Thursday, December 31, 2009

A ver-r-r-ry lucky per-r-r-rson - Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

With the Pakistani restaurant behind my back, another Thai one that appears on my right and a Japanese hotel just in front of me, it's like walking on an imaginary map of Asia, from the bottom-left corner towards north-east. An Indian man walks out of the hotel, beard secured, big belly and turban. I start to play a solitary game, with background calculations of derivatives and integrals, analyzing the functions that govern our paths, seeking an inflection, a maximum or a limit, trying to determine a point of intersection. My mind is making involuntary calculations and my steps are following an ample curve whose inclination is gradually and imperceptibly changing. Without even knowing it the Indian replies, countering my opening with accurate moves, which hold our position in a dynamic balance, towards a clash in an immutable point, which we both relentlessly come up to. When I'm a meter away I decide to quit, I swerve to the left with a few ballet steps. He turns around and stares at me, with a hypnotizing glance that makes me smile, then shatters my illusion of being playing by myself: "Do you know that you ar-r-r-re a ver-r-r-ry lucky guy?" I'm in a hurry and I keep on going. While I walk away his masala "r-r-r" keep reaching me like the whistle of a train, modulated and distorted by the Doppler effect. "And do you know why?" "Yes, yes...of course I know." And with that last remark I disappear.

What would I have done had I not recognize him? But I of course I knew it all. The Sikh fortune tellers, those impostors in Bangkok, you saw them often in the tourist areas. The Filipino who was asked six thousand baht. I speed up my pace under the twelve o'clock heat. From behind a corner two more Sikhs pop up. Some general of the Army Corps of the North-west has unleashed a number of these mystic platoons, seeking palms to read and simpletons to rip off. They are walking towards me, along the sidewalk. "Do you know that you ar-r-r-re a ver-r-r-ry lucky guy?" "Yes, sure, of course I know." "And do you know why?" "Because I managed not to be fooled by your friend, as well as I'm not going to be fooled by you!" I don't know until what point I have pronounced that sentence and from where I've started to keep it for myself. But one thing is certain, declared, exposed: I am a ver-r-r-ry lucky per-r-r-rson indeed.

Image "Fortune teller" by Daniel Fort, from

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

2004 Tsunami: What life is supposed to be - Phuket, Thailand

In the year 2004, after the South Asian tsunami, I wrote a long report about those days. I've recently shrunk it into a few paragraph post.

(End of 2004)
It's Christmas day. The course in KL will stop for a week, I buy a low-cost flight and land in Phuket. I was going to Kho Phi Phi but I've changed my mind: it's super-high season, expensive and packed. This will turn out to be a lucky move. I stay in Phuket town, a bit far from the coast, and that will be lucky-move-number-two. I join some friends at a party at Nai Harn, in a house with a swimming pool, not far from the beach. At about midnight we head to Patong, we do it Thai-style: three people on a bike. The snake-like road is a slide show of postcards, from the top of the hills we watch Karon and Kata, shiny scythes of sand with moving edges, caressed by the tide, palm leaves and moonlight. We are among the last souls who will see them like this.

It's beach party-time and we hang out until dawn. When we are looking for a secluded spot on the sand, to lie down a while and take a nap in the shade, lulled by the breeze and the sound of the waves, our fate flies low and grabs us by the necks, puts our butts on the bike and takes us home.

I wake up late and go to a cybercafe. Just when I'm about to read the news my mobile phone vibrates and rings. It's my father who from the other side of the planet is telling me what is happening here. I go to my friends' place and we follow the news. I tell them that I want to go to the beach but they say it's impossible, the roads are blocked: I will always regret not having tried. Anyway that gives me a chance to do something else: I go to the relief center, at the city hall, where I'll spend most part of the next two days. I help with the translations and assisting the victims, I talk and listen, observe and learn.

They say that at Christmas everybody feels good, and what a coincidence: it's Christmas time, but the festivity has nothing to do with this, people are good because of the disaster, good or bad, or good and bad. Every feeling seems to be amplified. It's true, there is a girl who keeps walking around, talk loud and pose, smile, laugh and cry, she has sensed an opportunity fluttering in the air and can't resist the temptation to show off a bit. But most of the foreigners are sitting in circles, some around their bags and some around nothing, silent and patient, waiting and thinking. The Thais are handing out clothes and food. An Italian guy walks in swim trunk and flip-flops and that's what remains of his belongings: no passport, cash, credit cards, eyeglasses. He asks me where people like him must report and after I tell him he smiles and thanks me. He still have the will to look nice and polite.

The atmosphere of these days has a surreal edge, it's as if one of those old record players had switched from 33 to 45 rpm. You feel the intensity and you want to absorb it, it fills your chest and drains your brain. After two days I get fresh news about some friends I was trying to locate. One is in Chiang Mai, where he fell in love and never got on the train to the south. One was in Lanta and was hit by the waves but he got away with some bruises and cuts. A Thai girl is working at a beach side resort: I don't know how, but she managed to escape.

The world slows down while I climb up Thailand, I get to Bangkok and I fly back to KL. The intesity drops, sensations are muffled. The more the situation gets back to normal the more I feel hollow, weak and confused. 
But there is nothing to be really worried about: this is just what life is supposed to be.

PS A few months later published a report that I wrote about the effects of that tsunami on Koh Phi Phi.

Photo of a Tsunami warning sign, Koh Phi Phi, by Sergio Pitamitz, from

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Experiencing - Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

The standard of English in Malaysia is excellent. Malaysians often prefer to speak English instead of Malay, Chinese or Tamil. But there is a temptation they can't resist: an unrestrained use of funny formalisms. The expression "experience" is one of the most abused. The specialties of a restaurant are neither tasted nor eaten, Malaysians prefer to experience them. They don't drink a milk shake, they try the experience of it. The same thing can happen for clean air in a coach, which they cannot simply manage to breath. Malaysians experience, they are a nation of empiricists: if Galileo were alive he would like to come here, to throw his weights from the Petronas towers.

