The Glamorous Lives of Most Expatriates


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Thailand serves the same function for the world at large that California served for the United States.  It’s the place you wind up when you bomb out of every other place.  Many an alcoholic abandoned his family in St. Louis or Omaha and drank himself to death in Los Angeles or San Francisco.  He was not alone in this, for there were legions of men just like him in California’s coastal cities, using alcohol to dissolve the shackles that bound them back east.

 

In many third world countries these men arrive from all over the world: Finland, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Great Britain, France, Germany, Canada, Australia, the United States. They’re not in search of anything; in fact they’re in full retreat. The reason the language barrier doesn’t slow them down is because they’re not interested in communicating with the women whose services they purchase. When it comes to these men, there’s literally no one home. If you look into their eyes, it’s like staring at a stroke victim. Error Message 404 Server Not Found.

 

Some of them can still take care of themselves. They shower and shave. Others, not so much. It doesn’t matter to the ladies who are waiting for them to die. The younger bar girls have many of these men “one the line,” and their major problem is keeping all these geezers straight. The men return to their home countries, clean out another bank or retirement account, and then return to their “new home.” Often it’s a small room in a high rise. Often the room has a balcony for drying clothes and where the air-conditioner vents.

 

If the room is on a sufficiently high floor, the balcony can also be used as a final exit to the ever-diminishing existence these men have chosen.

Not Ready to Apologize


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Many of the Agent Orange victims of our war effort in Laos and Vietnam are still alive. They are still hideously malformed, requiring constant care from family members. We have never apologized, much less sought to make things right. We have never offered to pay reparations of any kind.

When you search the Internet for Agent Orange Victims, you come up with posts about our soldiers who were injured dumping Agent Orange on Vietnamese and Laotian civilians, and the forests and farmland in which they lived. Many people ask for compensation to be paid to our soldiers, but nobody is suggesting we pay the people on whom we dumped this toxic chemical.

Nor has anyone suggested that the stockholders of Dow Chemical or Monsanto (now Bayer) ante up. That was a long time ago, and even though we were embroiled in an undeclared war, those unfortunate people were “the enemy.”

Speaking of undeclared wars, the conflict in Korea was also such an affair “a United Nations police action” enforced by the country who gave the world napalm. We dumped plenty of the sticky, jellied gasoline on North Korea, and night-time bombing runs by Curtis Le May’s newly formed Air Force burned millions of civilians to a crisp as they slept.

Neither the Korean or Vietnam Wars accomplished what they intended. After hostilities ceased, the borders remained as they were at the start. Millions dead, billions spent, and few lessons learned.

What if…?


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What if the world we already inhabit were a thousand times more amazing than we can appreciate? Could be that we’re surrounded by good luck, magic, unimaginable opportunity, and fantastic wealth, but we can’t see it.  Not yet. If we could adjust out thinking all this opportunity and wealth would come into view.

 

Maybe the solution to our temporary blindness is to give up. Stop trying to figure things out, make things happen, control outcomes. get people to like us or think we’re important. Just stop it. Wait a few days and see what happens.

 

Something will happen. Things will change, maybe for the better, perhaps quickly.

 

It’s worth a try. We can always go back to our old ways. Struggling to manage our lives as best we can, to squeeze the last drop of advantage out of every situation. The reason such actions haven’t brought pleasure or satisfaction so far might lie in the fact that contentment doesn’t arise from having advantage. Getting ahead is not getting happy.

Bored in Thailand?


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I’m retired and living in Chiang Mai, Thailand, a metro area about as big as Des Moines, Iowa. Every once in a while I worry that my life is too tame, too predictable, and that I’ve bitten off too little to successfully chew. Thai women are lovely and even young women will smile (sometimes suggestively) at this sixty-eight-year-old walking fossil, it never snows, it’s never cold, and I can ride my motorcycle into the hills on a moment’s notice.

