Book Recommendations – Volume XI

“There’s nothing better than sitting under your favorite tree in a backyard or out on the balcony with the sun in your face reading an engaging and enlightening book. As I have mentioned previously, Summer is the best season for reading and since a lot of other summer activities are postponed or cancelled, why not catch up on some reading?”

There’s nothing better than sitting under your favorite tree in a backyard or out on the balcony with the sun in your face reading an engaging and enlightening book. As I have mentioned previously, Summer is the best season for reading and since a lot of other summer activities are postponed or cancelled, why not catch up on some reading? Regardless if the book is fiction or non-fiction, spending a few hours each day reading a good book can make the time pass by quicker and get rid of any kind of twiddle-your-thumbs moments that can happen when you don’t have a movie, concert, or sporting event to distract you. While live events may be out of order this summer, your bookshelf is dying to have you open up a book, sit down on your favorite couch or chair, and let your mind wander to an imaginary or a real place to pass the time.

  1. The Back Channel: A Memoir of American Diplomacy and The Case for Its Renewal by William J. Burns

William J. Burns might be one of the best diplomats the United States has ever had. With over thirty years of experience and having served in two of the most important regions of the world, Mr. Burns’s story is an example of the good that diplomatic efforts can do in resolving conflicts, promoting peace, and ensuring cooperation among both allies and adversaries. He is one of only two career diplomats to have ever earned the title of ‘Deputy Secretary of State’ and he gave advice and counsel to five U.S. Presidents and ten Secretaries of State.

Mr. Burns’s storied career includes Ambassadorships to both Jordan and Russia and he held numerous Assistant Secretary positions within the State Department during his three-decade tenure. He was partly responsible for ceasefire agreements between the Israelis and the Palestinians, for helping to eliminate Libya’s nuclear weapons program, and for helping to reset U.S. relations with Russia in the early 2010s. He also shares insights in this book that were previously not publicly known involving his views on the Iraq War, the Civil War in Syria, and of the Russian aggression against Ukraine at the end of his tenure.

This 400+ page memoir is simply a must-read for anyone interested in how diplomacy works and how vital it is to maintain within a government’s foreign policy. In a time now where it has been underinvested and mismanaged, Burns’s book illuminates how big of a difference it can make and how one man’s impact can be felt throughout an entire foreign policy apparatus due to his vigorous study of culture, languages, and history in order for him to be taken seriously. The book is not only educational but is also gripping in terms of his recall of major events throughout his diplomatic career as well as the written cables that explain them. It is a real page turner and should be required reading for any student of international relations and who hopes to become a diplomat in their own future career.

2. On the Plain of Snakes: A Mexican Journey by Paul Theroux

Cooperation, friendship, and understanding is important among friends, but it is even more important among your neighbors. The US-Mexico relationship has been fraught with mistrust and tension especially during the years of the Trump administration. The best way to do away with stereotypes and misgivings about each other is to visit the lesser known places of a country and visit the non-touristy areas. Paul Theroux may be the best living American travel writer today.

From his experience as a Peace Corps volunteer in Malawi in the 1970s to his trek in the American Deep South, Paul Theroux has traveled around the world over five decades and counting. His latest novel about his travels in Mexico is a must-read for Americans and anyone else looking to understand Mexico from an outside lens. While not an exhaustive take on the complex country and its people, Theroux’s book, somewhat observant and otherwise felt like you’re in the middle of his travels is both illuminating and powerful.

Paul Theroux is really a true traveler and even though this is the first of his travel novels that I have read, this one felt very timely as it was released in 2019 during a time of souring relations between the two North American neighbors. Theroux spares no miles or kilometers in seeing all of Mexico that he can. From the desert Region of Sonora in the North to the Mexico mundo of Mexico City to the Southeast of the country where he visits the Zapatistas, this is an extremely educational look at modern Mexico.

Theroux’s book highlights the issues that Mexico is going through from immigration from the Northern Triangle to the ever-present threat of the drug cartels to the hopes of Mexico’s indigenous populations who believe that they have been left behind as other villages and towns hollowed out while the economic gains went elsewhere. It’s not just the issues that Theroux shines a lens on but also the beauty of the country’s culture and its warm people. As an elderly traveler, Theroux is treated with great respect and even reverence as ‘Don Pablo.’