Portrait of Galileo Galilei by Leoni (P.D.)

Saturday, December 26, 2009

The effect of a gesture - Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

I walk down the streets, uphill and downhill, looking for an inspiration and for something to eat. I find them both around a corner: a pan mee soup, in a small Chinese joint. A typical place, gloomy air, dirty floor: perfect for a soup, just what I was looking for. I could have gone to a shopping mall, some aseptic place, well lighted, modular, tables made of colored Formica. No nice sentences here, and very few smiles, but the little you get is authentic stuff, it shines of shyness, of half made glances: jewelery with carats, humanity from the mint. I use the chopsticks with a steady hand, I patiently lay the noodles on the spoon, then the ground meat, the vegetables, the anchovies. I spoon the soup out with lateral moves. I focus on the juice, the spices, the fragments, it's a swirl of flavors, pungent smells and texture. On the way out I stop and stand under the awning, the sky of Kuala Lumpur is a sponge of lead, issuing opaque layers of lukewarm liquid. The owner asks me where I want to go, then she says something to one of the waiters. He takes an umbrella out of a table, then we cross the road, skirting puddles and cars. I arrive to the shopping mall excited and embarrassed, a group of Indians are heartily laughing. I feel a smile grabbing hold of my face: I must look ridiculous behind this movie of gum. It's an idiot's smile, with an oyster effect: it's moving slowly, pulling open my jaws, like the tool of a dentist, installed and screwed. It's an idiot's smile and I can do nothing about it: the effect of that gesture will last for a while.

Image "Singing butler" by Jack Vettriano, from

Friday, December 25, 2009

Tropical Christmas act III: festive distortion - Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

There is no snow, still it's alright. You fend off cheesy songs with the shield of your earphones. But the festive distortion has reached its peak: it's a Carnival-intruder, a Halloween-interference. Malaysians are out, with trumpets and spray-cans, amid firecrackers and polimeric tentacles They're having fun, I smile and grin. Saint Francis Xavier, Jesuit and explorer - apostle of Asia - opens his eyes. He thinks “Am I dreaming or am I dead?”, he pinches his cheek and turns in his tomb. “Had I known about this I would have stayed in Navarre. A quiet monastery on top of a mountain. I would have been spared that eastern inferno, in a sponge of monsoons, between Goa and Macau.” 

Photo "Artificial snow battle", Jalan Bukit Bintang, Kuala Lumpur, by Fabio Pulito

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Nostalgia for the present

Have you ever felt nostalgic for what is currently happening? The chromosomal nostalgic spends years on end floating in melancholy hot springs pools, glued to the floor of mental anterooms, where he keeps on watching shreds of recent memories, making them more novelized and sweetened at every loop, unable to get out and start to live again. After years of practice he's become an ace, a meticulous expert, a cheat when he needs it. He can recognize the circumstances and the people who are going to ignite the familiar sensation. He forestalls the afterward, compressing the process, feeling nostalgic for what he's living right now. It's an addictive feeling, a drug for the soul, a fix of moments, a snort of life. Detoxifying is impossible, the waiting unnerving, therefore this junkie becomes proactive. Detecting the opportunity is no longer enough, he learns how to seek it, drive it, compose it. The life of this person might not be conventional, it steals his sleep, turning him upside-down, but it's a pressure cooker of emotions and intensity. And he wouldn't be able to live a different one.

Image "Violin with Record Player and Nostalgia" by Martin Fox, from

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Without a fixed identity - Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Changkat Bukit Bintang is a secondary street, leaning on a mildly slanted plane. It comes out of an area with luxurious hotels, shouldering its way among massage parlours and malls, to climb up a staircase of restaurants and bars, towards the peak of that little hill. It's a dynamic area without a fixed identity, like a face that changes eyes and nose every month. On the sidewalk the waiters invite you for a drink and if you like the place you'd better stop: the enterprises here have the lifespan of an insect, tomorrow that joint might no longer be there. 

Photo of Bukit Bintang by Esther Lim (CC), from

Hospitable city - Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Bangkok, Vientiane, Hanoi and Beijing are a little like Europe, they have standard seasons, with a start and an end, each one of them with peculiar features. Dry seasons, humid ones, monsoons and cold winters. But Kuala Lumpur is a diffent story. To divide the year according to weather, one has to use a range of nuances of rain. The names of the seasons might sound like this: non-stop, downpour, thunderstorm, drizzle. It's a hospitable city not only for tourists: after having endured the monsoons she's owed, she starts to receive the ones from abroad, which come to Malaysia when they have nothing to do.

Foto "Man Driving Rickshaw During Monsoon Season" di John Dominis, da

Friday, December 18, 2009

That's China - Kunming, China

(Spring 2006) 
We've finally found a place to stay. Three spacious bedrooms, a huge living hall. It's at the fifth floor and there is no lift, but you can get hypnotized by the view on the Green Lake. We don't know who used to live here and for how long it's been vacant, but the floors and the furniture are in a pitiful state. The agency recommends a cleaning firm. Three thin men arrive, with jackets and moccasins, a couple of buckets, sponges, rags. We're struck dumb by the scene and we think of the mantra that people have kept telling us since we arrived. If something doesn't make sense it's because...that's China...

For a couple of hours they pretend they're cleaning. At first we say something but then we drop it. When it's time to leave they seem to be in a hurry, they nervously smile and then bounce down the stairs. We look at each other and we say it loud, the explanation must definitely be: "That's China!" We look around to see what they have done. They didn't really clean the place, but at least they've scratched the first layer away.

