Selective Focus


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I’m an enthusiastic amateur photographer, and have been for fifty years. If there’s one thing I’ve figured out, it’s that you can skip most of the stuff you see, take a carefully selected shot or two, and make the whole place look a lot more interesting that it would be if you were slogging through there in real time, looking at everything.

Because I grew up in the American Midwest, I enjoy the relative novelty of tropical landscapes. In fact, in the time I have left on this planet, I don’t think I’ll ever quite get used to the flora here. There is no dead season here where everything dies back waiting for spring, though if ever there was such a time here, it’s now. We’re two-thirds of the way through dry season, and the air is smoky from burning going on in the hills. I eagerly await a return to lushness, but realize I will have to wait at least a couple of months until the rains return and the vegetation race begins again.

The only advantage I can see to this time of year is you don’t have to bring a raincoat, and you can see through the places that will be a green wall once the rains begin.

Here are three photos from my scooter ride yesterday, when I stopped by a real estate development/golf course not far from our home that I had yet to explore.  Even though there are funky places nearby this development, I chose to take pictures of the vistas that conform to my idea of beauty. That’s what photographers have been doing ever since cameras were invented.

 

The Road Ungraveled


I like being spontaneous, and acting without forethought. Plans bore me. So after a delightful afternoon drive through the mountains to Somoeng, a town an hour and a half from Mae Rim, I thought, “what the heck, let’s continue onward to Pai. There’s a back road that I hear is mostly passable, and we can probably be halfway there before dark.”

We hadn’t packed, not even a toothbrush, and I didn’t have a map with me, but since everything had gone so well already. Bidding “so long” to our traveling companions who returned to Chiang Mai, we set off on the back road to Pai. We left about an hour and a half before sunset. I imagined a cute little guesthouse on the way, a good meal, hitting the hay early and driving the remaining two or three hours the next morning.

At first the road was excellent. Then it turned to cobbled cement blocks, but then became excellent again. I was already imagining describing the road in the blog I would write. “Mostly nothing to be afraid of. Don’t know why nobody goes this way.” We were up high enough for pine trees. Crimson light lit them and the peaks of the eastern range. How beautiful! But night was falling, and we were in a hurry and in no mood for scenery. Then darkness fell, the stars came out, and it got cold. Very cold. Since I hadn’t known I was leaving on this trip, I hadn’t packed any warm clothes. My pants were the sheerest cotton, my shoes, flip flops.

At about the time the last glow faded behind the ridge of mountains to the west, the road turned to dirt. Not just dirt, but deeply rutted dirt, with gullies big enough to swallow the motor scooter. All I could see illuminated by my headlight were these never-ending furrows that reminded me of those images sent from the Martian probes. There was no traffic to speak of, either behind us or oncoming. Every once in a while we would pass a hovel with some people sitting around a fire in front of it, but then those stopped appearing as well. The stars were so beautiful, the night was so clear, and we were so…cold.

The only extra clothing I had in the box beneath the seat was an orange plastic raincoat. I stopped and put it on. The pants I was wearing were also orange, Thai fisherman pants, made for hot weather, so I must have looked like a fluorescent orange traffic cone as we motored along. We were now making scant progress, maybe an average speed of 8 miles per hour. We saw a sign saying the next city was in forty miles. Surely the good road would come back. Surely a town would come in sight.

Truth is, I was getting scared. The colder I got, the stiffer I got, and my arms and legs were uncovered. At each new gully I had to stop to plan an approach, for I could not afford to slide and fall. So then, of course, I did.

The dust proved as cold as the air. Wipa was unhurt, I scratched my knee, the motor scooter was still running, so I switched it off. It got very quiet. The stars above grew insanely bright, mocking us. Then after a minute or so we saw headlights, as a truck lumbered around the corner in front of us. Fortunately, the driver saw us and stopped.

He was a young man, and pulled the scooter off me, then had to help me stand, as I was too stiff to easily do so on my own. He asked Wipa if I was a monk. I guess in his headlights, my orange outfit looked like monks robes. She said I wasn’t. Then he asked me if I were drunk. No, I replied I’m just old. And tired.

He left, wishing us “good luck,” which is what people here say a lot. After they opened up a new underpass in the road from Mae Rim to Chiang Mai even the highway department used its new electronic sign to wish drivers good luck in the new year. To my Western ears, having a government agency in charge of public safety wish you “good luck” seems odd, but here they put a lot of stock in karma, which is why there is no drivers education to speak of, and Thailand enjoys one of the highest rates of traffic mortality in the world. They put great stock in luck.

I wish I could say that there was a cute little guesthouse just a mile or so down the road, but no, about an hour later we came to a settlement of about twenty houses, and I stopped at the biggest one. I presented my case. If you don’t help me we will die. Turns out he was the town mayor, and he arranged for us to rent a room used for migrant workers a few yards away. It was unheated, and the blankets thin, but we slept that night knowing we weren’t going to die. In the morning I heard a pig grunting under the floor, and baby chicks peeping as they ran about. I laughed as I threw open the shutters.

The next morning everything had a luminous quality. We were still alive! The motor scooter wasn’t even damaged! Just dusty! There was a coffee shop in town. Like George Bailey in the movie “It’s a Wonderful Life,” I saw everyone as beautiful, charming, clever. Thanking them too profusely, we drove off in the morning light to continue another three hours to Pai. By the time we arrived I was warm enough so my teeth were no longer chattering.

road less graveled

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here is a link to a sound recording of the author reading this piece.

