Happy new year!!
In spite of the ongoing crisis, 2008 has been a great year. Yeah, I know I have lost 40% of my little savings that I decided to put in a mutual fund last May--which perhaps tells you, you should never come to me for financial advice--but that didn't deter me from accomplishing some of my personal goals and, of course, setting new ones. I want to take this opportunity to wish you all a happy new year and use this holiday as an excuse to share with all of you some of my most memorable experiences and the objectives I have fulfilled this year. I once had a discussion with a very dear old friend of mine about how random it is to celebrate the arrival of the new year and to make all these promises that, most often than not, are not kept. This is very true but I still think that it is great to have at least one opportunity every year to collectively cheer, scream, weep, and attempt to improve our lives and become better people through resolutions, however ephemeral or unfulfilled. In this virtual letter, I'll tell you about the major stories that filled my year and made me a better person. May this be my attempt to keep in touch with you, the people I love, and remind you how special you are. I will first give you a somewhat detailed synopsis of the most important events of the year and then at the very very end I will give you a brief recap in a TOP TEN EVENTS OF THE YEAR type of list (all the way at the bottom). So here we go...
For the last 10-12 years of my life, some of the biggest stories of the year for me have had to do with traveling. 2008 was of course no exception. I visited two of the countries in my top-5-countries-I'd-like-to-visit list, starting with India, the motherland of that little Desi in me. Pipi and I took a Finn Air flight to Delhi with a 5-day stopover in Helsinki. We had a fun week around the area, although we figured Finland is likely to never top anyone's top-5-countries-I'd like-to-visit list... OK, we are aware that perhaps winter is not the best time to stop by, but the place is way too expensive and there's not *that* much to do. If we had a bit more money (and time), we would've ventured north to see the aurora borealis and stay at Santa Claus's town but the 300-euro round-trip train ticket from Helsinki and the impossibly expensive lodging were a bit of an impediment. In any case, it was a fun trip, and if you ever go do not miss the town of Porvoo, about 50 kilometers north, and at least a one- or two-day trip to Tallinn, Estonia.
After Finland, we flew to Delhi, where we stayed with Rahul and his family and met my sister Daniela and my brother-in-law. The trip around the subcontinent for was absolutely fantastic. From the welcoming chaos and amazing food in Delhi's Muslim quarter to the cows, camels, pigs, sheep, dogs, elephants... crossing the roads (yes, the highways too!) at unwanted times to the camel rides across the Thar desert to the magic nights we spent at different palaces in Rajasthan to the superb hospitality of the people in Kerala to the beauty of the Mahabalipuram ruins near Chennai, right by the sea... India was truly inspiring. Yes, I did feel like going back home *immediately* a couple of times, like that time when we realized our hotel room in Madurai was infested with cockroaches and we found them all over our luggage and toiletteries! But it is especially those experiences that make for good stories...!
After this trip, the semester started. It was an intense semester because there were too many things going on in my life at the same time. During my trip to Delhi, I tried to talk to this person who's somehow linked with the Yale Center for the Study of Globalization to work in a research project that studies migration patterns, remittances, and the impact of remittances on labor markets in local communities in Mexico and some other 10 countries. Unfortunately, I was unable to meet with that person in India and it became difficult to coordinate all the details of the project over e-mail, so that fell through. In retrospect, that was probably a good thing because I had already too much on my plate. I made some progress on my thesis on the determinants of emerging market bond spreads... there's still much work to be done but at least during the spring semester I almost finished cleaning my database and got a much clearer idea of what I want to do with it. I also did some minor work on my paper on how cities with more educated residents grow faster and submitted it to some national research contest in Mexico. Fortunately, I was awarded first place and the article is now going to be published soon.
Then for spring break, Mytili, Pipi, Mayito, Yinna and I went to Chiapas for about 10 days. I had never been to Chiapas before and I fell in love with the place. The Indian villages, the colonial towns, the waterfalls, the pyramids in the middle of the Lacandon jungle, the lakes... everything is absolutely stunning! One down side to our trip was that both Mayito and I got *very* sick the very last day... but, overall, it was an incredible experience!
Another negative side to that trip was that Pane, my grandfather on my dad's side, passed away while I was in Chiapas. My sister called me on my cell when I was at the Sumidero canyon to deliver the bad news and it was a very frustrating experience. I was on a boat in the middle of the canyon and I felt like the kilometer-high sides of the mountain were going to fall on top of me and eat me alive. I wanted to be with my family, with my dad. We all knew that my grandpa had been sick for a while, so this didn't come exactly as a surprise... but I still felt that I failed to understand the sadness of losing a parent, so not being there with my dad and my other relatives made me feel miserable and helpless. In spite of all this, the boat ride ended up having a soothing effect in me. I somehow felt that my grandpa was in a better place and, when I talked to my dad a couple hours later, his calm voice revealed to me he felt this too. Still, this is one of those experiences that marked my year and made me question why I chose to study abroad and live far away from my family and my childhood friends. After much thought, I still don't have a definite answer.
