First Day of Classes - July 21, 2014

For the first time in 12 years, I started work at a new school, a school 9,900 miles away from Dalton, Georgia, and, based on the behavior of the kids, a school seemingly in some kind of time warp, reminiscent of an era long since passed in America.

As I walked through the doors of St. Joseph's Institution International, several students greeted me with a cheery "Good morning!" and throughout the day they impressed me with their manners and generally positive, respectful decorum.

The day began with an assembly in which the students listened attentively, maintained their silence, and applauded politely for the various presenters. In the classroom, it was much the same. Sure, there was the occasional chatter, but for the majority of the time, the kids listened, remained on task, and did their work. It was a real pleasure, and I'm looking forward to getting to know the kids in my role as a special education/ESOL teacher.

I'm sorry for the delay in this post. It's been a hectic couple of weeks moving to Singapore, finding an apartment, getting over jet lag, learning a bit about the city, and going through a school orientation.

I'm slowly getting settled into my apartment, a 474-square foot condo a few minutes from work. Singapore is considered to be the most expensive spot in the world for real estate, which I learned firsthand with my $2,300-a-month rent. Fortunately, the school gives teachers an extremely generous housing allowance.

So far, my educational colleagues have been quite welcoming, and I have nothing but kind things to say about Singaporeans. Before I arrived, I heard stories about the government being strict, but, really, I haven't felt at all inhibited in my actions. Singaporeans obey the rules, and as a result, life functions rather smoothly, and I don't have to worry about some of the annoyances experienced in other cultures such as litter, graffiti, muggings, or worse.

Singapore is safe, pure and simple. During the orientation, one of the new teachers asked if it was O.K. to leave personal belongings in a school public area. The principal laughed and said that it would be there a week from now.

Singaporeans seem to love food, and there's ethnic delicacies from around the world, which should lead to my waistline expanding over the next couple of years; shopping, as evidenced by countless malls; and smart phones.

As many of you know, I've never been a fan of smart phones. Until moving to Singapore, I used my old flip phone, which never failed to amuse my students or friends, but my love affair with the flip phone has officially ended.

Actually, I had no choice. When I visited the cell phone provider to open a new account and told him I owned a flip phone, he just laughed and then said respectfully, "I'm sorry, but we just don't have flip phones in Singapore."

I can see the benefits of a smartphone, but I still long for the days when a phone was just a phone, especially witnessing Singaporeans on their phones at all moments of the days.....walking on the street, sitting in malls, riding on buses. It never stops. I've never seen so many people talking, texting, and surfing. It seems to be a national obsession.

The other day I read that more than 70% of Singaporeans own a smartphone. As with the United States, I wonder what that's doing to real face-to-face communication.

That's about it. I'll try to do a better job of updating my blog, once I get settled in more in Singapore.

I appreciate all of your words of encouragement and support.

Do You Really Need To Keep Your Childhood Snowsuit? - June 26, 2014

I once read that moving ranks third on the list of stressors behind only death and divorce. My angst has been magnified by the fact that I can't just pack up all my belongings in a U-Haul and drive 10,000 miles to Singapore, where I'll soon begin a new teaching job. Over the last month, it's been a real battle between deciding what to take and what to discard.

I've always prided myself on traveling lightly through life, avoiding the temptation to indulge in the latest fashions and latest trinkets, but I must admit that I've been shocked by the amount of possessions that seem to have materialized in my closets.

I can explain part of it, an "I can't pass up the 30% off sale on pants" or receiving a lovely new sweater for Christmas or obtaining yet another t-shirt from participating in an event. What I can't explain is why I've kept so many possessions in my closet that I never utilize or even pull out of the darkness.

It's easy to get rid of extra clothes, but for some reason, I find it hard to purge myself of items bearing sentimental attachments: my childhood record collection, although I no longer own a record player; a racquetball racquet that I last used in college in 1987; baseball cards that I acquired when I attended elementary school, cards now covered with dust.

