Thursday, March 28, 2013

Not Particularly Exotic Destination: Hot Springs, Arkansas

Another place I visited last fall was Hot Springs, Arkansas.

For the sake of my continued identity vagueness, I'll say that it's a three-to-five-hour drive from where one of the family members I stay with in America lives. I went there to meet a Russian girl that I know from the old days, who was also living a three-to-five hour drive away.

Hot Springs is famous, of course, for its hot springs; but these days only a couple of its famous bath-houses remain open, and you pay quite a bit to bathe in the piped-in thermal waters. (Formerly advertised as healthy due to low amounts of radioactivity.)

Now it's mostly a pretty quiet place; families roving about with ice cream and balloons, elderly people trying to ease their arthritis, and so forth. Its main claim to fame now is being the birthplace of Bill Clinton.

I had a pleasant enough couple of days there, though I can hardly say it was exciting.

But 100 years ago? That place was off the fucking hook.


I only bring it up as an example of my earlier statements (regarding Russia but applicable to anywhere) that you need to be not only in the right place, but you need to be there at the right time.

Back after the Civil War, Hot Springs became a center of illegal gambling, controlled by two Irish mobs. (Back before indoor plumbing was commonplace, don't underestimate the draw of taking a nice bath, also.) A powerful, blatantly-corrupt political machine took over, rigging elections and happily accepting payoffs from both sides.
One night the parties got so out of hand they burned half the fucking town down

There was even a wild gun and knife fight between corrupt cops one day in 1899, right in the middle of the main street.

As the century turned, major league baseball teams brought their players their for training. By all accounts, the nightlife was insane, with hardy-partying ball players like Babe Ruth rubbing shoulders with gangsters like Al Capone and Owen Madden in the swank hotels, speakeasies, and gambling dens. Prostitution was rife, of course.


While all of that lasted quite a while, relatively speaking, after World War II the political machine was dismantled by crusading returning GI politicians, and the illegal gambling was finally stomped out in the late 60s, and its now just another middling family tourism destination.

Ah, but of course, some things never change ...

Saturday, March 23, 2013


I don't know, this is perhaps a bit silly and fey (third usage there) for a blog entry, but I've seen a few other indie authors do this, and I can't get the idea out of my head, and my bad toothache prevents me from writing something more intelligent.

Here's some insight into the music that I was listening to while I wrote my books, and that I think would provide a good soundtrack to reading them.

TO TRAVEL HOPELESSLY was all about the retro; I listened to a lot of Led Zeppelin, especially FOOL IN THE RAIN. My days in Thailand always seemed drenched in typhoon rains.

While I was cobbling SPEAKING ACTIVITIES together, I was struggling to inject humor into a not-especially-humorous topic; to keep it light, I listened to a lot of "funny" rap songs, especially Childish Gambino.

HOW TO SURVIVE LIVING ABROAD was written during one of our "test" weeks in the Sandbox; I'd go proctor an exam for a couple hours in the morning, then go run around the football field and do a workout with jumping and pushups and vaults; then I'd go home and drink coffee and write like hell for hours; from concept to uploading in about three weeks, I think. I fixated on this song by Asher Roth, which matched the simultaneously determined and savage yet tongue in cheek feel I wanted for that book:

Then of course, VODKABERG. That motherfucker came hard. Bad and bittersweet memories and a dark tone, which I wanted to approach in a certain way.

I'm looking at the notes I made for my editor, who generally disliked the book on the grounds that it was too disjointed and dark; I rather grandly proclaimed that I wanted to "deconstruct the dark heart of sex tourism and expat life." See there, it's not just a bunch of stories about vomit and drunk sex! It's a DECONSTRUCTION!)

Who else could it possibly be, but Nine Inch Nails? Especially this remix:

and this one:

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Death and Taxes

Man, I think I'm actually going to have to pay some TAXES this year.


Some of you probably wonder about the tax situation of English teachers; although I'm sure many more of you wonder about the poontang situation of English teachers, let me address the first topic, as the second topic has been well covered.

I talked about this a bit in HOW TO SURVIVE LIVING ABROAD. People ask me about it a lot in America though, assuming that I have to bank my money in the Cayman Islands or whatever.

No, I have to explain, the money is clean. It's like this:

Currently, there's a $92,000 exclusion on income earned from a foreign employer. So since I worked for a foreign entity, and was in another country for a significant part of the tax year, I can take a tax deduction for up to $92,000 of the money I earned.

