Why Strange Places Feel Good to Me

We moved around a lot when I was a kid, finally settling in St. Louis, Missouri. I never felt like I fit in. Then I went to college in Columbia, Missouri and graduate school in Iowa City, Iowa. I felt more at home in those places than in St. Louis, but still if somebody asked “How about them Hawkeyes?” my heart would sink and I’d feel like I had nothing in common with most of the people around me. ItTo me these wholesomely normal place were like the Cohen Brothers vision of Fargo.

So for the last ten years or so, I’ve been drifting as hard and as often as I can, Central and South America and Southeast Asia. I feel like I did in Missouri and Iowa, like a stranger on the outside looking in, except in these places I know why I feel that way. I don’t speak the language and I don’t look like anybody else.

So if I’m in Mendoza, Argentina or Mandalay, Burma, and I feel like a stranger in a strange land, I know why.



The Andes between Mendoza and Santiago

The Andes are spectacular, and the part I saw, at the base of Aconcagua was too rugged for my comfort. I find high mountains scary. I was also huffing and puffing just walking on a level surface, which is an unpleasant sensation at any age, but especially at 64. I was definitely the slowest guy in our little tour group of happy 25 year olds. “Are you Ok Mister?”

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I only rode about thirty miles, but it seemed like a lot longer. One the way to Somoeng, I turned off on a small road about the size of a driveway. It took me through several small hill tribe towns. They may have been Hmong. Unfortunately, they practice slash and burn agriculture, but there’s nothing that can be done about that, as they don’t have machinery or gasoline. Several acres were still smoking as I rode by.


I saw a sign saying “waterfall” one kilometer, so I ascended a dirt driveway until I came upon a swarm of parked motorbikes, and could hear the hooting and hollers of teenagers. Most Thais can’t swim, but these fifteen year old boys weren’t letting that stop them from hurling themselves into the deep pool. The girls sat on the shore and watched.The boys who weren’t swimming were furiously smoking cigarettes, something they obviously were not permitted at home. I found a pool deep enough for me to submerge myself. They all found me very funny. I don’t think they’d ever seen anyone as old as I at the waterfall.


Then I rejoined the main road after about forty exciting minutes of wondering if I was getting myself into a world of trouble, and found my way back home, stopping for a two hour Thai massage that cost $6.


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I’ve written in the past that sanity and gratitude are both choices, at least for most of us. In the long run, taking the big view, none of the problems we encounter matter too much. Of course, it’s easier to take that perspective when things seem to be going your way.

Ever since my heart attack and subsequent angioplasty, I’ve been largely confined to my room. Fortunately, here I have a computer, a piano, and a television which receives two channels in English, one of which keeps playing the same movie over and over again for a week at a time, and the other a French English language news service. Al Jazeera, BBC and CNN are still banned by the military, who are very much I charge. I could criticize them openly, post such opinions on Facebook and then wait for the knock on my door, or I could just shut up and mind my own business. More and more that seems like the best option.

If the Generals want my advice, they know where to find me. To the Thais, all of us European/American/Australian men look the same. I know, because I went to a government office to get my proof of residence form, and the man in charge had to search through a stack of them looking for mine. Each form had an I.D. picture stapled at the top, and to him we all looked alike. White men in their sixties, wearing glasses.

But in my mind I’m the center of attention around here. After all, I’m the old guy who limps around, his groin still swollen with hematoma from the blood thinners they administered (rat poison, really) to dissolve a clot they discovered when they went in to insert the stent. I’m sure all the massage girls in town are in mourning and miss my business, but don’t worry ladies, I will recover and be back lying at your feet again in no time.

Chiang Mai is surrounded by mountains, and the lure of winding mountains roads and misty forest scenery are powerful incentives for me to heal enough to mount my trusty scooter once more. I want to survive so I can have some more adventures. I also want to finally learn the piano pieces I’m working on, a couple of Handel pieces, a Chopin nocturne, a Satie Gymnopadie.

So compared to being dead, I guess my problems today are miniscule, and I can once more take my own advice and choose to be grateful, for that is the only road to sanity.