Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Stranger in a Strange Land

We moved to Nee's house two days ago.  I had forgotten how hot it is here as I had always stayed in an air conditioned hotel.  Her house is more typical.  A row house in a neighborhood, called a Soi, two story, with only fans if you have them.  Some people have installed air conditioning and Nee was considering it seven years ago and then she married me and moved to the US.  Funny how things work out sometimes.

Her friends and family have been supplying us with an endless supply of food.  Our once empty refrigerator is now so full we can't find room for anything else.  We have a toaster for our whole wheat bread, an induction cook top for cooking, and a microwave.  That is a fully stocked Thai kitchen.  Many homes have their kitchens outside on the back porch as folks don't like their house to smell of food.  Nee was a hardworking office manager so she didn't do much cooking, thus the simple arrangement indoors. 

Challenges I have run into are things I hadn't anticipated, though I had them three years ago.  I just forgot.  For instance, over-the-counter drugs I have gotten used to getting from Walgreens are a total mystery to the pharmacies here.  I wanted some Sudaphed and Mucinex but I may as well have asked for the moon.  We went to the local market yesterday.  Most of the market consists of small stalls like I have seen at farmers markets and flea markets in the US.  The stuff sold includes cooked and raw food, fish cut up and lying on piles of ice, vegetables and fruits I have never seen before, plus new and used clothes, coffee, shoes, tires, and so on.  Tucked inside all this, behind a peddler or two, are tiny pharmacies.  I am not sure how Nee even found them though this is her old neighborhood.

She asked for what I needed and we got looks of shock.  They piled a number of different medications they had on the counter and, though the names were in Thai, the drug was in English.  I knew what I wanted but none was to be found.  Finally, we gave up and headed back home, buying some steamed chicken and rice for our lunch.  Nee chatted with the stall owner for a few minutes to find out what it cost to be there.  It turns out that the stall was a franchise that sold steamed chicken all over Bangkok.  Her job was to steam the rice and the company supplied her with the rest.  Her stand looked like all the other stands, so looks can be deceiving. 

Two nights ago, we were attempting sleep here when suddenly the bedroom got hotter and hotter.  We had arranged a portable air conditioner at our door to blow cold air onto us but the air had turned hot and I was feeling like I was in an oven.  Out of nowhere, I heard was sounded like God had unzipped a cloud and all the water it had been storing fell all at once.  Our back porch has a fiberglass roof which was outside our window making the sound of the rain sound like someone was hitting it with a fire hose.  We went downstairs to find a leak in the kitchen roof and a chair we had moved to the back porch was getting wet.  Thus at 3AM we were moving furniture and cleaning up water.  When we got back to bed, Nee realized that perhaps we needed to check the water collector inside the AC.  In just one night, with the humidity being so high here, the collector had filled with a gallon or so of water.  We dumped the water in the bathroom and the AC worked again. 

Since these adventures, we have stayed close to home, though over the weekend friends took us to lunch on two occasions.  I love my American friends, but I have never been treated with so much time and generosity as I have seen here.  Even our neighbor lady who has taken care of the house since Nee moved out, comes over at all times of the day to bring us something, chat, drink coffee and go her way back home.  As an American it seems intrusive so I have to get used to this new place I call home.

Days of the Walking Dead

20 hours of flight from a frozen world to one of heat has left me exhausted.  I woke up this morning with a scratchy throat and stuffy head.  Our first day we arrived at the hotel around 2AM after being picked up by our friend.  Our bags, all five of them, were taken by Nee's brother for later.  We planned to spend our first two nights at a hotel near her house.  That was a good plan as I hadn't ever actually had to live in this heat and congestion so staying in the relative peace of a hotel gave me a chance to sleep. 

