A Study in Contrasts – the Medellin Metro and the Boston T

I’ve used a lot of different metropolitan transit systems in cities I’ve either visited or lived in. From Istanbul to Berlin to Washington, DC, it’s fascinating to see how different cultures and countries treat their metro systems. Some cities emphasize the ability to eat and drink at established vendors right next to the platform, while others emphasize the ability to know exactly when the next train will be arriving with real-time updates. In a way, these metro systems are a microcosm of a country’s culture. Unbeknownst to most travelers, you can learn a lot about a city and a country as a whole based on how they approach their public transportation. Each metro system I’ve used has had their own kind of flair to them whether it’s the London Underground’s cleanliness, New York Subway’s 24-hour service, and Istanbul’s kind food merchants.

Out of all the metro systems I’ve rode on, there are currently two in the world that stand out to me in their approach to customer service. While most systems rarely have attendants to help people enter or leave the train, the two cities that are the exception to this rule are Boston and Medellin. These two transit systems actually have attendants working on behalf of the transportation authority to help passengers to use the metro effectively but with different approaches. For example, the way Boston does its’ customer service would be more hands-off while in Medellin it is much more hands on.

This difference in culture may play into the fact that the Boston T system has been in operation since 1897 and the locals are pretty adept at navigating the transit system considering its’ more than a century old. When it comes to Medellin, the metro system there began in 1995, which is a little over twenty years old. Medellin currently has the only urban train network in Colombia. Still though, you could draw the conclusion that the way the customer service of these two transit systems functions is reflective of the overall culture. In the U.S., we tend to be more individualistic especially when it comes to our urban transportation. When I lived in Medellin, I was enamored with how collective the metro system was when compared to where I’m currently living. In Boston, it’s much more about every man or woman for himself or herself as they try to navigate the system regardless of whether you’re a long-time local or a first-time visitor.

For Medellin, the aspect of their metro system that stood out most to me was the number of attendants who would help riders enter the train platform, instruct users on how to board and exit the trains, and how to refill and use their metro cards. Instead of just one or two attendants there on behalf of the transportation authority, there were usually up to a dozen workers assisting customers at each station. It was really nice for me to see the attention to detail that the metro system had in terms of assisting passengers to use the system effectively. This approach was crucial especially during a busy rush hour when there would be thousands of passengers wanting to enter and exit the train station.

Having a dedicated group of workers on hand to help smooth things over and make sure passengers were respecting each other and the transit system was a really impressive thing to witness. It doesn’t hurt that the entire Medellin metro system is well kept and has no littering, little rats running around etc. at any of its’ dozens of train stations. Compared to other cities, Medellin does a great job with its’ communal approach to the metro system. One of the catchphrases of their advertising is to ‘Vive La Cultura de Metro’, which basically translates to living the metro culture by respecting others and keeping the system clean.

Other cities could benefit from replicating the effective customer service, the emphasis on cleanliness, and the easy access to information that the Medellin Metro provides. Like any other transit system in a major city, it still does get quite congested during rush hour, and it can be hard to get on the train during peak hours due to lack of trains available. I know this from my own past experiences of having to fight to get on the train at 6 AM some mornings when I was a teacher there.

When it comes to the Boston T system, it’s the oldest in the United States and doesn’t take much time to get acclimated to. However, compared to the New York or Washington, DC transit systems, there is some customer service and assistance given. However, when you compare Boston to Medellin in this regard, it’s really no contest. While there are usually one or two attendants from the transit authority present, they don’t really actively help passengers. Sometimes, you can see a transit worker more interested in a smartphone game than to see if anyone needs help or has a question. Instead of being on the train platform to help riders get on and get off the train without issue, they usually just stand by the entrance to the station making sure everybody pays their fare.

Coming from where I was living in Medellin before I moved to Boston, this was a bit of a culture shock to me. It’s nice to have one or two more customer service attendants around to ask questions but I wish there were more attendants on the platform handling crowd control and enforcing the unwritten rules of getting on or leaving the train especially during rush hour. Also, compared to the dozen workers at any train station platform in Medellin, a city like Boston should have a few more people helping out compared to one or two workers per station.

