Stranger in a Strange Land

Dear Fellow Wanderers,

I begin this missive from the front porch of our New England house, having returned from Argentina on a repatriation flight about a month ago.

The trip from Cafayate, which usually takes all of a day, this time took three, starting with a chartered plane from the small local airport for twelve of us estancieros looking to return North for the summer.

First stop was Buenos Aires where, sheaves of official travel documents and health certificates in hand, we were met by a couple of uninterested police who checked none of our papers before laconically waving us toward the exit of the mostly empty airport.

The term post-apocalyptic is much used these days, and that was our initial impression after exiting the cozy cocoon of Cafayate after months of lockdown and arriving at the darkened airport in Buenos Aires, or while driving the nearly empty highway to the officially sanctioned hotel where we would spend the night before heading north on a repatriation flight the next day.

This was not a nice hotel, and the rooms were not very big nor very clean. Fortunately, as we were in transit to a repatriation flight we were allowed to wander the facilities, unlike dozens of foreigners who, on arrival in Argentina, had been sequestered in their rooms for a two week quarantine.

Free to move around we headed straight to the otherwise empty restaurant for a meal and drinks. A fair number of drinks, truth be told. But as the twelve of us were fresh out of the campo, the number of drinks seemed entirely warranted.

The rest of the trip was uneventful, though there were bits and pieces I found of interest. For example, though the airline announced over and over the need for social distancing in the waiting lines and while boarding, once on board the passengers were packed in cheek to jowl.

I was also surprised on arriving in Miami that there were no temperature checks, no inquiries as to our health, and just a cursory glance at passports before being waived on.

Again, due to a mismatch on the connections, we had to spend a night in the hotel located within the  Miami airport before proceeding north.

The front desk of the hotel was almost hermetically sealed with plastic sheets, a sight I have now become accustomed to. Though at this point the group was raring to celebrate our fresh steps on US soil, it turned out the bar/restaurant was closed and our choices were limited to a Dunkin Donuts or a Subway sandwich shop.

I won’t go into the details of my interaction at the Subway, other than to say that I guess one of the counter help must have been paying acute attention to the narrative that aging white men are all racist pigs, so the service was obstinate bordering on hostile. I suspect had I muttered even a mild rebuke, such as “What’s your problem?” my server would have stabbed me with a plastic knife.

“Welcome back to the US”, I muttered to no one.

That said, I get the frustration. Not so much about being black in a country which is sufficiently evolved to have elected a black president, I can't really relate to that, but for the fact that a wide swath of the populace -- black, white, whatever color in the rainbow suits -- has been left behind economically.

So if I was a middle-aged woman, of any color, and had to work in an all-night Subway in an empty airport I sure as hell wouldn’t be happy about my lot in life.

We humans like to blame someone else for our problems, but the lack of understanding of basic economics and an unwillingness to look beyond the narrative makes it easy to misdirect one’s blame, imo.

Is there racism in the United States? Sure. But it is not one-dimensional - there are lots of neighborhoods where someone who looks like me would be distinctly unwelcome - nor can it be dealt with by adding yet more legislation to the books.

Like littering, which used to be commonplace in my youth and now is rare, society evolves and things change for the better.

Stranger in a Strange Land

Having been gone from the US these many months, the return to the new abnormal has been a bit of a culture shock for me.

It’s hard to know even where to start.

The most obvious, which I know you are all accustomed to by this point, are the aforementioned fort-like defenses at every service counter.

Alongside the proliferation of plastic shielding, comes a whole new set of rules, laws and protocols the newly arrived must learn.

One must call ahead, wait outside, get a spritz of sanitizer, wear a mask, take-out only, sit outside or not at all, keep ones distance, move in only one direction while shopping, fill out contract tracing information and so forth.

The other day on a hike in the middle of an isolated forest, we came across several people who, upon seeing us, paused to pull up their masks then proceed to give us sharp looks as we failed to don one ourselves.  

Hell, if someone can catch the virus from me whilst tooling along in a forest a couple dozen feet away, they’d already be frail to the point of imminent demise anyway, so I’d be doing them a favor.

Most people may be willing to throw logic and reason out the door. I’m not quite there yet.

But there is something afoot that transcends, by a country mile, the relatively minor inconveniences that will persist until a cure, vaccine or herd immunity is accomplished.

And that is entirely about the economy and investment markets which, though they rhyme, are not the same thing.

It’s Not Over

Like most, in March when the whole world simultaneously lost its mind, our portfolio took a heavy hit.

Unlike some, I didn’t panic but held on for the inevitable rebound, while taking advantage of some of the more grossly oversold opportunities. As a consequence our portfolio is now back to where it was in March when the virus and it’s attendant lock-down hit the global economy like an h-bomb.

While that is all to the good, it is also quite concerning that the rebound has many investors acting as if all the economic carnage from the global shutdown is now in the rear view mirror.

