I am a 67-year-old retired businessman who has been an accidental writer all his life, and who now devotes his swan-song years to freelance travel, food, wine and cultural writing. Recently I liquidated all of my belongings except my beloved books, downsized to a backpack, and bought a plane ticket to Buenos Aires, with a two-night reservation at a hostel recommended to me by my vagabonding daughter Allison, who stayed here last year. In my first week I applied for permanent residency to be followed by dual citizenship. I write these words on my laptop from its makeshift perch atop a decaying wooden speaker that is the perfect desktop height as I sit hunched forward in the worn and tattered vinyl overstuffed chair that is ridiculously comfortable—all this in the community room of Puerto Limon where life is just beginning to stir at 7:30 a.m. Argentina time. I am preparing for months of extended travel throughout Argentina and other parts of South America, to be closely followed next summer by more of the same in the Far North of the Arctic region. I chose the hostel method of accommodation because it fosters interaction with other guests from all parts of the world; it puts me close to where I will learn the most. I seek far more than the tourist experience.
What will you do about healthcare?
In the process of getting here, some difficult questions needed to be asked and answered. At my age of course, one of the first such questions is what will I do about health care? Coming from a North American culture obsessed with longevity and denial of the inevitable, this is, or should be, of paramount importance. What will be the quality of health care in a third world nation, what will it cost without the infrastructure and safety nets provided by the world’s most recent empire? My recent health care experiences in Port Richey, FL however, were a revelation.
Having recently co-authored a book on medical malpractice with neurosurgeon Larry Schlachter, MD, I am no newcomer to the illusions and dangers of American health care, and my conclusion had already been formed that the best way to live longer was to stay out of hospitals and away from doctors unless one had an urgent and indisputable necessity to seek one out. An infrequent user of their services, I was therefore nonplussed when I made an appointment just prior to my leaving in order to have a quick check-up and stock up on some emergency meds. After waiting in a crowded waiting room for 1 ¾ hours, I was ushered into an exam room where I waited an additional 20 minutes, interrupted by a pleasant young lady who took my blood pressure and who asked why I was there. The next person to show up was a Nurse Practitioner, who sat facing a computer and who asked a few questions and spent a lot of time apparently copying and pasting various responses into required fields. She obligingly filled all the prescriptions I requested, walked out without indicating our exam time was now completed, and leaving me to wonder what would happen next. Entire time expired: approximately 11 minutes. Actual face time was less than two minutes, during most of which she listened with seeming indifference to the sounds from my chest transmitted through her stethoscope. My out-of-pocket cost for this office visit was $85 even with Medicare A & B.
The following day I went back to the office and asked the receptionist to give me a printout of the doctor’s notes from the day before, and I was astonished to read 1 ½ pages of things my Nurse Practitioner had discussed with me at considerable length. Astonished because no such conversation ever took place. It was all CYA documentation, all of which was clearly more important to the Nurse Practitioner and the institution where she was employed than my health. So when confronted by friends and family with whatever would I do about healthcare in a third world country, I couldn’t help wonder what exactly they thought I would be forfeiting by leaving such loving care behind in my reckless rush to adventure abroad.
I thought about my friend Perry Brown who devoted most of the last ten years of his life planning and implementing the indefinite prolongation of his brief tenure here by incorporating every new-found truth about life and health into his daily regimen, even to insisting on using only organic dish-washing pre-spray, something that upon further investigation turned out to be a 1% solution of pineapple juice and water. A few months ago he succumbed with considerable anger and bitterness to lung cancer after a difficult struggle.
I also thought about the tomatoes that tasted of cardboard and the avocadoes that went from hard to rotten on the day you purchased them. And surely I would miss the ubiquitous high fructose corn syrup that graced the list of ingredients of every packaged food in America. What would I find to eat in a third-world nation before I prematurely passed on from food poisoning and lack of advanced medicine to protect me?
Leaving the empire
But apart from all this, my friends persisted, what was I going to do, where was I going to live, and why, why, why would I leave the comforts of home and the greatest country in the world in some quixotic search for, for what exactly? Some politely said they hoped I found what I was looking for, and others wished me the happiness I sought. I could smell the benevolent condescension one might expect of close family members towards an errant and benighted kin.
If my friends are right, are we then to conclude that one of the primary purposes of the last third of our life is the prolongation of life itself? And don’t these conclusions about the superiority of the lifestyles and cultures we know seem a little smug and assume a lot? Especially by affluent travelers who equate brief visits to foreign locations with the actual experience of living there? My own experience has been that there are two different kinds of landscapes; one being of the postcard and glossy travel magazine variety, and the quite different one of participating actively in a culture and being there long enough to acquire respect and acceptance by those living it.