Perhaps this cultural contrast is due to the fact that metro systems in the United States are much more individualistic in nature and the fact that public transit has been part of cities’ makeup for decades especially in the Northeast. I’m guessing that the majority of Bostonians would prefer to be left alone during the morning and evening commute rather than have hands-on help from transit service officials especially at a station platform. However, it might make everyone’s day a bit better and smoother if there were workers actively helping to assist people to refill their transit cards, making sure the rush hour commute goes smoothly, and aiding travelers to the city with directions.

When you travel to different countries, it is tempting to compare and contrast approaches to daily life. In any city, the transit system is an extension of the culture and I find it interesting to see the similarities and differences between countries in how they run their metro systems. It’s good to see how other cities and other countries do things because you’re able to see within your own culture what could be better or more improved. However, what may suit your own tastes may not suit others as much, even your own countrymen.

Train systems like whole cultures tend to be more individualistic or communal. What one city may lack in efficiency, they can make up for it in customer service. I believe it’s best to shoot for improvement in all areas to create a better travel experience. Having the trains run on time, being treated fairly by attendants, and enjoying clean, safe rides are keys for any metro system to achieve. Hopefully as more and more people travel and see the world, we can better see what ways we can improve our own cities and countries by seeing how others do it themselves.


Fulltime Nomad – Istanbul, Turkey (Living Abroad Series)

Recently, I wrote an article and submitted pictures for a guest blog post on the travel website, Fulltime Nomad, as apart of their “Living Abroad Series.”

Johnny & Radhika of Fulltime Nomad were nice enough to let me share my thoughts and experiences on their website on what it was like to live in Istanbul, Turkey.

In the article, I talk about what life is like for a foreigner in Istanbul, the unique food and culture of the city, and how best to navigate the challenges and adaptations that come with living and working as an expatriate.

Here are a few excerpts from the article:

What did you love about living there?

“I loved a lot of things about living in Istanbul. I really enjoyed the Turkish cuisine with my favorites being menemen, iskender kebab, baklava, lahmacun, borek, etc. I could go on and on about the food in Istanbul but you’ll have to visit for yourself!

Being within walking distance of the Bosphorus was a real treat for me too. I’m a big fan of history so I liked learning more about the Ottoman Empire, the founding of the Turkish Republic, and visiting all of the great museums and monuments that Istanbul has to offer.”

What are the local people like? Were there any challenges that you faced?

“Istanbul is an enormous city with a lot of different people from different backgrounds mixing together. It’s similar to a lot of other major cities where there’s a lot of hustle and bustle so people may not be as warm or friendly as they would be in smaller towns or communities. However, there are a lot of smaller neighborhoods within Istanbul that are unique in that they feel smaller and people look out for each other. Overall, Turkish culture is very hospitable and kind. When you’re invited to a Turkish person’s home, be ready because they will feed you, enjoy your company, and care for you as a foreigner in their country.

The biggest challenges I faced were battling the horrendous Istanbul traffic on a daily basis and becoming advanced in the Turkish language. I tried to avoid it as much as possible by taking Istanbul’s rapidly developing metro system but it’s inevitable that you’ll hit traffic 90% of the time. That’s why I encourage people who come to visit Istanbul to stay close to the major tourism spots and/or near to the cool, hip neighborhoods. The Turkish language isn’t that hard for foreigners to learn but you really have to memorize the grammar structures and be prepared to work on your pronunciation and vocabulary skills. It’s not easy but the local people will respect and admire you very much if you try to learn Turkish.”

And, finally, any advice or encouragement for someone wanting to take the leap and live overseas?

“Do it. Have a plan and know what you’re getting into but I highly, highly recommend it. If you’re young, want to explore the world, and have a little money saved up; it’s a worthwhile investment. It’s a lot different living overseas than just being a tourist but it’s a much more special experience. You get to experience the culture more, go deeper into the language, and a gain a more mature perspective of the world.”


