By the time I officially became a teenager, I was a hippie already. I had stopped combing my hair (don’t even mention cutting it); wore ripped jeans and adored Jim Morrison.
Smoking hash was, of course, very important. Business-minded from birth, I thought it would be extra cool to sell hash too. Fortunately, I didn’t have the money to actually buy serious quantities to wholesale. Thus I concentrated on services by rolling joints for my fellow classmates. It was a silly teenager act; however, it could have gotten me into serious trouble.
In my class was an obese girl; she was very un-cool according to my value system, but I rolled her a few joints. She kept a diary about her experimental drug use and, predictably, her mother read it. My name was mentioned and I was reported to the local police.
As I learned later, they also heard of my family’s business in Asia and thought I might be a professional dealer, possibly a major catch if with my family was involved. The prospect of an international drug-ring must have been too much for our small-town officers, so they escalated the affair to the state drug agency. My case was taken by a man whose name was legend and program: Mr. Happydrink was an alcoholic and he hated illegal drugs.
One terrible day, I was sitting in class probably dreaming of Jim Morrison, the school master rushed into the room and straight for me. While I was escorted to his office I thought of dumping my hash but it was just too precious so I hid it.
As I entered the school master’s private office, Mr. Happydrink’s Special Forces team jumped upon me. I imagine they were disappointed with me being such a milk face but they stripped and frisked me professionally.
They emptied the contents of my Moroccan hippie-bag onto the table and found the tell-tale missing cardboard of the cigarette papers but no pot. They dug through my leather jacket with the ‘Bob Marley’ stickers and multiple secret pockets – no pot, only old tobacco. My jeans, more patches than fabric, revealed nothing, not even inside the patches. My socks were empty, my t-shirt was all holes and my painted converse sneakers were filled with nothing but dirt.
Now, in my stained underpants, I was not a hippie anymore but only a bony, white and pimply thirteen year old, sweating and shivering simultaneously.
“My underpants, too?” I asked.
After all, officer Happydrink must have felt sorry. He did not call my bluff.
Though there was no hard evidence Happydrink took me to the police station for a full course of one-on-one gangster grilling. I knew nothing.
Mug shots were taken; left and right. As I was standing there I felt a little plop down my trouser. The hash had worked its way out from my underpants and down my jeans. There it lay, neatly packed in aluminum foil, too precious and dangerous to be left behind so I picked it up and put it in my pocket. Happydrink’s mug-shot-shooter did not notice.
It was early afternoon when they let me go and I remember a terrible exhaustion. My mind, however, was set. I was not going to face this drama; I was going to run; run hard and far. In Greece, in the seventies, there were still islands to discover.
Though it was deep winter I walked home and made plans for my final escape. At that time, I was living alone with my dad. My mother and sister had gone to find a new life in Sri Lanka, again. My father always worked late. I had the rest of the day for myself to prepare the break.
My dad had some cash hidden in a secret compartment in the old cabinet and a small revolver under his socks. The gangster I now was needed both (for my American readers: guns are very illegal in Europe). I packed my gemstones from Sri Lanka, some cloths, my passport, the diary with addresses and a few essential music tapes into an old army backpack, poured some cognac and orange juice into a plastic flask and I was ready to go.
Never, in my memory, had my father, ever, come home early; except on that day.
He stood behind the kitchen door and when I walked by he jumped at me with a good-natured whoop. It is a miracle that I did not die of a heart attack.
“Hey! Let’s walk the dog!’ he said.
He didn’t know and he had no foreboding, pre-vision or something; he just came home early, that’s it. Coincidence, fate or parental sixth sense? I still don’t know.
He was in a good mood, probably because my mother was gone and all, but not for long. I told him about my day with officer Happydrink. He sat down and listened.
My father could fly into a violent rage over bad table manners but in a case like this he was all business: “Did they find something? Was it true? Would I have to leave school?”
“No, yes and yes.” I did not mention the contents of my backpack and he did not ask.
“We will talk later” he said and left me in despair.
I had no energy left for Greek islands. I put back the revolver and the cash.
Then, finally, I cried.
The Buddha thought that the idea of ‘Me’ is a fiction of the human mind and ego. If you find this hard to believe take it from science: We are made up of approximately 10 trillion cells. That is ‘Me’, sort of. Those 10 trillions cells are not all that there is to ‘Me’. There also are 100 trillion microbes living in, on and around each of us. They run errands; they feed, clean, and maintain our cells. We cannot function without them. They also sicken us at times, even kill, but who is free of evil?
