Thursday, November 25, 2010

Those nice guys - Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Photo by slimmer_jimmer (CC)
There is an illegaly parked vehicle at Bukit Bintang Road. A police car approaches it from behind and when it stops just few centimeters from its bumper the officer at the wheel starts to honk. Actually, rather than a horn this sounds like a siren. A piercing howling that captures the attention of numerous people who are crowding the area, including the owner of the car, who quickly opens the door and gets on. For a few seconds he nervously fumbles with the key, under the amused gazes of the onlookers, while the officer keeps teasing him intermittently pressing the horn button. After a while he manages to ease his panic, he starts the engine and drives out of there. The police car also starts to move, finally silent. When it's passing in front of me I look at the four cops who are laughing their bellies off.
I still don't understand whether they are really bored or patrolling this area is lots of fun.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

The solitary traveler's nightmare/2 - Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

"Nightmare", by brentbat (CC)

Continued from here

The nightmare materialized again in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, at an open-air restaurant. Two minutes after having ordered a soup and a fruit juice a doubt got hold of me, I put a hand into my pocket with that usual scared-cat-jump of mine, I didn't take out money but my cellphone instead and while I was pretending to read an urgent message I called the waiter and canceled my order.
Once I was outside, shame and sense of guilt suddenly fell on me, like a monsoon rain. How can it be - I kept saying to myself - such bad manners. Leaving like that, after having ordered. And how I did it...with that ridiculous coupe de theatre.
Half an hour later I was already back, my pockets full of Ringgit. I apologized and ordered again.
"Did you actually make some of the things that I ordered earlier?"
"Well, your juice, but don't worry about that..."
At the end I asked to be charged for the fruit juice as well and I left a good tip.
They knew me at that restaurant, I could have explained the situation, stay, eat and later on come back and pay. I could have but I wouldn't have been able to, because embarrassment, paranoia and ancestral complexes are often more difficult to face than those rebels in the desert. Well, perhaps not the rebels, but the kids in the dark alley, maybe...

Monday, November 15, 2010

Homage to the pedestrian/1 - Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Photo by sinkdd (CC)
I join the crowd that is waiting for the green light at the pedestrian crossing. Bukit Bintang is a busy area. Cars, motorbikes and people of various nationalities are competing for those precious square meters. 
It's time for the vehicles coming from our right to cross the junction. When they finally stop, the ones in front of us start to move forward, turn right and drive past us (in Malaysia, a former British colony, they drive on the left hand side). Shortly it should be our turn, I look at the vaguely anxious expressions of the people who crowd around me. I turn to face the junction again. What happened? The cars coming from our right are advancing again! Maybe our turn started and ended while I was absentmindedly looking around. Weird, nobody else has crossed the road either.
During the next cycle I focus and carefully follow the sequence of the green light turns. The cars coming from our right stop now, alright, the ones coming from in front of us start to move forward, as expected, red light for them now, they stop, a little suspense and...they fooled us again! Damned cheaters, just because you think we're the weakest? We'll see...
Together with two young Arabs and a Caucasian man, I lead the counter-attack, a couple of girls scream but finally everybody is walking behind us. We advance along the zebra crossing with careful but resolute steps. The red man look at us from the top of his road perch, haughty and glittering. We defy his authority and disobey his order with the pride of someone who has had to endure injustices for years and finally rose up, has already set off and now can only keep going with inexorable madness. Lots of vehicles arrive very near us, but there's many of us, determined and irritated. They stop to let us cross, no one honks, nobody complains with grimaces or puffing. 
We made it, we got to the opposite sidewalk. The formation disperse, the braves exchange knowing looks. Today's battle is won, but this war is tough, dirty and still long. Many will have to interrupt their advance, forced to withdraw and take shelter in the trenches of their starting sidewalk. Others will fall, run over by cars or by the invectives of those who drive and don't recognize their right to cross. We shall remember them, we shall respect their fervor and courage, we shall honor their sacrifice by fighting to the end to reach the other shore, the longed-for-sidewalk. And we will fight again, always, everywhere.
Other battles lay in wait for us, but today we can enjoy the glory for our conquest: the well deserved landing to the other side of the road.
Our barricade. Our front.

You can read part two here

Aung San Suu Kyi, I'm begging you: don't sneeze in public!

