January 4, 2013

Self-Improvement Kick

A perfectly normal guy gets rid of everything he owns, changes his name, says goodbye to his friends — and begins walking. In the name of peace. And Honduran government officials try to heal their corrupt country by starting a perfect city, from scratch. For the new year, we bring you stories about how far some people go in hopes of a better life.

The birth of a city: This napkin drawing shows a map of Honduras. The dot is where a brand new city would be built, free of the country's ills.


Julia Lurie is an American teaching English at an all-girls high school in Gwangju, a city in South Korea. When she first got there, some things struck her as strange: On every floor of the school there was a full-length mirror, as well as a scale. And the girls used them constantly. They seemed openly preoccupied by their looks and their weight. South Korea, she finds out, has the highest per capita rate of plastic surgery in the world — some of her students had already had plastic surgery, and more were planning to get it. Julia tells what happened when she decided to teach a lesson on "beauty" to her students. (8 minutes)
Act One

Is that a Compass, a Map, a Toothbrush and a Bottle of Purell in Your Pocket, or Are You Just Happy To See Me?

Elna Baker tells a story about her friend Daryl Watson. Daryl was a talented playwright working in New York City. In 2009, Elna got a mass-email from him explaining how he was going to walk across the country in the name of peace. And that he was changing his name to "Peace Pilgrim." He plans to spend six months walking, in hopes that he'll figure out his purpose in life. He gives away everything he owns and all his money, and sets off from Delaware. He lasts three days. Elna never knew what had happened, so recently she met up with Daryl and got him to tell the story. Elna is the author of a memoir, The New York Regional Mormon Singles Halloween Dance. Daryl's newest play is "Unbound." In February there will be a reading of Daryl's newest play, "Unbound," at the IAMA Theatre Company in Los Angeles. (21 minutes)

Act Two

Some Like it Dot

A young idealist named Octavio Sanchez is chief of staff to the president of Honduras. He gets an idea: What if you could cure all your country's ills by just ... starting over? In one little spot, you could create a whole new, perfect city. Do all the reforms you want to do in that one place — and if it works, it could spread to the whole country. But how could he pull off such a radical project? Then Octavio sees a TED Talk by a famous American economist, Paul Romer. Romer has more or less the same idea: poor countries could invite richer countries to found and run ideal "charter cities." It's not colonialism, Romer explains, because the poor countries are asking for help. Octavio and Paul get together and persuade the Honduran president. They're off and running. They choose a spot, they change the constitution to make it legal, they start searching for investors. But then, the whole thing starts to sour — for reasons both inevitable, and surprising. Chana Joffe-Walt and Jacob Goldstein of our Planet Money team went to Honduras to find out how it all went down. (28 minutes)