Now of course I didn't earn anywhere THAT much in a year. I was making a bit over $4000 a month in the Sandbox, though, plus some various bonuses, and I don't have to pay taxes on any of that.

(Before 2009, I don't think I ever earned $20,000 a year, and for a number of years, no more than $12,000. But I did get to keep it all, at least.)

I've paid about $12,000 total into social security in my life, from a couple of college jobs and a year of English teaching employment in New York; most people seem to agree that's no big loss, as everybody expects it to go belly-up soon.

Now of course a lot of English teachers don't bother to file tax returns - this is one of the big things that comes back to bite you on the ass in the event of ever trying to get a real job. (Not that I've ever really tried, but I'll soon share some stories of Crazy Bob's attempt to get a real job working for the government. No tax history? Foreign wife? No government job.)

Just FYI, the form you need to file the income exclusion is the 2555. The 2555 EZ will suffice for most English teachers, and then you'll be in good standing with Uncle.

However, I made enough money from E-books and investment gains and dividends in 2012, that I'm actually going to have to pay the US government some money. I've been sitting here wrestling with Turbo Tax for most of the day, trying to find some more deductions, but the red number $542 still remains stubbornly fixed to the top of the screen.

E-book income is taxed like a royalty, incidentally; you get form 1099 misc from Amazon and the other retailers. It's not earned income, so I can't deduct it by (for example) opening an IRA.

The American tax code is so laughable. Does any other country force its residents to sit down and do a math workbook every year?

Any accountants reading, feel free to offer me some advice.

And then the other awful American expense -- health care. I need a root canal and a crown, which in America will cost about $2000 total. (The best endodontist in town happens to be a guy I went to high school with, and he cut me a 20 percent discount, but the price of the crown remains stubbornly high.)

I suppose I could fly to Russia or Costa Rica and get the work done for less than half that, with the various risks that might entail. Haven't decided yet. I mean, of course, you can sue the dentist if they fuck up over here, but the cost of that lawsuit is kind of built into the price you pay.

Anyway, soon -- back to the world of English teaching. I'm pretty sick of fucking around with e-books, I must say. Little teaser on the subject -- I have a job interview for another position in the Middle East soon. And that motherfucker pays such a high salary, I might be paying even more taxes in the future...

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Red Dawn

What a difference a decade makes. Have the Russians actually won the Cold War? Maybe it just took them a while to realize it.

If you'd told my students ten years ago that major tourist destinations all around the world would be packed with Russians, and there would be Russian menus everywhere, they'd have laughed their asses off. The place I stayed in the Dominican Republic has a "Russky Magazin" across the street, staffed and owned by Russians for Russians.

While Russia's economy has slowed down considerably since the mid 2000s, and is tied pretty tightly to the price of oil, it still seems (by the numbers) healthier than the massively debt-ridden economies of the US and Europe.

Anecdotally, I've recently visited the Nissi Beach area of Cyprus, and Punta Cana, which are packed with Russian tourists, and I saw good-looking and healthy people -- slim and attractive women, burly and straight-backed men. Their clothes are considerably less goofy than they use to be, too.

The British and German and Canadian tourists I saw were mostly stoop-shouldered, pale unhealthy-looking old blobs. I was particularly unimpressed by the British in Cyprus -- snaggle-toothed, pot-bellied, covered with blurry tattoos, drunk at 10:00 am -- and usually dragging equally obnoxious children around. These are the ravers I was dancing on the beaches of Thailand with 20 years ago, now in their equally dissolute middle-age.

Funny how it all works out!

Alas, civilization has its price. It's now illegal to drink on the beach in Vodkaberg and all the cheap cafes in the park and on the embankment were closed. Apparently you can't buy alcohol of any sort, including beer, in shops after 10:00pm in a number of cities. The NEW New Russians, the second generation of successful and middle-class Russians, don't drink as much.

Article about alcohol consumption in modern Russia. Onward and upwards, comrades!

Monday, March 04, 2013

The Pure Life in the Rich Coast


I went to Cyprus in September, with the girlfriend; after failing to get the American visa, she was more than a little flustered about the future. The main Plan B that I offered her was to move to Cyprus, or any other country she could get a visa to, but she was concerned at the idea of going there without a firm job offer or a ring on her finger. The nomadic, devil-may-care lifestyle does not appeal to her.