The following day I open a drawer and fish out the bag where I keep my cash. Of all the objects that were in the house this must be the one they have cleaned the best. They haven't even left a renminbi inside.

Also stories like this one have something to teach. The expression "that's China" is not a universal key and at the end for some aspects the whole world is a village.

Photo "Green lake from a window", by Fabio Pulito

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

An itinerant zoo - Towards the Plain of Jars, Laos

(Autumn 2001)
The Songthaew (*) drives along the Ho Chi Minh trail, on its western flank, the Laotian one. There is no trail, maybe there never was, just an imaginary path between jungle and napalm. When we'll arrive to Phonsavan is for no one to know. We spent a long time at the departing town: if the truck is not full the driver will wait. We stop quite often along the way: some people get off and others get on, breaks for snacks and toilet needs. For the past few hours though the layout hasn't changed. Tied to the foot-board, as if on charcoal, a black-skinned pig is snarling and grumbling. Fowl is pecking among cases and sacks, while a furry animal rests in a wicker cage. 

Some of the passengers are trying to sleep, others are lost in an absentminded trance. The car hits a hole and we become alert. I look at the cage with the open door. The owner notices that as well, he starts to worry and goes down on the floor. He sticks his head under the passengers benches, moves the bags and lifts the chicks. The animal runs along the edge of the truck, when the man backs him up against a corner, he waits for him and then bites his hand. The man swears, turns around and chases the beast. At last he manages to put him back in the cage. Everybody laughs, then switches to offline mode. A snoring hippie is surrounded by flies, a local burps while eating black eggs, the hens are cackling and the pig is grunting. It's almost twilight, we're in the middle of nowhere, with an ample zigzag among old bomb craters, an itinerant zoo snail-like slides away

(*) Songthaew: Asian version of a bus. A truck with two long benches in the back to accommodate the passengers.

Photo by Philipp L. Wesche (CC), from

Monday, December 14, 2009

A matter of appearances - Bangkok, Thailand

You sit at a bar, it's two in the morning, the heat of the day has relaxed its jaws: you chill out with your friends, merrily chatting, a big bottle of Singha is what you guys need. The waiter says no, it's already too late, and just when you're about to give him a grim, he says that you can have small bottles instead. You freeze your expression and you turn it into a smile, a standard one that you can classify with a code. This is DX-7, open mouth, not too much, hands outstretched and palms facing up, it means: "Who cares? Small bottles are fine!" He's back with your beers and a number of glasses. You wave them away...we don't need that stuff. He pours and smile, shakes his head and pours, then he leaves and takes the bottles with him. You still don't understand? There's a ban on alcohol, you cannot just violate it like that. It's a matter of appearances, beer is all right, but the bottles on the table, come on, that's not!

Photo by Fabio Pulito

Friday, December 11, 2009

Tropical Christmas act II: tradition and trend - Bangkok, Thailand

The shopping malls have installed the trees. Plastic on iron, and an idea of a fir. Thousands are hanging around these fake woods: compact cameras, reflex, lenses and tripods. You can open Facebook and key "Bangkok" in. Hundreds of profiles, pages of photos: Thais, expats and tourists alike, smiling, pensive or even bored, dynamically posing in front of cones of floss. 
But at the opposite end there's an untouched corner, the shrines of Buddha and of a proud Ganesh. Layers of people lit incense sticks, join their palms, meditate, pray, a few minutes later they awake and leave. Two mass rituals a few meters apart. The sequences are repeated, endlessly reproduced. But we can't be mistaken, a deep difference divide them: the difference that there is between tradition and trend.

Photo: family with toys in front of a Christmas tree, Griffith & Griffith, Philadelphia, 1897.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

From geeky to cool - Bangkok, Thailand

Thai dentists have achieved a remarkable result. They managed to convince people that braces are cool. Girls show them off like fashion accessories, to be matched with earrings or colored lenses. If their dentition is troublesome braces will fix it, otherwise they just wear them to intensify their smiles. There are even those who bought fake braces at the market, but the health care authorities have clamped down on that. At every check-up visit the color can be changed, a new pink, blue, green or purple wire. If you add a few gays to those vain young girls, the potential customers are really a lot. And the happy dentists keep the installations up.

Photo by Jason Regan (CC attribution 2.0), from Wikipedia.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Tropical Christmas act I: a bewildered Christmas - Bangkok, Thailand

It's winter again, December, Christmas. The atmosphere wraps us up, with lights and banners, the ritual songs, fake snow on the windows. Girls in miniskirt wearing felt hats are handing out fliers for a new nightclub, while in the restaurant the notes of White Christmas are mingling with the soft blow of the air conditioner. A Santa Claus is shaking a cattle-bell to attract new customers for a shopping mall. He stops for a moment, puts down the bell, lifts his beard of fibers and wipes his face. This tropical Christmas is out of its element; and you cut through the sultriness, looking for shade, among tourists in flip-flops, shorts and shades. 

Image: "Merry Old Santa Claus" by Thomas Nast, illustration from the January 1, 1881 edition of Harper's weekly.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

An original survey! - Bangkok, Thailand

After the recent surge in HIV infections - especially within the gay men's community - the Thai government has decided to launch a bold and definitely original initiative. Part of the Bt200million budget dedicated to the anti-HIV campaign will be used to distribute free condoms and...a device to record the width of the penis in order to choose the appropriate size!

When the issue is a tough one, and solutions are needed but good ideas are hard to get...

Photo from "The Nation"

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Like chickens in a coop - From Siem Reap to the border, Cambodia

(Spring 2002) 
Come on, come o-on! I don't have time. It's gonna be a never ending trip, a double day, I get a herniated disc just to think of it. I must hurry up, without messing around. Follow your schedule, you prepared it yesterday, when the heat and the mosquitoes didn't let you sleep. Glob that pancake, gulp down your coffee, pay this rat-hole bill and roll down the stairs. The mototaxis, the motorbikes, where are those kids? There were so many when I didn't need them. Here is one who's spotted his fool, he's coming along to pick me up.

