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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.

 

 

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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.

 

 

 

 

The Road Ungraveled


I like being spontaneous, and acting without forethought. Plans bore me. So after a delightful afternoon drive through the mountains to Somoeng, a town an hour and a half from Mae Rim, I thought, “what the heck, let’s continue onward to Pai. There’s a back road that I hear is mostly passable, and we can probably be halfway there before dark.”

We hadn’t packed, not even a toothbrush, and I didn’t have a map with me, but since everything had gone so well already. Bidding “so long” to our traveling companions who returned to Chiang Mai, we set off on the back road to Pai. We left about an hour and a half before sunset. I imagined a cute little guesthouse on the way, a good meal, hitting the hay early and driving the remaining two or three hours the next morning.

At first the road was excellent. Then it turned to cobbled cement blocks, but then became excellent again. I was already imagining describing the road in the blog I would write. “Mostly nothing to be afraid of. Don’t know why nobody goes this way.” We were up high enough for pine trees. Crimson light lit them and the peaks of the eastern range. How beautiful! But night was falling, and we were in a hurry and in no mood for scenery. Then darkness fell, the stars came out, and it got cold. Very cold. Since I hadn’t known I was leaving on this trip, I hadn’t packed any warm clothes. My pants were the sheerest cotton, my shoes, flip flops.

At about the time the last glow faded behind the ridge of mountains to the west, the road turned to dirt. Not just dirt, but deeply rutted dirt, with gullies big enough to swallow the motor scooter. All I could see illuminated by my headlight were these never-ending furrows that reminded me of those images sent from the Martian probes. There was no traffic to speak of, either behind us or oncoming. Every once in a while we would pass a hovel with some people sitting around a fire in front of it, but then those stopped appearing as well. The stars were so beautiful, the night was so clear, and we were so…cold.

The only extra clothing I had in the box beneath the seat was an orange plastic raincoat. I stopped and put it on. The pants I was wearing were also orange, Thai fisherman pants, made for hot weather, so I must have looked like a fluorescent orange traffic cone as we motored along. We were now making scant progress, maybe an average speed of 8 miles per hour. We saw a sign saying the next city was in forty miles. Surely the good road would come back. Surely a town would come in sight.

Truth is, I was getting scared. The colder I got, the stiffer I got, and my arms and legs were uncovered. At each new gully I had to stop to plan an approach, for I could not afford to slide and fall. So then, of course, I did.

The dust proved as cold as the air. Wipa was unhurt, I scratched my knee, the motor scooter was still running, so I switched it off. It got very quiet. The stars above grew insanely bright, mocking us. Then after a minute or so we saw headlights, as a truck lumbered around the corner in front of us. Fortunately, the driver saw us and stopped.

He was a young man, and pulled the scooter off me, then had to help me stand, as I was too stiff to easily do so on my own. He asked Wipa if I was a monk. I guess in his headlights, my orange outfit looked like monks robes. She said I wasn’t. Then he asked me if I were drunk. No, I replied I’m just old. And tired.

He left, wishing us “good luck,” which is what people here say a lot. After they opened up a new underpass in the road from Mae Rim to Chiang Mai even the highway department used its new electronic sign to wish drivers good luck in the new year. To my Western ears, having a government agency in charge of public safety wish you “good luck” seems odd, but here they put a lot of stock in karma, which is why there is no drivers education to speak of, and Thailand enjoys one of the highest rates of traffic mortality in the world. They put great stock in luck.

I wish I could say that there was a cute little guesthouse just a mile or so down the road, but no, about an hour later we came to a settlement of about twenty houses, and I stopped at the biggest one. I presented my case. If you don’t help me we will die. Turns out he was the town mayor, and he arranged for us to rent a room used for migrant workers a few yards away. It was unheated, and the blankets thin, but we slept that night knowing we weren’t going to die. In the morning I heard a pig grunting under the floor, and baby chicks peeping as they ran about. I laughed as I threw open the shutters.

The next morning everything had a luminous quality. We were still alive! The motor scooter wasn’t even damaged! Just dusty! There was a coffee shop in town. Like George Bailey in the movie “It’s a Wonderful Life,” I saw everyone as beautiful, charming, clever. Thanking them too profusely, we drove off in the morning light to continue another three hours to Pai. By the time we arrived I was warm enough so my teeth were no longer chattering.

road less graveled

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here is a link to a sound recording of the author reading this piece.

WHAT’S A FELLA TO DO WITH HIMSELF?


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CONCRETIA DEMENTIA

It seems to strike older men, causing them to spend the rest of their days making strange sculpture parks, sometimes using acres of land and millions of pounds of cement. Often the designs are repetitive, but the sameness of the imagery doesn’t slow these guys down. They have no “off” button.

In Iowa, we have the Grotto of the Redemption in West Bend. There a Father Paul Dobberstein, a Roman Catholic priest spent forty years-two years making the world’s most complete man-made collection of minerals, fossils, shells, and petrifications in one place. The rocks alone are thought to be worth four million dollars.

