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.
As the time winds down to our last two months in Malaysia, I’m reflecting on the success (or failure) of our Experimental Overseas Early Retirement.While it’s time to move on, I wanted to clarify a few things based on some recent comments. First off, I’m not writing a “travel blog”. With thousands of really good travelogues out there, I wouldn’t even try to compete with any of them nor am I trying to tell any of you what hotels, restaurants and attractions to visit. Rather, our blog is for sharing stories about two middle class North Americans that decided to try an overseas early retirement and not stay in the workforce after an unexpected layoff. Calling it an experiment implies uncertainty and neither of us knew if we’d succeed or wind up crawling back home desperate for work. Honestly, if I had my way, I’d either stay in Western Canada without working or live in a sub-tropical or Mediterranean paradise like Turks and Caicos, Hawaiior Monaco.
Asam Laksa – The best of Penang
But unless you’re born with a silver spoon or your family name rhymes with Hump, life isn’t about what you want to do all the time so we chose to push up our original plan a half decade or so by compromising some comforts in exchange for a middle class lifestyle in the developing world. Considering ourselves lucky with timing but smart enough to pay off most of our 15 year mortgage in 7 years thanks to a lot of Saturday nights spent watching free DVD’s from the local library, we always had an emergency plan for a possible mid-career job loss. Although it may not seem like it, we’re actually living that emergency plan (at least financially) and not some digital nomad dream. At the same time, we’re also not struggling to make ends meet in a place where almost everything is two-thirds cheaper than back home. Like most compromises, there’s positives and negatives and I’d rather write my blog as a storyteller. While I strive to be respectful of locals, expats and readers, there’s a lot of things that need a good dose of constructive criticism in Penang. Like our well-educated Malaysian friends of both Malay and Chinese descent, we’d love to see some attitudes and habits change along with the ultra modernization happening all over. Make no mistake; citizens, companies, and businesses that burn garbage every day and turn crystal clear air into stinking health hazards despite federal laws on the books for 45 years explicitly prohibiting this are not representing anything close to “fully developed”. Nevertheless, I’ll focus on some funny and positive aspects.
Naturally, while taking a break from the NHL Playoffs this week, I noticed a blog post from someone raving about the incredibly dry and beautiful weather they’re having in Bali this week. Only a few weeks removed from our short and partially rainy excursion to Southeast Asia’s most westernized beach destination, first this bothered me a bit. But unlike many visitors, one thing we’ve seen countless times are beautiful sunsets. With The Annual haze Event taking an 18 month break from Penang, skies are crystal clear and unlike last year’s El Nino event, the rain brings amazing arrays of cloud formations almost daily. One of the few things I’ll miss once we move to Thailand in July, sunsets aren’t high on our must do list and we mostly went to Bali to eat. And of course to sneak in some quality beach time despite living in a “beach community” that looks more like a stretch of dirty eroded sand with some shanty vendor stalls.
Sunsets in Penang have been quite beautiful lately
Possibly the most interesting fact about Bali from a culinary point of view is the amazingly large amount of pork dishes. As the world’s most populous Muslim nation, Indonesia should be the last place in the world you’d go for a bacon cheeseburger or a side of baby back ribs smothered in bar-b-q sauce. Bucking the trend, Bali’s population is about 80% Hindu which means Halal food is not the norm and hog heaven takes the place of chicken flavored everything. Oddly, I love pork more than Diane despite her Chinese heritage and choosing where to indulge in lip smacking fall off the bone deliciousness is one of the biggest challenges when you only have five nights. While you can find Indonesian variations of Malaysian style food like Nasi Campur, few western tourists flock to the island to sample local cuisine. And that’s a shame because unlike the very strange Indonesian version of Mee Goreng which is basically western style fried chow mein with some protein instead of Penang’s delicious mix of spicy tomato based sauce with delicious noodles, lime, and squid, Balinese is a unique and tasty style of Indonesian food and you shouldn’t miss it. With so many restaurants, finding what you want is daunting so we mostly searched “10 best xxxx style restaurants in Bali” and came up with some winners.
Oh, hello there. Yes, I know it’s been awhile since I’ve posted anything and no, we didn’t fall off the face of Batu Ferrenghi although I have been counting down the number of days left until we leave Malaysia and move to Thailand. (It’s 94). Having now learned what we’ll need to get non-tourist visas to Thailand and making enough new contacts to get an appointment at a Thai bank, we’ve been focusing our attention on the most important event of spring. No, not Songkran; the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Understanding many readers outside North America and northern Europe might be unfamiliar with the annual eight week ritual that sees 16 teams competing for the greatest professional sports trophy in the world, let me clarify. Canadians (and a small select group of awesome Americans) love hockey more than almost anything (except maybe beer). Easily the hardest championship to win, it takes four grueling “best of seven” rounds before players earn the right hoist the 34.5 pound cup overhead and crazed fans like us get, well, nothing really, other than bragging rights to rival fans.