"Need a motorbike? Angkor temples, Sir?" What temples...what Angkor...I've arrived to Siem Reap a week ago, I've consumed those temples more than the centuries and the jungle. "To the main intersection, where the pick-up trucks are." He stares at me blankly, like a sleepwalker or a koala. Koala bears only have two expressions: the eucalyptus-chewing and the eucalyptus-swallowing, in both cases it seems that they're dying with sleep. How do they say main intersection here? The owner of the hotel, she will be able to help me. "Madam, hey! Madam, here! Can you please tell him where I'm going in Cambodian?" The woman lets out some cracks from her throat, it seems that she's breaking wood with her mouth. The koala-driver switches expression, his second way to look a bit dull. He nods his head, lowers his chin, does he understand? Or maybe he's just swallowing some eucalyptus? There's no time, I hop on the bike. He starts, speeds up, yeah, he understood! When we get to the junction I know it's the right one: there seem to be at least a hundred trucks. Which one is it? Who can speak English? This is definitely not a place for tourists, they travel on pseudo-comfortable vans, but I was late, the seats were sold out.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Praying to robots - Bangkok, Thailand

Walking along the sidewalk, out of the corner of my eye I absentmindedly detect the life at the edge of the road. Hairdresser, 7/11, street stall, beauty salon. The Thai warm evening is flowing around me, with its odors, activities, confusion and people. It's the background noise, the setting at the margins, it brushes against me, tickling my senses, it stirs my pleasure yet goes unnoticed.

A woman is praying behind a window, still and relaxed in a devoted wai. She joins her palms and shuts her eyes, while some kind of mantra is revolving in her mind. I scan the place, in search of a sacred site, expecting to spot a bunch of flowers, a golden-red temple, some Buddha statues. The sequence of my movements is unfolding in the background, there's not an active thought controlling it: it's an instinct, a reflex, a set of images, impressed in my memory, to be confirmed. Every object, perfume, color, sound is finding its place in a dimensional harmony. If everything matches my trance goes on, with steady pace and wandering eye.

Suddenly I get active hold of all of my senses, it's something that I've seen, that I was not expecting. I can't be wrong, there's no mistake, the woman is facing a corner of the shop, in front of her there's only a table and on the table the thing that froze me on the spot: arranged in ranks, by columns and rows, some robot-toys of colorful plastic. A platoon of Gundams or monsters of Vega, standing at attention, facing the woman who prays.

When you think that you've finally got used to it, that you're in sync with the world that is surrounding you, convinced that at least you can make sense of it, even if you don't truly get its essence, you find yourself standing in the middle of the sidewalk, staring at a woman with her palms joined in prayer, facing an army of your childhood heroes. 

And you get a vague feeling that you're back to where you started.

Photo by Fabio Pulito

Saturday, November 28, 2009

The survivors - Bangkok, Thailand

The survivors. I owe the naming to someone else, but I've known who they are for many years. I've seen people who strive for a living in China, or who vegetate among garbage on the streets in India, poor in Cambodia, criminals in Brazil, but most of the survivors survive in Thailand. They live on the edge, walking with elegance on a line that runs high between luxury and poverty. They don't have a job yet they do almost everything, they escape every category borrowing something from each one. They are proud and dignified, they think high of themselves, they have a reputation and won't do silly things. Everything is calculated, profitable, respectable. Sometime they might extort some money from man, but even if they sleep with a guy they don't like, both the target and the venue are chosen with care. You can't call them whores, it wouldn't be fair, as you don't do it with girls who do the same thing elsewhere. They help a businessman finding his clients, or assist an agent in closing a deal, they help their friends when the workload is huge. You stare at them and you're amazed: they look so strong, with a purpose, a straight mind. They know what they want and how to get it, they dress with style and that look in their eyes...

But you must remember that they are only girls, sometimes they screw up, they make a mistake and all of a sudden they look so fragile. Don't be surprised if they are looking for you. They can read people and they've done it with you. They are not after your money, you're not the right type. They are confident, sociable, the world revolves around them, but deep down inside sometimes they feel lonely and they need someone like you to stand by their side. I said someone like you, yes, just like you.

Photo "Woman's curls" by Nishan, from

Thursday, November 26, 2009

She surrendered... - Bangkok, Thailand

"Even if you're trying your best, at the beginning it can be frustrating, then, all of a sudden, something happens..." This is what somebody told me when I decided to win her heart. And today...something happened. I don't know how to say, I still cannot tell if it's working out but I feel that I'm finally going somewhere.

It's as if she surprisingly surrendered to my courting and felt that she likes me a little bit. I kind of liked her since the very first moment. It's true, she was bulky and made me feel awkward, but I was enchanted by her nice looks. was not mutual. Actually I think that she even hated me and tried really hard to make me quit. She sliced my fingers, twisted my wrist, cut through my legs, bumped into the walls and the furniture of my apartment, produced piercing sounds with the clear intent of turning my neighbours against me. But she gave up. After a few days of struggle, at last she said: "OK, I keep humiliating you but you always stand up. Don't get me wrong, you definitely suck, and the way you're trying to use me is even worse, but you're a stubborn one, and I can't stop you. Give me your hand and go ahead, I won't resist you anymore".

I gave her my hand, I gave her both. Now when I touch her she does not hurt my fingers and I feel more relaxed when I am with her. I won't give up, will go straight ahead and I'll keep on trying to play this guitar...Forgive me if you're the ones who live next door.

