Phong Nha Park


I’m referring to Phong Nha Park which is 30 miles from Dong Hoi, Vietnam.

I rode around the park for four hours, and it didn’t cost me even one cent in fees, because I never stopped to pay for an “attraction.” The road and the scenery was attractive enough. These place that charge admission are mostly caves, and at the age of 67, I’m not interested in touring any more caves. Nor did I want to go to a kiddie water park. There are few places to eat in this enormous park, and when I saw a restaurant at the water park I pulled over, where I was promptly charged fifty cents U.S. by a sad man who seemed apologetic about his job. Fortunately, I had recently found some Vietnamese bills by the side of the road. These added up to fifty cents. They don’t use coins in Vietnam, and their money was at first confusing to this foreigner. 100,000 dong roughly equals five dollars.

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But the restaurant I inquired at evidenced the most outlandish price gouging I’d ever seen. Chicken and rice, 300,000 dong. That’s five times what it would cost in a normal restaurant. There were few patrons even at lunch hour, and I can see why. All I had to do was drive a few more minutes and I found a family restaurant by the side of the road where the proprietress called out to me. Mom, Dad, and all the kids in were in attendance. I had a delicious meal for two dollars, and that included a coke. The kids found me quite interesting and stared at me while I ate. Then they forgot about me. I took their picture.

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The park was even more impressive than all the hype I’d read about it online. The caves are supposed to be amazing too, but I’m more into the Tarzan/Lost World thing. If Vietnam wants to get into the movie business, they should promote this place for Jurassic Park V. But if they want to curry favor with foreigners, they should watch the price gouging thing. There were no other Americans to be seen. French, Germans, British, but no Americans. Maybe the Europeans expect to spend more on vacation.

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The next day I decided to walk around until I had to take a cab to the airport. It was pretty warm and sunny, and got more so as the morning morphed into afternoon. I got over-tired, because when I’m home in Chiang Mai I’m either on a motor scooter or a bicycle. I forgot how hard walking is.

After an hour I realized I was lost yet again, but because I’m sometimes good at reckoning my position, I took an audacious shortcut through a neighborhood that looked a lot of Potrero Hill in San Francisco. When it was foggy in the Haight and Sunset, it could be sunny in the Mission and Potrero Hill. And this was not in the least bit yuppified, which is how I remember a lot of San Francisco from forty years ago.

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DSC06272At the airport they had trouble finding my visa for Thailand. They assigned a polite man to come talk to me and ask me questions. How long had I been living in Thailand? Did I work there? I thought it odd that the Vietnamese would show such concern for Thai Immigration. Then he asked me to find my current visa. After half a minute I did and showed it to him. “Ah, so there it is.” Looking back on it, I think he just wanted to practice his English.

I was impressed by the courtesy and dignity of every man I met there. Dong Hoi is pleasant enough, not crowded or crazy, and with a fresh breeze from the ocean. That counts for a lot. A lot of Southeast Asia suffers from air pollution.

Dong Hoi, Vietnam also reminds me a lot of Encarnacion, Paraguay, where I lived for six months. Unlike Dong Hoi, it hadn’t been bombed to rubble by the Americans forty-five years ago. It had simple languished under a stupefying dictatorship. But both places will probably become touristic hotbeds in the future.

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A General Lack of Expertise


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Now that anyone with the time and interest can command an audience on social media or via blogs, we are faced with an interesting phenomena. Many people who command large audiences don’t know what they’re talking about. I may well be one of them.

 

When I offer opinions on politics, or engage in ridiculing people I’ve never met, dissing nations I’ve never visited, and continue to spread rumors that I’ve only recently heard or read, I’m probably not making the world a better place. I’m just another noisemaker, a cricket sawing his legs together on a balmy night. But unlike the cricket, I may actually be doing harm by echoing (Facebook calls it “sharing”) the opinions of others.

 

Some things are true and others aren’t. There may be important differences that are too subtle to be made explicit in a catchy headline or alarming photo. Often, the gap between true and false is small enough so it doesn’t matter a whole lot, but at other times it might make all the difference in the world. It might result in nuclear war.

 

So maybe sharing my hastily acquired and sloppily reasoned opinions isn’t really a civic duty at all.

 

What do I really know about Putin or Trump? Israel and Palestine? Iran and Iraq? I met a guy from Syria once. He had me over to his house for tea. Does that make me an expert on Syria?

 

If  this shocking lack of expertise were confined to me, the problem could be quickly dealt with. Delete my Facebook and YouTube accounts. Erase this blog. But it’s not just about me, and in fact, I’m not even a major player. I’m just an retired guy with too much time on his hands and too many prejudices to be able to claim an open mind.

 

There is no gatekeeper anymore. Broadcasting has been supplanted by the Internet, and there’s no process for telling fact from fiction. Walter Cronkite was a newsman. I’m not. He had a staff of fact-checkers. I don’t.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

VOYEUR?


 

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Sometimes I wonder if my attraction to Facebook and my habitual Internet news sites is voyeurism. Why else would I be so attracted to the superficial aspects of other people’s lives? Why else would I care so much about photography, and spend so much money and time to take pictures of people I don’t know or care about?

 

It’s not healthy. Not good for me or anybody else. It’s normal for early adolescents to be easily hoodwinked by an over-concern for appearance, but it’s tragic to see it in adults. At sixty-six I think I finally merit that classification, even though I often seem to have the mental makeup of a fourteen-year-old.

