Our hotel emptied out. The regular breakfast buffet, included in our room price, shut down during the official three-day holiday. The front desk provided a simple boxed breakfast instead. Before New Year's Eve we shopped to make sure we had plenty of goodies on hand, but it turns out that supermarkets in our area stayed open even during the holidays. Paul and I spent New Year's Eve doing what most Chinese do, some 700 million or more around the world, based on last year's figures. We watched TV. Every year since 1983, Chinese TV has presented a glitzy gala. We started with a half-hour of world news on China's English-language CCTV news station. We watch the news most days. The station presents timely news that matters, rather than simply news that happens to lead to the most dramatic video. At 8 o'clock the gala got under way and continued nonstop until just after midnight. English-language CCTV offered a special edition of the gala. A host and two guests explained what was going on and related it to Chinese culture. English-language captions on the bottom of the screen translated the lyrics. The first series of songs reminded me of so many fortune cookies, with good fortune, happiness, prosperity, the usual stuff. Later on, the songs told love stories, glorified China, honored family, and gently taught moral behavior. One online site said, "No other cultural event serves as such rich fodder for water cooler conversation after Chinese families return to the office after spring festival." Paul and I especially enjoyed the acrobatics. Cirque du Soleil must be watching the show to see the newest stunts. One young boy stood on one leg on a man's head while wrapping his other leg around his own head. A 6-year-old girl did 40 flips in just a few seconds, every one perfect. Chinese have been selecting and training acrobats for 2,000 years, all focused on strength and balance. The English program's host explained that Chinese love noise, crowds, and bustle. We've noticed. It wears us down. Supermarkets hire what we call frenzy makers—girls who choke the aisles offering tastes of food, helping shoppers find what they want, and more generally, doing nothing other than keeping the place feeling buzzed. Grocery stores stayed unusually quiet during the official three days of the festival, with few frenzy makers anywhere. Those who work during the festival collect triple time, so perhaps frenzy makers became too expensive. After two hours the English edition of the gala went off the air. We changed channels and watched both the show in Chinese and the fireworks outside our 17th-story window. Firecrackers, connected on long fuses that blast away for several minutes, started before the sun set. In the old days fireworks warded off evil spirits, but now it seems they show off disposable income. On New Year's Day Paul and I walked to Green Lake Park and discovered that all of Kunming seemed to congregate there. On our way home we bought dumplings, the traditional festival food. Along with a billion Chinese, we toasted the New Year and its heralding of peace and harmony. Vicki Terhorst
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I take the kite flyers as a metaphor for China. Apply high-tech to traditional hobbies. Play in a group, at appointed times. Stick to the rules, help each other out, and enjoy the process rather than the result. In a huge outdoor market a few miles from downtown Kunming, vendors sell live fish and live chickens, although they'll prepare them for cooking if asked. Others sell fruit and vegetables, some unrecognizable, especially the medicinal plants. In another section of the market one can buy dresses, baby clothes, cellphones and accessories, shoes, and fabric. Food stalls sell donuts, dumplings, noodles, and ham. In the midst of it all we saw a dentist working on a patient's teeth. Both dentist and patient seemed calm and unhurried, ignoring the chaos all around. If we need a dentist we'll go to one of the many modern dental clinics in our downtown neighborhood. Our favorite restaurant serves up two dozen or so different dishes from a steam table. Vicki and I just point—meat here, vegetables there. They serve it up, always with rice and warm vegetable broth on the side. We're not allowed to skip the watered-down broth. If we don't pick up a bowl, one of the helpful staff rushes over to our table with bowls in hand. With so much time here we've found several favorite restaurants and food stalls. Our problem is naming them. These places have Chinese names, Chinese addresses, I suppose, but Vicki and I must come up with our own code. We have the Alley Cafeteria, referred to above, across from Alley Soup and around the corner from Alley Cafeteria Two. We have Spicy Soup KFC, a soup stall below a Kentucky Fried Chicken. We have Helen Dumplings, a dumpling place around the corner from where our friend Helen took us last year. We have Food Court, Taiwan Food Court, and The Hump, in a youth hostel with the same name. We even have O'Reilly's Pub; the name says it all. For supermarkets we have a giant New Supermarket, recently opened next door, and a ritzy Parkson's across the plaza. Metro, a short subway ride away, has the best selection of imported goods. We even have Carrefour and Walmart, always