Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Christmas Lights in Portland

It's the time of year again when Portland lights up for the holiday season.  I am always impressed with the decorations the city puts up, every year just a little different.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Psychological Issues of Starting a New Life

Wrapping your head around a new culture, new life, and a new way of thinking can really play tricks with you mind.  What one must realize is that even though starting a new life can be exhilarating and exotic, there will inevitably be times of questionable sanity in making such a huge move.

As I research and read the blogs of others who have done this before me, I discover several things.  There seems to be a wall that expats face when they haven't made personal connections, learned the language and generally planned out their move.  Apparently at about the 3 year mark, the newness and exoticness has warn off and they become bored and depressed and either leave the country or become alcoholics and wallow in everything that's wrong with the country.

What I do know is that I'll have bouts of culture shock, maybe some depression, and self-questioning along the lines of "what have I done?"  Knowing this ahead of time is key to being able to get past these feelings until friends are made, joining groups is accomplished and interest in volunteering opportunities becomes apparent.

There are large numbers of expats in Chiang Mai, mostly English and American followed by Australians, Germans and other Europeans and Asians.  The Chiang Mai American Embassy lists over 8,000 expat Americans registered with them and there is most likely the same number who have not registered, since it is not required.  The Chiang Mai Expat Club has monthly meetings where more than 100 attend and as an offshoot of that club, there are many sub-groups of special interest like tennis club, gay expats, theater group, arts enthusiasts, and travel club.  I don't think I'll lack for contact with English speakers!

My intention is to join group Thai language classes immediately, although one can function without knowing Thai, personal experience deepens when you are able to converse with market sellers and folks outside the city.  I'll also be looking for yoga classes to continue my practice.  As for volunteering, I have to see what's available.  One choice of interest is working for one of the several non-governmental organizations who find and destroy unexploded ordinance (cluster bombs) that have been dropped on Cambodia and even more extensively in Myanmar during the Viet Nam war.  We put them there, so I believe we should clean them up.

One final thing to remind myself of is that I will be a guest in their country and I intend to revere and honor their culture, their way of thinking, and wholeheartedly participate in their historic festivals.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Reducing Life to Two Suitcases

It was my good friend Fernando who initially put into words what I hadn't yet considered in the week after my Thailand visit. "Why don't you retire there" was his suggestion after hearing me gush about the pleasures I had experienced on my travels. 

For a brief time the comparison of Quito, Ecuador and Chiang Mai, Thailand were on my radar because each have similar living expenses.  Quito is at 10,000 feet elevation and has really nice year-round weather, but doesn't seem as foreigner-friendly with a Catholic society.  Quito life seemed dull to me compared to Thailand with its festivals and spontaneous markets.

Thailand, on the other hand, has so much going for it that my list of pros and cons was easily tilted toward "the land of smiles" (which is true, by-the-way).  It is a Buddhist society and every male, usually teenage or up to their 20's, spends some amount of concentrated time in a monastery where they learn not only Buddhism and meditation, but also to be nice people.  

With Thailand in my sights for retirement, the only question was "when".  Early retirement seems reasonable to me.  Why not retire while one still feels like getting out, getting involved, and generally enjoying life?  We only have a limited time before old age closes in on us and diminishes our abilities and desire.

I will turn 62 in January, so I have had a year to prepare for this new journey and, believe me, it takes time to get ready.  I've sold or given away most of my possessions and by January, I expect to have my life neatly packed into two suitcases.  In my years of traveling I've managed to pare down to just a carry-on for any length of travel time, so two regular sized suitcases shouldn't be that hard. 

Logistics of financial/banking, visa requirements, getting medical files, getting all accounts on-line so nothing has to be mailed is challenging, but as each step gets crossed off a long list of "must dos" there comes a feeling of freedom.  My transportation in Thailand will be a motorcycle, so I've taken a motorcycle safety course and gotten the required international driving permit with motorcycle endorsement.  Its a long list and keeps changing as I expect my life to do in the coming months.

I'll talk about the psychological side of starting a new life in the next blog.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Retirement Abroad

The question a lot of people are asking themselves is "when will I be able to retire".  I've been pondering this question for many years thinking I would never be able to retire on what I've saved and with a relatively small Social Security income.  What I have also realized for many years is that there are always "options" for most situations. 

It is with this in mind for the past ten years or so I have been exploring retirement options outside the United States.  If I was ever going to be able to afford retirement, it would  be in a country that is not as expensive as the U.S. 

Traveling to the U.K., Spain, Portugal, Greece, Italy, Croatia, Slovenia, and a few other European countries I could see that anywhere in Europe is out of the question for economic living.  The countries on my list would have to be "developing" countries with a lower standard of living than the U.S. or Europe.  Looking at Mexico, Central/South America was getting more promising and I have a head start with the Spanish language after traveling these areas for many years.