Then, the summer came. My 2008 summer was one of the most exciting summers I've ever had. I had a 6-week appointment in Tokyo to teach a masters-level international monetary theory and policy course at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies. It was my first time teaching at the masters level and as an instructor (as opposed to as a teaching assistant) and my students were great. They were from Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Vietnam, Zimbabwe, Eritrea, Japan... truly from all over the place, and all very eager to learn. I had my own office where I worked on my thesis most of the time, and gave a seminar at Kobe University. I met my friend Katsu a few times and stayed at his house in Nara. He and his parents were amazing hosts and they taught me a lot about Japanese culture. Since I was working most of the time, I couldn't travel as extensively as I would have liked, but I still did some short trips here and there and it was fantastic. Japan was the other one of the two countries in my top-5-countries-that-I'd-like-to-visit list that I visited this year, and now I know why -- it's a beautiful country and with a mentality that's so much different from what I'm accustomed to. Definitely, a country I'd like to return to one day!!
After my 6-week stay in Tokyo, I traveled to Mexico City. I had another 6-week appointment to work in the Research Department at the Bank of Mexico. Here, I also worked mostly on my thesis, although I also helped a few of the economists there with small programming and data issues. It was a great experience because working for Mexico's central bank has been my life-long dream since I started studying economics about 13 years ago. I presented some of the work I've done for my thesis at their workshop and it was amazing, especially because for the first time I felt that almost everyone in the audience had a very good idea of what I was talking about... and because I delivered my presentation in Spanish. Also, I met very interesting people there and I got to hang out with Noel and Ivan, two of my best friends and with whom I hadn't hung out in a long time.
September came and, after three months working and traveling abroad, I was ready to go back to New Haven, see my friends, work in my office, sleep in my bed. Classes started and my academic life got a bit out of hand unexpectedly. I soon realized that the theoretical model I had been working all throughout the summer for my thesis -- and of which I was very proud -- would not be very useful. This made me very sad and it became a bit difficult to move on and either start all over again or focus on something else. Then, I started teaching this intermediate macroeconomics class with Prof. Bill Nordhaus, who is truly inspiring, both as a teacher and as a human being. It is one of the best classes I have ever taught and I really loved the professor and my students, most of which were very hardworking and eager to learn. However, I soon realized that my teaching duties were way more demanding than ever before -- in fact, I still don't know why this was so, as I felt I knew the material very well, which meant I didn't need that much time to prepare for class. I think most of my students liked my job and they sent me too many e-mails and I spent way too much time answering all of them and meeting with the students. In general, I like teaching very much but one thing I have learned this past year is that my main task as a PhD student is to write a thesis in order to graduate... which means I need to devote less time to my teaching and more time to my own research. One thing I know, though: it is much easier said than done, unfortunately... so that remains one of my goals for 2009.
Then in October, my uncle Beto died. This was a very hard blow, mainly because this was the second time in the same year when I felt that I should have been with my family and I wasn't. The calm I felt after my grandfather's death, I never felt after my uncle's passing... after all, he was relatively young (58, I believe?) and his death was most unexpected. In general, all these big family/friend events make me want to go back to Mexico very badly: weddings, newborn babies, big birthday celebrations and, especially, deaths... They make me wonder how much it is worth to leave it all behind in order to get what you believe is a better education... a better future. Is it really? Of course I am aware of the wonderful things I have done and seen and lived in the last 10 years I've been abroad... but one recurring question that pops up in my head is, what would I have done, seen, and lived had I stayed home? And even if these things weren't "better" than what I've done, seen, and lived while I've been away... has it all been worth it?
November was a big month: on the 1st, I turned 30. Unlike most of my friends, I didn't feel old or sad or depressed: I felt great. I really think 30 is a wonderful age. I feel both young and wise, a combination you could simply not have when you turn 20. I feel I've done, seen, and lived so many things in my life, and I'm thankful for all of that. Anyway, my birthday celebration was awesome. Unlike other years when I've had big surprise parties or piñata parties or big dinners or trips, this year it was nothing big. The day before my birthday, I went with a *very select* group of friends to see Cafe Tacuba, one of my favorite rock bands, live in New York. We had an absolutely fantastic night out and came back to New Haven as late as we could. Then on my birthday, I just went out to dinner with Tatiana, another very good friend of mine, whose birthday is also on the 1st. Neither of us felt like having a big birthday party, so we chilled and had a yummy dinner out just the two of us -- although my great friend Paul crashed the party in the middle of dinner, a very nice surprise, I must say.
