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Pulling At The Fringes: How the Recession Made Me Travel the World
The factors were many, but the plan of action was simple: sell all my belongings, move, and work remotely.
When I first told people I was moving to Thailand, the overall reactions I got could basically be placed in one of two categories. There were the people who envisioned me sitting on a beautiful tropical beach sipping a Mai Tai, and there were those who pictured a dilapidated wood shack where some sketchy characters were sitting around a table with money and a gun, a la "The Deer Hunter."
And it was exactly these two misconceptions that I first arrived with back in 2010 – misconceptions that were quickly shattered upon arrival to Bangkok, with its modern mix of glass, steel and concrete, skyscraper-laden landscape, and sleek Skytrain monorail system snaking through the high-rises like a river flowing through a canyon of shimmering metallic mountains.
Fast forward three years and many trips to Southeast Asia later, I finally made the decision that the only way to move was to...move. The factors were many, but the plan of action was simple: sell all my belongings, move, and work remotely. My office had been shedding people for a while, not because they were fired or quit, but because with the way technology is, it just wasn't necessary to have people physically in the same space anymore. I had hemmed and hawed over the details for the better part of a year, before finally just throwing up my arms and realizing it was time to piss or get off the pot. And the pot, the toilet, the seat I was perched upon for too long contained nothing but a view of the swirling downward spiral of the American economy. Like many people caught in the wake of the recession, I didn't lose my job, I just watched my wage stagnate as the price of things continued to rise.
So, what is a soon-to-be-40-year-old to do in that increasingly common situation? A change of jobs? Maybe I could hit that undeniably adult age wearing a name tag, with a new job as a "professional barista." Perhaps I could sign up for some courses at a community college and add some more innocuous lines to my resume, joining the ranks of those adults who dot the night campuses at any JC with a big flashing arrow above their heads saying: hey, kids, figure your shit out now or you'll end up like me in 20 years. Or would I have to suffer the ultimate indignity of moving back in with my parents until I saved up enough cash to put a down payment on some real estate, and thrust myself into a whole new stratosphere of long-term debt?
Or...or I could move somewhere I could actually afford and that would, in turn, afford me a lifestyle change.
Now, despite all my travels through Asia, and Southeast Asia in particular, I am not one of the hippie backpacker ilk so often found in towns like Vientiane, Laos or Phnom Penh, Cambodia. I was not looking to throw away my comb and drop out of conventional society for a while. And I was especially not looking to do so while exclusively hanging out with others of the same stripe, as is so often found in the backpacker ghettos all over the world. With that said, though, I was aware that I had become far too shackled to my possessions and contracts and monthly payments.
In the final year of my 30s, I was living in my hometown of Los Angeles, watching half my income go toward rent on a one-bedroom apartment in an older part of town, where the city's pipes were so corroded that sediment would build up in the faucets weekly. I chose the location because I could walk to the supermarket, movie theaters, pharmacy, and loads of restaurants. Sitting in my car, inching along the static lines of traffic was not a lifestyle I particularly enjoyed, so I found one of the few neighborhoods I could use my feet and avoid spending hours each day in my vehicle. I even lived right across the street from a Metro stop, which would've been really convenient if the subway went anywhere that people actually wanted to go.
I had already given up the cable TV, the Netflix subscription, I had no smartphone – basically I unsubscribed from everything with a monthly fee because I realized that all those monthly fees added up to a really nice vacation twice a year. But I still couldn't afford to go out to clubs or lounges or nice restaurants or anyplace that living in a large metropolis is supposed to grant its residents. I had been relegated to working in order to sit and spin my wheels, working to live, waiting for my vacation. My social life had dried up, mostly because my peers had moved on to the marriage and kids phase of life, many of them moving far away because they couldn't afford the kind of family life they desired in Los Angeles.
Add to this the fact that I was absolutely fed up with the lifestyle in the US in general. I had lived in several huge metropolises in various parts of the world, but none in which the inhabitants were as isolated as Los Angeles. People tended to go from isolating themselves in their cars, isolating themselves in cubicles at work, isolating themselves in their living space, and even the few people who did walk the streets isolating with headphones blasting or eyes glued to smartphones. It was maddening.