The universe is incomprehensible and I will not dare to pass judgment on, or get in a tussle with, a 100 trillion creatures living inside of me. Were they to abandon me, I would probably not get out of the door alive. From now on, I will think twice before unleashing antibiotics into my blood stream. Truth be told, antibiotics have saved my life many times from unnamed tropical diseases but I am against the dumping of tons of antibiotics into salmon farms or pigs (just so we can stuff them in even smaller spaces).
For those who like clean linen it is a shocking insight: There are more microbes in your body than humans on earth. Many more. So, when you sit there and read ‘Me’ it is not only you, but 110 trillions cells and microbes in a joint effort.
Let’s not discount all those creatures as dumb or simple. What do we know? They have been around much longer. We are just a blip in their history on earth. What do they feel? Do they sleep? Why are parts of our DNA made from old virus-DNA? What does it do there?
Maybe that part in us that clings more to life than our rational brains would allow, maybe that part is the will, the culminated survival instinct, of 100 trillion little creatures living with us. Who knows? At the end of the 19th century a group of London scientists proclaimed “the end of science”. They thought they knew it all and nothing was left to discover. How totally wrong were they?
“Where is the best place to live?”
People love to think there is a better life somewhere out there. They expect me to say: This Tropical Island or that City is THE best place to be. But honestly, I have to say: Nowhere. You always end up with yourself.
Sure, nobody wants to hear this. Thus, before I get frowns as a lousy conversationalist, I offer more entertaining versions: Open French restaurants on Madeira; add Balinese massages and Brazilian beaches and that would be a pretty good place. Bring German law & order to Madagascar, and let the Burmese do the cooking, that’d be good. Teach the Thais to speak some English and be less racist, then clean up the streets and it won’t be bad.
But really, any place is just as good as you yourself. People find happiness in the most unlikely places and circumstances. Life as a Buddhist monk is outwardly worse a punishment than prison but people do it voluntary.
Happiness is never over there, or then, and definitely not on the next island.
However, some Expat-myths need busting:
1. Living abroad is cheaper. Yes, but only if you can eat Ugali-Ugali (don’t ask) three times a day every day, just as the poor Kenyans do. If you want cornflakes and milk you will discover that they are more expensive than at home. Yes, you can build a house for 20k in Sri Lanka but it won’t keep animals out of your bed.
2. Life on tropical islands is easy going. Not a drop. Earning a local salary is nightmarish beyond a union member’s imagination. Doing business is inviting trouble with crooks and greedy officials. A visit to a Sri Lankan prison will deter you from doing business under the tax radar, let alone illegal stuff. It is hard to earn a foreign currency. If in the west 50% of all businesses go bust in the first year, it is 90% that go down in paradise. In each case naïve Westerners put their retirement funds on the line and lose it all, often including their health. The odds are so against you. The locals are helpful in the investment phase. After that, you will learn that money rules Rio more than New York. A common joke in Brazil: “How to leave paradise with a million dollars? Come with 5.”
3. The men/women are so whatever. Yes, but only if you have left your brain at immigration. Abound are the stories of guys/girls marrying local girls/guys and go on to build the biggest house in her/his village. Up-on completion he/she discovers that he/she actually is already married to the “house-keeper” and that the land deed is in his/her name. The whole village knew, and laughed. The local judge is his/her father-in-law, so you get kicked out of their own house, bye-bye, big time.
4. You can always go back. Yes, you can, but it is hard to move from Bali to Liverpool. A rule of thump amongst Expats says: ‘10 years or never”. You just don’t fit in anymore after 10 years and will feel an alien at home. Then, better be a true alien and never come back.
5. The East is more spiritual. Not anymore. The East has long succumbed to excessive materialism while California beams with meditation centers and yoga classes. In the hills of Thailand and Laos there are great meditation retreats but they are run by western monks. The West has infected the East with efficiency and wealth (nothing bad there btw) but has taken the flame of impermanence to shine even brighter in the West. It is an ironic wink of the universe: In the end the truth always survives.
6. The locals are good people. No more or less than anywhere else, but be wary: Poverty is bad for morals. A common illusion is to praise the virtues of a people (“the friendly Thais”) but to take for granted that they can add 5 and 5 without a calculator, but they can’t. Chances are it comes out 11; and that is not funny after a few years, especially if you always end up paying more if you don’t double-check. Lying and cheating is an honorable qualification in many countries. There are few human rights for a foreigner but the right to pay the bill.
