Likable Thailand


SO WHAT DO YOU DO ALL DAY?

Not working doesn’t mean hanging around with nothing to do. OK, it does sometimes, but unless you’re physically ill or addicted to television, moping around the house sucks no matter where you are.

If you are energetic and gifted with an active mind, you’ll come up with plenty to do. For example, I take Thai lessons for six hours a week. Piano lessons take up only an hour a week, but practice takes up about eight hours a week. Getting massaged takes about six hours a week, and eating out about the same. All that stacks up to almost forty hours a week. Gee, this retirement can be hard work, almost a full time job!

Talking to other expatriates is a lot of fun. Whether they’re retired or working, you’ll have more in common with them than you will with most locals. Here in Thailand, it’s common for Western men of a certain age to marry much younger local women. These men often seem surprised that they got not just the girl, but her entire extended family. Thais put great stock in family, so don’t marry a Thai girl unless you’re prepared to take on some extended familial responsibilities.

I’m sure the same holds true in Nicaragua, or any emerging economy. If a beautiful daughter marries a man who is, by local standards, rich, he’s going to be the one they call in an emergency. Don’t pretend that one away.

But the rewards of having an “in” into the culture could be great. Think of all the people with whom you can practice your new-found language skills. Unlike the haughty french waiters of these people will be delighted by your attempts to speak their tongue. And if you treat them with respect and love, they will return it.

The biggest problem facing most ex pats and most retirees is loneliness. Money has a way of insulating you from your surroundings. The retired millionaire can go to South America or Southeast Asia and build a mansion surrounded by a security fence, hire maids, cooks and groundskeepers, and still die of loneliness. We non-millionaires are, in a way, lucky. We’re forced to rub shoulders with the common folk, and in doing so, inculcate ourselves into their culture. You can still hide away in your house and watch HBO satellite TV if you want, but that’s not why you traveled halfway across the world, is it?

THAILAND

I appreciate Thailand for many reasons, but in order of preference those are:

THE FOOD

After I’d been here six months I noticed that my waist had dropped four inches. I’m in better shape than I’ve been in thirty years. I can swim farther and faster than I’ve ever been able to. My sixty-second birthday approaches next month. I credit the food.

Thai food is simple, wholesome, natural and cheap. Compared to Thai food, Chinese cooking is greasy and over-sweetened. American food seems like a recipe for obesity. Live here for a while and then fly back to America. You’ll be shocked by how fat everyone is. No wonder airlines have imposed weight limits on passengers.

Thais eat on the street a lot. Most Thai family restaurants are open air affairs, often improvised on the sidewalk. Don’t worry about sanitation. The food is as wholesome as it would be in a proper restaurant. The only drawback is lack of air conditioning and the ambient noise. After you’ve been here a while, you’ll get used to that. A bowl of soup that’s a meal will cost you about a dollar, as will a plate of rice with a meat or seafood sauce on the side.

Oddly enough, McDonalds and Kentucky Fried have a big presence here. Eating American fast food is easily two or three times as expensive as eating Thai, but the perceived status of eating at a heavily promoted international franchise seems to make it worth it for many Thais. Donuts are now becoming popular in Thailand, as well. Dunkin’ Donuts has a growing presence. Weight loss franchises are on the rise. Go figure.

MASSAGE

Thai massage is a great gift to the planet. It’s sort of like enforced yoga. You get put in these somewhat unpleasant positions by a skillful massage therapist, and when it’s all over, you feel like something important happened. It’s not the least bit sexual. There is no “happy ending.” If you want one of those, get an oil massage from a sexy girl who calls to you from her perch in front of the parlor, usually located in the nightclub district of a tourist area.

You don’t get naked for a Thai massage, instead you put on these funky little pajamas they supply, most of which are too small of foreigners. If you can choose which person who’s going to give you the massage, find the oldest, homeliest woman they have on the staff. She will have been at it the longest, and will not be skating by on her looks. She doesn’t have to appear the be strong to do a good job, as much of it involves her using her elbows and feet, leveraging the weight of her body. Even a tiny woman can exert a lot of pressure that way.

Lately, I’ve been choosing the 90 minute option, which usually costs about nine dollars, including a dollar tip. By now, I’ve probably had hundreds of Thai massages, and I think I’ve only received three or four disappointing ones, and even those were not without value.

The trick to really digging the experience is to let your mind float along with the massage, following her touch as closely as you can, but while not falling asleep. You can slide right up to the border of dreamland, but don’t fall in. If you think you’re so tired you might fall asleep, save your money and wait until you’re more awake.

