Saturday, June 27, 2015

Trip Report: Amazon Jungle 2012

I've generally made a tradition of spending Thanksgiving out of the country and 2012 wasn't any different. I wanted to get away from it all and do something adventurous. I had my eye on traipsing around the Amazon rainforest but was hesitant to go by myself. I managed to talk a few friends into going with me and so after a couple of months researching the various jungle lodges in Peru, I settled on Muyuna Lodge. I was looking for a place that had plenty of scheduled activities and good food but was ensconced in the jungle and offered rustic accommodations (ie no tv or phone or internet). There's a handful of lodges that match those specifications but Muyuna was the only affordable option. 

We had two full-day layovers on the way to the lodge and we made the most of them by signing up for some tours. 

Our first layover was in Mexico City. We met up with Carlos, a local guide I'd found on Viator and he led us through the city, pointing out the highlights and history as we went along. During our tour of the Aztec ruins, I learned that one of my favorite Mexican dishes - posole- has a dark history. It seems that the Aztecs would celebrate special events with ritual human sacrifice and once the sacrifice was complete, they would cook up the unlucky victim into a tasty stew for all in the community to share in festive joy. When the Spanish came through and subjugated the Aztecs, of course this "special" tradition didn't sit too well with them and their Catholic ethos. Wanting to offer up alternatives, pork was suggested to replace human flesh as the star ingredient. That went over pretty well (it is said that pork tastes very similar to human) and the descendant populations of Aztec/Spanish heritage continued to cook up batches of the stew for special occasions, including the Christian holidays they embraced such as Christmas Eve. So, for my readers in the southwest who enjoy a pot of posole on Christmas Eve, may you enjoy your tasty stew whose origins lie in ritual human sacrifice.

Murals in the Franciscan Order

Metropolitan Cathedral

Aztec Temple Sculpture

Aztec Temple Sculpture


Our second layover was in Lima and this time *I* led our group on the tour of the downtown area. I'd been to Lima a few years before but only while passing through to Cuzco and had not really been out to explore the city so I was pretty happy about getting the chance to do so on this trip. We visited the Plaza Mayor, the Cathedral (which features a rendition of the last supper with guinea pig as the entree on the table), the Government Plaza (where we got the watch the changing of the guard set to some pretty bizarre music), and the San Francisco monastery. We indulged in traditional Peruvian cuisine for lunch and dinner (hello Pisco sours!) and then dropped in for a massage at a parlor that offered excellent Thai services but that also seemed to quietly offer happy ending services as well (of which we did not partake).

 The Palace Guard

Scenes from the Plaza

Scenes from the Plaza



Church Interiors







                                                               Jon and Jenni downtown


Our third day into the trip, we were finally off to the jungle. We flew from Lima to Iquitos (see the map below) and then got into a small boat for the trip south on the Amazon river into the jungle.


Muyuna Lodge is actually on a tributary of the Amazon - the  Yanayacu River (which means "black water" in Quechua). We arrived to the Lodge in the early afternoon and headed off in another boat again almost immediately after dropping of our things in our cabins. This first outing was designated as a bird watching trip and would be the first of many for that purpose. Our guide took us to Lake Sapote and pointed out all the amazing birds. There were parrots, jacanas, kingfishers (lots of kingfishers), herons, and many many other birds, most of which were quite noisy. After that, we made our way to Lake Moena for some sloth watching but no sloths showed up. Our guide was very good at pointing out animals that we would have otherwise never seen. Even now, looking pretty closely at the pics we took that I *know* have animals in the shot, I have trouble finding the creatures. They just blend in so well with the trees and other vegetation. 

                                                               Arrival at Muyana Lodge


Birds Birds Birds








                                                                    Cute Lil Critter


Dinner at the lodge that first evening was fantastic (fresh passion fruit and local fish, among other things) and we spent some time at the table getting to know the other guests. There were probably about 10 people staying at the lodge at the time but three years later the only guests that stand out in my memory are the young man and woman in their twenties who were both pilots for Lufthansa. 