If I'm being honest, the reason I can't part with these personal effects is because I maintain some kind of illusion that one day I might actually need them. Maybe, I'll buy a new record player and listen to my Flock of Seagulls album again, or maybe, I'll get back on the racquetball court, or maybe, I'll give those baseball cards to my children one day, even though I'm a 48-year-old single man with no offspring.

So, my sentimentals remain in the closet, deteriorating but still there "just in case."  Really, it's quite selfish because I've been squirreling my possessions away from people who might actually need them.

Had I been relocating to another state I'm sure I would have continued to hoard my childhood mementos; however, this time it just wasn't possible, especially since my family didn't want to gain custody of my junk, so earlier in the month I sold my records and my baseball cards and put my racket on consignment.

You know what? I haven't missed my sentimental treasures a bit, and now, hopefully, someone else is enjoying those things that had been boxed up for years. I also haven't missed my furniture, the majority of which I gave away to a couple of charitable organizations and an immigrant family.

I'd like to think that I arrived at my period of purging out of an epiphany or personal growth, but really it happened out of necessity because there's no way I was going to pay to ship a couch 10,000 miles. Even though my apartment is now empty, I'm full of the satisfaction of knowing that my possessions aren't wasting away in a storage locker.

In a spirit of full disclosure, none of my possessions were especially valuable, so what is a person to do if he or she owns items worth a lot of money. Surely, those things cluttering up the attic can't be discarded.

I'm reminded of the story of my brother's friend Matt, who owned a large collection of first-edition books, books that were both monetarily and sentimentally valuable. Year after year, Matt said he glanced at the spines of the books but rarely picked them off the shelf. Still, Matt couldn't part with them.

Then, life got in the way. At one point, Matt needed some extra money and decided to sell his collection, assuming the financial windfall would help ease his sentimental loss; however, it didn't turn out that way.

Matt discovered that his valuable book collection was a lot less valuable than he hoped when the book dealer offered Matt a pittance of what he anticipated. Still, he needed the money and had to unload the literature.

Before making the transaction, Matt spied a soccer ball on one of the store's shelves. "O.K., I'll sell you my books, but will you throw in the ball?" asked Matt. The owner agreed, and Matt walked out of the store without his prized books, replaced instead by a $20 soccer ball.

A few weeks later, Matt was feeling a little stressed from work, so he pulled out his soccer ball and went to the park to unwind. With each passing moment, Matt slowly came to the realization that he was deriving more pleasure kicking his ball around the park - enjoying nature, exercising in the radiant sunshine, and socializing with passers-by - than any satisfaction he'd ever gotten from his books.

Still, such epiphanies are rare, and more often than not, year after year, we hang onto those items that we think bring us happiness or comfort.

However, sometimes it takes an outsider to put life into perspective. Years ago, I lived in an apartment behind a private residence, where an elderly woman resided. Eventually, she succumbed to old age and illness.

Before putting the house on the market, the woman's family hired a firm to run an estate sale. Soon, a large dumpster appeared in the driveway, and a crew threw the majority of her possessions away, the same possessions that I'm sure she prized so highly.

I couldn't help but ask the head of the crew why the workers were throwing away so many of the deceased woman's things, rather than selling them.

The man's face grew serious. I'll never forget his reply. The man said that we all hang onto our belongings, thinking they're important, but to the rest of the world it's mostly just junk.

"The one thing I've learned in this business is that it's not worth acquiring a lot of stuff because one day someone like me is just going to toss most of it out, " he said.

Soccer anyone?

A New Beginning - June 18, 2014

Life has been good to me over the last 12 years of my academic career. Each August through May, I've had the pleasure of teaching students from around the globe at my high school in Dalton, Georgia, and each summer, I strapped on my backpack and took my turn exploring the world to indulge my passion for international travel.

Yes, life has been good and life has been quite comfortable, but over the last couple of years, I began thinking that it was time for me to get out of my comfort zone and try teaching abroad.

