69 Days Plus a Bit More
As the very pretty waitress passed him the beer, Billy looked into her eyes and thanked her and thought, here I go again, am I really ready to decide what I really want to do? After going past the magic 69 days mark he had set himself, he wondered again just what to do. It was now 112 days since he had left Bangkok on the “what to do with my life” trip. He had originally set a limit of 69 days to make this decision. This was a magic number with all the connotations of seeing life from both ends so he could make the big decision. However Billy had pushed the 69 day limit to 90 days and now at 113 days he knew he soon had to make his mind up. As much as his brain and common sense was telling him to make it, his wallet and bank account were also giving him hints that it was time to decide what and where in life to go. The Philippines was the last stop and now it was getting time to think carefully.
Growing up in New Zealand was a great experience. Reflecting back on it now at the ripe old age of 39 years, he realized that in some ways it was an idyllic childhood. With the wide green spaces of New Zealand, a caring family with parents who sacrificed for their children, lots of time to play, to get educated, to get into sport and also to dream about girls and women it was fun growing up there. The few Playboy magazines that made their way to the South Island of NZ in the late 80’s were well worn and sometimes stained by the time Billy and his mates got to see them but they had helped to spark a spirit of adventure to see what else was out there in the big wide world a long way away from the south island of Kiwi land.
After finishing Uni and going on to teachers college which made his parents proud, as now he had a ticket to a job for life as teachers would always be needed, so they thought, Billy started to get a little restless. He wondered what went on in the other parts of the world and when his older brother Nick decided to go with some friends to Europe on a working holiday it made him think more about what he could do. Nick set sail (actually flight) to London to begin what he called part two of his life. He stayed there around one year but did not really enjoy it. He found himself in temporary jobs working with characters that were just living for the day, for some money for booze, for football or the opposite sex. A short stint in an office atmosphere found him working with people doing the same things, speaking of the same problems as folks back home did but in an atmosphere of less opportunity with a silent class system seemingly in place everywhere in business and doing all this in absolutely crappy weather. After spending some time touring around Europe and doing the touristy parts of seeing things and places he had heard about or studied in school, Nick came back to NZ saying he would now settle down and start on the rest of his life. He explained all this to Billy over a number of beers at their favorite pub and at some mates BBQs to welcome him home. Nick reckoned that they were lucky that they lived in the best place in the world.
A few months later after getting a teaching job in a good private school, Billy was with some mates on a weekend away to watch an international football game when he learnt that 3 of them were planning to take off and have some extended time in Asia to see the sights and explore the local scene. One guy, Wazza, had been before to Thailand and the stories he told sounded all made up and BS as nobody could have done what he claimed in a 2-week period and besides that, he was fat and ugly and Billy was sure that he could not pull woman like what he described, even paying for them. Billy thought he must be exaggerating and dreaming of what he wished he had. However over the next few weeks as work went on and winter seemed to stretch forever, Billy thought that maybe he could go with them and see what life is like over there. His parents, especially Mum, were not overly happy as he seemed to be just settling down the way she thought younger men were supposed to and besides, he had a position at a prestigious school.
The one who finally helped him make up his mind was his Uncle Tom, his dad’s younger brother who encouraged him to go see the world whilst you are young and then come back and settle down. Uncle Tom had been a junior officer in the Navy and had travelled the world and only settled down back in NZ in his late 30’s after getting out and then travelling around working and having fun for 4 years, most of it in Asia. He did not talk about those times a lot but kept saying that you should see the world while you are young, enjoy it, experience different things and ideas and ways of doing things, explore the differences and then decide what you want to do. Mum did not like this type of talk and complained to Dad about how his brother was trying to corrupt Billy just when he had a good job and the N.Z. world at his fingertips.
As he saved as hard as he could, he made plans and then booked his ticket for the new year, gave his resignation in at the school, tried to keep mum onside and happy and planned to meet his mates in Indonesia in Jakarta and go to Bali, and then on to Thailand. As he said his goodbyes to everybody at the airport, Uncle Tom gave him an envelope with some Thai money in it and his last words were, “I hope this gives you a happy ending mate”. This seemed a strange thing to say Billy thought as he sat back on the plane. Does he think I am going to die over there or something?
