Saturday, January 25, 2014

Australia – For Expats and Visitors

By Jamie Douglas

Australia for expats

Australia has been the dream destination for people all over the world, representing something that the United States once was: the land of freedom, wide-open spaces and unlimited opportunity.

Well, things have changed a bit since the 1950s and 60s, when Australia had still adhered strictly to a “White Australia” policy. That racist policy was officially established when Australia became a federation in 1901 and pretty much favored Anglo-Saxons, making migration to the continent very difficult even for Italian, Greek and Slavic people. Apparently, they failed to take into account the tragic fact that the British stole the entire continent from the Aborigines who had made it their home for at least 60,000 years.

After the federation was formed, one of the first acts was to pass the “Immigration Restriction Act.” It was not until 1975 that the laws were changed to allow for a multicultural nation to prosper.

Little did the Aussies realize that this multiculturalism would bring in masses of people from the Orient, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Vietnam and more. The new arrivals, for the most part, did not want to assimilate, with the immigrants from Pakistan, in particular, keeping to the tradition of oppressing their women. Not very may new arrivals adopted the Anglican Church as their house of worship, instead, building mosques and living in Islamic enclaves,  rejecting the cherished Australian way of life, which includes mass consumption of beer (not Fosters, which is scorned), a healthy amount of hard liquor and all assorted hard drugs.

Gaining residency on the isolated continent has become a process of insanely bureaucratic hoops you have to jump through. And you better have a job waiting for you and register with the police, telling them where you live, who lives with you, all of your personal data (numbers) where you work, etc...

And as part of their social program, they have an inordinate amount of police, who can come to your house anytime they want. All major areas are completely under live video surveillance – sort of like in the USA, but not as intrusive as in the UK.

If you are a retiree, they definitely don’t want you because you may become a burden as you age, even if you have a decent stash of retirement funds.

What they are looking for are young and strong bodies – male and female – to work in and around the remote mines in the outback (lesbians and gays gladly accepted): miners, mechanics, heavy machinery operators, truck drivers, cooks, etc. McDonald’s pays $35 per hour, and regular miners and truck drivers make $85 per hour, with generous raises, if they sign up for a second year. They have regular breaks about every two weeks, when they are flown to Perth or Melbourne, where they just drink and drink and drink and, of course, chase every skirt. The best way to get one of those jobs is to go to the mine of your choice and apply. If you have a pulse, you are hired. Then, the mining company will use their inside track to get you legal residency almost immediately.

Australia for visitors

Australia is a drinking nation with a work problem. Almost the entire population lives within 50 miles of an ocean – the Pacific, Indian and Great Southern – or the Coral Sea in the north.

The southeastern part of the continent is home to Sydney and its suburbs, but not far away are the Blue Mountains and the quaint, small city of Katoomba, where those expensive cockatoos fly freely and take pleasure in waking you at dawn. And not far from there are the Jenolan Caves . You can drive there. Or better yet, take a train from Sydney’s Central Station.

Australia is blessed with two transcontinental railroads: The Indian Pacific connects Sydney with Perth, with a few-hour layover in Adelaide. The entire trip takes four days and three nights. Then there is the Ghan, which goes from Adelaide to Darwin – the southern coast to the Northern Territory. Leaving Adelaide either way, heading north on the Ghan or west to Perth, you will get to experience the desolation of the outback, also referred to in places as the Nullarbor, or “no trees.” The nearest town from Cook to the mining town of Kalgoorlie is 775 km. The train stops in Cook for a couple of hours – but beware. They have recorded temperatures of 140 degrees Fahrenheit regularly. But this humongous woman who is famous all across Australia for her obesity sells candy, snacks and cold drinks to the passengers on the train, which stops by four times a week. She apparently makes enough to sustain herself.

If you go to Australia, even as a tourist, go to the Sydney Hostel by the central train station and get yourself a Hostelling International Card, and your train ride will be half-price. My recommendation is to leave Sydney and get off in Adelaide, spend a few days in this splendid city, and then take the Ghan round-trip to Darwin. Now, I know it’s costly, but remember: You are just spending your kids’ inheritance. After returning to Adelaide, be sure to visit the Central Market, and after perusing the wonders there, exit out the back of the building, where you will find the best Italian restaurant I have found so far – sidewalk seating, weather permitting.

Perhaps the most touristy place in all of Oz is the Gold Coast, which stretches north of Sydney. It’s overbuilt and overcrowded – much worse than Miami Beach or Uruguay’s famous Punta del Este. But if you want to go to the amazing Great Barrier Reef, you have to go there.

Farther north, you start running into the dreaded man-eating crocs. They are very aggressive, and they love pets and children.

So yeah, Australia is a lovely place, kind of over-policed but no more than England, Switzerland or Singapore. It is very expensive to visit and you should be prepared to spend many thousands of US dollars to really explore the place – much of which will be spent on transportation between widespread locations. But it is a great country, with huge areas to discover.

Just beware of navigating the outback – it has taken many an adventurer! Hire a guide, but ask around first if he has ever lost anyone.

Jamie Douglas
At large in the universe

[Photo by Jamie Douglas]

I encourage you to write me at cruzansailor [at] gmail [dot] com with any questions or suggestions you may have. Disclaimer: I am not in any travel-related business. My advice is based on my own experiences and is free of charge (Donations welcome). It is always my pleasure to act as a beneficial counselor to those who are seekers of the next adventure.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Circumnavigation of Uruguay

By Jamie Douglas

Most of my readers no doubt are aware that Uruguay is an autonomous country lodged between the butt cheeks of Argentina and Brazil. But many of you may not realize that the country is literally surrounded by water. There is 660 km of coastline along the Atlantic Ocean and the Río de la Plata estuary, and thence up the Río Uruguay to Brazil, and from there heading southeast along the Brazilian border to Chuy and Barra del Chuy on the Atlantic Ocean coastline.

