Behind the Scenes

Behind every story is another story, just like the dirt under your fingernails reveals the truth to the forensics lab.

When someone reads my glossy story in DreamScapes Travel magazine, they might think from a heading inserted by the editorial department that I thought Machu Picchu was a trip of a lifetime, when in fact it was closer to being a trip to a life sentence in a Peruvian prison as I seriously contemplated pushing my annoying guide over the 8,000 ft edge. Instead I waited for her to turn her back and then I hid in a sacrificial chamber until she gave up looking for me (I’m not actually sure that it was a sacrificial chamber, as I didn’t have a guide to tell me what it was).

Behind the Scenes will reveal the truths and gritty details behind the job or story.


 

Behind the Scenes: Okay, so my trip to Russia that I write about in the below article was a complete bust. I wanted to do a repeat of Lost in Moscow and lead a group of Canadian youths to the former USSR to go to summer camp. It never got off the ground. Orlyonok (oh, look, there I am in Wiki) the camp I went to in 1977 still exists, but is expensive, especially as they don’t allow short stays but want to trap their victims for a month or more. I contacted guide after guide in Russia and was told nobody would want to lead my group in the summer because guides wouldn’t want to leave Moscow – huh? I finally found the Russian travel company mentioned in the article. And their managing guide arranged a great trip. But then a problem happened when it came down to transferring money. He wanted me to collect the money from my Canadian trip partners (the parents of the students). I reminded him that I’m a writer, not a tour operator. So finally he said they could wire money individually, but it wasn’t to a Russian bank, and was to be sent to a money trading business in the UK. I put on my spy glasses and did a Google Earth search. The business was in a house in a shabby (by my standards) residential area. It might have been fine – but when I was told that there would be NO wiring fees or fees of any kind – it made me nervous. I hit my big red imaginary abort button. If it had been just me, I’d have gone for it. But risking other people’s money was out of the question. Plus my imagination lead me to all sorts of crazy scenarios, including the Russian mob and money laundering, and an Interpol investigation. Am I allowed to say that – I did qualify it by using the words “my imagination”?

Published in winter of 2009 in Kirsten’s column in Leap Local’s Travel News Publication, (UK print edition and International digital version) But is it… Completely Crazy to Wire Money to Local Guides? By Kirsten Koza 

Here I go again – it goes against common sense – am I seriously going to wire money from my Canadian bank account to guides in Russia?
My brother has been considering joining me on my trip. I told Shawn we had to wire our payment because www.ecotours-russia.com can’t take credit cards. Shawn asked, “How do you know the guides will show up?” I babbled and closed my argument by saying I’d done this before, and the guides always showed. Shawn said ominously, “You’re just lucky.”
Paying local guides is problematic. They usually can’t accept plastic. If you require them to arrange a long trip, they need advance finances. You might have to SWIFT money to a personal bank account.
I’m also in an awkward situation because I invite strangers and friends on my travels – it isn’t just my money I’m risking. Then there are the seemingly arbitrary, exorbitant bank fees. Russia brings back the unease of my first wiring experience.
I went to Scotiabank in my hometown and paid a $60 fee to SWIFT a deposit to the personal bank account of my Romanian mountain bike guide, Horia. For two weeks Horia emailed to say my 300 Euro had not arrived.

Daily, for two weeks, I stood in line at Scotiabank to find out why. It was the Canadian bank’s fault. Finally the slow SWIFT deposited in Horia’s account, but was short funds – that was the Romanian bank. Horia graciously ate the loss. This happened again with my Peruvian guide.

I went to the Bank of Montreal and it only cost me $25 to SWIFT $708 to Saul’s personal bank account. He received $660. His bank skimmed 6.8%. Saul graciously swallowed the loss. Both Horia and Saul now use PayPal.

I visited PayPal’s website to see if it might be a solution for guides worldwide. On PayPal’s site there are flags from around the world showing what countries they do business in – lots of flags can send money, not so many can receive. It won’t work for Russia. However, customers get to use their credit cards at their own computers and PayPal’s fee is only 1.9-2.9%, but which? And who pays – customer, merchant or both? PayPal’s website didn’t answer my questions. I contacted customer service. Leo, their jolly rep responded next-day with website directions on how to find the flags. He didn’t answer my questions. Then Leo sent me a survey to see if I loved his service.
So I contacted some PayPal merchant-users, Hamish MacDonald, a Scottish writer, and Horia my Romanian guide. Hamish isn’t sure when 1.9-2.9% applies and Horia is always charged the max. They both pay this fee, not their clients. Even though Horia says it has been great – I note some pretty serious drawbacks. Horia is only allowed to withdraw a maximum of 500 Euro a day, and it costs him $2 each time. If Horia has ten people coming for a tour, it could take him a month to retrieve his money.
There are other payment services. Moneybookers is available in fewer countries than PayPal. EmerchantPay has a 10% catch, maybe because they cater to gambling and porn. My bank suggested posting a certified cheque. That’s cheaper for the tourist, but will it even get where it’s going? Not all postal systems are created equal.
Leap Local is currently working on solutions for paying local guides. I’ve only scratched the surface of the issue because some local guides don’t even have bank accounts. I’ve never had a problem with the guides that I’ve wired money to, but I do lots of research beforehand. 

