Go Lean


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Nobody Brings All Their Crap Here

A great opportunity inherent in retiring on the other side of the world is that you’re strongly persuaded to get rid of most of the crap you’ve been dutifully hauling around for the last thirty years. That dining room table with eight chairs, the sideboard, the wardrobe, the boxes of pictures and old tax returns, the clothes that you were going to wear again one day when you lost weight…all of it goes before you move many times zones away.

The airlines help with this by charging exorbitant rates for extra luggage. Nevertheless, I met a guy who had brought kayaks, canoes, a grand piano, oil paintings in a shipping container and then paid for it to be hauled up the entire length of Thailand to the mountains in the North. Some people take their shit seriously.

I arrived here three years ago with two suitcases. Since then, I have accumulated a minimal amount of “stuff,” the things that one puts in no particular order in boxes and then hides under the bed. I change residences every year, so I am not tempted to engage in recreational shopping. It was a lousy pastime anyway. Back in Iowa, I used to frequent auctions and delude myself into thinking I was running an antiques business selling the smallest items on eBay. Truth be told, I was simply a shopping addict justifying his addiction.

I was bored and I didn’t enjoy my job. The perfect recipe for cultivating an addiction, and I became very good at fooling myself into thinking this was “entrepreneurship!” Yes, I was the Donald Trump of funky boxes full of other people’s crap, stored in the garage until I had time to go through them all, photograph the best of the haul, and then haul the boxes back to the auction! Did I have a truck? No. Were my items neatly shelved and organized? Of course not!

Out of sight, out of mind. Then, when the garage door refused to close, I knew I had to change my ways.

Now, when I go to a big box store, or a Goodwill, and see the hollow eyes of middle-aged people wandering the aisles with full shopping carts, I feel a mixture of revulsion and sympathy. There but for the grace of God go I.

Living abroad as I do, I get comments from people who say “I wish I could do what you’re doing, but I have too much stuff that I can’t get rid of.” The next most frequent comment is “I’m on medications that I’m afraid I wouldn’t be able to get over there.” They’ve also bought into the phony medical insurance “benefit,” where you think your medical insurance is providing a level of cost reduction or security. Here in Thailand, medical costs are a fraction of what they are in the States, often less than the deductibles most insured people pay for services and drugs.

 

 

 

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It occurs to me that living in Chiang Mai, Thailand hasn’t really hampered my ability to be creatively productive. If I’m not writing or performing to the best of my ability, I can’t blame it on location. If I were hiding in a furnished room in Los Angeles, hunched over my laptop and drinking coffee from a paper cup (not Starbucks, too expensive) chances are my phone wouldn’t be ringing with offers from publishers, studios, or agents.

At the age of sixty-seven, I probably wouldn’t be going to parties a lot, either. The nightclub crowd would be unaware of my existence. Maybe I could pass myself off as Harry Dean Stanton’s younger brother, or Tommy Lee Jones’ cousin. A-list geezers.

 

 

GEEZER TRAVEL


HOW TO ROAM THE PLANET LIKE A TEENAGER WHEN YOU’RE A GEEZER ABROAD

I started wandering whenever possible right after I found out there was no law prohibiting it. I got my first passport when I was eighteen, and visited my first foreign country, Russia. The year was 1968. I celebrated by birthday in Leningrad, and our tour group went to the theater to watch a production of Swan Lake. The sun didn’t set that night, it just hid itself behind some buildings at eleven and rose again two hours later.

I was hooked on travel. Money spent on travel beat money spent buying things. Cars, houses, boats…you can keep ’em. They require maintenance, steadily depreciate, and are forms of bondage disguised as assets. People even borrow money to buy them! Go figure.

I started going to Mexico first. You could drive there. From Missouri it took twenty-four hours, but that didn’t seem like too much for my roommates and I from the University of Missouri campus in Columbia, Missouri. Inspired by a Bob Dylan song, we drove to Juarez and stayed at the Hotel Diamante for two dollars a night, split three ways. A beer cost eight cents. Mystery meat tacos grilled on the street cost the same. I was further hooked.

I made twenty more trips to Mexico until I found you could fly pretty cheaply to other places if you planned ahead. So I went to Ireland, England and France, back when the cost of doing so wasn’t prohibitive. A hotel room in the left bank of Paris was a cheap as a Motel Six in Columbia, Missouri, and a heck of a lot more interesting.

I never gave much thought to making money for most of my life because practical matters left me cold. I graduated from a prestigious graduate school with a degree in Playwriting. There seemed no obvious path to monetizing this diploma, so I moved to San Francisco with five friends and we acted in a comedy troupe. Again, the dollars just flew by but not into our pockets.

Life happened. When I had three kids with another on the way I moved back to the Midwest to see if I could score a teaching job. A few temporary appointments came my way, but nothing that spelled tenure. My kids grew older and so did I.

