Feeling like we’re perfecting the Experimental Overseas Early Retirement a little more each day, Diane and I are now holders of valid retirement visas in two Southeast Asian nations at the ripe old ages of 52 and 46. Despite the guy in Penang that literally followed every word I wrote to secure his MM2H Visa in Malaysia, I’m certainly no genius as shown by this blog which doesn’t even include hashtags, revenue generating advertising or commercialization of any kind. But I did read an article on Marketwatch.com this morning that discusses a new IRA rule allowing Americans with 401k plansto make penalty free early withdrawals at age 55 in cases of “job separation”. (No, you can’t quit at age 54 and then withdraw money the next year and if you roll your plan into an IRA as we did, the rule doesn’t apply). Intentionally designed to catch your eye with a headline, first they discourage this rather foolish act and then explain how most Americans can’t afford to retire at age 55 proving why you should probably get your financial ideas from those with no vested interest in watching others make mistakes.
Our first visitors came from China
Rarely talking about our personal finances because the boss in the relationship insists we keep the specifics private, I’ll share a few tidbits that illustrate how we’re doing after almost two and half years with no employment income. Planning a budget of 40-45K USD annually including rent and travel, Malaysia was an easy place to meet the goal because there’s nothing to do in Penang and we mostly cooked our own meals since we didn’t like the food other than duck rice and inexpensive noodle soups. Spending most of our cash travelling to places like Cambodia, Myanmar, Bali and Australia, we skimped on the non travel months and ate in almost every night. Relying heavily on our “no foreign transaction fee” U.S. dollar credit card, we also took advantage of a plummeting Malaysian Ringgit and saved thousands since almost every business other than food courts takes credit cards in Malaysia with no merchant fees.
Glancing at the Yahoo business headlines today, I came across an article about annoyed Starbucks employeescomplaining about heavy workloads, excessive demands being made on them, increases in drive through orders and a host of other issues. Obviously, the head honchos in the boardroom are sadly unaware of how things work outside the United States. Returning from a local diagnostic center halfway between Gurney Plazaand Georgetown that screened my blood for cholesterol and glucose, we decided to stop in at a well furnished Starbucks for a french press. ironically, it’s in the lobby of Penang’s largest hospital and my prior experience visiting the Starbucks in Diane’s old employer’s lobby (a large San Francisco hospital) made me think twice about stopping. Constantly crowded, waiting twenty minutes for a grande latte wasn’t an uncommon occurrence. But alas, this is Malaysia.
Sharply contrasting the retail world we left two years ago, Starbucks in Penang cracks me up. Not even opening until 8 AM or later, Malaysians are not morning people, have no interest in a morning jolt of caffeine and would just as soon spend their mornings doing whatever it is they do instead of waiting on long lines, spending exorbitant sums of money on overpriced western products and then hanging out all morning long. Choosing just about any seat you want, a mid morning visit is an almost surreal experience where bored-shitless employees are so happy to see a customer, they’ll even give you the eight cup French press even though you ordered the smaller one (and paid the lower price). Unclear why or how the company wants to invest in a market where employees sleep on the job while their American counterparts slave away, it’s one of Malaysia’s fun quirks that we’re sucking up before making the next move to Thailand in a few weeks.
Speaking by text yesterday with a childhood friend I haven’t seen in 16 years, I laughed at his reaction to my Facebook post about inexpensive and efficient healthcare here in Penang. Jokingly asking how much it costs in Southeast Asia for braces, he implied he’d use that as an excuse to come visit and take care of his teenage son’s dental needs. Responding by asking when he’s retiring, he laughed and told me he’ll be working forever because he loves his Silicon Valley tech job. While admirable, I’ll never understand anyone that thinks working until you’re way too old to experience all the great things life has to offer ranks higher than early retirement. In his defense, he’s only 53 and probably has a lot more accomplishments left in his career. Conversely, I spent 31 years in and out of cubicles working as a support specialist for more investment advisers, banks and brokers than I care to remember. Other than learning how to be a self-directed investor able to amass a portfolio big enough for a shot at early retirement after my unexpected layoff, my working years garnered zero in the way of fulfillment or career satisfaction and always served as a means to an end.