Until last year, my vagabonding was still turning up places that were definitely cheaper to live, but not as inexpensive as I had hoped.

By crunching my financial numbers I knew what I'd have for a retirement nest egg and it would be questionable living on a forced budget in the Spanish speaking countries.

On a whim last year I traveled to Thailand as a treat to myself after getting a hip replacement.  The plan was to enjoy a warm place in winter where I could exercise the new hip, get cheap massages, and generally take it easy.  What I found was a whole new inexpensive living experience, one that I am sure I can handle financially.

... to be continued

First Snow

Last night was our first snow of the season.  Just a week after hurricane Sandy knocked out power throughout New England, a second "Nor'easter" has dropped about 3 inches of the white stuff.  There are no reports of downed power lines, so our power grid is safe for the time being. 

We did lose our world-wide-web Internet for most of the day yesterday, but that, I understand, was due to a broken cable somewhere.

It goes without saying that living in the North East has its challenges.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Mount Washington, NH

It is the tallest peak in the northeastern United States at 6,288 ft. elevation. It lies at the White Mountain Range, the northern end of the Appalachian chain in New Hampshire.

Doesn't really compare in elevation to the west where there are 5 summits over 14,00 ft. in California alone.  But this is a very old mountain that was much higher before erosion took its toll.

There is a road all the way to the top which is steep, narrow, curvy, and  with precipitous drop-offs all along the way.  The road was completed in 1861 which makes it the nation's oldest man-made tourist attraction. For driving the "auto road" in your own car, the entrance station gives out a cassette tape with the story of the mountain and the history of building the road that runs nearly exactly the length of time it takes for the drive to the top.  In in only 8 miles of roadway to the top the vertical rise is 4,725 ft.  Side 2 of the cassette is for the return trip telling about all the first ascents in all kinds of vehicles.  F.O. Stanley was the first person to drive his Stanley Steamer automobile up the road in 1899.

 For those who are skittish of such roads there are tour vans that will take you up and back down again with commentary all along and giving you about a half hour at the top.

Views along the way are fantastic, first of dense forest changing through the different zones of elevation until finally you find yourself above the tree line viewing what looks much like a moonscape.  Weather up there is much different than anywhere else at lower elevations.  Clouds drift by as if in a time-lapse movie.  Being that close to the clouds is similar to what one might experience in a small private plane.
Winds on the summit have reached 231 miles per hour and in winter the buildings are not stacked with snow, but plastered with windblown snow and ice from the side.  Pictures in the museum show fantastical ice caked towers and buildings.  Average annual snowfall is 315 inches.  One hut is actually chained to the ground.  There is an open air observation deck and an enclosed observation deck for bad weather.  Several gift shops, a post office and a well stocked snack bar await not only the car visitors, but the many hikers that come stumbling over the lip of the summit reaching their nirvana to tuck into a hot dog and nachos.

If the road or hiking is not to your liking there is yet another way to get up to the hot chocolate and stunning views.  That would be the cog railway.  Built in the 1800's the cog train has been bringing passengers up the mountain in relative ease although the easy way will cost you... $65 per passenger.  Driving the road yourself costs $25 and the tour van is $30 (as of this writing).

On my visit early in the day the summit was clear, but by the time I had descended the clouds had enveloped the mountain.  Clouds cover the summit 60 % of the time.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Hill Tribes of Northern Thailand

There are six main groups of hill dwellers living in Northern Thailand.  They are the Akha, Hmong, Lisu, Karen, Lahu and Mien.  They total about 500,000 combined who began to arrive in Thailand at the end of the 19th century, pushed out of their native countries by civil war and political pressures.  They have come from Tibet, Burma (Myanmar), and China.  These siminomadic people each have their own heritage, clothing, language, religion, and culture which have effectively kept them separate and apart from each other and the Thai culture and have become known generically as "hill tribes" because they live mainly in the hills and lush valleys of Northern Thailand.  Since the farming methods are mostly slash-and-burn, they abandon land once it is exhausted and move on creating competing pressures on land. The largest (and least nomadic) of these hill tribe groups, the Karen, practice crop rotation rather than slash-and-burn type farming.  The Thai government has been continually trying to draw these people into the Thai market economy redirecting their activities such as opium poppy growing toward "new" crops such as cabbage and other marketable produce.

Thursday, May 17, 2012


I tried rollerblading for the first time today.  The reason I have waited until now to do it is because the price of rollerblades is more than I ever wanted to spend.  This pair came to me free as they were put in a pile of discarded items from college students moving out of the dorms at the college where I work.  Every end of academic year there is a "freecycle" pile with all the items students don't want any longer for free or exchange.  This pair was exactly my size, so why not try it for free?

