Thursday, December 22, 2011

Christmas poem, which actually is not just about Christmas

So you're going shopping to kill some time,
the most stupid hobby, yet the smartest scam, 
which yields its best when Christmas comes.
In this day the son of the Lord was born,
and to celebrate together this holy event
we go buy a bag, a dress and a phone.
Those jingling bells are busting my balls,
but you dream of a white Christmas,
to play with some snow.
And if you're at the tropics where it's not so white,
they are gonna spray some foam
to make it right.
Here come the Magi,
with their precious gifts,
all branded CK, LV and D&G.
Lying around the manger
are no oxen nor asses 
just some devices from the Apple store.
Jesus was born today and to pay our respects,
as St.Francis taught us
we spend all we have.

Have a great and very expensive Christmas!

Photo by Funky64 (CC)

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The missed prophecy

Just a few days to go, then 2011 will be over and the dreadful 2012 will start. Last week I was talking with a friend about the (in)famous Mayan prediction when I suddenly had a doubt: how could the Mayas predict that our civilization would end in 2012 if they could not foresee the end of theirs a few centuries ago?
Had they minded their own business they might have lived longer...

Photo by joiseyshowaa (CC)

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

AirAsia: not so cool anymore

Having been a rather regular customer of AirAsia - since the beginning, when they were still using old planes and few people trusted them (“They are always late...they'll lose your luggage.” was the typical refrain people were singing in Malaysia) - I can say that their online booking procedure was fast, simple, transparent and fair, their prices among the cheapest and their brand one of the coolest. Well...not anymore.
Going through just a few screens, filling a limited number of fields and clicking some buttons one could choose date, destination, number of passengers, one way or return, could select their favorite flight among the available options, enter their personal data, the credit card ones and that was it. As I said: fast, simple, transparent and fair. No free meal and no seat allocation, true, but their prices were dirt cheap, really unbeatable on some routes.
This took by surprise the traditional carriers that lost large shares of the market while AirAsia, from a small player of the low cost niche, became one of the sector leaders. A real success story for Tony Fernandes, the Malaysian who, from a Warner Music manager, after acquiring an almost bankrupt state owned airline, got to be one of the richest and most innovative Asian entrepreneurs.
Little by little the disbanded forces of the enemies managed to reorganize themselves, filling the gap, while AirAsia incredibly decided to waste its resources of know-how and excellent reputation accumulated over the years, starting to make some of the same mistakes that had forced their competitors to give up their leading positions, plus others whose copyright its management is fully entitled to claim.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Alone against the wave - Saigon, Vietnam

We already talked about Saigon traffic, its rivers of motorcycles, the precautions to be taken when crossing the road here.
Today, however, when I was walking downtown, I noticed that there is an aspect of this traffic, some of its dynamics, a specific circumstance that deserves to be dealt with separately. It's that moment when the light turns green and the motorbikes speed up. 
Crossroads in Saigon are often supplied with traffic lights for vehicles only: the ones for pedestrians, normally installed at the ends of the zebra crossing, are missing. You are walking on the sidewalk and when you reach the junction you notice the usual legion of bikes drawn up behind the white line, you sense that they have a red light (even though you can't see it) and you hasten to cross the road.
...even if the light goes green they will wait for me to clear the road first...
This is a wild guess that might cost you very dearly. Re-read these last two lines three times before you proceed.
You're still in the middle of the first lane and the signals that you're picking up are not very encouraging. Engines rev up and down, some wheels advance a few centimeters and suddenly stop. You think of a group of race horses pawing the ground behind the starting line...but it's not the same feeling that you used to get when you were a kid, at the racetrack, sitting next to your dad, holding an ice cream and the bet tickets in your hands. You speed up but there is still a long way to go. Suddenly they all move: it's as if you were a ghost, a soul equipped with a translucent body, but you don't have that feeling of invulnerability you thought you would get when you wished you could have this power. It's like a wave. Nobody seems to have noticed you, yet you are there, conspicuous: the only pedestrian, Caucasian, frightened, in the middle of the road. What more do they need to see you?
Actually they don't do it on purpose, out of arrogance or sadism. They are heeding an automatism, they do this same thing dozens times a day, every day. A Vietnamese wouldn't behave like you: you are the inconceivable exception, they are not.
Obviously, at the very last moment they will do everything they can to avoid the impact: they will slow down, swerve, maybe they will even do the unthinkable - they'll stop. This fact, together with your gazelle-like dash, should help you to bring home your hide tonight. 
Don't count too much on it though: even if so far you've been lucky, next time, before crossing a road, glance sideways at the main traffic light. If you see a yellow light hold on, you still have a big portion of life to live.