Along the Brazilian border there are miles upon miles of rivers separating the two nations, with the major towns from west to east being Bella Unión, Artigas, Rivera, Río Branco and, after the border passes through Laguna Merín, you finally end up in Chuy, 985 km from the Argentina-Brazil-Uruguay triple border.

Should you feel adventurous, you can circumnavigate the entire country on mostly good roads. (Please invite me along!)

You might first visit the well-preserved historic old town of Colonia del Sacramento, and after a couple of days of marveling at the beauty of this lovely UNESCO Heritage Site, head north through Mercedes, Paysandú and Salto, where you can relax in hot springs that have existed for centuries.

After your soak, head west to Artigas, where you are likely to run into some of the finest amethyst the world has to offer. Now comes the relatively uninhabited stretch to Rivera, then down to Vichadero and onto a dirt road to Melo. A disclosure here: My editor/wife and I were in Tacuarembó , which is in the interior of the country south of Rivera, a couple of years ago; and when we mentioned that we were going to book passage to Melo, people looked at us very strangely and wanted to know why we wanted to go there. They stated that there was nothing there, nothing to do, and the road was terrible. We believed them and returned to Montevideo, instead – the road from Paysandú to Tacuarembó was bad enough! After settling in La Paloma, we made new friends with our neighbors who had just moved from Melo. They assured us that it was not worth the time or energy to visit.

If you are truly adventurous, you can go from Melo to the border-crossing town of Río Branco and then head to Treinta y Tres, the city named after Uruguay’s 33 Founding Fathers, before making your way on backroads to Chuy. Alternatively, you could go straight to Treinta y Tres via highway. You will be well off the beaten path, either way.

The Beaches of Rocha

The department of Rocha reaches along the Atlantic Coast from the Brazilian border all the way to the department of Maldonado, almost to Punta del Este, the “Miami Beach” of Uruguay. It is a 200-mile stretch of uninterrupted sandy beaches, lagoons and rather primitive villages with inexpensive cabins right on the beach. After Barra del Chuy, you will come to a string of charming little place: La Coronilla, Santa Theresa National Park, Punta del Diablo, Aguas Dulces, Punta Castillos, Punta Aguada and Cabo Polonio National Park, where you have to park your car and take a giant WWII-era six-wheel-drive monster truck out to the cape.

Cabo Polonio has recently been designated a national park, and new construction is prohibited. But there is an abundance of illegally built houses (?) covering the sand dunes, some of them very rustic, ramshackle huts, while others are quite nice. Accommodations even in the high season (December through early March) are easy to get and are relatively economical. There is no electricity except for the lighthouse, and water has to be trucked in, so it is very limited.

There are several decent restaurants and a “supermarket” for your convenience, stocking everything you might need to cook your own food. An overabundant choice of wine and beer is also available in mass quantities.

Further south is a real town – with paved roads and all. La Pedrera is famous for its carnival and is a favorite with the young crowd, while La Paloma a few kilometers farther to the south has a little more of a family vibe.

La Paloma is a small city with about 3,000 year-round inhabitants (including us!), paved streets, running water and really expensive electricity. We have untold numbers of restaurants during the season and about a half dozen or so that stay open out of season.
During the high season, La Paloma serves as a vacation destination for about 30,000 people, and the beaches get quite crowded. Our Argentinean friends drive on residential streets as if they are on the highway – they are reckless and arrogant, just like they drive in Argentina.

Between La Paloma and Punta del Este, you have to briefly return to the main highway (Route 9) for a few kilometers until you come to a turnoff about 20 km from Rocha that will take you to the coastal highway to Punta José Ignacio, Punta Manantiales, La Barra and finally to Punta del Este. From there, many small roads branch off that follow the coast back to Montevideo that will take you along the brown, muddy waters of the Río de la Plata – or, you can take the Ruta Interbalnearia, the “inter-resort” toll road.

Enjoy the ride, and remember that the entire Atlantic coastline is one giant sand dune that is ecologically very sensitive. Tread lightly please!

Jamie Douglas
At large in Uruguay

I encourage you to write me at cruzansailor [at] gmail [dot] com with any questions or suggestions you may have. Disclaimer: I am not in any travel-related business. My advice is based on my own experiences and is free of charge (Donations welcome). It is always my pleasure to act as a beneficial counselor to those who are seekers of the next adventure.

News from Around the Hemisphere, Jan 15, 2014 (reposted from original location)

article from January 15, 2014
By Jamie Douglas

First off, an apology to my readers: I have not been writing as often as I would like, as I am not well... but not ill enough to refrain from occasionally spouting my opinions and pointing out interesting facts.

Mexico’s continuing problems

Poor Mexico! After the recent elections, there was hope that the violence would subside somewhat, but it is only getting worse in the states that have been flashpoints in the unfortunate war on drugs, which has cost over 100,000 lives over the past few years – one of which is the state of Michoacán, where I used to reside until I went to buy the newspaper for my morning coffee at Pátzcuaro restaurant where expats, artists and criminals alike would mingle.

Since that morning eight years ago, when I was shocked to see photos of 22 mutilated corpses on the back pages of La Voz de Michoacán, things have gotten progressively worse. In a recent article in Proceso [spanish], it is revealed that the Knights Templar, successors to the Zeta crime syndicate, have now entered politics on behalf of the PRI, the hyper-corrupt Mexican political party that bled the country dry for generations. After a brief respite, the PRI is back in power, with a little help from their usual election fraud along with the Knights Templar, who have become an economic force to contend with, as they have made hundreds of millions of dollars running the port of Lázaro Cárdenas and illegally mining iron ore.