He is welcomed as a guest, kept safe by complete strangers, and invited to interview Mexicans who normally would not talk to foreign travelers. Theroux travels all the way from Massachusetts across the border where few Americans are found to cross. He does so in his own car on his own dime and does not travel with any security or any kind of companionship. He learns Spanish and teaches writing to Mexican students. He is a refreshing kind of traveler, one who remembers to show people through a human lens and to not deal with harmful stereotypes.

Overall, ‘On the Plain of Snakes’ is an excellent travel novel for anyone interested in learning more about Mexico’s people, its culture, its struggles, and its hopes for a better future.

3. Rule Makers, Rule Breakers: How Tight and Loose Cultures Wire Our World by Michele J. Gelfand

This book has been my favorite one of 2020 and I only heard of it through a weekly David Brooks column in The New York Times Opinion section. The differences and similarities between cultures and societies is a topic that has fascinated me for years. As someone who has lived in both loose and tight countries as Mrs. Gelfand so brilliantly classifies, it is fascinating to see her extensive research come into fruition and how these loose and tight countries affect our outlook on everything from celebrations to driving to health care to tattoos.

Tight countries are cultures where norms are preserved and breaking them is frowned upon. Societal cohesion is encouraged and straying from norms is open to punishment. Loose countries are cultures where norms are often broken and breaking them usually comes with a shrug or a lack of care. Why do Germans always stop at a red light even when its 3 AM? Why do Brazilian clocks never run on time? Why do Japanese trains always run on time? Why do Singaporean laws ban gum from being chewed?

These tight and loose differences do not just extend to countries but also to states, cities, organizations, businesses and even within us. This book of ‘tight and loose’ norms highlights how we feel about any subject and how that is reflected in how we act with others. There is no right or wrong answer as to whether living in a tight culture is better or if living in a loose culture is better. Mrs. Gelfand excellently points out in each chapter how they both have their advantages and disadvantages depending upon the norm being considered.

Our upbringing, our environment, our country’s history, etc. all have effects on how ‘tight’ a culture is or how ‘loose’ a culture is. There can also be changes to a culture depending if there are big events like a terrorist attack, a pandemic, a natural disaster, etc. Cultures can tighten or loosen depending upon what is going on in the country and how people are being affected by these natural or manmade shifts to our lives.

Having seen both ‘tight cultures’ and ‘loose cultures’ up close and personal, this book has been a revelation to me in terms of explaining what I thought about only in my theories that I concocted after traveling from country to country but never really expressing it as well as she has in this great book. Mrs. Gelfand has done extensive research across many countries and continents to explain why some countries have more ‘rule makers’ and why other countries have ‘rule breakers.’ In order for our own cultures to shift from one spectrum to the other, we have to first understand why the country’s culture is the way it is and if it can shift, what benefits are there to tightening up or loosening up depending on what is going on in our lives and in our society at the time?

Pão de Açucar (Sugarloaf Mountain)

Camera: Samsung Galaxy J2 Core

Location: Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Downtown Rio and Leblon

Camera: Samsung Galaxy J2 Core

Location: Leblon Beach and Downtown; Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Cholula and Puebla

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Camera: iPhone 8

Locations: Cholula de Rivadavia, Puebla, Mexico; Puebla de Zaragoza, Puebla, Mexico

Bruges (Nighttime)

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Camera: Canon PowerShot SX710 HS

Location: Bruges, Belgium

Choosing the Right Travel Backpack for You

You have the money, you have the time, and you have some destinations in mind: you’re ready to live the nomadic lifestyle for a while and travel the world. This may be your dream life but the question is: are you prepared to make the jump? and do you have everything you need to make the journey? Having the right backpack with you could make the difference between having the time of your life or booking an early flight home.

Where’s Your Backpack?

Despite having the money, the time, and the destinations finalized in your mind, do you have the gear that you’ll need in order to complete the journey? Unless you plan on lugging a suitcase through the Andes or the Himalayas, you’re going to need a sturdy and reliable travel backpack. However, thankfully for you, there are more options now than ever when it comes to travel backpacks and they’re not as expensive as they used to be.

