Before leaving Quito I had a chance to have a good conversation with the proprietors of the hotel where I stayed. It was so satisfying for me because the conversations were in Spanish and I was able to understand and make myself understood, mas o menos. Progress!
[As an aside, this is a key advantage to staying in a small family-owned hotel. Yes, it will be less comfortable. But, it will also be less sterile. Not only will you save money you might also meet and learn from some real people.]
During one such conversation I learned the hotel owners’ entire family, 15 people of various ages, recently traveled to the U.S. They flew into Miami and went on to Orlando to visit, of course, Disney World. They loved it! It was the trip of a lifetime for them. But, they were surprised that everywhere they went they found nothing but shitty food and no where to walk.
This should surprise no one who lives in the U.S. I travel occasionally for business and it’s always a vacation from healthy living. Unless I’m staying in the center of a major city like New York, Chicago or San Francisco where public transportation is adequate, my hotel is typically on a concrete island devoid of fresh food. I might be able to walk to a next door restaurant or around the hotel where I’m staying but that’s about it unless I drive somewhere first. In contrast, most places I’ve traveled to outside the U.S., i.e., Europe, North Africa and various parts of Latin America, you can walk everywhere. Furthermore, it’s relatively easy to find fresh food.
In Quito, for example, and here in Otavalo where I am now and where I stayed for 2 days last weekend, it’s difficult to walk more than half a block in any direction without seeing fresh produce for sale or without seeing a restaurant or cafe offering a decent meal with real food, i.e., unprocessed meat, vegetables, rice, etc., for a very reasonable price.
When walking around Quito or Otavalo you’ll see on every block a small restaurant offering almuerzo. In Ecuador, almuerzo typically includes a bowl of hearty soup as the first course with maybe chicken and rice or potatoes, maybe corn and a few other vegetables. The second course typically includes a meat dish, often chicken, pork or fish along with a side of rice or beans and a small side salad. Then for the last course you’re often served a large glass of fresh fruit juice. Think smoothie or fresh squeezed juice but with an outrageous variety of delicious tropical flavors. So, you get a healthy variety of foods and it might cost $2 or $3. And, no tip required! Love that last part.
In contrast, imagine landing in Orlando where many foreigners visit to take their children to Disney. Visitors from Latin America will probably stay in a hotel away from the Magic Kingdom where rooms are less expensive. If fortunate, they may be next to an IHOP or Ruby Tuesday or Outback Steakhouse or similar within a short walk, probably across a scenic parking lot. If unlucky, maybe only a McDonalds, Wendy’s, Carl’s Junior or a gas station style convenience market. Or perhaps nothing at all. This means paying ~$15 for some protein and carbs. Maybe a salad and an overcooked side vegetable. Or, it might mean paying ~$7 for junk food at a fast food restaurant. Or maybe $3 for Ho-Ho’s and a Coke. Furthermore, after consuming a dose of fat and sugar there’s nowhere to walk to burn calories. You can either risk life and limb to cross freeways and four lane boulevards or you can hop on the hotel treadmill and watch Bill O’reilly yell at people. Nice.
The thing that occurs to me when I contemplate the nature of the typical American habitat as seen by foreigners is the US is increasingly at a competitive disadvantage in a global and mobile knowledge-based economy. Many careers with a future will require technology skills but permit mobility. I don’t think this bodes well for car-dependent communities in the US. And, people will only pay so much for the privilege of living in San Francisco or New York. If opportunities to earn a decent living as “mobile” work-from-home technology pros continue to grow while the cost of living differences persist between the US and Latin America, the outbound flow of relatively affluent and relatively young Americans could become a problem for the US economy.
Furthermore, from a demographic standpoint we are an aging country with our largest age cohort entering or nearing retirement. Retirees don’t want to spend their days in traffic. And they are much more motivated to eat healthy food and maintain a healthy lifestyle. This means more walking and may lead retirees to look beyond the shores and borders of the US. This is already happening in fairly large numbers with retirees landing here in Ecuador and elsewhere in Latin America to take advantage of lower costs and, perhaps, a milder climate. As Latin America continues to develop modern infrastructure, especially health care and communication technology, this outbound migration of baby boomers, with money our US economy needs, will most likely accelerate.
If both of these emerging outbound migration tendencies persist it could become a problem for the US economy. It might just begin to resemble that big sucking sound Ross Perot warned about 20+ years ago.