Tuesday, September 28, 2010

What makes the difference - Angkor, Cambodia

Angkor Roads, by Un rosarino en Vietnam
60 dollars for a weekly pass. A heavy blow, well, at least if you're trying to stretch your budget - a tight one - on a two-three-year-long bed of travels. On the other hand I don't feel like visiting Angkor like the majority of the tourists that I've met so far does. Just one, two or three days. Wake up at dawn, sprinting from a hill to a temple, panting from a hut to a monument, back to the hotel at dinner time, with confused memories: where were the roots of those centuries-old trees, that wrap up the walls and the statues? And the bas-reliefs? What was the name of the four-faced-heads temple? Wat...Wat...Wat something...
Well, I'm willing to leave the "Wat something" experience to someone else. The weekly pass will allow me to take it easy - which, by the way, is my favorite hobby. I can see the temples at dawn today and at sunset tomorrow. I can focus on Angkor Wat one day, on Bayon and Ta Phrom another, on the circuit of the minor temples later on. Easy, relaxed, spending the morning or the afternoon at the guest house, reading, studying and planning my next visit. Or in Siem Reap's colonial quarter, taking photos, scribbling, peeking, nibbling, browsing, chatting, getting lost, watching, daydreaming - which happen to be my other favorite hobbies.
To tell the truth, I will start to use these tactics only on the third-fourth day. At the beginning the charm of Angkor will get hold of me and - victim of an irresistible greed for experience and atmosphere - even i will be swallowed up by the dust and the heat that choke this place. The first day I follow the standard procedure: I rent a motorbike with a driver who leaves me at the temples and picks me up once I'm done. I feel like a bag with arms and legs, hat and camera, only lacking brain and totally character-less. At the end of the day I feel uncomfortable: it's an indigestion of notions without the experience seasoning.
In the evening I meet a Japanese backpacker, dressed up the typical way: sunglasses and a small white towel wrapped around the head. I'll call him Akira, after an animation movie that I watched many years ago. Akira is visiting the temples by bicycle. Everyday he rents one downtown, rides it along the road that leads to the site and pedals his way around the temples.
"What's the difference?"
"You try first, then you'll let me know!"
"Alright, I'll join you tomorrow then..."
Obviously a bicycle is cheaper than a motorbike, good news for my savings. I'm not fit and the bike is not like the ones they use at the Tour de France, so I can only progress very slowly. Akira is right though, compared with the motorbike this is another story. I couldn't imagine that the sound is what makes the difference. It's as if I were in an old recording studio and a technician had turned off the engine's frequency switch, turning up the others. I can listen to the birds chirping, the children playing, a man who is sawing a piece of wood behind his house, a dog barking at a mole. Angkor, in perfect oriental style, is an archaeological site surrounded by people who keep living their lives, with houses, small shops, schools. It's a magical atmosphere that I would have completely missed hadn't I listened to all those sounds. It takes long to reach each temple, but the journey is not boring at all. I have time to look at the vegetation, at the fauna, the life, the colors, the shades. Sometimes i sink into this new Angkor, its hypnotic atmosphere, so deep that I cannot re-emerge before I get to a temple, and I proceed to the next one.
I get back to Siem Reap in the evening. I look at myself in the mirror: it's as if I had crossed the Sahara on foot. I'm soiled like a ridiculous chimney sweep of the fairy tales. The blanket that is covering me is not made of soot but of dirt-road's dust hardened with sweat. My shirt, which I would normally put in the washing machine, is beyond reclaim: I take it off and directly throw it away. I take a half hour-long shower, and I have to scratch very energetically to take off the crust that is wrapping me up.
Starting tomorrow there will not be any more day-long expeditions. I'll enjoy the temples two-three hours at a time. But the bicycle, that simple and clever idea that I owe to Akira, well, nobody is ever gonna take it away from me.

