Friday, February 24, 2012

Travel Bug: The Recklessness of the Free-Spirited

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This is a topic that presses a hot button of mine. I mean it reeeally does. I've forever been badgered by many who found that being settled with children, and not being a free-spirited traveler, is the way to go. They feel that a man past thirty should hunker down and turn marriage-hued headlights on in search for a (victim) spouse.

Honestly, that's the way I view it. Victims of norms. Now, I'm not downing anyone happily married with children. I know plenty of those and my blessings go out to you. But alas, I know far more that fall on the other end of the spectrum. Those that wish they could just up and go--free-spirit their way out of their marital shackles into a foreign country and leave their woes behind (and I'm sad to say, many do up-and-leave abroad). What with the divorce rate skyrocketing globally, what once was considered taboo is now an accepted norm. Some even joke about it and call a first marriage a starter marriage.

I'm sorry to say. But travel calls. This whole relationship drama can take a backseat in the car which I've parked in the garage of a house I've locked and long left.

You really wouldn't grasp it without standing, for example, on Pub Street in Siem Reap, Cambodia. Forget the merchants. Forget the sleazy, cramped backpacker rooms besieging the neighborhood. No. I am talking about the travelers from all over the world roaming around you. Some looking like people of class, some looking like trash, but all with that singular essence burning in their chests: the free spirit.

Some take trains, some take planes, they travel here and there, many without destination, only a dream and determination. You can't pretend to be like them. Even if you try to break the societal mold and travel far away, many will do it for the sake of Facebooking it to show their friends and work colleagues. Nothing more. You will see them trying to snap pictures without enjoying the beauty of the scenery. Viewing it only months later through the pictures now posted on Pinterest. No, you've only cemented the idea further, that you indeed traveled for the wrong reason, that you remain shackled and lack this spirit which grant many such joy with so little in their pockets.

You. You are the one whom we're talking to. The one who can't understand the foreign language we speak. We don't shame or pity you, we respect your decisions.

But respect ours. Don't point fingers unless you're willing to look at your hand and notice the three pointing right back at you.

Recklessness lays not within the free spirit, but within troubled hearts. And these exist on both sides of the fence.

Do you not agree?

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Novel: Writing is Rewriting

Woman pulling out hair

How many times have we heard writers complain about the quality of their first drafts (i.e. doodoo)? Many would see them buried, and many have indeed buried them and moved on to other endeavors. Most people who get started on writing don't realize how much goes into revising once a first draft is completed. I certainly was one of them. No matter how much you pre-plan, you will still find that the completed first draft of a book is either too thin or, most often, too long and laden with excessive descriptions. It was Stephen King who said in his book, On Writing, that the second draft is the first draft minus ten percent. Learning to rewrite with economy of words is the first step, but my question is, how long should the process of revision take?

What I found out is this: there are no steadfast rules. There are no time frames. There are only opinions, and a lot of them. What everyone unanimously seems to agree on is that once a first draft is completed, a "cool down" period ought to follow before revisions begin. Some go as far as suggesting a couple of months repose. A couple of months?? I think I'd feel so disconnected from my writing by that point that I'd lose any of the original creative momentum it took to write the initial draft. In his blog, literary agent Scott Eagon suggests something far more reasonable, but one thing we can rest assured of is this: there exist no rules.

My two cents? It takes as long to revise a book as it does to write it. If it takes, say, four months to write a novel, then it would take roughly that long to revise it. If it took one year to write it, then it would take a year to revise it. Pretty simple, right? Rewriting is an art in by itself, a much finer one at that, one were sentences are entirely re-arranged for effect. Where the music and cadence of words and lines are honed and tuned. In his book, Revision and Self-Editing, James Scott Bell says you write hot and revise cold. And if there is a lot of garbage and improper grammar usage during these hot moments, don't worry, because you'll be spending plenty of time in that editing freezer.

I just completed my first draft and am in the process of revising it right now, so I've yet to see if my time theory on revising holds, but if it does, I'll be sure to update this blog!

I'd love to hear any opinions on the subject and see just how far off I might be… how long does revising a novel take? And how long should one allow for a cool-down period after completing the first draft?

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Thailand: The Price of Paradise


John and Tiff wanted something different, they just didn't know what, or how. They felt beat down living paycheck to paycheck. Tiff worked at a call center and John worked as a server for a small, but popular restaurant. On top of that, Tiff had to pay a babysitter to come babysit four times a week. On weekends, they would find themselves before the U.S. travel section at Barnes & Nobles. Perusing and musing.

