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