Monday, August 29, 2005

Difficult recovery (Published by - Kho Phi Phi, Thailand

For those who have visited them before December 26th 2004, the Phi Phi islands, just off Thailand's south-western coast, are the right place to find out what a tsunami can do, and the difficulties the reconstruction process has to face; much more than Phuket, where the traces of the hurricane are evident, but still just that: traces. A few buildings being erected, others renovated, some scraps heaped in a corner and a stinging smell coming out of the sewers close to the beach. On the other hand, Phi Phi shows the true scale of the catastrophe, more than eight months after.

Paradise lost

Koh Phi Phi is the name of a couple of islands in the sea of the Andamanes, off the coast of Krabi, in south-western Thailand. Phi Phi Ley, with its almost square outline and vaguely creepy appearance, is the smallest of the two, practically uninhabited and mostly known for having been the set of a famous film with Leonardo di Caprio, shot at heavenly Maya Beach.

The other island, Phi Phi Don, looks like two different sized lungs, linked by a narrow strip of land which sets the two main bays apart. The first bay, Ton Sai, faces south-east towards Koh Lanta, and if seen from above, looks spotted by the colourful diving boats and the less evident boats which connect the island with Krabi and Phuket. Loh Dalum bay faces the opposite direction, towards Phuket, is almost totally enclosed by the island's heights, and offers a romantic observation point for tropical sundowns.

Between the two bays and up until the hills' base spreads the village of Ton Sai, where most of the tourist accommodations are found.

In the wake of the film's fame, and encouraged by its depiction of dream-like beaches, an ever growing number of tourists have visited the islands from the mid-Nineties, with the highest peaks recorded in the week between Christmas and New Year's Eve. To accommodate, feed and entertain all those tourists, Ton Sai became filled with all kinds of hotels, restaurants, diving schools, tourist agencies, bars and shops. More than a few tourists, hoping to have reached an untouched tropical paradise, were in fact flabbergasted at being welcomed by cash machines, 24-7 minimarkets and satellite internet connections.

The tidal wave's signs

Even before reaching Ton Sai bay, you can see from the boat that the first row of buildings has been severely damaged. After landing and crossing the jetty you will come across the remains of an illustrious victim: the Seven/Eleven building, which can only be recognised by its luminous sign and a few shelves, which appear through the debris between the crushed walls; the glass façade has instead disintegrated.

Walking the town's streets, you bump into damaged buildings which have been restored, destroyed ones replaced by temporary structures, and just a few which still look intact. Here and there, heaps of debris and pieces of torn metal have been carelessly hidden from view. It's quite disturbing to see cash machines - a sign of the island's development - dusty and with an "out of order" sign roughly scribbled on a piece of paper and stuck on the vacant screen, or more often with nothing at all.
However, what awaits visitors who move towards Loh Dalum bay is even worse. From a certain point onwards, the few buildings which still stand are all new , the rest is just an endless heap of debris. Going on to walk towards the sea, at about 200 yards from the water, the spectacle is terrifying.

The maze of narrow roads, flanked by simple buildings - often made of timber - which were once cheap hotels, small restaurants and shops, is now just an open space, mostly covered in scraps.

Eight months ago

The tsunami generated off Sumatra's shore touched Phi Phi at around 10:30 in the morning of December 26th 2004, three quarters of an hour after having reached Phuket. Phi Phi Don was washed by two subsequent waves, each of which hit both bays. Just before the first wave, the sea suddenly went back by many metres, leaving boats stuck in the sand and fish to wriggle in the wash. Many tourists and puzzled residents drew closer to observe the exposed coral and to catch the agonising fish. The first wave struck the coast at a speed of over 50 Kph, reaching 6.5 metres in height at Loh Dalum bay and 3 metres at Ton Sai. The waves coming from the two bays converged along a line which divided the village, then the bigger one coming from north-west pushed the other back. The sea then drew away once again, and the process was repeated.

The water crossed the island from side to side in other two points on the north-eastern "lung": between two minor bays - La Naa e Bakhao - and in Laem Thong, a nomad fishermen's village.
The damage is very serious: 70% of buildings have been destroyed or damaged, 800 people were found dead and 1200 went missing; over 100 children were left orphans. Among the victims, none seem to have belonged to the gypsy fishermen community. They in fact managed to save themselves in time, after recognising signs of the tsunami in the sea's activity and in certain "seers"' dreams.

Reconstruction works

The reconstruction process is underway: carpenters and builders work on the sites of the crumbling buildings, thailandese workers and volunteers, mostly foreigners, clean up the beach from the debris.

