THIS COULD BE HEAVEN OR THIS COULD BE HELL


I first came to Thailand on a month-long teaching assignment. Surprised to find that I had four days off over the New Year, I decided to get out of Bangkok and see something of the countryside. After asking around, I decided on a bus to the border of Cambodia. There’s a casino there, as well as a huge market. Foreigners go there to check out and back into the country, thus prolonging their tourist visas.

At the Cambodian border I found a dumpy guest house near a strip of tourist-related bars and massage parlors, and since I don’t drink, retired before that tedious countdown to the new year that is the bane of anyone with a mental age older than thirteen. I managed to doze off for a few moments, but then with all the noise found myself unable to sleep. I noticed that I could hear multiple bar bands from the strip nearby. As the evening wore on, every band at each club played Hotel California by the Eagles, always with the same note-perfect copy of Joe Walsh’s signature guitar solo. In every rendition the singer was phonetically trying to copy the vocals, but without knowing what the words meant. As I lay there, I must have listened to eight different versions of the song, punctuated at midnight by fireworks being set off in a nearby field.

I suppose the Eagles are quite aware of the strange popularity of this song, and how it has become a staple of bar bands all over the world. Here in Indochina I thought it odd that I was forced to listen to a song that was popular back when I was in my twenties and living in California. At no time did I hear an original Eagles recording, but I did hear a variety of Cambodians singing “you can check out any time you like but you can’t never leave.”

Now that I live with a Thai woman and have made Thailand my home, I see more clearly the depth of the United States’ cultural domination of the globe. Wipa likes to watch action movies, and these are almost always made in the United States. The story is simple enough to understand even by reading subtitles, as explosions, gun battles and car chases don’t require translation. Living on the other side of the world, we watch America every day, on TV.

America has won the culture war, and dominates the world of entertainment, but when I was last home I saw an awful lot of angry, frightened and chronically frustrated people who were curious about my life in Northern Thailand. I spent three weeks in the San Francisco Bay Area, where the average rent for a studio apartment is $3,000 a month. All I had to do was tell people that I rent a little house here for $110 a month. That gave them pause. Often people would exhale as if they had been kicked in the stomach.

I’ve heard that sound before. When I was in college, a few of us went to the cinema to see a new documentary film about the Vietnam War. Hearts and Minds included a scene so shocking that the audience around me made that same exhalation. Here’s Wikipedia’s entry:

A scene described as one of the film’s “most shocking and controversial sequences” shows the funeral of an North Vietnamese soldier and his grieving family, as a sobbing woman is restrained from climbing into the grave after the coffin.The funeral scene is juxtaposed with an interview with General William Westmoreland telling a stunned Davis that “The Oriental doesn’t put the same high price on life as does a Westerner. Life is plentiful. Life is cheap in the Orient.”

There is another scene in the movie where a man in North Vietnam shows the camera where his house was before the American bomb hit. He had just lost his wife, son and daughter. He shows the camera where each family member was at the moment of impact, and then finds a scrap of fabric in the rubble. “Look,” he says “this is my youngest daughters shirt. She was feeding the pigs when the bomb hit. Now the pigs are alive but she is dead. Why don’t you take this and show it to Nixon, murderer of civilians? Throw this in his face!”

You can see the film on YouTube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xC-PXLS4BQ4

Since I’ve been in Southeast Asia, I’ve journeyed to Vietnam and Laos, the places on which we dropped three times more bombs than were dropped in all of World War II by both sides, and I still don’t know what I can do to meaningfully react to this fact. Nobody wanted to kill me in those places, though I don’t know why.

 

 

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Let Somebody Else Worry About It


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I find myself habitually wondering if I should come up with a way to make money. I’m sixty-five years old, comfortably retired on social security and living in a place where even that income is more than enough. Being a foreigner, I can’t own land, but yet I am bothered by the idea that I should hurry up and buy some land and build a house, before prices rise.

This is surely nothing more than habitual thinking left over from when I lived in America, when I always felt poor, and worried that what little I had would soon be taken from me.

To counter these nagging thoughts, I merely tell myself “not today.” If becoming a land baron would really make me happier, then some opportunity will surely come along to make that possible. If not, then it simply was not meant to be, which is just fine with me, as I enjoy the relative simplicity of renting our little house and having as few responsibilities as possible.

If by some fluke of fate I do end up with more money than I need, then I will either have to give it away or start some charitable project, which I would then be forced to administer. No, let Bill Gates and Warren Buffett worry about those things. Today I’m quite proud of myself for having figured out how to reset the settings on my complicated camera to what they were before I toyed with them and messed them up. It is an amazing instrument and the pictures I took with it are unimaginably sharp. In fact here are a few. They are of trees along a stretch or road that takes off from near my house and climbs a nearby mountain.

I have heard that a rich man from Bangkok owns all this land, and I wish him well in all his endeavors. I hope he doesn’t sell the land to someone who will cut the trees down in order to make some sort of ugly resort, but if he does, I’m willing to focus my camera on other trees, for there are plenty around here to be photographed.

Elephants on Parade


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Took a scooter ride up into the hills again, but this time there was a procession of elephants going down the road. The dry season has started and it reminds me of autumn in the States. Like a September morn (even though today is December 14) Had to wear a leather jacket that I’d brought with me from Argentina. For the longest time I thought I would never need it here.

