THE PLIGHT OF THE LONELY OLD GUY


give up

Older women tend to travel in groups and enjoy organized tours, or cruises where uncertainty and risk are at a minimum.  Even though they are vastly outnumbered by their female counterparts, older men tend to drift around the more affordable parts of the world alone. They often have no reason for being in any one place, other than drinks and women were cheap and available when the bus or taxi dropped them off.

One can spot these aging roués in guesthouses or cantinas in Central America or Southeast Asia, drinking or eating alone, staring at a cell phone or watching with total absorption as a gecko climbs a wall.

I’m in a small city in Northern Thailand, and it’s not uncommon for me to run into ten such men a day around here, eating alone in restaurants, watching traffic whiz by as they nurse a beer and talk to no one. They might have wives or girlfriends in this new place, but if they do they probably can’t talk to them, as neither really speaks the other’s language, and besides, the men probably don’t have much to say anyway.

Living abroad in the developing world is pretty easy if you have a pension from a first-world country.  The old guys from Scandinavia have such big pensions they can buy big estates and large vehicles, as well as take their wives and girlfriends on expensive vacations. In my experience, they’re a little bit happier than the guys who are just scraping by, but not much.  Most of them still lack a real connection to a community, and they still face each day without much to do.

Women rarely seem at a loss for something to do, but men without work often come across as lost. Maybe they are waiting for a woman to show up and tell them what needs to be done next, so they can give grudging consent and then forget what she said a moment later.

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Sanity as a Choice


ACCENTUATE THE POSITIVE

 

A popular song with that lyric and title was written by Johnny Mercer, a troubled alcoholic who fortunately was buddies with Bing Crosby, the singer every song-writer wanted to pitch a song to. But he was right, happiness is a choice, and what you focus on will grow right in front of your eyes. If you find yourself staring in fascinated horror at something ugly, pretty soon the whole world will seem just as ugly.

 

If you are extremely jet-lagged, as I am at this moment, and you can’t sleep because the middle of the night is the middle of the afternoon where you just came from, you have a choice. You can toss and turn in bed, or get up and watch dawn brighten the skies and listen to the birds wake up. Every day offers a hundred chances to make similar decisions, and how you choose will determine your emotional reaction to that day. In fact, no matter what happens or doesn’t happen, just making a decision to accentuate the positive will make you feel happy.

I know this, but knowing it doesn’t help.  What about when I feel bored, or sad, or anxious?  Should I take action? If so, what?

 

There must be something that I can do to make my life more enjoyable and meaningful, but there are many things I can do nothing about, and I must merely accept as they are if I want to have a chance at peace of mind. Yes, Pakistan and India may be on the brink of nuclear war, yes boats loaded with unwelcome immigrants frequently sink, drowning all aboard. If you watch a lot of news broadcasts, it always seems like the world is in a terrible state, that turmoil is normal, and that peace of mind or satisfaction are only possible for the especially lucky or super-rich. This lie is quite seductive, and the persistence of its telling only amplifies its negative power.

 

There must be a way to find what is real, and thereby determine what is individually important. What do I really want to do? I can only answer that by first letting go of what I think somebody else thinks I should be doing.  Following somebody else’s guidance isn’t going to get me anywhere.  I won’t, however, be able to accurately guide myself if my thinking is clouded because I’ve been accentuating the negative and I feel like I’m marooned in a sea of problems.

 

Back when navigation was more difficult, people somehow managed to steer boats across vast distances and arrive at their intended locations. On a journey that took weeks, they did this by taking many measurements and making many small corrections.  It’s not fast, it’s not simple, but it works.  Today, GPS can tell you where you are within a margin of error of two centimeters, anywhere n the planet.  Still, there are many lost souls wandering the globe, waiting for something to happen that will give them a sense of destiny and a feeling of being at home.

 

                                                                       

I know, I’m one of them. But I don’t read maps so much as make decisions based on intuition. That valley over there looks interesting. Wonder what’s just beyond that next rise?

 

I find that maps are a tease.  They give you a false sense of security, of knowing a place when you don’t really know it at all.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve looked at a map and determined it will take me two hours to travel from one point to another, only to find it took twelve hours, because the road that seemed only inches long ended up as a twisting lane through spectacular scenery. Other times, I’ve endured the most uninspired landscapes merely because a map suggested it would be the best way to get where I was going.  No, I try not to pay any attention to maps, because map makers and I aren’t interested in the same things.

 

My traveling decisions are made on a gut level, bypassing my brain completely.  I’ve enjoyed some pretty dumpy places, and been bored silly in some pretty nice ones. I surely wouldn’t want to be in the business of recommending travel sites and accommodations to others, because I don’t think most people are delighted by the same things I am. That’s my beef with travel writing. It assumes a lot, and it pretends that recreational travel is more exotic and transformational than it can ever hope to be.  It’s promotional writing not just for the places it mentions, but for the whole concept of travel as a drug, a remedy for an empty life.

My New Friends


South America is full of diverse ethnic groups, and in one day of nosing around I have met many. Like just yesterday, when I went for a swim, I came up on shore and ran into these guys.

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Then, a short walk in the woods took me to a completely different spot. Again, interesting ethnic types!

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Finally, I was able to practice my spanish with some serous fellows who told me to go back where I came from and could I please spare a dollar?