You can read my full article here: Full Time Nomad – Living in Istanbul

I want to thank Johnny & Radhika again for letting me be apart of their ‘Living Abroad’ blog post series. It was a real pleasure for me to write about my past experiences and memories of Istanbul.

If you’re interested in learning more about the digital nomad lifestyle, go to Fulltime Nomad to learn more about Johnny & Radhika’s story. You can also like them on Facebook at FulltimeNomad and follow them on Twitter, @FTNomad.


‘Lost In Translation’ – Film Review and Analysis

“For a relaxing time, make it…Suntory time.”

One of the great films of the 2000’s, Lost In Translation is a film that is often underrated but which deserves a lot of praise and acclamation. Directed and produced by Sofia Coppola, daughter of the highly acclaimed director Francis Ford Coppola, Lost In Translation is the story of two Americans of different ages who are visiting Japan for different reasons but who are struggling with similar existential crises.

Bob Harris, played by the wonderful Bill Murray, is an aging actor and movie star from Hollywood who is struggling with a mid-life crisis. He comes to Tokyo to film whiskey commercials and appear on some popular Japanese talk shows. In one of her first roles on film, the talented Scarlett Johansson plays Charlotte, a young college graduate from Yale, who is struggling to figure out what she wants to do in her life.

While Bob and Charlotte come from different backgrounds and are of different ages, they are both struggling with adult concerns such as marriage, work, and the search for overall meaning. Bob has been married for twenty-five years whereas Charlotte has only been marries for two years. While they are at different stages in their marriages, both of them have doubts about being or staying with their partners. In addition, once they meet each other in the hotel lounge for the first time, they are drawn to each other’s personality, humor, and the fact that they are adjusting to Japanese culture for the first time.

One of the best things about Lost In Translation is the way Tokyo, Japan becomes a character in the film. The city is a sprawling metropolis with a population of over twenty million people that seems to go on forever. Since Charlotte’s husband is a director and is busy shooting for a new film and Bob’s wife is five thousand miles away, they both find time to explore and immerse themselves in the bright lights and diverse sounds of Tokyo.

The most illustrative scenes in describing the developing relationship of Bob and Charlotte take place in the karaoke bars and the hibachi restaurants where they try to adapt to the culture shock and the persistent jet-lag together. Despite being married, they feel alone and unhappy in their relationships for different reasons.

They take solace and comfort in each other’s company as they navigate the intricacies of Japanese language and culture. They start off as complete strangers in the hotel bar but then become friends over the course of their stay. Bob also acts as a life mentor to Charlotte who is in her early 20’s by giving her lessons on life, marriage, and what it’s like to have children. Bill Murray’s character comes across as someone who’s halfway through life and is honest to Charlotte about the ups’ and downs’ of it all.

Charlotte’s youth and curiosity about the world helps to change Bob too as he rediscovers the joys and thrills of being care-free and being able to laugh with someone who puts no pressure on him. After appearing on cheesy talk shows and doing uninspiring whiskey commercials, Bob is able to have fun and enjoy himself around Charlotte. From the one-sided phone conversations you hear from Bob and his wife back in Los Angeles, neither of them seem happy or fulfilled about their marriage. I don’t want to spoil the ending for those of you who haven’t watched the film but it is possible that Bob and Charlotte will find romance or love when they least expected it to happen.

I have to admit that the first time I saw Lost In Translation, it made me really want to visit Japan. The nightlife and crowded streets of Tokyo interest me quite a bit. I was also intrigued by a scene from the movie that was set in Kyoto, where Charlotte takes a high-speed train to the city to see the Shinto temples and the beautiful cherry blossoms. The cinematography and settings of the film are very moving and beautiful. Lost In Translation has a reputation of being a serious and deep film with little humor mixed in.