Photo "Guitar girl", from 

My guardian spirit - Bangkok, Thailand

A girl who I used to date,  when we woke up one morning, told me that my room was inhabited by a ghost. He appeared in her dreams, wearing his shroud. He was not the scary type though: an Asian version of Casper, the smiling ectoplasmic boy of the animation-movies.

He slowly approached her, kind of hovering over the bed, and politely asked her who she was. When she said she was a friend he said it was OK, invited her to come back again and then disappeared. 

Thai people believe in ghosts and spirits, they like to talk about them, make movies about them, it's a mix of dread and fascination. Thailand has real and elaborate ghost culture

When you go to a Thai restaurant, a house or a hospital you're likely to spot a small colorful shrine, like a little house on top of a pedestal. On the porch of the house there will be bottles of soft drink, fruits, rice, flowers and incense sticks. The Thais believe that some guardian spirits live and linger about the area. These spirits need to be taken care of, as a token of respect or for fear of their rage. 

I told the girl that I had talked to my ghost and confirmed that she was indeed a friend of mine. Surprisingly enough I wasn't kidding: in  the way of one who comes from a distant place, with a Christian background mixed with rational skepticism, socialism, materialism, liberalism, capitalistic shallowness et cetera et cetera, without a clue of how approach a ghost, with guilty secrecy and embarrassed haste, I had really tried to talk to the ghost! She thanked me for that without irony or mockery.

Not that I really believe in ghosts but since I've been told there's one in my apartment, and I could be wrong and ghosts might exist, I might put some water somewhere in my room.

Image "Hamlet and his father's ghost" by J.H. Fussli, 1780-1785, from 

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

That second mouthful - Bangkok, Thailand

A friend of yours has arrived today and this is the first time that he's visiting Thailand. You take him to a restaurant and order Som tam (*). You tell the waiter to make it mai pet (**). The dish is in front of you, you taste it first and you're supposed to tell your friend whether it's hot or not. It does taste nice, so fresh, crispy and sour. Hold on! Don't do it, don't tell him "it's OK", as if you didn't know much better than that. Wait for a while and take a second bite. The remaining slices of green papaya might have undergone spontaneous self-combustion. You're mouth goes dry, your face is a turnip and the fork is hovering between you and the plate. They didn't add peppers, as it was supposed to be, but nobody took the trouble to wash the mortar. And if this is an authentic Isan (***) joint, for the previous patron they might have put thirty chilies. 

(*) Som tam (ส้มตำ): green papaya salad. It comes in many different varieties.
(**) Mai pet (ไม่เผ็ด): not spicy. What is considered "not spicy" in Thailand can be glowing coals for many westerners. It can be even worse in case we are talking about the North-eastern provinces. If you want your food to be "not spicy" you have to order it mai pet lei (ไม่เผ็ดเลย), which means "not spicy at all", or mai sai prik (ไม่ใส่พริก), which means "don't add any chili".
(***) Isan (อีสาน): North-eastern part of Thailand, culturally related to Laos.

Photo by Fabio Pulito

Two books - Bangkok, Thailand

Normally I do my reading in a simple sequence: when a book is over I select a new one. But this time, for some reason, I started two volumes and I can't put on hold neither one of them. The stories are good but what really caught me is that they are written in a beautiful way. The problem I faced is how to organize this? One for the night and one for the day? Alternate days, or depending on the mood? The solution was suggested by the books themselves. As far as the size goes Don Delillo's "Underworld" is twice as big as Miller's "Tropic of Capricorn". When I'm going out, for the train rides or the cafe, I put Miller's tales inside my bag. When I'm at home, where the bulk doesn't count, I sit on the sofa and read "Underworld".

Photo Henry Miller (GNU, CC), from

Technical problem - Bangkok, Thailand

My laptop is at the service centre. I can only publish from an internet cafe.

Monday, November 23, 2009

The last tie - Bangkok, Thailand

There are nights when falling asleep is tantamount to murder. It might just be a book that you have finished reading, or maybe an evening, a relation or an encounter. You feel that by sleeping and putting an end to the day you're untying the last bond between you and that experience. And the one thing that you definitely don't want to do is cutting that tie by means of a dream.

(Image: Le Rêve, Pablo Picasso. 1932)

Use that helmet! - Chiang Mai, Thailand

(Summer 2005)
Green light! I speed up and skirt columns of cars. When I'm past the intersection I see something on my left: moving figures that form a dynamic mass, which releases a cop that wants me to stop. I have to slow down, I park my bike and get ready for the scene that he's going to stage.

The smiling officer asks my papers, then points to the basket where I left my helmet. While I think that he's right I watch the traffic in front: a flood of bikes transporting cereal sacks, household appliances, dogs, cats, fowl, whole family groups, including elders and kids, with shining black hair whirling in the wind. They all have a helmet, secured to the handlebar or tied to a ring just below the saddle.

I smile as well as I listen to him: "You go to the station, pay five hundred baht, then you bring here the receipt and we'll return your bike" I should get on a cab on my way there and on another one to come back here. "I must return the bike to the rental shop, I don't have much time, can I pay here instead?" He starts to giggle, pretends he's embarrassed, and after five seconds asks two hundred baht. "Let's make it a hundred..." He smiles again, looks carefully around, pockets the money and tells me off: "Next time be a good buy, just wear that helmet..."

Photo by Fabio Pulito

Friday, November 20, 2009

The relief valve, violence in Thailand - Bangkok, Thailand

Two foreign guys and two local girls are sitting at the table next to ours. There's something familiar about their conversation. I ignore my friends and eavesdrop a little: I was right! The guys are speaking English when they address the girls but when they are talking to each other they switch to Italian and even to some kind of Veneto dialect. They spice up their speech with curses and obscenities and sometimes they insult the other patrons of the restaurant.