If you’re like me, you’ll find yourself remembering episodes from the past that you haven’t thought of in a long time. This probably has something to do with the notion that memory is somehow stored in muscles, or maybe in the nerve ganglia along the spine. How else could your hands remember where to go when you play the piano?

A good Thai massage is energizing and relaxing at the same time, and definitely so mind-altering that you may have a hard time walking home. It’s not just money well spent on entertainment, it’s actually good for you. When you find someone you really enjoy and trust, that’s a great thing. It’s worth trying lots of different places in order to find the right person.

THE PEOPLE

Perhaps thanks to their Buddhist culture, Thais are very gentle. They are also fun-loving (perhaps to a fault) and don’t follow rules very well. Try driving in Thailand, and you’ll figure out that nobody is following any rules, but people seem to forgive each other a thousand offenses that would cause a driver in the States to stop his car and challenge someone to a fight.

There is a tendency among Westerners to find this behavior in men to be wimpy or effeminate, but it’s not. It’s simply not macho. I’m sure when Thais get drunk and pick fights they’re just as obnoxious as we are, but when they’re not acting that way, they’re awfully sweet to each other.

By the way, if you do drive, especially a motorcycle, forget about the notion of right of way. You have no right of way. You are a person attempting to get somewhere in a cloud of others, and the only way you’re going to survive is by thinking cooperatively. Nobody owes you an apology for anything they choose to do, and if you even entertain the thought that they do for half a second, that half a second might cost you your safety. You can’t react instantly if you’re spending valuable half-seconds judging others. So yes, you will see things that make you want post a video online, but even that thought will jeopardize your safety.

THE CLIMATE

Its gets hot, really hot in April. Bangkok is pretty hot and muggy three quarters of the year. Up in Chiang Mai, it’s fresh and bracing from November to January. Then it gets smokey in February and March. When the rainy season begins, days are warm and nights are tolerably cool. I imagine at sea level, it’s usually pretty hot all the time.

The rainy season is the big variance. Starting in May, rain is the prominent feature, cooling things down after the April furnace. It rains a whole lot sometimes, and I was here prior to the flooding in November of 2011 finding myself impressed by the sheer volume of water that fell from the skies.

Thais who aren’t rich don’t use air conditioning much. They’re used to the warm temperatures. People who live in Bangkok and can afford it are pretty much hooked on air conditioning, but it’s too expensive for most people in most places to operate an air conditioner the way we do in places like Florida, Texas and Arizona.


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What to Do?


SO WHAT DO YOU DO ALL DAY?

Not working doesn’t mean hanging around with nothing to do. OK, it does sometimes, but unless you’re physically ill or addicted to television, moping around the house sucks no matter where you are.

If you are energetic and gifted with an active mind, you’ll come up with plenty to do. For example, I take Thai lessons for six hours a week. Piano lessons take up only an hour a week, but practice takes up about eight hours a week. Getting massaged takes about six hours a week, and eating out about the same. All that stacks up to almost forty hours a week. Gee, this retirement can be hard work, almost a full time job!

Talking to other expatriates is a lot of fun. Whether they’re retired or working, you’ll have more in common with them than you will with most locals. Here in Thailand, it’s common for Western men of a certain age to marry much younger local women. These men often seem surprised that they got not just the girl, but her entire extended family. Thais put great stock in family, so don’t marry a Thai girl unless you’re prepared to take on some familial responsibilities.

I’m sure the same holds true in Nicaragua, or any emerging economy. If a beautiful daughter marries a man who is, by local standards, rich, he’s going to be the one they call in an emergency. Don’t pretend that one away.

But the rewards of having an “in” into the culture could be great. Think of all the people with whom you can practice your new-found language skills. Unlike the haughty french waiters of these people will be delighted by your attempts to speak their tongue. And if you treat them with respect and love, they will return it.

The biggest problem facing most ex pats and most retirees is loneliness. Money has a way of insulating you from your surroundings. The retired millionaire can go to South America or Southeast Asia and build a mansion surrounded by a security fence, hire maids, cooks and groundskeepers, and still die of loneliness. We non-millionaires are, in a way, lucky. We’re forced to rub shoulders with the common folk, and in doing so, inculcate ourselves into their culture. You can still hide away in your house and watch HBO satellite TV if you want, but that’s not why you traveled halfway across the world, is it?

 

What This All About, Anyway?