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.

I FOUND THE GARDEN OF EDEN


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And unlike what the Mormons think, it’s not in Missouri, but Northern Thailand, just west of Doi Pui, on a little road that doesn’t show up on Google maps. So I guess I found the back door to the Garden of Eden, which is even better, because now it’s a secret that only I can show you. Come visit and rent a scooter. It’s only about eight miles from my front door here in Mae Rim.

MAE SA VALLEY AND MON JAM


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THE MAE SA VALLEY AND MON JAM

Only a few miles from our new home in Mae Rim, the Mae Sa valley runs between the backside of Doi Suthep and Doi Pui, and another range to the west.  This was once a prime opium producing area in Thailand.  Now it is home to a mixture of vegetable and fruit farming, usually on terraces, and tourism, though there aren’t  nearly as many guest houses or coffee shops as one might expect this close to Chiang Mai.

At the very top is a Hmong village called Mon Jam, and a coffee shop which overlooks the next valley, which was filled with clouds when we arrived and looked like nothing so much as Shangri-La.  It was also quite chilly up there.  When people see my photos of this area they assume it’s hot, fetid and full of bugs, but at least this time of year, rainy season, it’s not at all that way.

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Doi Pui Hmong Village near Chiang Mai


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Like Boulder, Colorado, perched against the Flatirons, Chiang Mai sits right up against Doi Suthep, a mountain that is topped by both a Buddhist  temple and a one of many royal palaces.  This is the summer home for the royal family, should they choose to come this far to sample the bracing, mountain air. Doi Suthep has a twin, Doi Pui, which is about thirty feet higher.  The mountains  are about 5,500 feet tall, and the temperature at the top is noticeably lower than at the base in Chiang Mai. The air is sweeter and fresher on top, as well.    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Doi_Suthep

The winding road up the mountain is well maintained, and heavily traveled by bicyclists, motorcyclists and the red trucks that form the backbone of mass transit in Chiang Mai. Most people make it as far as the temple, climb the 306 steps, take a few pictures and then head back down. After the temple you come to Pu Ping Palace, but then the road becomes terrible, full of potholes.

But if you keep going another five miles, you come to a Hmong village that sells handicrafts in order to support its one-thousand inhabitants. Unlike most tourist items, I find these attractive.  I like their clothing and their silver jewelry. I’ve visited the village several times already, usually just as an excuse to ride up the mountain on my Honda PCX150, but this time we rented traditional Hmong clothing and used their beautiful little park for a location.  It was surprisingly fun.  They charge you 50 baht (about  $1.75) per person.

GET ALONG LITTLE KITTIES


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HERDING CATS

In the Thai language there is no word for “intolerance.”  The notion is so foreign to this Buddhist culture that promotes acceptance that they simply never got around to inventing a word to express the notion.  Thais  also tend not to have a lot of negative words.  I’ve never heard anyone described as “ugly.”  Instead, they say “not beautiful.”

When Thais drive, they do so in a way that mimics their language.  As far as I can tell, no notion of “right of way” exists.  People drive on the left hand side of the road, and when entering from the left, they don’t look behind to see if it’s safe to enter.  They just slide on in, expecting others to watch out for them.  Usually, it works, because no one is thinking “hey, I have right of way here and you’ve just invaded my space without asking.”  Such a person would have to be a foreigner, schooled in ancient inalienable rights that simply don’t exist here in a country where most people assume “we’re all just bumbling along as best we can, trying to be kind to one another.”

I’ve had a driver’s license here for two years now, but I wouldn’t assume that many of the Thai drivers I share the road with have bothered to do the same.  I’ve seen children as young as ten driving a motorbike containing three of their friends.  At night, they frequently drive with their lights out in order to economize on gas.  Often they drive the wrong way down a street, because the nearest turnaround is inconveniently distant.  I’ve never seen a police car chase someone down for a moving traffic violation.  Here police stage traffic stops, where they pull over anyone they think might be worth shaking down.  Foreigners are usually fare game.  I have been issued a ticket for “impoliteness” for driving without a shirt in hot weather.  The fine is about twelve dollars.  If you pay right there, you don’t have to go to the police station to collect your license.  I know another foreigner who was fined for smoking while driving his motor scooter.

Thai young people are most often stopped for not wearing a motorcycle helmet. They are simply too vain and rebellious to do so, and are willing to pay a fine that amounts to a full days salary at minimum wage. As much as they prize loyalty and obedience to elders, they also seem to lack the ability to fall into rank when it comes to discipline.  The image of herding cats springs to mind.  Siamese cats.

Mae Rim


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Mae Rim is a suburb to the north of Chiang Mai. About fifteen miles away, but there’s only one way to get there, along a highway that is often crowded and ugly in that way development has of being here. There’s also road construction that has been going on for two years now, and is thankfully drawing to a close.  But the air is sweeter in Mae Rim, the foliage more abundant and greener, and the mountain is closer than in Chiang Mai.  We found a house of the same size we’re renting now for half the price.  $110 a month!  There’s even room for a little garden. And there’s a market right next door.

So for that last three weeks we’ve been riding the motorcycle up there and checking it out.  Now that the rainy season has begun, the vegetation is lush again.

After lots of driving around I concluded, yeah it’s pretty, but that doesn’t make up for the fact that all my friends are in Chiang Mai.  So unless someone shows me an amazing place to live up there, we’ll stay right where we are.

No Guarantees


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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.

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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


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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.