Photo: traffic light in front of the Continental Hotel, by Fabio

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Like a Vietcong - Saigon, Vietnam

A guy jumps into a hole dug in the middle of the street to repair some pipe. There is a leak and the water is already neck-high. Come to think about it we are near Ben Thanh market, right in the center of Ho Chi Minh City, which used to be called Saigon only forty years ago (and informally still is): back then his ancestors might have been in a similar situation almost everyday, immersed in the inundated rice fields while fighting the American GIs. Some kind of loose legacy then: that might be the reason why he seems to be so completely at ease, cigarette in his mouth, chin tilted upwards, while he works on that pipe and talks to his friends, casually looking around at the passers by.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Complicated traffic - Saigon, Vietnam

Motorcycles in Saigon
Traffic in Vietnam is a rather complicated matter, especially when it comes to motorcycles. When you have to face it while crossing a road at the beginning you might feel that what you are about to take on is an impossible deed. Then you put together all the useful virtues that you are equipped with: intuition, quick reflexes, previous experience in similar situations. And don't forget a massive dose of folly. So you take the first step. Every move must be accurately weighed: you can't afford any gross mistake, as you would immediately be run over; the minor ones can always be fixed with a sudden jump or an acrobatic number. Every single progression must be planned and measured with care as for timing, speed and maximum length. At the right time in fact it's necessary to resist the temptation of greed, content oneself with the space left behind, stop (even in the middle of the road) and immediately focus on the next try, just like in an American football game.
A pedestrian who dives into a typical continuous flux of motorbikes in Saigon must move in a resolute way, perfectly cutting in between the wake of the bike that just went by and the path of the one that is about to come, looking the opponent straight in the eyes. The motorcyclists, in fact, must understand at once the intentions of those who are crossing the road. Every advance must be carried out quickly but without sudden starts, which would inevitably puzzle those who have to decide without hesitation whether they should drive their bike behind or in front of us.
However, pedestrians are only one part of the problem after all: the unbroken sequence of zig-zags, abrupt braking and sudden side moves make it very likely for bikes to crash against one another.
On my first night in Saigon, ten years after my last visit, during the exploratory walk that I always take to get acquainted with a city, when I have already witnessed the usual pathetic squabble with insults and off-target slaps between an English speaking tourist and a local fake T-shirt seller I finally come across the scene that since the very first step out of the airport one keeps wondering why he has so far failed to see. Two motorbikes are leaning on the middle of a street while a bunch of people are forming a circle around a poor devil who is sitting on the asphalt holding his head. There is a puddle of blood between his legs. Fortunately everybody understands at once that it's just a scratch between his temple and eyebrow, nothing serious. The onlookers start to busy themselves with acts of solidarity both quick and extremely sensible. Obviously everybody here is used to this kind of operations. Without panic and confusion, following a surprisingly appropriate sequence, different people bring to the unlucky fellow tissues, water and finally band-aids. The poor guy's mood gradually changes: from stunned and desperate he becomes lucid and calm. When someone tries to tell a joke he laughs with everybody else. The guy who hit his bike offers him a cigarette: he takes it and the general burst of laughter that follows marks the end of this little drama. The injured guy stands up, starts his bike and leaves while everybody is still smiling: nobody complained, checked for damage or tried to obtain compensation.
A minor drama typical of this place, that the traffic of Saigon - like those old AKs that lie dusted and rusted in the Vietnam war museums - blasts away at its residents every day.

A couple of videos on the subject that I took in Saigon.

1. Chaotic traffic at a crossroads

2. Heavy traffic at twilight

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Asian street characters

A patient of a large mental hospital is looking outside from behind the gate. He plucks up courage, stops a passer by and asks him: "Excuse me, just a question, how many of you live inside that place?"
Old funny story about points of view

Let's start with Kuala Lumpur.

The first one is an Indian man, bare chested, flapping pants made of light fabric, no shoes. His hair is long and ruffled, his skin is dark - Tamil chromosomes mark. His bones are exposed and his muscles darting, thin and tensed. He could be a sadhu whose saffron robe has been snatched by a thief or a natural catastrophe. His face is not thin as other thin faces are: it's a skull covered with dark leather and bristly hair, and little more. His eyes are two huge floodlights, goggled, like those of a hunted down beast. You can spot him everywhere in the city center, while he walks, almost running, fleeing from the enemy, only partly imaginary, that has been chasing him for years wherever he goes.

Then there is a bearded man, who constantly holds a banknote with his right hand, turning it over again and again, making it twirl between his fingers like a magician, while he carefully looks at it, studying it as if it were a mysterious object, fallen there from another world or another time. In the meanwhile his left hand is gently stirring in the air, leading an orchestra of ghosts that, no matter what direction he is facing, is always arranged in front of him.

