Saturday, December 30, 2017

Fake Advertising

While visiting my old stomping grounds in rural upstate New York this Christmas, I had the chance to catch up with some old friends who, despite their opportunities to leave, chose to remain in our hometown. The area is struggling economically and suffering from the opioid endemic. The nearest town of about 30,000 doesn’t offer all the glamour and diversity that larger, up and coming cities afford. Yet, my friends are deeply rooted in the community, and committed to making a difference. They are teaching in schools where the senior class is 40 students or less, converting their barn into a local CrossFit so people can work out in the cold wintry months, preaching sermons on loving those outside their comfort zone, providing rehab classes for drug addicts, building friendships with the small contingent of Muslims at the local Islamic society, and renovating old industrial buildings into coffee shops. 

On the flip side, I came across this article in the airport as I was departing NY. The article describes a couple paid $200k per year to “travel” (“advertise”, really). As they confess, it’s not as glamorous as it sounds. Chasing the next expense-free trip ad contract, they’ve lost the ability to travel authentically - as a means of curiosity, education, and service - while maintaining the mirage that the nomadic life is the norm, the new American dream. This is treacherous, as it turns people into anxious consumers. After all, what are they really advertising: a vacation destination or a way of life that can only be lived vicariously through Instagram?

Almost all of us have experienced that the more we attach ourselves to social media, the more prone we become to comparing ourselves to others. Social media, when used to promulgate a virtual lifestyle, is a breeding ground for FOMO.

Admittedly, I sometimes will seek out the next travel opportunity partly due to a fear of missing out. But when I think back to my friends in NY, I am challenged to step back and think about the roots I am growing in the community around me. One could say that a town, or even a life, is only as glamorous as the community and commitments that knit and bind it together. Ultimately, what the world needs, what we need, is to resist the sway of social media and FOMO, and be true to our own calling.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017


In an effort to foster local textile manufacturing, Rwanda, Uganda, and Tanzania have committed to phasing out the importation of Second-Hand Clothes (SHC) from the United States by 2019, despite the United States’ looming threat to reconsider the East African Community (EAC) members’ eligibility for duty-free access to the American market under the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA). The move has sparked widespread debate, as the ban would directly affect governments, businesses, and the poor, in East Africa and the US alike. As an American who is deeply passionate about understanding and tackling the roots of global poverty, this issue challenges me to wrestle with all sorts of practical and ideological questions... 

Is America’s aid policy hampering African development? 

Is it fair for the EAC to be removed from AGOA?

What is AGOA anyhow, and is it any good? 

And of course, is it morally dubious to sell used clothes to Africans?

Where do we take our stance? 

The Ethics of Selling Second-Hand-Clothes

What may surprise many, including myself, is that our donated clothes are sold for profit to the EAC, and around the world, for that matter. While seemingly incredulous at first, freely donating clothes would undercut local textiles even more. An illuminating study by CUTS International reports, “the cotton produced in Africa (EAC) is spun and woven in Asia, converted into apparels and shipped to the USA and EU to be worn for 2-3 years and shipped back to Africa (EAC) as used clothing, to clothe up to 70% of the African population.” The demand for local fabric in the EAC is low precisely because the “fabric market is choked by SHC, which has led to the closure of several [at least six] textile mills” in Kenya and Uganda. 

As development leaders will point out (i.e. Paul Polak), donations and government subsidies undercut local manufacturing and prevent the economic forces of supply and demand from shaping new markets.

Furthermore, American’s typically perceive used clothes as worn, tattered, and out of date, especially the ones donated to Africa. But that isn’t always the case. At the marketplaces where I lived in Rwanda, the used clothes were of surprisingly good quality and I would shop there. I even brought the clothes back to the States and wore them without anyone noticing (or at least saying anything)! There is significantly more overlap between the used and new clothes markets in East Africa than in America.