Our first day we had to get SIM chips for our phone which took about an hour.  I needed internet for my computer so I bought an air card with its own chip.  That gives me much more flexibility for the moment.  We also spent another hour or so at the bank to get Nee's bank account updated and to discover that I wasn't allowed to have an account until I have a work permit.  A strange rule but one I have to live with.  We spent much of the day at the huge Seacon Square shopping center a short walk in distance though a much longer one when taking it by foot.  I realized that my energy was quickly flowing from me.

The next day, Saturday, we headed back in the direction of the mall except this time we also went to the Rama 9 garden a few blocks behind.  The garden encompasses 200 acres and includes a large lake in the middle all the pay homage to their current king.  Though I have been an auditor most of my working career, my degree was in horticultural sciences so I have always has a love for beautiful gardens.
We caught this band playing at the gate to Rama 9 Garden.
Orchids for sale at the market.  I caught this as I stepped out of my cab.

Nee enjoying some fresh coconut.

Who said winter has to be cold?

Thursday, January 26, 2012

You Load One and a Half Tons, Whaddaya Get?

The last week before our departure has been far more challenging than I had anticipated but we were able to overcome each until we reached our current state which is sitting here at SeaTac Airport waiting for our flight.  Last week, we were packing and moving furniture to buyers and others and then the snow came.  Our neighbor postponed our dinner out from Tuesday to Thursday because she doesn't like going out in the cold.  Thursday arrived and we had snow, ice, rain and more ice.  All around us, we could hear tree branches breaking and crashing to the ground.  Our power went out at noon and didn't come back until the next evening around seven.  We kept packing despite getting colder and colder.  Steam was coming out of our mouths and we lost contact with the world.  Still, box by box, we packed what we considered to be important and got rid of the rest.

The storm cut into our schedule so we had to move even faster over the weekend and beyond.  One thing after another went wrong and then one surprise after another came.  We ran out of boxes and tape, we cooked in the fireplace until we had no wood, we bought a butane stove because we had sold the one we had just a week before.  Furniture finally started going out the door on Saturday and Sunday leaving us with less to sit on, less to have to walk around.  In all this, our friends came through.  Thong and Jiem, two lady friends, showed up with food when the roads became passable.  Na and Barry helped us move things to Goodwill, pack the truck and unpack it at the shipper.  Friends and neighbors took us to dinner and, of course, the power came back on.  I gave my box spring to my friend and the mattress to a lady down the street who said she has been out of work and didn't even have a mattress to sleep on.  We gave the refrigerator to the mover with the promise that he would do something equally helpful for someone else.  He had moved us in six months earlier which lead to many conversations. 

All my belongings that I had moved from California to Colorado to Washington went to new homes where perhaps they will cherish them as much as I did.  I feel like the monks and priests who give up all they have for a better cause.  I hope mine is a better one, as well.

Barry and Na came to pick up our car we sold to them last night, our last thing to get rid of.  I told Barry that the weight had come in on our boxes and it was 3,000 pounds or one and a half tons.  If I had moved them myself I would probably be in a hospital.  Barry lifted them like feathers.  Getting them off along with the other belonging lifted a huge weight from me like when I would drop my backpack after several miles of walking.  I feel lighter and ready for my next step. 

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Mai Pen Rai, Whatever Shall Be Shall Be

Our plan is to pack our boxes for shipping to Thailand, sell our remaining furniture, and then fly to Bangkok next Wednesday.  Nee's home was flooded some last year which left her refridgerator unusable, so her family has kindly been searching for a new one for us to have it waiting for our first days in Thailand.  All that is the plan.  Unfortunately, a few realities have reared their ugly heads.

The snow here has turned to ice with freezing rain leaving the roads impassable.  We have a number of errands we need to run before we go and this will hold us up.  Also, the ice has stopped all flights out of Seattle today.  Presumably these problems will disappear by next week however this is the northwest and such weather is always possible to continue. 

Yesterday, I was looking out my front window when I saw my neighbor's son attempt to drive up the slope to his driveway when his car stopped in the ice.  With the assistance of a neighbor and myself, we managed to push him sideways to a strip of clear street to get him back on the move.  Still, he wasn't able to get up to his own driveway so I volunteered mine until the road clears.  His car is still there this morning.  We had a brief power failure this morning which would also hinder our progress if it returns.

