California Dreaming


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In 1967 Scott McKenzie advised us to wear some flowers in our hair when venturing to San Francisco and in 2014 my advice is to wear a sweater. It can get a bit nippy under all that fog! This was my fifth visit to San Francisco and it’s one of my top three favourite world cities along with London and New York. It was here that I first stepped on to American soil back in 1998 as a 19 year old on a family holiday. I remember to this day the sense of ‘wow’ I got from everything I saw and soaked up but this time round the wow factor has gone, replaced by the aisles and passageways of Macy’s department store and Safeway supermarkets – such is the glamorous life of an International Data Researcher.

Colourful San Francisco architecture

Colourful San Francisco architecture

The city is currently the fourth largest in the state of California but during the mid-1800s it was the largest thanks to the famous California Gold Rush where 300,000 people came in search of riches. It was the largest mass migration in the history of the world and during the four years from 1848 to 1852 the population of California shot up from 14,000 to 223,000. This was the beginning of the state’s boom and the boom continues to this day. Earlier this year California’s economy overtook that of both Russia and Italy to become the 8th largest in the world – not bad for one 50th of a country! Well, it may be one of the 50 US states but it certainly isn’t equal. One in eight Americans live in California where 38 million of them call it home and its $2 trillion nominal gross domestic product accounts for over 13% of the country’s output.

The iconic Golden Gate Bridge

The iconic Golden Gate Bridge

Much of California’s prosperity in the last 30 years or so can be attributed to the extraordinary success of the high-tech industries which have blossomed in Silicon Valley some 40 miles south of San Francisco. The area is home to the global headquarters of many household names including Hewlett-Packard, Yahoo!, Adobe Systems, Apple Inc., eBay, Facebook, Google and Intel – a fairly impressive list to say the least. Silicon Valley accounts for a third of all venture capital investment in the States and the continuing innovation in the region is helping to keep California at the forefront of global technology thinking. After leaving San Francisco and missing the area’s strongest earthquake in 25 years by a few hours I flew the short distance south to California’s largest (and the USA’s second largest) city – Los Angeles. Loathed by some, embraced by others, there’s no escaping the fact that Los Angeles is a big deal. It is home to the fifth busiest port in the world and the largest in the Western Hemisphere. Its population of almost four million is some four and a half times that of San Francisco’s. And unlike San Francisco the city seems to spread for miles and miles in all directions except west (too much water!). San Francisco sits on a peninsular and so has always had expansion constraints. The sprawl of LA, however, is the epitome of the concrete jungle and it’s probably quite easy to go a little crazy there.

Macy's department store in Los Angeles

Macy’s department store in Los Angeles

It was my sixth visit to the City of Angels and, again, this time I dedicated my waking hours to the data collection trail and not the numerous distractions on offer from the red carpet of Hollywood to the sandy beaches of Santa Monica. One thing that hasn’t changed over all my visits is the lack of clouds in the sky. In San Francisco you’re lucky to see an inch of the blue stuff overhead with its infamous rolling fog but the sun always seems to shine in LA – one of the many reasons why some consider it a great place to live. California is also one of those states which doesn’t seem to have an ‘obvious’ capital city. Is it Los Angeles? Or San Francisco? Or San Diego? No, it’s Sacramento, the sixth largest city in the state. Similar to the likes of Florida, Illinois and New York State where Miami, Chicago and New York City are not state capitals, it got me wondering what are the largest state capitals by population – any guesses? Read on for the answers!

Risque Haight Ashbury

Risque Haight Ashbury

Rather than try and make photographs of supermarkets and shopping malls look interesting I’ve attached some colourful pictures from my small amounts of time out in San Francisco and Los Angeles, including from the quirky streets of Haight/Ashbury and the sublime Golden Gate Bridge which always looks spectacular, even when smothered in dense fog! And the largest state capitals are…Phoenix (Arizona), Indianapolis (Indiana) and Austin (Texas), although amazingly Austin is still only the fourth largest city in Texas. And it is from Dallas and Houston in Texas where I’ll be reporting very soon.

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Au revoir Canada, hello USA


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While I was in Canada it got me thinking. How many countries are officially bilingual? Even though I spent my two weeks in Canada in the predominantly English speaking cities of the west I was still greeted everywhere with a “hello, bonjour”, be it at airport security, hotel concierge or when ordering my daily sandwich from Subway.

What I did find strange was when people jumped between English and French. Waiting in the departure lounge at Vancouver’s airport were a group of teens speaking with that very recognisable North American twang. Then all of a sudden the conversation would continue in French and if you closed your eyes you could have been in a Parisian café – well sort of, I’m told the accent is quite different!

Vancouver's Burrard Bridge

Vancouver’s Burrard Bridge

Canada is officially bilingual but only around 30% of the population can speak French as opposed to close to 100% which can speak English. Having the USA as a neighbour no doubt helps to keep English at the fore. Either way I found it quite strange having “hello, bonjour” said to me all the time when pretty much everything in daily life in the cities of Calgary, Edmonton, Yellowknife and Vancouver happens in English. There are a few other countries which are officially bilingual including Belgium, Ireland and New Zealand as well as several of the former Soviet nations. However, there are three countries which are officially multilingual – know which ones? I’ll reveal all at the end of the post!

So my time in Canada ended with a couple of days in Vancouver, the third largest metropolitan area in the country, with almost 2.5 million people. Located on the Pacific coast a mere 20 miles north of the USA border, Vancouver is a veritable multicultural melting pot. Over a third of the population are foreign born and it has the highest proportion of Asians of any North American city. French is not spoken much, but for over half of Vancouver’s citizens English isn’t the first language either. I mentioned in a recent blog post that Calgary is often voted the cleanest city in the world, well Vancouver has the honour of appearing high up lists of the world’s most liveable cities, including ECA’s own Location Ratings.