Now, guidebooks like Lonely Planet make for a good read when you're a tourist. But when it comes to moving anywhere, you need some serious one on one time. And not with a book. You need a field grunt. Someone who's been there. Someone who can explain the writing in between the lines of those travel guides. Knowing that I was impassioned with travel, John invited me to meet him at Starbucks and posed the question--if I were in his shoes, where would I move to? Without hesitation, I answered: Thailand.

Why did I chose Thailand? Call it personal preference; arguably, there are tons of equally great places to live. But I knew John and Tiff. They were dreamers. Our previous conversations always centered around fabulous locales and beaches. They were the kind of folk who hadn't been to many places, but that always talked about them. What better than Thailand, that pearl of a place, with its gorgeous beaches and tropical landscapes.

Thailand is also a Mecca of exotic culture and curiosities. Its capital, Bangkok, has some very intriguing temples and sights to see, the friendliest people I've met, both local and expat, and a slew of solid work opportunities. It also bears enough Western influence so as not to completely estrange newcomers. Add to that an electric nightlife that could put any city to shame, massive mega-malls, a vibrant expat community, and you have a pretty convincing argument for moving. What better for John's family?

But before thinking about moving, there were five hurdles.

The Five Hurdles of an International Move:

1. Motive.
Attitude is altitude. Before getting into the mechanics of moving, one really needs to introspect and assess their attitude and, especially, motives. If it has anything to do with sex (and, in this case, Bangkok's sex industry is prevalent), then they may be in for a dish of long term disappointment with a side order of heartbreak and a broken wallet dessert special. Thailand will even be glad to spoon-feed you seconds. But if the right motives are there--to work, discover, and explore--then you're on the right track. Understand that your presence in Thailand is far-reaching. What I mean by this, is that the entire Asian continent from India to Japan is yours to discover both cheaply, and conveniently. How about a thirty dollar flight to Vietnam for a weekend? Try Or maybe a scenic overnight train through Thailand and its neighboring countries might be your fancy? Check out Seat61. As for John and Tiff, one thing was for certain. They were tired of the "how was work?" daily exchange before dozing off on the couch in front of repetitive sitcoms. They struggle and long work hours burned them out. And what more? The boredom! They wanted change. Was that possible? Well, if anything, they had the main ingredient to make it possible. The motive.

2. Ties.
Two days later, I met John again at one of my branch offices. Oops, I mean Starbucks. This time he looked completely worn out and in the dumps. "There's no end in sight." He shook his head. Yes, he had tried business ideas here and there. But everything circled back to his dead-end job and sucky boss. "Have you given Thailand any more thought?" I asked. He looked at me as if I had grown another head. I explained he had no ties that bound him to the States. He and his wife could leave and find work and a good life in Thailand. What more, his family and friends could come visit! "How?" he said. "It's too hard" . I mean, finding a job in Palo Alto, California, when you're in Florida isn't exactly a cakewalk. But Thailand? That was beside the point: they could leave if they wanted to. They had no ill grandmother to tend to or pressing obligations. They had no binding ties.

3. Debt.
Isn't debt somewhat synonymous with a modern lifestyle? The U.S. marketing machine has to be one of the strongest world-wide, the way it entangles our drive to travel (only 30% of Americans have passports, see Those Ties That Bind). "I'd love be in Thailand. Tell me more about it, for the sake of argument," he said. In the case of John and Tiff, they had a new car lease. They used to have an old beater of a car, but soon replaced it with a new one and a new anchor: debt. Now let me just say this, if someone is buried under a massive heap of debt, there isn't much they can do save for pay it down, borrow money from a rich great aunt, rob a bank, or ditch it altogether. The last option isn't an honest one, and I certainly wouldn't recommend it. Considering all, John and Tiff would need to settle their debt. Different car leases call for different terms, but in this case, they would be charged a two thousand dollar penalty for returning the car. Others with more restrictive leases can look at lease transfer companies such as Swapalease.

4. Job.
What kind of work do most expats find in Thailand? Well, that entirely depends on your credentials and I won't cover the swath of industries either, save to tell you that teaching is one of the most prominent and easiest jobs to obtain for native speakers of English. Can you make good money at it? Absolutely. As with any other job, it all depends on your drive, credentials, and what you're willing to negotiate. Having a newborn son, they couldn't take any risks in that department.  Not until they had something secure. "How do I even find a job there?" asked John. We flipped open my laptop, and I navigated to Ajarn, the professional English teaching website. A beautiful layout, a simple interface, and a steady stream of job updates showed at our fingertips. First, they would need a teaching certificate. This was easily found at IH Bangkok, which provides the foremost certificates of teaching English, accredited by the University of Cambridge, called the CELTA. It would cost $1,600 each for a one month intensive course, held in Bangkok. Next, they needed a job. Who thought it could be so easy to find a job doing what you already know?Namely, teaching simple English which is in great demand (especially now, considering the Asean initiative).

