GEEZER TRAVEL


HOW TO ROAM THE PLANET LIKE A TEENAGER WHEN YOU’RE A GEEZER ABROAD

I started wandering whenever possible right after I found out there was no law prohibiting it. I got my first passport when I was eighteen, and visited my first foreign country, Russia. The year was 1968. I celebrated by birthday in Leningrad, and our tour group went to the theater to watch a production of Swan Lake. The sun didn’t set that night, it just hid itself behind some buildings at eleven and rose again two hours later.

I was hooked on travel. Money spent on travel beat money spent buying things. Cars, houses, boats…you can keep ’em. They require maintenance, steadily depreciate, and are forms of bondage disguised as assets. People even borrow money to buy them! Go figure.

I started going to Mexico first. You could drive there. From Missouri it took twenty-four hours, but that didn’t seem like too much for my roommates and I from the University of Missouri campus in Columbia, Missouri. Inspired by a Bob Dylan song, we drove to Juarez and stayed at the Hotel Diamante for two dollars a night, split three ways. A beer cost eight cents. Mystery meat tacos grilled on the street cost the same. I was further hooked.

I made twenty more trips to Mexico until I found you could fly pretty cheaply to other places if you planned ahead. So I went to Ireland, England and France, back when the cost of doing so wasn’t prohibitive. A hotel room in the left bank of Paris was a cheap as a Motel Six in Columbia, Missouri, and a heck of a lot more interesting.

I never gave much thought to making money for most of my life because practical matters left me cold. I graduated from a prestigious graduate school with a degree in Playwriting. There seemed no obvious path to monetizing this diploma, so I moved to San Francisco with five friends and we acted in a comedy troupe. Again, the dollars just flew by but not into our pockets.

Life happened. When I had three kids with another on the way I moved back to the Midwest to see if I could score a teaching job. A few temporary appointments came my way, but nothing that spelled tenure. My kids grew older and so did I.

When I was about sixty I saw the handwriting on the wall, and it said “take action or be doomed to a life as a charity case.” So I widened by travel scope. I went to Argentina about fifteen times, Nicaragua twelve, Ecuador, Peru and Colombia. All excellent places, but then I discovered Thailand, where I now live.

I’ve been lucky, and I know it. Some people have been luckier and some not so much. I have a cousin who is a billionaire. He recently endowed a building at his alma mater’s business college. When he spoke to the students at the grand opening, he advised them to not bother to learn a foreign language, as it was his experience that the international language of business is English.

His sister told me this. It gave me pause. I imagine he was speaking the absolute truth from his experience. When he travels on business, someone meets him at the airport holding a sign with his name on it. He is taken to the convention center/hotel where the staff all speaks English. No matter where he goes, in his world everybody who’s anybody speaks English.

My experience has been the exact opposite of my cousin’s. Nobody I meet in my travels speaks English, because I only go to places off the beaten path in emerging economies that haven’t quite emerged yet.

My cousin is my age, and I hope to compare experiences with him before we both make that last journey to the great beyond.

One benefit I have enjoyed was learning Russian, Spanish and Thai. I suppose if that had been my main goal I could have achieved it far more directly and economically than enduring bus rides where my fellow passengers held life poultry, the bus room being reserved for luggage and hog-tied pigs.
WHY THAILAND?

It’s cheap, it’s interesting, and they have Thai massage. The people are sweet. I like the food better than the rice and beans with a smattering of chicken or pork they eat in most of Latin America.

Heck, you gotta settle down someplace. Not choosing is also a choice, and an expensive one. So I chose Chiang Mai, Thailand, and so far I have no regrets. When I get really old I might choose a mountain village somewhere, but hopefully in a place where I don’t have to learn yet another language.

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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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GIVING UP AS A PATH TO FREEDOM


In my country, people ask you “what do you do” in order to know who you are. They especially ask this of men, as certain women still feel comfortable describing how their husbands make a living in order to answer that question.

But when you’ve finally given or thrown away most of your belongings, sold the rest and moved across the world with a couple of suitcases in hand, chances are there is no answer to that question. At least there is no answer that would impress anyone in a casual conversation. Thoreau wrote about this in Walden. His neighbors were sharply critical of him for not striving to get anywhere, to fight for any cause, to help the unfortunate or weak. He was just taking care of himself! A sin, to their way of looking at things.

The Return of Flying Season


This was just in the news here. Usually now is the slow season for this kind of thing.

http://www.bangkokpost.com/news/general/1282790/family-awoken-by-body-crashing-through-roof

 

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Flying Season starts at Christmas and ends about the beginning of May. About three foreign men per week, sometimes more, choose to end it all. There are probably other less dramatic, less easily visualized ways to commit suicide, but the one that captures imaginations is this. Like the Golden Gate Bridge, the balcony proves a lure for those so inclined.