There are dozens of backpacks that I could write about but then this article would be ten thousand words total. Instead, I’m going to focus on three great options that you should seriously consider, one of them which that I have personally used during my travels throughout South America and can highly recommend to my readers.

You can check out a number of options if you visit the website titled, ‘Live Once Live Wild’ and see their ‘What is the Best Travel Backpack’? article which you can access here: http://liveoncelivewild.com/best-travel-backpack/. Regardless of which backpack you choose, you’ll have plenty of good options to choose from.

JanSport Katahdin 40L – Best Bargain

If you’re not looking to spend a lot of money but still want to get some good value out of a travel backpack, you may want to consider buying the JanSport Katahdin 40L. This backpack is made out of Polyester material so it can withstand the elements pretty well and it can store a good amount of camping gear as well as a laptop if you’re going to need to do some work when you’re on the road.

There’s a top loading main compartment, a padded hipbelt for comfort, and dual water bottle pockets on the sides in case you get thirsty. The price may vary depending upon which store you buy the JanSport Katahdin but if you go to (goo.gl/MuNVtX) you can get it on sale now for about $55, which is a pretty good discount considering the original price is about $80. While not as flashy as some other options on the market, this travel backpack has a good amount of features that make it worth a look when you’re shopping for a bargain option that still gets the job done.

Mountaintop 50L

If you can’t spend all that much money, the cheapest option you may want to divulge in would be the Mountaintop 50L. The best thing about this travel backpack is the amount of storage for your items and clothes that you can fit in there. You can do a lot with 50L of storage and there are a lot of deep pockets, expendable collars, a big front pocket, and even a hydration system that make up this backpack. It’s also a comfortable fit for your body and back.

There’s a good amount of cushion and comfort for you so that you won’t feel too uncomfortable during your journeys when you are carrying this backpack around. Even though this Mountaintop 50L is one of the cheapest options out there, it’s still a top rated travel backpack that has become increasingly popular over the past couple of years. If you’re looking to buy one of these bad boys, you can go to (goo.gl/dTCNXI) where you can buy one for only $45, which is extremely affordable compared to other options. As if that wasn’t enough, you can buy the Mountaintop 50L in different colors including red, blue, green, gold, etc.

Osprey Farpoint 55

A personal favorite of mine that I have used during my recent travels in South America is the Osprey Farpoint 55. Depending upon how big you want your backpack to be, Osprey has you covered by offering the average traveler the Farpoint 40, 55, and 70. The bigger your Osprey is, the more expensive it’s going to be to buy. Osprey’s are top-notch quality but they are among the costliest backpacks on the market. However, in return, your Osprey backpack will last for years because of its’ high quality. It’s made entirely of polyester, is resistant to most weather elements, and comes with a lot of storage and space including an extra daypack bag that’s attached to the front of your Osprey backpack.

You can choose from three different colors and you can find the price for the Farpoint 55 at (goo.gl/z3EvQc). As noted, the price of this backpack can range from $160 – $190 so it’s important you make sure to save some money up before you go ahead and click the ‘buy’ button.

If you want to check out some more backpack options for travel, go to your local camping store and it’s likely that you’ll find what you’re looking for. I hope you choose the backpack that you believe is right for you and I’ll see you out there on the road.

 

Jardin

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Camera: Canon PowerShot SX710 HS

Location: Jardin, Antioquia, Colombia

Machu Picchu and Huayna Picchu

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Camera: Canon PowerShot SX710 HS

Location: Machu Picchu, Peru

Lima

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Camera: Canon PowerShot SX710 HS

Location: Lima, Peru

The Wonder of Machu Picchu

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“The hardest yet most rewarding part of my visit: Hiking to the top of Huayna Picchu mountain.” 

