I take my camera with me as I ride around
I have come to believe that there’s something wrong with me that prohibits me from settling down. I’m always of the opinion that somewhere other than where I am would be better. More interesting, fun, emotionally rewarding. I would finally know peace and contentment if only I lived somewhere else.
I don’t know anyone who has drifted as far and wide as I have in these last ten years. Even before I reached the age at which I could draw social security, I was chomping at the bit and trying to find somewhere cheap and interesting to live. In the years since then, I’ve found quite a few such places. They all have their advantages and drawbacks. The places I’m most attracted to make the least sense for someone like me to call home. This is because I’m confusing fantasy with entertainment. The act of really living in a place without electricity, among neighbors who have a third-grade education at best, where the only foreigners who might occasionally come by are just passing through and will be gone again by tomorrow, is not as interesting as it might sound to an impressionable and uncritical ear. “Cool!” a young person of privilege might exclaim.
Thanks to social media, enormous numbers of young people are drifting around the world writing travel blogs and posting pictures to arouse envy in their friends back home. “Wow, you’re really living the dream” posts someone who has a real job and can’t just wander off at will. But are these drifters really doing something noble and brave? Or are they trapped in someone else’s bucket list, playing out a tired fantasy that has no pay-off in the long run?
I’m too long in the tooth to be part of their crowd, or if I am, I’m their eccentric Uncle, the one who never fit in. I turn 69 next month. I think it’s too late for me to change my ways and do a right about face. No University will ever offer me tenure. Neither the MacArthur Foundation nor the National Endowment for the Arts have the least interest in knowing where I hang my hat nowadays.
Nope, this is probably as good as it’s going to get. So it’s got to be good enough.
I live in Chiang Mai, Thailand, about four miles north of McKean Rehabilitation Center, a former leper colony established about 1910 when the King of Lamphun gave large parcel of land to the Church of Christ to operate as a leper colony. There still are a few lepers in residence, but mostly it’s an assisted-living facility, a hospital, a hospice, and emergency housing for poor refugees from Burma. The trees are enormous there because it’s never been logged.
I amuse myself by riding around on my motor cycle and taking pictures of tropical vegetation. That’s how I entertain myself when I’m not writing or practicing the piano. And in doing so, I found a back entrance to McKean that felt like one of those dreams where you find that a familiar place, say your family home, has a secret doorway that leads to places you’ve never before seen.
Today this happened. I was following the river road, turned off on a small lane, came across an abandoned gate and guard shack, and entered McKean from a side I’d never before seen. The style of the buildings is 1910 Tropical Colonial. The trees are enormous.
It so happens that in 1986, I made frequent trips to the 20th Century Fox Lot in Los Angeles. I was developing a children’s TV show based on Dr. Science, a character I co-created with Merle Kessler of Duck’s Breath Mystery Theater, a comedy troupe we founded in our last year of graduate school at the University of Iowa. So I got to know the Fox lot quite well, those 1920’s Spanish style buildings set on lush lawns beneath large trees. Just like the McKean Center here in Thailand. Strange how things come around. Here I am on the other side of the world thirty-two years later.
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.
Why do pop stars suffer from anxiety?
When I turned it on this morning, my computer asked me this question. I was still drowsy and waiting for the coffee to kick in, but it got me wondering. Maybe pop stars are worried about disappointing their many impressionable fans. Could be they’re all too aware that eventually, despite their best efforts to project a false image, they will ultimately expose their true selves to a critical public. This will not be a pretty sight.Then they will have nothing. No career, no fans, just humiliation and disgrace.
Everyone living a lie has that fear. Pop music appeals to a younger crowd, a group primed to value superficial over substance. Did Frank Sinatra suffer from anxiety? How about Bing?
Older men probably don’t care as much about being popular with their peer group as do those recently graduated from the extreme self-consciousness of adolescence. They might feel anxiety if the money starts to dry up. By now they will be all too aware of the shallow rewards and deep pitfalls of being a pop star.
Adolescents and those of any age with that level of emotional maturity will still long to become celebrities. When I taught in both Paraguay and Thailand, I asked my students what they wanted to be when they grew up. They all said the same thing. “Famous.”
I’m sitting in a coffee shop at the Maya Mall, waiting to see the movie Ben Hur. When I was young, and an avid reader of Life Magazine, I remember the photos of Charleton Heston behind the chariot. Now, I’ll get to see the story in its third film incarnation. Thankfully, it will be in English, with Thai subtitles.
