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.
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.
It occurs to me that living in Chiang Mai, Thailand hasn’t really hampered my ability to be creatively productive. If I’m not writing or performing to the best of my ability, I can’t blame it on location. If I were hiding in a furnished room in Los Angeles, hunched over my laptop and drinking coffee from a paper cup (not Starbucks, too expensive) chances are my phone wouldn’t be ringing with offers from publishers, studios, or agents.
At the age of sixty-seven, I probably wouldn’t be going to parties a lot, either. The nightclub crowd would be unaware of my existence. Maybe I could pass myself off as Harry Dean Stanton’s younger brother, or Tommy Lee Jones’ cousin. A-list geezers.
No, I can’t blame Thailand for whatever difficulties I face as I trudge the lonely trail of senescence. Well, actually, there are a lot of us on that trail, only some are using walkers, others four-pointed canes, and the rest of us are hobbling with an uneven gait.
But again, what’s the alternative? The good doctors here are as good as they are in the States, at least as good at the doctors who will accept Medicare patients, and since the prices for medical intervention here are about ten times lower than in the States, that would about equal my deductible if I chose to return home to use the medical policy I paid for over a span of forty five years. That one, the one I don’t get to use over here.
Oh sure, the weather is too hot for me most of the year. Even most Thai people would agree with that. From November to January it gets cool enough up here in the north of Thailand so that a Westerner might consider putting on a light wrap after dark. That’s when the Thais think it’s time to unpack some serious gloves and fur-lined parkas.
I’m sure Lake Como or Martha’s Vineyard would be more to my taste. I hear Norway is spectacular from June to August. All of that has nothing to do with me now, nor will it ever unless Fate has some amazing twists and turns in store for me.
But none of that matters, because I’m happy with my current station. After a week in Krabi, at the beach, I’m home again with my piano and my Chiang Mai routine. I don’t do a lot, my days are pretty free, and I make sure to rest plenty after the smallest of exertions. You can never be too relaxed in retirement.
In Krabi we had comfortable hotel rooms for around sixteen and seventeen dollars, the flight there and back came to eighty five dollars each. The only thing there that significantly more expensive than Chiang Mai was massage, which was double the price, so we mostly avoided it.
Tomorrow I’ll go to my swimming pool and do a kilometer. Takes me half an hour. I’ll be the only person in the water, an Olympic-sized fifty meter pool. Then I’ll take a nap in the afternoon, because even though a kilometer is some swimmer’s idea of a mere warm up, to me it’s the whole enchilada.
No Plan, Still Time Passes
Even though my e-mail provider Microsoft Outlook would like me to believe otherwise by sending me my calendar for the day, which contains events and tasks apparently set by others, some of whom I don’t even know, I think I have the day off. I do know for certain that I didn’t create these “events” or “tasks” they insist are real and fixed. As far as I can see, my days are pretty much a blank slate. Most of the time, I have not consented to be anywhere or to do anything.
Today my virtual assistant informs me that I have three events, but it soothingly assures me “you don’t have any tasks for today.” Free to come and go as I please, I intend to hop on my motor scooter or bicycle and zip around town, or drive into the nearby mountains. My photo blog shows lots of pictures of hills and trees. They all look the same, but I keep taking more.
I will also find time to play Handel on my electronic keyboard.
The interesting and encouraging thing about practicing a musical instrument is that you get better even if you take a week off. In that time when you weren’t practicing, you still improve. If you take more than a week off, that effect begins to reverse itself. It is, however, counter-intuitive that progress can be made by not practicing. I guess the chemical bath in which my brain cells seep gets work done even when I’m not on board with that.
When you make a deliberate attempt to stop doing, you find that your body is doing many things for you. I was already impressed by the fact that my heart continues to beat without my permissions, and my lungs go about their breathing business without my direction or urging, but this brain percolating thing is really something. It does so without being plugged into the Internet or a power source. It’s half-an-hour before dawn and it’s still working fine, which means it’s not even solar-powered. Who thought this one up? Give that guy a prize!
QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS
Don’t you get lonely? Homesick? Don’t you feel lost in such a foreign country?
Maybe there’s something wrong with me, but no. I have just as many friends here as I’ve had anywhere. True, I can’t talk to most of the people who live here, but I don’t need to. Our paths don’t intersect. And there are surely enough people who speak English and are roughly in my position for me to talk with if I need to talk.
Sometimes I find that I’m hoarse because I don’t talk for days at a time. I live with a Thai woman whom I call my wife. She can’t speak English, and my Thai is pretty poor, so we don’t talk a lot. Talking is overrated.
I never miss the States. Never. Sometimes I worry that America will self-destruct and I’ll be stranded on the other side of the world with no source of income. But that’s not a terribly realistic concern.