Again we have a case of ignoring logic.

In a July survey by the US chamber of commerce, a full 58% of small business owners worried about having to close shop permanently. While a surprising percentage, 67%, report they still have as many employees as back in February, of the 33% reporting fewer employees, almost half report they don’t anticipate hiring back their laid-off employees any time soon, and maybe never.

Looking around at all the closed storefronts, at the overnight switch to remote work and shopping, at the dearth of airline flights which directly translates to empty hotels and restaurants, at the closed borders, and continued forced quarantines for anyone wanting to enter many areas, suggests we won’t return to pre-madness anytime soon.

In fact, absent the immediate appearance of an antidote or cure, and even then, the other jack boot is likely to fall squarely on the mechanisms of commerce. Globally.

Now I am as optimistic as the next fellow, but all I can see for the next few years are hoards of unemployed desperately trying to find work, any work, with government handouts the only thing separating them from homelessness and one meal a day.

In turn that means the government will have to continue to gin up trillions of dollars in fresh monetary units.  While we can’t know where the end of the line is for the worldwide belief that the US dollar merits special status, recent price action suggests that more than just the usual cadre of gold bugs are beginning to notice the Emperor’s naked derriere.

Speaking personally, I would err on the side of caution at the moment, sell when you have a profit, buy only high confidence plays, pick up gold and quality gold stocks on the inevitable reversals, and maximize your tax-free investments because no matter who wins the next election, taxes are going to have to go higher.

And if the senile statist sock puppet wins, taxes will go being going a LOT higher.

Of course, economic hardship is never felt uniformly, so there will always be opportunities and some businesses will take full advantage of the blood in the streets. For your portfolio, you might want focus on businesses that are doing well in an increasingly remote work/service/delivery world.

To keep things in perspective, it’s worth noting that 80% of all retail sales are still made at bricks and mortar locations. However, online shopping, which was already pulling a rocket shot, is picking up pace even for such basics as buying groceries.

I suspect there is still a lot of upside left in online commerce.

Waiting for Kent State

As mentioned in a previous edition of these musings, back the 1960's I was the youngest person arrested in the Oakland Induction Center riots, a somewhat seminal event in the anti-war protests that rocked society and which inevitably led to the US pulling out of Vietnam and ending the enslavement of hundreds of thousands of young draftees.

At the time our goal in protesting was clear: stop the war.

By contrast, today’s protesters appear to have no clear goal, other than upending everything which has previously been seen as the cultural norm here in America.

So, what exactly are the rioters after? Well, in Portland where the riots have been going on for months, the rioters recently posted their list of demands and only one was not directly related to the rioting (e.g. freeing all arrested protesters, removing the feds).  And that demand was to defund the police department by 50%.

Interestingly, despite hearing lots about black lives mattering these days, most of the rioters appear to be white, not blacks outraged at the death of George Floyd.

For the life of me, I cannot ever remember someone stating that black lives don’t matter, though if you were to rely on statistics alone, it seems there are squads of inner city black youths who feel that way.

This is just one of a multitude of other mostly non-issues we are asked to care about.

The sign here, sent to me by a relative to signal his virtue while selling lemonade (or some such) at a local farmers market, informs us he is so evolved he actually welcomes all races, classes, religions, bodies, abilities, gender identities, sexual orientations, and people from other countries to buy his lemonade.

But break that down.

Under what possible scenario in 2020 would he have sized up a black person standing in front his lemonade stand and drawled, “We don’t serve your kind here”.

Or, eye a person’s body type and sniff, “Sorry, tubby, keep moving along, you don’t need any more sugar”.

I could go on, but this sort of thing strikes me like accidentally dragging a finger the wrong way on a cheese grater.

So if these are all largely non-issues, why are we hearing about them so much these days?

Years ago I wrote an article on the Frankfurt school, which I am sure is still floating around the webosphere.

Though I would strongly recommend you read up on the topic, the gist is that a cadre of Marxist academics got together back in the 1930s to philosophize on how to strategically uproot and ultimately destroy capitalism and all that goes with it.

One of their core strategies was to bring into question all knowledge, all traditional values and all cultural trappings so that the government - run by the Marxists, natch - could step in and remake the world as an egalitarian paradise.

Chased out of Germany, the Frankfurt scholars landed in the US, putting roots down in colleges where they could most effectively infect the body politic.

And here we are more than a half a century later questioning pretty much everything previously considered the norm for american culture.

Even Black Lives Matter, which could be trying to help with the devastating consequences of the collapse of the black family unit, has on its website a stated objective to get rid of the “Western notion of the nuclear family”.

Then, while they are at it, defund the police so that protecting the citizenry can only be done by gangs. Oh, and let’s be sure to get rid of the 2nd amendment so that the tools of self-defense are no longer available.

