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. 



<a href="https://geezersabroad.files.wordpress.com/2013/12/nic071


Don Daniel inspects his holdings



It’s Christmas morning and for the first time in my experience of living here, there are no motorcycles zipping along noisily on the street in front of our building. Oh, if it were only this quiet the other 364 days of the year! Here, people are at work by seven and the buzzing of motors begins before dawn.


The sun is very bright, the temperature is quickly rising, but nobody is out walking.  On Christmas morning people stay home with our families.  If we don’t have families, we hide in our rooms. Here, they call a rented room a “piezza,” and sometimes usually they come with a shared bath and access to a minimal kitchen


I imagine the single people are lazing about their rooms, sipping terrere and scrolling through Facebook posts on their laptops. The parents of families are doing the same, while their children play and fight among themselves, systematically destroying their new Christmas presents.


For some reason, this Christmas morning I am reminded of my first plans for retiring in a third-world country. These were my dreams of five years ago. Even though I had no savings and not much income, I was planning on buying a coffee plantation in Nicaragua. Then I would be Don Daniel, riding on his white stallion, wearing riding boots and holding a riding crop and wearing an enormous straw hat. The workers would bow when they saw me and pretty women in colorful skirts would curtsey.


I am so glad none of that came to pass. Today, the idea of responsibility and being tied down to real estate of any kind makes my skin crawl. 




When I was in college, I became enraptured by the album “Who’s Next” and especially the song “Won’t Be Fooled Again,” which proposed in a cheerfully anarchistic way that we were now hip to the controlling machinations of the Man and would no longer be dupes of his nefarious schemes. Maybe we had been blind once, but now our eyes were fully open. Nixon and Kissinger were crafty old devils, but the kids could defeat them, and surely would. Any day now. Just a matter of time. 


That was over forty years ago. I am living in South America now, and forty years ago the cruel military dictatorships propped up by the United States’ “Operation Condor” were in full swing back then. Things are certainly better here today than they were in the early seventies. Your chances of being dragged off, bind-folded, in the middle of the night, tortured and then shoved out of a military helicopter or dismembered with a chain saw are far less today than they were forty years ago. At the moment of this writing, Christmas Eve, 2013, things are better in the States than they were five years ago, when the greatest “legal” heist in the history of our union was accomplished when everyone who we trusted to mind the till suddenly figured out that collateralized mortgage backed securities were a Ponzi scheme of frightening proportion. The stock market is up. The dollar is gaining strength. 


But for how long? Argentina is tottering on the edge of something big. Recently, police departments in many major Argentine cities went on strike, and as if one cue, mobs began looting supermarkets. The Police demanded raises before they would leave their barracks. They got them. 

We lived in Thailand for a year, and I put a third of my savings into the bank there, because they paid an interest rate of 3.5%, which was better than the 0.5% my bank back in the States offering. Since then, the Thai Baht has weakened considerably, the country looks like it might be on the verge of civil war, and if the King dies (he’s 86 and not in the best of health) I’m afraid blood will run in the streets. So much for diversifying my assets. In retrospect, I wish I’d bought gold.







Bach had twenty children, yet still found the time to write more and better music than a hundred of his contemporaries. When he was fifteen, he walked two hundred and fifty miles from home to attend school in another town. For a while, when he attempted to resign a post as a court musician, he was thrown into prison. I don’t know if he was ever bored. He certainly never played a video game or became addicted to a television series. 

Something has developed in my country and culture that makes me think that nobody will ever again be as profoundly creative as Bach. We don’t have time for it, because we’re spending all our efforts looking for comfort and diversion.

The expectation that life be entertaining is a new phenomenon, one that has blossomed like an algae bloom in the last thirty years or so.  I remember one day I was receiving a massage in Chiang Mai, Thailand, and on either side of me lay Thais in their twenties, who spent their massages playing with their smart phones, furiously scrolling up and down, hoping to be distracted from this deeply pleasurable and therapeutic experience by catching sight of a photo of a cute puppy or a meal one of their friends just ate. Certainly, given the rate they were zipping through these posts they weren’t doing much real reading, nor could they be noticing their massage, the thing that they were paying for and was happening to them here and now.


When the novel was first created, in the beginning of the nineteenth century, some warned that it would encourage the foolish and impressionable to waste their valuable time on trifles instead of concentrating on and working for what mattered. Nowadays, we would praise anyone who had the concentration to read a novel. We would declare that person a student of the arts, an intellectual.  Try teaching a college class that requires reading a novel and see how many of the students voluntarily submit to such torture.


Constantly seeking distraction or entertainment becomes addictive, and as with most addictions, you can never get enough of what you don’t need.  You end up trading the Real McCoy for its shimmering substitute. And when that trade proves unsatisfactory, you find there are no refunds.


Family life is more than a few good-looking actors sitting on couch trading witty comebacks. Romantic love is more than the titillation of a first kiss.  We all know that at least theoretically, but when faced with an opportunity to choose the real over the virtual, most of the time we leap for the illusion. This is why so many hope to enter the Entertainment Industry. Everyone is vaguely aware that there’s big money to be made there for simply goofing around and creating ghosts.


When you ask young people what they would like to be when they grow up, a discouraging proportion volunteer “a celebrity.”  The idea that a person would not be celebrated for outstanding achievement in a certain area, but rather that the state of being celebrated would itself become a full-time job is a relatively new one.  Think Paris Hilton, role model for a generation.