Next we have Thailand.  During the last quarter of last year, much of the central part of the country was flooded, leaving people's homes in two to six feet of water for weeks and even months.  As most people keep their refrigerators on the first floor, there is now a shortage on new refrigerators there.  I don't even want to think about any other challenges that might hinder our progress.

Past trips to Thailand have had challenges, such as the tsunami, a coup and protests.  The Thais have a phrase, Mai Pen Rai, which loosely translates to, "It's all right, never mind, everything will be ok."

We will continue to pack, rid ourselves of furniture and proceed with our plans. 

Monday, January 16, 2012

All My Bags Are Packed, I'm Ready to Go

I still have a week and a half before the flight to Bangkok, but since my bedroom set went away two weeks ago, I decided to put what I will need in my suitcases.  Washington is a cool climate and cold for me.  Bangkok is the opposite.  Thus packing my shorts, t-shirts and sandals in one bag for every day and my dress shirts, ties and slacks for teaching days, I have my entire Washington wardrobe left untouched.  I am still free to wear all the flannel, wool and fleece until I take off in that silver bird on high.

We had a great weekend the first days of the sale with the earlier mentioned bedroom set going the first day, and several other large items.  The next weekend we had fewer sales and then this weekend we got snow which shut it down.  If I were to do it all over again, though, I would probably just stack everything in the front year, pour gas on it and set it afire.  It helps keep better relations.

I managed to hurt my back last Sunday and today Nee is in pain.  We are getting closely acquainted with painkillers, heating pads, Ben Gay and the local masseuse.  He does a great job for $50 an hour.  Nee misses her Thai massage that cost about $6 an hour.  I had one years ago and felt like I had been pummeled into confessing any sin they wanted so I haven't done it since.  I would even give out any secret formulas, if I knew any.  When it was over, Nee asked me if I liked it and I said I liked the part where they quit hurting me.

Nee says I have to learn to lower my living standard to be happy in Thailand.  She hasn't been specific though I suspect she means I have to learn to think of the sound of motorcycles the way I think of birdsong here.  Hmmm.  I am flexible to a degree. 

I was taking a nap when I woke up in horror.  We had gotten a bid for shipping for 200 cubic feet.  I started calculating that in my head and suddenly I started to wonder if I should have said 2000 instead.  Fortunately most of what we are taking is packed and most of the boxes show their cubic footage.  I had to measure a few of the larger ones and find a calculator to bring cubic inches to feet, assuming I did my math right.  I measured height times width times depth and... well you get the idea.  I added them all up and came up with 156 cubic feet or thereabouts.  A small box from UHaul is 1.5 cubic feet so I figure I still have room for another 20 or 30 boxes.  What a weird way to spend a day.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Long Good-byes

The weather turned cold and wet here today.  We are hoping to have our last weekend of garage sale, but the weather will probably keep people away.  Most of our large things are sold or committed to someone so it is just a matter of time to see my home as empty as the day we first rented it.

My brother, Jon, flew up from California to say good-bye.  He retired last year and took a two month long trip around Europe with his wife.  Now he is writing a mystery novel and enjoying life in his cottage in Alameda.  We visited a few places we hadn't seen since we moved here a year and a half ago, including the glass museum in Tacoma and Pike's Market in Seattle.  We started the day with a great dim sum lunch in Chinatown and then wandered off to the market.

We talked about our sons, our family, dad, food, travel, and anything else that came up.  Whenever I visit with him, which hasn't been as often as I would have liked, it is like we have never been apart.  He has been my friend since I was a kid as well as my mentor and big brother.