5. Housing.
Last, but not least, they needed a place to stay. I advised him to seek housing when he was in Bangkok, not before. They wouldn't know the precise location of their school or university until they were in Bangkok. And although transportation is very convenient, with both an underground metro and an overhead SkyTrain, the last thing they'd want is to get a house one hour away from their jobs. This is the part were pre-planners might feel a little nervous. But what was the cost of housing for the first month while they looked? Four hundred dollars. He could then find a nice, convenient three-bedroom townhouse close to work for about two hundred and fifty dollars a month. Pile on electric, internet, and utilities, and you're looking at another hundred dollars. Three hundred and fifty dollars a month for a beautiful, large townhouse, close to work.

There was a four month period of silence.

I thought John and Tiff were lost in their busy lives and that our conversation was just a means for him to vent. What with the way he described his hectic days, I expected nothing more. But what pleasant news I received by way of email one morning.

They'd done it!

Tiff explained their plans to her parents, that they would most likely be gone for only a year (we'll see about that). Her father then offered to cough up the two thousand dollar penalty for their leased car. In the meantime, John researched kindergarten schools for his son. If they remained longer than a year, they would need one. He found a decent school which charged a reasonable $1,500 per semester.
Over the past four months, they had lived on lean means and saved up $1,600 a piece for the CELTA course AND Tiff had landed a job offer through Ajarn, teaching flight attendants English for a local Thai airline. As for John, he was entertaining two separate offers. In total they would be making $3,500 a month. All they needed was to was present their CELTA certificates, college degrees, and clean FBI background records.

Low salary, you say? The balance lies in the cost of living. With that kind of income, John and Tiff's quality of life in Thailand would be far greater than that in the U.S. They could also save roughly $1,000 per month, live in paradise with their son, and end up saving $12,000 by year's end with a complimentary round-trip ticket back home. This would actually put them in a better situation than they were at back at home.

John followed up his email with a call. He said they had saved some money in case of emergency. His voice had a strong undertone of anxiety. A nervousness I recognized well; the same I had when I first traveled into that great unknown on my own. That fear that lurks in the deep abyss of our reasoning minds. But undoubtedly, their willpower prevailed.

As a banker by trade I can tell you money may be a short-term obstacle, but it is also the greatest excuse. John and Tiff paid a price with the proper currency, not money, but willpower.

And that--that is the true price of paradise.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Travel Bug: Those Ties that Bind


At least the real, silk ones, those which men wear at work, is what Bernard Montaigne was referring to. Over a generous serving of steak and fries à la Française, the manager of Restaurant L'Entrecôte voiced his opinion to me: "There is no more joie de vivre in your country," he said (interpose heavy french accent). "It is all about work, work, work. Wear your tie, go to work." Not that I entirely disagreed with him, but curiosity begot me as to why I meet significantly more foreign travelers than my own folk abroad, so I did a little research on the theory of monsieur Bernard:

Get this. A recent survey by the World Travel Organization shows that individuals born after 1965 in the U.S. travel 3.5 times per year for leisure, instead of the national average of 4.5 times per year. That's nearly twenty five percent less, generation over generation, and why, do you ask? Well, we rank nearly dead last in vacation days (average of 13 days a year, for the record) when compared to similar, industrialized countries which grant up to 43 vacations days a year. Hello? Compound a struggling economy with those statistics and you'll find a slew of employers willing to grant less rather than more, and families needing to work more, rather than less. Did someone say Italy is hiring?

Being somewhat of a math geek, I broke down the percentages for those that traveled locally versus internationally. First, we have to consider that only about 30% of Americans hold passports (which is way better than the teens it was a just few years ago), and that 50% of those that did travel abroad went to either Canada or Mexico. Now compare that to the U.K which boasts a 75% ownership of passports, or Canada, just a border away, with a 60% ownership. When put in perspective, the above numbers mean that roughly 2 in 10 Americans actually travel internationally--beyond Canada and Mexico--compared to 7 in 10 in the UK. Blimey, those Brits are a nomadic bunch.

"Not taking a leap is comforting, because this is the American life," says Matthew Kneppes in his NomadicMatt blog displayed last year on CNN. "Breaking outside anything that is your norm is scary."

I refuse to believe this concept, I've yet to meet someone who didn't want to travel abroad, so I pose these questions: does the abundance of beaches and mountains and prairies keep us grounded to our own continent and culture? Or are those obligations which salesmen know well to overcome--time, money, or family--the true culprits?
Why do we not travel to far-off and wondrous destinations when we have the highest income per capita in the world?

What ties. Those ties that bind.