opium poppies


the author and Wipa, one of his two companions. The other is a guy named Sam.



Oh my aching back. We went down what is without a doubt the worst road in Thailand. For three hours there were no signs of civilization, and in a country with 70 million people that’s only the size of California, that’s one deserted area. It’s up near the Myanmar (Burma) border, extremely mountainous, and those roads that exist look like they’ve been bombed into rubble. But my Honda PCX 150 did a fine job scaling the hills and braking on slopes.

I got to experience dropping the scooter on a slope filled with stones the size of grapefruit and deep dust. There was no way to remain upright for long. My shiny new scooter now wears some deep scratches, the scars of a campaign that was so fraught with terror I had a hard time enjoying the scenery.

And it was cold. This is Thailand. It’s never cold here, except when you’re up high and it’s the day before Christmas. Fog and mist and forty-five degrees Fahrenheit.

I will remember this trip, and remind myself that distances on the map are hard to determine. When they say the road is minimal, in some countries they really mean it.


Elephants on Parade










Took a scooter ride up into the hills again, but this time there was a procession of elephants going down the road. The dry season has started and it reminds me of autumn in the States. Like a September morn (even though today is December 14) Had to wear a leather jacket that I’d brought with me from Argentina. For the longest time I thought I would never need it here.



Where your treasure is, there will be your heart be also
– The Bible
Getting and spending we lay waste our powers
– Wordsworth

When I was in college, I didn’t have a girlfriend until my Junior year, so for those first two years I had plenty of time on my hands in the evenings. Our student union building housed an amateur radio station, a ham shack, and I was its most enthusiastic user. In fact, the club elected me their president, for the other members had girlfriends and outside interests which I seemed to lack.

My ham highpoint came when one winter night, using a mere seventy-five watts of power, I contacted another ham operator in Russia. Conditions, frequency, antenna tuning and luck came together to allow this connection to be made, thirty years before the Internet made such things commonplace. Wearing headphones and concentrating with all my powers, I was able to pull his dits and dahs out of the static. My fist hovered above the brass telegraph key, sending code at an agonizing five words per minute.

At first I thought maybe I was fooling myself, but no, real, credible information was being shared. We were communicating in Morse code, as my novice license did not permit me to yet use a microphone. Using commonly accepted Morse code abbreviations, we exchanged the details of our position, signal strength, antenna type and height, and our names. I’ve forgotten his by now. Let’s call him Igor.

What Igor and I talked about was what most amateur radio operators talk about. Ham Radio wasn’t about the substance of communication, it was about the equipment needed to communicate. Maybe the guys who had access to microphones could talk about normal guy stuff, sports, politics. We novices were limited to the bare essentials.

A few nights ago, I attended a meeting of the Photography Club here in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Everyone who showed up was a foreigner. They shared their pictures, but most of the talk wasn’t about the image or what it represented, it was about the camera and the lens used to capture it, or the software program used to modify the image.

It’s always been easier to talk about equipment than to critique or comment on art. The world of catalogues and gear magazines inspires us with impressive specifications and sexy photography. But most cameras sit in drawers, becoming obsolete after a few years. I’m sure there are a few die-hard amateur radio enthusiasts still out there, but they are the geekiest geeks of all, brethren to model railroad enthusiasts and retired guys who put model ships in bottles or build bird houses.

I have a friend here who is five years older than me, and he refers to this time in his life as “sudden death playoff.” In other words, if he is ever to score, now is the time. The clock has run down and all that’s left is the tie-breaking moment.

It got me thinking that he’s probably right. Where I put my attention was always important, but now it’s doubly so, because there’s not much time left to waste. If I ever had any nebulous, half-formed plans, now is the time to either discard or finalize them. Wallowing in uncertainty or indecision is all-around bad idea.

And the fact is, I love the manufacture of art above all other human activities. (I consider love-making an art form) So now is the time to whole-heartedly try to make all my actions artistic. Even more than the Zen concept of one-mindedness (chop wood, carry water) I want my one-minded focus on art to result in a purity of action and soundness of mind. This artistic striving might result in a final product that inspires or delights others, but it surely will result in me enjoying peace of mind and maybe even occasional bursts of joy.