As a result of long-standing collusion between the local, state and federal government and the cartels, Michoacán has come close to being an ungovernable failed state, and the neighboring states up and down the Pacific coast may follow.

When will the powers that be realize that the unfortunate war on drugs had the same results as the prohibition in the United States did? It enabled criminal elements to take over the country with diluted and dangerous unregulated alcohol, corrupting most major police forces by flooding them with money.

Panama and Nicaragua race for a wider canal across the isthmus

In 2006, Panama’s then-president Martin Torrijos announced a plan to expand the Panama Canal so it could accommodate today’s VLCCs. He boldly stated that this project would turn Panama into a first-world country. Perhaps he did not anticipate all of the corruption that would inevitably follow this proposal. Perhaps he underestimated the larceny of the Martinelli administration. But one thing is glaringly obvious: The conglomerate that bid on the work grossly underestimated the cost and time for building this ambitious project – and therein lies the current problem. The Panama Canal Authority is refusing to pay for the cost overruns and has threatened to take over the project by force mejeure.

Regardless of what will happen in this chapter of Panama Canal history, Panama will not be a first-world nation until it rids itself of all the scams that are at home there, including the banking and real estate sectors, much of which is run by American and Canadian expats, con men and women and convicted criminals trying to sell anything they can think of.

Meanwhile, a Chinese investor has put together a consortium of wealthy business people from China to build a canal clear across the isthmus in Nicaragua. This project is slated to begin in December of this year; and if successfully completed, it will be quite a thorn in the side of the Panama Canal Authority. But with the enormous nature of the project, one should not hold their breath. China may be riding high at the moment, but nothing lasts forever. The Chinese economy is already feeling the pain of the costs of their armed forces and high-speed rail networks.

I wonder why Mexico has not pursued the logical choice of building a trans-isthmus canal from Tehuantepec to the Caribbean. Perhaps the cost and logistics are too prohibitive, along with the opposition of the indigenous people.

Venezuela and crime

Venezuela’s sweetheart, actress and former Miss Universe Monica Spear, and her husband, Thomas Berry, were brutally murdered a few days ago when their car broke down. Their little 5-year-old daughter was also shot but survived.

Venezuela is a spectacular nation, blessed with abundant natural resources and stunning beauty. From Angel Falls to the Caribbean islands, nature has blessed this nation with abundant and fertile lands, not to mention the crude oil reserves in Lake Maracaibo and the gold in the ground.

Unfortunately, the riches of the nation have been distributed unequally to the point of forcing many into a life of serious crime. The homicide rate is near the top of world statistics, and the prisons are overflowing. The staggering amount and wide distribution of serious crimes is affecting everyone from the very poor to the very rich. Ironically, Monica Spear and her family moved to Miami out of fear for their safety. Nearing the end of a holiday vacation, fate caught up with them.

If there is one good thing that can be said about it, it is the fact that thousands of people came to her funeral and thousands more protested the senseless violence the Bolivarian nation is confronting.

And now the weather

After an early spring followed by another cold front, the Southern Cone countries of Brazil, Uruguay and Argentina have been hit with several waves of severe weather, which included some of the most intense lightning and thunder this observer has ever witnessed.

Torrential rains in Brazil took their toll in human lives, and Uruguay also had several casualties, including a police officer who was killed in downtown Montevideo when hit by a swinging door he was trying to secure during one of the storms, which packed winds of up to 100 km/h.

Argentina also suffered one of the worst heat waves in their recorded history that was compounded by the failure of the electric grid in Buenos Aires, causing brownouts, blackouts and several heat-related casualties. The worst incident happened in the small beach town of Villa Gesell, where four youngsters were killed on the beach by lightning and another 22 injured. The tragedy happened so quickly that the victims never had a chance to escape.

I will not opine on the cause of all this severe weather, from the polar vortex to the unseasonably severe cold in Antarctica that caused an Australian tour boat to get stuck in the pack ice, forcing other important scientific programs to be interrupted when several additional ships had to be sent to their rescue. The Australian organizer of the trip defended his expedition as having valid scientific value by explaining that the lay observers on the ship were qualified to make observations of the current conditions in the region.

Antarctica, being the last frontier on this planet, has been exploited for high-end tourism for several years, and this latest problem is no different from any other for-profit organized tour.

Jamie Douglas
At large in Uruguay

I encourage you to write me at cruzansailor [at] gmail [dot] com with any questions or suggestions you may have. Disclaimer: I am not in any travel-related business. My advice is based on my own experiences and is free of charge (Donations welcome). It is always my pleasure to act as a beneficial counselor to those who are seekers of the next adventure.

Expat News and Info Jan 6, 2014: Libya, Brazil (reposted from original location)

article from January 6, 2014
By Jamie Douglas

Working in Libya

During the attack on Libya that deposed Muammar Gaddafi, I wrote two articles (here and here) for Expat Daily News forecasting that there would be many openings in the oil fields of Libya, which holds the largest oil reserves in Africa, to rebuild the infrastructure that has been neglected for decades and also to build new high-capacity pipelines.

Sure enough, there is now a sizeable population of expat workers under contract to various companies as well as the state-owned Libyan oil company. But one must always be careful when navigating the explosive atmosphere of this country. After 40 years of iron-fisted rule by the despot, there is still a lot of hatred against Westerners present in this oil-rich nation.

Sadly, two expats decided to go on a romantic beachfront picnic in western Libya recently, but instead of having an undisturbed time on a lovely beach, they were later found shot to death, execution style.

Tripoli itself has several enclaves of expats who only move in heavily secured convoys, and life is very difficult for them, as they are unable to move freely. The concept of accompanying family members is impossible to realize, but the excellent salaries are enough incentive for foreigners to go live in this desert wasteland that is suffering from all kinds of security issues.