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Hobby or Habit?


“Man on a bicycle can go three or four times faster than the pedestrian, but uses five times less energy in the process. He carries one gram of his weight over a kilometer of flat road at an expense of
only 0.15 calories. The bicycle is the perfect transducer to match man’s metabolic energy to the impedance of locomotion. Equipped with this tool, man outstrips the efficiency of not only all machines but
all other animals as well.”

– Ivan Illich, Energy and Equity

So why don’t more people ride bikes? Almost no one in the States uses a bicycle as his or her primary means of locomotion. When I was a youngster, I rode my bike everywhere, and still did by the time I reached college, even though I was an oddball for doing so. In America back then, bikes were strictly for kids. One summer day in my sixteenth year, with nothing better to do I rode my balloon-tired Schwinn from St. Louis to Eureka, Missouri and back again; one hundred and twenty miles in one day.

I never had a helmet, nor a light. It never occurred to me to buy them. Today, young people still ride bicycles, but only under strict adult supervision. In our more enlightened cities you can see frightened families slowly biking single file, Papa in front, followed by Mama and a few timid children. They’re all wearing helmets, and no one is smiling. The parents are mentally preparing to file lawsuits and the children are terrified of doing something wrong.
In the third world, where people have much less money than we do, you’d think bicycles would be everywhere, but they’re not. They’re vastly outnumbered by motor scooters, and tiny 125CC motorcycles. In Asia and Latin America, motorbikes outnumber cars.
In the States, chances are an adult professional on a bike is riding something that bought new cost as much as a used car. In Asia and Latin America, all the bicycles are imported from China, and too small for me to ride. I’m six foot two and have long legs. No matter how high I extend the seat, the bike under me is just too small. I have the same problem at Wal-Mart (where all the bikes are made in China.)
There was a time when Asia was rife with bicycles, but then the average person got too rich to be caught huffing and puffing up a hill, and instead bought a motorbike. In Viet Nam, the streets are rivers of motorbikes, most holding more than two riders. Someday they’ll get rich enough to all buy cars, and then they’ll know what it’s like to live in America!
Average time spent paying for transportation, and actually driving has skyrocketed over the last century. In big cities, it’s not uncommon for cars to move more slowly than pedestrians, but at much greater cost.
Bicycles are fun, and even sort of romantic, but if they’re consigned to a “special” category and not used regularly, they just take up space. Go to your neighborhood garage sale and look at the family bicycles all covered with dust, hanging from hooks on the wall. Maybe this summer they’ll take them down and ride to the mall, or on that new bike path that goes nowhere. Take some pictures, post them on the Internet, and then hang those bikes back up there until next year.
In Thailand, there is no difference between men’s and women’s bikes. They’re all women’s bikes. The last bike I bought was in Thailand, and I began to appreciate not having to swing my leg up and over the top bar when mounting it.
I did, however, buy a bike helmet, because in Thailand no one knows or cares to learn how to drive. There are no traffic laws, only mild suggestions, and as anyone who has experienced a bike accident with a car knows, the bicyclist is usually the big loser.
Now I’m in Paraguay, and it’s pretty much like Viet Nam and Thailand when it comes to bikes and motorbikes. Maybe if gas gets expensive enough here, there will be a resurgence of interest in bicycles, but only the tiny heavy cheap ones from China.

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.

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.

An Overview of my travels this last year and a half


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I left Thailand after several of my female students turned out to be boys, and my offer of improved grades based on performance had to hastily be withdrawn. Word spread rapidly across campus, and within hours I was in a windowless van, crossing the Burma border, where Karin rebels housed me, blindfolded in a grass hut, until I could safely be moved to Bangladesh. From there it was only five thousand miles or so, by water buffalo, to the Iranian sea coast, the infamous Straits of Hormuz, where I languished on an island whose only other occupants were prostitutes waiting sixty days to have their Dubai tourist visas renewed, so they could return to the land of too much money and get some for themselves.

Alas, my presence in the Arab Emirates was not appreciated to the level I had, at least in my mind, become accustomed. My collection of sand pictures brought only yawns from the few gallery visitors and reviewers. So I leapt at an offer from a wealthy (aren’t they all?) Arab to supervise his cattle holdings at a ranch in Paraguay. Looking back, I think he simply wanted me to count them. But I assumed he wanted me to write back stories and character motivation sketches for each cow and steer, and when I presented these to him, inked in la sangre de vaca on fine vellum, he had me deported to Argentina, which is once again on the brink of economic collapse. I took this opportunity to begin trading in the “blue market” for dollars and pesos, doing quite well at first, until my competitors got wind of my success. Within days I was again in the back of a windowless van, speeding toward the Chilean/Bolivian border, near Salta, where I almost rented a luxurious apartment at a laughably low rent, thanks to the aforementioned exchange rate. Before I could sign the lease, I learned that the Arab prince had dispatched a legion of men to follow me, assassins who had vowed to neither eat nor drink until I was dead. So I took an all-night bus to the Uruguayan border, where I was denied entrance, and to this day relax, practicing my Spanish verb tenses, a guest of the Uruguayan people, awaiting the moment I can get John Kerry’s attention, and be removed from the watch list they have provided to all our so-called allies.