crowded and frenetic, our least favorites. Kunming's streets come alive every day with locals rushing around, young lovers talking on cellphones, and families with young children everywhere. We saw a toddler fall, pick himself up, dust off, and get going again without so much as a glance at Grandma. Why look over there? She only helps out in a pinch. We read about Tiger Moms, who pressure their children to succeed. We read about competition. Yet around town we see so many people having so much fun. We see police everywhere, but, at least on the streets, they seem to rule with a light touch. We especially appreciate the traffic police doing their job. Chinese pay little attention to traffic rules. We've seen way too many accidents during our visit. I read somewhere that Chinese traffic accidents approach 10 times the norm. Kunming has special traffic lanes set aside for motorcycles and bicycles. Still, sidewalks are viewed as just another lane of traffic, in many ways preferred to roads. After all, sidewalks accommodate two-way traffic. Pedestrians come so far down the food chain that we (Vicki and I and others) can safely be ignored. I'm used to it; jumping out of the way of a motorcycle on sidewalks or crosswalks has become routine. Sidewalks, besides accommodating motorcycle and heavy pedestrian traffic, also allow for parking, motorcycle repair, pop-up shops, and food-cart vendors. Vicki's favorite cart serves up fried potatoes tossed with pungent spices. Everywhere Kunming bursts with activity. Merchants buy and sell, builders tear down and rebuild. A recent study of cities ranked Kunming the world's sixth most growing economy. Boomtown. We find Kunming's altitude (1,900 meters, or 6,234 feet, above sea level), restricted Internet, and lack of English speakers to be the major drawbacks. On the other hand, I have lots of opportunity to practice my limited Mandarin. Connecting to the Internet with a VPN gives us access to blocked Internet sites, including Live and Invest Overseas. Adjusting to the altitude is just a matter of time. Kunming: so far, so good. We like it here. Paul Terhorst
I think Europe will do a little better next year, especially in the second half. Europe has already double-dipped, with recession in 2008 and again in 2011. I think Europe will avoid a triple dip in 2015, but it'll be a close call. And I think, and hope, by the end of the year Europe will pick up with help from Italy, Spain, and Portugal. The euro should weaken even more, call it 1.15 to the U.S. dollar sometime this year. I believe the fighting in Ukraine will remain a contained border dispute rather than a full-fledged Russian invasion. I traveled to Ukraine in July and sensed that western Ukraine would just as soon see the eastern part of the country go. "They're all drunks and drug addicts over there," a wild-eyed local told me, referring to Russians in eastern Ukraine. If Russia should try to annex eastern Ukraine I doubt Ukraine will do much about it. The world might slap more sanctions on Russia, which will create incentives to get around them. Like someone said, gatekeepers only keep out those who don't know where the holes in the fence are. In Latin America, Venezuela might default on its debt in 2015. Lower oil prices have hit Venezuela's leftist government hard. Meanwhile Argentina might finally cure its default. Both the default (Venezuela) and cure (Argentina) could slip into 2016. FATCA—capital controls on U.S. citizens and foreign banks—will hurt Latin America especially. Americans wanting to move to the region will have an even tougher time getting banks to transfer money to buy a house, develop real estate, or invest. The U.S. Treasury has finally begun to profess concern about the problem. Still, I doubt the U.S. government will act. I detect a distinct lack of empathy in Washington, D.C. The notion seems to be, if Americans move out, we don't deserve banking services. Ridiculous. I think Asia will outperform the rest of the world, and China will grow at 6% or so. Obama and Xi Jinping just agreed on a new visa deal, providing for 10-year visas in both countries. Vicki and I picked up the new visas last month. Assuming the United States follows through, larger numbers of Chinese will travel and invest in the United States, especially California. India should improve growth in 2015 as Modi pushes through market reforms. As always the bureaucracy will resist. Five decades of socialist rule tends to destroy the spirit. But small, steady progress there should unleash buried talent. China and Europe will have to do their part to get the world economy cranking. Leftists will continue to plague South America; I think growth there will stall. Finally, I think the Chicken Littles will be proven wrong again. The United States will do fine. Fighting in Ukraine, the Islamic State, and Ebola should have little market impact. I plan to have a fun-filled 2015, and I hope you do, too. I offer these predictions to promote discussion and perhaps even action. Good luck. Paul Terhorst Editor's Note: Global investor and perpetual traveler Paul Terhorst writes a regular retirement-planning and investment column for our Overseas Retirement Letter. Get on board here to read Paul's insights, predictions, and recommendations each month.