Brazil, the “B” in BRICS

The only Portuguese-speaking nation in the New World, Brazil is the fifth-largest nation in the world. It is home to over 200 million people, the majority of which live in poverty.

The nation had become the darling of investors, with its ever-growing GDP, and the currency of the nation, after years of wild swings and hyperinflation, became one of the strongest in Latin America. Along with that came a new era in politics that brought socialist Lula da Silva into the office of the presidency. New wealth was created with industries and a middle class was established, but the very poor still existed below what the World Bank considers to be abject poverty, US$1.25 per day per family.

With all the newfound wealth, one would have expected the administration of Lula da Silva to institute stronger social programs to stabilize the destitute and build a sustainable social safety net. But instead, he committed the nation to take on the Soccer World Cup as well as the Olympic Games, squandering billions of dollars in the process.

His successor, Dilma Rousseff inherited a mess of corruption that ate away at the core of the government, with ministers and governors as well as local politicians robbing the nation’s coffers.

The nation initially was spared the impact of the meltdown that was triggered by the real estate bubble in the USA and Europe, but by late 2013, the Brazilian real had lost almost 30% in value, and the nation was downgraded by the major ratings agencies.

The new affluence has brought in many manufacturers and there has been a boom in auto sales, which, in turn, has created a demand for refined petroleum products, a large portion of which has to be imported, adding to the problems of inflation and the nation’s trade deficit.

Meanwhile, the construction projects for the World Cup are way behind schedule and the quality of the construction can only be described as shoddy, leading the FIFA President Sepp Blatter to issue an unusually blunt statement on January 6, 2014.

This is also an election year, which will see Dilma Rousseff try to hang on to the presidency of Brazil. Her current approval rating is 52% among the desperately poor but at an all-time low of 0% among the upper classes. She has looked at the example set in Argentina for years, covering free food, TVs, cash handouts, large child allowances and generally buying the election with the poor on her side a la Evita Peron.

There is no doubt that the disenfranchised Brazilian masses need government assistance, so just imagine what could have been done with the trillion dollars the nation is spending on itself to celebrate its exit from “developing nation” status.

One of the biggest priorities Brazil should have is to create decent jobs to get the millions of young unemployed into mainstream Brazil. There will always be favelas (slums), but the living conditions there should be improved by creating much-needed infrastructure for the poor instead of giving them a little money.

Jamie Douglas
At large in the Americas

[Image of Tripoli Central Business District via Wikipedia]

I encourage you to write me at cruzansailor [at] gmail [dot] com with any questions or suggestions you may have. Disclaimer: I am not in any travel-related business. My advice is based on my own experiences and is free of charge (Donations welcome). It is always my pleasure to act as a beneficial counselor to those who are seekers of the next adventure.

About Those Plans to Become an Expatriate... (reposted from original location)

article from January 2, 2014
By Jamie Douglas

As we enter another new year, many people in the Northern Hemisphere are taking stock of their lives, looking to better their situation and location, and in the deep freeze of winter they are dreaming of the easy life on a tropical beach with coconuts, pineapples and bananas.

But wait – there is much more to that equation. All of us who have successfully migrated out of our nest-countries have had to make sacrifices we did not plan on. Some of those are what are referred to as “comfort items,” like foods. You will not be able to find a Waffle House or bagel shops, and there is probably no Marmite, fish ‘n’ chips or instant gravy mixes in any flavor you like.

When you first start your inquiries at consulates about residency, you will be overwhelmed at the amount of hurdles you have to clear in order to get that cherished residency in Parador. And when you finally do and arrive in your dream destination, which you have hopefully spent some months getting to know, you might not be too charmed by all the bureaucracy and graft to outright corruption and extortion you might encounter, depending on where you go.

Of course, if you chose a country like Uruguay, the process is, as Mark Mercer at Uruguay Expat Life puts it, a comprehensible, fair, attainable process (they have more great articles about Uruguay residency and other such technicalities, too).

There are some things you must however be prepared to leave behind: first and foremost are your friends and relatives. The further away you are, the more difficult it will be, and making friends in a new place is not easy. You will always be looked upon as the strangers, even long after you live in a place.

Getting a job is not always easy, even if you have great IT skills, as the locals have acquired them as well, and they are doing the work at a fraction of the cost and are, of course, perfectly fluent in their native tongue as well as the computer languages required to write code.

If your wealth allows you to maintain a standard of living such as what you had back home, you will be the envy of your neighbors, so make sure you live in a neighborhood that you blend into to reduce your chances of being victims of crimes. The best deterrent is to try to be modest in your display of wealth.

If you have kids going to school, they will make friends quickly and get acclimatized to the culture faster than the adults do. And it is normal to see expats dragging their kids along to translate for them.

Primarily, you should keep in mind that you left your familiar surroundings to be exposed to a new and adventurous life.

I have been an expat on and off for over 50 years, changing countries and continents frequently, never getting bogged down by property ownership. Having spent years in adventurous nations where property ownership may change from revolution to revolution, I have never had to abandon it all because of civil unrest or a coup d’état.

I have had to rush out of a few locales with one or two suitcases, leaving behind my appliances and a few personal items. (How I remember those adventures in Fiji, New Caledonia, Bolivia, Guatemala, Papua New Guinea, South Africa etc...) I never had to go back and fight military juntas to get my property back; but I got some great stories, from climbing off the back of a truck into an idling Braniff DC-8 on the takeoff runway in La Paz, Bolivia, to rafting from the Isle of Pines to New Caledonia on the South Equatorial Current (watch for these to come!).

It has certainly been an exciting ride, which was made all the easier by my lack of attachments to just about anything with the exception of exposed film. I actually do not recommend some of my wild times to most people; but in these unsettled times, we never know what tomorrow’s headlines bring: Todos yanquis fuera de Parador!