WHY I WROTE THIS

I’m not trying to get you to do anything specific, nor am I trying to sell you anything. I found a wonderful, very affordable place to live in retirement, and I’m gung-ho on urging other people in my position to take small risks and do the same.

The hardest part was giving up on what I thought was some shred of security. Helen Keller, born deaf and blind, had this to say about security. “The reason nobody has ever experienced security is because it doesn’t exist. Life is either an exciting adventure or it is nothing.” And this came from a woman who started out with some significant disadvantages that most of us, including me, have not had to share. So if she could feel that way, I can, too.

It turns out that there’s a delightful, affordable, safe world out there that has little to do with the way we live in America. There are many places where a growing number of expatriates from English speaking countries mingle with the local populace. Places where those of us on even a small pension can live well.

For many of the people I know, living in America is like harboring a gambling addiction. You know it’s bad for you, but you want to hang on a little bit longer, in case you hit the jackpot. Besides, what if you quit now, just before the big payoff, why you’d never forgive yourself. True, most of the people you know are gradually sinking, but there are some success stories you can point to, people who lucked out on the timing of the real estate crash, or bought stocks just before they rebounded. It happens.

I used to know a lot of people who had moved to LA when they were young, hoping to make it in show business. One by one, they finally admitted to themselves that it just wasn’t going to happen for them. So they stopped waiting for the phone to ring and got real jobs. Some stayed in LA, some moved to easier places to live. After thirty years or so, only a fraction of them still live in LA, and only a fraction of that fraction still are waiting for their big break. As one guy who’d waited for most of his adult life for things to break in his favor to me “this is a town where encouragement can kill you. Every time you make up your mind to leave, a friend assures you that if you wait just a little bit longer, it’s gonna come together. People are talking about you. Don’t give up just before the miracle.”

For me, LA is the ultimate American city. But I spent most of my life not living there, but in Iowa, a state that has the image of a place that still offers a good quality of life for anyone willing to work and live a temperate life. I have news for you, that might have been the case in the past, and it still may be the case for some Iowans, but most of the ones I know are struggling just to get by. And it’s not getting any easier, as time goes by.

I don’t know what the future holds for anyone, least of all myself, but I do know that things weren’t getting any better for me in Iowa. And I don’t blame Iowa. Heck, I don’t even blame the US. But there comes a time when you can see the handwriting on the wall.

I’m not interested in proving anybody or anyplace wrong. I just want to have an exciting life and enjoy myself as much as possible. I bet you do, too, or you wouldn’t have read this far.

 

 

 

 

 

Why Do You Keep Harping On About Nicaragua and Thailand?


BESIDES BEING CHEAP, WHAT’S SO GREAT ABOUT NICARAGUA AND THAILAND?

I’ve found that people without much money are often more sweet- natured than people who have more than enough. They’re also inclined to be more generous with what they have, and with their time. I know such a statement could be considered to be so general as to be meaningless, but it has been my experience in traveling to places where the median income is very low.

Thailand has some awfully fancy shopping malls, and some really spoiled rich kids who are as addicted to their iPhones and iPads as any kids on the planet, but there are millions and millions of Thais who live much as their Lao and Cambodian neighbors do. For them, it’s Ireland before World War II. It’s rural America before the Depression. Kids know where eggs come from, and chickens, as well.

There is a natural beauty to children at play outdoors that you don’t find in monitored play groups at institutions. That’s what I’m looking for. No consent forms to sign, no driving kids to scheduled activities. It has existed for hundreds of thousands of years, but now it’s almost absent in America. You don’t see or hear kids playing tag in the streets or ranging through a neighborhood. They’re all indoors playing Xbox or watching TV.

Emerging democracies have their own growing pains, and the spoilage caused by rapid development is heartbreaking to watch, but they still have more of what I’m looking for than has been retained in the American landscape. I don’t want to drive to a shopping or strip mall and choose between franchises. If my opportunities for socialization involve a choice between church and shopping, I’ll take neither.

In Nicaragua, people in cities and towns set up rocking chairs on the sidewalk in front of their house. Then, in the darkening twilight, they rock and visit with neighbors who stroll by. Of course, this habit is dwindling, and you can see the flicker of a television inside most livings rooms, but until it dies out completely, and the giant flat-screen TV dominates all activity in the home, I’d rather stroll around my neighborhood and chat with folks.

How else are you going to learn the language? You can’t learn a language by only a few hours a week in class. Most of the learning comes in forcing yourself to use it on the hoof. You can’t remember vocabulary unless you can trick yourself into forming emotional connections with the words. Those come from talking to real people with whom you are developing real relationships, not from scanning lists of words in a book.