As soon as the idea surfaced, I often found myself making excuses for why it wasn't the right time. ... My parents are older and might need me ... I should accumulate more years toward my pension in retirement ... It will be so difficult to find a job.

Slowly, I came to the realization that there's never a right time to start anything, and I came to the realization that as a soon to be 49 year old, statistically speaking, I'm past the half-way point in my life. There's no guarantees that if I wait 10 years or five years that I'll be able to teach overseas or that I'll even be alive.

I'm not being morbid. I'm just being honest.

During the winter, I joined a couple of search firms and started casually looking, not necessarily expecting to find something this year, but life has a way of constantly surprising me. In May, I landed a great job teaching in Sngapore.

Next week, I'll fly to the Southeast Asian country to look for an apartment/condo, and toward the end of July, I'll officially start teaching. Singapore is on a South American schedule, meaning that students study from January through June, take a month-long break, and then resume studying until December, when there's another month-long break.

I'll be working at St. Joseph's Institution International School, where I'll be teaching both special education and English as a Second Language, which is what I've taught throughout my career.  I feel lucky to have been hired at such a fine school and look forward to the challenge. I'm also looking forward to delving into the Singaporean culture and discovering, for the first time in life, what it's like to be an immigrant.

Years ago, I read that moving is third on the list of stressful events behind only death and divorce. It's been quite hectic over the last few weeks packing up my life and preparing to undergo my 9,900-mile relocation, but it's also been a thrill knowing that I'm about to launch into the great unknown and begin a new chapter.

Once I get settled into a routine, I'll use this forum to share my reflections about the school and about Singapore. Thank you for your collective support, especially my family and my girlfriend who've done nothing but encourage me. I love you all.

Let the journey begin.

Death is Waiting - September 29, 2013

The eight-inch rock dislodged from the walls of the cave, hurtling toward the bottom of the 120-foot pit, where the caver was standing, unaware of the potentially lethal projectile.

The rock smashed into her wrist, slashing her skin and leaving behind a swollen reminder of the encounter. But what if the rock had crashed on top of her head or landed on her face?

Death is waiting.

Last month, I decided to visit my sister. Friends often tease me about driving too slow, but on this particular afternoon it might have saved a life.

As I crested a hill, a child suddenly shot around from behind a blind curve into the middle of the street, after losing control of her bicycle. If I had been traveling one mile per hour faster or been distracted by a text, I'm convinced I would have plowed into her.

Death is waiting.

A couple of days ago, I read an excellent article in National Geographic about longevity. Assuming an average life span of about 80 years, the article pointed out that major health problems such as cancer, diabetes, stroke, or dementia will likely begin surfacing around the age of 61, the very time when many retirees finally get around to pursuing their dreams.

Death is waiting.

Maybe, we should all reflect more on our finite existence on earth. What are we putting off - vacations, spending more time with our families, righting a wrong?  Maybe, we should all get started on our To-do lists today because sometimes tomorrow never arrives.

A Barrage of Questions - Chicago, IL - July 24, 2013

I'm home safely in the United States, but it wasn't easy, and for awhile, I wasn't sure if immigration wanted to let me return.

I knew the flights, themselves, wouldn't be a picnic. The actual flying time was 25 hours, but with layovers, I was on the road more than 30. That's the price one pays for a 10,000 mile journey, so I'm not complaining.

While flying home, I anticipated a lengthy encounter with immigration and that's exactly what I got. It makes sense. After all, I was gone almost two months wandering around Southeast Asia, an area known for drug production.

My first glimpse of what was in store for me back in America started in Hanoi, when the airline wanted to know how long I'd stay in Bangkok and to prove I had a return ticket. When I left Bangkok, the woman at the check-in desk frowned as she looked at my passport. She then asked me to write out my home address, which I assume was meant to test me because I think she had the information on her monitor.