By now I know that I don’t lack any tools to make my art. A newer laptop or a more expensive camera would actually impede my progress. I’d have to learn how to use them, to read instruction manuals, to go through set-up routines. No thanks. Been there, done that.


click here to hear me read this essay

Chaotic but Human


I ask myself why I spend so much time abroad, in places that are markedly cheaper that the States. Is it simply the monetary advantage of having my social security in dollars that lures me to these crazy places? Yes, in part, but it’s not enough of an incentive to explain what I find sufficiently attractive about living where traffic rules are non-existent, electric power is unreliable, rule of law is a myth, and they speak some impossible language that I cannot hope to master in the time I have left on this planet.

I think the reason can be simply stated, these places are not sterile and predictable.

Overall, I find a sense of freedom and possibility missing in most of the United States. All our wealth has brought us a surprising lack of options. In general, most people I meet seem either depressed or angry, feeling neither free nor hopeful. I don’t know why, because neither politics nor economic reality can fully explain it, but there is a general feeling of decline.

I just know how it feels to be me. When I was living in Iowa, I was single most of that time, and being too lazy to learn to cook I ate most of my meals at Hy-Vee and Hardees. I got fat. I took pills for depression and pills for my high triglycerides. Here, in Thailand, I eat in a great variety of places, where the food is prepared on the spot and contains lots of herbs and spices. I have lost weight.

At Hy-Vee, all vegetables were served soaking in a white liquid which I strongly suspect was cornstarch, sugar and some sort of preservative that made the peas and carrots glow phosphorescently. The meats I ate were from animals that had been fed growth hormones and antibiotics for all their brief lives.

Here most food is organic because farmers can’t afford chemicals. My cell phone here costs me about $3 a month to operate. There are numerous plans available. All the phones are unblocked, and a new phone costs about $15. SMS texting is free.

Just as in the First World, young people here are fixated on their smart phones, staring at them dumbly and constantly, waiting for that important bit of digital infotainment, but here the costs of internet access for smartphones is a fraction of what it is in the States. Oddly, Internet speeds seem about equal, even though the streets are lined with crazy wiring from fifty years ago, dangling from every lamppost.

My motor scooter costs me about $3.50 a week to operate, even though gasoline here is more expensive than in America. I rent a house here for $250 a month, about twice what a single Thai person would pay for housing. If I were willing to live twenty minutes from downtown, I could rent a three bedroom, two bath house for that price, but what would I do there? That reminds me of the four bedroom farmhouse I owned in Chelsea, Iowa, where I wandered from room to room sneezing and listening to echoes.

Coca Cola is everywhere. It’s even in Myanmar. Soft drinks take a great toll on human health, and I’m sure they’ll figure that out when they get rich enough to suck down a 64 ounce Big Gulp with lunch. Heart disease and diabetes are first cousins, and they both are exacerbated by sugar and white flour. If you eat enough bread and drink enough soda, you will die from them as surely as if you smoked four packs of cigarettes and day thereby courting cancer.

Nicaragua, Paraguay and Thailand have a lot in common. Most people in these places are poor, poorer than anyone I’ve ever met in the United States. But if all your friends are as poor as you are, you don’t feel as bad about it as you would if you were constantly comparing yourself to those who have more than you. You forget that you don’t have a 48 inch LCD TV and you don’t mow a five acre lawn with a riding mower. Your whole family shares one motor scooter, and that’s good enough most of the time.

If you go to places like West Des Moines you realize that there’s absolutely nothing happening there, and nothing ever will happen, because it’s laid out like a golf course. Every home is its own castle. If the City of West Des Moines wants to have a public event, they hire a Special Events Officer and she (mid-forties, frosted hair) gets press, radio and TV coverage of a non-event that pleases or inspires no one, but justifies her office and salary, and is declared a rousing success by all the other people on the City’s payroll, which partly explains why property taxes are so onerous.

Here is Thailand, they don’t have property taxes, or if they do they aren’t collected, which is another kind of problem, but I won’t go into it here.

No, this place is far from perfect. Nicaragua is a banana republic ruled by a despot and Paraguay suffers from African levels of poverty, but at least to this graying geezer, they’re all more interesting that sitting at the Hy-Vee dining area and hearing some geezer farmers talk about Terry Branstadt or how the Hawkeyes are doing.

So unless Medicare brings me home because I’ve suffered a health crisis that warrants the twenty-two hour flight, I think I’ll stay where I am for a while. I swim a kilometer every few days and I don’t smoke or drink. Maybe I’ll live a long time, maybe not. I just want however long it is to be interesting. I don’t want my choices limited to driving from one mall to the next, shopping at franchise stores and reading newspaper advertisements for inspiration.