"After Christmas I'll decide," she told me.

So I decided to go to Costa Rica in November. 

I hadn't backpacked anywhere in a long time. I've been on record to my friends recently as saying things like, "I never again want to go anywhere I don't have a good fucking reason to be." 

But I don't know, I have a friend living down there and as fall descended on small-town America, the idea of some tropical adventures began to appeal to me. Costa Rica of course is probably the second most popular destination for backpackers after Thailand, and I'd never been south of Mexico. 

I went for five weeks. A bit of an odd number? Well yeah, but my mother was diagnosed with cervical cancer right before I left, so I decided to come back to be around for her recuperation. (She's doing well by the way.) 

Here's a little write-up on my middle-aged backpacking adventures in Costa Rica.


The capital has a few impressive plazas but looks pretty down-at-the-heels and shabby, with lots of dangerous holes in the sloping streets and gaping gutters that seem designed to trap and kill drunken tourists.  

I went for a few drinks at the Hotel Del Rey, considering perhaps that I had a hall pass to get drunk and bang a bunch of whores; they were so bizarrely-proportioned with all their silicon, that I didn't really see any that I liked. Some of them had the builds of Jessica Rabbit. 

But as a rule they also had bad skin, paunches, bad teeth, bad breath, and glazed dull eyes.

The going rate seemed to be $100 a night; but they all seemed to expect me to be staying at that hotel, which I wasn't.

I idly discussed life with a couple of them, asking them about their breast implants. 

"I paid $5000 for mine, but now they're much cheaper," said one. 

Good news for guys who like beach balls. I'm not one of them. 


My friend and his wife were traveling to Puerto Viejo, on the Caribbean coast, with his wife's sister and her husband; I tagged along. 

It's a cool Caribbean little surfer / backpacker town, but this being November, it was all but deserted, and soaked in rain. A few Europeans tourists, a few crazy old American retirees.

The huge amounts of rain kind of put the damper a lot of my activities, but I did quite a bit of exploring on the seemingly endless stretches of beach there. The waves were too high to enjoy swimming much, and I didn't get around to trying any surfing. 

The local bar was amazingly sinister looking, for it being a backpacker hangout. There were some genuinely scary-looking locals hanging around the street selling drugs and eyeing the tourists.

 My Costa Rican friend had nothing but words of warning about going out in the evening. There was a crazy Vietnam-vet American retiree there who supported that sentiment. He warned me to wear boots, not sandals when I came in, because fights broke out often. 

Sadly, I have no reports of violent confrontation or robbery to share with you. I spent a  good amount of time in the hammock reading, actually, in my amazingly comfortable $25 a night hotel. (That's one of the main dangers of getting an accommodation that's too pleasant -- you'll spend too much time there.)

I did manage to go to an animal rescue place, where I saw baby sloths, jaguars, falcons and owls, and of course monkeys, one of which refused to let go of the big-breasted Spanish guide's hair.  


The weather was so rainy in Puerto Viejo that i checked and then left to the Pacific side, to the upmarket beach town of Samara. (Fans of my Russian adventures will probably know why I chose to visit THAT town.)

I stayed in a backpacker hostel, in a private room with bath that was $30 a night. The hostel owner was a cheerful Canadian guy, and it was nice to see an older guy abroad who wasn't a miserable bastard - his daughter was visiting him and he seemed to enjoy his life.

He did tell me, however, that being the proprietor of a seaside hotel wasn't as idyllic as it sounded. He said the salt air pretty much destroyed everything, especially paint and electronics, so they were constantly doing repairs.

Like my Costa Rican friend, and other foreign business-owners I met, he was bitter about the recent turns of the government; all the tax breaks and stuff designed to lure foreign investors and residents were being cancelled and even reversed; they even said there was some talk of retroactively taxing foreigners. He didn't even have permanent residence; he continued to go back and forth on three-month tourist visas. 

Samara's long stretch of beach was lovely; disappointingly I discovered that the coral reef system was pretty much all dead and bleached. Sometimes I'm glad I'm old. In fact sometimes I wish I was about ten years older. It would have been awesome to be 18 in 1978, I bet that year rocked. 


After Samara, I took off to Montezuma, another backpacker / surfer place, also pretty much deserted in November. I got a $10 a night cubicle on the beach with shared bathroom.