It’s not the movie I would have driven across town to see, but it’s Wednesday, half price day, and I’m always looking for an excuse to leave the suburbs and come into the city. This mall is located across the street from the Honda motorcycle dealership, where they are servicing my bike. Bad bearing in the back wheel, belt needs changing, and who knows what else. Anyway, I’m glad to have it done, for I’m well acquainted with what happens to vehicles who lack proper maintenance.
This mall is popular with Chinese tourists, and if the Chinese were ever to stop coming I’m afraid it would have to close. It’s a silly little mall, with nothing of obvious value for sale in any of its shops, but it’s located in the trendy part of the city, and despite all the warnings in the press, the Chinese aren’t likely to stop coming to Thailand. They love it here, for them it’s cheap and unregulated, unlike where they come from. We get the young, affluent Chinese tourists here, and in the beach resorts they get the older, less educated Chinese who comes from the western provinces. They talk loudly, smoke and spit, and the women wear clothing with clashing patterns, sort of like a cartoon version of a bad tourist.
We get a few of those here, but mostly the young professionals, with iPhones and selfie sticks and two-thousand dollar SLR cameras. They don’t know how to ride bicycles or motor scooters, but eagerly rent them, and when they walk, they walk down the center of the street, blocking traffic but happily snapping pictures along the way.
I think it’s an odd turn of events that I have lived long enough to see two Ben Hur movies, both of which I doubt I’ll find to be transformative experiences, but I must admit that life has had a way of transforming me along the way.
When you first become romantically involved with a person who doesn’t speak your language and you don’t speak theirs, you learn that language isn’t as important as you thought it was. “Relationship experts” are always talking about the importance of communication, and blaming the divorce rate on its lack, but verbal communication is far down the list of ways in which couples can interact.
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist or a poet to realize how to take care of someone else. When they are hungry, you feed them, when they want affection you give it. When it’s reciprocated, you notice and are grateful. That’s pretty much all there is to it. Eventually, you develop a common vocabulary you both understand, but those words could be made up, and sometimes are.
I’ve been with Wipa for a year now, and she knew almost no English when I met her. I had studied Thai at the local YMCA, but knew very little. A year later, I still don’t know much. Can’t read or write Thai. My progress as a Thai speaker has been glacial. After a few years of trying I got to speak pretty good Spanish, but I don’t predict the same level or rate of success with Thai. It’s just too damn hard.
When I try to help her learn English, it’s amusing to see how difficult it is for her, and I must conclude that my attempts at speaking are likewise almost incomprehensible. We speak a mixture of English and Thai at home, probably so heavily accented that anyone listening in would have a hard time understanding what was going on.
The great gift of not being able to communicate verbally is that you can’t argue about abstractions. If you’re restless or irritable you can’t take it out on the other person by baiting them into an argument about intimacy or responsibility or a toss around psychological terms used as weapons.
You simply take care of each other and it shows.
I’m always wondering what I should be doing rather than simply doing. Instead of being fully engaged, I’m haunted, wondering if this is the right thing to be doing and even if it is, am I doing it right? Maybe I’d be better off if only I were doing something else, with someone else, somewhere else.
If I could change one thing about myself, this would be it, and I have it on good advice that such a change is possible by cultivating what the Buddhists call “mindfulness.” They suggest that doing whatever you’re doing wholeheartedly is the ticket to peace of mind and satisfaction. Sometimes it’s called “one-mindedness.” The catch-phrase for it is “chop wood, carry water.” I haven’t done a lot of wood chopping of water-carrying, but during the little chopping and carrying I have done, I can guarantee you that my mind was somewhere else. I was either daydreaming or waiting for this prosaic activity to end so I could get on with something “fun.” I didn’t want to waste my time with activities that weren’t tailored to my personality and its special needs. In this regard I set myself up as a sucker for advertising, with its promised customization and tailoring, which extends from hearing aids to vehicles.
In fact, all my life I was hoping to become the kind of person for whom someone else chopped wood and carried water. Scuba diving, parachuting, motorcycle racing, sex with strangers…these were the kinds of activities I wanted to save plenty of time for. My imagination reveled in what wasn’t yet happening, but would finally come about when conditions were right. My ship had not yet arrived. When it did, then I would finally be relieved on these haunting doubts and fears of lack. In my dreams and plans, the cargo on board would put the world I had known so far to shame.
There was a religious cult that sprang up in Java or Borneo, one of those kinds of places, shortly after World War II. These Pacific Islands had been briefly occupied by Allied Forces who built air strips, radar towers, housing and mess halls and then, almost as quickly, everything was dismantled and taken away when the war ended.