A rainbow zebra crossing in Vancouver

A rainbow zebra crossing in Vancouver

Canada’s largest port is in Vancouver and this obviously contributes a large proportion to the city’s economy but tourism and the technology sector also play an important role. The reputation of the city for being one of the world’s most liveable has meant it’s not difficult to attract workers either, especially from the pool of local and overseas talent emerging from its prestigious universities.

With my time in Canada at an end I flew to the good ol’ US of A. In human history there have been periods of dominance and influence from various peoples and empires. The Greeks, Romans, Persians, Egyptians and Chinese have all had times when they could describe themselves as a superpower. Even the British Empire had significant global clout for a while. But in living memory, certainly since the end of the Second World War, the USA has been a dominant global superpower and the far reaching impact and ongoing influence – particularly economic, military and political – of all things American is hard to deny.

The emergence of China as a potential superpower in the 21st century does not mean that the USA is on the wane. The GDP facts speak for themselves. On the Forbes list of 100 most innovative companies, 39 are from the USA and over a third of the world’s 100 largest public companies are American.

Oregon licence plate

Oregon licence plate

My first port of call in the States was Portland in the north-western state of Oregon. It’s by no means one of the largest cities in the USA but with a population over 600,000 it’s still a significant centre along the Pacific coastline. I didn’t really get to experience much of the city itself, however, as most of the day-to-day shopping is done outside of the centre in the suburbs. It’s an unpretentious place which seems to go about its daily life without attracting too much attention but for those in the know the surrounding areas offer fantastic opportunities for outdoor recreation and getting away from it all. It’s also one of the country’s greenest cities and is helping to lead the way with eco-friendly initiatives. It was the first city in the USA to introduce a local plan to reduce CO2 emissions for example and residents recycle over 50% of their waste.

Next up is a place more familiar perhaps – the captivating city of San Francisco. Before that, though, what about the three multilingual countries? Give yourself a pat on the back if you came up with Luxembourg, Singapore and Switzerland.

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North America’s largest mall plus a visit to Yellowknife


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What does Edmonton, the capital of the Canadian province of Alberta, have that the rest of Canada and the entire USA are jealous of (probably)? Surprisingly, and rather pertinently for me, it is home to North America’s largest shopping mall – the West Edmonton Mall. So big in fact that I couldn’t even squeeze the whole façade into a single photo. From its inauguration in 1981 until 2004 it was actually the largest mall in the world until the oil-rich Gulf States and the consumer hungry Chinese took the title away. The list of superlatives is fairly random but impressive all the same. It has:

  • The world’s highest permanent indoor bungee jump
  • The world’s second largest indoor theme park
  • The world’s largest indoor wave pool
  • The world’s largest indoor lake
West Edmonton Mall - so big it doesn't fit in one photo!

West Edmonton Mall – so big it doesn’t fit in one photo!

On top of these it also has a shooting range, an ice hockey rink, parking for 20,000 vehicles, and over 800 stores and services. In peak season the footfall can exceed 200,000 while annually over 30 million people visit. To put this in to perspective, the Eiffel Tower in Paris receives a mere 7 million visitors in a year!

All in all, I was rather surprised to find this in a city which isn’t even the largest in Alberta – that honour goes to Calgary, where I have just come from. And, although the thermometer didn’t drop below 15 degrees Celsius during my stay, Edmonton, like Calgary also has freezing weather for much of the year. The record low was recorded at -61 degrees Celsius with wind chill. Grrrrr!!

Edmonton’s economy chiefly revolves around the oil and gas industry as well as being an important financial, research and education centre in Canada. It sits at the top end of the Calgary-Edmonton Corridor some 270km north. It also has the distinction of being the furthest north of any North American city with a population over one million. Edmonton sure is supplying fact after fact after fact! Which is just as well because, unfortunately, I didn’t really see much of the city aside from the mall and other shopping areas on my brief visit prior to heading even further north to my next destination, the wonderfully named city of Yellowknife.

Yellowknife Airport's luggage carousel
Yellowknife Airport’s luggage carousel

A 90 minute flight from Edmonton, Yellowknife may be known as a city but in fact it has a population just shy of 20,000. It is the capital of the Northwest Territories, an area which is larger than South Africa, and is home to almost half the population of the territory. The name comes from the local Dene tribe and the colour of the tools they used to make from copper deposits.

Yellowknife is actually a very new settlement and began life only in the mid-1930s when gold was discovered in the area. The first mine opened in 1938 and within 30 years it became the capital of the Northwest Territories and thus an administrative town as well as merely just to service the mining industry. Falling gold prices and increased operating costs forced the final gold mine to close in 2004. However, a new lease of life was brought to Yellowknife with the discovery of diamonds in the area and the subsequent opening of four new mines. These mines now mean that Canada is ranked third in the world in terms of diamond production by value.

A typical canoe-on-roof-of-car scene in Yellowknife

A typical canoe-on-roof-of-car scene in Yellowknife

So, what is the town like? Well it’s very small, however it does manage to have its own Walmart store as well as a couple of more upmarket supermarkets. Nightlife and entertainment options are somewhat limited but I’m sure workers for mining companies are used to this as mines generally tend to be in the middle of nowhere. There is one cinema, one theatre and, much to my dismay, only one McDonald’s. I say dismay as I’ve acquired a penchant for their Oreo McFlurrys with extra hot fudge sauce over the past week!