Chaotic but Human


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I ask myself why I spend so much time abroad, in places that are markedly cheaper that the States. Is it simply the monetary advantage of having my social security in dollars that lures me to these crazy places? Yes, in part, but it’s not enough of an incentive to explain what I find sufficiently attractive about living where traffic rules are non-existent, electric power is unreliable, rule of law is a myth, and they speak some impossible language that I cannot hope to master in the time I have left on this planet.

I think the reason can be simply stated, these places are not sterile and predictable.

Overall, I find a sense of freedom and possibility missing in most of the United States. All our wealth has brought us a surprising lack of options. In general, most people I meet seem either depressed or angry, feeling neither free nor hopeful. I don’t know why, because neither politics nor economic reality can fully explain it, but there is a general feeling of decline.

I just know how it feels to be me. When I was living in Iowa, I was single most of that time, and being too lazy to learn to cook I ate most of my meals at Hy-Vee and Hardees. I got fat. I took pills for depression and pills for my high triglycerides. Here, in Thailand, I eat in a great variety of places, where the food is prepared on the spot and contains lots of herbs and spices. I have lost weight.

At Hy-Vee, all vegetables were served soaking in a white liquid which I strongly suspect was cornstarch, sugar and some sort of preservative that made the peas and carrots glow phosphorescently. The meats I ate were from animals that had been fed growth hormones and antibiotics for all their brief lives.

Here most food is organic because farmers can’t afford chemicals. My cell phone here costs me about $3 a month to operate. There are numerous plans available. All the phones are unblocked, and a new phone costs about $15. SMS texting is free.

Just as in the First World, young people here are fixated on their smart phones, staring at them dumbly and constantly, waiting for that important bit of digital infotainment, but here the costs of internet access for smartphones is a fraction of what it is in the States. Oddly, Internet speeds seem about equal, even though the streets are lined with crazy wiring from fifty years ago, dangling from every lamppost.

My motor scooter costs me about $3.50 a week to operate, even though gasoline here is more expensive than in America. I rent a house here for $250 a month, about twice what a single Thai person would pay for housing. If I were willing to live twenty minutes from downtown, I could rent a three bedroom, two bath house for that price, but what would I do there? That reminds me of the four bedroom farmhouse I owned in Chelsea, Iowa, where I wandered from room to room sneezing and listening to echoes.

Coca Cola is everywhere. It’s even in Myanmar. Soft drinks take a great toll on human health, and I’m sure they’ll figure that out when they get rich enough to suck down a 64 ounce Big Gulp with lunch. Heart disease and diabetes are first cousins, and they both are exacerbated by sugar and white flour. If you eat enough bread and drink enough soda, you will die from them as surely as if you smoked four packs of cigarettes and day thereby courting cancer.

Nicaragua, Paraguay and Thailand have a lot in common. Most people in these places are poor, poorer than anyone I’ve ever met in the United States. But if all your friends are as poor as you are, you don’t feel as bad about it as you would if you were constantly comparing yourself to those who have more than you. You forget that you don’t have a 48 inch LCD TV and you don’t mow a five acre lawn with a riding mower. Your whole family shares one motor scooter, and that’s good enough most of the time.

If you go to places like West Des Moines you realize that there’s absolutely nothing happening there, and nothing ever will happen, because it’s laid out like a golf course. Every home is its own castle. If the City of West Des Moines wants to have a public event, they hire a Special Events Officer and she (mid-forties, frosted hair) gets press, radio and TV coverage of a non-event that pleases or inspires no one, but justifies her office and salary, and is declared a rousing success by all the other people on the City’s payroll, which partly explains why property taxes are so onerous.

Here is Thailand, they don’t have property taxes, or if they do they aren’t collected, which is another kind of problem, but I won’t go into it here.

No, this place is far from perfect. Nicaragua is a banana republic ruled by a despot and Paraguay suffers from African levels of poverty, but at least to this graying geezer, they’re all more interesting that sitting at the Hy-Vee dining area and hearing some geezer farmers talk about Terry Branstadt or how the Hawkeyes are doing.

So unless Medicare brings me home because I’ve suffered a health crisis that warrants the twenty-two hour flight, I think I’ll stay where I am for a while. I swim a kilometer every few days and I don’t smoke or drink. Maybe I’ll live a long time, maybe not. I just want however long it is to be interesting. I don’t want my choices limited to driving from one mall to the next, shopping at franchise stores and reading newspaper advertisements for inspiration.

Temples, Ruined Temples, Everywhere


Thailand has been occupied for thousands of years, but there weren’t many people living here until the population exploded in the 20th century. For thousands of years, Thailand was mostly forest and wild animals. In 1900, 85% of the land was deep forest. Since 1960, Thailand has lost 80% of that forest. If you want an explanation for the flooding problem, that’s it in a nutshell.

There were two kinds of monks in Thailand, temple-bound monks, mainly in Bangkok, and forest monks, who wandered about, often living in huts in the forest, or in caves.  Two temple monks from Isaan (a five week journey away) described their first visit to Bangkok in 1905. They said it was an uncrowded city, and in order to relieve oneself, one need only step into the forest to do so. The canals were full of water pure enough to bathe in and to drink!

This is a thoroughly Buddhist country. And everywhere you go, especially in Chiang Mai, you find a temple, or a ruined temple. The picture above is a tunnel in Wat Umong, the forest temple, near my house in Chiang Mai.