A more reasonable concern would be a health crisis that would involve either me paying out of pocket here or flying home to take advantage of medicare. But that’s too big to worry about. I mean, yes, it will eventually come down to that, but there’s no way I can prepare for such a nebulous calamity. If I want to start up Medicare Part B, the one that pays physicians fees, I have to make that decision months in advance. And that will seriously impact my social security pension, which is pretty much all I have. Then there are drug costs in America, which are about ten to twenty times what they are here. So, I think I’m better off trying to stay healthy and stay here awaiting the inevitable. This is, as my friend Lawrence once commented, sudden death overtime. Whoever scores the next goal wins the game.
The good news is that funeral costs here are also a fraction of what they are in the States. A simple cremation runs to hundreds of dollars, not thousands. Not that funeral price should be my concern, but it will effect those whom I leave behind. I’ve already resigned myself to the fact that I’m not going to leave much an estate for my children. Maybe something will happen to change that, but I’m not holding my breath.
Why do you go to a place that’s full of sex addicts, child molesters and losers? Why not stay home, or retire someplace nice?
I freely admit that a lot of the reason I’m here, or would have been in Latin America, has to do with the cost of living. The cheap places of the world attract more than their share of alcoholics, sex addicts, child molesters, because they can get away with a little bit more before they come to reckoning. But that doesn’t mean that everyone here is an addict on the run, nor does it mean that Monaco and Zurich aren’t home to plenty of addicts. The ones in rich countries are less obvious. They’re more discrete.
Ex-patriate scenes are not inherently creepy. To me, Chiang Mai feels like a college town filled with old people. That’s because my friends remind me of myself in college. As now, back then I observed no strict schedule, and was willing to cut class at the drop of a hat. Drop acid and go skinny dipping? Let’s go!
More interested in fun than in study. For the first couple of years in college I was a chemistry major. I would watch the Chinese and Indian chemistry students study for hours each night, while I got high and wondered how to chase women more effectively. Their families had sacrificed to send them to America and I was working an hour a day as a busboy to support myself in school. My parents paid a few hundred dollars a year for my tuition. At state schools like mine, that’s all it cost back then.
Now, I’m surrounded by men and women living on small pensions. As long as they don’t get extravagant or go crazy, they’ll do just fine. We talk about where to buy cheese or bread, things that Thais don’t eat. We complain about visa restrictions. Back in the student union at the University of Missouri we talked about where to buy pot and how to avoid the draft.
Nobody Brings All Their Crap Here
A great opportunity inherent in retiring on the other side of the world is that you’re strongly persuaded to get rid of most of the crap you’ve been dutifully hauling around for the last thirty years. That dining room table with eight chairs, the sideboard, the wardrobe, the boxes of pictures and old tax returns, the clothes that you were going to wear again one day when you lost weight…all of it goes before you move many times zones away.
The airlines help with this by charging exorbitant rates for extra luggage. Nevertheless, I met a guy who had brought kayaks, canoes, a grand piano, oil paintings in a shipping container and then paid for it to be hauled up the entire length of Thailand to the mountains in the North. Some people take their shit seriously.
I arrived here three years ago with two suitcases. Since then, I have accumulated a minimal amount of “stuff,” the things that one puts in no particular order in boxes and then hides under the bed. I change residences every year, so I am not tempted to engage in recreational shopping. It was a lousy pastime anyway. Back in Iowa, I used to frequent auctions and delude myself into thinking I was running an antiques business selling the smallest items on eBay. Truth be told, I was simply a shopping addict justifying his addiction.
I was bored and I didn’t enjoy my job. The perfect recipe for cultivating an addiction, and I became very good at fooling myself into thinking this was “entrepreneurship!” Yes, I was the Donald Trump of funky boxes full of other people’s crap, stored in the garage until I had time to go through them all, photograph the best of the haul, and then haul the boxes back to the auction! Did I have a truck? No. Were my items neatly shelved and organized? Of course not!
Out of sight, out of mind. Then, when the garage door refused to close, I knew I had to change my ways.
Now, when I go to a big box store, or a Goodwill, and see the hollow eyes of middle-aged people wandering the aisles with full shopping carts, I feel a mixture of revulsion and sympathy. There but for the grace of God go I.
Living abroad as I do, I get comments from people who say “I wish I could do what you’re doing, but I have too much stuff that I can’t get rid of.” The next most frequent comment is “I’m on medications that I’m afraid I wouldn’t be able to get over there.” They’ve also bought into the phony medical insurance “benefit,” where you think your medical insurance is providing a level of cost reduction or security. Here in Thailand, medical costs are a fraction of what they are in the States, often less than the deductibles most insured people pay for services and drugs.