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.


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


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?



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 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



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.

Is there a place nobody you know has ever been?

Go there. It might suck, it might be interesting,  and at least part of the time it might be great. When we look at travel as if it should be just one thing, something predictable and describable, then we cut off most of  the possible. Most of the world does not fit into a travel brochure, an itinerary, or a Google Earth tag. If there´s no downside, then the upside won´t be very great, either. I can´t wait to visit a few countries in South America that have so far eluded me. I just want to make sure I have enough time and money to do the place justice. A three-day visit is nothing but a tease.

Reading too much about the place before you go there is a sure-fire way to talk yourself out of going there, especially since most travel blogs are written by young backpackers, and co ntain all the coherence  and substance of a Twitter post.

And if it turns out to be not-so-great, don’t be afraid to say so. The Internet is full of foolish hype and gushing praise for the commonplace or just plain lame. Don´t add to it.

Having wasted time and money searching out a place that was vastly oversold, I found myself wishing I could find the guy who wrote those posts. Don´t be that guy.

OK, now I really am leaving the country. Tonight!

It’s been a long wait. I’ve been waiting exactly a week. It took that long to cancel my work visa and to get paid. I don’t know why it took that long, but it did, and for most of that time I was on pins and needles, thinking “Tomorrow it’s gonna happen. Tomorow I’ll be in Thailand.” Well, tomorrow I’m going to be in Chiang Mai. There, I’ll sell my piano, close my bank accounts and send the money back to Iowa. Then, after I’ve hung out long enough to get bored, I’ll challenge myself further by hopping on a plane to destination undecided at this pont.

I just got my passport back and leafing through it, discovered the visas of Thailand, Cambodia, Viet Nam, Myanmar, and the United Arab Emirates. That’s a lot of travel in one year. And what did I learn from all that expense and effort? Most people in most places speak a little bit of English, enough so you can make yourself understood. If they don’t speak any, you can still communicate with mime.

Countries we’re not generous with treat us the same way when it comes to visas. People are pretty nice and generous all over, if you take the time to communicate with them. In the entire year I’ve been adrift, I haven’t been robbed or even lost anything of signficance. Maybe somebody shortchanged me, but if so, I didn’t notice.

I’m sixty-two years old and in the best physical shape of my life. I don’t smoke or drink and I get regular exercise. As long as I don’t do anything stupid, social security should enable me to continue living in places with a standard of living about a third of what it is in the States. There are a lot of such places, and many of them are really great.

So life is good.

Listening to Bix in Arabia

I had one of those moments where I didn’t know where I was and didn’t mind the sensation. I had been listening to Bix Biederbecke on Youtube and planning my return trip to Thailand. The curtains were drawn and I lay down for a short nap. When I woke up I realized I had no idea where I was. The streets of International City, Dubai were quiet, and it was unusually cool out. Long afternoon shadows. It felt like winter in Southern California.

Maybe space and time really are sort of illusory, or at least they don’t matter as much as they used to. Maybe they never mattered much to some people. The whole travel industry is based on the idea that going someplace is an important achievement, but now that the internet is full of images of any noteworthy place on the planet, how badly do you really need to go anywhere?

I can’t wait to get a hold of a keyboard and a trumpet again. That would give me something to do besides skim through facebook listings, which, let’s admit it, get pretty ho-hum after fifteen minutes or so, no matter how clever your friends are.




Some Places Really Are Better than Others

Sure, a lot of differences can be chalked up to matters of taste, but let’s face it, some places really do suck, while other places are worthy of weeks, months or years of investigation. Places where there’s no potable water, where flies crawl all over you and people defecate in the open are not to be sought out. Boring places, where your only choice is which shopping mall to go to and which franchise business to visit, should also be low on your list. Many, in fact I will dare say “most” places that are really great don’t have much internet presence. Their charms are too subtle to withstand photography. When you look at the image from Google Earth, there aren’t a lot of tags cluttering the image, and Trip Advisor hasn’t got a thousand amateur travel writers posting their impressions. Even more reason to check these places out.

One thing I’ve learned, don’t ever use the Internet to book a hotel room in an under-developed place. You’ll end up paying three times what you would have if you’d simply showed up and scoped out the scene.  All the best places are highly affordable. That allows a variety of real people to live there. 

If you expect to go to Greenwich Village to see some working artists, you’ll find that artists haven’t been able to afford to live there for quite some time, but the place is rife with retired Orthodontists who always wished they’d been a little wilder and less practical when they were younger.

The real deal is out there, all over the place, tucked into a remote mountain valley in Ecuador, or Laos. If you go there you’ll find other people like you, not many, but some, and they can be your friends. The local people will smile and say “good morning,” but a great cultural and wealth divide will separate you unless you go to great lengths to leap across.



Do my desires make me happy? If not, why do I try so hard to satisfy them?

Just because I like bananas for breakfast doesn’t mean if I move to a banana republic I’ll be happier than where I am now. Right now in Iowa, there’s snow on the ground and it gets below zero at night. In such an environment, it would be normal to dream of a sunny beach, but such a beach isn’t guaranteed to change my mood in the long run, or for longer than it takes to take a swim and dry off. After all, it’s just a beach.

As I write this, I’m on a stretch of sand much greater than any beach. The weather is pleasant, but I’m not particularly happy at this moment. I’m restless and discontent. I’m in Dubai, and I keep thinking I ought to be somewhere else, somewhere I’ve never been before.

Far more important than quickly reacting whenever I get a hankering or an urge, would be to sit still long enough to process the emotion, and figure out if change is even called for. Maybe it isn’t. Maybe the best, if most difficult thing to do is nothing at all. Stay where I am. Deal with it.