It is time to face the facts. And among those facts are that the leftists, having played a brilliant long game that started by infiltrating academia, are well on their way to winning the war for the future of America.

It doesn’t matter that the participants in the Portland or Seattle riots, or any of the others flaring up here and there, have no cogent rallying cry.

What does matter is that everything previously viewed as foundational to american values are now deemed invalid.

And the active advocates of the new leftist political regime, and the useful fools in the media and government that kowtow to them, are willing to go to any length to secure that victory.

While he doesn’t directly mention the Frankfurt school, thirty years ago a high-ranking KGB defector by the name of Yuri Bezmenov sat for an interview where he laid out the strategy in no uncertain terms. You can watch it here.

At this point, I think the pressing goal of the PC cadres is to trigger another Kent State, you know where anti-riot police, surrounded by people throwing molotovs and rocks, start firing live bullets. After that what little vocal resistance to the take-over will fold like a cheap suit.  

My plans remain unchanged - to watch it all unfold on a television in a quiet corner in the middle of nowhere Argentina.

One Peanut at a Time

One of my favorite things about doing multi-day horse back rides is that they literally transport you back to a primitive epoch, and therefore underscore just how little we humans actually need to survive and to be happy.

At the beginning of the quarantine in Cafayate, over four months ago, I slipped out of the back of the estancia, crossed the desert valley floor and headed up into the mountains for a quick overnight scouting trip for a longer ride I plan on doing later this year.

The first day involved a grueling 9 hour uphill slog, at the end of which we met an old farmer living in a hidden arroyo a couple hundred yards off of the trail.

We only found the house because Pequeno, the gaucho who is my constant companion on these rides, spotted a half-buried tire next to a trail in the middle of nowhere. Before trotting off to investigate, he told me that out-of-place objects are often used as markers for a hidden house.

In this case, the trail led to a farmer’s 150 year old adobe hut. On the early evening of our arrival he was waiting for friends and neighbors coming to help put up dried apricots.

After a brief conversation, the farmer invited us to spend the night, and even offered me his room which I turned down in favor of my trusty tent, pitched under the stars.

Over the next hour the helpers arrived, no doubt a bit surprised to find a gringo encamped on the side of the old house. One of the men, Carlos, lived a further three hours into the mountains. I suspected I may have been the only gringo he had ever interacted with.

The old casa, while primitive,  had a small solar panel off of which the farmer ran a couple of lights and a radio.

As night fell and we waited for the fire to burn down to coals for our asado, we pitched in on skinning the somewhat unripe apricots. As we worked, we passed around a sawed-off plastic bottle filled with cheap wine and coca cola as the radio blared bad music and worse news on the coronavirus.

At one point I had to laugh out loud because despite pretty much non-stop reporting on the coronavirus, there we were - six of us in total - passing around the equivalent of a communal jug.

“It’s too funny,” I said in my broken spanish, “None of us are paying any attention to the constant warnings on the radio!”

In response they all laughed, shrugged and otherwise expressed their skepticism about the whole thing. I guess it’s hard to get pushed into a panic when you live off the grid, and the tempo of life remains essentially the same from the day your feet first touch dirt, until you are lowered into that same dirt a lifetime later.

It was during this period, before dinner, I broke out some trail mix I had brought along for the ride and offered it up to the group.

Fifteen minutes after passing around the trail mix, I passed the bag around again, but when I offered it to Carlos, he waved it away, then opened his hand to show that he still had most of what he had taken the first time around.

And everyone else revealed that they, too, had barely made a dent in their handfuls of trail mix.

Yet, in that same period, I had gunned down two heaping handfuls.

It caught me by surprise, but then the scales dropped and I realized that only someone who is accustomed to abundance eats quickly.

In sharp contrast, the farmers were enjoying the rare treat I had shared with them, literally eating the trail mix one peanut, one raisin, one almond at a time, chewing and savoring each morsel completely before leisurely moving on to the next.

So I curbed my gluttony and did the same. And you know what, there is as much - or more - satisfaction in eating a single peanut as there is in a handful. The flavor is just as rich, the texture, all of it.

In a world where, for many, luxuries may become increasing rare, this little life lesson could come in handy.

Until Next Time

My apologies for being such an irregular correspondent. I think of you, dear readers, often and wish I had more time to devote to writing.

However, duty calls, including now taking advantage of the ridiculously cheap prices of construction in Argentina (about $25 a sq ft all in) and building a winery, and in supporting our project back here in the US.

Plus I’m trying to become a more consistent golfer. Speaking of which, if you, too, are a duffer you should check out the free Scratch Golf Academy videos on YouTube. The instructor is really a cut above, explaining the mechanics of playing better golf. I’ve been so impressed, I actually signed up - and paid - for a full year of their online courses.

In any event, I’ve gone on long enough. I do hope you are all doing well, and managing to grin and bear the madness of our scared new world.

If you’re ever in the neighborhood…



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