After he left, our focus went back to packing.  We are now the proud owners of dual SIM GSM phones which we can use in Thailand.  American phones are useless outside the US as are all the other electrical things I own.  We will clear out the house by next weekend, drive our boxes of worldly goods to the shipper in Seattle, and then lug our 5 suitcases, two overnight bags and backpacks to a hotel near the airport.  In the meantime, our neighbor is going to take us to dinner and another pair of friends are buying us a dim sum brunch tomorrow.  In just the short time we have been here, we have made some very good friends and I will miss them all.  We tried our hands at a business, canned fresh fruits and vegetables, visited Portland to the south and Canada to the north, and taken a ferry across the Puget Sound.  Of all the places I have lived, this is one of the most beautiful.

We also heard from Nee's friend, Bee, in Thailand.  We arrive at midnight on the 27th of January.  Good friend that she is, she is going to pick us up and deliver us to our hotel.  Her promise reminds me of the song my boys used to listen to on their We Sing tape. 

Make new friends and keep the old ones.
One is silver and the other gold.

Bee is the one next to Nee.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

T Minus 15 and Counting

I have 15 days left before I step onto Korean Air.  I received my passport back from the Thai Consulate in Houston with my single-entry Non-Immigrant B visa.  What that means is that I can enter the country and stay at least 3 months before I have to step out again for a "visa run."  During that time we plan to visit with Nee's family, travel to Rayong in the east, take a 12 hour train ride to Chiang Mai, and maybe even spend a night at a b&b at an organic farm a one hour bus ride north of CM.  I also did one more thing.  I turned down the chance for a job in Irvine.  It would have been a long, drawn-out process to get the job, with one evaluation after another, a flight to Irvine and then a zero expense pay move to southern Cal.  If I took it, Nee would still want to go home and I would be, once again, a long distance from all my loved ones.  Thus, I decided to continue with my plan and move to Thailand.

My brother, Jon, flew up from the bay area today to say good-bye.  We picked him up at SeaTac airport and then drove to Chinatown for a great dimsum lunch.  After we walked around Pike's Market and took pictures of all the fish.  I seem to like fish.  He is spending the night at a hotel and tomorrow I will pick him up to make him breakfast and take him to the glass museum in Tacoma.  Basically, we are doing all the tourist things we never took time to do during our short stay here. 

I will miss Washington State.  The weather today was cool and sunny with no rain.  A beautiful day for January in the northwest.  Last year we were having snow.  I never liked snow.  I don't mind driving up to the mountains to play in it for a few hours, maybe do some cross-country skiing, but I always like leaving it for the warmer low lands.  That hasn't been possible since I moved out of California three years ago. I have missed being warm.

Thailand is never cold.  Winters are warm and summers are hot and wet.  California has very moderat weather which I always considered to be normal until I lived in Colorado.  There I discovered a whole new world of cold; with temperatures dropping to to minus 20 in the winter and crashing thunderstorms in the summer.  Nee tells me that Thailand has such storms though I have not seem them yet. 

Going there I will have to learn a new language, make new friends, and learn to live in a different lifestyle.  My Indian friend said he bought his family coffee grinders whenever he went to visit them but had to also include power converters, doubling the price.  Being the penny-wise person that I am, I bought a seed mill yesterday that says I can grind coffee as well as corn and wheat.  It is a pretty basic thing, but so am I.  My life has gotten too complicated.  Perhaps Thailand will change all that.

Thus, I have 15 days until I begin a new life.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

The First Step of a Long Journey

I had my last day of employment in the US today.  It felt rather good, too!  Though I can't see the future, I believe my next step will be significant and lasting. 

About four years ago, Nee and I began talking about alternatives to the American way of life.  My job was uninspiring and she was under-employed.  Debt was eating away our future, so she suggested that I could teach English in Thailand.  Such a thought had never crossed my mind, but being a lifelong auditor, I started doing research.  I Googled, "Teaching English in Thailand" and came across www.ajarn.com.  An ajarn is the Thai word for professor or teacher.  The site is dedicated to folks from around the world who came to Thailand to teach.  I have searched for similar sites in other countries and haven't found its match.  I found out about the joys of teaching as well as the trials of working for a foreign agency.  Teachers are straightforward with their feelings and I started to see a possibility. 