Our second day at the lodge (and all days beyond) looked like this : eat, nature excursion, rest, repeat. In the morning after breakfast we set out in the boat to Lake Casha to look for monkeys and sloths and we were lucky enough to spot some, along with many birds. 


More beautiful birds 




The Birdwatcher




Gigantic Lily Pads


After lunch at the lodge, we went to Lake Purura to for Piranha fishing and were lucky in that too, each bagging a handful of fish. Piranha fishing , woo boy, is that an adventure. We used raw meat - chicken and fish I think - to catch them and they were very feisty. When it rains, the Piranha jump up and out of the water in great gymnastic maneuvers and it just so happens that while we were out it started to rain (it started to rain so many times while we were out on in the boat) and one of those little guys with the ferocious rawr rawr rawr teeth jumped right into our boat and onto Jonathan's lap. That was a sight to see. Jon was startled and jumped a bit of course, but not too much, which was good, because it only takes a little rocking to tip the boat. 


Piranha fishing


Back at the lodge, we relaxed in our cabins and munched on the spectacular buffet of treats my friends Michelle and Paula had brought along - minibar bottles of spirits and sweet snacks of every kind. We spent a good deal of time resting and watching the rain pour before dinner (where we got to dine on the Piranha we'd caught earlier in the day) and then we set off on a nighttime boat ride and hike to meet up with rainforest frogs. I had quite the interesting exchange with our guide in the boat during that evening excursion. I had brought, as had all my friends, Snickers candy onto the boat. I guess we looked quite foolish as the Americans carting around candy bars in the jungle but we were only following orders. We'd done so because it clearly says on the Muyuna Lodge website to bring "Snickers for use on the night boat ride". Midway through our outing, I asked our guide about it when I noticed he kept looking over at the candy, and at first, he just stared at me in reply. Then he said had no idea what I was talking about or why I'd bring chocolate with me. No one else at the lodge but my little group had done so (apparently we were the only ones who read the "what to bring" web page closely). I insisted that the website had specified it and he just shook his head and laughed. He laughed a lot. After a bit more conversation, I found out that snickers is some wacky British term for rubber boots. 


 
Amazon Frog


Jungle Tarantula


Day three in the jungle found me beginning to miss civilization a bit but still enjoying the serenity of the jungle. Our morning excursion was a longer hike in the jungle where we learned some survival techniques from our guide. He taught us how to find the vines that hold water, how to cut them and drink the clean water from them, and how to avoid many of the fatal hazards lurking in the jungle. 


                                                                 Jungle Tree

Creepy Crawlies

Jenni Drinks Vine Water


We spent the afternoon in the small village just down the river from the lodge and had good conversation with the locals. The kids were adorable and tugged at my heart. 


Our last evening at the lodge, we ventured out on another nighttime ride in the canoes to listen to wildlife in the pouring rain. It was very peaceful and a wonderful way to cap off the evening.

The next morning we got up early and took the boat upstream to the Amazon to swim in the mighty river. I was hoping to see an Anaconda but no such luck. What we did see, though, was pretty amazing. There are wild, pink dolphins that live in the Amazon and while shy, they swam close enough to us in the water to give us a chance to really get a great look at them.

As soon as we finished lunch on our last day at the lodge, we packed up our things and the lodge boat driver took us back up the Amazon to Iquitos, where we walked around the city for a bit and did some shopping before heading back to Lima and eventually, the United States. It was a fantastic trip, from beginning to end, and I think getting into the jungle and away from modern life as we know it should be something everyone does at least once.




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Sunday, June 21, 2015

Peer to Peer (P2P) Financing

I've been carefully researching Peer to Peer (P2P) financing as an investment vehicle for my portfolio. While P2P financing has always been with us in one form or another (think of no-bank-needed owner financed home sales) the mass market availability of P2P funding emerged as a disruptive force in the lending marketplace about 8 years ago. Someone in the UK wondered out loud if buyers and sellers could come together easily on eBAY, with eBAY taking a cut of every sale, why couldn't investors and borrowers come together on a similar platform with the platform owners taking a cut of every loan?  That way, borrowers could borrow at rates lower than the "evil faceless" banks charge and investors could earn a much bigger return than banks offer. Win-win all around, neighbor helping neighbor, kumbaya, and all of those fuzzy sentiments. Venture capital was secured, the concept was launched into production, and the money began rolling in.