However, I would disagree with this assessment because there are a lot of scenes of light-hearted humor especially when Bob Harris, Bill Murray’s character is on the set for a Japanese commercial. Many things are ‘lost in translation’ as he looks for guidance and help from his translator but she never gives him the full story of what the Japanese director wants. There are other humorous scenes where Bob appears as a guest on a goofy talk show with a quirky host. Another classic moment is when a Japanese escort is sent to Bob’s hotel room and asks Mr. Bob Harris to “lip her stockings.” It’s a subtle English faux pas but I found it hilarious the first time I watched it.

Two strangers who meet in a hotel bar and get to know each other over a drink is not a new movie concept. However, the relationship that develops after that chance meeting is what makes Lost In Translation a great film. The on-screen chemistry between the two great actors, Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson also draws the viewers in to the plot. There can be few other cities as magical, crazy, and hypnotizing as modern Tokyo.

The neon lights, huge skyscrapers, and hoards of people make it a unique setting, which is rarely used in Hollywood films. Lost In Translation isn’t your typical romance movie and it doesn’t have a clear-cut ending. What it does offer the viewer are the special moments of two lost souls making a deep connection with each other in a foreign city, and enjoying those experiences during the short time that they have together.


Staging and Arrival in Barranquilla


The day has finally come and I have made it safely to Colombia. It has been an extremely eventful week so far and I am very happy to be apart of the CII-8 volunteer trainee group as apart of the U.S. Peace Corps. Everyone in my cohort has been extremely friendly and helpful so far and I look forward to training with them over the next three months so that we can be sworn in as official Volunteers serving in Colombia. It’s a real pleasure for me to meet all of the great people from around the United States who have committed themselves to the Peace Corps for the next 27 months.

The only bad part of this trip so far was the rather tedious and stressful flight from New York to Miami on American Airlines which provides much better international service than domestic service. I arrived in Miami on Monday afternoon after a tumultuous morning but I was happy to be reunited with a good friend of mine from college who showed me around the Miami Beach area.

The anticipation and excitement had caused me to lose sleep over these past few days and that built up to a crescendo when I arrived to the hotel on Tuesday morning for ‘Staging’ with the other volunteers-to-be. After a long day of orientation, icebreakers, and getting to know my fellow invitees to Peace Corps Colombia, I capped off the ‘Staging’ event by going to an excellent Cuban restaurant called “La Rosa” which I would recommend to anyone reading this blog. Fantastic food and a great atmosphere.

Finally, the moment had arrived yesterday when we gathered our many bags and backpacks and headed off together to the Miami Airport. After checking-in, going through security, and arriving at the gate, we were on our way to Colombia. Compared to my usual flights overseas, this was extremely easy to handle as it was only a 3-hour flight and the service, hospitality is much improved for an international trip from American Airlines thankfully.

Since arriving, the other invitees and I have been extremely busy with meetings, paperwork, and briefings designed to help ease our transition into life in Colombia. This is necessary for us to all take part in because this weekend, we will be moving out to small pueblos outside of Barranquilla to begin our three months of technical and language training before we can be sworn-in as official volunteers.

I am extremely grateful and pleased with the support of all of the staff and the current Peace Corps volunteers. Those currently serving have been a great resource to us in answering our questions and helping us out. I was especially pleased with how enthusiastically and warmly we were greeted at the airport by the current staff and volunteers here in Colombia.

Barranquilla seems like a very nice city from what I’ve seen so far and reminds me a lot of Miami although much more humid and down-to-earth. Thankfully, there is a very nice wind breeze coming in from the Caribbean Sea to the north of us so the hot weather is much more bearable during this month although this is likely to change in the Spring. This will only be a short-stay here in the city before we meet our Colombian host families for the next three months.

Lastly, I am excited to begin my training to become an official Volunteer and am committed to my mission and goals here in Colombia. It’s been a long journey to get to this point but I am ready for the work to begin and I am very happy to be here.

Reverse Culture Shock In The USA

“Adjusting to one’s home country and culture can take a while. This graph sums it up quite well.”