In another road you can meet the one who never stops talking to himself, fast, mumbling, in a low voice, in god knows what language, continuously walking along the sidewalk, transversally, from shop to road, from road to door, from gate to road...

Another one, long haired and bare chested, always walks holding his pants with one hand, as if they were loose and he didn't wear a belt to keep them up.

There is also a guy who lies down on the sidewalk, his back leaning on the wall of the building and his legs stretched out, ready to trip up the wealthy and respectable passers by. The same cigarette, unlit, in one hand, while the other one plays an invisible piano. Muttering something with a satisfied look, he's stretching out there not really with the air of one who doesn't know where else to go but as if this was actually the most comfortable couch in the coolest living room in town.

However, the leading figure among the KL street characters, their archetype, their undiscussed quintessence, is the great globe guy.

When you have left the Malaysian capital and you've landed in Bangkok, across the taxi window the most bizarre character appears. A skinny guy, with broom-like hair and tow beard, walks around wearing only a filthy t-shirt: he's stark naked from belly-button to shins, his skin protected by a thin layer of greasy soot. Two stuffed plastic bags, tied around the ankles, wrap his feet like homemade Moon Boots. With other bags hanging from his hands, neck and shoulders, he's standing on a sidewalk, waiting for the green light among housewives and office workers. It's such a surreal sight that it could well be a mirage.

I met the old lady of the picture in Hoian, Vietnam. She came begging, hunched: thousand wrinkles were twisting about her face, forming ever changing shapes around the four fixed objects while she was imploring us to give her something. I pulled a note out of my pocket and handed it to her, along with an amused smile. She got hold of it and swiftly put it in her mouth. I don't know whether she did it for gratitude, to store it in a safe place or as a talismanic gesture. All I know is that she left, holding that precious worthless gift between her lips.

Friday, November 11, 2011

11.11.11 arrogance - Koh Samui, Thailand

A couple of losers got married on the beach at Chaweng on 11.11.11 because they believe it's a propitiatory date. With arrogance born of wealth and power they ordered two guards to stop the passers by on the shore-line (a public area) so that only the sea would appear in the background of their cheesy pictures.
A local old, weak peddler, sweating, bended under the weight of his ice cream case, who was just trying to make a living, had enough of that rich spoiled brat bullshit, got around the guard's baton and started to walk, ruining that fake, pretentious setting...and he made my day.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Endangered traditions - Moscow, Russia

Riumochnaya na Bolshoi Nikitskoi (in Russian Рюмочная на Большой Никитской, which means "Vodka glass on Nikitskaya Road") is one of the last, maybe the very last place of its type in Moscow. It looks like an old Italian osteria: a few squared tables scattered around a fairly small room, light curtains on the windows facing the sidewalk, a counter made of wood, like the bottle shelves and the panels that cover the walls. A messy toilet and a cubbyhole/storeroom. The supporters of sophisticated modernity at all costs can say what they want: I don't need much more than this to spend a couple of those hours which good memories are made of.
As soon as you enter you choose a table (after 6pm they might all be taken), then you go and get your orders directly at the counter, where you can find the courses of the day on display: meat, fish and vegetables, both cooked and row dishes. While the lady is heating your portions in the microwave you can order your drinks. The house specialty, of course, is vodka. You order it by the gram (yes, gram, neither bottle nor glass, nor with volumetric units of measure). 300 grams can fill a cruet and it's enough to make two people equipped with well armored livers feel the maggots crawling in their brains until bed time.
When everything is set up on our table we gulp down the first glassful, in one swallow. Then, in order to create the necessary sponge effect, we gobble up a delicious chicken breast topped up with sour cream, some lentils and a good portion of bread. 
"Between the first and the second glass nobody talks!" The Russian rule guarantees that the shortest possible time elapses between the first two sessions. C. and I are two incurable Italians though, and we are not able to undergo such an alcoholic-sect-ritual without indulging in a couple of comments before we drink our second glass, which we only half fill, just in case. This food is really tasty and we order a second round. 
Even some customers here - conforming to the style of the place - are very characteristic. The most picturesque ones are some unknown, semi-alcoholic artists. A poet whose verses have never seen a printing house hear us talking Italian and draws near. White hair and beard, already tipsy, with rudimentary English he indulges in typical bar pastimes that could work in Italy as well: jokes about Putin and Berlusconi and comments on unrestrained immigration, that in the case of Moscow is coming mostly from the former Caucasian and Eastern Soviet republics. When this lingua franca is not helping him he speaks Russian with C., who in turn translates what he says for me.
He leaves us for a moment, pinches the can of Sprite of a man who's reading a paper a few meters away and takes it to his own table. The other guy - a younger version of our friend, with still black hair and beard - fumes and complains a little at first but finally stands up and joins him. The newcomer speaks much better English and introduces himself as an artist too, without specifying his field.
After another hour of jokes, comments, talking, translations, snacks and vodka we stand up, we say bye like respectable drunkards do - with energetic hugs, awkward handshakes, foul breath and sentimental sentences - and then with a staggering walk we go out of the place, where we enjoy the pinch of the October cold on our spirit-inflamed cheeks.
A piece of tradition that holds out in the very heart of Moscow, right in front of the conservatory. Like the popular banyas - centers with saunas and steam baths, consisting of huge, badly lighted and worse furnished rooms, simple equipments and dingy structures, where groups of friends or colleagues spend a few hours talking and relaxing, while sweating near the oven, shivering in the freezing pool, flogging themselves with birch and oak twigs or sipping tea and eating snacks in the refreshment area - hold out amid the new luxurious wellness centers.
It would have taken very little to be still able to enjoy such an evening in Italy as well: we could have avoided to replace at least one quarter of our old osterie with trendy pizzerie or - even worse - pretentious wine bars. But in most of the cities that I know of, ruining is a service provided in full, and that little conservation effort was not made. The old simple wine list (1. red, 2. white, 3. prosecco, all of them strictly "of the house") was replaced by a sequence of names that I hardly understand and that, unlike a lot of people, I don't enjoy pretending to know. Bottles with wonderful labels of high-sounding origin that have absolutely nothing to do with the local territory and culture, sold by the glass (beautifully made crystal goblets that many hold by the stem with recently developed presumptuousness, swollen like barrels but thriftily served only one-third filled) at the price of a full bottle of the good old poison.
Times change, traditions die. A good nostalgic as I am, I enjoy looking for them elsewhere.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Flexibility - Moscow, Russia

