Why Do You Keep Harping On 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!


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


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?


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.


Cheap is Good, But…


When someone from a relatively rich country, like the United States or the European Union, moves to a developing nation, like Thailand, that person gains a tremendous monetary advantage. He is spending money he earned in a place where costs are many times higher than they are where he is now. Compared to most of his neighbors, he is rich.

Chances are he won’t think of himself as rich, but relatively speaking, he is. After all, that advantage goes a long way to explaining why he made the move.

In time, our ex-patriate may find that his newfound economic advantage doesn’t buy him much peace of mind. He still wants what he cannot have. Even though most Thais are poorer than him, some are not, in fact, some are much, much richer. He compares himself to them and their BMW’s.

Being a Buddhist people, Thais already have an explanation for this phenomenon. Desire and suffering begin in the same place. He is manufacturing desires in order to feel a familiar level of suffering.

Unless he gets control of this process, he will be doomed to perpetual disquiet. There will always be some things a man with his income and savings cannot purchase. If he buys a black motorcycle, a pretty girl will zip by on a shiny red one, and he’ll want that bike and the girl that goes with it.

The expatriate should prepare himself for this inevitable bursting of the pink cloud he experienced the first few months after arriving. The fact remains that moving to a super-affordable place will not solve all the problems he has with habitual envy and greed. Those will have to be faced the same way here as they were back home. He might have moved halfway across the globe, but he brought himself along for the ride.

The whole notion of maximizing your advantage, or managing your options in order to get ahead, is sort of the antithesis of retirement. Surely there must be a time in life when this is enough, and the perfect time to develop a generous spirit rather than to stockpile wealth. If this isn’t the time, when will it arrive?




I don’t have enough money saved

How much money you need is totally determined by how much you will need to spend. If you have a shopping compulsion, or need to buy extremely expensive things, then you’ll need more money. Some people always spend more money than they have. Wherever they call home, these people will never know the freedom of living within their means. No matter how cheaply it is possible to live in a country, they won’t be able to live there without going into debt and agonizing over money.

I don’t have enough guaranteed income

Again, how much will you really need? If you neighbors are all doing fine on $800 a month, can’t you manage on $1400?

I’ll be too far away from my family

You family can come visit, and they will probably enjoy doing so more than having you visit them where they live. Sure, it will cost quite a bit in plane tickets, but then you’re saving so much money living outside the States that surely you can eventually save enough to help them visit.

Insufficient medical care available

This notion is absurd. Top notch medical care is available all over the world for those who can pay for it, and since medical costs in the States are four to ten times higher than in most other places, this is not really an issue. If you’re lucky enough to have medical coverage in America, then that coverage will extend to the rest of the world. If not, count yourself lucky to live somewhere where going to the doctor won’t bankrupt you.

Geezers Abroad – the Why and Wherefore of it.

If you’re getting on in years and have a yen to drift around the world, especially to places cheap enough to live in, then you’ve found at least one like-minded soul. Dan Coffey, the author of this blog, is a humor writer and photographer who makes his home in Chiang Mai, Thailand, though he’s often tempted to drift away to South America or Mongolia, when the impulse arises. He’s living on social security retirement, and has no plans to earn money, a vow he kept for most of his working life, as well.