 

But then I see a Facebook post from Iowa and am reminded that any ennui I feel here would only be amplified there. In the Northern Midwest it’s cold over half the year. The state is mostly flat corn fields. I recently saw a photo of Storm Spotter training session at a local church. The students were old people who want to become trained and certified Storm Spotters for their local television station. The church was full. I am reminded of the omnipresence of churches and community colleges, of dreary training and certification meetings. White bread and jello. Creamed corn.

 

Now that Wal-Mart has done away with greeters, I don’t think there would be any jobs available, and prices for most things in the States are five to ten times higher than they are here. I see the stick, but where’s the carrot?

 

I paid into Medicare for forty years, which I can’t access it over here, but luckily most medical costs here are ten to twenty times less than they would be in America. I’m still in good health, and so I’m reasonably confident I could pay for anything less than catastrophic surgery out-of-pocket.

 

All of a sudden, occasional bouts of  boredom don’t seem so bad.

Catholic or Buddhist?


 

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I grew up Catholic, baptized shortly after birth, educated in Catholic schools until I was eighteen, first by nuns, then by Jesuits. Our neighborhood revolved around the parish church and school. In St. Louis, people would judge your social class by your parish. “She’s from Our Lady of Lourdes.” Oh, that speaks volumes.

 

Now I live in Thailand, and here in Chiang Mai, Buddhist temples are even more omnipresent and important to the community than were Catholic churches when I was a boy. All directions are given regarding the nearest temple. Fundraising parties that last five full days abound. There’s literally a  temple every half mile in all directions. The first morning sounds I hear through our perpetually open windows are the gentle gongs of  monks walking down lanes, seeking alms.

 

There are school classrooms attached to many temples, but most education is done in public schools. Uniforms are compulsory here, up through University level. Thais love uniforms. Even employees of companies wear uniforms. Nurses wear nurse uniforms like we used to have in America before about 1960. Boy and girl scout uniforms abound.

 

Conformity is not frowned upon in Southeast Asia. There’s an Asian expression, “the nail that sticks up gets hammered down.” I chafed under the regulations that demanded I wear a uniform for the first eight years of schooling, but here I take comfort seeing students in uniforms.. It reminds me of home. I remember having the same feeling when I went to Ireland in 1971. I saw Dublin school girls waiting for a bus who were wearing the same color skirt and blouse the girls wore back at our Lady of Lourdes, in St. Louis.

We Owe These People Something


 

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We weren’t at war with Laos. Heck, we weren’t even officially at war with Vietnam, but poor Laos didn’t even have much of an army to fight back, and they were certainly no match for our constant aerial bombardment. For eight years we dropped an average of a B-52 load of bombs on that country every eight minutes. Because we weren’t officially even there, there was no strategy. When pilots asked what was the target, they were told “anything that moves.”

 

When I was in Laos, I saw huts in the countryside with fish ponds in front of them. I assumed these were enterprising people who had dug fish ponds to harvest a food source. Then I realized these ponds were all around. Then I realized they weren’t fish ponds, but bomb craters filled with rainwater.

 

The side of Laos that borders on Vietnam we dubbed the “Ho Chi Minh Trail.” At one point, we even considered dropping nuclear weapons on it.  North of  Vietnam’s DMZ, Laos is about thirty miles wide, and Vietnam is about twenty miles wide. The ground along the border is often mountainous, which means that the unexploded ordnance isn’t routinely uncovered by farmers planting rice. But it’s still there. Maybe we might offer to help clean it up? Of course, we have some pressing business to take care of back home. Building the wall between us and Mexico should strain the budget for a while.

 

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Dong Hoi Vietnam


Nobody’s ever heard of it. They will, someday. Miles and miles of beach, the biggest caves in the world in a nearby park. We’re staying at a luxury hotel for $35 a night. Fresh sea breeze, cool air. It’s like Northern California. We came here to escape the smoke in Chiang Mai.

 

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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.

 

 

 

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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