Angkor, Cambodia, March 2002

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

A new breed - Mae Hong Son, Thailand

Japanese bridge, Pai, by Fabio
September 2001. The Twin Towers collapsed a few days ago, as well as my prospect of a solid career, a secure job, promotions, a guaranteed salary, a pension at the end and all the things like that. When I say collapsed I mean that I tore it down with my own hands, not that it came down by itself or that someone else helped me to demolish it.
Let's not stray from the point though. September 2001, we were saying. I've just landed in Asia, determined to visit as big a portion of it as I can before my savings run out. The road that connects Chiang Mai and Pai is the same thin and winding path marked by the Japanese along the hills and the valleys of Mae Hong Son province during the second world war. Pai is starting to develop: there are a few guest houses, some agencies that organize trekking tours and rent bicycles, a number of restaurants and a couple of bars with Siamese cowboys playing live country and folk tunes. Waves of Thai tourists will start to flood this small town in a few years, for the moment only a few dozen foreigners a day arrive. And they do it by means of a run down micro-bus, probably built to accommodate baby midgets, gaudy colored and rusty, loud, burning-hot and full like a constipated bowel. The air-conditioned minivan service doesn't exist yet, let alone the small airplanes that land nearby nowadays. Unless you have a car or a motorbike the Playmobil bus is the only option available. The foreign passengers are mingling with a disproportionate number of Thais, who are not Thais in the real sense of the word, as almost all of them belong to the various minorities that inhabit the area: Shan, Karen, Akha, Lisu, Lahu. They are divided - or united - by sacks of rice, food, boxes of electrical appliances and utensils, poultry, fish and other mysterious objects. The one-and-a-quarter-person-seats are accommodating three-four people on average and the standard-sized foreigners have to find a way to handle the uncomfortable presence of their own knees. Others are sitting on a sort of big scorching bench that covers some mechanical parts of the bus, right next to the driver. The remaining ones are cramming the aisle.
I offer my seat to a woman overwhelmed with a huge basket that she carries on her shoulder as if it was a school-bag. Smiles and compliments are flooding me. It's low cost popularity, luxury that one can indulge on just in situations like this. After a while the bus starts to sputter, it slows down, then catches up, coughs again, jumps and halfway through a rather steep slope it finally comes to a stop. The driver is working hard on the ignition system and the starter is assisting him by screaming out loud, trying to wake the engine up, but there is nothing to do, the latter is deaf. We have to get off and considering the temperature, space and smell related issues none of the foreigners really take it badly. The locals, as it often happens in Asia, endure the events without any noticeable changes of facial expression. After half an hour though, the initial relief gives way to some puffs, that in a few minutes turn into outright restlessness. Then something happens. A Japanese pick up drives by, the only Thai tourist around (with hindsight I should call him a pioneer) stops it, asks for a lift and then waves to the bunch of people behind him. A dozen foreigners manage to find a place on the truck that a few seconds later has already disappeared behind a switchback. The ones who were left behind got the trick and are planning to stop the next car. I'm stunned by the heat and the cramps and I haven't decided whether I'm going to stay here or follow them. As usual I postpone the decision and I wait for something or someone to give me a cue. The oracle presents itself under the appearance of Makoto, a Japanese guy, all smiles, energy and clear ideas. Ten seconds next to him work better than a jar of Redbull. 
"I'm definitely gonna stay. Can you see how they are working hard to repair the bus and take us to Pai? I can't possibly leave them like this!" 
For a moment I don't react, then the power of the sentence and the purpose hits me like a Mike Tyson's punch. I think that it would be nice to start crying when facing this kind of demonstrations of humanity, but this doesn't seem to be the most appropriate situation, so I opt for a smile. 
"Well then, I'll stay as well. There's no hurry, nobody is waiting for me..." 
It doesn't take long to fix the problem and in a couple of hours we're already in Pai.
Normally, when we think of stereotypes, negative images tend to occur to us. Italians are cunning fellows, Germans are boring, French are snobbish, Japanese are credulous tourists who take photos of everything. Well, Makoto represents a stereotype of Japan that I'm crazy about. Sticking to an idea, to a principle, not necessarily related to politics or nationalism but, as in this case, to human solidarity, good manners, gratitude, understanding and compassion. Resisting temptations, avoiding easy ways, not making excuses, even when dealing with oneself. Maybe it's a legacy of the samurai culture, or at least that's how I like to think of it. And all of this is always accompanied by smiles and positiveness. That's why after five seconds of bewilderment I was almost moved to tears. 
The Great Makoto. We'll continue traveling together for a few days. He's the one who will organize a mini-party at a restaurant for my birthday, involving the waitresses who will contribute with a succulent and colorful fruit platter, free of charge. And he's the one who will make me laugh again when, on his way back from a rush to the toilet of a bus station, breathless, panting, the forehead covered with beads of sweat, holding his belly while his mouth was twisted in grimaces of pain, to apologize for the delay he will come up with: "Sorry Fabio...it was an e-me-ru-gen-cyyy!"
The Great Makoto, exceptional stereotype. Representative for South East Asia of a new breed of samurai.