 

What is the difference between me sneering at Melania Trump at the Republican National Convention and an old lady peering through her curtains and judging her neighbors? Do I really care if the Clinton Foundation is corrupt? What does any of it have to do with me, anyway?

 

Now the news has become a 24 hour entertainment venue. I can watch it and think that by being an informed citizen I’m doing something productive, but I know that’s not really the case. If my use of the Internet and social media were to encourage and support others who were actually trying to do something productive, it would be a non-pathological use of these media, but all this gawking and rubbernecking in front of my laptop is getting me down. Guess I have to find a life that’s not about consuming and sharing images.

 

In this part of Chiang Mai, for some reason the power goes out often. Sometimes I can imagine an explanation for why it has failed, and other times, I simply shrug and look at the overhead wiring, a rat’s nest of weathered cables. Now that the rainy season is finally here it has cooled off a bit, so a temporary lack of air conditioning is no longer life-threatening, but it’s annoying to suddenly be deprived of the Internet. My computer freaks out. You’d think it was a Chromebook instead of a real laptop, but nowadays there’s little difference. Windows 10 is alarmed that it can’t verify my log-in, even though I never asked to have to log-in to begin with.

 

In fact, I never asked for Windows 10 to begin with. They sort of bullied me into it by warning me that the systems I had paid for and use in the past were no longer available. I used to think Google was the good guy, but now I think all these browsers and email providers are insufferable, trying to upload every image I capture or word I write, in case I might want to “share” it later with my “friends” who are obviously voyeurs like me. What they really want to do is become my storage provider, and eventually charge me for that service. I hate them.

 

Yes, I spend far too much of my time online, yes I do suffer from withdrawal pains if I am offline for more than half a day, yes, I care far too much about the reactions of my “friends” to my innumerable posts which are often simply cries for attention. Help, I’m on the other side of the world, living as an economic refugee in a country where no one speaks English. Sometimes when I’m out on my motor scooter I come across an elephant walking down the road. How’s that for noteworthy and unusual? Better take a picture and share it with someone who might think it unusual and even better, might envy me for having such an interesting life.

 

It’s all so horribly junior-high. Am I popular with my classmates? Mix that adolescent anxiety with the bucket-list concept for those heading to the last round up. As death approaches, I have a duty to myself and others to consume peak experiences that can be photographed, videoed and succinctly described in a caption that would not bore or confuse. If I fail to tick off the boxes on my bucket list, then I will end my days as a confirmed loser.

 

How do we escape this superficiality? By having a set of core beliefs that resist the ebb and flow of fads, the manipulations of advertising, the trends promoted by magazines (the whores of advertising), and the rigorous and soul-deadening edicts of the Establishment, whoever they might be at the moment.

 

When I was in high school during the Vietnam war, I would watch John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show, making fun of hippies and war protesters. I knew these men were not on my side. If push came to shove, they would be on top and I would be on the bottom. I vowed then and there to have nothing to do with them, the armed forces, ROTC, the Republican Party, Barry Goldwater, Richard Nixon and any of his minions, the names of whom: Haldeman, Ehrlichman, Kissinger…still make me queasy to this day

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.

 

 

 

 

THE DESIRE FOR CELEBRITY


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I taught for many years, mostly at the University level, but most recently I taught high school students in Paraguay. Since this was an English conversation class, I was attempting to get them to talk about anything, rather than to just listen to me talk at them. I asked them what they wanted to be when they grew up.

 

All of them said “famous.” Some wanted to be movie stars. I thought that odd, because in humble Paraguay we were far removed from Hollywood or any important cultural center.  When celebrity culture grew like a malignancy back in the eighties, I thought this would be temporary, but almost forty years later its spread to infect most of the organism. Maybe social media and smartphone use has something to do with it, but the desire to stand out from the crowd by becoming famous is now thought of as admirable. It’s a legitimate goal for anyone who can afford to take the plunge.

 

Wanting to be famous is the desire to be loved by strangers. Based on the values we ostensibly hold and attempt to teach our children, this seems an odd goal to set for oneself.

 

In Paraguay, almost no one I met had ever been anywhere else. The super-rich visited Disneyworld in Orlando, Florida, and then went shopping in fancy malls. Often fifteen-year old girls would go in a group, chaperoned by a rich aunt. I suppose it’s normal for teenagers to be impressed by celebrities, and to want to be more like them, but it seems from the perspective of this retired American as if the whole world has become a shallow teenager.

 

When I taught in Thailand, I was teaching classes in performance for broadcasting at the University level. The students there all hoped to become celebrities. Thailand doesn’t have much a movie industry, but they crank out lots of daytime dramas to air on television. Nobody pays them much mind. They don’t want to be Thai TV stars, they want to be International movie stars.

 

Even though their English language abilities were often minimal, many of my students were very cute. In Thailand, boys and girls both aspire to the same level of cuteness. Even though Hello Kitty was invented in Japan, it seems to have found a permanent home in Thailand, where cuteness at all costs is the national motto.

 

Cute and sexy aren’t the same thing. In fact, they’re almost opposites. If your path to being famous depends on being super-cute or super-sexy, you’re in trouble, because there are more people on that road than it can handle. Time is of the essence, and it’s always running out. Better get there at just the right time and don’t dawdle!

 

Maybe someday young people all over the world will snap out of it and decide that their goal is to be kind, to develop charity in whatever situation they find themselves, to learn diligence and patience, but most of all to see service towards others as a lofty goal all in itself. Screw being famous.

 

Maybe they will realize that the desire to be loved by strangers is an artifact of a sick culture based on voyeurism.