Saturday, July 25, 2015

Twenty Years Ago Today: An Evening in the Soi

As I'm a bit busy on a holiday in the Ukraine at the moment, mainly in trying to keep Crazy Bob from getting arrested, here's a random journal entry from twenty years ago. In 1995, I'd been in Bangkok for a few months already after starting my first teaching job.

July 23, 1995

At about 11:00pm T and I went back to Banglumphu and cracked a pint of Mekhong whiskey at a little sidewalk food stand in the gritty soi near his guest house on Samsen. We also had sticky rice and a beef and chilli pepper dish that he explained was called "waterfall" because blood fell out of the beef while it was cooking. 

T chatted away in Thai with the various shady types skulking around in the dark alleys. One skinny little Thai man had a home tattoo of Mickey Mouse holding a giant hypodermic syringe. He shook my hand and laughed heartily. 

A cute little girl of about 16 or 17 wearing a Sailor Moon t-shirt joined us; T talked with her for a while and translated for me. She said I was very handsome. She seemed to be a whore, but was a bit vague about it. 

The guy with the hypodermic / Mickey Mouse tattoo and some other guys were sort of hanging around the fringes eyeing us.

"Are we about to get bushwhacked, T?" I asked.

"Oh no. They know me. The worst that will happen is that they'll beat us senseless and take all of our money." 

We had a drink to that. 

It eventually happened that a young floppy haired guy on a motorcycle came up. "My friend," explained the girl. The guy kept talking with T, always smiling, and then walking off and coming back. 

"What's he saying?" I asked

"I'm not entirely sure, but I know it's rude."

"What are you saying back?"

"I keep asking him if he's from Laos. It's a big insult to them."

The guy didn't do anything though, and we finished the pint and I walked back to Khao San road alone, leaving T with Sailor Moon and her boyfriend. 

He was still alive the next day so it must have been a good day.

* * *
I wonder what happened to my old mentor English Teacher T. I went by the Mall where we used to work at and the school didn't seem to be in there anymore. Wouldn't surprise me at all if he were still in Bangkok somewhere, though, sitting a soi drinking beer and eating pork. There are worse fates.

I don't see him on this barebones website for the school, (Although -- somewhat frighteningly -- there are several teachers there who have been there since the 90s.)

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Gear Revew: Lenovo Smartphones

So you're undoubtedly saying to yourself; never mind all your international tomfoolery and musings about mortality, X. What kind of phone you packing these days?

Well, I'm glad you asked.

Believe it or not, I didn't get a smart phone until 2013!

Before that I was sticking with the good old reliable Nokia hockey pucks. Man, I loved those things - you could hurl them across the room and smash them into bits, and usually you could then just snap them back together like a Lego and they worked just fine.

I think between 2002 and 2009, back in Russia, I owned about nine or ten of them. They usually got lost or stolen during drinking binges. But they were the most affordable phone you could get - between $50 and $100 and that time. (Although I usually bought them "second-hand" at the outdoor market.) 

But around 2009 I noticed the quality of the cheap Nokias was falling -- I had one just die on me, without even dropping it in a toilet or accidentally kicking it down a staircase.

Then the second one I bought died also, seemingly of heat prostration, on a beach in Dubai in 2013. Its little screen turned black, all the liquid crystals seemed to burst.

So I decided to go ahead and get a smart phone.

I'd already owned an Apple Ipod Touch (which died after a year in the Kingdom) and an iPhone 3, a hand-me-down from my mom, that only worked in America. I wasn't impressed with Apple's complicated iTunes bullshit or it's reliability.

The first smartphone I purchased was a Samsung Galaxy Ace, which also died almost immediately. It was under warranty so they repaired it, and it ended up going to my girlfriend's mom.

In the interim, the second phone I purchased was a Lenovo A850 with a 5.5 inch screen, and this I fell in love with. Great camera, fast and responsive, dual SIM, reasonable amount of memory, and a screen great for reading e-books (which is the main thing I used it for.) And I got it on sale for about $110.

This I left in a taxi cab in Riyadh about a month later.

So I replaced it with it's smaller cousin, the A560, and this I love also, if perhaps not as much as the larger one.

It meets all my requirements -- it works pretty well (even in America and a half-dozen other countries I've tried to use it in), it costs less than $100, and it's pretty tough. It's survived several nasty spills out of pocket while bike riding, for example, without even a cracked screen.