The natives of these island were dumbfounded, and the older ones told the younger members about the glut of cargo they had experienced. When anthropologists visited these islands ten years later, they found that a cult of cargo had evolved, where the elders told those who had not witnessed this amazing event about that happy time when there was more food and Coca-cola and chewing gum than anyone could imagine.
One village wise man, who had managed to hold onto a pair of headphones that had been left behind, proposed that they build replicas of the radar dishes, antennas, in order to attract cargo once again. He would don the headphones and then chant to the gods, summoning cargo. They built bamboo radar towers and airplanes, hangers and barracks. And they waited.
In a way, my dilemma is the same as his. I am waiting for something outside myself to fix me, to arrive and finally make all this worthwhile. Maybe receiving a MacArthur genius award would be enough to legitimize the path I have chosen. Until that happens, I can’t be sure that this is good enough to be thought significant. It seems with few exceptions, that until a writer is famous and dead, he doesn’t deserve to be published.
Recently, a Malaysian airlines flight went missing. A Malaysian witch doctor offered to search for it using a pair of bamboo binoculars. He wasn’t able to find the wreckage, but then nobody else was, either.
I was riding my motor scooter from Mae Rim to Chiang Mai early yesterday morning and passed a group of women sitting by the side of the highway, crouched perilously close to traffic, all selling what appeared to be the same vegetables and fruits. As I drove by, the face of the newest arrival to the phalanx of sellers caught my eye. She was smiling broadly. Despite the fact that she was preparing to sit on hard concrete with her inventory spread in front of her on a piece of cloth, an inventory that in no way seemed unique, she was glad to be there.
Buddhism emphasises acceptance. If I were in her place, I would have a hard time accepting the fact that I was joining an already overcrowded market, and would find some way to stand out from the other sellers. If I could, I would also find a way to maximise my comfort. Maybe I would just throw up my hands and go home, vowing to find a better way. But not her. She was glad to be sitting on the edge of the road among friends.
In our neighborhood, recorded music comes over the public address system followed by announcements by the village head man. Listening to this is not optional. Here, there is no assumed or implied right to sonic privacy. I was complaining about this to a Norwegian woman who had been here longer than I, and she suggested instead of looking at this as someone stealing my right to privacy, I might view it as the gift of community.
As an American, I view my neighbors as competition. As Moe of the Three Stooges used to bark at his fellow knuckleheads “Spread Out!” Like Daniel Boone, when I can see the smoke from my neighbor’s chimney, I know it’s time to move on. Here in Indochina, tucked between the two most populous countries in the world, India and China, only the super-rich can afford such notions. Here, where most people drive motor scooters, those who have office jobs aspire to drive the largest trucks they can purchase, usually on loan, often with no money down.
As the Thai economy continues to tank, I imagine quite a few of those will hit the used truck market. But none of this effects me, as I am not in the market for a loan, or a truck, or land, or a house. I’m here to live as simply and cheaply as I can, and maybe absorb some of that acceptance that allowed the woman I saw to smile as she joined her community.
The men who come to Thailand looking for love or its counterpart are not the ones who resemble movie stars. As a rule, they are the guys who struggled to find girlfriends back where they came from, and are hoping that the economic incentives a developing country offers someone from the first world might make them more desirable. They are often right, though you get what you pay for. Purposeful forgetting will not erase the fact that this is a largely economic transaction. When questioned, most of these men will insist that the woman in question finds them charming or interesting or funny. The money has nothing to do with it.
But it is fun to see these hookups in action. Pattaya is the Thai city that is best for people-watching, because it’s the seaside resort closest to Bangkok. It is Bangkok’s whorehouse-by-the-sea. There, aging Caucasian men can be seen hanging onto the arm of a young Thai hottie. Since the women speak only a few words of English and the men speak no Thai, not much conversation goes on, but they both look reasonably content in each other’s company. It’s not a creepy scene. It’s a business deal, up-front and out in the open. It’s transparent.
And how important are age and looks anyway? If two people want to be together for whatever reason, why shouldn’t they, no matter whether their partnership fits into conventional models of romance?
I have a very attractive Thai girlfriend who is nineteen years my junior. She doesn’t speak English, and I only speak a little Thai, so communicating about practical matters is often problematic. Google Translate can only do so much. When I describe our relationship to women they always ask “How do you communicate?” No man has ever asked me that.