Your kitchen tap is leaking, the electricity system is not working, your oven is broken or you need to install a new curtain in the living room. The expert is very expensive and busy: if you call him today he will be available in one month. No need to worry, there is the husband by the hour. We're not talking about extra-marital relations or polygamy here. You call a guy whose number you found god knows where, one who doesn't have any specialization but can do pretty much everything, just like the good old husbands. You explain what he has to do and agree on a price on the phone, he will come soon after that, with all the tools and materials needed for the task. If he didn't know how to solve the problem he asked someone else to teach him or sent a colleague who can do it. He solves the issue, you pay him (prices are reasonable), bye bye.

You need to move to another neighborhood, to send some furniture to your uncle's flat or to get rid of something bulky. You are by yourself, you'll never make it. You walk downstairs, get out on the sidewalk and look around. As soon as you spot an immigrant from the Eastern republics of the former Soviet Union - a Kazakh, an Uzbek, a Tajik - you stop him.
"Good morning, I need to move some furniture."
He already knows what you are talking about and doesn't lose his composure. He won't think that you are crazy nor crack up laughing.
"How big? How many floors? Where to?"
You explain everything, you negotiate the price and you walk him to your place. If backup is needed he will take care of that.

You went to a party that ended late, you didn't come by car because you knew you would have a drink too many and the area where you live is not well served by public transport. Taxis are expensive and need to be booked in advance. You go out, you stand near the curb of a main thoroughfare and stretch an arm, waving your hand. Not when you chance to see the first taxi...when you spot the very first car! Like that, random. If it's not a Jaguar or someone in a hurry they will certainly stop. And if the first vehicle won't, the next one will. You explain where you have to go, they will propose a price and if you think it's too expensive you can negotiate. When you come to an agreement you finally get on the car. It didn't take you more than a minute.

Who would have thought that one day we would have envied the former Soviet Union for it's flexibility?

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Secret and mistery - St. Petersburg, Russia

