STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND


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Living so far away from where I was born and raised,  I find it liberating that nothing here reminds me of my past.  This is all new.  I am not haunted by old associations. Nobody reminds me of somebody I don’t like.

Recently,  on Facebook I posted a picture of the Lawrence Welk TV show and commented that this brought back a lot of bad memories of those Vietnam war years.  Love it Or Leave It. John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart on Johnny Carson trashing war resisters. Self-satisfied St. Louis squares who thought their comfort meant they were doing something right.

Someone retorted that she remembered those years as a happy, peaceful time.  Who knows, maybe she still lives in Omaha or Sioux Falls and her idea of an adventure is going on a cruise.  Maybe her favorite TV show was Love Boat. Actually, I just checked her profile and she looks like a vibrant, interesting person. So much for sweeping generalizations.

At least for this grouch, nostalgia is never comforting. The distant past gives me the willies. Makes it hard to breathe. How about them Hawkeyes?  Mizzourah! Please!

I’m never homesick.  When I think of Iowa, I think of fat people watching college sports of television. OK, I know sometimes they get out of the BarcaLounger and waddle down the aisles of the local Wal-Mart. That’s a simple-minded image, but it does a good job of keeping homesickness at bay.

I don’t think I’ll live long enough for Thailand to become overly familiar. So even though everything here doesn’t knock me out all the time, it doesn’t really matter.

A LIFE OF LEISURE


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LUSH LIFE

The longer I avoid employment, the more absurd the notion seems.  I’m not talking about embracing indolence, but rejecting working for others. If time is a gift, and in increasing short supply, why would I want to want to squander even a second of it for the illusion of security? Surely there are a myriad of opportunities for self-employment that could fill any legitimate economic need I might have.

Retirement is not always easy on some folks. Forty or fifty years off showing up for school or work conditions a body for that sort of thing, and without it many find themselves lost. How many movies can you watch a day?

When discipline finally comes from within, you learn the real meaning of freedom.  When it doesn’t, you learn the true depths of bondage.  Too much free time can kill you, or at least humiliate you while you go about dying from causes you can’t control.

Here’s an audio version of this little essay

REPORT FROM THAILAND


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We went to the movies last week at the nearby shopping mall.  I have never seen anyone Thai or foreign at the movies here who is even remotely my age.  Hardly anyone over the age of 25 can be found in one of these places.  The lobbies of the movie theaters thump with the music of nearby video game arcades.

There were ten theaters.  Eight of them were showing Fast and Furious 7, and the other two children’s cartoons.  She said she liked action movies and wanted to see Fast and Furious, a genre to which I had yet to become accustomed, but as I had even less desire to see the Sponge Bob movie dubbed in Thai, I consented.  The moment we sat down, she promptly fell asleep and I watched the movie alone.

Probably like it’s six previous incarnations, FF7 was an A-Team episode elongated.  Those I used to watch with my four-year-old son Caleb on our little black and white TV, but here I was thirty-one years later, watching a much louder version on a big screen, with my sleeping Thai girlfriend at my side.  This is the kind of movie where plot complications are solved by pressing a red flashing button marked “TURBO.” There were many gratuitous and sentimental pronouncements about the importance of family interspersed with explosions and gunfire.  I imagine this mindless American export is doing big business all over the world, whereas I’m just another old guy living on social security, so who am I to judge a world that increasingly has no meaning for me?

Today is the beginning of Songkran, the Thai new year.  Here they love holidays, and the government declares new ones all the time in order to buy votes.  This is the hottest time of the year, and the tradition is to stand on the side of the street and dump ice water on anyone who dares to venture by, especially those on bicycle or scooter.  It’s sort of cute for the first few minutes, but then you realize this lasts for five more days, and nobody ever seems to tire of it.  For the next five days, this will continue unabated. Again, it has little to do with me, for I’m just another senior citizen on a bicycle, ducking buckets of ice water thrown in my face by grinning youngsters.  I would have to strain to take any of this personally.

SO YOU’VE MOVED TO THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WORLD. NOW WHAT?


