Saturday, June 27, 2009

Bangkok's every night show - Bangkok, Thailand

Only Bangkok can stage shows like this everyday. While the first light of dawn turns the world greasy and gray, the last tipsy customers sway out of the club, dragging their feet as well as their tongues. They linger on the road, skirting taxis and touts. The groups are dynamic, with a fluid sort of quality: one loses a member, then gets two new ones, while another large party, bit after bit, dwindles to a couple and then to a last drunk, who will finally drift without too much noise.

The veranda of this restaurant is a perfect spot to dominate undisturbed the entire set. Lorenzo sips a refreshing fruit shake. Without facing each other, we sit side by side, watching the numbers unfolding in front. Behind a fortification of bottles of beer there hides a face of complicated make. The synthetic touch, the mud-gray hue, the distorted lines of mouth, nose and eyes, must be the result of a hard-lived night. The four or five liters of Singha beer, whose evidence lays empty and wet on the table, are likely to end a long chain of events, which probably started in a hotel room, and swerved through a streak of dodgy and dark dives.

The guy doesn't move and stares right ahead, though what he sees might be nowhere in sight. Then, very slowly, his left arm moves, while the rest of the body remains icy still. He's reaching for a tray placed next to him, but a waitress springs and arrives there first. She grabs a fresh bottle and refills his glass. He lifts it and shakily brings it to his mouth, finding the target after a couple of tries. Between two lengthy swigs of beer, he puts out a cigarette on a filthy ashtray. He places the stub on top of the mound that has been raised with zeal in three hours at least.

It's not easy to tell how old he is. Although he looks somewhere between fifty and the grave, part of that figure might be due to these nights. The waitress is guarding him from behind, and refills his glass any time he needs. The last bunch of people are now leaving the street and walking to a bar squeezed somewhere upstairs.

In Bangkok the clubs should be closed by three, but there is always some place which will open all night. All they need to do is convince the police, and the agreement normally consists in a bribe. Still, when some top brass is in a bad mood, the place might be asked to close anytime. This also happens if a new bidder shows up, and he is bringing along a richer gift.

This is the way things often work down here. But one should remember that a country and its culture need to be understood and criticized as a whole. Corruption, instability and a bit of filth, are counterbalanced by a happy and relaxed atmosphere.

I've been to some clockwork-like places before: it's true that I could hardly spot a cockroach, but I've often ended up flying off dead-bored.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Just a simple grimace of fatigue - Bangkok, Thailand

I get off the BTS at Saphan Thaksin. I stop by the hawkers, I buy some pork skewers with sticky rice, a few chunks of fried tofu ad a bottle of tea, and then I turn right at a big intersection. I'm walking on an unusually spacious sidewalk, tearing and chewing the last bits of my snack, when I spot a scene that makes me freeze.

An old man is slowly coming my way, pushing forward a huge shopping cart. This is by no means an atypical sight, but there is something about it that catches my eye. One of the wheels got stuck in a crevice and the old man, without any sign of distress, is pushing and pushing, but gets no joy. Although his head and shoulders reach out, his knees go down and his thighs are trembling, there is nothing to do: the cart stays put. The hole on the floor that is blocking his progress is a little thing, you can hardly see it: still it's looking at it that I understand how weak this old man actually is.

Just when I'm about to go there and help him, the wheel leaps forward and starts to turn. Although the man is already past me, I just can't leave and I continue to watch. He looks seventy or eighty years old, but I wouldn't be surprised if he were younger than that. His hair is gray and nicely trimmed, while some stubs of white beard stick out of his chin. A clean white shirt of a very light fabric is flapping around his withered limbs. He's wearing shorts and some old plastic slippers. One of his ankles is wrapped up in a sock, gray, matted and open in the front. In the cart he's carrying some empty bottles, other objects of plastic and a lot of scraps. Like many other people who live in Bangkok, he earns a living by trading that stuff.

He's advancing slowly, one meter a day, and every movement he makes takes a year of his life. He can't adjust too often the course of the cart: only when he hits a building or reaches the curb, the wheels bend to the right or to the left. On one of these stretches he's approaching the wall, and a group of workers, leaning against it, all have to move and make room for him. A night-watchman interrupts his work and pulls his cart beyond a step.

Maybe it's the guilt for not having helped, or the fact that the man is not asking for it, but I feel the urge to give him a tip. I hesitate, because you never know, sometimes you mean well and then make a mistake. There is a bus stuck in a jam, with uniformed people chatting on board. A woman is standing on the steps of the door, singing a song that comes from behind. Suddenly she notices the old man with his cart, she jumps from the bus and rushes to him, sticks a bill in his hand and runs back to her place. The man was so deeply engaged in his task that when he looks up the woman is gone. He mutters some koop kun and lowers his head.