After being away from the United States, my home country, for the past year, I have been dealing with ‘reverse culture shock’ since I have returned as many people who come back to their home culture experience after an extended time overseas. There is a natural recovery and adjustment process but it takes time to get back into the swing of things. As a writer, I like to gather my thoughts on paper about what I have noticed about my home country since returning from my time spent overseas. These observations have helped me to deal with my ‘reverse culture shock’ so far and to comment on what could be improved or changed to make my country better. I have traveled to 20 other countries, and have lived in Turkey and Costa Rica thus far so I believe I have some knowledge about how the U.S. compares to the rest of the world in different ways.

I would like to note that I do love my country and have enjoyed being born and growing up here. The United States is a great country and I only wish to see it become better and better in the future. I intend to use this blog post to merely bring up some outstanding issues and problems that the U.S. must deal with as a whole. No country I’ve lived in or have been to will ever be perfect and every country has different flaws/issues to work out. That’s part of the reason why I love to travel and explore the world. It’s interesting to see the variation among cultures and societies along with how they tackle their own internal and external problems to make their own countries better. Listed below are the items that I write in detail about which have caused me some ‘reverse culture shock’ since my return to the United States in late July of 2015.

  1. Lack of Using the Metric System in the 21st Century: The U.S. is one of only three nations in the world who don’t fully use the Metric System (International System of Units, SI). Liberia, Myanmar are currently our only counterparts in this anomaly. There’s no excuse for that and it harms our international commerce procedures and our ability to conduct foreign relations properly.
  2. Lack of High Speed Rail, and Efficient Public Transportation: This can be quite jarring after visiting developed nations like Germany, France and also from what I have read about China and Japan who are way ahead of the U.S. in developing high-speed rail networks. Part of this is the fault of state governors who refuse federal stimulus funding for high-speed rail projects. (Examples: Wisconsin, Florida, Ohio, etc.)
  3. Large and Unhealthy Food Portions: This may be part of the reason for the ongoing obesity problem in the country. I’m all for enjoying a good meal of course but I think the food portions I’ve had in the U.S. have been the biggest than all of the other countries that I’ve visited so far. I also believe that having ‘free refills’ and ‘soda fountains’ at restaurants, while a tempting proposition, is not something that should be offered to promote a healthy diet.
  4. Reliance on Tipping (Mandatory?) to pay workers’ wages: I’m fine with throwing in an extra 10% on top of my meal and tax for good service but I don’t believe it should be 15-20% every time in order for these workers to meet and go above their very low hourly Minimum Wage as ‘tipped workers’. I believe that these service workers in the U.S. should be paid a higher minimum wage altogether by law and that they should be guaranteed a good wage each shift rather than fighting for tips each day.
  5. Obesity crisis and an astounding proportion of adults/children who are overweight: It’s a drain on an already expensive health care system and contributes to our total health care expenses. There needs to be more emphasis in our society on daily exercise and getting out of the house for both children and adults. Healthier eating and taking a walk/going for a run each day can go a long way to helping to solve this problem. I believe that companies and schools should play a larger role in keeping their employees/students in good physical shape with certain incentives.
  6. Heavy reliance on cars, trucks and other motor vehicles to get around suburban and urban areas: There is a lack of walking around towns and cities because there is much more sprawl and open space in the U.S. However, I believe that having trams/streetcars, more extensive public bus transportation systems in both suburban and urban areas could relieve part of the traffic jams and gridlock that affects a lot of the country nowadays.
  7. Big Businesses and Corporations get the benefit of the doubt too often: When it comes to beating out smaller businesses and enterprises, these big box stores are winning out. These major companies contribute to this problem by monopolizing their industry and not allowing others to compete in a free market environment. This, in part, contributes to suburban sprawl because these huge megastores contribute to the layout that contributes to the car culture. (i.e. Wal-Mart, Bed Bath and Beyond, Dick’s Sporting Goods, Best Buy). I can’t remember the last time I’ve seen a family-owned coffee shop in my town or neighborhood. There are three Starbucks’ around though for a good cup of joe…