Several reviews on Amazon complain about the Chinese operating system, but I easily switched mine to English language and it runs Android and Google stuff with no problem.

It is starting to get a bit laggy though, as regards the apps and internet, so I probably need to upgrade soon. I think this is the longest I've ever owned a phone, actually, so I can retire it with honor, letting it rest in peace, and get the larger one, which I see is currently available on Amazon for $85.

(Edit, July 21st: These are not affiliate links. There are no affiliate links on this blog.)

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

South of the Border: Interview with English Teacher Phil

Owing to the relative dearth of information about the areas south of the Rio Grande and the Panama Canal on this blog, here's an interview with English Teacher Phil.

You can read about Phil's exploits in Oaxaca Mexico on his blog Tall Travels, at

How long have you been teaching, and where? 

I've been teaching for four years, one year in Buenos Aires and three years in universities in Oaxaca, Mexico.

What kind of qualifications do you have?  

I have a degree in History and a CELTA certificate

How did you find your first job?

I completed my CELTA after quitting the world of advertising and heading off travelling for a year. My first job was scraping together any classes I could get at institutes that I could find in Argentina. The market there is terrible for teachers as the city is such an attractive place to live for expats. I did a lot of private work for more business minded clients. Most people only go on word of mouth recomendations so it can take a while to find students.

What do you like / dislike about English teaching?

I love the variety of classes. One day you can teach a class about politics or cricket or mice, and the next day you'll have the students listening to your favourite music group for the first time. With education levels being so poor in Oaxaca, I feel that I can bring a lot of new ideas into class to help the students.

I don't like pompous administration here. Mexican professors at the university see themselves as better than the students and treat them with contempt or neglect. As English is obligatory (and not hugely useful to the students) they can bring a defeatist attitude to the classroom. You have to do a fair amount of ass-kicking to get them to buy into a more active learning style.

What kind of students do you like the least?  

Passive ones. I've got no problem with jokers or loudmouths. Virtually no students come to the university prepared to participate (especially with speaking). Getting an aswer out of some of them is like getting blood from a stone. Kids have been taught to say the 'correct answer' or nothing, so there can be a lot of dead air in class.

What is your style of teaching?

I tailor my classes to what the customer wants, especially with private lessons. At the moment I teach classes to groups of 20 or so who are low level and have very poor listening and speaking skills. I make classes active and try to get the students to interact and run the show more. Playing the clown helps too, I do a lot of 'being tall' jokes as I'm 6'4" and my students are often below 5'.

What's your favorite way to kill ten minutes in class?  

I like to use brainstorms or opinion questions as an opener, but if I'm running short I like vocabulary games like 'basta', pictionary or hangman.

How's your salary versus your quality of life?

Now my salary is pretty generous. I make a little over $1,000 net per month. I also get extra income from private classes and employer bonuses. The cost of living is cheap here and I'm able to enjoy myself, and travel within Mexico for vacations and still save 30% of my pay. Mexican pesos don't go a long way toward international airfairs though, so trips abroad will wipe out your savings.

What do you miss about home?

Apart from the obvious, I miss British pubs and banter most. There's nothing like the British sense of humour and I work with a lot of Americans who are lovely, but not that funny! That said, I'm sure I'll miss dusty cantinas with blasting jukeboxes when I finally leave Mexico.

What is the most difficult thing about where you live?

People are generally nice and welcoming to foreigners, but it can be difficult to get to know the locals in Oaxaca. Society is very conservative and family oriented, so you'll be lucky to find a girlfriend without getting the Spanish inquisition from the family.

Also speedbumps. There are millions of f**king speedbumps everywhere.

Who have been your most venal and incompetent employers?  

Private one on one classes! Many of my clients in Buenos Aires would cancel without any notice and the fact that I didn't have a steady income meant that I couldn't cut them off, or insist on them paying me for the missed class. This is an age old English teacher problem, but I would recommend being crystal clear about cancellations with clients and only taking on trusted students.

One incompetant employer that I thankfully didn't work for is Wall Street institute, who are the biggest group in Buenos Aires. They offered me a job of 80 hrs a month (all evenings and mornings so you couldn't get any private classes) and the pay was not enough to cover my meagre rent bill. I later heard that they made their employees open up and lock up (an extra hour a day unpaid) and clean the toilets.

Any particularly horrifying experiences you'd like to share?  

