The Shoestring Millionaire
2003 was not a good year. It started with a divorce and went downhill from there.
As I drove away from the family home in my ten-year-old car, the sum total of my possessions were in a single carry-on bag nestled on the seat beside me.
After a stint sleeping in the car, and a few months of hard work, stress, and counting pennies, I slowly managed to bring the disordered strands of my life into something almost coherent. There remained only to wait, with some apprehension, for the Great Divorce Hearing.
In the mean time I needed a break.
I traded in twenty years of tech skills for a remote writing gig, and the last of my savings for a cheap ticket to Thailand and a room at the Tower Inn on Silom Road.
The rack rate for an executive room at the Tower Inn was $30 a night, cheaper if you haggled, or stayed more than a week, and that included one of the best buffet breakfasts you could get in Bangkok back in those days. I would eat until bursting, taking in enough calories to last me until late evening.
I used to work maybe four hours a day, but, like with breakfast, I could pack a lot in. I’d always been a great believer in productivity over presence. On most days I was done by morning coffee.
That left the rest of the day.
I’d swim lengths in the roof-top pool for an hour. My body, years spent sitting at a desk, rebelled against the activity, but I kept at it. After a few weeks, I outgrew the Tower’s 10 metre pool, and shifted to two-hour sessions at a 25m open air pool I found at a nearby hotel. Over the weeks, my white, flaccid body became muscled and tanned.
In the evenings I’d head over to the Oriental Hotel and sit on the river terrace, the cool breeze from the Chao Phraya and an ice-cold Singha sucking the worst of the heat from the dense air, the city lights reflecting from the black river surface.
I made a lot of good friends during those long, lazy warm evenings, and through the laughter-filled neon-lit nights. Bed by midnight was an early night. But the heat in Bangkok can get oppressive come April, so I got on a cheap flight to Phuket and headed for the silver-white crescent of Kata Beach and a fair sea wind.
Those Kata beach nights will be burned into my memory until the day I die.
Restaurants on the sand with candles in coconut husks, festooned with twinkling Christmas tree lights all year round, laughter, the clinking of glasses, ice-cold beers in coolers. A smile that could melt an iceberg, midnight walks along the shore, hand-in-hand, the lights of fishing boats our stars. Sunsets that could stop your heart, and coral reefs that when you dived them felt like you were suspended in glass, a brightly coloured aquarium around you.
At night I would fall into the deepest of sleeps, to the quiet hum of the air-con, and holding close the warm, soft brown body, her long silky black hair spilling on to the pillow beside me.
Over the next few years I tramped around the mega-malls and dived the coral reefs of South-East Asia. I wandered the streets of Penang at night, ate the best seafood I’ve ever had, hitched a ride on a giant turtle in Batangas, rode elephants, explored jungles, climbed a live volcano, dived long-forgotten wrecks off Coron Island, hob-nobbed with the one per-cent in Makati, and shared a simple lunch on the beach with fishermen. To this day I have more dear friends, and more treasured memories in Asia than I do in the country where I was born and have lived most of my life.
But I couldn’t stay away for ever.
They say you are the sum total of your choices. And not all mine had been wise. Like some remote black-hole, the relentless pull of commitments and duty sucked me ever closer to the maw of the mundane.
Some would say my situation took a turn for the better. Precious life essence exchanged for cold hard cash. I got a house and a 23-year mortgage, and gathered the dust of possessions.
And then, as the years passed, some said I was rich again.
The truth is, for those few years when I had nothing, I was the richest I’ve ever been.