There's a lot of noise and I haven't heard if some of the comments were aimed at us. To avoid misunderstandings I crack a joke in Italian. One of them stares at me with a blank expression and I think that he doesn't understand what I'm saying. Then he starts to talk but he's totally drunk. In the sequence of hiccups, grunts and oaths, I decipher the gist of what he's trying to say: as I don't come from Veneto as they do, I cannot get some nuances of their conversation. To prove that he's wrong I start to speak our dialect. Once again it takes a while for him to understand, but when he does he stares at me, then he stands up and shakes my hand, says that I'm cool and gives me a drink.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Thoughts of a very long night - Bangkok, Thailand

He turns around for the hundredth time. His head has sunk once more into the pillow but one eye is still staring at the guitar in the corner. He read, wrote, browsed and played: a triathlon among pages, screens and chords. Then he's stored everything, he's brushed his teeth, done push-ups and hit the sack. He's read one last chapter with tensed cheeks and brow, then he thought it over and blamed it on his hormones, got a pack of tissues and did more exercise. But he's still there, staring at nothing, only a part of his body finally asleep.

The guitar is calling him and he doesn't reply, but it's like trying to sleep in a busy steel-mill. He puts the book aside and grabs the instrument. He turns on his laptop and finds the exercises, then he tries two or three chords yet doesn't strum. He checks the time, it's morning already: the ban on the noise no longer applies. They call it insomnia, but it's not his case, when everybody else is trotting he falls asleep. And while his thoughts are bumping into each other, he hits the first chord of How do you sleep by John Lennon.

Image "Insomnia, tacuinum sanitatis casanatensis" from

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Diplomatic mess - Bangkok, Thailand

When everybody was starting to believe that the situation was finally getting back to normal, that the political deadlock and the Bangkok unrest was only a bad memory of long time ago, the Cambodia-Thailand dispute over the temple at Preah Vihear, so far a totally separate issue, has surprisingly managed to revive the polemics. Thailand has asked Interpol cooperation to arrest the former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. And what was the latter's next move? He managed to be appointed economic adviser to the Cambodian government led by Mr Hun Sen.

To make things worse an interview  with Mr Thaksin appeared in the newspaper "The Times". The content of the article was considered offensive to the Monarchy by many in Thailand. Mr Thaksin stated that "The Times" report was distorted and now both he and the Thai government are asking explanations from the newspaper editor.

According to the latest news the Thai government is ready to fly its citizens out of Cambodia should the diplomatic row between the two countries come to a head.

In the meanwhile, in the expats forums, people seem to be relieved because the border hasn't been closed and their visa runs are still guaranteed. 
Well, if they are happy with that...

(Image from

Friday, November 13, 2009

Malaysia: a complex society - Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

My fingertips still smell of Tamil food. On our way back we walk on the street: the sidewalk is covered by the mats of the Muslims who came to the Mosque for their Friday prayer. Before we reach the training centre we pass through the courtyard of the Bank of China. Malaysia is all this: a complex society, the heritage of colonialism, immigration and trade. One just needs to take a few minutes walk to travel through India, Indonesia and China: three communities that are not really integrated, firmly holding on to their own habits and customs.

Photo by Fabio Pulito

Premature Viagra - Bangkok, Thailand

He grabs the packet, takes out five cigarettes, gives away four of them and lights one for himself. Then he lifts his glass but something is wrong: looking closer at it he can just see the ice cubes. He focuses on the bottles and makes himself one more drink. He laughs, cracks jokes, gets drunk and smokes. He's eying up a girl that he will try to pick up. This European guy is doing an internship in Bangkok. These weeks in Thailand should get him started in finance, but they've dropped him in a muddy land of decadent nights.

On a weekday he will gulp down liters of beer, while on weekends he'll finish off bottles of whiskey. He's often reduced to a pitiful state: he forgets what he's doing and can barely walk. But if he meets a girl and she follows him back home, just to be sure he'll take a pill of Viagra. He's handsome, tall, doing an internship abroad: coming from one of the richest areas in the world he should have a future as a successful man. And yet he gets wasted and takes pills of Viagra. 
He's just twenty four, what is he gonna do when he's old? Whatever happens he won't be alone: I've met many people who are exactly like him.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Grinding pepper - Bangkok, Thailand

At an Italian restaurant, somewhere out of Italy.

The waiter has just placed my dish on the table. I grab my fork and get ready to start when I see him coming with a wooden tool. "Some pepper, Sir?" I take a closer look at that dark brown club: what I had at first taken for a stick, is actually a half meter long pepper mill. I haven't had the time to reject his offer: I look at him fervently grinding his pepper, while a blanket of spice is coating my pasta. Anyway pepper is fine with me, I forget about it and start to eat.

During my meal I keep watching the waiter that walks with his tool around the hall. Sprinkling pepper on pasta and eating garlic bread: somebody spread the word that they are Italian must-does. With his left hand he holds the grinder in the middle, while the right one on top is ready to mill. He offers every patron two turns of the knob.

He gets to the table of a gentleman from Rome, who listen to him and then says "no". When the waiter is already a few meters away, this man gives vent to his Italian pride: "Hey man, what are you doing? Take that pepper away. The amatriciana must be covered with PE-CO-RI-NO cheese!"

Millions! - Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

It's been a few days since I left Kuala Lumpur, but one of Vijay's comments is still buzzing in my head: "Malaysians are always talking about millions. Millions of ringgit, millions of dollars. And they can't even make the first hundred thousand!"

Photo by Fabio Pulito

Monday, November 9, 2009

A pitiful scene at the insects stall - Bangkok, Thailand

This street is packed with foreign tourists. A bunch of people are surrounding a stall and I walk that way to see what's going on. It's the usual group of newly arrived foreigners staring in awe at some oily fried insects. On a set of trays, entangled by the legs, there are grasshoppers and crickets, larvas and scorpions. Some young Chinese are trying a bug, holding it by a leg as if it was scorching, eating it slowly, bit by bit.

