The old city of Chiang Mai has a cute little park tucked into the Southwest Corner. On weekends, Thai families and couples flock to feed the fish, ignore the pigeons, and take pictures of each other. I found it fun to walk around taking pictures of people who were taking pictures of each other.
In our cities, in the name of modernization, we outlawed keeping chickens. So we buy our eggs at the supermarket. And most little kids don’t know where eggs come from. The older ones theoretically know they come from chickens, but they’re not really sure how it works. For a while I lived on an acreage in Iowa, and I raised chickens. I found the crowing of roosters to be comforting. I haven’t used an alarm clock in years. Here in Thailand, you don’t have to go far to find a rooster crowing, beginning about an hour before dawn and continuing throughout the daylight hours.
Young men in orange robes are not an uncommon sight in Thailand, because it’s a rite of passage for many eighteen year olds to shave their heads and don the orange robes for a few months. Some take it more seriously than others, and some do stay with it for life, but not many. Here are some monks sweeping the stairs at Wat Umong, near our house in Chiang Mai.
If and when I ever get back to Iowa, I think I’m going to have a hard time adjusting to the tranquility. There are people everywhere here, on scooters zipping in and out of traffic, on the sidewalks, and the markets are the same only amplifieed by a factor of five. In general, people are gracious and considerate of each other. I’ve never seen anyone yell at another driver.
Southeast Asia is a lot like Latin America, but the food’s better. And the language is harder to learn, at least for us. It’s also a lot less violent, but I think that has to do with the difference between Buddhism and Catholicism. Those Spanish were not nice guys. Asia is much more crowded than Latin America. China is, of course, the whopper of all whoppers. But even Viet Nam, Thialand and Myanmar have populations up around 70 million each.
Both Latin America and Southeast Asia are wonderful places to Americans and Europeans to live and travel. They’re highly affordable, hospitable, and interesting. Damn interesting. Sometimes pretty weird. Both places enjoy religious festivals in ways that are simply un-American.
In Thailand, you don’t go to church on a set day at a set time. You decide when, and then you show up with offerings for the monks. Then you visit with the monks for a while. There’s no “service” to endure. There are lots of chanting sessions, when the monks chant the sacred scriptures. I think you can come and go at will. And people stop into temples to burn incense and pray.
Thailand has been occupied for thousands of years, but there weren’t many people living here until the population exploded in the 20th century. For thousands of years, Thailand was mostly forest and wild animals. In 1900, 85% of the land was deep forest. Since 1960, Thailand has lost 80% of that forest. If you want an explanation for the flooding problem, that’s it in a nutshell.
There were two kinds of monks in Thailand, temple-bound monks, mainly in Bangkok, and forest monks, who wandered about, often living in huts in the forest, or in caves. Two temple monks from Isaan (a five week journey away) described their first visit to Bangkok in 1905. They said it was an uncrowded city, and in order to relieve oneself, one need only step into the forest to do so. The canals were full of water pure enough to bathe in and to drink!
This is a thoroughly Buddhist country. And everywhere you go, especially in Chiang Mai, you find a temple, or a ruined temple. The picture above is a tunnel in Wat Umong, the forest temple, near my house in Chiang Mai.
It almost doesn’t matter where you live, as long as you’re living within your means so that you don’t have to worry about money. That concept is so broad and varied that it means something different to each person, so I won’t attempt to define it, but rather emphasize that it’s terribly important to a happy retirement. This is it. There’s not going to be any more money coming down the pike. Whatever you’ve saved and whatever is being direct deposited into your bank account is it.
Now that the emphasis is no longer on making money, or finding some way to abandon a sinking ship, all your focus goes back to you. What do you want to do with your time? Chances are you don’t know yet. That’s OK, in fact that’s to be expected. It will come to you if you give yourself room to find out who you are when you’re not frantically trying to rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic.
And life, being life, will not always hand you roses, no matter where you are. The challenges you get to face in this new place may be ones you haven’t had to face before. That’s good, or at least different. When you overcome or accept them, it will make for a better story to the folks back home.
For example, one very hot night in Leon, Nicaragua, I woke up with a strange pressure in my chest. I felt as if some invisible and powerful hand had grabbed by esophagus and wouldn’t let go. I naturally assumed the worst and dressed, went out on the street, and hailed a cab to take me to the nearest hospital.
Health care in Nicaragua is free. That’s the good news. The bad news is, the level of health care they endure is not something anyone who could afford to go to a private clinic would want to undergo. There were about thirty people sitting patiently in a cavernous waiting room lit by one bulb, waiting to see one doctor.
When I emerged out onto the street, the cab driver was waiting for me. “Private clinic?” he suggested. I nodded. Within minutes I found myself in a brightly lit, air-conditioned clinic, where a pretty nurse took my vital signs. The doctor said he would recommend that I allow them to admit me and wait for the specialist to come in the morning. They gave me an IV and I fell asleep in the polar opposite of my hotel room.
The next morning, after I’d had breakfast, the doctor gave me an EKG, using a battery operated machine that looked like it had arrived in a Care Package from the States. This young man had done his residency at Johns Hopkins, in the States, and spoke good English.
His questions were probing and revealed that I had taken Cipro, a powerful antibiotic earlier the day before, to counter a case of tourista, and one of the side effects of Cipro is acid reflux. The doctor figured this out. At my discharge, I had to pay the bill, which was just over a hundred dollars. After I got back to the States, where I had medical insurance, I had a cardiac stress test just to be sure. No problem, but even with insurance the stress test cost me $1,300.