Photo by Breff (CC)
Like thousands of other people around the world I was also moved when I saw Aung San Suu Kyi walking out of the house where she has lived as a prisoner for so many years, finally free.
I don't trust those old rogues of the Burmese military junta though. In the past they found the most grotesque excuses to jail her. I wouldn't be surprised if they decided to put her back under house arrest the first time she catches a cold, for the sake of her own health.
Aung San Suu Kyi, I beg you: don't sneeze in public!

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

The solitary traveler's nightmare/1 - Tokyo, Japan

The Nightmare, Henry Fuseli, 1781
What is the most common nightmare of a person who travels alone, far from home, in an unknown place, where people speak another language and think in a different way, a country with alien customs, traditions, values and laws? Is it being assaulted in a filthy and dark alley by a gang of kids, high on crack, with bulging and wet eyes, empty bellies, holding shiny blades in their hands? Or that someone slips two hundred grams of heroin into your bag, a few meters away from the customs, in a country where drug dealing is punished with death penalty? Or perhaps it is boarding a flight of a secondary carrier in a developing country and starting to notice creaking, squeaking, vibrations, failures and draughts when the hatches have already been locked? Or will it be running into a group of armed rebels in a desert area, a hundred kilometers away from the nearest town?
Not for me. Not that I am what you would call an intrepid globetrotter but this kind of misfortunes - maybe because I haven't personally experienced any of them - seem quite unlikely to happen to me.
The nightmare that can cover my forehead with beads of cold sweat, my inexhaustible source of panic, the only reason why I might not want to hang around alone or out of my customary routes, what really frightens me most is the thought of being in a restaurant and after having ordered my dinner - just when I'm about to relax, looking forward to tasting one of my favorite dishes - realizing that I don't have even a cent with me.
It happened to me twice. The first time in Japan, in the outskirts of Tokyo, fortunately not far from where I was staying. That time I managed to finish a whole bowl of beef and rice before putting a hand in my pocket only to fish out the hope to possess a bundle of Yens. As it's often the case in Japan, the cook/waiter/cashier who was standing behind the counter at which I was sitting couldn't speak a word in English: he was just looking at me with a baffled expression while he kept chopping his vegetables with a large knife. I rummaged through my bag and I thanked my good luck when I found my passport inside. I handed it to him and with theatrical and slow gestures I tried to explain that I would be back in no time. 
I got home without breathing, I grabbed all the money I could find and I rolled down the stairs. When I entered the restaurant I was purple-faced, soaked with sweat and on the verge of dying of asphyxia, holding a tangled mass of Yens as if it was a relay baton. After I paid, the cook, with the impassible expression of a Kabuki mask, laid down the machete, took my passport from under the table and gave it back to me.
I gave him my passport, I kept thinking while I was walking. My passport...well, in Japan you can trust them, here at least. But then I was at that again: I gave him my passport, my passport...well, if you don't trust somebody even in Japan, could I do that, my passport...

URL change

As you have probably already noticed I finally decided to get a custom URL. The new blog address is now:
You can update your links and bookmarks!

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Barriers of an (almost) intangible type - Bangkok, Thailand