At the other end there's a bunch of westerners. A workout fanatic is eating a scorpion, while a couple of girls are taking photos of him. You can tell by his face that he dislikes his snack, but he bites it as if it was a turkey leg. He rips a claw and chews it fast, then he manages to swallow it while he pumps up his chest. At first the Thai guy is smiling at them, but the merry atmosphere is about to end.

The western guys are totally drunk. A blond man grabs some crickets from the tray and pushes them into the big guy's mouth. He eats one up and then shuts his lips, but the blond guy crushes them against his chin. He opens his hand and makes a face while he's looking at the mush of legs, wings and shells. Then he absentmindedly puts them back into the tray. By now the Thai guy is extremely upset but he still doesn't dare saying anything to them. He gives them a couple of embarrassed looks, then he tries a smile, but it's not the amused type.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Soundless emotions - Phuket, Thailand

The mini-van driver enters the lobby, takes a quick look and shouts: "Airport! Airport!". I grab my backpack and follow him. When I'm out of the hotel I hear some cries, I turn around but there's nothing wrong. Suddenly the driver starts to run, holding a bag in his right hand. Half a minute later he's already back and he places that bag in the trunk of the van. He's noticed the confusion in his passengers' looks and tries to explain what that was about: " talk. He...look lady..."

He looks disappointed by our blank stares, drops further explanations and shuts the door. A few seconds later a foreigner with bleached hair walks in our direction at a quick pace: he slides the door with excessive strength and chooses the seat right in front of me. Then he turns around, stares at something behind us, stretches an arm, points an accusing finger and with escalating anger starts to give out some sounds: "Ngh! Hmn! Ngh!" We all turn to watch but there is nothing to see. We are all overcome by a sense of embarrassment and we start to pretend that we're doing other things.

Monday, November 2, 2009

The semipermeable membrane - Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

A few years ago I formulated the theory of the semipermeable membrane approach. Conducting experiments is easy enough: one just has to listen while sitting at a restaurant or take off his earphones when travelling on a train.

In one way the membrane lets any sort of thing out: opinions, points of view, convictions, dogmas, virulent attacks, yells, vulgarities and insults. From the other direction though nothing comes in.

For some people the exchange of ideas doesn't count; an argument or a verbal clash is what they prefer: pouring on people their frustrations and complexes, the bitterness of their disappointments and fears.

What have the others done to deserve that? Nothing, except being made from the same mould.

The semipermeable membrane approach can climb over barriers of any kind: political parties,
languages, creeds, none of these things make a difference to it. It spreads with the speed of a mutated virus and the appeal of the latest of the Apple gadgets.

This kind of approach is just too strong to be stopped and it's probably useless trying to stand in its way.

(Image from

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Garlic...what? Garlic bread!

I would love to know who spread the word that garlic bread is an Italian dish. The menus of the Italian restaurants abroad often include it in the starters page, hidden among bruschettas, salads and ham, disguised as a local, like a cuckoo egg.

Complimentary bread is never available and this impostor, its closest replacement, can only be ordered as an à la carte course.

But rumors don't know what borders are and urban legends can grow everywhere. Try, for instance, to tell the Chinese, that their most popular dessert in Italy is fried ice cream!

(Picture by OMGsplosion,

Monday, July 20, 2009

Moving hands - Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

(Summer 2007)
At one o'clock we break for lunch and I take my students to the Petronas Towers. We sit alfresco at a nice cafe, where a spray of fine drops can cool our skin. When we're studying the menus somebody asks about her. There is an Arab woman a few meters away. Under the headscarf we can glimpse her face.

When we were choosing a place to sit, she swiftly moved to a separate table, which she shares with a column that shuts her away. I mask my embarrassment behind a menu. I pretend it's nothing and I don't do anything. I'm fairly confident: it's better this way.

All around me it's a waiving of hands. The anxious fingers of a Chinese student are inviting the woman to sit with us. She replies with a nod and an outstretched palm, as if she was begging us to forget that she exists. The big hands of a Croat are squeezing the chair, while his head keeps turning from side to side. He looks at his self-marginalized classmate and silently wonders what we can do. After a few seconds you can tell from his face that the obvious answer is a disappointing one. The fingers of the Saudi men are scanning the menu. They are calm and unconcerned: this is normal for them.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

The best hour of the day - Patong beach, Thailand

Patong doesn't have the reputation of an atoll, but sometimes at 5 it has a burst of pride. A quiver runs over the profile of the beach. After having put up with the heat for a day, fended off touts and standed the kids, the majority of the beach-goers pack up and leave.

Young Thai men, with dark skin and tattoos, close the umbrellas and pile up the lounge chairs. There are people who like to go for a swim, those who moor their boats to a tree and others with earphones who jog on the shore. The gay colleagues of the Bangla Road hookers start to play volleyball with their yesterday's clients.

At last everyone has some space for himself. I open my book and lie down on the sand. Some minutes later I finish a chapter, I bookmark the page and look at the gulf. The sun is setting as if it was solid and falls like an egg yolk on the foamy clouds. Steel and flames are slicing the sky, moving in parallel with the faded horizon. After the retreat of the high-season horde, the sand and the plants have reappeared in the picture. A golden cloud has shrouded us: the magic of the tropics, their atmosphere is back.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Stubborn dignity - Tioman island, Malaysia

(Spring 2008)
I'm the only customer at a restaurant on the beach, when a middle-aged foreigner slowly walks in. His outfit and appearance are dignified. It reminds me of Mr Higgins, the friend of Magnum, the private investigator of a television series.

