No Guarantees


When I was in my twenties, I would set off on long trips with not much more than a hundred dollars in my pocket.  I had no credit card, and since debit cards and ATM’s hadn’t been invented yet, the cash in my billfold was all there was. Nothing really concerned me, as I floated along like Mr. Magoo, blindly avoiding mishaps without having the good sense to know how lucky I was. In all my years of hitchhiking and driving long distances across borders, nothing really bad ever happened.  Sure, I stayed in some miserable hotels, but I picked them out because they were dirt cheap and I full of what I thought was “atmosphere.”

In 1972, I spent a month in Mexico on one-hundred and seventy-five dollars.  I survived for five weeks in Europe in 1971 on three hundred dollars, and that included a few days in Paris.  Back then, Europe was cheaper than the States. I stayed in hostels and bed and breakfasts, sometimes paying as little as three dollars a day for bed and board.  One day I ate only candy bars and oranges, but usually hunger wasn’t even an issue.  One night in Paris I slept in a parking garage.

As I look back somewhat astonished by my recklessness, I realize that the big difference between then and today lies in the fact that then my parents were still alive.  Somewhere, in the back of my mind, I knew that if things got too bad, I could always call them (though International calls were very expensive) and they would find a way bail me out. Or try to.  It never came to that, but I guess that’s how I justified my lack of fiduciary caution.


Who will come to my rescue now?  Here, in Southeast Asia, six foreigners were recently executed for drug smuggling.  These were young people who had thought to make a quick buck by bringing drugs to Bali.  I’m sure if I had been in their position and so tempted, I might have been just as stupid.  Again, luck was with me in my twenties. Surely, I had no more common sense than they, and was every bit the smug hipster as these lads who recently faced an Indonesian firing squad.

I remember once being pulled off a Mexican bus by soldiers and carefully searched for drugs.  I didn’t have them, they didn’t plant any, and they let me go. Just lucky, I guess, because I didn’t have any reluctance to use drugs if they were freely offered.  I was just too cheap to buy my own.

As we age, all the things we had taken for granted are removed, one by one, sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly, but they all leave.  Looks, health, mental quickness, natural talents…they’ve only been on loan even though we thought they were our birthright. Fortunately, some of us we weren’t totally reckless in our salad years and still have something left over to help us coast to the finish line.

I keep thinking “This hanging around third world countries is fine as long as I’ve got no real problems and some money in the bank, but what happens if I become infirm or broke?”  Then places like Switzerland and Norway don’t seem so boring.  I wonder what it takes to immigrate there?

Decrepit hippies are probably not high on their lists of potential permanent residents, but there are ways to sneak through the filters they’ve imposed.  Note to self: remember to stash enough cash to hire a Norwegian immigration attorney when the shit finally hits the fan.

Nobody really knows what the future holds for them or anyone else, but we sure like to pretend we do, for what feels like sanity and hope is often just desperation and wishful thinking creating a dream world.  In 2007, I remember reading business journalism praising the selling of collateralized mortgage debt and subprime mortgages. The rise in home values was a good thing until the moment it wasn’t.  Those financial wizards were geniuses until the moment they were fools.

Nobody knows what’s going on and nobody’s in charge.  It’s all a crap shoot, so we might as well enjoy the game because there are no guarantees regarding who’s going to win or even whether the other players will play by the rules. Those retired American orthodontists who buy beachfront properties in a banana republic may be rudely awakened one day by soldiers pounding on the front door of their McMansions.  The officials and agents who smiled accepting money to purchase a retirement Xanadu may suddenly look away as the newly suntanned retirees are being deported at gunpoint.


Chaotic but Human


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.

Retire Cheaply and Affect Meaningful Change in Your Life

Advertisers try to reach us by promising devices that will save time, as well as increase convenience. Most of us are wrongly convinced that we are short on time. yet We fritter away our time consuming entertainments that pretend to be customized for us, while we are actually behaving as a mob of consumers, unconsciously reacting in predictable and programmed ways. We don’t really need convenience as much as we’ve led to believe, but we are starved for meaning.

If you want something to change in your life, you’ll have to first risk changing your behavior. You can’t be addicted to Facebook or check your email a hundred times a day and still have an interior thought life. Any changes you feel under those conditions will merely be externally programmed desires designed to make you buy something you didn’t know you needed.

Scrolling through items on Amazon or eBay is not the same as opening up space in your thought life for something new to enter. Buying something new won’t have the same effect as not doing anything long enough to allow for substantive change. You’re not hungry for more things, you’re simply sick and tired of your life as it has been. There’s a big difference between those two states!

Being retired from work and relocating to a new country is the perfect time to begin this substantive change. This is the chapter of your life you’ve been waiting for!

palm tree and cloud

Retiring Cheaply – just how important is cheap?

Retire Cheaply

There’s always a trade-off when you focus only on price. Maybe what you want more than cheap is the feeling of not having to worry about money and the opportunity of finding new things to stimulate you.

If you’ve considering making a move to a totally different country and culture, then you’re probably bored or fed up with some aspect of our culture. You’re looking for change, and hoping to be surprised. Surprised you will be, and not always delightfully. But it will be a learning experience of the first order, and those aren’t always guaranteed to be pleasant.

Patience and acceptance will get you far.

There are different components to feeling well-off enough to not worry about money. For example, it’s far easier to control your spending than it is to earn more money. You can bankrupt yourself with foolish spending or bad investments even in Southeast Asia or the Andes, two regions where most prices are a fifth of what they are in the States.

My advice: give up on the idea of real-estate investments, land speculation, or starting a profitable business. Start a business if you must in order to have something to do, but simply assume that if you do most things right, you’ll break even. Think of yourself as retired. Your level of income will not rise again. This is it. Learn to live within your means and you’ll never worry about money again.

This will, of course, be much easier in a place with a cost of living that is a fraction of what it is where you came from.

A place that is five times cheaper might not be more fun to relocate to than a place three times cheaper. That’s up to you. More important that the actual cost of living will be the health and happiness of the community in which you choose to live.

The poorer the country, the more likely they are to put heavy import duties on technology. So don’t expect to pay what you would in the states for a new laptop. You’ll have to pick one up on your next trip back to the States, if there ever is one.

That brings us to the next item:

There may not be another trip “home.” This may be it. You’ve made your bed, now lie in it.

An awful lot of people make an abortive attempt to retire somewhere, buy a new house on the coast for a fraction of what they would have paid in Florida or California, and then get tired of it six months later. I mean, how much enjoyment can you really get from a stunning view? How many of your friends are really going to come visit? So there are many lightly-used vacation properties in gated communities in third-world countries that are on the market again. A building and a view do not constitute a life.

No matter where you end up, you’ll need to find something to do or you’ll drink yourself to death, or start an affair with the neighbor’s spouse. Neither approach will end well.

Even if you do figure out what you want to do with yourself most of the time, you’ll still have to transition from one task to the next, and during that down time, you’re bound to notice that most folks all around you are simply struggling to make do. It will make you feel separate from them. This gulf will exacerbate any feelings of loneliness you’re already experiencing. Seeing all your neighbors bent over in a rice paddy or hacking away at plants with a machete doesn’t enhance your fragile sense of belonging.

In the time you have left on this planet, you can’t possibly change their economic condition. You can’t fix it, or make it all better. You’ll just have to figure out where and how you can fit in to the prevailing structure. Surely your presence here is a help to at least some of your neighbors. You’re a customer for many of their services. Your very presence is bringing income to their community.

People are highly capable of change, and the neighbors can adapt to you the same way you’re attempting to adapt to your new community. They’ll accept and value you for who you are, if you do the same for them.