I'm following the continuous human flow of the Nevsky prospect sidewalk until it disperses in the huge space that surrounds the Hermitage, then I turn left, bound for St. Isaac's Cathedral. When I am a few meters away from this Russian version of Rome's St. Peter, I catch glimpse of a little paper stuck to a door, half hidden by the scaffolding of some restoration works. Museum of the history of political police. Basically a magnetized asteroid in front of which I suddenly turn into a tiny hair pin.
The church also exerts a strong attraction though. I stand on that place for a few seconds, my thighs shaking, following the alternating impulses that push me here and there. I process the little information that I managed to gather and I make a brilliant non-decision, postponing everything: typical of me in cases like this. The museum closes at 6pm and the ticket counter at 5.30. I still have thirty minutes left and the Cathedral is only a few steps away. I'm going there first and I'll see what she's got to say. If she whispers sweet words in my ears, gently tickling my lobe, I'm going to stay there, otherwise I'll come back here. And the latter is exactly what happens, only it takes me twenty minutes to realize it. When I open the door to the museum building it's already 5.26. After trying two dead corridors I manage to find the right one, I push the handle but the door doesn't budge. I am about to leave when I hear something creaking and I see a woman getting out of the room.
"I'd like to visit the museum."
"I'm sorry, it's too late."
I put on a pitiful expression while I mutter something. She murmurs something back with an uncertain air. It's the cue I was waiting for: I move closer to her.
"5.30, closing time..." she says, while another lady pops up from behind the door and crosses her forearms like some kind of referee to make me understand that it's closed. I show them my phone that reads 5.28. Hand in d4: checkmate!
"OK, follow me!"
95% of the exhibition is explained in Russian but the lady hands me a set of plastic-coated sheets where one can find the photos mapped out wall by wall and the relevant captions translated in English. Although this is a good idea it also tells a lot about the scanty number of foreign tourists that visit the museum. 
I've always been extremely fascinated by everything that has something to do with the most elusive, sinister and controversial aspects of history. I watch all the black and white photos, standing in admiration in front of those that thrill me the most, reading the explanations on the precious sheets that I turn back and forth. The old times of the tsarist spies, then the Bolsheviks and Dzerzhinsky restructuring. His death, the images of Trozky, Stalin, Bukharin and Molotov who carry his coffin. The CHEKA, the KGB, the cold war, the Cuban missile crisis and the secret prisoner exchanges with the USA. The missions in Afghanistan and Chechnya, internal terrorism and present day FSB. 
In the wonderful room where Dzerdzhinsky used to work I run into a guided tour group. What a good choice, deciding to come and visit this museum I have taken care of two of my hobbies at once: history of espionage and beautiful women (in this case the hobby only consists in admiring them, of course). Now between a picture and the following one I can't help glancing at three or four specimens of these giraffes that have kept tormenting my thoughts since the moment I arrived to Russia.
Their guide is a pedantic and verbose old woman though: I leave them behind and in a matter of minutes I'm in the last room, where the lady who sold me the ticket, who had already come and helped me earlier, gives me some further interesting details. She's wearing a pair of slippers, thick stockings, a plaid-like-skirt, a felted sweater and G.P.'s spectacles. She has no make up and her hair is tied in a ponytail, of course. She reminds me of a librarian of a B-movie, and a little bit of Grandma duck as well. A very kind woman indeed. She plays down her nice gesture explaining that I owe the opportunity to visit the exhibition well after the closing time to the group of hotties that I've just seen: she'd had needed to wait for them to leave anyway. I ask her if there is a guest-book and while I'm writing my comments, choosing my words with care, she begs me not to mention the fact that she personally helped me.
"I'm not an expert."
"But you were great!" I answer thinking that it's just a display of false modesty.
"I do know some details but I don't have a good general knowledge of the subject. And then it could cause troubles with my supervisors."
It seems that she has been swallowed up by the atmosphere of secret and mystery that shrouds this place, as if she were also scheming in the web of an organization that operates in the dark.
"Well, in that case, I definitely won't!"
I end my comment writing that the staff is very kind and polite. This should be a rather discreet and neutral complimentary remark.
I steal a last look at the booted sex bombs that one after the other are flocking into the room and then I go out, while the powerful arms of the Baltic climate strike my face with a frozen whip. Fortunately it's still October. Not such a red October, but a rather gray one. 

Photo "Alexander Column, chair and backpack" by Fabio

Monday, October 10, 2011

Elections and scams - Bangkok, Thailand

July 2011. It's election time in Thailand. Continuous waves of people are converging toward the main arteries of Bangkok - Sukhumvit, Vipawadee, Pahonyothin - headed for their provinces of origin, in most cases located in Isan, in the North-east, close to Laos.
I'm walking W. to get a taxi that will take her to Mochit, a bus station that today is sunk in a grounding-time international airport kind of chaos. A tuk-tuk driver offers his service for 300 baht when normally, using a metered taxi, the ride should cost 100-150. We get rid of him quickly. The first taxi driver asks 300 baht as well. She lets him go and waves another down. Same story. The third cab too, as well as the fourth one.
This smells fishy. It's a stench that pricked my nostrils often in the past. I follow my instinct, as if it was one of those lines of smoke chased by the long and quivering noses of the cartoons. While she's walking toward the center of the road to give it another try I stay near the curb and look carefully around. As she's drawing near the window to speak with the driver, the tuk-tuk owner that wanted to cheat her is waving his arms about and signaling to his colleague to ask her 300 baht. The other follows his advice and W., obviously, dismisses him.
This time I got you, lousy swindler. I take W. by the arm and walk her a few meters away. She follows me - incredulous while I tell her what I've just seen - far enough from the scoundrel, where a taxi driver - honest like most of those who don't swarm around the tourists - agrees on using the meter.
"Thais should never behave like that...especially with other Thai people..." she keeps repeating until the door is closed.
"...with anybody..." I think while I wave her goodbye.
She won't be able to reach home and vote, as all the bus seats are sold out until the next morning, but at least she managed to hold on to her dignity. And a few banknotes as well.