Now, obviously, I don’t fancy couch-potatoes, but if you go abroad be realistic and be smart:
- Don’t buy when you can rent
- Don’t commit when you can test
- Don’t marry a stranger
- Don’t start a business you don’t understand
- Don’t assume the law will protect you
- Don’t drive motorcycles
- Take your time. One year is nothing.
- Do observe yourself: Are you only going local, or are you going crazy?
Above all don’t hope to escape bad days, nasty people, arthritis or your private demons.
Have a safe trip.
Out of the plane I can hear “Geee-cko-Geee-cko” coming from the main building. This is Rangoon International Airport. It is quite and darkish.
French raiders in the hotel bar discuss the ‘great opportunities’ of Burmese antiques under the ‘current circumstances’.
My local contact secretly squirrels away gems for an escape abroad. He looks at the stacks of local bills and says: ‘This no good’.
Our lapidary keeps the doors open. No security is needed. Burma is safe, as long as you don’t mess with the generals.
First time visitors shed tears at the Shwedagon Paya.
A sign at the muddy river: ‘No foreigners beyond this point’. There is no brigde.
Hollywood-stile villas and new SUVs proof that economic sanctions don’t work for the upper 1000.
My taxi has wooden seats and a plastic bucket taped to the floor. It is half full with red slime. Many Burmese still chew betel-nuts, but they are not allowed to spit on the streets anymore.
Strings hang from upper apartments replacing electric bells.
Grand colonial buildings are occupied by the military. Specky shirts hang to dry from broken windows. Nobody is allowed on the sidewalk. They are serious: I get yelled at.
A local garage makes ‘new’ cars; by hand; one by one; out of scrap metal and an engine. They produce three per month at $1.5k
Drunken monks fight over cigarettes. Religion can be anything.
Burmese food is delicious, not just numbing hot or sweet, but individually cooked, untouched by industrial standards.
Nobody dances at a pop festival. VIP kids sit behind security and fences.
No ATMs, no mobile phones and no computers proof that economic sanctions do work for the lower 35.000.000.
A grainy TV show features stone-faced farmers dancing in shabby costumes. A subtitle reads: ‘Here they still live happily without foreigners’. So very thin they are.
For good and bad, Burma is past caged in a country and its people.
I used to despise overregulated western bureaucracies, Nile-long incomprehensive official papers, and I cursed when I needed a notarized birth certificate to get married.
Well, I thought it over! Our airport is shut down by mob, people drive unlit bikes in the dark on the wrong side of the road, the dead cow in the canal competes with the stench from the uncollected garbage, my neighbor runs a brothel, and I would appreciate a bit of the rule of law.
Make no mistake: overflowing sewers, poisoned rivers and spoiled food were once standard fair in London too. The city stank and killed. People were worth only the money they had. Peasants, untouchables, children and animals, all were slaves to others and their little food.
We have come a long way from marauding nomads. Many still have a long way to go, be it on a personal level or as a people. Even if the devil’s advocate claims the last century to have been “truly his” - that is not correct. Genocide is a new word but an old habit. We only started to see evil for what it is.
Bad stuff happens all the time but we are working on it. So, when you fill out the next form, remind yourself, that it is the price you have to pay to live in a better world.
Give them anything: cold water, a beating, unpaid holiday in Siberia but no cash. They will pay each other more retainers, boni and retirement funds; and go home at 5.30.
Help the people who really got in trouble, pay workers, scrap or reduce VAT for December, pay health services, cut farm subsidies, allow more qualified immigration, invest in small companies, anything, but do not let the fat cats sleep one minute longer. Wake them up. It is market judgment day.
The Citibank sold my grandma a real estate fund as safe investment for her age. Now they froze the fund and ask her for new money.
Simple truth is they didn’t do their job. Out of greed and/or stupidity they ignored a basic universal law: Risk and profit are partners.
Let them suffer!
Many people suffer three problems:
1. They have to work very hard to earn money.
2. Then they have to endure ignorant (cheap) or arrogant (expensive) sales people to drag stuff home and decipher maddening manuals.
3. Finally they get a headache from all the broken or unfashionable belongings in their garage and backyard.
That makes live hard work only: A garage full of old handbags, shoes, toasters and TVs, cupboards, tools and toys, tea sets, pans and pots, jackets and pants.
Mark that no good gem or jewelry will ever end there!
Don’t buy all that stuff.
It is only trouble.