After discovering that Indonesia was not really to his liking although the Blok M area of Jakarta was an eye opener and Billy discovered why his mate Wazza was able to talk about the good times like he did, he was glad to leave Bali to go to Phuket and then on to Bangkok where he knew that schools were looking for English teachers with real qualifications. The few days in Phuket were great with good beaches, cheap food, cheap beer (it was then) and lots of young pretty girls around who were only too happy to drink with you and suggest other pleasures. Billy left his friends there and went on to Bangkok for a pre-arranged appointment with a senior teacher from a Thai school. He was interviewed, quickly appointed and told to come to the school on the following Monday morning. Luckily some friend’s friend helped him to get some cheap accommodation at top end of Sukhumvit where he could get a bus to the school. After a good weekend where he was “initiated” and taught about the pleasures of Bangkok for a young single farang guy, Billy could hardly wait to get to the school and in fact arrived very early at 7.00 AM and had to wait around for the senior Thai guy to arrive.
The next years were a mixture of fun times at the school, disappointment at the attitude of some of his fellow expat teachers who were just there for the money and the extra curricular activities and a lot of the students who seemed to think that just attending class was what education was about and an attitude by some of the senior teachers of not to rock the boat at all. He soon learnt that as a farang, his opinion and ideas to the senior people were down there at same level as the caretaker staff's. How could he know about Thai schools and the educational system when he had just arrived here? But he also met some great staff members both Thai and expat who wanted to make a difference and he went out on social activities with both sets of them although nights out with the Thais were mainly about eating, talking and drinking and then home whilst nights out, especially week ends with the expats were usually longer and later and involved the ‘other’ parts of Bangkok like Patpong, Nana and then Cowboy. Billy changed schools a few times and also started up his own business catering mainly to expats; he was able to do this in his spare time at nights and on the weekends and the business started to grow.
After a number of years doing both of these jobs, he really had to make his mind up what he was going to do. Should he stay as a teacher with the safe route of regular employment and money guaranteed every month which also came with some mind numbing experiences of just having to accept the situation and style of the places he worked in, or go off as an entrepreneur running his own business? It was actually an easy decision to become a self employed person. He knew he liked living in Bangkok with the orderly chaos on the street, with the road rules of not seeming to be any rules at all, of feeling he was living on the edge of reality at times. He enjoyed the freedom he felt he had there and loved exploring around all the different parts of the city. He could spend time sipping a coffee at the outside restaurant at the Landmark Hotel on Sukhumvit watching the world go by and certainly watching a lot of people vastly different than those he saw growing up back in NZ or occasionally going for a stroll through Lumphini Park at evening time and seeing both Thais and Farangs interacting in exercise and social intercourse and then going for a few beers to finish off the occasion. He enjoyed buying street food on the way to work or play, maybe some patongo, maybe fresh orange juice, although he did draw the line at the sweet bread sandwiches. He had met heaps of expats, some just passing through looking for a good time, some coming to him for advice on how to go about looking for a teaching position and some of these were really looking to do as little work with as little responsibility as possible to get money for the next big Friday night out sessions. Some of these people turned into long term mates and others occasional acquaintances that were good to have a drink or catch up with occasionally. Some of them caught the condition.
The "condition" was a trait traditionally associated with the colonial stereotype: the British in Africa or India, drinking too much and denigrating the natives, while being unwilling to return home and therefore face a drop in social standing, not to mention the unavailability of servants and cheap gin. Billy thought that some of us are seen as the contemporary equivalent (but without the servants and cheap gin).
He went into more down at heel areas like Klongtoey, Yaowarat (Chinatown) and out to the suburbs like Rangsit and sat at the Thai favorite German style pubs with pork knuckles and hot chili dipping sauces with everything and the old 80’s music both from Thailand and Farangland and learned to love the Scorpions music: they seemed to have conquered Thailand and Asia but not in the Antipodes, as he had never heard of them before arriving in Bangkok. He explored all the areas of Bangkok taking photographs that gave him so much pleasure as he looked and then months later may relook at them and get good feelings and memories. He saw the beggars in Sukhumvit and the “famous” slug crawling down the footpath on his stomach. He remembered the first time he saw Slug sitting up in a side alley counting his money and he then felt he had learnt more about people trying to survive in an tough environment certainly a less caring one from Government side with pensions and handouts then he knew from back home. He felt he was an adventurer exploring the outer reaches of his world. He visited the rural areas and explored small villages where he had friends or acquaintances who had settled down there with local woman and invited him to stay with them in the local atmosphere. Some of this was a real eye opener and he saw and experienced some amazing things that were so different to the way he had grown up in N.Z. Some of these differences were good ones and some were ones he hoped not to experience or see a second time.