Those who have managed to rebuild quickly and those who didn't suffer any damage thrive on the tourism machine which has started to function again. Many exhibit signs meant to raise passers-bys' awareness. In a massages centre you can read "The women who work here have to keep their families struck by the tsunami; help them and spoil yourself at the same time". A trinkets shop says "The tsunami destroyed our shop and we hav no money to buy new goods. There are five of us in our family, three of which children. We have nothing. Help us!". The figure have not, however, gone back to what they were before the disaster. A few weeks ago, the CNN interviewed the owner of a firm wich provides links to the mainland. Up until last year, his boats were almost always full, and he was forced to hire other operators' boats in high season. Now the boats are half empty and the firm often has to operate at loss.

Tourism relaunch and crime

Some have managed to find a positive side to this scenario of destruction. A Canadian tourist says she doesn't actually mind having stayed here right now, now that many of the structures swept away by the storm still remain to be rebuilt and most of the island shows its true face.

There are also rumours of conspiracies. According to certain sources, some powerful businessmen, supported by certain politicians, are apparently planning to convert Phi Phi island in a luxury resort, by building expensive structures. Because of the resistance of some locals, these individuals are trying to nìhinder the reconstruction process and the relaunch of the travel business. It's a similar story to the one which concerned other Thailandese islands a while ago. The only evidence regarding these allegations concerns the waste which was regularly shipped towards the mainland, and which is now left to rot on the islands. The heaps of rubbish in Koh Phi Phi are are actually big and smelly, but it still it hardly seems to be unmistakable proof of the alleged traffics. Similar ones can in fact be found in all the south eastern isles, including those not hit by the tsunami.

An uncertain future

On board the boat to Phuket, and watching the workers on the building yards which from a distance look like bees around a beehive, the impression is that soon everything will go back to what it was, but with a new layer of paint. A few venues may well change owners, the survivors and the newcomers will have lost a few months'income, but the flow of tourists, which is already growing each week, seems to be going back to the golden days.

Just a small garden dedicated to the victims, the plaques exhibited by some shop owners, and a couple of wall paintings drawn by a tourist will remind people of those who didn't live to tell the tale.

Fabio Pulito

Translated by Cristina Bernabini

Published by Peacereporter

Peacereporter website

Saturday, August 13, 2005

Hutongs: endangered urbanistic species - Beijing, China

(From my 2005 diary)

Chinese people have always loved, sometimes to the verge of obsession, everything that is large, tall, great, or better said grand. Beijing is the city where the proofs of this national passion find their roots in the history of the various imperial dynasties.

The long snakes of the Great Wall that crawl on the hills - spotted by the warm hues of the early autumn - are only one of the most famous examples.
Not less impressive is the Ming and Ching magnificence of the forbidden city. The compound houses a staircase that was obtained from a single marble block. The piece is so huge that in order to take it to the city it was decided to slide it on a path of ice a few kilometers long.
A Guiness world record statue of Buddha is nestled inside the Lama Temple. The 18-meter-tall sculpture was carved out of a single trunk of sandalwood.
Among its never ending collection of towers and ancient palaces then, the city hides a kilometer-long decorated wooden portico, a 63-tonne bell and then giant hourglass and drums to mark the rhythm of the hours, the days and the seasons that the emperor magnanimously bestowed on his subjects.

More recently, important contributions to the gigantism of Beijing have been provided by Mao Zedong, great leader but poor urbanist, with that web of wide roads running from north to south and from west to east around Tienanmen, the largest square in the world.

Talking about some of his sculptures on display in the center of Singapore, the Colombian artist Botero expressed his conviction that “Monumentality is not so much a question of sizes as it is of proportion”. And this is exactly the effect perceived by those who look at the portrait of Chairman Mao hanging above the Gate of the Heavenly Peace. Or by those who, arriving to the Western Railway Station, are bewildered by the sight of its facade, something in between an Arc de Triomphe and a Wall Gate of imperial era.

However, Beijing is not only a combination of gigantic elements continuously expanding. By letting one's thoughts wandering for a while, forgetting the city-map in the hotel, turning around a random corner and venturing into what might at first seem a dead-end street, it's possible to discover some untouched corners of the old city.

They are the hutongs, the Chinese version of the alleys of the European old towns. Narrow little streets, lined up with siheyuans, one-story houses with courtyards in front. Like snakes of an old video-game they wind at right angles, cutting across each other, widening in pockets full of small shops and suddenly narrowing to a bottleneck, maybe ending up leading in a 6-lane road, or crashing against a thick wall of concrete.

Along the hutongs the Pekingese give themselves up to those ancestral habits that in the big spaces of imperial, Maoist or post-modern concept can't find their habitat anymore. In a few dozen meters one can bump into small tables around which people play Chinese chess, cards and dominoes. Sometimes they crowd around a mysterious contest and start to wildly yell and bet. The hutongs are people-friendly corners where old and young people sit by themselves or in groups to smoke, read, noisily suck a bowl of noodle soup or just chat.

This maze of traditions even seems to be the last sanctuary for those who still like to use what we thought was the means of transport preferred by the Chinese, nearly vanished from the roads of the capital: the bicycle.