Mae Hong Son province, Thailand, September 2001

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Bogged down - Muang Ngoi, Laos

American unexploded bombs, by Fabio
You set down a foot and control your muscles in order to be ready in case you slip. But you got it all wrong. The clay of Muang Ngoi streets is of an unusual type: after weeks of monsoon rain it turns into glue. A mixture that some chemistry laboratory - if they still haven't done it - should definitely analyze.
You don't have any problems when your sole touches the ground, as that slush clings to the rubber of your shoe like the almost dry concrete of a new sidewalk. At that stage your balance is guaranteed, your foot doesn't slide by a single centimeter. The situation changes when you take a second step and you shift the barycenter of your body to advance. Your head moves forward, your chest as well, your hips follow suit, your thigh and knee are also dragged along. But at ankle level something goes wrong. The first foot is anchored, stuck, welded, thermofused. You still don't realize how strong that bond is and you give a sharp tug, thinking that you can make it, as you have made it pretty much everywhere so far, with or without monsoon. The only thing that seems to yield though is the structure of your shoe: obviously its body is more likely to come off the sole than the latter is to get unstuck from the street. You fear the worst. You know that a violent move will leave you barefoot, so you try to keep calm while you carry out an outflanking maneuver, something that you learned long ago when you were lying on a dentist chair: a sequence of gentle circular pulls, hoping to loosen the grip before proceeding with the extraction. You already quit being afraid of looking ridiculous when you took a look around you a moment ago. You can't spot any Laotian stuck to the ground: either they are all at home or they have found out the way to skate on rubber cement. On the other hand the street is full of foreigners in the same situation as you. The scene makes you think of a museum hall where some kind of Blue Fairy by means of a few skillful touches of her wand has brought the statues to life, but has also played a dirty trick on them: one of their feet is still petrified, connected to the pedestal. All of them are flinging themselves about, maddened with joy for being finally able to move their limbs after so many centuries, but at the same time panicking for that last constraint that nails them down to the ground.
Finally you make it, the sole gets unstuck, you lift your foot and manage to take a step. You know that you won't go far though, that sooner or later the straps of your sandal will give in. Your intuition is confirmed by the footwear graveyard that lies in front of you: soles of other sandals, flip-flops, trainers and even trekking shoes appear here and there, thrust into mounds made of something that resembles home made chocolate ice cream, with a thousand times higher thickness and adhering power. 
I had already been in Muang Ngoi a few years ago, in the dry season: a completely different story. It's a little village built around few dirt roads, without any traffic, where you can only get by boat from Nong Khiaw, another small place not far from here. A little paradise, slightly spoiled by tourism maybe, but still retaining its charming atmosphere. Now it's unlivable. Hanging around the houses built with the American bomb shells is complicated and visiting the caves and the hills nearby is unthinkable. Tomorrow I'm gonna get on a boat and go back to Luang Prabang. 
By way of some grass paths and often walking barefoot I manage to reach a temple: some chicks are scratching around the yard and in a corner I can spot a gong-bell made with the remains of a bomb. I meet some nice guys from Bologna who manage to convince me to stay one more day. Alright, come to think about it with some nice company this place is not so bad.
The next morning after waking up I go and look for them to have breakfast together. They have already checked out of their hotel. I take a look around and all I can see is leaden clouds, leaves dripping with rain and a never ending expanse of quick-setting mud. Hard as I try I can't recall what the nice side of it that I could see yesterday was.
The next boat is leaving tomorrow, I'll have to stay here another day, bogged down in every sense of the word, with the only company of a book and a jug of coffee, while the Italians who convinced me to stay are enjoying the comforts and the French-colonial atmosphere of Luang Prabang. 
As for myself, the only French thing that is left here is a vaguely mocking saying: c'est la vie!