I have never been particularly impressed with travelers from North America to the far corners of the globe, assured of their self-righteous solutions to everyone’s problems inside and outside the empire. In my opinion it is a peculiar disease born of cultural arrogance and unwarranted certainty. It reminds me of how the Viking population of Greenland must have viewed the indigenous and primitive (by Viking standards) natives who survived long after the Viking colony disappeared into oblivion. A dangerous conceit in any time period.
“I hope you find the happiness you are looking for.”
About the I-hope-you-find-happiness greeting: Assuming benevolent intent, thank you. However I do not seek happiness, the Declaration of Independence notwithstanding. I do not think happiness can be successfully sought, and we probably rarely know if or when we are happy anyway. I am reminded of the old dog who asked the puppy why he chased his tail with such enthusiasm. The puppy replied that he knew happiness was in the tip of his tail and if he could just get his teeth in it he would never let go. The old dog replied that it was true: happiness was in the tip of his tail. But he had learned that if he just went on about his business, every time he looked over his shoulder, there it was right behind him.
Well, if not happiness, what then? I must surely be seeking something to make such a dramatic lifestyle change? Am I fleeing from something, or running to something?
My answer can best be understood by a comparison with this week’s Olympic competitions. All of them foster patriotism and national pride. I have wondered what a curious visitor from outer space would experience observing our Olympics. Without any investment in our arbitrary political divisions and borders, they would experience no emotion about the winners or losers. My personal experience was sympathy for the anguish of those participants who dedicated most of their young lives preparing for this event of a lifetime only to come close but not win.
Can life on this planet be experienced with objectivity by someone who lives here? Why not, when we consider that our most strongly felt sense of belonging usually is the byproduct of the accident of our birth? What would it feel like to transcend such arbitrary boundaries in favor of individual life, all individual life wherever and however it is lived? I stress the individual because all political and religious differences are about collectives competing with each other. Whatever inequalities exist in life, death is the great equalizer. We all die the same, and the great monuments do nothing at all for those they commemorate. What would it really mean to be a citizen of the world?
A citizen of the world
My comments here are not to be construed as support of one world government. I cannot think of anything worse. Due to human nature, it is vital that for all individuals everywhere, there is somewhere else to go, somewhere to flee from oppression. It is important to know where the borders are, however arbitrary and ridiculous their origins.
Nor am I advocating activism to change the world. I want to understand the world and expand my personal experience of it, to participate more deeply in its differences. Again, I would not want to be misunderstood here: my comments are not politically motivated and I am not advocating a left or right position, both of which are collective concepts and false alternatives. Nor am I an aging hippy or New Age world changer. I seek only to change and expand my own perceptions and experience. The world will have to take care of itself. And the world will have to make do with one less self-appointed savior telling everyone else how they should live, and providing the guns to make it happen.
So what? What’s in this for me? I will still die, and what I have learned will die with me. But then, why not live to learn? It has always brought me joy, and it has never bored me. Is this any worse than spending my evenings watching American broadcast propaganda or yet another Netflix movie? Who is more likely to have a more honest perception of global realities? Instead of being told what to see or what to think, I would prefer to trust my own on-the-street experiences.
It is a natural thing to want to belong to a group. But belonging to a group brings a high price tag. There is danger of adopting the thinking of group leadership as our own thinking, or more accurately said, as a substitute for thinking itself. There is a danger of being offered choices that aren’t really choices at all, and making us think we are participants when in fact we are not.
So the why of it all? I want the real experience of being a citizen of the world, and not the limited perspective of some specific part of it. I want to participate in different cultures as deeply as will be permitted to me. I want to be in the picture, not a gallery visitor.
Why Argentina? Indeed, why not? It is big, diverse, and for two hundred years has welcomed immigrants and does not view them with suspicion. Is it dangerous? I have lived in neighborhoods in Brooklyn and Newark during the 60s and early 70s when there were tanks and armored personnel carriers in the streets and I traveled cautiously but safely. Is Argentina politically unstable? Is the United States stable? No matter who wins this year’s elections, approximately one half the population of the country will hate the other half in power. How stable is that? No matter who wins, were you as an individual represented, or only as an invisible part of the collective? Apart from the power grabbing of groups, how much would effective government really have to do in the service of protecting individual rights instead of promoting group interests? Will your team win? My team is planet earth, and every individual life on it.
This is my journey, and it permits me to live my life with purpose. I can think of no higher calling.
Do I have all of the answers? I have very few and am making this up as I go along. Am I scared? Sometimes, but I’ll deal with it. I know most do not enjoy my circumstances but might love to share my journey. You’ll find it here, in this blog, and in various publications. Please subscribe on the home page of this website. I won’t flood your mailbox, and I will try very hard to make what you do get worth reading. Thank you for visiting, keep smiling, and know where the borders are. 🙂