He sits at a table that hasn't been cleared. He scoops with a used spoon the leftovers of an omelet and let them fall on a half portion of rice. He shoves with a fork the food into the spoon and with a surprising ease he puts it in his mouth. His posture is impeccable: his back is straight, the shoulders kept wide and the forearms are resting on the edge of the table. He chews every mouthful for about thirty times and swallows it with a gentle stretch of his neck.

He lets go a long sigh and looks at the hills, then turns to the pier and starts to think. He remembers of Scotland, when he was young, of the massive castle on the shore of the lake. Everything had belonged to his great-great-grandfather, an Earl by the name of Sir William Francis Higgins, whose portrait still hangs from a wall of the hall.

Monday, July 13, 2009

An IV of lifeblood - Gulf of Siam, Thailand

There isn't pitching or even rolling. The ferry glides from the island to the mainland, slicing the sultriness of the Siamese gulf.

The engine roars and the boat slows down, I un-stick my back from the velvet seat. The Japanese fan blows a cone of coolness where I take refuge from the oven-like air. Not even the breeze that is tickling the deck can weaken the grasp of this unnerving heat. The pilot steers the boat towards the pier with a sequence of slow parallel half moons.

A pillar is wrapped up in a pile of tires: the rubber is crushed and torn to shreds. I watch the complicated approaching maneuver next to the other passengers leaning on the rail. The rusty hull rests against the dock, stretching the fibers of a broken tire. Bits of dry rubber fall from the pile and are silently swallowed by the tiny waves.

Pivoting on the pillar the ferry rotates until it lines up with the wooden structure. The ramp comes down and a line of cars starts to pour out of the ferry's hold. Across the slip there's a strip of jute that puffs a small cloud every time it's pressed. Everything reflects the gray of the sky.

I stagger on the gangway with the sack on my shoulder, I cross the bridge that squeaks and sways, then I walk down the path that connects with the square.

Step by step, without taking flights, crawling up the southern strip of Thailand. Samui-Surat, Surat-Hua Hin, then the last van ride that will take me to Bangkok, zig-zagging through heat, palm trees and shacks, with water and dust flowing under my soles.


Traveling is boredom, chapters and thoughts, traveling is an IV of deep fresh lifeblood.

Photo Koh Samui, by Fabio Pulito

Sunday, July 12, 2009

The great globe-guy - Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

(Spring 2008)
The great globe-guy: that's who he is! I had been sniffing him for a while: his pungent stink wrestling with the spices in the bustling bazaar of the KL streets.

He's a walking knife that parts the crowd like a mountain rock splits the course of a stream. The globe is a shield that surrounds his body and it's perceived with the nose, not with the eyes.

He draws near your table with the face of a madman who pretends he's an idiot to go unnoticed, then he stretches his arm but hesitates, as if he was about to touch an alien. When you look up from the book that you were reading, you realize that you've been holding your breath for a while, then you ignore this guy as you've ignored the rest.

While you're searching for the paragraph you keep glancing at the beggar who drags his feet along the sidewalk. You wonder if that mad or idiotic expression is stuck to his face in a permanent way, or if he can shed it whenever he wants, as slowly as he takes back his begging hand. You're watching the scene as if you were hypnotized while your finger points at random on the page: with a rusty-robot movement he twists his neck, then kneels like an old man and picks up something.

You fend off the whiff puffing up your cheeks and wonder what he can possibly be holding in his hand. You look at him while he's staring at the object: if you didn't know that the hallucinated look is the natural expression that thrives on his face, you would think that he'd be studying some monster's claw. He lowers his hand and gives you an amazed look, but you already know that he can't even see you.

Then he starts to walk, with his typical calm, he finds a bin and throws the trash away. You jump on the chair and your body gets tensed, you search your pockets and you give him a tip.

The globe-guy stinks and doesn't take showers, but the cleanliness of his town matters a lot to him.

Photo Kuala Lumpur, by Fabio Pulito

Friday, July 10, 2009

Pinocchio has been a good boy - Shanghai, China

(From my 2005 diary)

We are exploring the maze of a Shanghai marketplace when suddenly our eyes fall on a butcher-stall.

In the last few weeks we've moved quite a lot and enjoyed any kind of Chinese food, but the sight of a raw ham on display at this stall brings the minds of everyone home. Chuchi is chewing a slice of Serrano, while bits of Parma melt in my mouth.

We ask with gestures the price of a piece. The butcher says forty and I hand him a hundred. He cuts the chunk and wraps it up, gives us the bag and turns away.

We ask for the balance but he won't listen to us. With a swift movement Chuchi grabs the whole piece of ham, trying to trade our money for that hostage of fat. The man seizes a knife and aims it at us. We are in this stalemate when some people stop by. When they want to know what is going on, the butcher answers in Shanghainese. The man can tell them everything he wants, and we won't be able to defend ourselves.

I remember an old joke that might also work here. I move my fingers against my face, then quickly pull them away from it, miming in this way a Pinocchio nose. The spectators laugh and address the man, who tries to tell them that he didn't lie.

When they understand that we don't like this deal, they start to yell: “Bu yao! Bu Yao!”. The butcher can only take back his ham and with a livid face he returns our note.

We greet everybody and walk away. This time Pinocchio has been a good boy.

Photo Shanghai, by Fabio Pulito

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Our gift to the world - Bangkok, Thailand

One morning in Bangkok, a few years ago, I was sitting at the restaurant with a British guy.

With a slice of bacon hanging from his fork, he looks at the sky and lifts his hands, then loud and slowly he begins to talk:
“English breakfast...” then he pauses for while, so that I can wonder what will come next.
“...our gift to the world!”

Even though many years have passed since then, I still can't help laughing when I think of that.

(Photo from