Then, for Thanksgiving, I went to San Francisco. As is now an old tradition, my friend Agus and I spent the Thanksgiving holidays together. It was great because, even if I had to alienate myself from the group during the day to work, I got to see and hang out with some of my closest friends. We made this one-day road trip to Napa and had some great wine and food. If I ever had all the freedom in the world to choose where I'd like to retire, it *has to* be in a place like this, with this awesome scenery, wine, food, weather... maybe somewhere in the Toscana?
Upon my return to New Haven, things went by very fast and the year came to an abrupt end. I realized there were still too many things I wanted to finish at work but I realized it would be very hard to finish them all on time. The arrival of December implied classes were over and students would be frantically looking for me to ask questions before their final exam. I also had problem sets, papers, and exams to grade... plus all the other administrative duties for the class. Christmas shopping, planning the new year's eve celebrations, buying tickets to go back home... In the twinkling of an eye, I was on the plane back to Mexico. I made a quick weekend stopover in Mexico City to go to my friend Andrea's wedding, where I got to see most of my college friends from Penn... then I came back to Monterrey. A week later, I was already back in Mexico City celebrating the arrival of the new year with my girlfriend, my sister, my brother-in-law, my uncle Eduardo, my aunt Margarita, my cousins, and friends.
And where am I now? I am in Monterrey, still home. It had been a long time since I visited and stayed for more than just a weekend, so it's been great to see my parents, my siblings, my grandma... and hang out with my old friends.
And what's in store for the new year? Lots of exciting things, I'm sure... and I'm not telling you my resolutions -- I'll keep those to myself! But one thing I can tell you is that I'll do my best to finish my thesis before the year is over!! And I hope I write a similar e-mail next year to give you the good news.
In the meantime, I want to wish you all a very very happy new year full of blessings.
p.s. And now, the TOP-TEN-THAT-IS-NOT-EXACTLY-TEN-EVENTS-OF-THE-YEAR list. Note that these events relate more to random things I did or felt while at random places rather than to personal/intimate events that have to do with my friends and relatives. Anyway, for whatever's worth, here is my list in chronological order (I really tried but was unable to rank these according to their importance or significance in my life... sorry!):
1. CAMEL RIDE IN THE THAR DESERT
Pipi, Daniela, Rafa and I joined this camel caravan across the Thar desert and rode our camels to these amazing sand dunes, only 40 kilometers away from the India-Pakistan border. It is hard to describe the beauty of the landscape and the feeling of being there, amidst the dunes, under the stars, by the fire...
2. VISITING THE TAJ LAKE PALACE IN UDAIPUR
This is a hotel that is built on a fake island in the middle of a lake in Udaipur, India. I believe it is not possible to visit this hotel unless you have a reservation -- but it's quite expensive and exclusive (Madonna stayed there only 3-4 days before we went!!) BUT thanks to our good Indian connections, we were able to make a lunch reservation there to celebrate Pipi's and Daniela's birthday. The food was SUPERB and the service was UNPARALLELLED!! And the view from the boat as we approached the hotel was fantastic... we really felt like we were in a movie or something (not a Bollywood one, though!! :)
3. RIDING ELEPHANT AT MEENAKSHI TEMPLE IN MADURAI
Since I started planning my trip to India, one of my dreams was to be blessed by Ganesha, the elephant-god. In Madurai, not only did I get my blessing... I also got to ride the elephant, and it was so exciting... and scary!!
4. SWIMMING IN CHERAI BEACH IN COCHIN
I swam in the Arabian Sea!! The beach was not particularly beautiful... but my interaction with some of the local bathers was awesome! There was this group of college students who greeted me and they all wanted to by my friends, take pictures with me, and invited me to come to their town with them on their bus. I really loved the sense of genuine hospitality of these people... and I was fascinated by the local food shops and ice cream parlors along the shore... no big resorts!! It was fantastic!
5. SKIING DOWN BEAR MOUNTAIN IN KILLINGTON, VT
Every year, my friends and I go skiing to Killington, Vermont... but this year it was particularly special because (1) a lot of my friends were able to make it; (2) it was Efrén's last trip with us as he would then graduate from Yale that May; and (3) a BIG snowstorm hit the slopes the night we got there, so the next day the view of the snowcapped mountain was absolutely stunning!! And the feeling I got while coming down Bear Mountain by myself, with no one else in the tracks, and with that amazing landscape in front of me was simply priceless!