Nearly a decade later and the idea has been copied again and again by entrepreneurs around the world. Today the two largest P2P lending platforms - Lending Club and Prosper - are both hosted in the United States. Measured side by side on all success indicators, Lending Club is the better investment vehicle, offering a greater range of loans to choose from, higher interest rates, and lower default counts. Mind you, even though Lending Club trades only prime loans (i.e you won't find anyone with a credit rating under 620 on the site) default counts are a matter of course; P2P lending is not for the faint of heart. On the Lending Club platform, loan investment information (loan purpose, borrower's credit report and score, borrower's verified income) is provided in detail for each loan, along with a summary grade (A,B,C,D, etc). The concept is simple - all else being equal, the lower the grade for a loan the higher the interest rate AND on average the higher the predicted default rate. Investors can fund all or part of a loan requested through the site (the latter is recommended for maximum diversification of investment assets) and loan terms are generally 36 to 60 months in length.

The platform offers loan investment screening so that investors can filter out loans based on their personal standards or preferences. For example, I filtered out loans requested for vacations or weddings because these are not things I want to encourage debt in pursuit of. Additionally, I filtered out loans to folks whose summary grade was so low that it would peg to high interest and high default rates because it is a hole I do not wish to enable my fellow man into dropping (best case scenario they are burdened with a high interest loan they must climb out of with great personal difficulty and worst case scenario they default and are worse off then they started thanks to my misguided intervention). My point of view is that when your credit is that poor or your income is that low, whatever the solution you need to get back on your feet (something tailor made to you? charity? money and budgeting courses?), more debt is not it. These are just my personal preferences of course, and when combined with my desire to push my rate of return as high as possible while keeping the default rate below 4%, they guided my portfolio to the intersection of a 13% average interest rate and a 3% projected default rate. That's 13% return BEFORE defaults or the platforms cut (~0.54%) are figured in. Net return is projected at 6-9%. In contrast, I've read several blog posts by investors who lend exclusively at the low grade end who have the stomach for the rollercoaster ride of high risk/high return (ie high interest rate/high default rate) and they're clearing typically 13-17% net AFTER the default rate and platform fee is subtracted.

The latest development in P2P lending that investors need to be aware of is the recent influx of institutional cash into the marketplace. Institutional cash = banks, hedge funds, mutual funds, and other "traditional" investors that P2P was originally designed to exclude. It seems that the marketplace became so attractive with the high demand, good returns, and low overhead, that even the big guys wanted to play. And while P2P lending represents just a fraction of the over 1 trillion dollar loan market in the US, institutional investors are already beginning to dominate both Lending Club and Prosper. These investors have deployed powerful algorithms that analyze new loan requests as soon as they are released and quickly sweep the most attractive ones up before ordinary investors can grab them. In fact, it's been reported that to outmaneuver the competing institutional investors some of them are even deploying their servers physically closer to the Lending Club and Prosper data centers in order to gain the edge on analysis triggered by new loan request alerts (every step closer to the platform routers on the internet can mean milliseconds in receiving the alerts faster). The net result of this race to fund is that the supply of P2P loans is now operating at a constant shortage and there is some concern among investors that loan requests remaining after the big banks cherry pick their spoils may not be quality investments (otherwise the banks would have scooped them up). Unfortunately, only time will tell if the banks know something the rest of us don't and if the requests rejected by their algorithms will evidence a higher default rate.

I'll post updates twice a year on my Lending Club portfolio performance so that you can get a better view through my eyes of the success of P2P investments.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Trip Report: Singapore 2012

So, it's been quite awhile since I've written a trip report. Not to worry, I've got my pics and itinerary notes for all the trips I've taken since the 2012 Guyana trip (that was the subject of my last travel entry). I just haven't been very disciplined about getting the reports on the web for everyone (I'm looking at you Suzanne!) to read until now.

