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.

A CHEERFUL THOUGHT


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In 1859 a solar storm, a geomagnetic event, sent a gale of charged particles through the vacuum of outer space and towards Earth. This storm was so powerful that it knocked out the only form of telecommunication that existed at the time, the telegraph. Such powerful storms occur on average once every five hundred years. If such a storm were to happen today, it would knock out the Internet, GPS, and most forms of broadcasting.

 

The last time this happened, the world was a simpler place. People ate food that grew nearby. Financial markets were not highly leveraged. Nobody expected to be able to deal with the kind of complexity we rely upon today.

 

If GPS goes, so will air and ship travel. Tropical fruits could no longer be part of a North American or European diet. Where would we get coffee or chocolate? Tourism will vanish for a while.

 

So will international banking and most trade. If the Internet goes, people will keep trying to log on to find out what’s going on. The organizations and systems the Internet replaced would have to be resurrected. That would take some time. During this period of crisis, it would not be unusual for other, bigger crisis to emerge. A Perfect Storm of problems, which could combine to amplify the sum effect and result in real catastrophe. 

 

When famine occurs, it doesn’t take as long as you might assume to lose a lot of people. It’s a matter of weeks until the tipping point is reached. And then bodies start piling up, usually on street corners, left there during the night. We don’t have much experience of this in the West, but in the East they’ve had plenty.

 

One would have to be foolish to think that such an event will never occur. Of course it’s not a case of “if” but “when.” So what are we doing to prepare for this day?

 

In a simpler era, amateur radio operators offered some form of mass communications during emergencies, but if this happens, I think we’re going to be looking at mayhem. Most of us no longer own a radio, much less a short wave radio. I used to be able to send and receive morse code, but that was a long time ago, and today my telegraph key lies moldering in some Midwestern antique store.

 

I do, however, still remember the morse code for SOS.

 

What A Day


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What a day this has turned out to be!  We had to go to Hua Hin, about an hour up the coast, to take a plane back to Chiang Mai. Our plan was to take a mini-van, because they leave every hour and are air-conditioned.

 

Last night and again this morning, bombs went off in Hua Hin, killing one person and injuring several. The mini-bus people said Hua Hin was shut down, and they were not allowed to send busses there. We walked to the train station and they sold us tickets for a 3 pm train, but had no information whether it would arrive or not. The airline had heard nothing about the bombings, and as far as they were concerned, everything was running on schedule.

 

By now I had run out of money and had to find an ATM for my bank. Leaving Wipa at the restaurant, I walked for a half an hour until I found at ATM. On the way, I passed a little Thai man who motioned for me to come to him. He was standing inside a garage, in the shadows. I had seen him before when we walked from the hotel, and had asked Wipa what he wanted. He had been motioning to me then, as well, making circular motions with his hands over his stomach.

 

It turns out that he was telling me that I have a pot belly, and that he had the cure for it, an herbal compound that he would sell me for one dollar a bag. I had just that amount of money on me so I gave it to him and he gave me a little plastic bag of black things, about the size and color of currants. He said they were “strawberry,” and that I should take one in the morning and one at night.

 

After visiting the ATM I walked back to the restaurant and told Wipa about the man and the herbs. She shared the story with all the women at the restaurant and they all started laughing. They were aware of this man, they said he was crazy and that I would be crazy to eat these herbs. As there is a hill full of maybe ten thousand monkeys nearby, maybe it was monkey shit. I still wanted to try the herbal pills, if that’s what they were, but the lady in charge of the restaurant threw the bag in the garbage without first consulting me. There were two five-year old boys nearby and Wipa pointed to them saying “even children know not to eat things given to them by a crazy man!” The children laughed loudly, even though I’m not sure they knew what they were laughing about.

 

The train arrived, we got to Hua Hin in a short hour, and since I had never been there before, thought to avoid the taxi drivers at the train station who wanted two hundred baht to take us to the airport, and see some of the city. Turns out I was mistaken yet again, for due to the bombing, the downtown was deserted. Police were stopping cars along the major road, looking for explosives. It Fortunately, I was able to pay a motorcycle taxi twenty baht to find us a tuk tuk, who charged us two hundred baht, a fee I discovered was universal when applied to the airport, whether you journeyed ten meters or ten kilometers to get there.

 

As I write this, we are waiting in the departure lounge of an airport that sees one flight per day to one place, Chiang Mai, which happens to be where we live. The TV is playing a bunch of monks chanting, which at first I thought was doo-wop music from America. Never a dull moment here in Thailand.

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!

 

Heat That Stops Everything


 

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Here in Thailand, New Year’s Day occurs in April, the hottest time of year. It’s been hotter this year than any on record, 105 degrees Fahrenheit every day for the last three weeks. Most people don’t have air conditioning. So when it gets this hot, everybody just gives up. They stop doing anything and lie around in a stupor, waiting for it to cool down. I am one of these.

 

We do have air conditioning in one bedroom, but the house is so poorly insulated that keeping it cool enough to do more than just lie in bed and stare at the TV or computer is a losing battle. Last week we had the air conditioner serviced, so it’s doing its best grinding away sixteen hours a day fighting the good fight at considerable electrical expense. What cold is to Minnesota, heat is to Chiang Mai. You can’t just adapt. You have to fight back.

 

Yesterday, I took a bicycle ride during the hottest part of the afternoon. I had to leave the house and get some exercise, and the lanes that wind through villages are conducive to bicycle riding. It’s also reasonably flat down here where the rice paddies are, though there are big mountains nearby as well, which I enjoy on my motor scooter.

 

I only saw two people out and about in forty-five minutes. It reminded me of the time I visited Phoenix when it was one hundred and twenty degrees. The only people out walking were the homeless. I saw them stumble through the orange haze as I rode along inside an air-conditioned car. They seemed dazed, yet determined.

 

It’s also bone-dry here, and hasn’t rained in months. Everything that was once lush and green is now brown or doesn’t exist at all. The landscape is like a beautiful girl transformed into a withered hag. I watch movies set in rainy climes and feel bitter pangs of envy.