Image by globalvoicesonline

Thursday, October 6, 2011

At the alcoholics'/4 - Bangkok, Thailand

The whole series "At the alcoholics" is dedicated to Jack London, author of "John Barleycorn".

Continued from here.

I'm at the alcoholics with R. We're having a drink before we let the viscous Bangkok night swallow us up. R. stands up and goes to order a bottle of soda and some ice from the girl with the face disfigured by the bags under the eyes. On the way he says something to the constantly drunk woman. Bad mistake, not usual for a wise guy like R. Upon hearing his voice, even though she doesn't have a clue what he's talking about, she shrugs off her lethargy, takes a quick look around and her blurred radar, god knows why, stops exactly when it detects me. I keep an eye on her, careful of not staring, pretending to be looking elsewhere and - like a student facing her teacher who is scanning the names in the class register to decide who to examine - hoping to become an invisible presence and go unnoticed. Vain hope, naive as I am sometimes. She struggles to stand up, staggers while walking, almost knocks down the bottles and tables on her way and lands with a heavy thud on R.'s seat, right next to me. She looks at me and smiles, with a siren charm, an old siren, devastated by decadence, street life and alcohol. Then she mumbles something. While I'm trying to understand what language she's actually speaking, a carcass-smelling whiff grinds my throat. The stench keeps wafting in the air even after she shuts her mouth: it's not only her breath, it's a smell that her cloths and skin are imbued with, that she has got on her all the time. A little like the one given off by those people who eat too much garlic.
R. realizes what is going on and comes to help me. She smiles at him as well, turning him from a rescuer into a second prisoner. Soon after that we are joined by the bag-under-the-eyes-girl who, after putting down the ice bucket and the bottle of soda, talks to her in Thai, articulating her words clearly so that even I can understand her well.
"Hey, these guys are friends!" Well, maybe not exactly friends but, as this is simply a stratagem to get us out of a mess, we'll let her do what she pleases. We obligingly nod.
"You cannot try that with you understand?"
Terror gets hold of our helpless and susceptible imagination. Try to do what? The thought that some tourist, stupefied by Sangsom, might have taken her to his hotel for a handful of baht clutches my stomach, tugging it forward, backward, sideways and along slanting lines. However the admonition works and the drunkard stands up and leaves, her pride apparently untouched. The ensuing relief relaxes my guts. R. sits at my side and we start to talk again, while the breeze of the fan blows the vapor of the ice toward the trees and the wet street.


Photo by Lachlan Hardy (CC)

Monday, October 3, 2011

Funny signs/3

I often come across some funny signs, billboards, notices and labels. When it happens I always make sure that I don't leave the spot without a photo. I'll post them here a few at a time.

Traditional French pizza? Yeah, they also serve authentic Italian specialties: baguettes, quiche, Croque Monsieur...(Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia)

Welcome...once more??? (Walmart mall, Kunming, China)

OrganisN! What a pity, they almost made it...they spelled it right up to the very last letter. By the way, this bin thanks you each time you throw away your rubbish. (Green Lake, Kunming, China)

A few mistakes...(Cafe in Kunming, China)

Reacestate??? What exactly do they sell here? (Kunming, China)

Getting a massage and holding the price list as a token of gratitude. (Bangkok, Thailand)

You have to fight a war if you want to go to the second (2ed???) floor. (Walmart, Kunming, China)

Thai Super police...never sleeps! (Bangkok, Thailand)

Where shall I append this extra "S"? Hmmm...numberS...passengerS...ofS? Who's gonna be numberS! (Thai speed catamaran)

This is creepy! (Singapore)

You can find more funny signs here.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

At the alcoholics'/3 - Bangkok, Thailand

Foto di Olgierd Pstrykotwórca
The whole series "At the alcoholics" is dedicated to Jack London, author of "John Barleycorn".

Continued from here.

The following scenes happened on different days and are reported here in random order.

S. keeps on depriving us of the pitiful shows that we had got accustomed to and only orders soft drinks and fruit juices. It must be the advice that the doctor gave him after diagnosing cirrhosis.

One of the few saloon-like characters who don't drink alcohol here is a fat man with a red nose, dull eyes and boozer gait, who orders his bottles of Coke and Fanta with whispers, as if it was an illegal or outrageous act. Which, in a place like this and with a face like his, come to think about it, could also make sense.