  8. General lack of curiosity about foreign cultures and peoples: Many Americans do not speak a 2nd language or don’t pay attention to international affairs beyond what they learned about briefly in high school and college. This is a generalization but I still believe it applies to the majority of people within this vast country. Still, only about 30-35% of Americans own a Passport. I would encourage more Americans to travel and see the world especially if they’re younger. Taking a “gap year” before or after college would be a good way to travel and there are ‘work-study’ programs available for Americans to take advantage of in western European countries (Ireland, UK, etc.) along with Australia.
  9. Very conservative laws about alcohol possession and consumption: “21” as the minimum legal age for consuming alcohol makes no sense to me especially considering you can start operating a motor vehicle at 16, join the military at 18 and also vote for President and other elected officials at that same age. Having someone check your ID to get into bars/clubs or at a sporting event to purchase beer or wine is also ridiculous. I’ve seen people in their 40’s and 50’s get carded when they are clearly over the legal age here. The United States is one of the few countries where the drinking age is 21 along with Pakistan, the UAE, and Indonesia.
  10. Mind-numbing advertisements: I have noticed that there are way too many drug commercials (Cialis, Prozac, Ambien etc.) that appear on television especially during the day. In the U.S., We are constantly bombarded in our homes, in public events, on public transportation, etc. with these silly advertisements. It’s predictably a way for marketers to get people to feel insecure enough about themselves to want to buy things to fill some kind of missing “void” in our lives.
  11. Political Gridlock / No ability to get big things done legislatively: The recent threats of a government shutdown, the debt ceiling threats, continuous gerrymandering, the electoral college deciding a Presidential election instead of the popular vote, too much of an influence of organized money in politics in the upcoming 2016 elections, (Citizens United decision). These occurrences harm our ability to boost our education system, solve long-term Medicare and Medicaid solvency along with the broken immigration system and the need for more investments in our antiquated transportation and infrastructure systems.
  12. Expensive costs of Higher Education: A lot of Western countries completely subsidize higher education institutions but the United States has seen a rapid growth in the amount of students going into debt to pay for college and graduate school. There have also have been cuts over the years to the Public University systems in certain states such as California. Wages have not kept up with inflation and the pace of tuition increases is out of control. $1 trillion of total student debt is disturbing and is a poor reflection of our country’s priorities.
  13. High level of income inequality between the richest and poorest Americans: The top 1% of Americans earns about 20% of the total national income. This is unacceptable and shows a widening gulf between the wealthy and poor. This level of inequality is at its’ highest since the gilded age of the 1920’s. Many economists say this is one, if not the top economic issue facing the country into the future. If not dealt with, our country runs the risk of turning into an actual “banana republic.”
  14. Too much emphasis on Military Spending: The U.S. continues to spend more on its military and armed forces at about 650 billion dollars total. This is 40% of the total world share and is more than the next 11-12 nations combined. It may only account for 4% of the total Gross Domestic Product but has much more of an influence on the federal budget than State, HUD, Education, HHS, EPA combined. The Cold War has been over for twenty years and the wars of the 21st century will be fought through specialized forces, by drones, or over the cyber-web so there’s no need for such an expansive budget into the future. It’s important to maintain a strong military but a nation should have other priorities as well and balance them out successfully.
  15. Our prison system needs real reform: The United States has the largest incarceration rate in the world. 2.3 million citizens are in its jails which is 22% of the world’s total amount of incarcerated prisoners, (Source: World Prison Population). Unfortunately, we are ahead of other nations such as Russia, Iran, China, UAE, etc. when it comes to this rather dubious distinction. While the Netherlands is closing down prisons because of a lack of need, my country continues to build up a massive private prison industry which is unheard of in most other industrialized nations. This is, in part, a result of the failed “War on Drugs” which involves serious sentencing measures for non-violent drug offenders. Recently, politicians in both major parties in the U.S. have called for prison and sentencing reform but no concrete legislation has been passed by Congress and signed by the President up until this point.