Wednesday, September 2, 2009

A Home for Hip Geezers

Just recently old friends from my commune days broached the subject of recreating something akin to our community, in a 21st century reincarnation, where we could live out our doddering days in comfort. I’m not speaking so much of physical comfort as mental.

For four years until she died in 2007 I spent two to three weeks every summer hanging out with mom at her independent-living fogey home in a Minneapolis suburb. It wasn’t easy at the age of 84 to get her to leave her west side Manhattan apartment after 36 years but she was beginning to have fainting spells out on the street with no family in proximity to assist her. Through concerted effort on mine and my sister’s part, who lived in Minneapolis, she accepted the change and turned out to love it.

She thought of it as a resort. With a crafts room, spa, ice cream socials and other group activities I considered it more like a permanent summer camp for geezers. If you want to feel young, even in your mid-sixties, try hanging out in one for a while; it gives you a whole new perspective on being old. For her it was great, for me it was excruciatingly middle-class. To have to live out my life in one of those places I would consider to be a form of cosmic punishment.

The prospect, therefore, of hanging out through one’s waning years with dear hip old friends, not to mention being close to the kids and grandkids, is surely an enticing thought. At about the same time as my friends’ comment I had been rethinking my long term commitment to Cambodia, especially in terms of safety and sanity during approaching crunch times.

However, in the short term there’s hardly anything I can imagine, practically speaking anyway, that would lead me to want to leave my tropical home: I’m as comfortable and contented as I could hope to be – my material plane needs are simple and tropical living makes it easy to supply them. Also, I much prefer the hot to the chilly. As soon as the air gets a little nippy, actually anything less than 70 degrees, my nose starts to drip, giving me a constant annoying sniffle. In compensation somewhat the toe fungus I always have here in hot, humid Cambodia magically disappears soon after I arrive in the Northwest.

Still, I’ll easily take a climate which only requires wearing a long sleeve shirt a few times a year to Oregon’s near constant coolness. Sure it gets hot in the summer in the daytime, but before the sun even sets it’s long sleeve weather. One of the things I like most about the climate here is how it’s still in the 80’s at midnight: that never happens in Portland.

For another, my $636 per month Social Security wouldn’t get me diddly squat there. Here it affords a simple but comfortable life. There I’d be poor, angry, frustrated and feel constantly harassed by bills and the cost of surviving. Just like most of my life. I was too freaky to get a ‘real job’ when I was young, so that option is obviously out now. I may eventually earn more from my writing than the current pittance, but that remains to be seen.

Health care has to be a consideration when you’re 68 and you see the machinery slowly breaking down, but I’m in pretty good shape, all things considered. Partly I attribute that to having developed a strong aversion to doctors and medicine at an early age. I do take antibiotics once every few years or so and use Chinese medicine and codeine for a cold, otherwise I believe you need to live with it and let your body work it out. Medicine treats symptoms but not root causes. Then again I consider myself lucky in having a strong constitution, so I don’t get sick very often and then not seriously; at least never to the extent that I haven’t been able to handle it without drugs; I don’t even do aspirin.

I’ve only had health insurance for about four of the last 40 years, so once again I’ve been lucky. Moreover, I don’t expect to need health care much not having been to a doctor more than four times in the same 40 years (though I wouldn’t guarantee my memory). Other people with the same ailments would have gone more often but still not very much.

I’ve certainly subjected my body to its share of abuse, but have compensated somewhat, evidently, by staying active – I walk miles every day when I’m in Phnom Penh and do the equivalent bicycling in Kampot - and eating relatively well. I consider a meal without veggies to be naked and incomplete. I have a natural aversion to eggs and cheese so eat them only on occasion. I do eat hamburger meat mixed in with other food but every time I eat an actual hamburger, I think; that’s the last time. I’ll eat chunks of beef, but always trim off whatever fat I find. Same for my relationship to sausages and hot dogs; even if they sometimes taste good, knowing how they’re made combined with the havoc they play with my stomach means I eat them very rarely. Bacon tastes good but just looking at all that fat raises alarm bells in me. So once again, I’m lucky that some of my tastes and habits are good for me.

In the states, as a privileged senior, I’d have Medicare but that doesn’t include hospital stays, for that you have to pay an additional $90 per month. Also with the cost of drugs so high if there’s a serious illness it will require thousands of dollars for medicine. The Medicare drug benefit, which leaves many seniors with large drug costs, is another sick example of how the industry owns the government. And you can forget Obama’s health plan making a difference, as of now that’s a lost cause.

