Jim Rogers '64: Around the World in 1000 Days
From the Financial Times, Jan. 26, 2002
Jim Rogers used to have a dining room in his
Manhattan home. Now he has what amounts to a warehouse. Cardboard boxes and
wooden packing crates have been stacked chest-high on and around the table
and chairs in his Riverside Drive apartment. The assembled souvenirs,
photographs, trinkets and gifts are bounty collected during the course of a
pleasant drive with his wife Paige Parker, that took them the equivalent of
six times around the world.
"The concept was to go around the world at the turn of the millennium, and to see as much as we could," Rogers told me less than two weeks after returning from the three-year journey. "I didn't actually think we'd make it."
Now that he's back, he is adjusting "very badly", he says.
"First of all, I love the life on the road. Second of all, I walked in and saw stacks of boxes. That made me very, very depressed. A year ago I was trying to get to the Taj Mahal or whatever, and now I'm going through stacks of boxes, dealing with who knows what."
The confusion is understandable, after a trip that took the couple practically everywhere but Antarctica. In fact, a year ago today Rogers and his wife were enjoying the erotic carvings that cover the temples in Khajuraho, India.
Rogers' route unfurled itself as his voyage progressed.
"It just worked sort of organically. But there's only one road through Central Asia and China; there's really only one road through Siberia. We wanted to go down the west coast of Africa and up the east coast, but we didn't know exactly how we'd do it. There aren't many roads."
Where the roads were closed, Rogers improvised: an onion boat took them from Oman to Pakistan, and a Congolese general accepted $1,200 to fly the party across the Angolan border.
But his catch-as-catch-can route managed to take him most of the places he wanted to go.
"We never left any place sooner than we'd like to," he says. Then he corrects himself: "Well, we left every place sooner than we'd like. People look at the map and they say, 'My, look at all the places you've been'. We look at it and say, 'Look at all the places we didn't go'. I still want to spend six months just driving around India or Brazil."
In all, Rogers and his wife, along with an Internet expert and a video cameraman in a support vehicle, covered 245,630 km (about 150,000 miles). They rolled through 116 countries, setting out for Iceland on December 28 1998, and returning to New York on January 6 this year.
When I asked Rogers to enlighten readers as to exactly why he had undertaken such an odyssey, he gave me a quizzical look. "My question to you," he said, "is why aren't you doing it?"
My answer involved explaining that I could never afford to make such a trip, since I hadn't help establish one of the most successful trading and investment outfits in history. In the 1970s, Rogers was the research and strategy side of George Soros's trading operation, co-founding the Quantum Fund and managing to rack up multi-millions in a decade when the Dow Jones average stuck tenaciously close to the 1,000 mark.
The brainstorm that made Rogers a Wall Street fortune was to look abroad for investment opportunities in developing countries - an avenue that very few investors in the US were pursuing at the time. It worked so well for him that he decided to call it quits in 1980, still not yet 40 years old, and he retreated to a limestone mansion on Riverside Drive.
In the subsequent years, he has lectured and taught on investing, hosted talk shows on finance, continued to pour money into developing markets, and, above all, he has travelled. In the early 1990s, Rogers undertook a trip of a mere 65,000 miles. That two-year journey, on a motorcycle, was captured in Rogers' 1994 book, Investment Biker.
As to the motivation for his millennial drive, Rogers did have a more rounded answer: "I wanted to see the world and taste it at the ground level and find out what was happening out there.
"I'm a sucker for adventure. If I walk out the front door here, it doesn't matter if I go left or right or straight ahead, I more or less know what's going to happen to me. But every day, if you're on a trip like this, you don't have a clue. Five minutes from now you may be dead, you may be in jail, you may meet a goddess, who knows what. We never knew. Even on the bad days it was an ongoing rush."
Not that the couple roughed it. The food notes in his wife's online diary include beef carpaccio and Singapore slings. "We always stayed in hotels when we could," Rogers points out. He says the trip had no sponsors, but "we did get some favours". In many cities, the Hyatt chain was happy to swap him a hotel room in exchange for his presence at a press conference.
"I wanted to see the world," Rogers repeats. "And you cannot learn nearly enough, even reading the Financial Times, about the world. You can't do it unless you go out there, and you can't even do it flying, you've got to drive it."
To get the up-close and personal view he required, Rogers commissioned a one-of-a-kind, off-road global driving machine from a manufacturer not commonly associated with rough riding. "They don't pay me to say this," Rogers warns, "but if we hadn't selected Mercedes, I don't think we would have made it around the world."
Part of the advantage, according to Rogers, is that even in the developing world, the travellers were never far from a Mercedes dealership eager to provide them with service.
"Every big city in Siberia now has a Mercedes dealer," Rogers says. "No self-respecting mafioso is going to drive a low-class Mercedes. Russia has had a balance-of-trade deficit for a long time, and the IMF and World Bank gang keep pouring huge amounts of money in there. All the taxpayers' money that's been flooding in there has been going out to the Mercedes dealers and the BMW dealers."