Jamie Douglas
La Paloma, Uruguay

I encourage you to write me at cruzansailor [at] gmail [dot] com with any questions or suggestions you may have. Disclaimer: I am not in any travel-related business. My advice is based on my own experiences and is free of charge (Donations welcome). It is always my pleasure to act as a beneficial counselor to those who are seekers of the next adventure.

Expat Financial Advice: In the U$ Dollar We Trust (reposted from original location)

article from December 30, 2013
By Jamie Douglas

As 2013 draws to a close, many of us are wondering what may lie ahead for us in the coming year.

Where to place your trust

A little over three years ago, I wrote two articles – Basic Financial Advice for New Expats and a follow-up – urging my readers to not believe in all the false prophets of doom and gloom in regard to the US dollar. This is a follow-up on both of those articles, which focus on Latin America.

As we have all witnessed the boom and bust of the “nouveau riche” BRIC nations over that period, one nation that, until recently, seemed isolated from the world’s economic troubles has been Australia. But the Aussie dollar has lost over 15% in value over the past year, as China has been affected by the global slump and its demand for the mineral wealth in Australia has waned.

In its place, the Chinese have taken their hoard of 1.4 trillion US dollars to buy into the mines and mineral rights of other mineral-rich nations around the world, even landing in tiny Uruguay to exploit that nation’s meager iron ore deposits.

While global currencies have an uncertain future, with more problems forecast for the Euro Zone for 2014, the almighty US dollar has held its course, with the help of steady support from Ben Bernanke, and has gained substantially against virtually all Latin American nations’ currencies, with the exception of those currencies that are either fixed to the dollar or those nations that are using the dollar as their own currency.

A December 27, 2013, Bloomberg News analysis of Latin American currencies should be sufficient to convince all travelers and expats in the region to keep their money in US dollars or Swiss francs to protect their nest eggs. And as Jeffrey Grossman, president of BRG Brokerage, explains, “compared to all the other currencies, as we always say, even when it’s at its weakest, [the US dollar is] still the best horse at the glue factory. In 2013, the Dow Jones Index gained 25% and the Standard and Poor´s Index gained 28%.

Where not to place your trust

Never automatically trust fellow expatriates who want to help you invest your money in crash-proof funds or metals. In many cases, their job is to fleece you with fancy schemes to buy fractional ownership in vineyards in Argentina, teak farms in Central America or, worst of all, to get suckered into one of those pricey seminars to sell you real estate, urging you to invest in Colombia as if there was not a civil war raging there for the last 50+ years. The vultures at Escape Artist (Disclaimer: I was indirectly involved as a writer with these people several years ago, but distanced myself after I realized whom I was dealing with) and similar publications will gladly fleece you of your life savings ...but wait – I have a bridge for sale somewhere!

Enjoy the day, commit an act of selfless kindness and have a great new year!

Jamie Douglas
Still at large in South America

I encourage you to write me at cruzansailor [at] gmail [dot] com with any questions or suggestions you may have. Disclaimer: I am not in any travel-related business. My advice is based on my own experiences and is free of charge (Donations welcome). It is always my pleasure to act as a beneficial counselor to those who are seekers of the next adventure.

The New Allure of Uruguay: Legalization of Marijuana (reposted from original location)

article from December 28, 2013
By Jamie Douglas

The month of December has seen this little country, lodged between the butt cheeks of its giant neighbors Brazil and Argentina, take a leap of faith by legalizing the cultivation and purchase of cannabis legal (consumption was already legal).

Deliberations have been ongoing since President José “Pepe” Mujica asked for legalization of marijuana in 2012, and this in spite of neither him nor his wife, Senator Lucía Topolansky, being smokers of the weed.

And so it was that on December 10, 2013, the Senate voted 16 to 13 to create a legal marketplace for marijuana. On December 23, 2013, the president signed the bill, also declaring that from that moment, Uruguayan citizens were free to cultivate up to six plants per household.

Within 120 days, the nation’s drug control agency will have to write and implement regulations governing the cultivation, sale, and all aspects thereof. It is already understood that all participants will have to be licensed residents or citizens of the nation, with 40 grams allotted per legal person per month.

The opposition parties of course immediately decried the new law, using age-old clichés regarding  the easy access children will now have to this “dangerous gateway drug” – the same tired argument that has been used in the US´s failed War on Drugs which has cost hundreds of thousands of lives, ruined millions of others and created an organized crime monster that operates their own fleet of jet aircraft, ships and submarines, reaping billions in profits and, in the US´s own neighbor, Mexico, killing any opposing gangs by the thousands in the most gruesome manner imaginable.

Marijuana is nothing new to Uruguay. Paraguay, one of the member states of the faltering MERCOSUR alliance, has been one of the world´s largest cultivators of cannabis for quite a while now, and what it lacks in quality (everything) it makes up in quantity. Unfortunately, it is compressed with massive hydraulic machines and impregnated with everything from cow urine to odor-masking chemicals, which end up in consumers´ lungs.

It is the adulteration of the weed that causes harm, not the product itself. So one might deduce that the legalization of the sale and consumption of cannabis in South America will result in a healthier experience for the user.

Amsterdam-like narco-tourism

In my opinion, the pseudo-legalization of cannabis in Amsterdam was a total failure because the social experiment was never properly codified, drawing losers from around the planet like a magnet. Looking the other way not only meant that cannabis was tolerated, but along with it, every other conceivable form of drug, from heroin to methamphetamine. Having cafés dispense hashish and marijuana also provided adequate fodder for drug syndicates to establish a foothold, something the Dutch citizens were not prepared for. But in the 40 plus years since the social experiment began, it has virtually become the genie that got out of the bottle.