There are hutongs to suit everyone's taste. Who is not claustrophobic, gets bored in front of two Chinese who play chess and prefers the vibrations of a more commercial area, where it's possible to buy a watch or a jacket with just a few coins, can try to dive into the human river that flows along the alleys south of Qianmen Gate.

But these relics of an open-air museum of history and traditions, still so alive, unfortunately risk to become an endangered urbanistic species.

The heavy urbanization, the dizzy growth of the economy and the need for efficient and modern infrastructures are tearing apart these ancient areas of the city center.

The low houses and the courtyards are pitilessly demolished and replaced by residential compounds that can boast everything that the siheyuan don't have – bathrooms, heating systems, warm water, parking spaces – except, of course, their charm.

The government, under pressure of local and international organizations, has declared the hutongs protected architectural areas. Unfortunately though, the new development plans are like gold mines and there's always someone who is not too keen on letting the chance pass by.

The only hutongs that will probably have a future are those that will manage to secure it with blows of good profits. This is the reason why many of these houses are being cleaned up and reopened as restaurants, bars and souvenir shops, turning to the tourism to earn their right to continue to exist.

It's a solution to the problem that might not please many in the west, but we need to come to defense of tourism and the sophistication that it always brings along. We should not forget, in fact, that without tourism the Great Wall, the big boast of the country, would probably be just a heap of earth and stones – unrecognizable not only from the portholes of the Chinese spaceships but even from a few hundreds meters away.

Friday, August 12, 2005

The most crowded "S" in the world - Shanghai, China

(From my 2005 diary)

Despite being the country with the largest population in the world, China ranks very low among the most densely populated ones.

If the thirteen hundred million citizens were uniformly distributed over the vast national territory the living conditions in China would be much better than they actually are. Unfortunately this is not the case.

The Tibetan plateau and the deserts of Xingjian in the west, the steppe of Inner Mongolia and the sub-arctic areas of Heilongjiang northward are all very sparsely or not
inhabited at all. Most of the Chinese are amassed in a S-shaped strip, not very thick, that runs along the eastern and southern coasts.

It was not hard to understand why a few years ago the SARS virus spread so easily in the Beijing and Guandong provinces, populated by dozens of millions of people whose care for hygiene is best represented by their irresistible passion for spitting. The foreign visitor gets quickly familiar with a rough throaty sound followed by a sharp pop and, after a moment of suspense, by the thud of a viscous grenade that usually falls a few centimeters from his feet.

Moving around in this region can be both an exhilarating and frustrating experience. The Chinese are able to stand in a queue for an hour, waiting to be served a few ravioli in a plastic tray. But you can't really say that you know something about China's overpopulation unless you've tried to travel like its citizens do, possibly in the weekend.

A short train ride from Shanghai to Suzhou, to visit its renowned classical gardens, can become a somehow unforgettable adventure. Everything starts with the complicated system that from the elbowing at the ticket counters takes the passengers to the tracks: you must queue up at the entrance, place your luggage on the X-ray belt and find the waiting room that has been assigned to your train, show your ticket and search on the board the number of the gate where you're supposed to check-in. Only after your ticket has been controlled for a second time you'll be able to understand what the right platform is.

Once on-board one is likely to find out that the seat whose number is hidden among the maze of ideograms is already occupied by someone else and that dozens of passengers are squeezed along the corridor. A curious situation considering the fact that only who has reserved a seat is supposed to be allowed on the train. But it's just a short ride, like traveling from London to Reading: the best thing to do is relax, lean on the door and enjoy the scenery inside and outside the car.

The few Chinese who dare talk in English with the wai guo ren love to inform them that “China is a very crowded place”. A self-evidence that is confirmed by the guidebook: Suzhou, the Reading of Shanghai, the would-be village out of town, has population of about six million.

After the sun has set on the cypresses, the pavilions, the stones and the water elements of the gardens, it's possible to board one of the numerous free-seat trains bound for Shanghai. First come, first served: the Chinese are doing all they can to get a seat on one of the cars. They run on the benches and jump the fences. When the doors open an uproar breaks loose: an elder woman loses her balance but who is behind her keeps on pushing. Other passengers from the end of the “queue” throw their bags over the others' heads.

Out of the Central station of Shanghai, after having turned into the tunnel of the subway, most of the times one comes across the same scene: all the vending machines are out of order and at one of the counters, the only one open, a worn-out woman is grazing her fingertips on tickets and banknotes, in front of a swaying bubble of noisy Chinese.

At the edge of the group an American old man, leaning on a cane, cries out his frustration. “Great! I've been here for seven years. Seven years! And I'm still amazed at the stupidity with which the government manages all this!”

The best thing to do is shake one's bewilderment off, turn around and look for a cab. Provided there is one available. One needs to remember that it's Saturday night and that this is Shanghai, the pulsing heart of eastern China, in the middle of the most crowded S in the world.