Regarding medicine the contrast to here is stark. For instance, I get buildup of wax in my ears. One time when I was still teaching I tried to conduct a class nearly deaf, so I have to keep up with it. There’s a mild, common acid solution you can buy that eats away at it. Back in the states you get a kit that includes a rubber suction device, that probably costs ten cents or less to produce, and a tiny bottle of solution. That runs for $6 minimum; I looked around a lot for something cheaper.

Here you don’t get the rubber device but you do get a bottle of solution five times as large for 12 cents. And that’s not even a patented prescription drug so there’s no reason whatever for it to be expensive. Except to generate excessive profits for those who control the markets. Here anyway there are no prescriptions: if you ask for it and they have it you get it. No fantastically paid doctor’s intervention is needed.

Medical care is cheap enough here but not very good so if you have a serious illness or have an accident and want quality repair work, you need to go to Thailand. A friend of mine was driving his motorbike in an overly intoxicated state and suffered multiple fractures in his leg. Another friend got him all drugged up and accompanied him on the short, 35 minute flight to Bangkok - a medivac would’ve been very expensive. Five nights in the hospital, everything included, came to $5000. It would have been a lot cheaper in Phnom Penh but his leg probably would’ve come out with some strange twists in it.

I digress. I was talking about my relationship to Cambodia. I visited two spectacular large urban gardens back in the states in 2007. That was not long after I got my inheritance and I was fired up to do something of the same order here in Cambodia - what people in cold climates call ‘house plants’ are at home outdoors here. My Phnom Penh apartment is half outdoors and ideal for potted plants and over the five years I’ve lived there I’ve accumulated lots of them – at one time about 80, including 20 orchids. They’re so cheap here I can’t resist buying lots; flowering orchids cost two dollars, large plants that would cost $50 there go for $5 to $7 here.

So I had great visions of a little tropical Eden when I returned from that trip and started looking for land in Cambodia. You technically can’t own it as a foreigner but 50 year leases are common and a lot of Western expats are doing it. Within a couple months of searching I came across a perfect little spot. It’s within bicycling distance – two miles - of Kampot, an up-and-coming little town and equally close to hiking trails in a nearby national park. Most places I looked at were either rice paddies, which flood in the rainy season and can’t be used until you spend a lot of money on fill, or land that was completely cut over with only small bushes growing. Either way it would’ve been years before any tree would provide shade or any part would start to look good.

In contrast my land is excellent piece of Cambodia which includes a small rice paddy, but also has meadows and clumps of trees, some of which are sizable. It has ten coconut trees and lots of cashew and guava trees, which grow like weeds here, and a couple of papaya trees which also volunteer easily. Add a couple of banana trees which grow easily and mature in three years and you have all the fruit you can eat. That’s the beauty of the tropics; there’s a constant year-round supply of food here for the picking.

All told, everything you could ask for in a nascent little Eden; at least in theory. However, I’ve gone through a rethink on both personal and macro levels. On the former I dreamed up plans for a modest but entirely sufficient house and got bids. It was at the high in the property market, and general inflation, which included building supplies, was widespread so the bids came in at $12 to 14 thousand when it should have been around $8 to 10. I chose to wait because of the cost, thinking materials were overpriced, and because I wasn’t terribly fond of my plans and thought I should do something better and more original.

Still, it wouldn’t have made sense to build since my access road requires a 4-wheel drive about 5 months a year. It’s close enough to the main highway to be accessible by walking and bicycling and I could have, with the permission of the local authorities, improved the road myself for about a grand, but my temporary fix probably wouldn’t have lasted more than one rainy season. When I bought the piece I was told the authorities were going to upgrade the road in the immediate future but that hasn’t happened a year-and-a-half later. I’m sure they’ll get around to it, they are making lots of improvements, but who knows when. Meanwhile I’d have to park my Camry and get there on foot, bicycle or small motorbike – what’s referred to as a scooter in the states.

The real problem would be getting there at night slogging through the mud past a gauntlet of barking dogs. It’d be bad enough getting through the dog patrol in dry season. In fact, the dogs of midnight are one of the few things I don’t like about Kampot and the only reason I drive my car the one mile from my rental house to the bars at night; I walk that far in Phnom Penh after the bars so that distance on a bike could only be easier.

However, the major problem is that I’m not yet prepared to live full time at the land, let alone in the Kampot area. For a long time I’d spend 7 days in the capital followed by 4 days in the little town. Now I’m getting close to parity in the time I spend in the two places. I’m addicted to Phnom Penh’s night life, but I am slowing weaning myself of it.

I’ve also got a lot more to write on this subject, so I’ll continue this in another post.

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