Just to get food, I had to get in my car and drive five or 10 minutes to a store to buy a chicken that was killed six months ago, pumped full of preservatives, frozen and transported 4,000 miles... and that was called progress and convenience?
Something needed to change in my life, and quick, lest I be relegated to the ranks of those who get really excited about streaming entire seasons of "Sad Men" or "Breaking Ass" or whatever is considered edgy programming. Personally, living vicariously through badly-drawn characters on television is something I associate with adolescence, not the kind of lifestyle I was aiming for in adulthood.
Selling all of my stuff was much more of an undertaking than I had imagined. The amount of absolutely useless garbage I'd acquired over the years surprised me, especially as I was never a pack rat. The big items – furniture, refrigerator, musical instruments – those were easy to unload, thanks to Craigslist. But why did I ever save term papers from high school or notes from ex-girlfriends or birthday cards from decades ago?
As my move-out date swiftly approached, I was pushed into purge mode and forced to chuck things ever more hastily. Sentimentality be damned; I came to the conclusion that if it wasn't on my hard drive or in my own memory banks, I really didn't need it. And along the way, I had to confront the fact that I didn't actually care about this stuff anyway. Now, I had been told I should, and that idea had been reinforced by people around me who placed value on similar stuff of their own, but down deep I knew those pieces of paper or wood or metal were nothing more than pieces of paper, wood or metal.
Whenever I would tell people I was selling all my things, I got a surprising response. Instead of getting a quizzical look or deer-in-headlights stare, people would say things like – "I really admire that" or "I really need lighten my load, too" or "I wish I could do that." To which I thought - well, actually, you can. I found it quite odd that so many people voiced similar feelings of being tied to their possessions, but did nothing about it. In fact, I took inspiration from that and used it as further motivation. Every time I felt unsure of what I was doing or became overwhelmed with doubt, it was mirror time. Was I who I wanted to be or merely who I'd become by circumstance?
Similarly, whenever people would ask why it had to be Bangkok, I had to ask myself if I was living the kind of life I wanted, or if my lifestyle was just a matter of circumstance. Whoever came up with the cliché of "wherever you go, there you are," must have had an interest in keeping you around, because the truth is that where you live dictates how you live.
To a large extent, your city will dictate your lifestyle. The Internet may have opened up possibilities that didn't exist for many people but for the most part, your job, the clothes you wear, your dating pool, your diet, the images that get shot through your brain everyday – these are all part and parcel to where you live. And all of these parts go into making up the whole that is you.
So, I chose a city where I could afford to live the lifestyle I wanted. It's quite easy to find a decent apartment for $250 a month; I don't need a car; people actually spend a large part of their lives out of their homes; I can get a freshly made dinner for $2; I pay $12 a month for unlimited 3G on my smartphone (which I purchased with no contract and it cost me a third of what it would've to buy one outright in the States); the weather is warm year-round; there is world-class health care available at an affordable price; and there are always things happening and places to hang out, nightlife I can afford.
This city is all hustle and bustle, with its 15 million residents seemingly in constant motion. New skyscrapers pop up almost daily, the economy has been going gangbusters over the last decade. In short, there is an energy, a vibrancy to life here that I found quite lacking in Los Angeles.
The only catch is that a foreigner can't just settle down here and become a legal resident, unless you are 50 years of age and can prove you have a large amount of money deposited in a Thai bank. So, remaining here legally has required I play the shell game of visa renewal, which means leaving the country every so often. And that's fine with me, as I have gotten to see Laos, Cambodia, Burma, Vietnam, Malaysia and Singapore in the last year alone.
In a roundabout way, the "great recession" made me travel the world, or at least this part of it. I was sick of sitting around and complaining, or listening to others complaining. The recession was a big reminder that stability is just an illusion. It spurred me to do something different. Life is way too short to only take what I've been handed by circumstance. And I am happy to report that the American Dream is alive and well in this post-recession era… it has just been relocated to other shores.