What Rogers and his wife rode in for more than 1,000 days (when not on onion boats or transport aircraft) was a daisy-yellow "Millennium Mercedes" built for the trip. Mercedes-Benz donated two cars - an SLK-230 sports car and a Mercedes G-Series wagon, and Rogers had them converted into a single all-terrain hybrid. The vehicle has 177hp from a 3-litre, six-cylinder engine fed by a 40-gallon diesel fuel tank.
The two-seater came complete with a black leather interior, a convertible hard-top and a matching two-wheel trailer that stored their luggage and extensive communications equipment (from Iridium and Motorola). An accompanying Mercedes all-terrain vehicle carried the "Webmaster", the "videographer", and more equipment and luggage.
The team was accommodated more than comfortably, from the sound of things.
Rogers recalls: "Paige was a better driver when we set out, because I hadn't owned a car in 30 years. But, in the end, I did most of the driving, because when I would get in the passenger seat, I would go to sleep, and Paige would always complain. When she was in the passenger seat, she'd be reading to me about where we were, or dealing with the map, or working with the computer on her very extensive diary." (Available at www.jimrogers.com)
Though they saw the same sights, Rogers says his view of the trip is very different from his wife's. "When we set out, Paige was 30 and had not travelled very much, and I was 56 and had travelled a lot, including around the world on a motorcycle."
Moreover, when they set out, they were not yet married. Part of the couple's trip involved a detour to Henley-on-Thames on New Year's day 2000 for a wedding attended by 90 friends, which Paige organised by email while the Millennium Mercedes was making its way through Siberia. (See New York Times article on the wedding.)
The story of Rogers having made Ms Parker his bride after a year on the road reminded me of a friend's admonition: a couple should never marry until they've discovered how compatible
they are on a road trip together.
"Your friend is exactly right," Rogers agrees. "If you're going to marry someone, spend some time in a two-seater. Even drive from New York to California. I met a guy recently who set out to drive to California with the love of his life. By the time they got there, they weren't even speaking to each other.
"Before we set out I said to Paige, 'This is going to be very difficult. Everything that can go wrong will go wrong. Things that you cannot imagine no matter how well we plan will go wrong. There will be wars, there will be blizzards, there will be deserts, there will be epidemics.' She said, 'Oh, don't worry, I've backpacked through Austria and Czechoslovakia. I've been to England'. I said, 'You don't know what you're talking about'."
In fact, the blizzards began in Iceland, on the third day of their trip.
"Paige was pretty much hysterical for months," Rogers says. "She was terrified, she was lost,
she was panicked. But by the end of the trip, she became as good a traveller as just about anybody you will ever see. And when I say traveller, I mean overland traveller, I don't mean flying from capital to capital."
Seats of government were generally to be avoided on his trip, Rogers says: "People would frequently
ask me, 'Don't you want to meet so-and-so?' I'd say, 'Why? I know exactly what he's going to say'.
"The purpose was to learn what was really going on in the world. Just crossing a border teaches you a whole lot. If you drive in, you will learn a huge amount, if you fly into the international airport in the same country, you will learn virtually nothing."
So what exactly is going on in the world? Rogers, who describes himself these days as "unemployed", turned his investor's eye to most of the countries he visited. We talked at length about his view of the world, but pared down to essentials, it looks something like this:
Turkey is doing better than expected. Korea has a shortage of young girls (which is sure to change the cultural complexion of the society in a decade or so). Russia and the Central Asian republics are "an ongoing disaster which is going to turn into a catastrophe". South Africa is "not going to work". Bolivia has "an extremely promising future". Venezuela has problems. Australia proved frustrating. Mexico proved corrupt. He came away optimistic about Ethiopia and pessimistic about Egypt.
He was unexpectedly bullish about countries including Angola, Colombia and East Timor. "If you can figure out where there's a war now and when it's going to end, get there as fast as you can," Rogers counsels. "Angola is going to be one of the most important countries in Africa if they ever win that stupid war."
Above all, though, "China is the next great country," he predicts. "If the 19th century was the century of England, and the 20th century was the century of the US, then the 21st century will be the century of China. Please, if you have children, teach them Chinese. It would be the best investment you could make.
His assessments have changed since his last circumnavigation of the globe, in the early 1990s.
He and his wife will probably write separate books on their millennium drive. First. though, Rogers says, "it's very clear to me that I have an overwhelming desire to simplify my life". He explains: "I look around this house and I say, what am I doing with all this clutter - not just physical clutter, but time clutter. For three years, there's been nothing on my calendar, and now already my calendar's starting to fill up. How did my calendar get along without me for three years?
"Who cleaned out the stables in Greek mythology?" Rogers asks, "It was Hercules. I want to go clean out the stables."