The real fun occurred in Chicago. The airport has a new computer system designed to speed up the immigration process. A passenger scans his passport and, if everything checks out, moves into an expedited line. When I scanned my passport and printed my receipt, a large "x" covered my picture. I knew then there would be no speedy line for me.

The clerk in passport control asked me a host of questions. She seemed particularly intrigued by why I had spent so much time in Southeast Asia and covered so much ground.

After finishing the friendly interrogation, I moved over to customs. Normally, I'm waved through without any questions or even a glance at my backpack. Not this time.

I was sent alone to an area with a table and an interrogator. He was excellent. Had I been hiding something I'm sure he would have tripped me up. He would have made Perry Mason proud.

The gentleman seemed to purposely want to be confrontational and rattle me because he asked a series of rapid-fire questions in an annoyed manner like he didn't believe a word I was saying and couldn't stand to be in my presence - "What's your job?" ... "What do you teach?" ... "What's the name of your school?" ... "Why did you travel for so long with just a backpack? You've got to have more luggage." ... "Why would you want to go to Southeast Asia?" ... "What did you think of Vietnam?"

Of course, he asked me multiple times if I was carrying drugs. At one point, I said I didn't use drugs, to which he replied, "That doesn't mean you aren't transporting them."

Throughout the interview, he asked questions more than once in a different way. At one point, he studied my passport and asked me where I had obtained my Vietnamese visa. The information was printed on the visa, but I think he wanted to see if I could recall the information.

"So you paid $100 for the visa?" he asked in an offhand manner, to which I replied, "No, I paid $60." I'm sure he knew how much I paid but, again, wanted to rattle me.

Then, he asked me to tell him some places I'd visited in Thailand. I listed several and said I then crossed over into Laos.

He cut me off. "You took that two-day party boat." Actually, I did take a two-day boat down the Mekong River to Luang Prabang, but I disagreed with his characterization of the ride.

"It wasn't a party boat," I said. "It was much too hot to be drinking on the river."

That annoyed him a little bit. "Plenty of young people get loaded," he said. I wasn't going to argue because he held my fate in his hands.

After what seemed like 20 minutes of questions, he opened my pack. I expected him to methodically check everything, but he just pulled out a couple of items and entered some information into a computer. I guess the real test was the interview.

Even though the experience was a bit intimidating, I wasn't at all annoyed. Had the situation been reversed, I might have done the same thing with a backpacker who spent almost two months in Southeast Asia.

I cleared customs, but I wasn't done yet with the intense scrutiny. Next, I had to go through the check point to take my remaining flight from Chicago to Atlanta. The agent scanned my bag. Afterward, another agent walked up and, in a very polite manner, asked if the bag belonged to me.

I said yes. "Something doesn't look right," he said.

The agent examined my pack and pulled out several items, including four masks I'd bought. "We'd like to rescan your bag and scan the masks separately."

Again, I wasn't at all offended and thanked him for his vigilance. "Most people complain," he said. "It's nice to get a compliment." I'm all for anything that makes flying safer.

The rescan seemed to satisfy their concerns, but the agent performed one final test. He swabbed two of my masks with some kind of strip and ran the strips through a machine. I'm not sure if he was checking for bomb residue or drug residue, but I passed the test.

There's nothing I'd rather do than travel, but I must admit I get a thrill out of the return trip, knowing that I'll be arriving in a familiar place where I understand the culture, the legal system, and can call someone if I have a problem.

The flight landed late in Atlanta at almost 1 a.m., but my Uncle Ben and Aunt Cinda were waiting outside the terminal with smiles on their faces. Aside from the familial connection, they are two of my favorite people in the world because they are extremely interesting, generous, and great hosts.

When I finally dropped my exhausted body into the back seat, Cinda handed me a goodie bag with water and snacks. She'd thought of everything. For the first time in nearly two months, I could completely let my guard down and allow someone else to take over.