It’s thrilling to come alive again in somewhere that hasn’t lost most of its messy human-ness. To eat where the food hasn’t first been shrink-wrapped, to drive into the countryside where uncertainty awaits. Nothing is guaranteed, nothing is predetermined. It’s life on life’s terms. Could turn out great, could be awful, but at least there’s a sense of adventure lurking somewhere.

I know I’m romanticizing these places because I’m a foreigner, and since I didn’t grow up here I find novelty where others who have lived there whole lives here might find only drudgery. But I think there’s more at work here than the sense of novelty I’m finding. I think there’s a difference between real and illusory, human and inhuman, life and death.

One out of five people I know back in the States is hooked on anti-depressants. Their well-intentioned doctors sadly inform them that they shouldn’t try to wean themselves from these expensive drugs, because then the depression will reoccur. Then, like a lobotomized patient, the doctor recites the tired old lie about a chemical deficiency in the brain that is not likely to go away, necessitating a lifetime on the pills. This is nonsense. Lethal nonsense. It is, at best, a self-fulfilling prophesy.

 

 

 

 

Clarion Call!


GEEZERS ABROAD!

What are you waiting for? If not now, when? If not you, who?

Most people have a vague intention of someday, somewhere, finally not worrying about money anymore and doing what they have really wanted to do all along. Sadly, for many, that day will never arrive.

The fact is, the older we get, the less likely we will have the latitude to make this choice. The more likely we will be caught between a rock and a hard place when we finally decide, too late, to take the leap.

Our biggest fears about money and family can be addressed. Fact is, in between the Internet and jet travel, there really isn’t much of an obstacle to visiting with loved ones if the desire exists to do so. Sure, air travel can be expensive, but think of all the money you’re saving my living abroad.

So there are ways to retain the same or greater levels of intimacy with friends and family if the will to do so exists, but without the will, you will always find excuses why you can’t do what you want. And that’s a prison you can’t break out of, because you already hold the keys.

The fact is, we are all going to die, and so will our loved ones. Sitting around waiting for this to happen is absurd and tragic. In fact, waiting for anything to happen is a guaranteed drag. Patience is the absence of ants in your pants, but that’s not the same as inertia based on fearful projection. Patience is a virtue. Waiting is a drag.

So, we have choices we can make. Getting older isn’t one of them. What we do as we age is. Not choosing is a choice.

 

 

 

Medical Care


HEALTH CARE

Since we’re talking about retirement, we’re also talking about health care, and concerns about the quality of that care are usually exaggerated or simply unfounded. Most developing nations have two distinct levels of health care available, private care for those who can afford it, and public care for anyone else.

You’ll want to choose the private care option. Even at the nicest facility, it will not cost you anywhere near what such treatment would cost in the States. You can buy hospitalization insurance, but if you do, you should remember that you might do just as well to pay as you go. Accident insurance might make more sense, as unfamiliar driving habits are probably the greatest risk to foreign pedestrians and drivers.

I’ll start with a story about my first foreign medical experience. This happened in Argentina.

I was using a very sharp knife to open the back of a pocket watch when the blade slipped off the watch case and almost removed the top of my left index finger. I immediately went into shock and began worrying about cleaning up the blood rather than taking care of the problem itself. Finally, I wrapped my hand in a towel and went out to the street to hail a cab.

I asked to be taken to a doctor, but when the cab driver saw my hand wrapped in a blood-soaked towel, he took me to the nearest hospital. This was in Palermo, a super-fashionable neighborhood in Buenos Aires. Beautiful people were sunbathing in the park nearby. Cafes were full. Everyone seemed young and rich.

The hospital was a public hospital, and was shockingly dumpy. It was as if I had stepped from one movie set to another. Fortunately, the doctor who waited on me spoke good English, and he stitched my finger back together. He said I was lucky to arrive on a day when they had sutures. He was also able to give me a lidocaine shot before he began sewing.

When he was done, he told me that I should get a tetanus shot, but that the hospital had no tetanus serum, because it was prohibitively expensive. I could, however, purchase such a shot at the local pharmacy. I thanked him and asked him for the bill. He said “there is no bill. Healthcare is free in Argentina.”

I walked back out into the sunshine and the swarms of beautiful sunbathers and went to a pharmacy on the corner. A woman in a white smock (all the places I like are crazy about uniforms) was standing behind the perfume counter. I told her I needed a tetanus shot. She nodded and motioned for me to step behind a curtained changing room, and to drop my pants. I did, and then she entered with a hypodermic syringe and needle. She told me to bend over.