It may only be a few hundred kilometres south of the Arctic Circle but Canada’s famed liberalism is alive and well, with Yellowknife’s very own Gay Pride event being touted around town. It’s a great place to live if you like canoeing or kayaking too. It seems that every other vehicle has one attached to the roof and with an abundance of lakes in the surrounding area (including the deepest in North America) there’s plenty of water sport activities. However, the summer is the best time for this as in January there are an average of 17 days with wind chills below -40 degrees Celsius! More Grrrrr!!

I’ll leave you with a snippet of (related) information about the planet Mars. Believe it or not there is also a place called Yellowknife on the Red Planet. It’s a little bit colder there, though, with temperatures recorded as low as -153 degrees Celsius! Fortunately my next stop, and last location in Canada before moving on to the USA, is a little warmer – catch up with you from Vancouver!

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Calgary – leading the way in Canada?


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Usually I’m blogging about the lesser known countries and cities from the likes of Africa and Asia but for the next month or so I’ll be on the data collection trail in a much more alien environment – one where everything under the sun is available! Yes folks, I’m city hopping through Canada and the USA. I may find blog inspiration a bit of a struggle seeing as most of my time will be spent in huge, fairly nondescript shopping malls and supermarkets – but I hope you stick with it!

Calgary's downtown skyline from afar

Calgary’s downtown skyline from afar

One of the reasons why I and my fellow data researchers often report back from less well known locations is, well, because they aren’t very well known! Which means it’s usually almost impossible to get any meaningful information or data from the internet about most aspects of life in those places, be it whether frozen peas are available, how much a cinema ticket costs, or if the quality of available meats is of a good enough standard for expats. In places such as Burundi, Albania and Saudi Arabia, for example, on-the-ground research  is vital in order to gain as full an understanding of them as possible.

By contrast it’s pretty well known that in Canada and the USA frozen peas are widely available and that meats are of good quality. Why, then, am I here? Well, one of the reasons is consistency. It’s important that when collecting and analysing data from over 400 worldwide locations that like-for-like comparisons are adhered to as closely as possible, so I will take my ‘data collection’ approach from Burundi, or wherever, and apply it to here as well. Another benefit is that city to city comparisons within the countries I visit will also be extremely accurate as I will be collecting like-for-like information within that country whenever possible.

Christmas trees in August?

Christmas trees in August?

I started the trip earlier in the week arriving in Calgary, the largest city in the western half of Canada, the world’s second largest country. It’s a popular jumping off point for adventurous travellers to the Canadian Rockies which lie only a couple of hours drive to the west. There was a very pleasant feel about the city  as I drove around the suburbs popular with expats. Indeed it’s a very safe place with a trusted police force and many parts of the city are akin to a suburban utopia – that sort of life-is-so-great-and-so-is-our-neighbourhood setting that’s all too common in feel-good Hollywood movies where the kids play out front in a vast yard whilst the family golden retriever chases a dragonfly under a blazing sun. Oops I’ve gone off on a tangent again! Back to Calgary.

Not only is it a safe place to live but it often appears at the top of ‘cleanest city in the world’ polls. Two such recent polls have been reported by lifestyle9.com and MBC Times. This came as a surprise to me as Calgary’s economy is dominated by the oil industry which is usually a recipe for environmental degradation. The city’s oil boom began in the 1970s and peaked in the early 1980s. It saw the population more than double from 400,000 in the early 1970s to over 800,000 by the mid-1990s. The population growth continues apace and now exceeds 1.25 million making it the third largest city in the country behind Toronto and Montreal. Although 87% of Canada’s oil and gas companies are headquarted in the city other sectors of the economy are coming to the fore, in particular financial services, tourism and technology. In today’s market the city – and the state of Alberta in which it lies – is ‘sizzling’ according to Bloomberg, leaving the rest of Canada ‘fizzling’. A notable nugget of information from this article is the marked contrast of per capita GDP which is over 80,000 Canadian dollars (CAD) in Alberta compared to around CAD 50,000 for the rest of the country.

The Sunridge Mall in Calgary

The Sunridge Mall in Calgary

So it sounds like Calgary is a great place to live? Well, it is if you don’t mind snow! Only the months of July and August have never recorded snow and there is usually well over a metre of the white stuff falling in any given twelve months. On average snow is seen on the ground 88 days a year so if, like Bing Crosby, you’re dreaming of a white Christmas then perhaps Calgary is the place for you. But it’s not just the snow. It gets cold. Very, very cold and while it’s been pleasant during my summertime visit, winter temperatures can drop to minus 40 degrees celsius. It is generally so cold that cars in Alberta are fitted with engine block heaters that can be plugged into special electric sockets in car parks. On the flipside, though, Calgary is also the sunniest of Canada’s top 100 most populated cities. So, weatherwise, a city of great extremes! To add to the positives the city is also a very welcoming and progressive place with a multicultural population and over 200 ethnic backgrounds represented by its people. In 2010 it was also the first major city in North America to elect a Muslim mayor.

Calgary may be the largest city in the state of Alberta but it is not the capital. That distinction goes to Edmonton where I am now, only a couple of hours drive north of Calgary. Next time I’ll be reporting on Edmonton as well as the small town of Yellowknife. Watch this blog!

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Dog food and croissants – a glimpse of life in Bujumbura


 

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Heart shaped Burundi

Heart shaped Burundi

In the lobby of the Martha Hotel in Bujumbura is a colourful map of Burundi and it struck me that it looks very much like a human heart, complete with valves, arteries and an aorta! How apt, then, that this small and somewhat unknown country is pretty much in the heart of Africa. Bordered on the west by Lake Tanganyika and Tanzania to the east, Burundi nestles just south of central Africa’s other mini nation of Rwanda. Like its neighbour to the north the country has been through much upheaval in the past twenty years. Rwanda infamously suffered one of the worst genocides of the 20th century and these atrocities made global headlines. Burundi’s problems, however, were not reported so widely and hence it seems to be one of the continents ‘unknown’ nations.