A few months after the Guyana trip, I gathered up a group of friends and headed for Singapore for the weekend on a sale fare Delta Airlines was offering. We were to meet up in Singapore to check into our hotel and then we'd spend the rest of our weekend together, following the itinerary I'd written (I love to play tour guide!). Only problem was that I got confused while making the hotel reservations and noting that we arrived on Oct 27th, I made the hotel reservation beginning on the 27th. But...we arrived just after midnight on the 27th, which meant I should have made the reservation for the 26th. Oops! To make matters worse, once the mistake was caught, it was too late, our hotel was sold out for the evening and half of our little group had scramble to find a substitute hotel for the evening. I say half of our group, because the other half was still unexpectedly still en route to Singapore, our plane having left JFK late, which caused us to miss our Tokyo to Singapore flight. When the late coming half of the group (of which I was a member) arrived in Singapore just after 3am, we had already been made aware of the hotel snafu, so we just camped out at the overpriced airport hotel on spare points I had available.

After getting the bare minimum of sleep we needed to function, our half of the group (myself, Rob, and Jon) met up with the other half of the group (Aaron and Bob) and we started our whirlwind tour of the city. Our first stop was Little India where I was fortunate enough to try the best curry puff I've ever tasted in the Indian food market.

 Little India

Little India


We walked the temple lined streets and then rounded out our afternoon with visits to Kampong Glam (the neighborhood once designated for the Sultan and then later where the British funneled all the Muslim immigrants regardless of nationality), Joo Chiat, and Katong (two additional significant neighborhoods within the city that offer up unique cuisine and multi-cultural flavor). Mostly what I remember about our first day, beyond the curry puffs, is the incredibly oppressive heat that lays on the city like a heavy blanket. Singapore rivals Guyana for heat and humidity. Just absolutely suffocating. Still, we pressed on with a full day of sightseeing, capping off our evening with a fantastic and creative light show over the water in which two animated cranes danced with one another and fell in love. Sounds a bit odd, doesn't it? While I've included a still photo, if you want to get a complete understanding of the quirky yet adorable show, take a look at this video another visitor uploaded: Singapore Crane Dance @ Santosa Resort.



Our second day in the city, we meandered through Chinatown in the morning, taking in the food and the tenement house museum. It was eye opening to see just how many people used to be crowded into a single row house in Chinatown at the peak of Chinese immigration. We spent the early afternoon touring the European influenced neighborhoods (this was where the British lived and worked as evidenced by the many western churches and buildings left behind post independence). Today, these areas have a look and feel of London, but with Asians swapped in for the Brits. And of course, since we were in the neighborhood, we *had* to stop off at the famous Raffles hotel for their signature cocktail - the Singapore Sling. Never have I been to a place that offered up such a contradiction between its pricing ($27 for one cocktail) and its ambiance (peanuts strewn about the floor; birds of all sizes and states of cleanliness swarming the floors and tables). The cocktail was pretty good though (but not $27 good).


Some buildings were very inviting...

        




Other buildings welcomed visitors, but stipulated a few (interesting) guidelines...





And this building made it clear we better stay far, far away....











City Bridge




 Marina Bay Sands Resort 
                                                                                              (there is an infinity pool in the park on top)



                                    Bob and Rob enjoy their Singapore Slings @Raffles Hotel



The late afternoon was a somber affair, as we toured the Changi Museum. It's on the site of the former WWII POW camp that was run by the Japanese and documents the treatment of the prisoners held there. I arrived very ignorant, completely unaware of the levels of brutality the prisoners were exposed to in the prison. I haven't heard of violence so severe against prisoners outside of the Nazi concentration camps I previously toured in Poland. And while all prisoners were treated with grave negligence and malice, the worst of the worst treatment was reserved for the Chinese POWs. It was heartbreaking to learn about as we walked through the exhibits. Should you head to Singapore, take the time to visit Changi and have a look with your own eyes at what was done there. It so horrific it's almost unbelievable.

While we ran short of time and had to cut a few items out of our itinerary (the orchid gardens and the Marina Bay Sands resort), I have made my peace with what I missed and don't feel I ever need to return to Singapore. I just can't take the heat. Rob on the other hand, fell in love with the city that first trip, and has been back for many weekend visits since. So, your mileage may vary, and I recommend that perhaps you give it at least one weekend to get a feel for the place.