When I was about sixty I saw the handwriting on the wall, and it said “take action or be doomed to a life as a charity case.” So I widened by travel scope. I went to Argentina about fifteen times, Nicaragua twelve, Ecuador, Peru and Colombia. All excellent places, but then I discovered Thailand, where I now live.

I’ve been lucky, and I know it. Some people have been luckier and some not so much. I have a cousin who is a billionaire. He recently endowed a building at his alma mater’s business college. When he spoke to the students at the grand opening, he advised them to not bother to learn a foreign language, as it was his experience that the international language of business is English.

His sister told me this. It gave me pause. I imagine he was speaking the absolute truth from his experience. When he travels on business, someone meets him at the airport holding a sign with his name on it. He is taken to the convention center/hotel where the staff all speaks English. No matter where he goes, in his world everybody who’s anybody speaks English.

My experience has been the exact opposite of my cousin’s. Nobody I meet in my travels speaks English, because I only go to places off the beaten path in emerging economies that haven’t quite emerged yet.

My cousin is my age, and I hope to compare experiences with him before we both make that last journey to the great beyond.

One benefit I have enjoyed was learning Russian, Spanish and Thai. I suppose if that had been my main goal I could have achieved it far more directly and economically than enduring bus rides where my fellow passengers held life poultry, the bus room being reserved for luggage and hog-tied pigs.
WHY THAILAND?

It’s cheap, it’s interesting, and they have Thai massage. The people are sweet. I like the food better than the rice and beans with a smattering of chicken or pork they eat in most of Latin America.

Heck, you gotta settle down someplace. Not choosing is also a choice, and an expensive one. So I chose Chiang Mai, Thailand, and so far I have no regrets. When I get really old I might choose a mountain village somewhere, but hopefully in a place where I don’t have to learn yet another language.

Just 3.5% of Americans Travel Overseas


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Fewer and fewer U.S. residents are even interested in international trips, dropping to just 9 percent of all leisure travelers today (versus 11 percent last year). Most of those trips are to Canada and Mexico. Only 3.5 percent of Americans travel to distant lands.

When I lived in South America, I was puzzled to see how few American tourists or expatriates I came across. Europeans far-outnumbered Americans. Even though Chile and Argentina are at least as sophisticated as is a lot of America, it was hard to bump into an American there.

Certain retirement magazines and websites keep flogging the same places, like Ecuador, or Panama, but I think they must have a vested interest in doing so. Relatively under-developed Nicaragua is socialist, but neighboring Costa Rica is basically one big Coldwell-Banker sign. There are lots of people trying to urge us to move to Costa Rica, and relatively few hawking Nicaragua So I would not trust most promotional literature, unless it was prepared by that rare soul without a hidden agenda.

Once I decided I was the kind of guy who would do better moving to an “emerging economy” (polite way to say “third world”) I became quite the wanderer. And then I discovered Thailand, and it became apparent that my pros and cons balance sheet was heavily skewed in favor of Southeast Asia.

I’ve heard that Budapest is wonderful and that Turkey is exotic, but I’m done weighing my options. Chiang Mai Thailand will do me just fine, thank you. And when the traffic becomes absolutely unbearable, which may be any day now, I’ll find a mountain village within and hour or so of the city and spend my days like Thoreau on Walden Pond, absorbed in the “bliss of the present moment.”

So why haven’t more of my friends and family followed me to distant climes? I don’t pretend to be Daniel Boone, nor am I in the business of selling retirees on Chiang Mai, or Thailand, or anywhere else for that matter.

When I see Facebook posts of my friends back home, it looks like everyone is completely fed up with what’s happening to our country. Many of my friends are terrified by rising medical costs, demoralized by politics, horrified by the sterile options open to most of us who must drive a car to accomplish even the smallest of tasks, shop and eat in franchised establishments, and endure an increasingly militarized police state. Why not at least venture abroad to see what other options exist?

You do realize that you still receive social security if you’re not living in the States, right? You do realize that medical costs in many places are less than co-pays required by most medical insurance plans. Most Americans over sixty are taking five or more prescription drugs. Ignoring the fact that many of them might be happier and healthier avoiding those pills, you do realize that most of those drugs are available abroad for a fraction of their costs at home. Don’t you?

The number of Americans holding passports is ten times the number who actually use them. This figure is artificially high because the vast majority of Americans born abroad have passports, but the number of us who actually have and use a passport is amazingly low. Is this because most people can’t afford to travel?

I found that I couldn’t afford to stay at home.

I suppose I am an economic refugee. I don’t say this to evoke your pity, but cost of living is a major reason behind why I made the leap. That and boredom. In most places in the States people come out for organized festivals, but otherwise the streets are quite dead. People drive from their homes to malls and back again.