He was originally amazed to see people sitting in public areas cutting their nails with no self consciousness about it. Seeing men, especially the Moto Soi riders sitting on their bike, plucking their beard hair out whilst using the rear view mirror as a guide was interesting but after a while these things became the norm and did not cause Billy to blink at all. He never got 100% comfortable with the street beggars as even though they were part of a professional gang and did not get the money that was put in their bowl, it was hard to walk past the ones who had small children with them. He thought that he was one of the lucky ones being born in the west to hard working parents who wanted to give a good start up in life to their kids.
During the 10 years in Bangkok he had a real relationship with a Thai woman which made him settle down (happily) and not play around and go out to the naughty areas like he did when he first arrived. However over the latter part of this period of time, Billy felt that he was drifting in life. After a couple of years and numerous conversations and beer discussions with fellow expats about the meaning of life especially about living as an expat in Thailand where he was allowed to pay taxes to the country but not allowed to have any other official rights, he started to think about the future. Did he want to live here permanently? If he had children would he want to bring them up here? Were the culture and rules of modern Thai society ones in which he was comfortable? As time went on he found himself less happy about life in general. He realized that he had changed a lot since he first arrived in LOS. He no longer frequented the bar areas, was not interested in spending long hours in the pub scene. He had started to enjoy places with better food where you paid more for the quality than quantity and had started to drink more wine which was so much more expensive here than back home with about 5% of the varieties and choice available.
Every day he would read the NZ newspapers on the internet: this was a real bonus of the internet that you could see news from back home instantly, not like when he first came here and he would be so happy if someone from home area arrived and passed him a copy of the Saturday newspaper. He would then spend a week reading every little article in there regardless of the subject; it gave him a little hit and a bit of home. Today he browsed through the web NZ paper daily and only read articles that really interested him. He was able to see papers and articles from around the world and watch world defining events play out live on the TV in front of him. There was no more having to rush to get the Bangkok Post to find out about overseas news in the four pages they used to allocate for world news.
Billy felt like his love affair with Thailand was slipping away in front of his eyes. He could not put his finger on it. He was doing the same things day in and day out, running the business from home, trying to live a 50; 50 life. That was 50% as Thai on foods, news, politics and goings on in the Kingdom. After all he lived here and worked here and paid taxes here so he should know as much as possible about the place. The other 50% was spent on the expat international style of life, with international foods and alcohols, reading the news from around the world and home, chatting and chewing the fat with people from all different parts of the globes. Originally Billy would have defended Thailand more vigorously when some of these sessions turned into bitch sessions about the country and people and how they did things here and how they did not do certain things. Billy felt tired of it all and started to think that the best thing maybe to move away to another place. He knew that he could take his business with him as it all fitted into the computer case and he could change it around so it fitted wherever he decided to live. A quick trip back home about a year earlier had really set these thoughts into motion. The people were enjoying themselves with freedom to express themselves, to go to theatres, art galleries, pubs and restaurants where there were great choices of wine and food. He was not sure if this was what he really wanted but there was really only one way to find out. His mother was ecstatic about this when he told her of his plans and he could hear the happy tone in his father’s voice even though he would not say it verbally. About the only one who questioned him on it was Uncle Tom, much to his mother’s annoyance. He asked him if he really wanted to leave Thailand, did he really know that returning to NZ was the correct choice. It was from these talks that he decided what he was going to do. He would take some time which was when he decided on 69 days and its connotations and try about half this time in NZ and half this time in Philippines.
He decided on the Philippines for a number of reasons. He knew that Indonesia was not for him. It was hard to explain in detail but was made up of the style and feel there and also the religious element. He had been to Malaysia before and enjoyed it but the thought of starting afresh in a country where your race was as important as any of your ideas did not appeal to him. He thought that if I am not going to go back and start anew in NZ and I am going to leave Thailand then the Philippines could be the place in Asia. He knew guys who loved it there, some going for the night bar scene, some because they found it easier to set up business and home there with English being spoken widely. After sorting through a myriad of issues and settling some problems, Billy flew back to NZ to see how it felt being back home with a different mind set from just visiting for a week or two. He was going to look at his birthplace with a different set of eyes and decide if that was the place for him to live.