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It used to take more get up and go to move across the planet, but ever since jet travel it’s been pretty painless.  Now there’s no major discincentive to discourage the indolent from finding their way to places where they can simply hang out the way teenagers hang out at the mall. Old guys don’t stare at their phones as often as teenagers do, but like their younger counterparts, the expression on their faces is usually a mask of boredom.

If you didn’t have any ambition where you came from, you’re not going to suddenly catch on fire in a new place. The challenge of learning a new language, of developing a hobby or mastering a musical instrument doesn’t appeal to everyone.  In fact, most people are content to watch paint dry as long as they’re not actively in distress.  If you classify girl-watching as a profession, then you’ll find a myriad of tropical countries where that could become a full-time job. The fact is, most of us get what we’re looking for.  If all you want is the absence of something you don’t want, then you’ll end up the proud owner of nothing much.

I know guys here who fill their days by watching sports from the United States on satellite TV. They have to set an alarm to see their favorite games, because they often air at four in the morning. I could see doing that every once in a while, but as a major time-filler it lacks depth.

I write, but as anyone who has followed the ups and downs of the publishing industry lately, that doesn’t mean anyone wants to publish or pay for my writing. Content is free, nowadays. If someone at a cocktail party asks me what I do, I can always say I’m a writer, but that lacks the cachet it once had. If my unfortunate cocktail party companion further inquired have I had anything published, I could nod gravely, without adding that it was thirty years ago. Yes, I once showed promise. So what am I working on now? Hmm, a memoir. The Life and Times of Yours Truly. Soon to be a major motion picture, starring Montgomery Clift as James Dean, and me as Hedda Hopper.

If anyone asks me what I’m doing in Southeast Asia, I can pretend to be a spy, or a professional do-gooder of some kind. I work for an NGO. You’ve never heard of it. We help rescue retirees with dementia from an uncertain fate. But no one asks. There are no cocktail parties. Just fat old men leering at Asian women.

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And then there’s me, typing away on my laptop, thinking I’m special.

 

 

 

 

IS GOOD TASTE MY TASTE?


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The Challenge of Unbridled Development

Maybe all development isn’t ugly, but if you’re looking for the exceptions to the rule, Thailand isn’t the place you’ll find it.  Here, anyone who has enough money to build anything can and will, and if permits are required, they will quickly be granted for sufficient consideration. The super-rich can afford architects and walled estates, but everyone else is simply encroaching on the landscape as quickly as possible and with little visible foresight.

It is the season for burning rice paddies in the North of Thailand, and in my search for a place with breathable air, I flew south from Chiang Mai to Bangkok, and then took a series of mini-vans until I found this place, Ban Kroot, a relatively unspoiled village on the Andaman sea coast. Palm trees abound, the beach is white sand and unspoiled, but the big question is, “for how long?”

There are a few resorts in town and a few new ones being built a few kilometers up and down the coast.  Dogs sleep in the middle of the road during the day.  Life moves at a leisurely pace.  Fresh ocean breezes make even a hot afternoon bearable.

But for how long? This is not just Thailand’s problem, but the whole developing world’s. The rich can do whatever they want, wherever they want.  They can hop skip and jump around the globe, following fashion and chasing novelty.  Most people in the third world never travel more than two hours from where they were born. This is it for them. Mess this up, and they will always live in a mess.

Yesterday I heard a retired guy about my age complaining that he used to spend a lot of time on the hippy full moon festival island Koh Panang twenty-five years ago, but upon a recent visit he was horrified to find that everything he had liked about the place had been destroyed.  He wondered if there were somewhere he could go where this would not be the case.  I wanted to throttle him for his arrogance and self-centeredness, yet I understood where he was coming from.

“Sure buddy, such a place exists, only it doesn’t have a name yet, at least not a name listed on travel sites. It’s a tiny village that nobody knows or cares about yet.  If you go there and make something happen that will attract other people, then they’ll move there and tell their friends, and then later, probably after you’re dead, it will become a horrible place that other old farts complain used to be a nice place.”