The suggested laws governing the sale and consumption to foreigners will limit their participation in the Uruguayan cannabis subculture to what tourist already do now: buy from strangers on the street, in all likelihood ending up with the dark brown cow-piss-stained garbage they have been getting by way of Paraguay. The lush, green local nuggets will be reserved for legitimate license holders, some of whom, no doubt, will try to cash in on selling it at premium prices on the black market.

If you are considering a trip to get high, I recommend states like Colorado, where you not only have legal weed, but also incredible scenery to enjoy while you have your smoke and fall into a dream. With the high airfare to get to Montevideo from North America, you can get to Colorado and buy a bunch of really good weed for that “Rocky Mountain High!”

Cannabis legalization in Uruguay did not become a reality to boost tourism. That sector is doing quite well, in spite of the fact that there is rather little to see and do, other than bathing in freezing waters and enjoying the sand dunes along the Atlantic coast from the Miami Beach of South America, Punta del Este, to the Brazilian Border in Chuy.

Jamie Douglas

[Image via Wikipedia]

I encourage you to write me at cruzansailor [at] gmail [dot] com with any questions or suggestions you may have. Disclaimer: I am not in any travel-related business. My advice is based on my own experiences and is free of charge (Donations welcome). It is always my pleasure to act as a beneficial counselor to those who are seekers of the next adventure.

It Finally Happened: Venezuela Is Admitted to Mercosur

article from August 1, 2012
By Jamie Douglas

On July 31, 2012, the three monkeys, you know, the blind one, the mute one and the one who can’t smell a rat broke the original Mercosur Treaty and, in their greed for energy, allowed Venezuela into the club of dying nations. They are dying because, except for Uruguay, the economies of the other nations are tanking at a pretty good clip. The ride is over for Argentina and Brazil.

Uruguay is getting the better part of the deal, because frightened Argentineans and Brazilians are repatriating their soon-to-be-worthless or, in the case of Argentina, already worthless money into the only safe haven they know of.

The situation in Argentina is so dire that Empress Cristina’s government bought a whole slew of dogs that supposedly can sniff out money being smuggled out of the country. The dogs have never eaten better! Here Fido, have some asada. Sources in Uruguay are stating that there has been no slowdown in Argentinean pesos coming across the border. Perhaps the money would have been better spent to train the dogs to sniff out cocaine and pasta base, which is causing a crime wave in the Southern Cone nation.

So now it is a done deal, illegal as hell of course, but the photo of the four dunces says it all: They should all have oily mustaches (Cristina probably already has one from having her nose up Hugo’s behind).

Meanwhile, Paraguay, where the original document that lays the groundwork for the four-nation treaty lies in repose, was suspended by the other three for having impeached President Fernando Lugo, thereby making the unanimous requirement for the entry of additional nations meaningless.

A little history is in order here: Since the Great Dictator Hugo Chávez took power in Venezuela, human rights, along with freedom of the press and freedom of expression, have gone to hell in a hand basket in Venezuela. Now bring in Paraguay, with the Honorable Field Marshal Strössner also having ruled with dictatorial powers, whose Senate suddenly wants to be the “good guys,” the human rights champions of that landlocked nation, and deny the entry of Venezuela into Mercosur for its violations of the Inter-American Free Press Accord.

A funny thing happened on the way to the impeachment of Bishop Fernando Lugo: The very Senate that had threatened Lugo with impeachment, should he vote for the admission of the Bolivarian nation, found itself without a vote at all after impeaching him. While the Mercosur summit was happening at the Intercontinental Hotel in Mendoza, Argentina, a Paraguayan delegation desperately tried to get into the summit to register their vote but was prevented from doing so by armed Argentinean gendarmes. By impeaching their undesirable socialist president, they had actually facilitated what they were trying to prevent: the admission of Venezuela into the Mercosur.

Oil speaks louder than words and treaties. Until the World Court or the US-run OAS decides that this was an illegal move, Venezuela will enjoy all the benefits of its membership in a useless organization, pouring crude down the throat of the member nations while gaining very little ...except prestige among losers.

Jamie Douglas
At Large in the Southern Cone

[Image of Mercosur Headquarters in Montevideo, Uruguay, via Wikipedia]

I encourage you to write me at cruzansailor [at] gmail [dot] com with any questions or suggestions you may have. Disclaimer: I am not in any travel-related business. My advice is based on my own experiences and is free of charge (Donations welcome). It is always my pleasure to act as a beneficial counselor to those who are seekers of the next adventure.

The Expat Mantra

article from July 24, 2012
by Julie R Butler

This is a point that escapes some people when they move abroad. Yes, they take note of the obvious differences, such as language, food, music, how people look and how they dress, which side of the road they drive on, and when the dinner hour is. But beyond customs, it just doesn’t occur to many people that there are other kinds of differences, such as ethical principles, legal systems, rights, and laws that can catch the unaware off guard.

There have been several occasions when I have come to the sad conclusion that people think that rather than being in a foreign country, they have merely entered a larger version of Epcot Center in Disneyland, and the “employees” are there to serve their every wish and desire, which is to have good old “American” style french fries with regular old catsup or to have A-1 Steak Sauce with their beef rather than chimichurri. (Asking for “salsa ah-uno” will probably not elicit the desired result.) Maybe they will get used to the exquisite flavor of plain and unadulterated all-natural grass-fed beef, and even find it pleasing, after a while.

Then there is the surprise when, faced with a sea of bureaucracy, with a legal advisor who is unable to expedite anything and, in fact, seems to only be shuffling papers, stalling, and piling on unforeseen fees, they discover that there is absolutely nothing that waiving their passport around and exclaiming (in English, of course) “I am an American citizen!” or even complaining to the nearest US consulate or embassy about having been ripped off or getting the run-around can do for them.

That is precisely what it means to be in a foreign country.