Thanks to the internet and a little help from the earth’s curvature, all the playoff games start for us between 7 AM and 10:30 AM making almost every morning a breakfast time ritual for the next eight weeks. Alas, even we need a break from hockey sometimes and it’s my birthday this month so we decided on a short trip to Bali during the last week of the National Hockey League’s regular season. Wishing not to spend too much money, we decided on a five night package deal at a boutique beach resort in the relatively hip but not overtly loud town of Legian. Some readers may recall the problem we ran into when we first booked the deal. Realizing most things that seem too good to be true usually are, they offered the seemingly ridiculous hotel price of $116 a night during a unique Balinese holiday called Nyepi. Celebrating Hindu New Year unlike anywhere else on the planet, it’s known as “The day of silence”which means guests are not allowed to leave the resort and all work ceases for an entire day. Unwilling to waste precious time, we rebooked the dates, paid an exorbitant sum to Air Asia for change fees and went one week later. Naturally, there was yet another religious holiday called Galungan and it fell right smack on the day we slated for island exploration.
Fundamentally, every story has a beginning, a middle and an end. Except when you live in Malaysia where situations get stuck in limbo until you force an ending. About a year ago, Diane and I visited the offices of JPJ, an acronym for the Malaysian Road Transport Division which is their equivalent of The Department of Motor Vehicles. Hoping to take advantage of a benefit given to MM2H holders, we wanted to get Malaysian drivers’ licenses despite the fact that we’ve had no vehicle since arriving almost two years ago. Being an ASEANmember state, residents can drive legally in Thailand with a Malaysian license and since we thought an eventual move was in the cards, it seemed like a reasonable thing to do. Instead, it turned into one of those developing nation bureaucratic nightmares you hear about and try to avoid at all costs. Mostly skirting any instances of endless hours in government offices (which we’ll quickly make up for when we move to Thailand), our streak ended and proved that the chances of successfully convincing a Malaysian to bend any rules even when t’s their mistake are zero to none.
Recapping the story, Malaysia allows “automatic conversions” of foreign drivers licenses to certain countries including the U.K. and Hong Kong. Not long after we arrived, our neighbors, who are fellow MM2H holders and ex residents of Hong Kong, brought their current foreign license to the local office, paid a fee and were in and out in about an hour. Unfortunately, The United States and Canada fall into a different class deemed “non automatic” conversions that need applications and approvals from the head office in Putrajaya, the government’s administrative district. While only a minor extra step for expats living in Kuala Lumpur or the surrounding Kluang Valley, expats that choose quieter environments like Penang need to either spend time and money making multiple trips to the capital or apply at a local state office. Complicating things, there’s a special requirement for American citizens that involves a trip to the U.S. Embassy in KL. Requiring “verification” of your foreign driver’s license, they’ve decided that a local JPJofficer can certify a Canadian or Bangladeshi license, but only an affidavit with a pretty stamp and seal from suffices for Americans. Nowhere to be found on their website, we knew about this rule because our agent at Joy-Stay(Malaysia’s best MM2H agent) told us before we left North America so when we visited KL in July 2015 to complete our MM2H paperwork, we also made a trip to the Embassy. Charging $50 for a citizen notary service, they have a standard form created for this but in theory it’s stupid because a U.S Federal agency can’t legally verify any document issued by a state.
Hoping we’d escape my worst nightmare, I guess I was kidding myself thinking we’d make it until the end of our lease before it began. Continuing Penang’s destruction of the last town without massive development, the pile driving began a few days ago. Like clockwork at 8:45 AM, the ugly space they destroyed right past the new high-rise towers next door comes alive with the most unfathomable and disturbing sound that grates on me like chalk on a blackboard. Proving both the property agents, condo managers and landlord were absolutely full of shit when they rented us this condo 20 months ago, their claim that there’s no further construction planned in the once quiet town of Batu Ferrenghiwas as accurate as a tweet from Donald Trump. While we’ve already decided to get out of here, I’m not sure how I can endure four more months of ear shattering noise for nine hours a day for six days a week.
But we did take the first step towards liberation from construction hell by taking a quick 48 hour jaunt to the U.S. Embassy in Kuala Lumpur. Recently visiting Jim, Penang’s resident expert on getting all kinds of visas from the local Thai Consulate, he told us we’d need an affidavit stating that our assets exceed 800,000 Thai Baht, the minimum requirement for a retirement visa. Unlike Malaysia’s one step long-term MM2H Visa, Thailand is a never ending revolving door of reporting, applications for extensions and sometime visa runs. Depending on who you are and what you’re in Thailand for, there’s more choices than the supermarket. Also totally opposite from Malaysia, there’s no government website properly explaining requirements and rules for Thai visas and they literally change constantly so we opted for a series of conversations with people who’ve lived there awhile or moved from Penang to help us understand the proper way to get out of our overdeveloped nightmare. Continue reading →