Having read countless articles about people more successful than me choosing early retirement to attempt other personal goals, I set out with good intentions when we started our early retirement exactly two years ago this week. Unlike many others, exploring my inner skill set isn’t so easy. Uninterested in starting a business (the most common reason cited), I can’t see working 100 times harder than I did in the office and risking any capital when we have no income. Possibly the world’s least handy person, all things related to building, crafting or creating things are out and learning other languages sounds about as fun as a root canal. Highly fond of wildlife, we both talk about volunteer projects involving animals and our American friend (a working expat) who engages in 20 different things even gave us an opportunity to work with monkeys for a week. But we’d just returned from a three-week trip to Myanmar and the job demanded too much of an immediate commitment of our own money and resources so we tabled that retirement goal for now.
Which leaves me with the blog. Starting 2 1/2 years ago and not knowing anything about WordPress, the number of followers isn’t what I’d hoped nor is the level of interaction but having just passed 100,000 page views and now averaging over 100 per day, my no-nonsense blend of sarcastic realism obviously appeals to someone. Fascinated that over 38,000 people in 168 different nations spent some time reading my commentaries, this is probably as good as it gets for me when it comes to utilizing modern technology. So I’ve decided to accept this milestone as a my first small accomplishment since retiring and although writing comes easy and I enjoy sharing stories, I guess it’s a skill and it may wind up being my best and only creative endeavor. Pondering what to write to commemorate the event, I decided share five of My Own Personal Favorites that haven’t received as much traffic as The Reader’s Favorites. Thank you to everyone that’s ever spent some time supporting me.
Where the hell does the time go? Literally feeling like we just did this yesterday, once again empty folded boxes are sitting in our humble abode. Unlike the attachment one gets with home ownership, however, there’s no love lost on leaving our ninth floor condo and moving on to greener pastures. (Thailand is in fact actually greener). Now understanding what they meant in all the blogs, websites and articles that discuss why expats feel culture shock when they return to the homeland, we learned that moving, like almost everything in Asia, is a totally different experience. Having moved an entire three bedroom house from San Francisco to Calgary, back down to San Diego and then up to Walnut Creek, California, you’d think it would be routine but unlike in North America, the key word in Asia for almost anything is minimalism so if you’re contemplating such a move, you’ll need to adjust your thinking.
Goodbye old faithful used boxes.
First off, you’ll need to erase the memories of a Uhaul store and its fancy array of custom sized boxes from wardrobe to specialized art and five different sizes of square from small to extra-large. Hardly anyone in Asia owns 2500 square foot custom-built homes with three car garages, a large yard and room for a shed, pool and some specialized fruit trees. Therefore, we learned quickly that no matter who you call or how much you pay, the choices are standard box and large box. Alas, there’s no industry devoted to boxes, moving and packing either so if you’re thinking you’ll just buy new boxes, good luck with that. Stranger than as anything to us was the notion that hiring a “logistics” (moving) company in Asia means you’ll get empty boxes, packing material and tape delivered to your door by courier as soon as you put down a deposit.
Those of us old enough to remember school essays that were actually written with pen and paper probably had to do at least one standard version of “How I spent my summer vacation”. Here in the tropics it’s always summer and Malaysia is one of the few tropical nations sandwiched between two influential monsoon weather patterns which means there’s not really any seasons here with the possible exception of January through March when it’s almost always very dry. Usually planning vacations in Southeast Asia around wet and dry season, we hardly ever know what month it is here and were it not for internet radio and social media, we’d probably have no clue that summer is winding down. Celebrated as the last official weekend of summer, Labor Day marks back to school for North Americans but here in Malaysia, the end of August ushers in a slew of holidays celebrating everything from Malaysian Independence to the most important Hindu Festival of the year known as Deepavali.
As seasoned expats (all of 14 months), we’re not as inclined to investigate each festival because most expats check out whatever local holidays have to offer in their first year and decide which ones are worth coming back for. Sadly, very few Penang events are worth writing home about as far as we’re concerned so as we settle into our daily lives and try to save our cash for travel, we usually avoid the crowds associated with most holidays. Living in the nation’s most popular beach resort town means withering large crowds on public holidays but unlike the big city, big parades and spectacles are not really part of the festivities for most Malaysian holidays. Indian and Chinese holidays do have more glitz but Chinese New Year 2016 was amazingly devoid of fanfare In Penang and many locals blamed a weakened local economy combined with the first full year after the government implemented the GST (goods and services tax). Choosing to spend the Merdeka holiday with the island’s non human population of mostly friendly monkeys held more appeal to me than hanging out on crowded beaches anyway so that’s exactly what I did.
