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15.2.11

That's One Small Step For A Man...

Three years ago today, I stepped off the plane and into a blazing equatorial mid-day. I had never been to Indonesia, nor eastern Asia for that matter. I knew one thing in the local language, "Thank you."

I had one suitcase, one carry-on and $1,000 in my pocket (two gold coins in my shoes, but don't tell anyone).

I also had a dream. I wanted to do something completely different. I was spinning my wheels in the States and I didn't particularly cotten with the general direction things were going there. I voted with my feet and became a transnational worker.

I was an early user of computers and the internet. I was using the internet when it was in its infancy. I had to use things like 'archie' and 'veronica' and 'fetch.' There were no graphic browsers. You typed an IP address into a box and when you got a response, it was little more than a directory listing, not unlike the old days of DOS.

Then some guys out in California asked a few people (I was at the University of Texas then) to use their program called Mozilla. It was earth-shaking, to say the least. I started building websites, hard coding everything. I built Brown & Root's first website. Those were heady days.

I immediately saw where this was heading. I knew the internet was going to change our whole way of doing things. Heck, I could be sitting on the beach in Bali, sipping a Singapore Sling and getting a massage while doing work in Germany...at the same time.

It didn't matter where I was or what I was doing, I could do pretty much anything I wanted anywhere I had a link. All I needed was for the world to catch up. It finally did. I even made a dollar or two in the process.

After years of preaching the 'transnational' gospel, I realized it was time to put my money where my mouth was. I sold off pretty much anything that wasn't necessary or portable. Got it all down to one 50-pound suitcase. I bought a ticket and here I am. Three years on and none the worse for wear.

I came here to do some marketing for a local coal company. My first assignment was Balikpapan, in Borneo. The first three months were, well, sheer hell. The only person I knew was in Jakarta, the equivalent of Houston to Chicago, with a LOT of water in the middle. I also knew next to nothing about the coal business and none of the language.

I spent three months in intensive training. I learned everything I could about coal. I went to the mine, studied the geology, watched the markets. I also spent the balance of my time buried in a translator dictionary and taking long walks everyday, stopping to talk to anyone who had the patience to listen.

In 90 days, I became an expert on the coal business in Indonesia, got conversant in a foreign language, and thanks to all the walking, I lost 80 pounds and cut off my beard for the first time in two decades.

Talk about your extreme make-overs.

The coal business became quite successful, forming a joint venture with a Thai concrete company. I finished my stint after two years and was ready for something new.

By now I was living in Jakarta and the world was pretty much mine. I decided to stay in Indonesia, because I was centrally located to most of Asia and Australia. The fastest growing monster economy was five hours flying to my north, and a number of the regional economies were on the verge of booming.

All I had to do was insert myself into whatever business I wanted.

I began writing and teaching full time, as well as working any deals that came my way, as a sideline. Thanks to the internet, the options available to me are pretty much endless. On top of that, I pay 10% income tax, have any number of legendary tropical paradises to vacation at, and a wealth of culture and history within hours of my home.

Becoming a transnational changed my life, literally and figuratively.I opened new avenues to explore and options to try that were unthinkable at home. When you change your surroundings so dreamatically, it is very liberating, if you can survive the initial shock.

I've read a lot of books on ex-pat living and transnationalism. I've studied the websites and added my own thoughts and information to the mix. One thing I have noticed is that not many of the sources talk about 'the shock.'

I was somewhat prepared for it, because I have lived overseas before. I knew there would be some adjustment time and even the occasional twinge of homesickness. But, I was not expecting what I faced.

It's one thing to move somewhere that is similar to home, say Europe or Canada or Panama, which is where a lot of folks I know have gone. It's something entirely different to uproot yourself and land in a world that is, as the name of this blog implies, 180-degrees from home.

Even though I spoke about 10 languages when I got here, all of them were European, and all of them were completely useless, with the tenative exception of English. And not just language, but food, culture, and the complete way of thinking about things that we take for granted was gone. The capper was, I was a LONG way from home. If anything happened, I was on my own, for the most part.

It's a terrible feeling of isolation. Especially when you can't just sit and talk to a stranger at the local watering hole. Severing one's self so completely from the safe and secure is difficult to cope with on a good day, and on a bad one is almost overwhelming.

Being a space nut and having done a couple of videos on astronaut training, I knew the most important thing was to stay busy. Your worst enemy is 'down time.' That's when you start thinking about what folks are doing back home, or worse, what YOU could be doing back home right now. That'll kill you fast.

Next, learn everything you can about you adopted home. Dive into the culture and surroundings, making it all as familiar and second-nature as you can. You more you know about your surroundings, the less isolated you feel. Learning the culture keeps you from doing stupid things that can get you in trouble, both socially and legally.

Finally, continue your hobbies or develop new ones. This will fill those times when you are tired of learning things and you really don't want to be out and about. Mine is gardening, and since I brought a pile of non-hybrid seed with me, I am able to grow some familiar foods, like jalapenos and cilantro and beefstake tomotoes. When I get that Texas feeling, I can whip up a batch of pico-de-gallo and enjoy a taste of the old country.

By the end of my first year, I was getting comfortable. Three years on, I feel quite at home, with a good circle of friends and a number of options for future development. It's rather trite, but sitting here tonight, it seems like only yesterday, and yet a lifetime ago, I stepping into the blazing equatorial mid-day.

It has NOT been easy, but then nothing worth doing ever is. It HAS been rewarding in hundreds of different ways. If I were to go back to December 2007, knowing all that I know now, I would buy the ticket with even less hesitation than I did back then. It has been worth every second and every drop of sweat and tears.

Deep personal change, either internal or external, is not easy. There are adjustment in ways you can never imagine ahead of time, no matter how well you plan. I came here with Plans A, B and C. I'm now on Plan G. I had to make it up on the fly.

Stay flaxible, watch your surroundings and stay focused. Do as much preparation as you can, but always remember that nothing will go the way you plan. That's part of the fun, really, if you look at it the right way.

No matter how much technology we have, the world is still a really big place. There are opportunities galore, if you are willing to invest in yourself and trust in the Universe.

As we say down in Texas, "You're only a stranger once."

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