AGOA and United States Aid

AGOA is a piece of US legislation first signed into law by President Clinton in 2000. At it’s core, the AGOA initiative is designed to increase Africa’s access to the US market by providing duty-free entry to the US, with a provision specifically encouraging “textiles and apparel” exports from developing countries in Africa to the US. In light of this, shouldn’t a ban, or the tariffs recently imposed by the EAC, be promoted under AGOA? Increasing prices on second-hand clothes would foster African textile mills, build local economies, and encourage EAC exports of textiles and apparel to the US, a primary objective of AGOA. However, in response to Rwanda's recent tariff hike on SHC from $0.20/kg to $2.50/kg, the US is reconsidering Rwanda's eligibility for AGOA membership.

There is a not-so-subtle conflict of interest written into the eligibility criteria for countries participating under AGOA. The criteria state that beneficiaries must “promote the development of private enterprise” within their country and work toward “the elimination of barriers to United States trade and investment”. The exportation of SHC from the US is aligned with America’s trade interests but at odds with the development of private textile enterprises in the EAC. It is by the latter criterion that President Trump may choose to disqualify Rwanda, Uganda, and Tanzania from AGOA. 

Unfortunately, this isn’t the first time the US has enacted aid programs encumbered by self-interest. Bill Clinton’s trade policy forced Haiti to drop its tariffs on US rice exports, resulting in the obliteration of Haitian rice farming, with a plus up for Arkansas’ rice farmers (Clinton apologized in 2010). Moreover, during the Cold War, as development economist Dambisa Moyo writes, aid was the tool of a political contest, given not by “how deserving a country might be… but rather the willingness of a desperately impoverished country to ally itself with one camp or another” (Dead Aid, p 14).

So which is it? Aid or trade? When the rubber meets the road, one criterion will take precedence over the other. The answer depends on the motives and priorities behind AGOA. Interestingly, the AGOA website never describes the program as “aid,” but rather as bilateral trade. However, its apparel provision is unequivocally focused on the growth of “lesser developed” countries, and the Seychelles was “graduated out of AGOA… due to the country gaining developed country status." AGOA seems to be trade, with a humanitarian "aid" mission. 

That said, the data highlights the United States’ obvious preference for African minerals and oil over textiles. The plots below depict the recent imports/exports from Nigeria and the DR Congo (major sources of oil and minerals), as well as the EAC. Remember, AGOA aims to increase Africa’s market access, or in other words, increase exports from Africa to the US. But the EAC consistently has a negative trade balance. Despite AGOA providing a provision specifically for African apparel, the US, in practice, prefers to foster oil and mineral exports from Africa. Personally, I think the EAC should be encouraged to produce a product worth exporting under AGOA. Furthermore, I am excited to see how the new “Made in Rwanda” initiative will encourage Rwandan creativity, design, and entrepreneurship, in markets beyond just textiles. 

On a philosophical note, I wrestle with whether it is beneficial to foster African exports, in light of globalization and industrialism? Take Nigeria for instance. As a result of AGOA, Nigeria’s economy is becoming more dependent on America’s demand, and the global supply, for oil. Similarly, the success of Rwandan coffee growers (currently an export under AGOA) hinges on our cravings for caffeine and the whims of the market. If (and that is an if) AGOA exists to satiate our culture of Hummers and Starbucks, at the expense of African jobs and creativity, at what point does our trade policy, and even our aid policy, become a form of economic colonialism? Furthermore, does a country’s participation in the global economic arena require its industrialization? When it came to the revival of villages in the face of industrialization, Gandhi wrote,

The revival of the village is possible only when it is no more exploited. Industrialization on a mass scale will necessarily lead to passive or active exploitation of the villagers as the problems of competition and marketing come in. Therefore we have to concentrate on the village being self-contained, manufacturing mainly for use. 

As Gandhi was extremely skeptical of industrialization (to put it lightly), due to its potential for worker exploitation, social stratification, and unsustainable urbanization, so must we be cognizant of policies that promote unsustainable socio-economic systems in Africa. 

Alternatives to banning Second-Hand-Clothes
Of course, a ban on used clothes could backfire on the EAC by removing the poor’s access to affordable clothes and putting local resellers at risk of closing. Last year, Zimbabwe reversed its ban on use clothes for the sake of the effected poor. Furthermore, there is no guarantee that the ban will help East African garment makers as Asian producers will provide stiff competition.