Seeming longer than four days, our first stint as tour guides in our newly discovered expat haven came to an end as we texted our favorite Uber driver and sent Jamie on her way back to the airport. (Here in Penang, there’s no Uber drivers way out by us so we use a personalized driver that usually comes or sends a friend and then we request the Uber ride when they’re in range. LIke most things in Malaysia, drivers go out of their way to accommodate.) Having a visitor so soon after arriving turned out to be fun because it felt like we rediscovered the island all over agin. Because Malaysia is such an easy place to become an expat in terms of adjusting we almost felt complacent already and they haven’t even stamped our MM2H visa. Fresh off a few days in Thailand, Jamie immediately felt the difference between the neighboring nations and really appreciated the unobtrusiveness of Penang’s laid back island environment. Spending some time in Bangkok and Phuket, she liked the beaches but hated the “in your face” attitude of Thailand and was ready for some relaxation and immersion.
Unfortunately, peace and quiet wasn’t part of my itinerary and I planned to use her time her as an excuse to do some things we’ve meant to do anyway. Hiking to Monkey Beach was high on my priority list so we hopped on the 101 bus, headed the other way and got off ten minutes away at the end of the line. Never attempting to use this blog as ether a “travel” or “foodie” blog, I wouldn’t attempt to describe things in a TripAdvisor review format. Instead, I’ll just write about experiencing a relatively simple jungle trek for two middle-aged fit people and a Pilates trainer. Hint: Jungle hiking is harder than typical North American hikes including high elevation day trips, which we’ve done many times when we lived an hour away from the Canadian Rockies. Recommending you start on a partly sunny day that doesn’t have any immediately threatening storm clouds, mother nature was on our side with some overcast popping out between the beautiful views. Last time we visited Malaysia’s smallest National Park, there were only four registered hikers all day but on this particular Friday morning, there were already a dozen or so hikers that chose to hit the trails including two Americans. (Hikers must register at the information desk and you’ll need to know your passport number.) Stopping for a quick pee, we headed out on the trail about an hour later than I would’ve preferred but her flight didn’t arrive until the evening before so we didn’t get much sleep because we had to hit Kafe Long Beach after she checked in.
Apologizing for the delay between posts, Diane and I are waking up to our first morning in the new condo. Actually, only one of us is awake which brings me to one of my first points that’s very different from our old life. Nobody in Malaysia gets up early, everything starts agent 8 AM and only the unfortunate souls forced to work in the ungodly morning hours are up. Starbucks doesn’t open until 8 which means I am the first customer in the door and I even found one location that brews actual “brewed coffee” albeit if I wait about 10 minutes since they’d never brew a pot unless some crazy American somehow requests coffee that’s not an espresso based drink. Of course the whole milk option is sure more flavorful than creamer and they usually pour me a little cup on the side as they slowly get used to the white boy who stands at the door waiting for his Morning cup of java. Actually, the incredibly great Starbucks that just opened here in Batu Ferringhi is about a mile walk from the condo so now I’ll be drinking Nescafé and enjoying faster WiFi speeds as I enjoy the view and update the blog.
View of the pool
Making the process of moving even simpler than we thought it could be, our incredible property agent showed up right in time, drove us to the condo and we met the owner, a feisty Chinese woman who came all the way from Johor in the southern part of Malaysia just to meet us. Having already read the relatively simple tenancy agreement or TA as they call it, we spot checked a few amendments, signed three copies which then have to head over to be “stamped” by the official powers that be, and they quickly ran through the semantics like the two car parks (that we don’t need since we have no vehicle), how to pay the rent (simply set up the landlord in as payee and do automatic debits from the checking account) and showed us where the management office and pool area are. Spending about another hour chatting, our new landlord seemed eager for us to stay as long as possible and asked if we’d stay forever. Laughing, we said we have ten years on the MM2H but we’d have to see how things progress. An hour later, the WiFi installer came by after calling us two days ahead of his appointment, asking if he could come now and spent less time than it takes for an American “service person” to even walk in the door to complete the entire process. (The topic of efficiency in Malaysia is for another post; from what we’ve seen, they counter everything we read about slowness, laziness and actually remind me of America in my childhood when customer service was not an oxymoron). The package comes with broadband service at 8 Mb and 17 free channels of useless TV for about $45 USD, not really unreasonable but one of the only expenses priced closer to western standards.