If I were to attempt to return to the states, I would have to find some sort of subsidized senior housing. The last time I visited a friend in one of those places the aroma of stale urine was unmistakable. I might have to eat some of my meals as free lunches in church basements. Maybe I could qualify for Food Stamps, but the more I read about the future of that prospect, the less likely it is. I could wander the streets looking through plate glass windows at young people enjoying three dollar cups of coffee and staring at their laptops.

No thanks.

So if you’re afraid to take the leap without first checking out the overseas alternatives available, now might be good time to get that passport. I’ve been to lots of places and would be glad to offer my advice. The longer you wait, the harder it will be to finally take action.

 

what follows is a link to a recording the author reading this essay

 

 

What A Day


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What a day this has turned out to be!  We had to go to Hua Hin, about an hour up the coast, to take a plane back to Chiang Mai. Our plan was to take a mini-van, because they leave every hour and are air-conditioned.

 

Last night and again this morning, bombs went off in Hua Hin, killing one person and injuring several. The mini-bus people said Hua Hin was shut down, and they were not allowed to send busses there. We walked to the train station and they sold us tickets for a 3 pm train, but had no information whether it would arrive or not. The airline had heard nothing about the bombings, and as far as they were concerned, everything was running on schedule.

 

By now I had run out of money and had to find an ATM for my bank. Leaving Wipa at the restaurant, I walked for a half an hour until I found at ATM. On the way, I passed a little Thai man who motioned for me to come to him. He was standing inside a garage, in the shadows. I had seen him before when we walked from the hotel, and had asked Wipa what he wanted. He had been motioning to me then, as well, making circular motions with his hands over his stomach.

 

It turns out that he was telling me that I have a pot belly, and that he had the cure for it, an herbal compound that he would sell me for one dollar a bag. I had just that amount of money on me so I gave it to him and he gave me a little plastic bag of black things, about the size and color of currants. He said they were “strawberry,” and that I should take one in the morning and one at night.

 

After visiting the ATM I walked back to the restaurant and told Wipa about the man and the herbs. She shared the story with all the women at the restaurant and they all started laughing. They were aware of this man, they said he was crazy and that I would be crazy to eat these herbs. As there is a hill full of maybe ten thousand monkeys nearby, maybe it was monkey shit. I still wanted to try the herbal pills, if that’s what they were, but the lady in charge of the restaurant threw the bag in the garbage without first consulting me. There were two five-year old boys nearby and Wipa pointed to them saying “even children know not to eat things given to them by a crazy man!” The children laughed loudly, even though I’m not sure they knew what they were laughing about.

 

The train arrived, we got to Hua Hin in a short hour, and since I had never been there before, thought to avoid the taxi drivers at the train station who wanted two hundred baht to take us to the airport, and see some of the city. Turns out I was mistaken yet again, for due to the bombing, the downtown was deserted. Police were stopping cars along the major road, looking for explosives. It Fortunately, I was able to pay a motorcycle taxi twenty baht to find us a tuk tuk, who charged us two hundred baht, a fee I discovered was universal when applied to the airport, whether you journeyed ten meters or ten kilometers to get there.

 

As I write this, we are waiting in the departure lounge of an airport that sees one flight per day to one place, Chiang Mai, which happens to be where we live. The TV is playing a bunch of monks chanting, which at first I thought was doo-wop music from America. Never a dull moment here in Thailand.

MOVING DAY


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We’re moving today and tomorrow.  Today we pack up the few things we have in our pied a terre in Santitham, place them under the seat of my two motor scooters and scoot off to the new house, about five miles southeast of here. It’s in a neighborhood called “Snail Pond” which is historically prone to flooding. I’m not so much afraid of floods as I am of mosquitoes, now that Zika virus has been reported in Chiang Mai.

 

But it rained hard last night and is dripping even as I type this. With little in the way of infrastructure, when it floods in Thailand, it really floods. Our convenient room in the big city cost us 4,200 baht per month, about $120 U.S. dollars. No worry about floods there, for it’s on a fifth floor of a building new and clean. The room was small, with a balcony and a great view, but otherwise it was sort of soul-less and even though the air-conditioning was top notch, it was not place I wanted to hang out. Our rented house half an hour north in Mae Rim was a meager structure as well, but situated near the mountains. I could be riding in endless greenery in a matter of minutes. It cost 4,000 baht a month, which is about $110 dollars. Our new house promises to be quite luxurious and large, and will cost almost exactly what we were spending for the other two places. So it’s a lateral move cost-wise but probably a step up in long-term comfort. I’m hoping I will become less restless living there, and spend more productive time reading and writing in my office. Yes, I’ll have an office of my very own. 

 

I can’t believe I’m moving again. Every move I’ve made in the last ten years has surprised me, for I thought the move before was to be my last. I certainly drag much less with me now than I did ten years ago, when I fancied myself an antiques dealer with an auction shopping compulsion. On this new move I will have to buy a refrigerator, TV, electric stove, a few used tables and chairs, and I’m convinced these will be the last appliances and pieces of furniture I will ever need to buy. One of these moves I’m going to prove myself right about that.