As I got my cue, I start to walk, I catch up with the man and wait for a chance. When a wheel of the cart gets stuck once again, I hear him moaning a long uiii of affliction, so I help him out and slip a tip in his hand.

I watch him looking and smiling at me.
But then I realize that what I took for a smile, might just be a simple grimace of fatigue.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

The same old trick - Bangkok, Thailand

Silom road, central Bangkok. I'm kind of shouldering my way through a typically busy Asian sidewalk, towards the escalator of the Sky-train station. I swerve around an elegant Thai lady on the left, a flower street vendor squatting on the right, I skirt a hooker who's chasing his catch, hop past the table of a noodle-soup stall and I finally make it to the bottom of the stairs. Just when I'm about to set my foot on the step, a teenager shows up and blocks my way.

Maybe he's begging, or wants to sell me something. With both his hands he's carrying a bag, the content of which I cannot see. When I try to rush past him and up the stairs he does something that could be normal in India or in Morocco, but that one wouldn't definitely expect to see here. He doesn't give up and keeps blocking my way, walking backwards with a stubborn grin. As I don't surrender and keep trying to overtake him, he uses his bag to shove me against the rail. I'm totally taken by surprise and for one or two seconds I just stay still. Out of the corner of my eye I notice that his partner is approaching from behind, so I tell him to back off and push his bag and him away.

The escalator is carrying me away from troubles, but I'm still looking down at that pair of cunning urchins. I watch them while they play the same trick with a tourist. For a while he pretends he's not bothered at all, but finally he explodes with a liberating cry: “I'm not interested!”
Interested in what? I say to myself. In being pick-pocketed? I'm quite sure that the second thief didn't have a chance to search my bag, but I still check my belongings once I am upstairs. Everything seems to be all right.

I approach the banister of the elevated station and try to spot them on the street below. They seem to be gone, but I'm not sure, therefore I walk down to the opposite side. I meet them there, they look relaxed, strolling and hunting for another prey. I stop on the sidewalk and stare at them: the one who pushed his bag against my chest smiles for a moment but then, maybe because he remembers my face or for the hostile look given off by my eyes, he turns away to join his friend.

Fortunately these things don't happen very often, that's the main reason why I was so surprised. It's true that in Thailand scams, pick-pocketing and other troubles occur, but it's usually not very serious stuff or things that can be avoided with a little care.

Accepting a tuk-tuk ride of one hour for ten baht, for example, can lead you, as a worst case scenario, to a boring hop-on hop-off tour of silk-outlets, tailors, jeweleries and other shops. Some other drivers will try to convince you that the Royal Palace is closed for the day, in order to take you somewhere else and get a good deal for a whole afternoon.
Apparently reliable and well-educated touts might invite you to follow them to a gambling house or to buy some unbelievably cheap sapphires. There's no need to say, of course, that the gamblers are crooks and the sapphires fakes.

There are people who decided to buy drugs on the street. A few minutes later they received a free gift: a cordial visit to their hotel room from a patrol of corrupt but zealous cops.

Some other foreigners (including who writes) have had some belongings stolen in their rooms. Those, however, were rather cheap hotels, with low levels of security or none at all.

There have even been cases of armed robbery and murders. Such serious crimes though, do not happen often, anyway less than in some more developed countries.

Obviously today's incident cannot be dismissed as a trifle, for one could have had his passport or wallet snatched. At the same time it's not easy to avoid falling for it as the trick, though old, proves to be an effective one.

Anyway I wouldn't worry too much about this. All in all I've had few problems since I came to Asia years ago. I don't believe that what happened today marks the beginning of a new, worrisome, era in terms of Thai security standards.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Sweating the food away - Bangkok, Thailand

Here it comes, I can already feel it. It slowly crawls up from under my scalp, like a dome of thin needles coming out of my head. I chat a little longer, taste some spicy squid salad, I dip a fried shrimp in a naughty orange sauce, then pull it out dripping and glob it like that. After ten minutes my appearance has changed. My hair is drenched, my cheekbones are moist, my eyes are shiny and floating in the pools that have little by little flooded their sockets. Drops of salty water, like translucent snails, advance down my throat at a very slow pace, leaving behind them a maze of shiny trails.

For almost ten years I've been training for it: piping hot Laksas, spiced Indian Masalas, boiling Chinese hot pots and flaming Thai Tom Yam soups. There's nothing to do: my body, or better said my head, doesn't get used and keeps reacting like this.