The time went quickly. He caught up with mates, visited with old friends, went to his old school where one of his old teaching colleagues was now in charge and he told him that if he was coming back that he would try to fit him in there. The first two weeks were great. However on the second two week period it was different. The mates who were happy to go and have a drink with him when he first returned could not get out in the middle of the week now as they had kids and family commitments and were busy with these plus their own work schedules. He then decided to stay a further two weeks and see how he felt, but it seemed to be the same. The people there had a good life with money to get most foods and drinks they wanted, had nice homes and some extra, but they all seemed to be living such a structured rigid life. This of course was one of the problems he had found in Thailand that the people there in general did not have enough structure in their life and would be late for appointments and seemed to make decisions about where to go for food or holiday spontaneously. This sometimes drove him nuts: couldn’t they plan things better? And do not get him started on dinner plans! Just because we were going out with friends for a meal at 7.30 pm but then we feel hungry at 5.30 pm so we must have a bowl of noodles amazed him and then to sit there at 8.00 pm with the people and say, “no I do not want anything as I am not hungry now”. This was usually followed by needing more food (often more noodles) after returning home at 11.00 pm. Some of the people back home in NZ could probably tell you their life plans day by day for the next 7 months he thought. Billy wondered about this aspect of life. Driving around was easy and he did not have to worry: One thing about being back home was the rule of law: you would not have to worry if you were in an accident or incident and you were not at fault.
In the last three weeks there he had a night out each week with groups that included Uncle Tom, except Billy now called him Loong Tom. He was jovial to be with and did not say a lot to Billy but on the last night he asked him about life in general, had he decided what he wanted, where he was going to go, how was he going to accomplish all these things and then looking him straight in the eye, he asked Billy, “are you really happy about living back here”. Billy just half smiled and said something to change the conversation.
When Billy was at the airport, Loong Tom was there with the others to see him off; he took him aside and gave him an envelope and said "only read this when you are getting very close to making your decision. It is meant to help you and I hope it does. I do wish I had had someone give me these when I was your age trying to decide what I should do”. Billy stuck it in his carry on case and then said his good byes again.
After arriving in Manila and having a week there in Makati and finding out about P. Burgos Street and EDSA complex and a few other places, Billy started to travel around. He went to some smaller islands and then Cebu and come back and travelled around Luzon and found himself for a few days in Angeles City where he saw a place about half way in style and substance and entertainment between Bangkok and Pattaya. It was fun and when he went back to Manila and joined up with some friends who lived there, he had a great time. They showed him some great eating places, encouraged him to explore the city at places like Greenbelt and the Hobbit house with the real little people and then he went on his own to other districts and he found out why Metro Manila is the most densely populated city in the world. At times it felt like it, at other times it was peaceful especially in Rizal Park area and he was able to do everything in English or at least a version of it. He went to areas like Binondo (Chinatown) which reminded him of Yaowarat. He saw many rich areas, had some great food in Forbes Park and went through some areas of great poverty which was disturbing to him. He extended his stay in Philippines and Manila past the second deadline of 90 days. He had shot so many photos and had a great time looking everywhere and was really enjoying exploring the whole place.
After 110 days he decided he had to make some decisions. On the 111th day he took his exercise book, his camera and Loong Tom’s letter and got a chair at an outside café in the Greenbelt shopping centre. He sat there and started to make up lists. He took 3 pages and made it one for NZ, one for Manila / Philippines and one for Bangkok / Thailand. He ruled a line down the centre of each page and in the next two hours and 3 cups of great coffee, he wrote down all the likes and dislikes he had of each city. Writing all this made him go to a second page for each country and he found it therapeutic to get his thoughts down. He enjoyed sitting back and remembering all the times and experiences, whether happy ones, scary ones or some he would rather forget that he had experienced in each place.