Bangkok Government Center
World citizen, cosmopolitan soul, international attitude, free spirit. All of these are very evocative expressions. They recall images of poets and thinkers sitting at a table, a glass of absinthe near the notebook and a goose quill pen in the hand. Self proclaimed as such as you can be, you still have to face the ones who don't agree with you...and there's loads: lawmakers, members of central and local governments, police officers, immigration officers, customs officers, independence and separatist movements, chauvinists, extra-parliamentary groups, xenophobes, religious fanatics, nationalists, localists, regionalists. Everyone, in their own fashion, will tend to make you feel like an alien, a stranger, a citizen of a faraway place, not yet of the world but of a small town, a district, a neighborhood or a block.
I currently hold a Thai student visa, which I got by joining a language school, after having paid the fees for a whole year in advance, as it's normally done here. It's not so bad though: at least here I can pay the rent every month, whereas when I was in China I had to settle the twelve-month account, plus deposit, on the spot - with a stack of filthy 100 RMB notes - before the keys were handed to me.
Let's not stray from the topic though: in order to give you an example of how the aforementioned saboteurs will act in order to make you feel like a (not too) welcome guest all the time, I'll tell you about my latest visit to the Bangkok immigration office.
I need to kill two birds with a stone: an extension of stay and a re-entry permit for an upcoming trip to Malaysia (for an explanation of these terms you can refer to the addendum at the end of this post). In brief, two applications, two numbers, two queues, two counters, two stamps, two pains in the neck, two everything you can think of. I need an almost perfect combination of events and an auspicious alignment of stars not to be forced to spend the whole day at the office.
I choose the time of arrival with rather accurate randomness: not too early, to avoid the annoying queue in front of the closed door - all those people throwing defiant looks at each other and silently scheming - and not too late, in order not to be given a three-digit number.
A number is not handed out unless a form has been correctly filled. I get the proper one, I fill it and I stick my photo on it, using a glue that smears my passport and the school papers. Every time I try to remind myself to use just a little of it, but it's always too much, too watery, too greasy and smelly.
I still haven't got the passport copies (they're essential! The original document is never enough for some people...), but I decide to try my luck and I face the guy who hands out the numbers anyway, otherwise a lot of people will get ahead of me. I'm lucky, I get number 37, then I go to the photocopy shop and after I'm done I reach the counters.
A newly installed screen is broadcasting a video explaining the procedures and why every application needs about fifteen minutes to be processed. The possible reasons for a delay are also listed (to make it short: it's always the applicant's fault).
It's a complicated routine and an application has to go through a considerable number of hands before it can be approved by the supervisor, but taking into account the quantity of open counters and the number that I got I should be able to make it in the morning. It's better not to count too much on it though, unexpected events are always lying in wait: when I'm in the hands of bureaucrats I never fail to feel like a partridge in a wood beaten by poachers.
The situation is fluid, the sequence of numbers is running smoothly, when number 30 is called there is still a long way to go before the dreaded twelve o'clock deadline, lunch break time. A woman is given a passport, but instead of leaving happy and relieved she gets back to her seat. After a few minutes they give her another one. And she sits down again. Damn! She represents a group of Burmese immigrants, which means that she's submitting many applications with only one number. I'll have to wait much longer than expected. But I should still be able to make it.
In fact my moment of glory arrives very soon: I hand passport, documents and cash, and as everything is alright I can go back to my seat. The employee will enter some data into a computer and check them. I keep an eye on her, there doesn't seem to be any problem and everything is passed on to the Financial Officer.
From now on it is difficult to monitor the progression of the process as the applications are piled up and a lot of people are bustling about the table. I can just use my intuition.
When I reckon that my passport is already on the supervisor's desk - the final step of the procedure - the machine calls the number of a lady who walks with an arrogant pace and a threatening look, the obvious signs of a person who has got a problem but is poised to fight to the last breath before giving up. In fact the greener who is in charge of the first procedural step slightly shakes her head and starts to say something, but the other shuts her up with a couple of sharp remarks and has her call her manager. And he happens to be the supervisor who was about to stamp my passport.
I fear the worst. The supervisor sits at the greener's place, takes a look at the papers and then, smiling and without haste, starts to explain the regulations to the woman. She answers point for point, haranguing, pointing at some place, referring to something and quoting someone. I walk around, hop and mumble to give vent to my irritation. They go on like this for a long time, before the supervisor decides to give her one more chance, sending her to a colleague of his. Why didn't he do that earlier?
It's my turn, they give me my passport with the extension stamp on it, but it's already twelve o'clock. I try to get started with the re-entry permit application before everybody goes out for lunch, but it's too late, I'll have to get a number after one o'clock.
I get down to the basement of this brand new and imposing Government Center, which looks like the airport of a main Chinese city: a parade of might and wealth, a striking showdown.
I stroll, look around, eat something, have a coffee and then I go back to the immigration office. One more form, the glue, the photos. Where are my photos? Damn, I must have lost them this morning: I'll have to go downstairs again. It doesn't take long: God bless the digital era. A few years back I heard somebody using a curious expression: "digital crisis". It was the owner of a photo developing and printing shop. Those people are the only ones who could call it like that.
I get back to the office. This procedure is easier than the previous one and by two o'clock I'm already done.
When I'm getting on the cab I take a last look at the building and a painful thought crosses my mind: I will have to return here soon, way too soon. The veggies and rice patter on the pit of my stomach. World citizen, free spirit: I wonder if Diogenes and Voltaire also had to extend their visas every three months.