Now, I'm back in Dalton and my trip has officially ended. It was a great summer. There were lots of high points and only one low - my getting sick toward the end of my time in Cambodia. At one point as my fever continued to rise, I seriously considered skipping Vietnam and heading back to Bangkok for treatment. Fortunately, it didn't come to that because I thoroughly enjoyed my two plus weeks in Vietnam.

People have already asked me what was my favorite country. I'd have to put Cambodia and Vietnam on about the same level. The people in Cambodia are some of the friendliest, most welcoming I've ever met, especially considering the hardships they've endured over the last 60 years, but the Vietnamese are also quite friendly, and it's hard to beat the food and scenery.

Even though I've got to head back to work, I hope that my blog might inspire someone to check out a foreign locale. I promise you won't be disappointed. As I often tell people, if a traveler encounters good things, like witnessing the sunrise at Angkor Wat, or hardships, like losing a passport for several hours, it still provides some entertaining stories.

Thanks for all of your e-mails and good wishes during my almost two-month journey. A few kind words go a long way when a traveler is thousands of miles from home.

It's nice to be back.

Tense Moments in Bangkok - July 22, 2013

Everything had gone so smoothly on my trip, until yesterday.

Earlier in the day, I had a bad omen with my passport. When checking in for my flight from Hanoi to Bangkok, something about my passport bothered the clerk, so much so that she called over a supervisor.

Afterward, the clerk asked me how long I planned to spend in Thailand and then wanted to see proof I had purchased a return flight to America. Hmm.....When I showed her my flight confirmation, she was satisfied and printed my boarding pass.

The one hour, twenty minute flight was great. If you ever have a chance to take Qatar, do it. The plane was spacious, the attendants well trained and professional, and even though it was such a short flight, we still got fed.

Immigration in Bangkok was a breeze and soon I was checking into a hotel. As in my countries, the receptionist asked to make a copy of my passport. I set it on the counter. While she was filling out some paper work, an American man and his wife walked up and began talking to me. A few minutes later they left for dinner.

After paying for the room, I asked for my passport back. The woman said, "You never gave it to me."Fear welled up inside me.

Most of the year my passport sits in a drawer collecting dust, but when I'm abroad, it's my most important possession. No passport meant no flight home.

The receptionist said she felt the American accidentally picked it up because, at the time, he was also checking in and put his valuables in a safety deposit box. She just didn't seem overly concerned, which made me angrier and angrier. "Something like a passport disappearing off the counter can't happen," I said.

She did a cursory search around the desk and said she was sorry, which set me off even more, especially since she insinuated it was my fault for talking to the American, even though I had set the passport on her desk, trusting I'd get it back.

For about an hour, I sat and waited for the American to return from dinner. Visions of spending days filing police reports and begging the American embassy to issue me a temporary passport filled my head.
While enduring the tense hour, a man walked up to me, who said he travels to Bangkok often. He wished me luck, but he said scams are common in the city and that my passport was probably gone.

That didn't help, and it infuriated me off even more that the attendant still didn't seem overly concerned. I had to take a walk.

When I returned, she held up my passport, saying the American had accidentally put it into the safety deposit box, not realizing his mistake. I felt like jumping for joy. This morning, I ran into him, and he said, actually, she had put the passports into the box.

I apologized to the clerk for getting upset, and she finally acknowledged she had made a mistake not immediately securing my passport.

I'm always so careful with my passport. I learned a valuable lesson that I never should let my guard down with such an important document, even if the hotel clerk is three feet away.

With the relief of getting my passport returned, my spirits were high, meaning I had a terrific final night. Central Bangkok reminds me a lot of Times Square back in the 1980s - bright lights, excitement, great food, people from all over the world, and a lot of seedy characters and illicit activities. Let me put it to you this way. Today, two different prostitutes at 7 a.m. were already pestering me to pay for their services.

Tonight, around 3 a.m., I begin my flight home. I'll let you know when I return to America. As always, I'll be in touch, but it might be a couple of days because of the jet lag.