This article explains a few alternatives, including a ban on certain types of clothes, such as undergarments or high-quality used clothes, and a phased approach that would ease tensions with the US and allowing local industry to develop over time. 

For example, the US could negotiate with the EAC a price and/or tax increase on US clothes exports that is mutually beneficial. US businesses selling SHC could increase their prices and the the US government could place an export tax on SHC exports to the EAC, commensurate to the EAC’s import tax. The effect would be the same on EAC consumers and textile industries (an increase in the price of used clothes), but the extra revenue would be shared among the governments and US businesses.

In summary, I believe the US should retain Rwanda, Uganda, and Tanzania's membership under AGOA and work with East Africa to negotiate a phased or partial ban on SHC. Furthermore, the US should be more consistent in its application of AGOA, by encouraging African manufacturing and exports over US imports, and not preferring oil over textiles.

Monday, January 2, 2017

Of Dogs and Men

Today, Patti and I took a stroll around San Francisco's Union Square, without much of an agenda except to meet people and practice street photography. We ended up meeting Jay, and his dog, Pepper, on the side of a busy corner where we chatted over some Starbucks about his journey from Southern California to SF. A few blocks later we ran into Ari and his dog, Chico. Ari was a legit fellow - he was friendly, knew his scripture, and had a great smile. We talked for half an hour about how to clean shrimp and the value of generously celebrating the lives of those we love before they pass away. 
Ari and his dog, Chico

Jay and his dog, Pepper

We prayed together before parting ways and Ari was very encouraged and spoke of God's favor resting on some people but not others because they've "been in a bad way", referring in part to himself. But now, he said, he hoped that would change. 

The beauty of carving out time in our lives to be spontaneous, or just having the mindfulness to set our own agendas aside for even a moment, is that it shifts the focus away from ourselves. And if we can step outside of ourselves and the walls that we have created (the comfortable house in the hills, shopping malls, holiday getaways, badge-only access to work), then we begin to connect with the needs, the beauty, and the unique stories of others.

It's not unlike hiking, where I often have to remind myself to look up from the roots on the trail in front of me in order to experience the people and places that surround me. 

As for these gents and their dogs, we didn't have a plan, we didn't hand out a meal, we didn't solve anyone's problems, but I think that's ok. Their stories are worth hearing, and that alone is reason enough to pause. 

And because Macy's was supporting dogs up for adoption through the SPCA, they had this pup on display in their window. Adopt a dog! :) 

Note: Out of respect, the individuals' names were changed and permission was asked to post photos online.

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Happy Two-Month Anniversary!

Patti and I celebrating our two-month anniversary hours after my surgery.