One blog is from a fellow a few years older than myself who was a computer techy in Florida.  He decided he also wanted a change and soon found himself in the northeastern part of the country called Isaan.  This is one of the poorest parts of the country and he found success and happiness there.  The success isn't financial but spiritual.  He inspired me.

Thailand, like the US, prefers to hire only Thais for work.  However if you have a skill they want, they will find a way to give you work.  The country has fallen behind much of the rest of Asia in their pursuit to speak what is now the world language...English.  Thus, many schools have opened around the country and jobs are plentiful, at least according to the website, my friends and family there and many other people I have spoken to.

To begin I have to get a teaching credential.  The most common is the Teaching English as a Foreign Language, TEFL, or Teaching English as a Second Language, or TESL.  They are essentially the same credential and apparently there are schools all over the world offering it.  The program requires 120 hours of study spread out over 4 or 6 weeks and then most of the schools will work with the graduates to find work.  The blogger I mentioned earlier attended one called Text and Talk.  I did my research and decided it was a good school thus I have paid my deposit for it. 
The class will cost me about $1400, last six weeks and then I will off to my new career.  Nee likes Chiang Mai as it has much lovely countryside nearby that can't be found as easily in Bangkok.

I am working with the school and the Thai consulate to get my visa, and you know the rest of the preparations.  I can't wait.  My brother, Jon, is coming up here next week to wish us bon voyage so it will be our last chance to enjoy the northwest.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Out With The Old

We spent the last weekend selling our furniture and other things.  With each sale, I see my past leave on a truck and my future become more real.  Friday we had great business and then Saturday we had only a few visitors.  Still, with each, we have a chance to meet our neighbors we had not seen before.  One family drove off with my bedroom set I bought in California, moved to Colorado and then here.  I had purchased it with the goal of putting in the house that I hoped to buy when the market was doing well and then 2008 came along.  I saw the value of my condo and 401k plummet to less than half what I started out with.  This all happened in a matter of days.  My hopes were with the new president we had just elected.  After the sale, we went out to visit friends, leaving my picnic table and old bbq out on the driveway.  When we came home, they were gone.  Someone had taken them.  Sad.

For 25 or so years, I had a steady job.  My income rose some each year to a point where I was making a confortable living.  In 2005 I bought a condo as I had given my previous home to my ex for her life, figuring I could make due on my own.  I allowed myself to buy with little money down and then began borrowing against the "equity."  California real estate had grown steadily since the beginnings of the Silicon Valley in the 70's, so it seemed like a good bet that my condo would continue to grow as it had in the past.  I knew it was a dumb idea at the time, but I convinced myself that it was the right thing to do.  I had just gotten remarried and I wanted to provide a home for my new wife.  My plan unravelled two years later when my wife wasn't able to get as good a job as I had thought she could, my mortgage was costing me most of my income and I didn't see a way out.  I chose to walk away and give it back to the bank.  My financial world became more grim after that.

When I lost my job six months ago, I thought I would be able to get another one that paid as well, give me the same benefits and sustain me until I retired.  Six months later, I found myself working for a wage no higher than what I got from unemployment insurance and my savings began to dwindle.  This is when we decided that perhaps it was time to move to my wife's land. 

Doing this, selling my belongings, leaving my family, leaving my country, terrifies me.  I know others have done it and survived and sometimes even prospered, but my luck hasn't been as good.  I don't know if this is the best way to go.  On the other hand, I keep meeting people my own age desperately trying to hold on.  They had good jobs, money in the bank, a good home, and now it is all gone.  I see well-educated people buying food with food stamps and taking jobs that even their teenaged kids would have turned down.  I would prefer to not spend all I have until I have nothing, so I think this move will prevent that.  Perhaps I might even have some fun.  That would be a new experience.  Having fun.