 

It will be good to live in only one place. Every time I’ve tried to have a city house and a country house, it has brought me little in the way of peace of mind. Where did I leave those reading glasses? Here, hotel rooms are very affordable.

 

I no longer have any items in storage back in America. Most of what I now own could fit in the trunk and back seat of a Volkswagen Beetle, the same state of affairs I enjoyed back in 1975, when I moved everything I owned from Iowa City to Los Angeles. I was convinced it would only be a matter of a few weeks before I “made it.” My talent was such that I was certain to “be discovered.” I drank a lot back then, and smoked a lot of dope.

 

Now I no longer expect anything from my moves except having to learn a new neighborhood. Where is the closest coffee shop with wi-fi? At night in my new home, which way to the bathroom? Where are the light switches?

 

The older I get, the more I appreciate the Christian concept that we are all just pilgrims, passing through. The Buddhists here in Thailand are big on this concept, too. Everything is change. Here, they burn your body at the nearest temple. If you can afford it, they set off fireworks while they’re burning you, probably to scare you on your journey. “Don’t stick around, you’re dead, be off!” Boom!

 

The Weirdest Thing That’s Happened


 

 

This has got to be The Weirdest Thing That’s Happened To Me In Years.

 

A few days ago I was driving around Northern Thailand on my motor scooter. For two months now there’s been little reason to do so, as the heat, smoke and drought have conspired to make this beautiful place ugly. Then a few rains came, the air was washed clean and a green fuzz has miraculously covered the ugly black and brown of burnt vegetation.  So I decided to visit my favorite place about a half an hour north of here, on the way to Srilanna National Park. It’s a valley that looks like the Napa or Sonoma valleys near San Francisco.

 

As I was driving through a little town I noticed a flame tree in bloom, and stopped to photograph it. There was sign near the tree, on which was printed one of the few Thai words I recognize, “Massage”  Price: 108 baht. I decided to investigate.  Only a few yards away I found the place advertised, but it was a little temple, and instead of Buddhist images, it held Hindu statues, featuring lots of disembodied heads. Everything was unusually dirty and chaotic. I asked if I could take pictures. The lady in charge said yes, so I pulled in with my motorcycle, parking next to a big tree.

 

When I got off the bike, a a hundred red ants immediately swarmed over my feet, up my legs and into the clothes. These were large ants; the kind that bite.

 

So now I’m jumping around, swearing, trying to shake these ants off my feet and swat them out of my clothes. The three ladies there found this mildly amusing, but not surprising. Then the one who seemed to be in charge asked it I would be interested in massage. I checked my wallet and all I had was one hundred and ten baht (about $3.30).   OK, I said.

 

The little temple was full of stuff, large pieces of furniture, maybe some appliances. I badly wanted to photograph the creepy heads they had scattered along every available surface, but my camera was still in the motorcycle, and not wanting to risk the biting ants, I waited while they moved furniture around to some purpose I couldn’t understand. The eldest lady brought me a glass of water. A younger woman, maybe in her twenties, who looked as though she might be mentally handicapped seemed to be my masseuse and after about ten minutes she lay down a bamboo mat on the only level ground that wasn’t crawling with ants and then tossed on it a dirty child’s plush toy that I surmised was to be my pillow. By now she had donned a turban about the size and shape of a waste paper basket. She motioned for me to lie down.

 

The thought occurred  that this might be my last chance to run away.

 

I lay on my back, putting my head on the plush toy and trying not to think about the ants. Then she pulled out a large knife about the size of a Bowie knife. She asked me what parts of me hurt, and I told her my knees, which then prompted her to lay the knife on parts of my legs and while making limp massage motions with the other hand she began to loudly and repeatedly burp. These burps were deep and sounded surprisingly like a man talking.

 

This went on for about twenty minutes. She also began to sniffle from a runny nose, and sometimes would blow her nose in her hand and then fling the snot away, returning to massage my leg with that same hand. Every time I considered getting up and running away I remembered the ants. After about half an hour the boss-lady (her mother?) yelled something and that was it. The girl stopped burping. I handed her my hundred baht note, but could no longer find the ten baht coin. Perhaps it had fallen onto the ground. The girl said “no problem” and waved me away.

 

The girl went to her mother and knelt at her feet while the mother put her hand on the turban as in a blessing. No one was paying attention to me, so I made a run for the motor scooter, only picking up a few ants along the way. I raced around the tree and up to the road. It took me a few minutes to realize I was headed the wrong way, back the way I came, and when I turned around I briefly debated stopping again to photograph their weird temple, but decided against it. Besides, pictures wouldn’t help tell the story. It was one of those things you had to experience first-hand.