So, like most problems, I could look at it two ways. One, I wasted a hundred dollars to find out there was nothing really wrong with me. Or two, I could celebrate the fact that my night in a Nicaraguan private clinic calmed my fears that I was having a heart attack.
You’re a foreigner in a country that has a much lower standard of living than your home country. Probably they don’t speak English. Those are the only two facts of which you need be constantly aware, and since those are incontestable, you don’t need to lose sleep over them. No matter what you think about your host country tonight as you prepare for bed, it’s still going to be exactly what it is tomorrow. So again, all the focus is on you. Who are you really, apart from that job that you no longer have? What do you want to do with this wonderful opportunity you’ve stumbled across, to live in a completely new way?
You might also find yourself inspired by some behavior or attitude shown by the locals that you envy. If only you could do as they do, you’d know a contentment that so far has eluded you, at least in your adult life. This may not be the case, but if it is, it would be a wonderful way to enjoy and learn something new, in these years when most people find themselves resigned to accepting decline.
What would happen if you had absolutely no plans for the day, but left the house anyway, determined to experience something new? The worst thing that could happen would be if something truly awful came about, the next worst thing would be if nothing at all happened and you simply drifed about, bored and listless. A certain amount of that is going to happen no matter what, but may quickly be overshadowed by some wonderful, surprisiing, totally unexpected events.
One thing I can absolutely predict is that nothing will happen if you don’t interact with other people. Scenery won’t reach out and grab you. You’ll have the make the effort to communicate with others.
When I was in my twenties, I used to go to Mexico a lot, because it was close and cheap. Back then I didn’t speak much Spanish, but I didn’t let that stop me from getting myself into some pretty surprising places and situations. I often had very little money, no credit or bank card, and still I managed to spend weeks drifting about.
Now I find that I’ve sort of entered into a second childhood, where I have no one to report to at the end of the day but myself. A day well-lived is one in which I was often surprised, sometimes delightfully, and I haven’t hurt anyone. That’s most of my days now.
Rode my trusty Honda PCX150 super scooter in a loop from Chiang Mai to Mae Sariong to Mae Hon Song to Pai and back to Chiang Mai. Each day involved about five hours of driving along the curviest of mountain roads. Spectacular vistas and fresh air were the prize earned by such diligence. Hill tribe peoples in native costume dotted came and went from their little villages. Lots of scenery but not many people, at least compared to the cities. Here’s a shot of rice paddies spilling down a canyon.
You’ve only got so much time left on this planet, right? Let’s be optimistic and say you’ve got twenty years. That’s about seven thousand days. Not an insignificant number, but a finite one, right?
What matters most is how you spend those seven thousand days.
If your basic needs are being met, then you can focus on the finer things, treating those you love well, with generosity and dignity, and having fun. You can treat others well and enjoy life anywhere, but in some places it will be easier. It’s hard to be gracious and generous when you feel under the gun. It’s hard to be relaxed when you feel that there’s not enough to go around and you’re not likely to get all you need. It’s hard to be a champion of others when you’re trying to hold onto the little you have.
One day you hear about some friends of yours who have moved to some little country you never thought much about. It’s thousands of miles away, they don’t speak English there, but your friends are enjoying themselves and they invite you to visit. You can’t, because you’re up to your ears in debt, just trying to hang on until…until…well, you haven’t got that part figured out yet. You imagine it will come to you, eventually, maybe along with a stroke of good luck, like winning the lottery or a mysterious and unexpected inheritance.
Three years go by, and you’ve lost a thousand of those seven thousand days. Your situation hasn’t improved. Your doctor has you on five different medications, and has informed you that you should expect to remain of them for the rest of your life. One or more of your kids is having chronic problems and you’re afraid to move too far away, in case they need you.
Meanwhile, quite a few of your childhood friends are dying. You find out via social networks. You’ve lost touch with them, because nobody stays in one place anymore, and you realize it’s only a matter of time before your name is the subject of such a flurry of correspondence. Don’t ask for whom the bell tolls…
So how do you make the leap? When do you dare to rock your own boat so violently as to throw yourself onto a foreign shore?
You can actually do it quite quickly, in a matter of weeks. It’s easiest to sell most of your stuff at a garage sale, and in temperate climates those happen in the spring and early summer. Don’t be afraid to sell at a loss, just sell.
After you get rid of most of your posessions, you’ll end up with a certain number of plastic tubs full of photo albums, random pictures, kids drawings, and other personal mementos. Rent the smallest possible storage unit in the most out of the way place you can find and place those tubs inside. Use the garage sale money to pay the rent a year in advance.
Get a post office box. Pay the rent on that a year in advance. Give the key to someone who will check on it every month or two. Remember, you can do your banking and bill paying online. You can also pay property taxes online. You can sell vehicles remotely, signing scanned documents and then rescanning them and emailing them back.
In my case, I did all this and moved from Iowa to Thailand. I thought I’d be back within a few months, but now I’m coming up on a year gone and I still have no reason to spring for a return plane ticket. I’ve told my kids I’d love to see them, and will buy a ticket the moment they want to come visit, but so far they haven’t asked.
In the time that I’ve been gone, I sold my car and my motorcycle, paid my property taxes on some rental property I unwisely bought just before the crash of 2008, and in general, thanks to the Internet, conduct my affairs a lot like I did back in the States. You could, too.
Sure, if I had to do it over again, I would have taken care of a great number of loose threads that are still dangling back in the States, but I don’t lose sleep over them. They’ll work themselves out, eventually.