I was transferring from one university to another in Oaxaca and had a bus leaving in a couple of hours. I opened my computer to find an email saying that there was a problem with the administration because I was still on the book with my old university.

I now didn't have a job, and my visa was about to run out. I had a nervous weekend of looking for other jobs before I managed to get in contact with my new boss and share some choice British swear words with her. I told her she was besmirching the name of a fine institution by being a bloody pickaninny and that she should stop the tomfoolery. My bus ticket went down the drain and my spaced out cat had to be re-sedated for the delayed journey, but I ended up getting the job in the end.

What are your plans for the future?  
I plan to travel for a few months in Central America then find a job in Spain for 2016. I'm looking forward to some European culture.

Thursday, July 09, 2015

TEFLpocalypse Now!

Of course I wrote a whole 1/3 of a book about my last job in the Kingdom -- an extremely highly-paid but otherwise pretty wretched position in the English language training center of a huge company.

I left out of general malaise with my life, a fear of the "golden handcuffs" holding me in place in that hellhole far past any real need for cash. (As mentioned in my last memoir, it was nearly $8000 a month.)

Really kind of stupid of me, in retrospect. 

Talking with a former colleague, they're not renewing the contracts of about a dozen guys that arrived the same time as me. They're completely cleaning house, not just getting rid of contractors, but of actual "direct-hire" employees, also. 

I should have stayed on that money train to the end, because they always derail pretty quickly, in TEFL.

Most of them were older guys, in their 40s and 50s, hoping to mine that mother lode until they retired. Some of them put down payments on houses in various countries, that kind of thing. Most of them had been assured by their contractors that they could be relatively confident they had a sold job for some time and contracts would be renewed pretty automatically. 

Whether it's the low price of oil, continuing political upheaval and change in the Middle East, or something else, nobody knows. Most likely it's just a "bubble" effect -- the massive amounts of money for hiring that were pumped into the company (and the country) following the Arab Spring of 2011 are starting to dissipate.

They only got a month's notice, most of them. At the beginning of July they were informed they would be unemployed at the beginning of August. A month to settle their affairs, sell their cars and stuff, and get gone. 

Now they'll be out there busting their asses looking for work with the rest of us middle-aged guys ...

Read more adventures in the Middle East in REQUIEM FOR A VAGABOND

Get it HERE on Amazon as an e-book
Get it HERE on Createspace as a paperback

And as a special free gift for TEFLpocolypse 2015, GRAMMAR SLAMMER 
will be FREE for the next five days. 
Get it HERE on Amazon FREE as an e-book
Buy it now, and use the grammar explanations at interviews to cover up for the gaps in your employment history. 

Saturday, July 04, 2015

The 4th of July Salute! Or: Barely Legal is Still Legal

Happy Fourth of July!

I wanted to write a blog post about the 16-year-old girl who jacked me off during a fireworks display back in Vodkaberg in summer of 2001.

Now I was thinking that was on the 4th of July. But then I was wondering, why was there a fireworks display on the 4th of July in Russia in 2001?  Were they having a celebration of the American 4th of July, or was it just some kind of coincidence? Or did I misremember the date?

It was summer, anyway.

There were tons of outdoor festivals with fireworks and huge unruly crowds and tons of alcohol in those days.

And tons of 16-year-old girls, I should say.

I would have been 32. She was half my age. That was still legal at that time in Russia. 16 was the age of consent in Russia at that time, by the way. Still is, actually. 

But it's really not much of a story. We were standing there, with my 50-year-old female colleage and some other students, and we were all looking up at the fireworks, and the 16-year-old reached back and stuck her hands down my pants and got the old flagpole out.


Nobody noticed. At least I didn't notice anybody noticing.

So, illegal? No. Immoral, probably. She was a student, also.

She was the one referred to as Young Marilyn in the memoir VODKABERG.

She's got two kids and is married to a soccer player now.

I'm not.

Funnily enough, ten years previously, when I was in college in New Orleans, on the 4th of July 1991, when I was 22, I had my second date -- which involved some sexual contact -- with a girl I'd met a few weeks previously.

She'd initially told me she was 18, but then after we watched the fireworks display on the 4th of July, she revealed she was 16.

I don't think that was legal even in Louisiana at that time.

Funny, I remember being concerned about that, at that time.

That girl is married now, too. She's got three children.

Not me!