6. DISCOVERING THE LOST TEMPLE IN THE LACANDON JUNGLE AND WALKING THROUGH THE YAXCHILAN RUINS IN CHIAPAS
I have been to many ruins and archaeological sites before, but the ones in Chiapas were special. I felt this magic feeling that's hard to explain. Isidro, our 14-year old local guide, gave us a *special* tour through the Lacandon jungle, away from the main site... and after a 30-minute hike we discovered the so-called Lost Temple amidst the thick tree branches. A few days later we took this 40-minute boat ride to Yaxchilan, a site you can only access by boat or by helicopter, since it is right in the middle of the jungle and it's simply inaccessible by road. The views are splendid!! And I still wonder where the Mayans got all these stones from to build all those pyramids and temples!! It's amazing!
7. FEDERER VS. NADAL WIMBLEDON FINAL
Early in March I went to Madison Square Garden and watched the Federer-Sampras exhibition live!! Then later in September, I went to the U.S. Open and saw Federer win his 13th Slam... again live! But between these two events, something unforgettable happened: the Federer vs. Nadal final at Wimbledon. If you are not a tennis fan, it may be hard to understand how special this was... but the significance of the venue, the records that would be broken by either player who won that match, the drama of Federer coming back to *almost* win the match after having lost the first two sets, the incredible 4th-set tiebreak where Federer saved the first of 4 match points, the fading lights and the feeling that the umpire may have called it quits and postponed the match until the next day because it was way too dark to play... all of these things blended to make for the best tennis match in history. Add to that the fact that I was alone in my room in Tokyo, watching the match online throughout the night and until 7am, while my internet connection was failing... Aaaaah!! It was sublime!!
8. PEOPLE-WATCHING AT SHIBUYA CROSSING
If you ever go to Tokyo, you *have to* go to Shibuya. It's like being at Times Square, with all the tourists, with all the neon lights, with all the excitement... except 100 times better. Go to the second floor of the Starbucks right by the crossing and you will get a wonderful view of what happens when the traffic lights change colors: all cars stop and the pedestrians start crossing the streets from all directions... and after 60 seconds, the people stop crossing and the cars start moving again. It's a beautiful sight and it symbolizes the "orderly chaos" that describes most of Japan. I saw this repeatedly for over 2 hours while sipping a mochaccino and writing on my journal and taking pictures. What better way to spend a Sunday afternoon in Tokyo?
9. RUN FROM THE IMPERIAL PALACE GARDENS TO TOKYO TOWER TO MY GUESTHOUSE IN TOKYO
I love running when I travel abroad -- it's a great place to see the city. The best run of my life was the one I did in Tokyo this summer from the gardens of the Imperial Palace to Tokyo Tower and then to my guesthouse. I just ran freely without a map and I just kept going. I ran at twilight and passed by so many landmarks and parks and beautiful buildings. At some point, I was lost but I didn't care. Nobody knew where I was, not even I. I felt free. I was ecstatic.
10. LUNCH WITH MY STUDENTS IN TOKYO
After the 6-week course I taught in Tokyo this summer ended, my students invited me out for lunch. We went to this cheap Chinese restaurant behind Roppongi Hills and it was definitely not a special place but it was decidedly a very special occasion. Never have I felt my students to express their gratitude so genuinely and sincerely for my teachings. It was a wonderful gift of camaraderie, respect, generosity and so many other good feelings represented as a seemingly simple lunch. I am very thankful for that.
11. WALKING DOWNTOWN MEXICO CITY WHILE LOOKING FOR A PLACE FOR LUNCH
The offices of the Bank of Mexico are right downtown Mexico City and, as an intern I had no access to the Bank's cafeteria, every day I went out for lunch by myself. At lunchtime, the whole place is so animated and picturesque... kids running around playing, guys selling all sorts of weird useful and useless artifacts, men playing those pipe-jukeboxes, and every corner and every place bustling with people. If you are bored in the office, a walk outside WILL invariably do you good! Promise!
12. CELEBRATING THE BIG 3-0 IN NEW YORK
Celebrating my *big* birthday in New York was quite special for all the reasons I described above: going to the Cafe Tacuba concert with my friends and then finding the perfect place for drinks and sublime desserts. It was pure simple fun and I can't ask for anything else for my birthday!
13. BILLY ELLIOT PREMIERE ON BROADWAY
I went to the Billy Elliot premiere on Broadway and it was one of the most special evenings out of my life! Nothing in particular... just everything, from the show to the weather to the drinks to the food to the ride there... everything was just too perfect...
And that's it!! Of course there are others... but I think 13 is a good number! Of course I'm not supersticious!
Again, HAPPY NEW YEAR!!
Love you all,