Burundi was a no go area for over a decade from 1993 until 2005 during which a civil war raged with an estimated death toll in excess of 300,000. The war was related to the troubles in Rwanda in that it was borne out of the ethnic divisions between the Hutu and Tutsi tribes. Since the end of the war and the launching of a peace process life has been mostly tranquil and positive however Burundi still has the unenviable position of propping up several unwanted global statistical lists:

A serene street in the expat suburb of Rohero

A serene street in the expat suburb of Rohero

So you may think that my visit to Bujumbura, the country’s capital city, in May was a lesson in the worst of African poverty but what I actual found was quite different. You can see from my photos that the bleak rankings seem to contrast in many ways with what I observed. Obviously I saw the veneered surface of life but I’ve been to other countries which have a far less welcoming veneered surface. The city centre is fairly small and immediately to the east are the serene suburbs of Rohero, Gatoke and Kiriri (the latter very popular with diplomats) which are prime areas for expatriate abodes. I stayed at the Martha Hotel in Rohero and my daily walks into town were coupled with flowers in bloom and shady tree-lined avenues which could be from a brochure for Western suburban utopia. Okay, I’m waxing lyrical a tad there but my point is that the Bujumbura which I experienced, and which assignees experience, is certainly not one which may be imagined by the nation’s poor performances on the above lists.

Le Café Gourmand - The place to grab a coffee in Bujumbura

Le Café Gourmand – The place to grab a coffee in Bujumbura

A great example of this was a sight which I cannot remember seeing elsewhere in Africa (except maybe South Africa) but which is commonplace on the streets of Europe and North America – locals with a pet dog on a lead! I had to double-take when I saw it but sure enough there were a couple of Burundians with two well fed dogs complete with pink leashes and jangly metal name tags around their collars (the dogs that is, not the people!). That’s not where the familiar sights ended. When you step inside the Café Gourmand, located at prime crossroads in the centre of the city, you feel instantly transported to a gourmet delicatessen or boulangerie in Paris. Expats and locals alike meet over a coffee and set up their laptops to access the free wi-fi whilst taking an occasional bite from one of the many products on offer. Everything from freshly baked baguettes, mango smoothies, cream-filled éclairs, rich buttery croissants, toasted paninis and ice cream sundaes – it’s all quaffed with a smile at this Bujumbura institution.

Towards the west of the city centre the streets and buildings give way to Lake Tanganyika and on the shores of Africa’s second largest lake is another expat hangout – this one with a more relaxed ambience. The Bora Bora beach club is a favourite weekend and evening get away a few kilometres from the bustle of town where you can lounge for as long as you like under the equatorial sun with a cool beer and a pizza.

And if all of that isn’t enough to remind you of home when in Burundi just remember that you can head to Au Bon Prix where you can be sure to find all the dog food you’ll need!

 

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Is Albania closer to EU membership?


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This past winter was a very wet one for me and my fellow Brits as the rain seemed to lash down unabated for weeks on end. Whilst the downpours have quietened somewhat in the UK other parts of Europe have been suffering at the hands of the rain gods. In mid-May parts of the Balkans were subjected to the worst flooding in centuries. Serbia and Croatia were the worst affected but the rains have been lingering for a while in this part of the world. I was in Tirana, the capital of Albania, at the beginning of May, and even back then the rain was heavy and consistent enough for me to throw away another pair of footwear due to over-saturation on the data collection trail!

Tirana's very own section of the Berlin Wall

Tirana’s very own section of the Berlin Wall

So, besides being wet, how did I find my first visit to one of Europe’s least known countries? Well, having prepped up about its history since World War II and having been to most other former Eastern Bloc countries, it was pretty much as I expected – a small Eastern European country still trying to shake off legacies from its communist past.

After 1960 Albania and Yugoslavia were the only two non-USSR aligned nations in the Eastern Bloc, and during the Cold War Albania became an out-and-out communist dictatorship. This has left a rather drear legacy and has seen the country fall well behind other nations who were part of the Eastern Bloc. After the collapse of the Soviet Union and break-up of Yugoslavia in the 1990s the likes of Estonia, Slovenia and the Czech Republic made swift strides towards EU membership and embraced the new opportunities which came their way. Albania was the last country to see its communist regime outside of the USSR topple and, having applied for EU membership in 2009, has only just been awarded candidate status. They join Iceland, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia and Turkey and will hope that eventual full EU membership doesn’t take the 13 years it took for Croatia.

During the Cold War years Albania isolated itself from the West and its government isolated itself from its people. There is an area near the centre of Tirana called Blloku which was closed off to the ‘people’ and was an exclusive residential area for the political elite. After the communist era ended the villas and former homes of these elite were soon converted into modern flats and apartments. Development continued apace and the area is now the thriving heart of the Tirana entertainment scene. The 18 or so blocks of Blloku (literally ‘the Block’) seem to be wall-to-wall, cafes, bars, restaurants, boutiques and apartments – there’s even a store selling official Apple products. It’s also one of the most sought after areas where expats like to live – especially the young and single ones!

Bunker from the Cold War era

Bunker from the Cold War era

There are still signs of the past, even in the regenerated Blloku area. Perhaps the strangest, and most commonplace, sight from this period is the myriad of bunkers. These quirky concrete domes are dotted around the city and are remnants from communist rule when 700,000 were built at great cost to the already financially crippled country. They were never used for their military purpose and today are seen as a bleak reminder of the Cold War years, although some have been transformed into tourist spots, animal shelters, cafes and even homes.