Three days after returning home from our seven-week globetrotting honeymoon the right side of my neck is swollen like a softball, and I find myself, for the first time, lying in a hospital bed. An elusive infection in my lymph nodes has caused severe inflammation extending from my right ear down to my windpipe and from my cheek over to my shoulder. I'm barraged by daily blood tests, CT scans and ultrasounds, antibiotics that irritate my veins, IVs swapped every other day, and pain medication that makes me loopy and fatigued. Uncertain of the specific diagnosis, the conscious me sits on the sidelines of my own battlefield, watching patiently for the size of my neck to shrink or grow, tipping the scales in favor of my body or an unseen enemy. But one thing is certain: when reciting our vows, Patti and I never thought the "sickness" part of "in sickness and in health" would be played out so early in our marriage.
Sure, the circumstances seem pretty gloomy for a newlywed couple, but in some ways the hospital has been more restful than our honeymoon, gallivanting throughout Southeast Asia in search of beaches, diving, and cultural excursions. Compared to some of the AirBnBs we stayed at, the hospital is definitely cleaner, my sheets are changed daily, and there is hot water and a working thermostat, not to mention breakfast, lunch, and dinner are included! To our surprise, the service is actually on par with the resort we stayed at in the Maldives; the staff addresses me by name and knows I would prefer the honey-glazed chicken over the Asian cod. Dare I say, with my window view, I might even be getting a hospital tan.
Yet our "extended honeymoon" has a much more profound meaning to me in the sense that it has defined and shaped the beginnings of our marriage in a way that no resort or beach ever could. Despite the sleepless nights and my growing inability to perform daily tasks, like changing my gown or eating solid food, Patti has patiently been at my side, never complaining and never worrying. She's grown a sense for what I need, a glass of water or a blanket for my feet, before I even know I need it, and she cheerfully takes the initiative to help. Sometimes, she even sneaks into my hospital bed so we can play games and watch Netflix together, never mind the nurse saying something about a hospital policy and the bed's weight limit. Other times we just sit in silence, tapping away on our cell phones, contently side by side. She walks with me the same 4th floor figure-eight loop hallway to which I am restricted, over and over, until I reach my daily step goal. Suffice to say, I have grown to deeply appreciate and cherish my wife, just as she has grown to love and care for me, as a result of our unintentional honeymoon extension.
It is Friday afternoon, the day of our two-month anniversary, and my fifth day in the hospital. There are still no signs that the swelling is subsiding. The ENT surgeon walks into my room after viewing my CT scan from a half hour ago. The scan reveals a large abscess filled with liquefied tissue forming in my neck, which is preventing the antibiotics from reaching the bacteria. He wants to perform surgery immediately to drain the abscess. Waiting could risk the infection spreading to my heart or brain. Surgery poses its own risks of course. The carotid artery, windpipe, vocal chords, and a bundle of nerves are all near the abscess. This is our hardest moment, when uncertainties and realities begin to merge. And while the choice is clear, the repercussions are not. Tissues in hand, we go ahead with the surgery that evening. Before I'm put under, Patti and I read Psalm 138 together, finding comfort in the last verses:
"Your love, Lord, endures forever - do not abandon the works of your hands."       
- Psalm 138:8
A praise, a reassurance, and an imperative, all rolled up in one.
I woke up, slowly. Groggily, I recall Patti leaning over the gurney with a big grin. The surgery went well, the doctors were able to drain more than anticipated, and within hours my pain had nearly vanished. Now, as I finish writing this a week later, I am told I could be discharged within a day or two. The swelling has diminished but it will still take another couple of weeks of rest and antibiotics until the infection is completely cleared up. But alas, an end to our honeymoon is in sight.
This may sound strange to some, but I recall during my first week in the hospital, while resting with my eyes closed, a vision of a large wooden door, made from strong thick timbers, and built into a stone archway. I step back and look above the door to discover our names, "Kyle and Patti Gaiser" engraved in the mossy stone. The archway is built into an even thicker layer of rock, which is built into the side of a mountain. The image confers an overwhelming sense of encouragement and peace, affirming that through these events God is laying the groundwork for our marriage - a solid foundation, built on a rock that cannot be easily toppled.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Touring the Stagecoach 400

“Everybody goes armed here. If a man has no shirt to his back he will have his knife in his belt.”
 - Phocion Way, San Antonio to San Diego Mail Line Passenger, 1858 []

The Stagecoach 400 bikepacking route. The blue is the first 225 miles, the route for which I signed up to ride.

Times have certainly changed in the 157 years since Phocian Way passaged what is now known as the Great Southern Overland Stage Route, America’s first transcontinental mail service that stretched from San Francisco down to San Diego and across to San Antonio, New Orleans and ultimately the Atlantic Coast. In a four-day journey from April 11th to 14th, I toured a segment of this route, by mountain bike, with my friend Kyle Karlson - a 225-mile long journey from Idyllwild, CA to San Diego known as the Stagecoach 400 (the route continues back to Idyllwild for a nearly 400 mile loop). 