A Slice of Paradise - Ha Long Bay, Vietnam - July 20, 2013

Many times the claims of travel writers never seem to measure up to reality, but I can say without any exaggeration that Ha Long Bay is stunning. It's one of the most beautiful places I've ever seen.

The bay is surrounded by jagged, limestone cliffs rising hundreds of feet into the air. That's impressive enough, but even within the water itself, limestone islands jut up from the depths, towering overhead. Sailing through the bay is like navigating a rocky obstacle course.

It's so beautiful that it's easier to overlook some of the plastic and other garbage floating in the water. The ecology movement apparently has not yet arrived in Vietnam. It's too bad. Hey, I try to write the truth.

I visited the UNESCO Word Heritage Site on a three-day, two night, all inclusive tour. Normally, that's not my style; however, my time in Southeast Asia is growing short and it seemed to be the best way to get there. I must admit it was relaxing having someone handle all the logistics.

The first day 16 of us from seven different countries boarded a junk boat, a wooden vessel popular throughout China and Vietnam, a boat you've probably seen in the movies. Initially, we sailed to a cave, which obviously made me happy. Afterward, we kayaked and finished off the day swimming alongside the boat. That night, we slept aboard the craft. It wasn't the Ritz but quite comfortable.

The next day our group went ashore to Cat Ba Island, where we toured a national park and hiked up a mountain to take in the view. That afternoon we checked into a hotel, and I spent the rest of the day checking out three beaches with my new French friends - Thierry, an environmentalist; Julie, a fair trade worker; and Matthieu, a physics/math teacher.  We bonded immediately. As I've said before, I normally don't feel lonely on the road, especially with such fascinating people backpacking around the world.

The tour was definitely one of the highlights of my seven weeks here.

On the way back, I got some more insights into the perceptions of some tourists about Vietnam. During the bus trip to Hanoi, a young German guy turned around and said he felt that Vietnamese people were unfriendly.

Normally, I would have let it slide, but I feel just the opposite after having spent two weeks here and wanted to delve into his comment. I began by respectfully asking if he'd ever visited a market to buy fruit or try a meal......"No," he responded. Then, I asked him if he'd tried to reach out and communicate with anyone he'd passed. Again, "no," he said. At this point I said, "Maybe, that's your problem."

I'm sad he'll go home feeling Vietnamese are unfriendly. For the next few minutes, Matthieu and I discussed how much we'd enjoyed meeting the Vietnamese, hoping the German guy was listening. Actually, the experience made me reflect on how many times I've had a negative perception of strangers, probably because of what I brought to the interaction.

I'm now back in Hanoi and have run out of real estate. China lies less than 200 miles to the north. The Gulf of Tonkin is to the east, and Laos borders Vietnam to the west.  I've got two choices - take a 40-hour bus ride across Vietnam and Laos back to Bangkok or take a two-hour flight. Really, I've got one option. There's no way I'm spending that much time on a bus, especially after having already done an overnight train and three overnight buses.

So, tomorrow, I'm flying to Bangkok and the next day home. Throughout my trip, I've been pushing forward, trusting that everything would work out. I assumed I'd find an inexpensive flight back to Bangkok. A few days ago, I searched on the internet and went to a few travel agents.

Everyone kept pushing Vietnam Air, but I knew I could find something better. Finally, an agent said she could get me a good deal on an airline she'd never heard of before. It turned out to be Qatar, a middle-eastern carrier known as one of the best in the world for customer service. I smiled and told her I'd go ahead and take a chance on the cheap one. If it's anything like Etihad, I'm in for a great experience.

So, tomorrow, I'm flying to Bangkok and the next day coming home. It's hard to believe my journey is coming to an end. I've had a terrific time, but as the saying goes, all good things must come to an end. Plus, I'm looking forward to seeing everyone.

That's it from Hanoi. I'm tired and have a long day ahead of me. As always, I'll be in touch, but it might be a couple of days.