Entertainment is a first cousin of advertising, that all-pervasive enterprise which seeks to invent heretofore unknown needs and then fill them. Again, the end result is wasted time and resources, disillusionment, and bondage.  Far from being a lofty goal, the chronic thirst for entertainment proves the greatest obstacle to achieving any lofty goal.


But this process of fooling Pinocchio into becoming a donkey on Pleasure Island begins in his seemingly simple desire to be distracted.  Please, amuse me, now, this instant, or I’ll die of boredom! So you turn back to your smart phone, hoping this time the voyeuristic hit will satisfy. Most of the time it fails to, but intermittent reward is the essence of addiction. Usually, when you yank of the slot machine handle not much happens, but every long once in a while…jackpot!



It hasn’t been difficult for cell phone providers to peddle the myth of connectivity because the target audience is already pre-sold. They’ve long ago accepted the idea that connectivity beats physical presence. Experience has taught them that illusions on small screens are preferable to seeing the real thing. In fact, the smaller the screen and the tinnier the audio, the more compelling it is. All their friends agree, and the younger you are, the more that matters.


I fear for the young people of the world, whether in developing or developed economies. The Man has you by the throat and you don’t even know it. In fact, you’re grateful. The harder he squeezes, but more you’re willing to give up.  As it says in the Bible, Esau sold his birthright or bowl of porridge, and when he wanted a refund, it was denied him, though he sought it with bitter tears. Youth and health are a gift, a temporary gift that will eventually be taken from you. Wasting it chasing phantoms is grim folly.



Our Special Breed of Catholic

Paraguay is a Catholic country. The Constitution demands that the President be Catholic, and that he be married. The previous President took that requirement a bit too far for the taste of most people. He was a Catholic bishop, and he had many common-law wives, with whom he had numerous children. The current President is not a priest but a wealthy businessman, though he is widely acknowledged to have made his fortune dealing drugs.

miss catholic university 008

The strongest and best private University in town, and maybe in the nation, is the Catholic University. Here is a picture of Miss Catholic University for the branch in our town. She’s 19 and her long-term ambition is to become a dentist. I think her unusually revealing costume is an homage to Carnival, held here in February, a tradition we borrowed from the Brazilians next door. Our version of Carnival is so well thought of that it even attracts Brazilian tourists.

People Here Know How To Enjoy Life

Like this fellow I ran into in a German community not far from our town.


I like to eat lunch at a local buffet. It’s not “all you can eat” which is good for my waistline, and it’s very popular because the food is as cheap as it is good. Nice place to meet new friends?

disneyland cafeteria

Of course, sometimes I have to wait in line, but it’s my problem, as people in developing nations have a far different notion of what constitutes “personal space.”

customer service

And their ideas of politics are sure different. In the States we don’t like to be bothered, but here they seem to like to get together for a nightly mass rally.


But strong families and a willingness to work hard promise a bright future for all

The Author as a child, in Dubrovnik

My New Friends

South America is full of diverse ethnic groups, and in one day of nosing around I have met many. Like just yesterday, when I went for a swim, I came up on shore and ran into these guys.


Then, a short walk in the woods took me to a completely different spot. Again, interesting ethnic types!


Finally, I was able to practice my spanish with some serous fellows who told me to go back where I came from and could I please spare a dollar?


No matter where you are, everybody wants to be a movie star


I teach English at an academy deep inside the pampas of South America. My students are mostly upper-class kids who have smart phones. They range in age from sixteen to twenty-four. At our first class, I challenged them to tell me what they really want to do for a living, not what their parents or others want them to do, but what they want to do. They all confessed they want to become movie stars.

There is another teacher here, a bright local man in his early twenties who speaks such good English they made him a teacher (here, they have a hard time finding native English speakers, especially ones willing to work for five dollars per hour.) He’s quitting his job next week to move to Hollywood to become a movie star. Seriously.

I remember when I was fifteen my father asking me what I wanted to do with my life. I admitted I wanted to be famous. “At what?” he asked. I didn’t have much of an idea. I just knew I wanted to be a celebrity.

I remember my father was not pleased with my response. He thought it showed immaturity and latent narcissism. He was right.

Most people nowadays spend a frightening amount of time watching other people perform on Youtube, films or television. That’s in addition to the time they spend watching people perform in commercials. So it’s no wonder they want to be the one watched rather than the one watching, the one being paid rather than he who is paying. It’s a no-brainer. In the former case you’re hanging around in your trailer, hobnobbing with other celebrities and getting paid for your time like a third-world politician. In the latter case, you’re sitting in your basement or bedroom, watching other people simulate pleasure or excitement and compulsively eating.

So if we take the statement “I want to be a movie star” as a desire to the active rather than passive, a doer rather than a loafer, a burning desire to participate in the arts instead of as an admission of laziness and narcissism, then we can be less critical. Because let’s face it, we all secretly want to be movie stars, too.

The Skies Down Here at 30 Degrees South

Most dramatic would be to show you the stars, which down here, far from city light pollution, are impressive. The only constellation I recognize is Orion, but he’s upside down, with his sword jutting upward. The Southern Cross floats directly overhead, and the Magellanic clouds in the Milky Way are impressive even to the naked eye.

the skies at sunset last night
the skies at sunset last night

I’ve noticed that often a large circle forms in the clouds. Sometimes lately it’s been accompanied by sun dogs at opposite sides of the circle, and the whole thing disappears after a few minutes. Look away, and it’s gone when you look back. Don’t know if this has anything to do with the recent solar flares.