I went on youtube to learn the basics (you can learn almost anything on the web) and got a good idea of how to start.  Friends told me you absolutely have to have wrist guards to keep from breaking your wrist while breaking your fall. Fall?  Me?   I was pretty sure I could go easy enough to keep from falling since I can ice skate pretty well.  Just to be safe I dropped 20 bucks on the wrist protection, but did not get elbow pads, knee pads and helmet.......there are limits, after all.

What I found is that it wasn't as fun as I expected.  It was pretty easy I suppose because of my ice skating experience and I never fell... so much for the money spent on wrist protection, but how do you know ahead of time if you'll actually need it?

I could see doing it with friends as a group activity, but blading on pavement is rough and where can you find flat concrete except at Venice Beach?  Portland has brick sidewalks with uneven and broken bricks and tree roots causing great heaves that would be impossible to skate on.  My surface of choice was a concrete basketball court.  Round and round and boring after 15 minutes.  I think I had better skating form than this guy, but I'm guessing this is the image portrayed to bystanders.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Motorcycle Riding

Normally I view motorcycle riding is a dangerous and unnecessary risk to life and limb.  The issue for me is not about the rider's ability to ride safely, but the problem of other drivers not paying close attention and seeing cyclists on the road.  It is all too easy to escape the notice of drivers when you are a small presence on the road and at intersections.  It becomes the duty of the rider to "steer clear" of possible intimate meetings with vehicles.

I got a taste of the exhilaration of the ride while in Thailand this winter.  It felt so liberating to lean into mountain banked turns and experience the hills and valleys without the confines of an automobile frame.  Sights, sounds and even smells become intensified in the open air.

Besides the recent re-discovery of this new-found freedom (I had a small Honda in my teens) I have to admit the enjoyment of retaining (or regaining) independence of growing older.  Before hip surgery 6 months ago I wouldn't have been able to throw my leg over the seat of a motorcycle.  We're living longer and retaining a quality of life never before possible and with this realization 60's can feel more like the 30's.  Note to self:  Just don't get too sure of yourself and don't get the idea you can climb trees and repair the roof.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

More of Thailand

This is "walking street" on Sunday in Chiang Mai.  It is 6:00 PM.  Every day at 8 AM and 6 PM everything stops for the national anthem and tribute to the king played over loudspeakers.  Thais are very respectful of their king and it is an egregious infraction to speak or write anything negative about the royal family.  Every Sunday the central street in the old town is transformed into one never-ending market.
This is what "walking street" looks like early in the early evening and goes on all night.  When you've tired of standing, walking and dodging people you can just stop at a street massage chair, pay your $6.00 and get your half-hour foot and leg massage or pay $10 for a full hour.
There is a town near Chiang Mai that is famous for umbrella making.  Besides large showrooms there are several workshops out back where you are free to wander around and watch the process of how they are made. The all bamboo and paper umbrellas are painted and decorated in each workshop's standard designs.  Paper ones are used as sun protection, but they also use some kind of varnish to waterproof the ones made for rain.  I had one made special-order for our department at the university where I work in our colors and with our department name on it for about $15

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Thailand Odds and Ends

There are a few more items I want to share about Thailand.
These are mostly catfish in a pond in a wonderful and strange monument park.

These surprisingly large sculptures are scattered through a garden park-like setting.  The story goes that the man who spent his whole life creating it did so in devotion to Buddhism because he wanted to be a monk and was rejected for something heinous in his past.  It is never divulged why he was rejected, but all his possessions from life are on display in the park museum, even bloody compresses and medical equipment used during the end of his life.  His body is displayed under glass with gads of fake flowers in funeral fashion.  Very strange.

On my moto excursions I often came across unusual sights like this man harvesting long bamboo poles from the roadside.  He tied one end to this moto and will drag them back to a construction site where they will be dried and used for scaffolding or perhaps even house construction.  Some of the back country houses are pretty minimal.

Traveling far into the mountains gas was sold out of 55 gallon barrels.

These boy scouts were hiking on a 3-day campout in the forest.  I saw girl scouts with the same black face makeup.  The reason is that Thai people do not want to get tan.  Light skin is the desirable look and apparently sunblock isn't good enough.  I wondered about all the "skin lightening" products I saw in pharmacies before I saw this.

Rubber is a major product of Thailand and the harvesting looks like this.  Sap was not flowing so it must be the wrong time of year, but the tree bark is slashed as you see, then when the sap stops running, the wound is painted over and a new slash is made.  There are whole plantations in reclaimed forest plots.  Most of the agriculture is slash-and-burn here and Thailand has lost a huge amount of natural jungle starting back when teak wood was indiscriminately harvested.