Yes this is the time when foreign men inexplicably begin to leap to their deaths from the balconies of their high-rise apartments, usually in Bangkok, Pattaya and Phuket. The above news story is not uncommon here in Thailand, where many lonely foreign men eke out their final days. Apart from the vicissitudes of senescence itself, the gnawing realization that the girls who have been so attentive have been more interested in your wallet than your personality finally gets to quite a few of these guys. The Thai police always rule these balcony jumps as suicides, even if the man is found with his hands tied behind his back or his head in a plastic bag found thirty feet from the body. These bar girls have brothers and boyfriends and to them, this is no game.

Loneliness kills, no doubt about it. Most of them are probably suicides, because this is the jumping off place, the place you wind up when you can no longer imagine life anywhere else.

 

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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.

What Do You Do, Anyway?


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The real answer most of the time would be “wait for guidance,” or maybe “seek inspiration.” In order to create an artistic product, you have to first of all make yourself available.  If you’re a writer, you have to stop scrolling through Facebook long enough to perhaps allow something bubble up inside you. If you’re a photographer, you have to take the camera out of its case and point it at things.

When you have little you have to do in order to exist, it puts you in a weird space. Instead of having a list of obligations to be met, and ticking them off as you meet them, you simply exist. You wait until you decide what it is you want to do and then even then you may not do it. You may simply choose to wait even longer.

When I was younger, I was terrified of being bored. If something promised to take a long amount of sustained attention, I would avoid it if I could. Waiting in a doctor’s office was agony, so was standing in line at the Department of Motor Vehicles.

My mother, a retired schoolteacher, would sometimes fly to see her children, and she always brought a book with her. If there were a four hour layover between flights, she didn’t mind, because she had her book. I remember being in awe of her ability of simply accept such inconvenience. Now that I am the age she was then, I can imagine it all too well. There are many things that no longer interest me.  Shopping is a bore. I would rather be hospitalized than go to a nightclub and watch live music. I no longer drink or smoke, and I’m not living under the delusion that young women may suddenly find me interesting.

So bring it on! Boredom is OK!

the author reading this piece can be found by clicking here

Give Us A Song, Mother


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When you’re young, you don’t expect to know more than most people, and most people have that same expectation.  But then you graduate from high school, then University, and you suppose that your opinions matter. In fact, if you don’t suppose that then you’re really a washout, a nobody. In order to have and maintain status, you have to play the role of expert in at least some area.

Fast forward forty years.  Now you’re retired and nobody expects you to do much more than take care of your own personal hygiene and not cause problems for other people who are still stuck trying to make a living. Suddenly it’s OK not to know what’s up, what’s hip or hot, where things are headed, who’s responsible for what. It’s OK just to sit on the sidelines and wave as the parade goes by.

Sure, some old guys still like to argue about sports and politics with anyone who will listen or argue back, but deep down they know that their opinions no longer carry weight. Nobody cares, nobody’s listening, in fact, nobody’s even sure they’re in the right. They’re just flapping their jaws to hear them flap.

I lived in Iowa for a long time, and when driving through small towns one would come across the cafe where all the retired people in town were having coffee. In many small towns, retirees make up the vast majority of the population.  The men and women sit at separate tables, because their spouses certainly don’t care to hear their opinions on anything. When I would enter the room, all heads would turn to check me out, the stranger, just passing through. I was well aware that I would be the topic of speculation for a few minutes after I left, but that would quickly fade and broader topics would again take center stage, what’s wrong with young people today, which politician is the bigger crook, is allowing homosexuals to marry really causing this drought?

Some cultures award more status to the elderly than do others. Our culture puts of a premium of superficial attractiveness, and few of the elderly score highly in that arena. Where is the ten year-old who will ask Grandpa to tell that story again about an incident from his youth? Chances are Grandpa has never shared a story with this grandchildren, for the kids are all staring at a high-definition video display of a game, or mesmerized by their smartphones.

I have a friend about my age who lives here in Chiang Mai but who grew up on a farm in the west of Ireland.  The family lived in a sod house, whitewashed on the outside, dirt floor on the inside. No electricity or running water. After dinner, the family would gather in front of the first and one of the children would ask “Give us a song mother.” People still live that way in the poorest parts of the world, but it’s hard to find much of that in the somewhat developed countries, like Thailand, where virtually everyone has a cellphone that demands their attention every waking hour.

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