Finally, after almost a week spent drinking sweet stuff for kids, S. threw off the mask and resumed his close conversations (sometimes even literally) with his best friend: an American gentleman with dark complexion, a black suit with white embroidery, a cascade of crystal jewels, a small tight hat and spiced fragrances: Mr. Jack Daniels.
We hear a heavy thud, S. is gone. We stand up and search for him. He collapsed, he's lying under the table now, the chair next to him, upside down. Someone asks him to stand up, he is probably trying hard in his mind, but his body doesn't budge. He is not injured: he's just wasted. They help him to his feet but it's not an easy task: it seems that they are hauling a trailer truck out of a river bed by use of powerful windlasses. When he sits in his chair he's got bubble-like eyes, a blank stare, lost in the whirl of lights and shapes that he can see in front of him, and his hands shaking on the plastic table.
When he returns to the globe of distorted reality that is surrounding him he tries to stand up, then walks like a baby gorilla toward the center of the street, does a 360 degree turnaround, sways, brushes against a taxi that stopped in order not to run him over and continues to stagger until a tourist helps him to get back to his seat. A few minutes later he will go through the same procedure all over again.

The constantly drunk woman is sitting at a table, she dozes off, wakes up, mutters, yells at some person unknown even though nobody pays attention to her, then she continues to move her lips without uttering any sound, for various minutes. Finally, defeated and exhausted, she gets back to snore.


Monday, September 26, 2011

The spring - Bangkok, Thailand

The drunk foreigner has been hanging around bare chested for a while. He gets into the first of a series of mischiefs that will eventually drive him into a mess at one of those open air little bars where they serve beer and cocktails by the bucket (see the photo above). He kicked one of the plastic stool. The young owner doesn't even think about it: first he slaps him and then he gives him a big push. The foreigner is tall and stout but enfeebled by a few-hour-long spree with his mates Bottle, Can, Glass and Bucket: he falls over heavily and when he stands up he doesn't seem to know what has just happened.
I spot him again later on, some hundred meters away. He's yelling, making threatening gestures at god knows who. The street is crowded, everybody is passively looking at the funny scene, but no one seems to be interacting with him. The foreigner keeps acting funny, with mounting heat, and at a certain point he goes totally crazy (provided that what he has done so far doesn't already qualify as totally crazy). He grabs a table at the edge of the street, lifts it as if it were made of styrofoam, rips two legs, throws the rest away and starts to use those sticks as if they were katanas. He crosses them, hitting one against the other, making them whirl in the air, then poignantly poses, flexes the muscles of his arms and chest, makes faces like an angry warrior: he looks like the bad character of one of those lousy martial arts movies. Looking at him one might well feel ashamed of being a foreigner. Unfortunately for him the enemies that he is provoking are not exactly the good and fair characters of his epic imagination. He continues with his show, compressing a spring that, when released, will shoot back at him with a force that, judging by his optimism, he might not be aware of. 
As far as my experience goes, the nature of the Thais drives them to avoid, whenever possible, direct and open confrontation. They don't give vent to anger and frustration by means of yelling, gestures, facial expressions, bluff threats and shoves, like some of us do: the poisonous feelings are simply accumulated in the more or less capacious patience tanks that everybody is equipped with. Until when, like a tire inflated over its limit, the system explodes, especially if one feels that he has suffered what here is considered to be one of the vilest offenses: losing face. In cases like this the so called cultural differences are not just limited to subtle incomprehensions or funny little scenes: they are expressed through values and principles totally different from the ones we cherish.
Let's see, street fighting rules:
- 10 against 1? Allowed.
- Armed against unarmed ones? Excellent advantage that should be exploited without hesitations.
- Trying to convince a friend that he might actually be wrong? This technique is not used here: just stand by your friend and hit his enemy without asking why.
- Mercy for the opponent's body, helpless, unconscious, bleeding, lying on the ground with an unnatural posture? This reaction is not provided for, and it's almost out of place: you don't stop for girlish scruples of that sort, you only let go at a signal coming from inside of you, that rings when your anger has been placated. 
A dozen of them come out from a dark corner of the sidewalk, brandishing crossbars, belts, bottles and other stuff, they corner the foreigner against a wall, they push him down with kicks and keep going at it for long, way too long, until they - not him - have had enough. Then they go back to their street camp, walking slowly, smiling, cracking silly bully jokes, without any trace of regret or worry for the fate of the guy that they used as a boxing sack who, for all they know, might well be dead. At this point some of the locals might even be ashamed of being Thai: the world is full of idiots, and if one is prone to the natural but sensitive process of identification the embarrassing moment arrives for everybody. 
You cannot help thinking that, as much as he had it coming, now they are the ones who deserve to be taught a lesson, and you start to dream that another gang, more numerous and better armed than this one, comes and wipes that hateful satisfied look off their faces. Then you think it over: what a silly thing, this mess would never end. It's much better to tell them to fuck off in silence and call an ambulance. 
What happens now is interesting though: another tourist and a Thai girl are taking care of the messed up guy, find a chair for him, try to stop the bleeding, until the paramedics arrive, disinfect and dress his wounds. These two people are giving everybody - Thais and foreigners - a chance to stop feeling ashamed of one's own origin. It's already time for the guy to get on the ambulance and go to the hospital (I suspect they are expecting him to pay the bill as well), but he doesn't even think about that, scornfully smiles, takes off his bandages like Lawrence of Arabia uncoiling his turban, hastily thanks everybody, says goodbye to the incredulous nurses and leaves, surprisingly energetic, toward new, astonishing, ingenious idiocies.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