When I grew up in Missouri, there were no laws regulating billboards.  The highways were lined with the gaudiest and more lurid billboard advertisements, especially for tourist attractions.  “Meramec Caverns!  Jesse James Hideout!” “Onanadoga Cave!” Every barn within a mile of the Interstate highway was painted with ads. Until I visited Iowa, I thought that was normal.

But Iowa had regulated such advertising, so only sober, government signs were permitted.  South Dakota had taken a cue from Missouri, and you could mark your progress on Interstate 90 towards and away from Wall Drug by the inch, if you preferred.

Thailand is more like Missouri and South Dakota than Iowa. There is no regulation of any kind, for anything, as far as I can tell.  If you can pay for it, you can do it. And the public has no right to silence.  Sounds trucks blaring advertisements clog the roads of cities

Most of us find medieval villages and farmhouses to be more quaint and charming than Soviet apartment blocks.  Is this a function of their design, or their relative frequency? What about modern American apartment complexes designed to resemble medieval villages, with fake timber beams criss-crossing sheets of drywall?

It’s not just the development of land to which one can object, it’s the recurring, copycat events we stage in the name of culture.  How many film festivals do we need?  Is the current plethora of film festivals a sign of an actual cinematic artistic renaissance or the result of copy-cat maneuverings by regional development offices?

And what do they have to do with the actual state of creative dramatic Art in America?  If you passed a law forbidding theater companies from staging “A Christmas Carol” or dance companies from mounting “The Nutcracker,” most of them would go dark within six months.  How’s that for creativity? What’s really happening in the arts that we can get excited about?

Obviously to answer these questions requires defining taste, and that’s a hard thing to do, especially by proclamation.  One man’s eyesore is another man’s goldmine.

Guess I’m glad I’m not really in charge of much of anything, because then I’d have to go to meetings in stuffy conference rooms and endure power point presentations when I’m not listening to angry people complain about others people’s lack of good taste.

Flying Season in Thailand


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Soon we will be averaging four to five a week.

It’s flying season here in Thailand.  This is the time of year when foreign men, usually in their sixties, leap off the balconies of their condos in three main Thai cities, Phuket, Pattaya and Bangkok.  Many times they fly of their own volition.  At other times they have obviously had help getting aloft, reaching terminal velocity with a shove from the family or boyfriend of the women they’ve been sexually involved with and financially supporting.

During flying season many a caucasian body is found at the base of a high-rise apartment building.   If a note is left behind, it usually refers to health or money problems.

There are two on-line forums where surviving ex-pats can keep track of this activity.  Thaivisaforum.com and stickmanbangkok.com.  When the Thai police investigate, they always conclude it was a suicide.  In one notorious case, the man’s head was found in a plastic bag thirty meters from his body.  “Suicide,” the police report read.

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.  I remember I had an uncle who abandoned his family in St. Louis and drank himself to death in 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 Thailand, these men are from all over the world, Finland, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Great Britain, France, Germany, Canada, Australia, the United States. They leave their third or fourth wife behind and come to the land of Rent-a-Wife.  If they have an addiction or two, they find to their surprise they have brought it with them. If the addiction itself isn’t their undoing, it does a bang-up job of demoralizing them along the way, and thinking with their wrong head, they make poor choices. Many a man with a substantial retirement account has limped back to the airport in Bangkok to head home, minus most of his savings. Those are the lucky ones, for they were spared the ten seconds of exhilaration their flying fellows knew as they soared off the balcony.

And then there are those of us who haven’t done that badly here, though it sometimes seems we are in the minority. I have met a few mentally healthy men who have taken an active interest in Thai culture, who have gone to the trouble to learn the language, and who seem to have meaningful relationships with their communities.

But these men don’t make the papers.  Mostly they gracefully age and die here, or scramble back to their home country before they become too infirm to fly.

 

 

 

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.

What’s So Great About South America?