Muang Ngoi, Laos, August 2007

Friday, September 10, 2010

The dividing line - Bangkok, Thailand

Bangkok-Pahonyothin Rd. traffic on a rainy night, by Fabio
I’m on a bus, standing, holding a pole with my hand. I’m the only foreign passenger on board, as usual on this line. I used to feel vaguely embarrassed about it. I was aware of the looks of the Thais, I could almost read their thoughts: “What is this farang doing here? Why doesn’t he take a taxi, or drive, or live downtown?” Although it’s true that this is what people here often think of foreigners, a slight breeze of paranoia was definitely blowing on my thoughts, making me feel that almost everybody was looking at me when it was not like that at all. Most of the passengers in fact were just dozing off after a long day at work, or chatting, reading, listening to music. Anyway with time my sensors have developed some sort of filter for this kind of sensations and I don’t notice all that anymore.
The bus is stuck in the third lane of a traffic light jam. My stop is just past the junction but I know myself well: I will start to daydream and I’ll be carried away by a chain of thoughts, numerous, rusty and battered like its links, and I will forget to get off. I approach the door and press the stop button in advance. The conductor looks at me and so do other people nearby, and this time I’m sure that I haven’t just imagined it. Oh, maybe…no, it can’t be…then the driver presses a button and the door opens. A devilish, unexpected example of the principle of cause-effect: I pressed the button and he opened the door. Just like that, just for me. It’s exactly what I was afraid of, even though my mind hadn’t had the time to develop a clear picture of it. Normally one rings the bell to request the next stop, not to have the doors opened right away. By the way, it’s written everywhere that buses can only pick up and drop off passengers at the official stops. This is a junction, trafficked and dangerous. But I pressed the button and the driver opened the damned door. I wait a moment, maybe someone gets off, erasing me from the picture like a little man in an unfinished cartoon. Unsurprisingly nobody moves. What do I do now? I’m going to get off, better than remaining on board, putting up a silly smile to let them know I was not aiming that high and make a fool of myself. A little jump, like that, look out for the motorbikes and that’s it, I’m already on the sidewalk, camouflaged with a discreet veil of purpose and determination, as if to say: “That’s exactly what I wanted to do!”
Now the Thais will be thinking: “Hey, look at that farang, how easy, he seems to be so used to the various details of the local customs!” Like this or with their own words, let them think what they want. They can't even suspect what the shameful truth is.
Well, who would have thought, sometimes the dividing line between fool and cool can be very thin!

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

High-altitude scalpers - Medan, Indonesia

Crossing the morning sky, by Docbudie (CC)
We're done with Sumatra, we tick the item in the list and we proceed with our next destination: Java. We get back to Medan and we start to look for a flight. At the first travel agency a bored employee tells us that the flights to Jakarta - and to any other Indonesian city - are all full, for a few days.
"How...all of them?"
"All of them!"
This guy doesn't want to work, we all think at once while we start to look for another agency. Maybe the workers of the local tourism sector are lazy and bored, but this has nothing to do with flights availability. Due to some holiday the Indonesians, the students in particular, are traveling, migrating, flying. To go home, on vacation, to visit some friends, nobody knows where exactly, what we know is that they have completely jammed the national air traffic.
But we belong to an ancient breed of tough travelers and we won't give up that easily. We reach the airport with a rickety taxi. The national departures area is a bedlam of people who are camping everywhere, hoping for a waiting list to be cleared soon. We try the ticket offices of some airlines but this time we are not surprised by their answers: all full! A female scalper who got wind of the opportunity to cheat three pale-faced fools draws near us and offers us three boarding passes for a huge sum.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