There are scammers and con artists everywhere in the world, so it would not be fair to characterize any one culture as having more when, from the point of view of a newly arrived foreigner who does not speak the local language and is entirely unfamiliar with the country’s system of law as well as the specifics of the law in that particular place, it may seem like everyone is out to take advantage of you. Scammers have honed the skill of finding the most vulnerable people to scam. It’s their job.

It is therefore the job of the newly arrived foreigner to do their due diligence and learn all they can about the laws, along with figuring out whom to deal with, before engaging in any legal or serious financial transactions. Get to know people in the community, and then get references for the necessary lawyers, real estate agents, translators, builders, etc. – but not from the same organization that is looking to make a bundle of money off you in, say, a property sale. Ask a variety of other people who have gone through the same process that you are about to go through.

Latin American culture values time well-spent over expedience; arrangements for the future are often not considered to be very binding; and time frames can be even wider than when your cable company promises their guy will show up sometime on a certain date – we are talking weeks, here. In many places, it is a cultural habit to commit to things that one has no intention of actually committing to as a strange twist on what is considered to be politeness, as it seems to be more polite to say “yes” without meaning it than to be honest and just say “no.” It may even be the case that the society you are in is somewhat insular, and taking advantage of outsiders is not a reflection on how ethical someone is considered to be within that society.

These are all issues that take time and experience to learn about, so patience should reign for any new expat in any foreign culture. Do not allow yourself to be impatient, and if impulsiveness is your modus operandi, then try not to commit more money than you can afford to let go of, in case your judgment turns out to have been off base because you didn’t quite grasp the subtleties of a situation or were too trusting of someone you didn’t know that much about.

Legal systems

It may also be that the legal system is so convoluted and arbitrarily enforced that even the most competent attorney will not know exactly what to expect in each case.

Civil law systems are often characterized as such. People from the US and the UK are used to common law, so it is difficult to comprehend a system that emphasizes procedures over substance. For example, going through the various steps required to register a piece of property takes precedence over the deed to the property. You may be the owner of the title to a parcel, but unless that title is properly registered, you may not be the owner of the land that the title is attached to.

This system is vexing to anyone who believes they should be able to look at a list of required documents on a website and take care of the process themselves because the emphasis on procedures means that each official will interpret those procedures somewhat differently, and there is no way to know what each one will decide to emphasize.

Add to the confusion that the rules and regulations might change frequently. In this case, if you are undertaking a particularly complicated maneuver, by the time you have managed to complete all the necessary steps, the rules have changed, so you have to get a whole new set of signed and notarized documents and pay the new, higher fees that have been put in place, even though you began the process under an entirely different set of rules, regulations, and fees. Argh!

The expat mantra

These are just a few of the ways that things can be different in a foreign country. Just keep repeating the expat mantra: Patience and Due Diligence, Patience and Due Diligence, Patience and Due Diligence... Sprinkled generously with Oms, and who knows, maybe wearing special shoes and clicking your heels together three times might also help. Just don’t expect a wizard (or an ambassador) to show up with a bag full of solutions. And forget about transmogrifying yourself back to the farm in Kansas. Instead, think blissful thoughts of eventually getting your residency.

You are in a foreign country. Things are different here.

Julie R Butler is a writer, journalist, editor, and author of several books, including Nine Months in Uruguay and No Stranger To Strange Lands (click here for more info). She is a contributor to Speakout at, and her current blog is Connectively Speaking.
email: julierbutler [at] yahoo [dot] com, Twitter: @JulieRButler

Parada en Paysandú, Uruguay

article from July 23, 2012
by Julie R Butler

After driving for five days (at a leisurely pace) from San Rafael, Mendoza, to the Cataratas de Iguazú in the northeastern reaches of Argentina, then selling our car and riding the overnight bus to Colón to be dropped off on the side of a four-lane divided highway at the first light of dawn on a chilly Sunday morning, we took a taxi through the border crossing into Uruguay and on into the center of Paysandú, landing at the lovely Hotel El Jardín, where a warming fire, a fresh pot of coffee, and a serviceable staff made us feel comfortable and happy to be back to lil’ ol’ Uruguay once again.

The day was cloudy and gray and the mess of a big construction project on the main street of the city dampened the mood a little (they are installing fiber optics and putting all of the utilities under the sidewalks, which were greatly in need of repair, anyway). But after walking about and getting oriented, we found ourselves in a noisy pizza place that was full of soccer fans watching the World Cup qualifying match between Uruguay’s beloved team – known as La Celeste, the sky-blue color in the first flags of Uruguay and the team uniforms – and Peru. The pizza was great, plus we caught the dramatic, game-clinching goal and were a part of the thunderous celebration that it elicited. It was not a bad way to start things off.

Over the next few days, the weather brightened up as we explored the city. Happily, even though we didn’t know what exactly the Monument a Perpetuidad might entail, we wandered into this beautiful historic cemetery that features exquisite sculpture on par with what can be found in the famous Recoleta Cemetery in Buenos Aires except that this memorial garden is much less crowded and very tranquil. The remains of the scientists and philanthropists, the housewives, children, and common men “who forged the Paysandú of today” rest peacefully here, and their memories are honored with amazing marble artwork by Italian masters of the day.

The third-largest city in Uruguay, Paysandú is a commercial and industrial center as well as a tourist destination, with attractive beaches and plenty of open park space on the Uruguay River along with the nearby thermal springs. The city is known for the weeklong beer festival that is held during the Easter holidays (it’s officially called Semana Turismo in Uruguay) and its Carnival season celebrations.