What’s So Great About South America?
It’s varied. Most people who haven’t yet visited think of South America as one big place split up into different rinky-dink countries with different names but when you get right down to it, they’re basically all the same place. That’s not the reality on the ground. To be sure, poverty looks pretty much the same wherever you find it in the world, muddy streets, stray dogs, roofs made of corrugated steel held down by old tires…but South America is more than poor people. Currently, the cost of living in Chile and Uruguay is higher than it is in the States. Ecuador, Bolivia and Peru are cheap. But again, it’s hard to say any one thing about a place this huge. You can fly on a jet for ten hours in one direction and still be in South America.
Brazil alone is as big as the continental United States. There they don’t speak Spanish, but Portuguese. In almost every other South American country they speak Spanish, except for tiny Suriname and French Guiana and a few remote places where they indigenous people still haven’t effectively been colonized and speak their own languages. Guarani, Quechua, and various nearly-extinct languages spoken by Amazonian tribes. So if you learn Spanish, you can visit many different countries, some tropical, some freezing cold most of the year.
To this traveler, the best part is that public transportation still exists in all of South America. Busses will take you from the smallest village to any part of the country. Bus fares are subsidized to make them affordable to the common person, so you can travel is luxury comfort, on a Super Pullman with a reclining bed, or you can sit on a converted American school bus where the person next to you has a chicken in a bag, with its head sticking out a hole. You can flag most busses down from anywhere on the highway. That means if you live in a shack in the woods, with no electricity and no lights, you can still go out to the highway and flag down a bus that will take you to the big city. It used to be like this in the States before World War II.
Much of South America reminds me of the United States when I was very young, in the early fifties. Little shops line the streets of every city and town, tailor shops, shoe repair, corner grocery stores, Mom and Pop businesses. Now in the States, Mom and Pop are divorced and living in gated retirement communities in Florida, but here, they’re still at work, selling penny candy to school kids. In Argentina and Uruguay, school kids wear white smocks, like lab coats, with a big black bow in front. I guess it’s a European thing. Most of the people who immigrated to Argentina and Europe back at the turn of the last century hailed from Italy, France, Germany and Spain.
I will venture here to say that the most beautiful country I’ve seen in South America is Colombia. It is lush, largely mountainous, almost on the equator so much of it enjoys tropical flowers but cool nights. The women tend to be exceptionally good-looking.

Can You Really Be Happy Anywhere?


Yes, and you can also be miserable anywhere, under any circumstances. Being happy is choice you make. It is, of course, much harder to choose happiness if you’ve recently suffered a loss, or are sick, or worried about money or a loved one’s welfare. The great opportunity involved in choosing to live somewhere new involves temporarily being released from things you’ve already decided are boring or oppressive. Of course, human nature being what it is, it’s only a matter of time before you form the same opinion about parts of your new surroundings and daily experiences. But here, you’ve given yourself a second chance. Take it, keeping in mind that no matter how beautifully the setting sun shines on the water, there is no smooth sailing off into the sunset, even if you bought a new home in what looks like paradise. The quality of your life will depend far more on the relationships you establish with ex-pat friends and your new neighbors, than on picture-postcard views of your new home that you can post online to share with your friends back home.

WHAT IF…?


What happens if you just hate your new home abroad? Say you give it a few years, you learn enough of their language to conduct routine business and make acquaintances, and you still don’t like it. What then?

The good news is, that’s not going to happen.  You’re never going to completely feel one way or the other about any place. If you invest time and energy into a place, you’re going to form attachments. Some days you´ll love it, some days you´ll wish you were someplace else.

You may get homesick, but after a few trips home, you’ll find that you’re itching to leave again within a few weeks of your homecoming. You may fall prey to the grass is greener syndrome that all ex-pats are prone to, and allow yourself to become convinced that the place you chose and were so excited about turned out not to be the perfect place after all, but the next place, the one you just heard about, is. Give it time. Stay in touch with the person who was so lately singing its praises and see how that person feels in a year or so.

Anything worth doing takes longer than you expected and is a bit harder to pull off. If it weren’t that way, we’d all be constantly slipping and sliding around the globe. Greased by money, some of the super rich already are. They’re no happier than the rest of us. In fact, they’re often slightly ashamed of themselves, and spend an inordinate amount of time in remorse.