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