In Phocion’s time, a journey across the western frontier was riddled with danger. Each passenger that was to embark on a stagecoach through the Southern California desert was advised to,

“provide himself with a Sharp’s rifle, (not carbine,) with accoutrements and one hundred cartridges, a navy sized Colts revolver and two pounds of balls, a belt and holster, knife and sheath; a pair of thick boots and woolen pants; half a dozen pairs thick cotton socks; three under shirts, there brown linen do; three woolen over shirts, a wide awake hat, a cheap sack coat, a soldiers overcoat, one pair of blankets in summer and two in winter; a piece of India rubber cloth for blankets; a pair of gauntlets… and three or four towels. Such money as he takes should be in silver or small gold.” 
 - San Diego Herald, November 21, 1857  []

Hostile Indians and gold-hungry bandits were the least of our concern, and thankfully we did not need to pack thick boots and multiple towels for the ride. In fact, our personal sleeping gear - tent, quilt and mattress - weighed in at under six pounds. But I imagine that the desert, in its arid, dusty, and charming way, and the steep rocky canyons that we summited, have remained, for the most part, unchanged, unscathed by manifest destiny. Water, food, vigilant planning, and a foolhardy sense of adventure were all of the essence to us as it was to Phocion Way. And so it was that we began our ride: 21st century mountain bikers riding into a 19th century cowboy-western.

Day 1: Idyllwild to Ocotillo Wells - 75 miles, +2792 ft / -7881 ft, 13 hrs

Idyllwild, CA - start of the Stagecoach route
We began our trek around 7:30am in the quaint mountain town of Idyllwild at a brisk elevation of 5400 ft. It was a short uphill on road before we hit a long winding stretch of downhill on a dirt road with great views of the surrounding hills and desert valley below where we were headed. The dirt road gave way to single track and a fun rocky downhill on the Jim Truck Trail before meeting up with the road to Anza. Anza, located in the flat of the valley, was much hotter and we stopped at Sunshine Market for a water refill and Gatorade. We were going strong and making good time since everything up to this point had been down, but mentally we were prepared for what we had been told was one of the most tiring sections of the route.

Approaching Coyote Canyon, Anza-Borrego Desert
Coyote Canyon, Anza-Borrego Desert

We descended into Coyote Canyon, a dry sandy and exposed wash speckled with rocks, boulders, and a host of prickly plants (Ocotillos, chollas, creosote bushes, and prickly pear cactus) that makes up the northern section of the Anza Borrego Desert. The lizards and little critters scampering along on the sand were our only companions for this 22 mile trek. We deflated our tires down to 20-22 psi, which helped us float on the packed or unbroken sandy patches. Even then some sections were too loose for pedaling, forcing us to dismount and hike. And then, when I was least expecting it…

An oasis!

Literally, a stream in the desert! A natural spring surrounded by lush green plants, palm trees and willows, which our trail went straight through. Suddenly we had been transported to a jungle and I was biking through mud and water up to our wheel hubs. My socks and shoes were soaked and it felt great. This lasted for about a mile before we were back to the sandy grind.

By mile 56 we were back in civilization scarfing down burritos and slurping horchata in Borrego Springs while knocking loose the sand in our shoes. Twenty more miles of road with a tailwind in our favor sped us to the Leapin’ Lizard RV Park in Ocotillo Wells (elevation 150 ft), where we lodged in the comfort of our own rented RV unit, affectionately named, “Lucy.” Our host, Deborah, was as hospitable as a mother to her children, providing us with two jugs of cold distilled water and a sheet on which to place our bikes inside the RV. We settled in and then hobbled over to the “Iron Door,” a local bar highly recommended by, well, the locals of the area. It was a simple, dim-lit place with a pool table, a couple plain tables, a bar that served up microwaved hotdogs, bud and bud light, and thousands of dollars of decade-old one-dollar bills taped to the walls and ceilings, each with signatures and handwritten notes, both affectionate and vulgar, of Ocotillo’s passers-byes. Half a drink through our visit I was falling asleep and my knees were aching and stiff, so we retired to Lucy.
Our RV Rental unit, Lucy.