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If you, or someone you love (or just tolerate) are drawn to the Grinch, Scrooge, Captain Hook, Dr. Evil, Seinfeld’s horrible friends, the Wicked Witch of the West, Nelly Olsen, Snidely Whiplash, Eric Northman, Cruella de Vil, Wiley Coyote and Hannibal Lecter, then Akhmed and the Atomic Matzo Balls was written for you.

I fell in love with Akhmed, the villain in chief, the president of Iran, a scrumptious despot, from the book’s beginning due to declarations such as:

“Doesn’t anyone listen to me? Is it because I’m short? Good things come in small packages. My own mother told me that before I had her beaten to death!”

The story is a fantastic, toxic and politically incorrect cocktail from Gary Buslik’s twisted mind:

“Go on Hazeem,” said Akhmed, “order a Mojito!”

“Your excellency!”

“As far as I know, there is nothing specifically in Scripture prohibiting cane distillates.”

“True, true,” Hazeem guessed. “Very well,” he shouted to the beauty. “A Mojito it will be!”

Akhmed ordered one for himself, too. He leaned into Hazeem’s other ear and said that if he ever snitched to anyone back home, his tongue would be torn from his mouth, his eyes would be gouged out with a hot poker, his male organs would be lopped off, a wood screw would be drilled under his kneecap and worked up through his body and out through his nostril with a giant magnet, he would be skinned alive in one-inch strips, which would then be woven into a woman’s menstruation pad, a large jar of spaghetti sauce would be inserted into his rectum sideways, and he would be beheaded with a spoon.

Hazeem gave him a thumbs-up. “No problemo.” He zipped his lips. “What happens in the Western Hemisphere stays in the Western Hemisphere.”

“Wonderful,” the president said. “Now let’s have a good time!”

Buslik layers complications upon his characters with the deftness of P.G. Wodehouse until the entire cast of baddies are bound in a Gordion’s knot of a plot which requires the great thinkers of Gilligan’s Island and the world’s worst leaders, a broken deus ex machina, and termites to resolve.

Akhmed and the Atomic Matzo Balls, a novel of International Intrigue, Pork-Crazed Termites, and Motherhood is delectably despicable. It will blow you right out of your burqa.

(Attention last minute shoppers: This book is also available as an e-book on Kobo and Nook and Sony’s Reader and Kindle.)

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BEHIND THE SCENES:

  1. I have a back cover quote on Akhmed—“Delectably despicable. Will blow you right out of your burqa.” Gary told me that he bought a burqa for his first wife and when she left she didn’t take it with her. I asked him recently if he’d send it to me. He asked me why. It should be obvious as I was blown out of mine. He said his first wife’s burqa is blue. It sounds very fetching. If he doesn’t send it to me, I’ll assume he’s keeping it for his future ex-wives.
  2. My mother tried the matzo ball recipe in Akhmed last Passover and she’s still alive. She said it was the best matzo ball batter she’s ever tasted.
  3. WARNING: There’s a section in the book about Israeli Spy Vultures and it comes from a thread from my Facebook wall. If you have writer friends, beware, we do this.
  4. Here’s a YouTube link to a video I shot in the Middle East. You can tell that the first commenter (in the comments) who uses the F-bomb hasn’t read the book because the book mocks everybody equally. Silly Billy.

 

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Behind the Scenes: Since I made reference to Costa Rica in my speech, I read this selection from my second book (which I’m still fine tuning) at the European conference of Round Square. The below is from my first trip to Costa Rica in 1993 – it was the trip that seeded the idea of moving there, which was one great big mistake. One of the tough things about talking to a group of people who may have excellent English, but it’s their second or third language, is that humour doesn’t always translate. When I got to the end of the Costa Rican shower scene I heard Germans in the audience whispering, “What is this creature – the dust bunny?”
The Costa Rican Shower Scene 

Orotina, Costa Rica. Oh boy. Night had fallen as we cycled slowly down the unpleasant smelling, litter ridden, dusty, main-street. People stared suspiciously at us. We stared at the posters warning of a Dengue fever outbreak. This wasn’t a town tourists visited. Malcolm had asked for directions to a hotel and we were now standing outside the front door of the only motel in Orotina, while Malc haggled with the owner.
    “They only take cash,” Malcolm informed us over his shoulder.  (read more…)
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Behind the Scenes: I was hired to be the entertaining guest speaker at Round Square’s European Conference. I wrote and delivered this speech based upon the conference theme which was “Life is Full of Ups and Downs”. My laptop, which I was reading my speech from, decided to support the conference theme and the battery died part way through my speech. I looked up at the sea of faces and considered winging it, but they’d travelled from across Europe and the UK for this, so I told them what had happened, and laughed with them as I retrieved my paper notes….
Speech:
“Life is Full of Ups and Downs”
Life sure is full of ups and downs. I used to have a great job. I mean I had a great job – right out of university. I was a professional actor. And then it all went wrong. I had the leading female role. It was my first Equity (Equity is the professional actors union) – it was my first Equity job. To this day I am on record at Equity and at that theatre for “wrecking the show”. Yup. It was the second last scene of the play. My husband in the play is diabetic, and is sitting there eating this huge slab of chocolate cake. He’s trying to kill himself – he’s diabetic remember – it’s literally death by chocolate. There is a moment of silence. Then this old woman in the audience bellows out loud – “HOW COME THEY GET CAKE AND WE DON’T GET CAKE?” Yes, actually out loud, in the middle of a play, (read more…)
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