Something else to look out for on the streets of Tirana besides the bunkers are the ubiquitous drainage and manhole voids on the pavements and in the gutters. Drains, you may think, are no big deal for a European city – but in Albania they seem to like drains without grills on top of them. I mention this as it wasn’t just one or two that I came across but pretty much every street I wandered down. After digging around on the internet it seems the reason is not a lax health and safety approach from the city administrators but the unfortunate result of ‘organised’ crime! Apparently there is a fortune to be made in the scrap metal market in Albania and so under the cover of night the crooks do their dirty work and remove the metalwork. The result is a rather hazardous pedestrian landscape, especially at night in the dim, unlit corners of the city.

Yet another random hole in the ground

Yet another random hole in the ground

I’d like to end on a more positive note about Albania – and it involves a British comedian, actor and singer who died four years ago at the age of 95. During the 41-year communist era of dictator Enver Hoxha, the Brit Norman Wisdom (or Sir Norman Wisdom) was one of the only Western actors whose films were allowed to be shown in the country. Hoxha appreciated Wisdom’s characters’ struggles against capitalism. As such he became a cult figure and when I mentioned his name a couple of times to taxi drivers it was greeted both times with a smile and a thumbs up. I usually find that football, or sport generally, is the easiest way to get a smile from a local when there is a language barrier, but I never thought it would be Sir Norman Wisdom!

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Guest blog: Panama – the Miami of Central America


I’ll shortly be writing about my own recent trips to Albania and Burundi. In the meantime, my colleague Shona, who has been collecting data in Panama, shares some of her experiences. Regards Mark.

This year marks 100 years since the first ship travelled the length of the Panama Canal when it first opened in August 1914. A 77 kilometre stretch of water linking the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans (via the Caribbean Sea), the canal was previously controlled by the USA until full ownership was ceded to Panama at the end of 1999. The centenary anniversary coincides with the canal expansion project, which is set to be completed within the next year, doubling the canal’s capacity and allowing a vast increase in trade and tourism that is dependent on this cut through. The expansion has run in parallel with other developments occurring across Panama City, which I visited on a data collection trip earlier this year.

The Panama Canal

The Panama Canal

Panama City has begun to shake off its reputation as a hide-out for criminals and tax dodgers, having been removed from the Organization of Economic Development’s ‘grey list’ of tax havens in 2011. Despite poverty levels in Panama hovering above 30%, and corruption remaining a pervasive problem (Panama was ranked number 102 out of 177 countries in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index in 2013), driving through the city centre, the comparisons with large, developed US cities seem fairly evident. Panama City is often referred to as the ‘Miami of Central America’ and the skyscrapers along the waterfront Balboa Avenue, from the domineeringly luxurious Trump Towers, to the collection of high rise office and apartment blocks, are reminiscent of the South Beach skyline. Nestled at the southern end of this vastly developed avenue is the Old Town, Casco Viejo, a World Heritage Site that houses a cluster of buildings dating back to the 17th century- and a buzzing nightlife enjoyed by locals and expats. The best views of the Panama City skyline can be seen from the rooftops of smart bars which sit side by side with the historic ruins of neglected buildings.

Panama City

Panama City

Panama City’s Americanisms are not all that surprising given that its history since independence from Colombia in 1903 has been so closely tied to the USA. In 1914, the USA completed the building of the Panama Canal, and was granted the right to use its military to defend it, although this later became a contentious issue between the two nations. In 1989 diplomatic ties became further entangled when Panama was invaded by the USA to oust the country’s dictator-president, Colonel Manuel Antonio Noriega, who was embroiled in international drug trafficking. His actions and hostility to the USA led to a military assault on Panama City and subsequently Noriega went into hiding at the Vatican Embassy until forced to turn himself over to the Americans.

Vertical living in Panama City

Vertical living in Panama City

America’s influence is not just evident in the city’s history and modern building developments, but also in the use of the US dollar as legal tender. Panama does have its own currency running alongside this, the Panamanian Balboa, but only in coin format- only US dollar notes are accepted. Shopping in Panama City is also a very American experience. The main supermarkets, Riba Smith and El Rey, are well stocked with international goods that would certainly make any western expat feel at home, and there are a number of large shopping malls that wouldn’t be out of place in an American city, such as the expansive Multiplaza which stocks a huge variety of high-end global brands, a multi-screen cinema and a wide range of international eateries.

Another part of my role involves meeting with estate agents to find out about the property market for expatriates in the locations we visit. While in Panama City, I met with a number of local experts who provided details about popular districts and offered an insight into the city’s relatively recent development. One agent told me that he owned an eighth floor apartment on Balboa Avenue and when he had bought this just over a decade before, it had been one of the tallest buildings on the street, but was now dwarfed by the towering structures that surround it. Accommodation in the popular central areas of Panama City is very much focused on vertical living. Agents highlighted the difficulties experienced by expats arriving from parts of the world where they were used to extensive outdoor space and who now had to deal with the reality of living thirty floors up in a city centre apartment, in order to reside in the most desirable districts.

Traffic in Panama city

Traffic in Panama city

Another issue faced by expats living in this bustling city, which I experienced first-hand, is the standstill traffic once the torrential rain begins. Panama’s traffic can be hectic at the best of times, and I was advised that, despite the heat and rain, it would be significantly quicker to traverse the city on foot. This issue will hopefully be somewhat relieved with the opening of the new Panama City metro, the first such system in Central America, which started running its first line in April this year. At present, the metro has 12 stops and runs almost 14km across the city. An additional line is expected to be completed by 2017 to expand its coverage. While this will not connect all parts of the city, hopefully it will offer residents an alternative to being stuck in endless traffic- or braving a soaking by the sudden tropical downpours!