Day 2: Ocotillo Wells to Agua Caliente - 38 miles, +2421 ft / -1338 ft, 8 hrs

Our breakfast consisted of a freeze-dried blueberry granola (better than it sounds, actually), a cinnamon bun and hostess cupcakes. We soaked our shirts in water since the rising sun was already warm and left the Lucy RV at 8am. Today was another hot day in the desert as we passed through Fish Creek Wash. The name is deceiving; the “creek” dried up ages ago, but it used to drain water from the surrounding mountains to the Salton sea. Now it’s a barren sandy canyon that splits the mountains into two ranges, the Vallecito Mountains to the west and the Fish Creek Mountains to the east. Nevertheless, the canyon was beautiful.

Entrance to Fish Creek Wash

Biking the wash was strenuous but not as difficult as we’d anticipated. In fact, for the first few miles we were going the same speed as a caravan of off road trucks trailing behind us. After we passed the Fish Creek Campsite we were mostly on our own. We passed the Wind Caves and the Elephant Knees rock formations and met up with the road that took us to Agua Caliente where we relaxed in the hot springs and pitched our tents for the night.

Campsite at Agua Caliente
The sign reads "Airport ->" Yes, really.

Agua Caliente’s sole resupply store was run by a man named Mark. Mark was a very chill guy who’s been living in the desert for the past nine years. He took us to the back of the store where he lives and showed us his homemade hot tub, homemade laser and plans for making his own greenhouse for growing veggies.

Day 3: Agua Caliente to Oakzanita - 44 miles, +6153 ft / -3475 ft, 12 hrs

Oriflamme. It sounds like something out of Lord of the Rings and it sure felt like we were climbing up Mordor. The trail up Oriflamme Canyon is exposed and rugged and the grade actually peaks at 21.6%. We were already tired from the past two days of sand.

Oriflamme Canyon - the picture doesn't do it justice

It was hours of hike-a-bike. In the map below you can see the blue line is the old stagecoach route that was used to deliver mail to San Diego. Agua Caliente is close to Vallecito. We road the same route to El Puerto and Box Canyon but where the route takes a sharp right around Granite Mountain, we took a sharp left to Oriflamme (not labelled) and ended in the Cuyamaca mountain range (shown southwest of Box Canyon). In fact, back in the 1800s, for expedient mail delivery (i.e. 38 days from San Antonio to San Diego) stagecoaches would take the Oriflamme route - it was a shorter but much more difficult route to San Diego.

Southern Emigrant Trail: section of the stagecoach route connecting San Antonio and San Diego []

Plenty of water, snacks, and bluegrass music helped me get through Oriflamme. On the other side of the ridge we were welcomed by green grass and wildflowers - apparently wind and rain don’t prefer to venture past Oriflamme either. The climate and landscape changed dramatically from here on out. The temperature was more moderate and the trails were harder packed dirt with plenty of shade once we entered the Cleveland National Forrest. Along the ridge we could see miles and miles of rolling green hills.

Crossing the Pacific Crest Trail after reaching the top of Oriflamme

A view of the Cleveland National Forrest

We made it to Oakzanita about half an hour after nightfall. It was chilly and the dew was gathering on our packs rapidly so we hustled to pick out a campsite and hit the hot showers and the hot tub - yes, there was actually a hot tub. We were living in luxury. 

Day 4: Oakzanita to San Diego - 67 miles, +2724 ft / -6425 ft, 11 hrs

Having used up nearly all my food the previous day, Kyle and I were craving a hearty breakfast. We headed for Descanzo where I ate a breakfast burrito, hash browns, scrambled eggs, chips & salsa, and horchata at Veronica’s Kitchen. Ten miles later and we were in Alpine, back to commercial and residential life. I distinctly remember passing a man weedwacking his landscaped lawn. He was taming nature. The desert had tamed us.

Second brunch: duck and chicken tacos.
We ate again at Alpine Brewery and completely stuffed ourselves. Once I was able to mount the bike again we continued. The rest of the journey was a cycle of paved road, dirt road, single track, repeat, until we reach San Diego where we awkwardly passed hoards of joggers through a large downtown park. It was nightfall by the time we reached Coronado Island - mile 225 - I had arrived!