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

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

The fashion flu - Bangkok, Thailand

Though the climate of the tropics can be hard to endure, heat and humidity have a pleasant side. A parade of shoulders, of legs and of backs is always on display to please a man's eye.

But a virus of trends, a fashion flu, that is not related to birds and pigs, appeared in Bangkok not long ago. It doesn't kill people, only fantasies and dreams: it spreads around with pandemic speed, without any barriers of geography and age, by means of TV series and magazines.

A girl is walking alone in a mall: her top is tight on her shoulders and breast, her ankles are hugged by the straps of her shoes, through which one can glance at the painted nails. The calves are thin but slightly rounded, the muscles are slender, agile and firm, and they fit in the smoothest skin of the world.

She lifts one knee to climb a step, the cloth of her skirt glides over her thigh and you steal a glance just by tilting your head. When the movement of the leg has reached its peak, from under the hem an intruder comes up. What the hell is a pair of shorts hiding there for? Skirts are skirts and pants are pants: trousers can be worn in many trendy ways, but one of the things a girl should never do is slipping a skirt on top of them.

Disappointment and deception are blurring my thoughts. I'm lead to believe that shyness and fashion don't have anything to do with that terrible match: those shorts might be there just to punish my cheek.

Photo "High heels", from

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Dr Jekyll exists, and he lives in Phnom Penh - Cambodia

(From my 2004 diary)

The traffic light turns green and our bike gains speed but after few meters we come to a stop. We have been around for eight ours at least and we got caught at dusk, when we were almost back. The policeman smiles and approaches us. We already know what he's looking for and we decide that first he will enjoy our show.

He throws a glance at Lorenzo's licence, then ask if we have an international one. We pretend that we can't speak a word in English, that we are also quite nervous and rather dumb. When he asks for the papers we look at each other, we slowly translate his words in Italian, then finally grin and hand in the same licence. He points out again that this one is not good, that we need to have a document written in English. Once more we throw amazed looks at each other, then we patiently explain him that this one is Italian.

After five minutes of this slapstick show he finally invites us to make a donation. When we hear the word “dollars” we smile and yell, as if we had finally understood what he means. A beam of satisfaction brightens his face, as he sees his efforts bringing back a reward. But it's a short-lived joy and his frustration is back when we pull the rental contract out of our bag.

After a few more more minutes of this back and forth, we decide it's enough and we bargain the price. He pockets the money without writing a fine. You can tell by the way he's greeting us that the daily sum was a well-earned one.

The next day we're reading a local paper in English. A journalist writes about corruption and bribes. Part of the article is an interview with an officer, who explains that the problem is a serious one. At the end of the column there's a photo of the cop. The man is proudly standing next to his bike. A shiny white helmet, U.S. Air Force shades, a confident smile and a thin black mustache.

We look at the picture and try to make out that face. We wonder if the author could possibly know that the nice Dr Jekyll who was talking to him, is the same Mr Hyde who entertained us.

Image: Richard Mansfield in The strange case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Henry van Der Weyde (PD), circa 1895, from

Monday, July 6, 2009

The Balinese extortionists - Bali, Indonesia

(From my 2003 diary)

The traffic is heavy on this stretch of road. A few meters ahead we spot a cop. He seems to be relaxed, and doesn't do much, just lazily observes the cars passing by. When he spots our faces through the shiny glass, his body stirs, he steps forward and with his hand he motions us to stop. The look that the encounter has painted on his face is the one of a fox breaking into a roost.

A colleague of him has joined the scene. The confab they hold while they check our papers reminds of two pirates studying a map. When they have verified that the licence is all right, they move on with a thorough overhaul of the car. Once they have made sure that there is nothing wrong, they start to mumble about a mysterious offence. We are amazed, we smile and try to explain that this is just a rental car. But soon we understand that it's a useless try and that we're only making fools of ourselves.

They have already seen this, and they even look bored when they list the absurd consequences that we might face. We cut it short and ask how much. They shoot a figure and wait for our laughs. We keep them happy and start to bargain, we even joke while we negotiate. At the end we pay and they let us go.

A few hours later, when we're back from Ubud, we happen to drive past the same place. The scene of the morning is staged once again, only the actors are different ones. Before the policemen start to check our car, we tell them straight that we've already paid. They look at us a little surprised and without any shame they ask us how much. Lorenzo tells them a puffed-up sum, and we observe the indignation permeating their faces. They ask us to follow them inside the station and to try to recognize the greedy ones.

That's how we ended up helping those guys to find the colleagues who didn't share our bribe!

Friday, July 3, 2009

The KL fakes - Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

A tall and blond woman walks along Ramlee street. She spots the two towers, stares at them, slows down her pace and...there he comes!

Hands outstretched, a TV smile, he offers the woman some kind of charm. Maybe it's the orange robe, maybe the smile, or just the fact that she's here to explore: the lady stops, looking slightly surprised, throws a glance at the charm and picks it up. He bows his head and withdraws his hands, the lady loosens up and finally smiles. She joins her hands as in a namaste, returns the bow and resumes her walk.

She hasn't still taken the second step when the guy moves his hand, gently but firmly, as if to say hold, we aren't done yet. With his palm still facing the woman chest, he seems to freeze her with a mystical force. He stealthily puts the other hand in his bag, and produces a card that he asks her to read. The left hand of the lady is still holding the charm, while her right forefinger swiftly skids through the text. The look that she gives him might mean what the hell..., but the guy keeps cool and nods his head. The lady surrenders, searches her purse and hands that smart-ass a ten ringgit note.