Just inches away, people were trying on sunglasses and spraying samples of cologne.

The shot cost fourteen dollars, which was a lot of money, comparatively in those days, but that’s because they had to import the serum from a manufacturer in the States.

Ten years later, in Nicaragua, I woke in the middle of the night with a pain in my upper chest. I’ve never had any history of heart trouble, but I was afraid, and so I repeated step one from my previous experience, and took a cab to the local public hospital. It was 2 in the morning.

The waiting room was crowded. A few dim energy saving bulbs barely lit the expanse of concerned parents, crying children and bewildered looking older people all waiting to see the one doctor. After about half an hour of waiting I realized this wasn’t going to work, so I went outside and asked if there was another hospital or clinic I could go to. Somebody said “yes, that clinic over there, but it’s private, it will cost you.”

So I went to the clinic, which was air-conditioned, and asked to see a doctor. They admitted me, took an EKG, put me on an IV of some kind, fed me breakfast in the morning before a specialist who had studied at Johns Hopkins examined me in the morning, studied the EKG and told me that he saw no indication of heart irregularity and that I had most probably been suffering from acid reflux. I paid the bill of one hundred dollars and felt it was money well spent.

Public health care in Thailand is much higher quality than in the two Latin countries, but still, if you can afford it you’d probably be more comfortable in a private hospital, where you’d be treated like royalty. In fact, private Thai hospitals are so good that people from other countries journey to Thailand for medical care. The most famous of these is Bumrungrand in Bangkok, but it is by no means the only one.

After a motorcycle spill in Chiang Mai we visited Chiang Mai Ram hospital, and although it was considerably more expensive than the competition, we didn’t feel ripped off. Everyone from attending doctor to nurses’ aide spoke English.

In conclusion, fear about the level of health care available is misplaced. The situation regarding health care we’re de-evolving towards in the States is the one they already experience in these emerging economies. Someday, maybe someday soon, we will all meet in the middle.

 

 

Why can’t they learn English?


LEARN THE LANGUAGE, EVEN IF IT TAKES YOU THE REST OF YOUR LIFE.

It’s not a contest to see who can get there quickest, nor is it something only certain talented people can do. Anyone can make a start on learning the local patois and make steady progress. Like learning to play a musical instrument, slow and steady wins the race. It will only be agonizing if you manufacture and then listen to a critical voice in your head that says you’re not progressing quickly enough. As you may recall from earlier times, comparing yourself to others, real or imagined, is guaranteed misery.

A common reaction to the challenge of learning another language at a relatively advanced age is to protest, “I’ve never been good at that sort of thing.” As if there were people who were uniquely talented in language acquisition, and it was their job to learn other languages. What a lame excuse! Learning a few hundred words in another tongue takes only weeks of work, and provides a foundation that will pay handsome rewards in the future. Imagine what you could learn if you could only talk to your neighbors.

I’m a veteran of talking myself out of things that I’m afraid would be too difficult.

When I was thirteen, I went through a phase of wanting to play the guitar. My family was struggling economically, so I knew I would have to earn and save money to buy the guitar myself. I thought about guitars night and day. I never did any more than daydream about learning the guitar, and I never bought a guitar.

Then, when I was sixteen, I went through the phase again. This time, I told myself that it was too late, and that because I hadn’t started when I was thirteen, I was already way behind in the race.

When I was twenty, I had another guitar attack, but by now the rationalizations were well set in place, and I was able to convince myself that it was hopeless. I told myself that I would be willing to go through the process of learning those damn chords only if I could find a special guitar suited for my special personality, one that would allow me to skip the drudgery that others endured. A cursory search proved that no such guitar existed.

Now, I am in my early sixties, and I still have not learned to play the guitar. Obviously, I am a man of strong convictions!

I tell this story not to inspire pity, but to remind myself that much more than external circumstances, my beliefs have pretty much determined the course of my life.

If ever there were a time to stop such defeatist nonsense, it is now. Blessed with exotic homes separated by distance and time from our past lives, we have been granted a new lease on life. Today, I can’t imagine a better tonic than learning something new.

I’m working on learning Thai, taking piano lessons and practicing about an hour a day on a couple of Chopin nocturnes, Debussy’s Clair de Lune, painting a few pictures every now and then, taking photographs, and writing this. That’s enough to give me a sense of participating in life.