Now here's the Costa Rica I imagined. The village is kind of in a crevice in the jungle, so it's pretty much teaming with monkeys and iguanas; there's a national park at one end of the town.

The first hotel I stayed at had an open hallway where the shared toilet was; apparently monkeys kept climbing in on the telephone wire, and one took a shit on the floor. 

So I spent a lot of time hiking through the jungle parks nearby; still didn't quite get around to trying surfing or anything but I did a couple of silly tourist things like zip-lining. (South Park summed that one up pretty well.)

There didn't seem to be much going on at night; the bars seemed mostly empty by 10:00 pm. Everybody always seemed to be getting up early the next day to go surfing or hiking or whatever. Maybe it was just the time of year. 


Then I went up into the mountains; first, the strange little Quaker colony and ecotourism destination of Monteverde, where all the tourists seemed to be Canadian couples in their 50s. I can offer you this money-saving tip about the place - there are about three different cloud-forest parks there, but unless you're a biologist, one pretty much looks the same as the others. 


So I wrapped it all up with a week in the shadow of Mount Arenal in La Fortuna, where I went on a flurry of tours. 

I'd always avoided stuff like that in the past, but I figured, well, I'm middle-aged now, it's okay. And how are you going to know you think ziplining is stupid, until you do it? So I did a bunch of them -- river wildlife trips, guided hikes, hot springs, nocturnal wildlife-spotting expeditions, and even whitewater rafting.

It's amazing how boring something like whitewater rafting becomes when you've got a few fellow tourists and guides around you. I mean, it's relatively dangerous - one guy fell out of the raft and gashed his leg open pretty badly. 

But as far as that goes, it was a lot scarier walking around San Jose by myself looking for the west coast bus terminal. 

Sadly Mount Arenal isn't spitting lava anymore. Never seen an active volcano.

I climbed to the peak of its sister volcano, Rincon de la Viejo -- 

I badly underestimated this climb, which took about five hours of gruelling ascent damn near straight up. There are steps and such put in, you don't need ropes or anything, but's it damn near killed my 43-year-old ass. (Internet tells me it's over 6000 feet up.) I nearly gave up several times as the day wore on; but I forced myself to push on, stopping every few minutes, completely exhausted.

And I got to the top just in time for cloud cover to completely obscure the view of the town and the lake in the bottom of the crater. Then by the time I got down I was so dehydrated and jock-rashed I pretty much couldn't get too far out of bed that next day. 

Let this be a lesson, kids. Sometimes giving up is the right decision. 


Costs in Costa Rica seemed oddly skewed; as I said, you could get a hotel for $10 - $30 ($40 + in the capital) but it seemed like the simplest rice-and-beans kind of meal ended up costing $6 and up, and with a beer, closer to $10.

The tours are where they get you - $40 or $60 for the average tour, $10 - $30 for many of the national park admissions. 


I didn't find Costa Ricans over friendly, though they certainly weren't unfriendly; they seem to look right through tourists, for the most part. They don't bug the tourists, at least. (That's usually the sign of a well-organized, corrupt, violent Tourist Police. God bless 'em.) 


As for usual non-whore Costa Rican babes, I didn't get the impression it would be easy pickings. All the young ones I saw seemed to be pregnant, and the older ones were ... er ... built for comfort rather than for speed, as they say. 


I was surprised by how many old people I saw backpacking -- in their 50s and 60s. Again that aging population. Plenty of older middle-aged guys wandering around, and of course those frumpy women toting dog-eared copies of EAT PRAY LOVE. 

The "Milllenial" backpackers I talked to actually kind of impressed me. They were usually polite, friendly, and well-spoken. (Something my generation did not excel at - Generation X backpackers back in the 90s were sarcastic, obnoxious and surly, in my experience.) 

Most of the ones I met in November seemed to be professionals who had part-time schedules -- that is, they'd work until they finished a contract or a project, and then take a few weeks or months off. I didn't ask too many details, but met a geological engineer, a couple of lawyers, a guy in investment and securities consulting, etc. 

I guess they could have been unemployed bullshitters, for all I know, but it seems a much better life-model than scrounging along as an underpaid English teacher. 

So! Costa Rica. Not bad. Like it. They got SLOTHS down there. And I didn't even get diarrhea.