ECAintl-International-Data-Researcher_ShonaShona is part of ECA International’s International Data Research team. She travels the world regularly, capturing price data for goods and services to assist with cost of living comparisons around the world.

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Guest blog: Shut in – and out – in Saudi Arabia


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Below, my colleague, Dan, shares his experiences of Saudi Arabia. We’d  love to hear about your own impressions of the country too – just leave a comment at the end of blog. In the meantime, I’m off to Sicily to take a break from, er, travelling! Best wishes, Mark.

Arriving into Riyadh airport on a recent data collecting trip I was given a double thumbs up by the immigration officer as he handed back my passport. Having thoroughly researched the practice and customs of daily life in Saudi as part of my trip preparation this was quite an unexpected yet fun and pleasant welcome into the country. However, when I collected my passport and moved through I was pounced on by three security guards, blocking my way, hands hovering over the butts of their guns. It turns out that the immigration officer had been asking for a thumb scan.

One of the first things that stood out to me in Saudi was the frequency at which petrol stations appeared at the road side. The kingdom has the second highest global oil reserve and possesses around a fifth of the world’s known oil, so this is perhaps not too surprising. There is an abundance of cheap petrol: during my visit prices were fixed at the rate of 0.45 Saudi Arabian Riyals per litre, which equates to roughly 10 cents/7 pence. Little wonder then that the city centre highways (usually at least four lanes in each direction) were jammed packed with four by fours churning out heavy fumes. Both cities I visited (Riyadh and Jeddah) were dominated by cars, with purpose built roads, and few to no pavements, meaning that walking opportunities were very restricted. Despite being very much a driving country, it is the only place in the world where women are not allowed a driving licence and have to rely, instead, on private drivers or taxis. The complete lack of alcohol also means that traffic continues into the late evening.

Waiting for the supermarket to open

Waiting for the supermarket to open after prayer time

The rhythm of daily life in Saudi is dictated by prayer times, regardless of religious preference (I say regardless, the country is officially one hundred percent Muslim, although this is certainly less in expat communities). With five daily prayer times (more during festivals), it was very interesting to see how life would grind to a halt or, in some cases, carry on. For example, supermarkets would close at the call to prayer but shoppers would be allowed to remain inside the shop, they just weren’t able to buy anything. You would, quite literally, be locked in. For research purposes this was, at times, very useful and it became something of an art timing visits to certain shops so as to coincide with the closing times. I was often asked, particularly in bigger places, whether I would like to stay in the shop or not. Conversely, if the shop was closed then there would be little option but to wait outside and be patient.

Petrol stations would close completely, with both drivers and pump operators heading towards the local mosque. On more than one occasion, this made for quite an eerie sight where I would come across a completely deserted petrol outlet, with none of the pumps manned and lines of cars all empty, some with windows down and even doors open. Prayer on the street was also common, with groups of men regularly congregating and lining up to face Mecca.

A branch of HyperPanda

A branch of HyperPanda

Prayer times were, in fact, becoming a point of contention during my visit. Many people were pointing out that logistically they were becoming too time consuming, particularly once you factored in staff walking times to and from the nearest mosque. Realistically closures would last around half an hour, with prayer times only around 5-15 minutes. Large scale malls in particular were being cited as a major cause of this, as they were becoming so big that the walk from one side to another was as long as the actual prayer time itself.

This debate was a good example of a wider trend in Saudi Arabia: the struggle between modernity and traditionalism. It is a society run on the principles set out by the Quran which in recent years has come up against new and specifically modern obstacles. The country has the third highest smart phone usage in the world, which is a phenomenal stat when you think about the accessibility and connection that a smart phone can now provide. Saudis are some of the highest users of twitter in the Arab world, and have around five million registered users of Facebook, in a population of just under 30 million. Through this, examples of police brutality and abuses of power have been filmed covertly and posted online for millions to see. A particular incident of undue provocation against a Saudi woman last year gave rise to the twitter campaign #dontprovoke, inciting reaction and outcry from across the country. From reading about the country’s history, mass support (albeit online) for a woman in the face of state law was fairly unthinkable a few decades back. The new generation of young Saudis now have very different exposure and access to the outside world than their predecessors, and through the rise of online media now have more of an outlet for expression. For a country so traditional in its outlook, modernisation is certainly throwing up some interesting challenges.

Sunset Boulevard

Sunset Boulevard

A consistent feature of my visit was how difficult it was to penetrate below the surface and get a real feel for the place. Saudi is infamous for being an insular country but I felt that being there would at least give me a little more access to life in the kingdom. On the contrary, this closure seemed ever present. Conversation was very hard to come by, even during small interactions such as buying a coffee, or enquiring about certain prices or availability of items. English was widely spoken, but answers were often kept short and simple. As a researcher, I’ve found that there is often a certain amount of inquisitiveness around our work and what we are doing, but again this was not really present. All in all the opportunity to chat to Saudi men was limited, and with women it was non-existent, which felt very strange. To be clear, there was no hostility and people were always polite and helpful – and I am fully aware that these judgements were formed solely on the basis of a week’s visit – but it was quite striking how there just was not the same openness or mutual curiosity that is present in many countries that myself and my colleagues visit for research purposes.

On my final day, collecting my last bits of data in the women’s clothes store Mango, I caught sight of a Saudi woman, dressed in full hijab, browsing through some western style dresses. She picked one out and held it up against herself whilst looking into the mirror. I was struck by this sight because of how familiar, in my eyes, it looked in a country where I had found it so hard to get beneath the surface. Later on my hotel receptionist asked how my trip had been, and after voicing a few of my frustrations about the closed nature of the society, he made a pertinent point. ‘You see, much of the living here,’ he said, ‘is done behind closed doors.’