 

    

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Book Review: The ADHD Advantage

Recently, I was asked to review Dale Archer's new book, The ADHD Advantage. This is Archer's second self-help book on mental health and takes a novel approach in guiding those who have received or those who care for one who has received an ADHD diagnosis.

Archer's credentials include a background and career in psychiatry and first-hand experience as an ADHD patient. I wanted to read and review this book because I've come to realize there is a clear pattern of ADD (ie ADHD without the hyperactive component) behavior over my life so far. Frequent notations from teachers on reports cards about talking less and listening more? Check. Trouble following through with tasks that don't excite me and constantly procrastinating? Check. Hyperfocused for hours on tasks that do excite me to the exclusion of eating or getting out of my chair? Check. Easily bored? Check. Problems with remembering things? Check. Check. Check.

So I settled in to read The ADHD Advantage and prepared myself to take notes on his solid techniques to improve self-discipline, stop procrastinating, improve memory, etc. Only, that wasn't the focus of the book. Instead, this lauded expert in ADHD focuses on why those with ADHD struggle in the ways that we do (spoiler: less Dopamine receptors makes us deprived of pleasure and excitement and leads us to thrill seeking, poor executive functioning, and a penchant for impulsive behaviors) and why we should accept ourselves as we are instead of trying to conform to the norm with medication or browbeating. He (accurately) points out how each negative of ADHD has a complementary positive. For example, inability to focus for long stretches on dull activities = improved abilities in multi-tasking when needed. Thrill seeking instincts = less risk adverse and more successful in entrepreneurship. Repeated procrastination that leads to failures = greater resiliency. Repeated procrastination that leads to success just before final deadlines = honed skill of working under extreme pressure.

So, run with your ADHD strengths. That's Archer's key takeaway. Stop trying so hard to become more self-disciplined when it's counter to our specific neurological makeup as ADHD types. He implies that the only way to fully conform ADHD brains to the norm is through medication (such as stimulants) and doing so robs the world of the gifts ADHD labeled patients bring to their work and their communities (plus stimulants have destructive side effects). And, according to Archer, any solution that doesn't rely on medication cannot address the underlying Dopamine receptor issue and will often lead patients to browbeat themselves into being more disciplined in one area (such as work), which will only trigger acting out recklessly in other, more dangerous areas (such as sexual behavior) to continue self-medicating via thrill-seeking.

Use the strengths of ADHD for the benefit of myself and others, and be careful not to position myself in ways that the deficits of the condition could really hurt me or others (i.e. don't choose a job or lifestyle that requires extended focus on dull tasks or where procrastination could endanger lives)...that's how to proceed? Admittedly, it sounds good. Giving up this lifelong struggle (mostly outright failure!) to be a paragon of self-discipline sounds so freeing. But it almost sounds too good to be true; an easy out. We are taught that a dedication to self-discipline is a character issue; it's a moral imperative we aren't allowed to give up on because it's too hard, because it's not for us, or because it's not how our brains are wired. I feel shame and guilt when I see myself fail at self-discipline or executive functioning tasks and I'm not sure I can step away from the societal conditioning that I MUST KEEP TRYING.

I'll keep pondering it and perhaps radical self-acceptance might eventually be something I can get behind.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Book Review: Shades of Grey by Jasper Fforde

Shades of grey was a bit more difficult to be pulled into than Fforde's other novels I've enjoyed (I've read both the Thursday Next series and the Nursery Crimes books). The dry wit and "clever" conversation between father and son in much of the beginning of the book was tiring. I also had trouble following some of the basic plot points FForde was trying to lay out for readers as his characters discussed the finer points of a caste system determined by the colors one can perceive. Things picked up midway through the novel though, and once they got interesting, they never fell back down. As soon as I was invested in the characters I wanted answers. Why can people only see part of the color spectrum? What happened to take society from pre color caste to post? Fforde takes readers to a cliffhanger ending and now I sit, waiting impatiently for the next novel in what I hope is a long series.