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.

 

 

 

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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.

 

 

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.

Nine days in Hanoi


It’s better than I remembered it from a visit five years ago. People are aggressive and money-hungry compared to Thais, but friendly. What an exciting place!  Street life is a thousand times more dynamic than anywhere in the States. Took a two hour train ride to Ninh Binh to get out in the countryside where they have unusual limestone karst formations. Here are a bunch of pictures from the last few days.

 

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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

 

 

Eight Days in Vietnam


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I just came back from eight days in Vietnam. Like all vacations, I spent more money than I thought I would, even though prices were comparable to those in Thailand, where I live.

What amazed me is how happy a lot of the people seemed to be. The Vietnamese spent an entire generation fighting for the freedom to choose their own form of government, a battle which they eventually won, and now they are justifiably proud of themselves. But they’re also very poor. A lot of people seem unemployed.

The people who approached us on the street to try to sell us something or other weren’t fooling around. In Thailand, nobody seems especially driven or hungry. Here they do.

Vietnamese men and women of my age remember the war years, but most of the people you see on the street are much, much younger. They probably don’t think of the war as anymore than a story told in school or by their grandparents. The dead were buried long ago. True, certain parts of the countryside are still pockmarked with bomb craters and in some remote places landmines and unexploded ordnance are a problem, but essentially the Vietnamese people have moved on. When we arrived at the airport in Saigon we ate at Burger King.

People still ride around on bicycles and wear those canonical hats. Old women wear what look like pajamas in clashing colored patterns. They carry heavy loads on bamboo pole with two baskets or buckets at either end.

At the war museum in Saigon, I saw a video in which they had assembled a group of four pilots, two Vietnamese and two Americans. The interviewer asked the Vietnamese pilots if they had been at a disadvantage. “Yes,” they agreed, “the Americans had much better equipment and there were many more of them. But we were fighting for our country.”

“We were fighting for our country, too.” said one of the American pilots. He looked sad and tired and not terribly happy to be there.

In my present circumstance, it was all I could do not to guffaw out loud. Here I had just come from the museum’s Agent Orange room, where they had plenty of photographs of horribly deformed Vietnamese children on display. They had captured U.S tanks, helicopters, artillery, bombs and planes on display in the museum’s courtyard. Right after I paid my admission charge, a man who had lost his forearms and one eye introduced himself and sold me a book about the little girl who had been photographed running naked down the road, crying after napalm had burned all her clothes off and scarred her for life.

But the guy probably really believed he was defending America, in some way that I find hard to understand from this vantage point. The air force pilot’s comment reminded me of the time I saw the documentary film “Hearts and Minds,” which came to our theater in my Missouri college town. The week before I had been to that same theater to see “Fantasia,” the Disney cartoon that had just been re-released. We were all stoned and agreed that Walt must have been high when he made that film. Our student deferments had allowed us not to fly to Southeast Asia and kill or be killed.

But this week, to watch the documentary about what was going on as far away as one could get from Missouri and still be on the planet, we were stone cold sober. The movie was about as depressing as any you could hope to see. They showed G.I.’s cavorting happily with Saigon prostitutes. We saw Vietnamese families scrambling to hide in tunnels to protect themselves from air raids. In a scene I’ll never forget, a Vietnamese man was showing the camera where his family had been the moment the bomb hit their house. Only he had survived. His wife had been there, his oldest daughter there, and his youngest daughter here, where the kitchen used to be, washing the dishes. Oh look, here’s a scrap of her dress. This was my daughter’s dress! Why don’t you show this to Nixon and tell him about my daughter? Choked by grief, he stared dumbly at the fabric.

Then they cut to a funeral of a Vietnamese soldier where the man’s wife tried to climb on top of his funeral pyre and immolate herself.

They then cut to General William Westmoreland, who laconically informed viewers with a twinkle in his eye “The Oriental doesn’t put the same high price on life as does a Westerner. Life is plentiful. Life is cheap in the Orient.” A gasp went up from the audience. It was as if somebody had kicked all of us in the gut at the same time.

The problem with evil, is that it often simply resembles stupidity. But there is a difference between a lack of information or intelligence and policies and the actions that kill millions of people. Three million died in Vietnam. Millions died in Korea after we napalmed whole cities and blew up dams, guaranteeing starvation. These things just didn’t happen by accident, or from bad information. They came about through deliberate effort, through the plans and actions of real people.

When the little girl was napalmed and then photographed running down the road, the Press was quick to point out that we hadn’t napalmed her, but the South Vietnamese army had. With napalm and planes we had given them. Now when Saudi Arabia uses white phosphorous on Yemeni civilians, or Israel on the residents of Gaza, we gave it to them. Does that lesson our culpability? Wasn’t me, it was that guy over there.