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Also, you care less about the overall cost of living than you do about your cost of living. Take transport, for example. In Paris and Bangkok most people live without the required-in-Los-Angeles car. What do you care what a car costs in Paris if you intend to live without a car? Similarly, good wine costs a fortune in Bangkok, because of 400% Thai taxes. California wines are way overpriced. In France, on the other hand, very good wine costs as little as US$5 or US$10 a bottle, especially if you visit the winery. Your personal cost of living depends overwhelmingly on what you like to do and how you like to do it. If you enjoy French wine and duck, culture and history, and the European change of seasons, you might be able to set up life in France outside Paris at reasonable cost. Even in Paris if you can find a place to stay, you can buy unlimited transportation on buses, subways, and intra-city trains for less than US$100 a month. And you're living in Paris, where walks around town cost nothing, where the local Monoprix sells duck confit for only 10 euro a can (serves four), where you can meditate in a Gothic church down the block. Remember, too, that you can move around from place to place, from high cost to low and back again. Your average cost of living comes down if you include cheaper places more often. Moving around also means you avoid daunting visa requirements. Many people hate to move once they've settled in. Still, consider making yourself at home in several places, including renting the same place for the same three months, again and again. Return to your two or three favorite cities every year, like snowbirds. You'll find many other expats doing the same in Chiang Mai, Fort Cochi, Paris, San Miquel de Allende, Valencia, and Buenos Aires. Make it a point to skip the expensive wine in Bangkok, the car in Paris, and the elective surgery in Los Angeles. Never, ever buy glasses in Paris, go to the hospital in Seattle, or buy a new English-language book in Bangkok. Instead practice a little arbitrage. Buy dental care in Chiang Mai, walking shoes in Portland, and cheese in Paris. Buy glasses in Pondicherry, wine in Mendoza, and a new hip in Bangkok. Finally, take advantage of your wealth, of what you've managed to save from the work years. We read about billionaires who pay US$300 million for sailboats or US$50 million for paintings. A Silicon Valley investor just bought a huge penthouse apartment in San Francisco with only one bedroom, for himself. He'll put up his guests in the Four Seasons next-door. What do these very rich people care about thousand-dollar hotel rooms? On the joke list of the world's thinnest books comes "Things I Can't Afford" by Bill Gates. So you have something less than a billion dollars. But you may have enough to live in Paris or other expensive cities for at least a few months each year. If you're so inclined, go for it. You want to die having lived the good life rather than having avoided expensive places. Paul Terhorst
When I was small, growing up in Los Angeles, adults often told me at one time or another they were going to move to Australia. Taxes too high? Move to Australia. Too many Mexicans? Move to Australia. Medical care too expensive, government too intrusive, lousy education? Move to Australia.Later on when I was at Occidental College in Los Angeles, troubled students told me they wanted to move to Australia. Can't find a job? Life lacks meaning? Weary, disillusioned, searching? Move to Australia. In all those years no one I knew actually moved to Australia. Just talking about it seemed to solve problems. After all, how seriously can you take the high national debt when you're about to move to Australia any day now?Fast forward 40 or 50 years or so, and Australia long ago lost its place as an imagined refuge from America's problems. Today, Australia finds itself firmly in Asia's orbit. Australia shares time zones with Asia, and Sydney and Tokyo financial markets trade first in the 24-hour cycle. Australians travel to Asia on vacation. Asians move to Australia to start businesses and buy houses. Asian immigrants are encouraged to blend in and become Australian rather than stay buried in a former identity. Australia exports natural resources—iron ore, metals, and so on—to China, Japan, and Indonesia, and imports cars and other manufactures. Vicki and I see Australia as a cultural refuge when living in Asia. We like to be able to talk shop in proper English, read the daily paper and road signs, and find our way on a bus map. We enjoy the largely English culture. Sure, Australians speak with an accent and use different words at times. But we remain at ease while talking or reading.Australia makes a perfect destination for perpetual travelers, house sitters, and those wanting to do a couple of months of hiking, sailing, diving, or driving. Australia has three fine cities, Sydney, Melbourne, and Brisbane, that offer the urban good life.Remember the seasons are reversed here. Snowbirds from the north can come to Australia to enjoy the hot summer months of December, January, and February.Australia makes great wine at reasonable cost. A very drinkable Shiraz or Cabernet-Merlot blend costs between US$10 and US$15. I like the pub grub—bangers and mash, beef and mushroom pies—and the steaks and cheese. But your dining choices are many. In Sydney, I saw Malaysian, Japanese, Lebanese, Greek, American, Mexican, Thai, Chinese, Italian, Argentine, and French restaurants.On this trip Vicki and I used Airbnb for the first time. Take a look at airbnb.com, which connects travelers with homestays around the world. Instead of staying in a hotel, we bought three nights in an apartment in downtown Brisbane. Usually, we like to show up in a place and find somewhere to stay once we're on the scene. However, this time, because of the festival, we wanted to book ahead. We searched online for hotels without finding one that suited our needs. Airbnb made for a good alternative. Americans and most Europeans get 90 days in Australia with a simple electronic visa, available online. To obtain residency, you have to submit to a point system. The rules change every so often, but if you're young, educated, and have skills the country needs, you'll come up with the required points. If you're retired and living on a pension, forget it. Australia wants to avoid having to pay for your medical expenses. Or at least that's my guess. Bottom line, Australia makes it difficult for retirees to settle here. Australia's main drawback is its cost. It's expensive. The Australian dollar appreciated so much over the past decade that prices of everything from food to real estate shot up in U.S. dollar terms. Lately the Australian dollar has backed off a bit, mainly because of low commodity prices. Some experts see the local dollar going back to historical levels. But until the exchange rate moves, figure on US$25 fish and chips in a pub or US$35 three-hour parking in town. Housing prices rival those of New York. In Brisbane we paid US$6 each for a short ride on the city bus. Think Asia, think Australia. Include a trip Down Under as part of your itinerary to the region, do a holiday here to escape your daily life in Vietnam or Thailand, or come for relief from European winters. Just don't try to live here; they won't let you in.Paul Terhorst
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