In order to make one of my trips a loop I had to cross this "moto bridge" which I rode across.  Many of the slats were missing making it a bumpy and somewhat scary crossing.

It felt inappropriate to "steal" any pictures of monks, so I asked these guys and they politely agreed to the photo.  Monks are everywhere and seem to go about business just like everybody else.  Very early in the mornings they can be seen going out of their wats with metal bowls to collect alms from restaurants and homes which they take back to eat one meal a day.

There are natural thermal springs scattered through the countryside.  I had a leisurely afternoon soaking in this one, but not in this really hot pool where people are actually cooking eggs.  The baskets of eggs hang on hooks.  3 minutes for soft; 5 minutes for medium; 7 minutes for hard boiled.  It is a popular activity for school groups who then picnicked on the grounds.

A trip to the Bangkok flower market was initially intended to pick up roses for the room at the guesthouse.  There were few roses to be had and were expensive (by Thai standards), so we picked up orchids instead.  This bouquet cost about a buck and a quarter and lasted my entire stay in Bangkok.


Saturday, March 3, 2012

Chiang Mai, Northern Thailand

The final stop on a 3 1/2 week tour was the second largest city in Thailand, Chiang Mai.  This turned out to be my city of preference for all it offers and the cooler temps at about 1,000 ft. elevation.  The Ping river allows nicely situated restaurants on the water and the university of CM offers arts and music venues.   My guesthouse, the DM, charged the equivalent of $10 a night including 60 channel TV and hot water shower. Hot water showers were nice for getting the message oil off my body.

As I read travel articles about travel in Thailand I realize I am flying way under the radar in terms of accommodation and food preferences and prices.  Those writers are saying what a bargain Thailand is and then recommending hotels in the price range of $100 or more! This morning I read a travel article that mentioned a stop for lunch at a nice place and only cost $15.   Outrageous!  The noodle house around the corner from my guesthouse served great noodles with chicken and vegetables in a nice broth for less than a buck.  The bonus of my meal is that I was dining with a hundred other Thais and not a place full of westerners.  I'm not an upscale traveler and I never see articles written for the backpacker style with prices to match.  I guess there is not a big enough market for us.

Chiang Mai city center established in the1620's is about a square mile and is completely surrounded by a moat.  Each corner has a preserved section of the old city wall seen here.  The moat has been outfitted with fountains and decorative spray sculptures giving extra visual intrigue to the unique feature.

My visit coincided with Chinese New Year which the Thai culture celebrates with a particular fervor. Often while out on my moto exploring there would be road closures for parades or roads not closed, but parades coming down the street anyway.  Nobody seems annoyed at the mix of traffic and parade.

These little cages contain 5 or 6 very small sparrow-like live birds that one can buy and release for good luck and new beginnings of the new year.  It's fun to just hang out and watch people buy and release these birds that seem so pleased to be free again.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Chiang Rai, Northern Thailand

Chiang Rai is the furthest northern city in Thailand of any size.  Any further north and you bump into Laos and Myanmar (Burma) across the Mekong river which is shown here.  It is very wide and apparently shallow according to locals who say you can wade across it in the dry season.  The floating structures along the shore are restaurants which I did not investigate, but apparently specialize in fish.  The Mekong is where the largest catfish in the world are caught, some weighing more than a large man.

Chiang Rai is small enough to get a good sense of the city within a few days and large enough to realize there is more to it than the central city.  I needed to buy a cell phone here because my European phone wouldn't work outside Bangkok.  It was quite a distance to the outer ring road to the Tesco Department Store.  With my rented Honda Wave 125cc moto (left) it was an easy trip since motorcycles can go to the front of the line at stop lights and go around traffic backups.  I wish I could have rented the covered moto (above) because the sun was hot on my trips out of town.

Besides the side trip an hour north to the Mekong River, I rode an all day loop trip into the northwest mountains to explore the tea plantations.  Thailand is somewhat famous for tea growing, at least in Southeast Asia.  The tea plants are of the Oolong species, but they mostly do not ferment the tea into black tea.  It is mostly dried into green tea and is for sale everywhere.  I find the tea to be very flavorful, but I wonder if pesticides are used in the growing process, a question language limitations would not allow.  Another thing I learned is that one cannot pick buds and leaves directly off the plant and make tea.  On one of my stops along the way I found workers out in the field hoeing weeds and they showed me how they pick and gave me a good handful of tea.  When I returned to my guesthouse and tried to brew these fresh leaves nothing happened... just hot water, not even any aroma.  They didn't even taste like anything but a green leaf when I tried chewing the fresh leaves.

Tea plants produce a pretty flower and a berry which I assume is a seed pod.  Even though the language barrier prevented many questions I had about the tea industry here, I learned quite a bit and this was my first encounter with live growing tea plants.