There are few places in the world, which you can truly regard as being special and awe-inspiring. We describe these places as being a ‘wonder’ of humanity and one that represents our brief yet influential time on this planet. Before I came to Machu Picchu, I believed that the only other place that would classify as a ‘wonder’ to me would be the archaeological site of Petra in southern Jordan. A ‘wonder’ both of history and of architecture that goes back thousands of years is what sets apart places like Machu Picchu in Peru and Petra in Jordan. These places that touch on the cultural and historical legacy of man are what drive us to be resolute in protecting these artifacts of mankind and making sure that they are around for future generations.

I consider myself to be incredibly lucky to have visited Machu Picchu just recently a couple of days ago. For those who don’t know, Machu Picchu is quite isolated from any major modern city or town but is possible to get to by train and bus due to the wonders of modern technology. Situated between towering mountains and located alongside the flowing Urubamba river, Machu Picchu is not only a wonder of Incan architecture and construction but is also a natural marvel due to the backdrop it has with the surrounding green mountains, wispy clouds, and the numerous kinds of plants that inhabit this part of Peru.

Among the things that stand out about Machu Picchu is that you feel isolated from the rest of the world. It may be the towering mountains that surround this archaeological site or it could be the fact that wispy clouds envelop your presence but you feel very that you’re secluded from other kinds of environment. The higher you climb in elevation, the world gets much quieter and you’re able to reflect more on not only the site of Machu Picchu that lays before you but also about life or whatever is on your mind in general.

I’m far from being an expert on ancient civilizations, especially the Incan civilization of which I know relatively little about but you have to give the people of this group considerable admiration and awe by the fact that they were able to build such a city in the most remote of places. The fact that it was possible for them to create an infrastructure out of rocks, stone, and wood in order to sustain themselves under ever-changing weather conditions is quite remarkable.

To be able to plant and harvest food, create a running water supply, and be able to construct encampments to house hundreds of Incans is very impressive to consider. Not only was there a high risk of death or injury to climb these mountains with heavy rocks or stones attached to your backs, it is likely that you would be on your own if you sustained serious injuries given that there were no modern medicines or hospitals or rely upon.

It is difficult for me to list a favorite thing about my trip to Machu Picchu. I really enjoyed climbing to the top of Huayna Picchu at 2,700 meters in total altitude despite my exasperated breath and tired knees. The views from this perching point above Machu Picchu are extraordinary and are something that I will never forget. Besides being able to take a bunch of pictures, it was great to sit and reflect on the wonder that lay before me. At a couple of thousand meters in the air, all your problems dissipate for a moment and you can truly hear the sound of the wind and the movements of the clouds. You can close your eyes and hear nothing but the sound of your own thoughts if you are so lucky.

Thanks to the efforts of the Peruvian Ministry of Culture, Machu Picchu is amazingly well preserved and should be around for future generations to enjoy. A limited amount of tourists, a couple of hundred in total per day can visit Machu Picchu and is a good idea to make sure that none of these famous Incan ruins will be damaged, tampered with, or destroyed. To lose such a precious treasure such as Machu Picchu or any other wonder of the world would be a tragedy for humanity and its’ history on this planet. While it was not cheap to get to Machu Picchu, I can fully understand why we as tourists pay the costs of admissions to visit these beautiful sites.

We do it to make sure that other people have the chance to experience these places firsthand and are able to share it with their children and grandchildren. I am quite lucky to have been able to visit such a wondrous place and I will remember my day at Machu Picchu quite fondly. If you’re reading this blog post and desire now to visit Machu Picchu, I would recommend that you do it with the knowledge that you do some research about the place, respect it during your visit, and do your best to take the experience in not just through your camera lens or smartphone but through your own eyes and ears.

To me, Machu Picchu is more than a lost Incan city of hundreds of years ago; it is a beautiful and awe-inspiring place of natural scenery. With its’ many mountains, huge river, and hundreds of diverse plants, this place can help you reflect not only about the past but on the present and future of yourself, humanity, and the planet itself. With any tourist site that’s located in a unique location, precautions and steps must be undertaken to make sure you have an enjoyable visit. Please make sure you bring some sunscreen, an umbrella, appropriate clothing and a lot of water. The weather can be quite unpredictable at Machu Picchu and it would be good of you to prepare to experience all four seasons in just one day at the site. Best of luck to you reading this post if you decide to take the journey to Machu Picchu. I promise that you won’t regret it.