“When you say that spicy food makes you sweat, you really mean it!”
Between two spoonfuls of seafood fried rice, Roberto can hardly suppress a smile. I pass my left hand over my hair and then use up four tissues to take off the sweat. The girls let go a respectful laugh. Not even a pearl or a shiny vein can be spotted on their velvety foreheads and cheeks.

I start to crack jokes in broken Thai: “Look, it's starting to rain, and my chair is standing out of umbrella range.” “Hey, does anybody happen to have a bottle of shampoo by any chance?” “There it is, another idiot throwing Songkran buckets out of season!” Maybe it's the jokes, or the way I speak: they laugh and forget my shower-like look.

I'm a little upset by the quantity of sweat that my head has released in just half an hour. I would like to be able to tell my body that there is no need to over-react!
I did study physics when I was at school, and I can't help wondering at this law-breaking ability to turn each and every small grain of dry chilly into spoonfuls of liquid oozing out of my pores. The mysterious process reminds me a little of some of my mother's delicious dishes. They must be eaten with extreme care, absolutely not earlier than at least half hour after they have been taken off the stove, when their temperature have finally dropped a few degrees below the lead melting point.

The problem is, I love this food. And even though I ask to have it made a little less spicy than papillae-burning level, I still like to feel that kick in my mouth. If it means that I have to spend the rest of the dinner translating silly jokes in Thai or Chinese and amassing a pile of soaked tissues on the table...well, at the end that's a fair price to pay.

Photo Luis Armstrong, by Hermann Hiller, from New York World-Telegram and the Sun Newspaper photograph collection, 1953 (PD)

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Se lo han cargado - Phuket, Thailand

Lorenzo's gaze scans the profile of Patong: he's absolutely right, this beach is great. Especially now, when the sun is plunging into the distant waves and a golden dust has settled on the leaves that swell the hills at the end of the bay. Everything else reflects the same shiny hue: the clouds, the Arab and Indian tourists that awkwardly hang from the para-sails, and the jet-skis that break through the foam of the crests like a horde of fat insect-like robots.

Somewhere near the northern end of the beach though, one can spot, beyond the typical tangle of electric wires, a whitish patch among the green of the plants. It's one of the new development projects that are claiming the land between Kamala and Patong.

The next morning we decide to rent a scooter and we tackle the slopes of the snaky road that runs along the western rim of the island. After a stop and a swim in Nai Han, we hop on the bike and we cut eastward, until we reach the centre of Phuket town. We will spend the rest of the afternoon sipping mango shakes in the colonial district and pampering ourselves with an oil massage.

Inspired by the memory of yesterday's sunset, on our way back we stop at Kamala beach. The village is not very different from the other ones that we have seen today. Kamala beach welcomes its visitors with a few hotels and cheaper guest houses. Besides a bunch of restaurants there's a line of bars with girls in miniskirts yelling at those who pass by.

The cheerfully silly and relaxed atmosphere fades when the scooter heads southward, through the the narrow road that runs along the shore. The beam of light is swallowed up by the tropical vegetation and the darkness ahead, while the music and the noises are overcome by the vigorous sounds of the jungle and the sea. The environment takes up a ghost-like air and at the edge of the streets some strange figures appear. The thin white veil that wraps them up is neither a shroud nor ectoplasm matter, but just a thin layer of mortar powder. Dozens of men, women and children, busy themselves up and down the paths, pushing wheelbarrows or carrying buckets and tools.

We come across the first of a sequence of resorts: they cover the hillside like fans of cement, for hundreds meters from Kamala down south. Presented with such an astonishing scene, Lorenzo is reminded of a Sardinian gulf, as it appears to the visitors approaching on a boat.

Though the style of the buildings is not always bad, they're eating up the coast with merciless greed. Our scooter runs besides the file of workers, with buckets hanging from poles balanced on their shoulders, while a list of grotesque names unfolds in front of us: something like “The Plantation”, “Green Oasis” or “Blue Lagoon”.

A few months ago I was talking with Javier, a Spanish friend of mine, about Yangshuo, a nice little town in the south of China, that has also changed shape in the last few years. A sentence that Javier used to describe that ruination keeps buzzing in my head while I'm watching these scene:
“Oye, se lo han cargado bastante el sitio ese!”
You cannot translate a sentence like this, it would be like designing a cheap compact car and then stick a “Ferrari” logo on the radiator in front. It's a modern and wicked form of linguistic blasphemy.

I won't commit that sin myself, but I'm sure that the meaning is pretty clear.