After he finished writing these down, he opened up the envelope from Loong Tom. It had a short letter and then a number of clippings pasted onto the pages. Loong Tom had written it to him in longhand. He said that when you read this, I just hope it makes you think. There is only one person that can decide what is right for you and that person is you. Please look at these clippings I have accumulated and I hope you will think about what each one says. I do wish I had these clippings with me about 22 years ago when I was like you now, trying to decide what the hell I wanted to do with the rest of my life.
Billy looked at the sheets. The first clipping said: the grass always looks greener on the other side of the fence. Billy nodded to himself: he could certainly understand this one. The next one said: The only constant in life is change. Billy also knew this was a good one as he knew he had changed in the past 12 years since leaving home. The third one said, you can lead a horse to water, but you cannot make it drink. This one made Billy think and ponder it a bit more. What was he really trying to tell me with this quote?
After a few minutes, Billy looked at the next one which said, a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. He had heard this one over one hundred times before from his own father and guessed it must have been something their own father, his grandfather had drummed into them as they all grew up just after the Great Depression in the 20’s and 30’s. Billy turned the page and saw a poem. He was surprised because Tom was not a poetry sort of guy to him. He had also written some words in his own hand at the top of the page. He had written that he saw this poem in a school reader when he was in the 3rd grade at primary school and he had never forgotten it. He often read it again and he thought it sometimes helped him make decisions. The poem went:
There was a naughty boy,
And a naughty boy was he,
He ran away to Scotland
The people for to see-
There he found
That the ground
Was as hard,
That a yard
Was as long,
That a song
Was as merry,
That a cherry
Was as red-
Was as weighty
Was as eighty,
That a door
Was as wooden
As in England-
So he stood in his shoes
And he wondered,
He stood in his shoes
And he wondered.
At the end of the poem, Tom had also written in, you are the only one who can explore your mind, make sure you do it with vigor and openness just as you have explored the places you have been to in past 12 years.
Billy stayed sitting there trying to work all this out. He looked at his note books again and went through all the positives about each place and all the negatives he had written. After another hour he closed up the book, and went back to his hotel, walking along looking at everything, seeing more small bits about how the world was made up here in Manila.
On day 112 he went out in the afternoon and sat in an outside bar area and got a beer, sitting there with his book, his envelope and his thoughts. People around him must have wondered about him, as he sat there thinking, nodding to himself, grinning at some memories, talking to himself as he remembered some special moments. As he thought about them all and tried to filter through them, there were some parts that come together. He realized that one part of him had changed a lot in the last few years in Bangkok. It was the E word. Explore. He realized that when he first got there he explored everywhere but in last few years he had not done this. The same during his short time back home in NZ. He just did the same things and basically went to the same places that he went to when he was there and just followed his family's and friends' routines. He had not explored as he thought he knew it all from previous times.
He thought about the first few years in Bangkok when everything he saw seemed so new, the street food, the beggars, the street musicians (who were bloody awful) and he realized that he kind of missed part of all this or was it that he missed being able to moan and complain about all of it. He remembered when he was younger in NZ and they went to the North Island and explored all the towns and county villages. Was this a great time then? He recalled many good memories from younger days when he really looked at the places through fresh eyes.
Billy realized that he was basically an explorer at heart. Not an explorer in the style of Captain Cook or Chris Columbus but he enjoyed seeing new things, seeing different things, different ways of doing the same thing, seeing how other people behaved. In Asia it was easy to see how poorer people did the same things in different ways to the richer people around them. In NZ, there was not the same great divide in the way people lived or if it was, it was not as evident or as in your face as in Asia. In Philippines he would have a big country spread out over big distances to explore and a big divide between the haves and the have nots. In New Zealand he could go and explore his own country and it would be easier in lots of ways in language and understanding the ways and culture of the country. In Thailand, he still would have a lot of places and sights to explore and it would have the benefit of him having some prior understanding of the culture and how things operated, which sometimes would help him and other times frustrate the hell out him.
Now is the time for me to make the big decision he thought. Once more he looked at his book, read the pages of notes from Loong Tom. The beer was cold and tasted good but no more he thought, no more today. Now I will go back and make it happen. Billy called the waitress over and asked for the bill. When she came back she looked at him, smiled and asked, “Where are you going now”. Billy looked at her and said “I have to go back to the hotel as I am on my way to start the first day of the rest of my life”.
Very nice indeed. I wonder how much of this is about yourself?