of money with very simple businesses. This reinforced my belief that you don’t need a complicated idea to become successful.

Ever since starting my first business back in Brazil in 2009, I’ve experimented with lots of different methods and techniques. After lots of failures, I finally began experiencing a series of epiphanies or “ah-ha” moments. This lead me to several proven methods that can be applied to any business, whether it’s online or offline. I’m always happy to watch others succeed, so I’ve been sharing what I’ve learned as part of the mentorship program.

For those who want something more structured that they can do at their own pace, I also packed all my knowledge into the Maverick Bootcamp video course, where you can learn how to build an online business from scratch by following a step-by-step educational video course that tells you everything you need to know.

Random backpacking to permanent living

As you might’ve noticed, my travels over the years changed drastically. I started out backpacking through Central America with nothing but a 30L backpack, staying in random hostels. But now you’ll find me living in, you know, an actual city in an apartment with hot water, a quality bed and a set of clean towels. The backpack was replaced by small suitcase.

One of the biggest problems with living outside your home country is that you need some sort kind of a residency permit. Obviously, this isn’t something that bothered me while I was spending a month here or a month there, but it becomes a problem if you want to spend a decent amount of chunk in the country. Countries vary by their visa requirements. The standard is the “90 days in/90 days out” rule where you’re only allowed to spend 90 days in the country and then must leave for 90 days, so border-hopping for a day isn’t really an option.

If you don’t leave after your tourist visa expires, you’re considered an overstayer. Countries vary on how on ways they deal with overstayers. Some countries are super strict, while others are plenty lax; they don’t really care or just fine you when you leave. That’s fine for longer stays (if you lay low, your chances of deportation are minuscule), but it becomes a problem if you want to travel outside the country (to go home or visit a friend) and then immediately return. They might let you pay the fine few times, but they’ll probably get annoyed when they see you doing it constantly. That can be a problem if you’re renting an apartment and aren’t allowed back into the country.

It can also be an annoying problem when you’ve established a nice level of connections in the city but then suddenly leave the country for three months. It’s super tough when it comes to romantic relationships.

Recently, I applied for and received permanent residency here in Ukraine. In America it’s called a “Green Card” and it pretty much gives you all the rights of being a citizen except for the ability to vote (you need citizenship for that). As an American citizen, I don’t really need a Ukrainian passport so a residency suits me perfectly fine.

Having a residency allows me to stay here indefinitely, plus leaving and returning as often as I like. This makes the country ideal as a base for traveling to other regions. I can also open bank accounts and do a bunch of other stuff that regular tourists aren’t allowed to do.

Countries as products

When you travel this long and live in many countries, you understand a greater puzzle that it’s all but impossible to see when you’re physically living in your home country. Basically, when you’re living in a particular country, your frame of reference is that country. If you’re living in America, it’s hard to objectively compare America to some other country. You’re so heavily invested in that country especially with your identity that any comparison is merely philosophical; you can’t get yourself to see your own country as a country like any other on the planet. You always see it as something special and sacrosanct.

Once you separate a nation from your ego, you begin to view the world’s countries not as some sacrosanct entities but as products that you buy (live) depending on your personal requirements. Each product comes with certain features and benefits (nice weather, low taxes, more/less personal freedom, low cost of living, weather, easier links with the rest of the world, culture, etc). Instead of being loyal to a particular country based on some ideological reasons like nationalism, you pick a place objectively that offers you the best benefits.

For me, such place is Ukraine. Kiev is an all around great city. It has beautiful architecture, lots of great restaurants, cool parks, relatively low cost of living, a good international airport for quick getaways. The city isn’t too big or too small. It’s also not too big to feel overwhelming (e.g., Mexico City) and not too small to feel like a village (e.g., Vilnius). However, there are times when I miss the hustle and bustle of a bigger city like São Paulo, Bangkok or Mexico City.

The cost of living also makes a huge difference. A similar lifestyle would be at least 5x in New York City. Of course, there are benefits to living in NYC, of course, but right now these benefits don’t really apply to me and aren’t something I can fully leverage. One of the big benefits of living abroad is that you can earn hard currency (dollars, euros) and spend them in a low cost country. This gives you a huge advantage over someone whose salary is adjusted to their place of residence.

In fact, this brings me to an even bigger point. I’ve always thought that traveling would be some temporary phase in my life. I figured I’d explore the world, live in a bunch of countries, and then “rejoin the civilization” in America. That meant signing up a long-term lease for an apartment, buying a car, and possibly getting a normal job. The so-called traditional path.

But, as they say, God had other plans. Right now, I’m looking into setting up a base and living in one place for a while. It doesn’t need to be a base for the entire year. Even for a good chunk of the year is fine. Perhaps it will be Ukraine (or surrounding countries) in the summer, coupled with Bali or Brazil in the winter. Or, perhaps, it’ll be something else. That’s the beauty of having a lifestyle where you get to pick and choose all the components that make you happy.

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