Dan is part of ECA International’s International Data Research team. He travels the world regularly, capturing price data for goods and services to assist with cost of living comparisons around the world.

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Guest blog: Made in smog?


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In the second of her blogs on China my colleague Eleanor shares her experience of the country’s infamous pollution.  Read on to see if it is as bad as they say! Best regards, Mark.

In recent times, China’s pollution levels have become the stuff of legend. Shortly before my departure for the Far East, the British press ran an article about smog levels having reached such extraordinary heights in Beijing that the authorities took to televising the sunset on giant screens in Tiananmen Square. It turns out the screening was for a tourism advertisement with the sun being just a small part of the ad but the fact that many found it believable is testament to how notorious air quality in China is.

While my job collecting price data helps to inform cost of living allowances for expatriate pay packages, another team at ECA assesses locations to help companies decide whether to provide an additional allowance to compensate expats for adjusting to life in a new place. Air quality is one of a number of factors taken into account alongside culture, personal security, facilities, climate etc. I know that out of some 400+ locations analysed Beijing has had the worst possible score for this for a number of years. Even so, nothing had quite prepared me for the sense of breathing thick smog day in, day out for a few weeks: it isn’t just Beijing that is affected by pollution (though the northeast is undoubtedly the hardest-hit region), but all of China’s megacities.

I first noticed it in Guangzhou, in which I arrived on a night train from Xiamen – a small, seaside city which had recently ranked 6th in a survey of China’s cleanest air. Stepping out of the station at 7am, I instantly noticed the difference. Though I wasn’t far from downtown, the skyscrapers were just hazy outlines and my room on the 35th floor of a hotel felt at times like it was up in the clouds. Unlike an autumn morning mist, however, the haze never dispersed; for the next ten days, as I travelled on through Chongqing, Chengdu and Wuhan, I didn’t see a shred of blue sky.

Guangzhou's downtown skyscrapers fight to be seen through the smog

Guangzhou’s downtown skyscrapers fight to be seen through the smog

The great speed of China’s development, which I commented on in my last blog, has resulted in thousands of construction projects and factories which pump pollution into the skies, particularly in the industry-heavy north of the country but also in many other cities. I’ve already mentioned Chongqing, Chengdu and Wuhan but Guangzhou and Shenyang were also suffering noticeably when I visited. A growing middle class has also increased car ownership by 200% in Beijing alone and though electric cars are now being sold with attached incentives, the take-up hasn’t been great so far. In March, China declared a ‘war on pollution’ and Beijing even has a team of ‘anti-smog police’ who fine badly polluting factories, but on average the dangerous particles in the capital’s air are four times greater than the WHO’s recommended safe level.

It is no wonder that such poor air quality is having a damaging effect on businesses based in China, some of which report increased staff turnover or difficulty hiring, particularly as some families are now thinking twice about relocating to or staying on assignment in China. After all, those location allowances often provided by companies to expats in recognition of the need to adapt to new conditions can only go so far when it comes to protecting someone’s health – even if some organisations may be using them to try to lure talent to the more polluted parts of China. Practical solutions such as the provision of masks and air purifiers were reported in a survey we ran last year of companies with expats in Beijing, while the International School of Beijing has resorted to protecting its grounds beneath two huge domes, effectively creating its own clean atmosphere (schools often have to close since it is deemed too dangerous for children, as well as the elderly, to be outside when the pollution reaches a certain level). Of course, such an extreme solution isn’t open to everyone.

Unusually clear skies over Tiananmen Square

Unusually clear skies over Tiananmen Square

Personally, I struck lucky in Beijing and Tianjin – clear blue skies finally greeted me and it was almost painfully bright. Rumour has it that the unusual weather was down to the National People’s Congress which was happening at that time. In order to make the air more palatable for the visiting parliamentarians, the factories in the North were turned off for a couple of weeks. Equally, it might have been to do with the trees coming into blossom. In any case I was grateful for a break from the thick air and obscured visibility which had become the norm over the last few weeks.

The good news is that the situation has become so bad that the Chinese government has vowed to actively improve things. Promises of reducing coal emissions, restricting the number of cars on the road and planting more trees, amongst other solutions, have all been put forward – it remains to be seen with what speed or effect. In the meantime, the amazing inventiveness of China has brought a couple of novel counter-measures into play. Chemical-releasing drones are being used to break up the particles in the air above smog-bound areas, and the northern city of Lanzhou has installed giant water cannons which act like rain, dispersing dust and polluting particles. Whilst they do aim upwards, anyone who goes shopping in Lanzhou will have to remember their umbrella or get a soaking!

One of the many outdoor exercise classes in Beijing's Temple of Heaven Park

One of the many outdoor exercise classes in Beijing’s Temple of Heaven Park

Experiencing Beijing in springtime sunshine made me even more appreciative of the city, and of the ability to breathe fresh air – something I would normally take for granted. When it is possible (and pleasant) to be outside, China’s cities spring to life: groups of t’ai chi practitioners gather in parks in the early morning, traditional lakeside teahouses are filled to overflowing, squares are occupied by outdoor aerobics and line-dancing classes, and on nearly every street corner I found a huddle of elderly men playing an absorbed game of mah-jong. Urban development and pollution might be gradually driving people into the shelter of shopping malls, but a lot of social life continues to take place outdoors: this was one of my favourite aspects of life in China and one I hope doesn’t get further curtailed by the spread of smog.

Eleanor is part of ECA International’s International Data Research team. She travels the world regularly, capturing price data for goods and services to assist with cost of living comparisons around the world.