Paysandú has rich historical significance for the Eastern Republic, having begun as an attempt at becoming one of the Jesuit missions (known as reducciones de indios) that were set up throughout the Río de la Plata Basin beginning in the seventeenth century. It was located at a cattle crossing of the Uruguay River and soon became established as a port known for its leatherworks and beef jerky plant. The jerky was once popular with the Portuguese as inexpensive sustenance for their African slaves, while the leather from Paysandú is still prized to this day. The wool fabrics produced here are also prized, and the other main industries are forestry products, citrus, cement, and beer. Paysandú is probably most famous within Uruguay for the heroic defense of its outnumbered inhabitants against Brazilian invaders in 1865 – a common theme in this tiny country.

We learned all kinds of interesting information in the modest history museum, and everywhere we went in the city, people were proud to point out the many historical buildings and monuments.

Photos by Jamie Douglas and Julie R Butler:

Julie R Butler is a writer, journalist, editor, and author of several books, including Nine Months in Uruguay and No Stranger To Strange Lands (click here for more info). She is a contributor to Speakout at, and her current blog is Connectively Speaking.
email: julierbutler [at] yahoo [dot] com, Twitter: @JulieRButler

The Wonders of Iguazu Falls

article from July 20, 2012
by Julie R Butler

Located at the edge of the farthest reaches of northeastern Argentina, they are called Cataratas do Iguaçu in Portuguese, Cataratas del Iguazú in Spanish, and Iguazu Falls in English. In the indigenous Tupí-Guaraní language, the name Yguasu means “big water.” Whatever you call them, they are magnificent, worthy of being named one of the “New 7 Wonders of Nature” as well as being a double UNESCO World Heritage Site, due to the existence of separate national parks on the Brazilian and the Argentinean sides of the river.

The Iguazu River begins far to the east of the falls, near the city of Curitiba on the western slope of the coastal mountains called Serra do Mar. It makes its way over 800 miles through dense, semitropical forest across the basalt plateau that was formed by a lava flow, over the edge of which the falls cascade so dramatically.

Rather than spanning straight across the river, this ledge stretches for 1.4 miles, bending and curving across a river that, helped by the numerous islands just above the drop-off, spreads itself out in a wide bend, providing for many waterfalls and cascades, to spectacular effect.

Devil’s Throat, so-named because it is in the form of a narrow chasm that channels an impressive half of the river’s flow, is the highlight for anyone who comes to experience this wonder of the natural world. Visitors to Argentina’s Iguazu National Park can ride the tourist train to the farthest station and then follow the catwalk that crosses the placid upper waters from island to island to reach the viewing platform at the very edge of the chasm. As one draws near, the sight of spray rising in a beckoning fog quickens the heart with anticipation. Upon arrival, the initial up-close encounter with the power of so much water plummeting at the chokepoint is breathtaking. Not only is the cascading water mesmerizing, but the misty spray, the tenacity of the tufts of green clinging to life on the precipices, and the grandeur of it all cause the visitor to linger, basking in the amazing energy of this inimitable setting.

The other train stop, named the Catarata Station, is the access point for viewing more of the falls via two walking circuits: the Upper Trail and the Lower Trail. If time or ailing knees are a concern, the upper path is the one to go with. It offers many views of the long line of cascades from the tops of waterfalls such as Adam and Eve that reveal its vast scope – complete with stunning rainbows, a veritable Garden of Eden (minus the apples, as it’s too hot here).

For the good-of-knee, the lower of the two trails is well worth the effort, bringing the visitor to the base of several cascades to experience the thrill of the water’s pounding arrival at the termination of its fall. This more extensive circuit also leads to a different part of the river, affording unforgettable panoramic viewpoints of the falls. Those who have scheduled plenty of time at the park can hop on a launch and head over to explore the wonders San Martin Island for a couple of hours.

Hikers who are interested in encountering some of the unique wildlife in the park may prefer to forego the train ride from the Visitors Center to the Catarata Station by taking the 15-minute walk along the Green Trail. For a much more intimate encounter with the natural setting, the off-the-beaten-path Macuco Nature Trail leads through the jungle to an isolated waterfall, requiring at least three hours to come and go.

Also available are excursions with Iguazu Jungle Explorer. The Great Adventure is a thrilling one-hour tour that combines a photo safari on an open 4x4 through the forest with a ride on a double-engine inflatable boat heading upriver through rapids to the mouth of Devil’s Throat, while the Nautical Adventure takes passengers along the shores of San Martin Island right up to the base of several falls. Both of these tours feature bilingual guides.

Spanish speakers will benefit from the intimate knowledge shared by the guides on the Ecological Tour, which navigates gently through the jungle on rowboats down a thread of the Upper Iguazu River. This tour through nature at its purest highlights the fact that the falls are not the only attraction of the park, and the farther away from the commotion of human activities one can get, the more likely they are spot an elusive puma, jaguar, or tapir.

Avid bird-watchers also flock to Iguazu Falls, as the multitude of birds that are known to live in the park represents almost half of the species that exist in Argentina, the eighth-largest country on the planet. The amazing Great Dusky Swift that nests on the sheer cliffs behind the falls is among the most intriguing of the feathered friends to be found at the falls.
And let’s not forget the romantics... Full moon tours offer either viewings of the moonrise over Devil’s Throat or full-moon-lit nighttime visits to the falls, each with dinner and a cocktail included, of course.

Additionally, the Yvyrá Retá Interpretive Center provides information about the Interior Atlantic Rainforest setting of the falls (and how fragile it is), as well as about the various cultures that have lived here throughout history. Visitors can even help the impoverished local indigenous community by purchasing unique Guaraní handicrafts in the park.

Photos by Jamie Douglas and Julie R Butler:

Julie R Butler is a writer, journalist, editor, and author of several books, including Nine Months in Uruguay and No Stranger To Strange Lands (click here for more info). She is a contributor to Speakout at, and her current blog is Connectively Speaking.
email: julierbutler [at] yahoo [dot] com, Twitter: @JulieRButler