The answer

Heart of Satan, by Stuck in Customs (CC)
Sometimes the leaden cloud of doubts reappears in the sky of the mind. And it starts to pour down a heavy rain of questions. Questions that you have already answered in the past, so many times, not only with words or thoughts but with frustration, suffering and mild states of depression as well.
For a moment, though, you're at a loss, and you can't remember what that answer was. Stability, jobs, fixed salaries, professions, insurances, pensions schemes, health coverage. Why give all this up? What for? You could answer with words but it would only be the performance of a parrot, a meaningless rigmarole. You can't formulate the answer, you need to feel it.
Then you wander through the city, in those alleys and corners where restlessness meets the night, you have a beer too many, you watch the unlikely unfolding in front of you. You wake up too early or too late and you don't have to care. You read a book, and it might as well just be a paragraph, a dialog, a sentence, a thought...and all of a sudden it comes back to you. Now you know exactly what the answer is.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Trapped - Malaysia

Sign in a Thai tourist coach, by Fabio
I detected the first signal when I was strolling in the terminal. The jerking of a muscle, a small wave, nothing much. I ignored it like one does with the sudden pulsation of a vein, a nerve of an arm that goes off by itself. Or one of those thoughts that leave behind a sensation but not a clear memory. I probably brought it to the surface from the bottom of the Sea of Conscience by association of ideas, connecting events. The events, precisely, let's see how they unfold.
An hour later, when I was already trapped between the seats of a freezing bus, that first movement has started to reproduce: waves and jerkings now follow one another like bubbles in the water inside a pot. Unfortunately though, the pot is my belly and the boiling water is a stabbing bout of diarrhea. At first you try to keep the situation under control, tactfully releasing a little pressure, breathing deeply, contracting and relaxing in a continuous cycle. You can try to keep it under control as much as you like though, it's not going to help when you're crossing Malaysia lengthwise. In a few minutes you run out of degrees of freedom. 
I walk along the corridor, I approach the driver and ask him if he can stop the bus, but he doesn't seem to hear me. I say it again, nothing, I beg him but he looks like a mustached Sphinx perched on the steering wheel. He can hear me alright but he doesn't care: he just wants to reach his trusted gas station, where he'll get a commission for each unloaded passenger.
I would love to be like the hero of a legend of India's backpackers. In a similar situation this mythological traveler went to talk with the driver, the Indian guy smiled and stopped the bus. Then he got a second bout and asked for another break. This time the driver snorted but stopped again. The third time, though, he didn't listen to his request anymore. The foreigner mournfully took his shirt off, spread it out on his seat and then unloaded on it three good minutes of cramps, among heat, flies and the disgusted looks of the other passengers. Then he picked it up, like a picnic bundle, glanced outside and finally threw it out of the window. 
But I don't have the stuff legendary heroes are made of and this is not India, where the unlikely takes place. I have to wade through the twinges of pain, counting the contractions. I do it at the entrance, next to my torturer, so that some sense of guilt can erode his arrogance. When we get to the station I elbow my way to the toilet and then I feel well. After the initial disbandment my antibodies reorganized and mindful of the Asian months of hard training they quickly reunited to drive back the assault. 
But sure enough for a while I did fear the worst.

Malaysia, September 2003

P.S. As my regular readers will have surely noticed, for some unfathomable reason various anecdotes with a common topic keep coming back to my mind lately. It seems that I'm writing a sort of Saga of the runs. The other episodes can be found here.