On both sides of the Mekong River, in both Ventiane, Laos and Nong Khai, Thailand, Bunleua Sulilat built enormous, fantastic sculpture parks using both Buddhist and Hindu symbols. He began in Laos, but after the 1975 Communist revolution, decided to continue his work on the other side of the river, in Thailand. These are truly “over the top” both in size and conception. A fall from one of his sculptures on the Thai side led to his demise at the age of 64. His mummified body is on display in a hall at the park.

It certainly gives a guy something to do with his hands, and ends up constituting a life’s work.

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The Girl of My Dreams


post-37737-1311736782 The problem with living in a fantasy world is that even though it doesn’t really exist, it follows you everywhere you go. And certain concepts, like the perfect partner are not only illusory but destructive to real life relationships, proving an effective deterrent to peace of mind. But, like the perfect beach or tropical resort, these concepts sometimes have a life of their own. And often, they are peddled to an unritical audience. Note here Chinese tourists visiting Phi Phi island, Thailand, best known as the location for the movie “The Beach” about a pristine and perfect beach whose location had to be kept a secret in order to keeping it from being ruined. Guess some tour operators and tourists found a way around that one.

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No Guarantees


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When I was in my twenties, I would set off on long trips with not much more than a hundred dollars in my pocket.  I had no credit card, and since debit cards and ATM’s hadn’t been invented yet, the cash in my billfold was all there was. Nothing really concerned me, as I floated along like Mr. Magoo, blindly avoiding mishaps without having the good sense to know how lucky I was. In all my years of hitchhiking and driving long distances across borders, nothing really bad ever happened.  Sure, I stayed in some miserable hotels, but I picked them out because they were dirt cheap and I full of what I thought was “atmosphere.”

In 1972, I spent a month in Mexico on one-hundred and seventy-five dollars.  I survived for five weeks in Europe in 1971 on three hundred dollars, and that included a few days in Paris.  Back then, Europe was cheaper than the States. I stayed in hostels and bed and breakfasts, sometimes paying as little as three dollars a day for bed and board.  One day I ate only candy bars and oranges, but usually hunger wasn’t even an issue.  One night in Paris I slept in a parking garage.

As I look back somewhat astonished by my recklessness, I realize that the big difference between then and today lies in the fact that then my parents were still alive.  Somewhere, in the back of my mind, I knew that if things got too bad, I could always call them (though International calls were very expensive) and they would find a way bail me out. Or try to.  It never came to that, but I guess that’s how I justified my lack of fiduciary caution.

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Who will come to my rescue now?  Here, in Southeast Asia, six foreigners were recently executed for drug smuggling.  These were young people who had thought to make a quick buck by bringing drugs to Bali.  I’m sure if I had been in their position and so tempted, I might have been just as stupid.  Again, luck was with me in my twenties. Surely, I had no more common sense than they, and was every bit the smug hipster as these lads who recently faced an Indonesian firing squad.

I remember once being pulled off a Mexican bus by soldiers and carefully searched for drugs.  I didn’t have them, they didn’t plant any, and they let me go. Just lucky, I guess, because I didn’t have any reluctance to use drugs if they were freely offered.  I was just too cheap to buy my own.

As we age, all the things we had taken for granted are removed, one by one, sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly, but they all leave.  Looks, health, mental quickness, natural talents…they’ve only been on loan even though we thought they were our birthright. Fortunately, some of us we weren’t totally reckless in our salad years and still have something left over to help us coast to the finish line.

I keep thinking “This hanging around third world countries is fine as long as I’ve got no real problems and some money in the bank, but what happens if I become infirm or broke?”  Then places like Switzerland and Norway don’t seem so boring.  I wonder what it takes to immigrate there?

Decrepit hippies are probably not high on their lists of potential permanent residents, but there are ways to sneak through the filters they’ve imposed.  Note to self: remember to stash enough cash to hire a Norwegian immigration attorney when the shit finally hits the fan.

Nobody really knows what the future holds for them or anyone else, but we sure like to pretend we do, for what feels like sanity and hope is often just desperation and wishful thinking creating a dream world.  In 2007, I remember reading business journalism praising the selling of collateralized mortgage debt and subprime mortgages. The rise in home values was a good thing until the moment it wasn’t.  Those financial wizards were geniuses until the moment they were fools.

Nobody knows what’s going on and nobody’s in charge.  It’s all a crap shoot, so we might as well enjoy the game because there are no guarantees regarding who’s going to win or even whether the other players will play by the rules. Those retired American orthodontists who buy beachfront properties in a banana republic may be rudely awakened one day by soldiers pounding on the front door of their McMansions.  The officials and agents who smiled accepting money to purchase a retirement Xanadu may suddenly look away as the newly suntanned retirees are being deported at gunpoint.