RUNNING FROM SMOKE


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For the past three days I have been literally racing up and down haze-choked hills in Northern Thailand, looking for some fresh air. I’m driving my new/used motorcycle, a Honda CB500, which in these parts is considered a big bike. I’m driving in the mountains, on two lane blacktop roads which at the right time of year would have offered luscious landscapes, but because this is the end of dry season, and because the air is full of gray smog from burning crops, it’s not much fun.

I left Chiang Mai when the particle levels were at the danger level, and after looking online for a possible refuge, noticed that the levels in Phayao and Phrae were in the normal, safe zone. But as we drove the three and four hour rides, I noticed that the air here looks every bit as bad as it does around Chiang Mai.

That’s because it is. Turns out that the monitoring stations in Phayao and Phrae are using old equipment that doesn’t measure the smallest, most dangerous smoke particles, the ones that work their way deep into your lungs and stay there. Emergency cardiac admissions at local hospitals soar this time of year. Having your lungs poison your blood with microscopic smoke is no picnic.

The only solution is to admit defeat and fly south to the beaches. There the smoke isn’t a problem. 

 

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Playing Hippie Fifty Years Later


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Yesterday I attended the Shambala Festival in Chiang Dao, Thailand. It’s a small city in northern Thailand that is dominated by a tall mountain that abruptly rises from the rice fields. It’s a lovely, dramatic setting for what is essentially a “Rainbow Gathering.” The participants were mostly young people, a mix of Thais, Europeans, Americans and Japanese. Anyone who wanted to walk around barefoot and smell of patchouli oil.

 

At age 67, I am the age of most of their grandparents. A chorus I’m a member of was performing at a small venue near the kitchen. We were by far the most professional and rehearsed of the small stage acts, but yet the audience sprawled in front of us was half-asleep. They were here for the long haul, days of hanging out. It was a bit unnerving to perform for such a laid-back crowd. On the other hand, I’m sure things liven up at night at the evening stage, now baking in the sun during the day but which would come alive after dark and would host amplified bands which would inspire hippie dancing. Shake your dreadlocks, baby.

 

There were many beautiful young people there but there is a new sort of odd, non-sexual thing happening now. No nudity. No coupling in public. Lots of hugging and flamboyant physical displays of yoga inspired gymnastics, but the obvious sexual attention-seeking is a thing of the past. They’ve moved beyond that.  As someone who was their age at about the time of Woodstock, I am pleased that there is still a demand and audience for this sort of thing, and glad to see that I am no longer the least bit tempted to partake of it. It never even occurred to me to sleep on the ground. I went into town and rented a hotel room, something you can do in Thailand with pocket change.

 

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Confabulation Confounds Me


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My mind swims with words and images. I’m half asleep. Everything seems like a movie I might have seen once a few years ago, but one can’t remember much about it except that certain incidents, characters and settings are familiar. The story itself eludes me.

This is either a shot across the bow by the evil forces of dementia or a warning sign that I’ve bitten off too little of what life has to offer and am merely deeply and seriously bored. Stuck. Just waiting for the end.

On my best days I can delude myself that I’m making progress, but on my worst I’m just bumbling along on auto-pilot. Repeating the same few activities out of habit is not the same as being fully engaged.

Of course, I know the solution is to volunteer my time for some good cause. Join Rotary. Visit orphans and comfort the downtrodden. Embrace some new challenge. Really dive into learning a difficult skill. 

I am tempted to delve deeply into Flapdoodle for its own sake. To become the Irwin Corey of meaningless discourse. To ramble to the point of exhaustion.

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

NOTHING STOPPING ME


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the author thinking about nothing

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.

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.