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Guest blog: Rubble today, road tomorrow – a country growing before your eyes


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The fast pace at which China is developing certainly makes gathering prices there an interesting experience as my fellow International Data Researcher, Eleanor, found out on a recent trip.  As for me, I’ll be blogging again soon on both Albania and Burundi. Best wishes, Mark.

At the end of a five-week trip around China, I found myself totally disorientated as I stepped out of a Beijing metro station. The reason for my confusion was my suddenly flattened surroundings. Here, in the old part of the city, the buildings are normally no more than one or two storeys high and there isn’t a skyscraper in sight – unlike newer parts of town. After weeks spent in some of the fastest-growing cities in the world I had become accustomed to seeing fifty-plus-storey towers wherever I went but now that the skyline was once again diminished to ‘normal’ proportions I realised just how used to tall buildings I’d grown.

Whilst the world’s tallest building may be in Dubai, China today truly is the country of the skyscraper. Shanghai is home to the world’s second-tallest building, the 632m-high Shanghai Tower (scaled earlier this year by two Russians), and with the demand for urban residential and commercial space increasing at an unparalleled rate, the only way to build is up. And build the Chinese do, with a staggering commitment – often I would wake in the night to find the lights and cranes on a nearby construction site still working. In Wuhan, I walked one day down a rubble-strewn, dug-up road with no distinguishable pavement; 36 hours later it was smoothly tarmacked.

Ghostly pirate ship amid a nearly abandoned shopping mall in Xiamen

Ghostly pirate ship amid a nearly abandoned shopping mall in Xiamen

China is developing at such a rapid pace that you can literally see it happen before your eyes. A recent BBC programme  examined the intention to transform the perhaps unlikely candidate of Wuhan, a central Chinese city, into a megalopolis to rival New York. As the programme explained, such a hugely expensive and rapid expansion is certainly not without its dangers, but the fact remains that more and more foreign businesses are being attracted to key Chinese cities at the moment. The Tianjin Economic Development Area, for example, is home to more foreign companies than the entire of Shanghai – and with new visa rules being implemented to make it easier for expats to settle down, it looks like this trend is only set to continue.

The extensive building does not just apply to economic development zones, but residential and commercial spaces too. Chengdu is home to the largest building in the world, the New Galaxy World Center, a space mostly given over to shopping and entertainment. Across China, new shopping malls are opening all the time, replacing one another so fast that I arrived several times at a mall recommended last year to find it echoing and empty, the majority of retailers having moved down the road. Premium international brands cluster in gleaming, shiny shopping centres, also attracting some Western high-street chains and upmarket Chinese fashion brands, import supermarkets, Starbucks and co, and swathes of entertainment options: ice rinks, cinemas, spas and rooftop restaurants. Malls like these are a shopper’s paradise, particularly for Western expats looking for Western-sized clothing or a familiar packet of biscuits. Just make sure that you keep your ear to the ground for the latest-opened mall – a place that was all the rage a year ago is unlikely to be in vogue today.

A branch of Metro a favourite expat store in China

A branch of Metro a favourite expat store in China

One place that will always be in fashion – for an international data researcher, at least – is the warehouse supermarket Metro. The German cash-and-carry chain can be found in nearly every Tier 1 and Tier 2 city in China, providing for hotel and restaurant caterers but also for expats. In a country where familiar names such as Tesco, Walmart and Carrefour sell MSG (the sometimes controversial flavour enhancer ubiquitous across China) by the kilo and display tanks of live snakes, turtles and chickens for consumers’ choice, Metro is a more comforting option. The fishmonger does still sell live turtles and there are bags of chickens’ feet in the fridges, but there are also tins of Campbell’s soup and packets of Betty Crocker brownie mix, good quality lean bacon and a wide variety of cheeses. Better still, it doesn’t come with the high price tags or expired use-by-dates that hallmark some of the smaller, independent import supermarkets. During my five weeks in China, Metro became something of a landmark for me – a constant that I knew I could always rely on.

Getting there was often something of an adventure, though. Being large warehouses, they tend to occupy edge-of-town locations: sometimes walking distance from a distant subway stop, but sometimes only accessible by car or taxi. Early on, in Ningbo, a large seaport city located a couple of hours south of Shanghai, I asked my hotel receptionist if she could write down the name ‘Metro’ and the shop address in Chinese characters for me to show to my taxi driver. She did, but seemed even more perturbed than hotel staff usually are when they learn that their guests want to be taken not to a museum or temple but to a supermarket! As I stepped into the cab, I discovered why. Her colleague chased after me, telling me that Metro wasn’t open yet – given that it was after lunch this surprised me, but she was quite insistent.

“When will it be open, then?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” she said. “Not yet. But they will build fast.”

The world's tallest musical fountains found in Guanzhous's Grandview Mall

The world’s tallest musical fountains found in Guanzhous’s Grandview Mall

It is a testament to the Chinese pride in the impressive development of their cities that they were initially willing to let me go to observe the construction of a metro system, but I’m grateful that at the last minute they decided to double-check. I will never forget the Mandarin name for Metro, the supermarket – maidelong. Nor will I forget to look out for the changes to places like Ningbo if I ever return, not that I think they’ll be hard to spot. China is striding forward at exhilarating speed, and I have a feeling that the rest of the world may struggle to keep up.

As I mentioned earlier, though, development can come at a price. Next time I write, I’ll be looking at some of the challenges facing China today, most notably one of the hottest topics on everyone in the Far East’s lips right now: pollution.

Eleanor is part of ECA International’s International Data Research team. She travels the world regularly, capturing price data for goods and services to assist with cost of living comparisons around the world.

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