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

 

 

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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.

Focus on the Good, Ignore the Bad


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It really doesn’t matter where you live, and it almost doesn’t matter under what circumstances you’re living. Every day you have a choice to cultivate gratitude or to find fault in your surroundings. One way leads to happiness or at least contentment, and the other to misery for you and those unlucky enough to find themselves in your presence.

 

Unfortunately, many of us are convinced that our greatest talent lies in discernment. Nobody’s Fool, we are obliged to point out what’s wrong, who’s lying, and to remember these failings with pinpoint accuracy. We are the avenging angel’s right hand men, helping usher in the day of reckoning as it dawns.

 

As an expatriate, I am tempted every once in a while to offer my opinion on how the locals run this place. Certain that they’re simply too shy to ask my advice, I formulate advice in my head, ready to share it at the first opportunity. Because Thailand has been in political crisis ever since I first landed at the Bangkok airport in 2008, I have had many opportunities to offer such advice.  Someone who’d been here awhile took me aside and said “whatever you do, don’t say anything about the monarchy.  Nobody wants to hear your opinion regarding that.” I’ve heard it said “the most expensive advice you’ll ever get is free advice” but in this case, not so.

 

Thailand is the most foreign place I’v ever spent a lot of time.  Central and South America are simply Latin-flavored America compared to this place. As long as I keep my discerning eye focused on what I enjoy about these differences, I’m doing fine. And as long as I keep my mouth shut, I’m doing even better.

 

 

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.

Why Strange Places Feel Good to Me


We moved around a lot when I was a kid, finally settling in St. Louis, Missouri. I never felt like I fit in. Then I went to college in Columbia, Missouri and graduate school in Iowa City, Iowa. I felt more at home in those places than in St. Louis, but still if somebody asked “How about them Hawkeyes?” my heart would sink and I’d feel like I had nothing in common with most of the people around me. ItTo me these wholesomely normal place were like the Cohen Brothers vision of Fargo.

So for the last ten years or so, I’ve been drifting as hard and as often as I can, Central and South America and Southeast Asia. I feel like I did in Missouri and Iowa, like a stranger on the outside looking in, except in these places I know why I feel that way. I don’t speak the language and I don’t look like anybody else.

So if I’m in Mendoza, Argentina or Mandalay, Burma, and I feel like a stranger in a strange land, I know why.

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Where’s Our Satellite?


Landlocked, extremely poor Paraguay has suddenly realized they are the only country in South America without plans to put a satellite in orbit. Ecuador just succeeded, and other Latin American countries are envious. “Where’s our satellite?” the campesino asks, machete in hand, as he hacks at a banana tree.

So Congress has asked the Minister of Defense to propose a program that would let Paraguay join the Mercosur Space Race. Ecuador’s satellites cost about 300 million dollars each. The first one was destroyed by impact with Russian space debris. So a few months later, they sent up a replacement.

The population of Paraguay is about 6 million, so that’s fifty bucks a person for a satellite that will accomplish almost nothing, but make people some people feel a hit of national pride. Minimum wage here is about ten dollars a day, but those jobs are hard to find, and many people in remote places end up working for far less. So they’re proposing everybody go into debt for a week’s wages just for a feather in the national cap.

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Western style democracies aren’t for everybody


And western concepts such as free speech and individual liberty aren’t prized by other cultures. We shouldn’t be surprised by this, but our news media loudly and consistently cluck their tongues whenever a foreign government doesn’t behave like the United States or Western Europe. 

 

Thailand, for example, seems incapable of democracy. They don’t want it, but in order to seem modern and progressive and attract foreign investment, they play the game, usually half-heartedly and often badly. What can you expect from a country where the King is revered and anyone who says anything non-worshipful about him or his family is thrown into prison or life, where political parties hate each other, where the military steps in every few years and changes the government, where they draw up a new constitution every couple of years which nobody even bothers to read much less follow?

 

Thais value loyalty above all else. Venezuela and Nicaragua elect Presidents for Life. That’s the way they like it. 

 

 

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