At the alcoholics'/2 - Bangkok, Thailand

Photo by Adam Foster (CC)
The whole series "At the alcoholics" is dedicated to Jack London, author of "John Barleycorn".

Continued from here.

The following scenes happened on different days and are reported here in random order.

There is a group of Spaniards sitting at a table. They don't seem to be alcoholics but they fall in with the atmosphere of the place by ordering one bottle of beer after another since the early afternoon.
Apparently they have just met here and they decide to take a picture to remember the event. They ask the constantly drunk lady to take the photo. Unfortunately it will be a bad surprise, for them of course, not for me or anybody else who has already been here. She grabs the camera and for the Spaniards this will be the last good piece of news they receive. She looks at it as if it was a pulsing fragment of a mysterious asteroid. A gray veil, a confused expression descends on the faces of the tourists, who try to dispel their embarrassment offering random advice. "That button over there!" "This angle!" "That background!" Finally she gets out of her trance and decides to give it a try. After numerous attempts, failed amid awkward maneuvers and swaying, she is ready to click. It's raining as usual and the umbrella that shelters the table has a hole through which a thick and continuous cylinder of water is falling, right in front of the camera. She doesn't see it, as she doesn't see any other detail that is not included in the set of the movie that she is watching in her mind. The Spaniards are gesticulating frantically, suggesting her to move a little to the side, pointing at the water. She misunderstands, thinking that there is something wrong with the camera, then looks at it from all sides, extremely puzzled, as if she couldn't remember how the hell it ended up there, wasting all the work that she has done so far. Fortunately a sober - well, almost - colleague of her arrives, takes the camera from her hands and in a matter of thirty seconds the picture is taken. The positive side of this permanent state of drunkenness is that it spares the subject humiliations and rancor: when the flash goes off, in fact, she has already crouched down on her chair, oblivious of everything.

The same table where the Spaniards were sitting is normally used as a meeting point by the most picturesque clients of the bar: a rabble of western drunkards who wouldn't have done badly in the most sordid saloons of the Old West. In the early afternoon the table is already full of empty bottles of whiskey and beer, and a few hours later the most pathetic and unforgettable shows are staged.
One of them is S., a North European who has been hanging around here for about ten years. S. has just got back to Bangkok, bringing with him a bag full of clothes and other presents. He's welcome with giggles, yells and greetings. The sincere and disinterested version of local enthusiasms (there are also some more or less devious ones). He repays the courtesies with fantastic, totally toothless smiles. When he has finished to hand out his gifts he sits down and orders a Schweppes. A Schweppes! This is surprising news for those who have seen some of his performances with bottle and glass, and we'll have a chance to talk about those ones as well. Probably he has just got out of the plane and he doesn't feel quite well: I cannot find any other explanation for such an unusual behavior. 

A foreigner with a tattoo as big as his back stands up from his chair, only with his body though, as his soul doesn't seem to be willing to follow him. He stands still on the spot, swaying, then gets hold of the back of a plastic chair that dangerously bends under his weight. When he manages to move he leans against the body of a friend, slightly less drunk than him. He stays like that, clinging to him, for a few minutes, apparently unconscious, then he recovers, wholeheartedly hugs his friend and finally kisses him. They finally leave, connected like Siamese brothers (as in the medical-scientific meaning of the expression, not as in "Thais", i.e. from here).


Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Self propelled - Bangkok, Thailand

You're walking next to some funny structure, and you throw a quick glance: it looks like the usual Thai street stall. This one is selling labels, banners and pennants. Football teams, countries, musicians, heroes, monarchs, naked girls, monks and gurus. Normally at night this kind of handmade structures equipped with wheels are "packed", closed and towed away with a motorbike, or manually pushed into a garage nearby. Sometimes they are even left in a corner outdoor, protected by a tangle of chains and padlocks. 
You are about to leave when the stall, suddenly...moves, apparently by itself. You look more carefully and you spot the presence of a motorbike inside. The whole little shop is built around it. The shopkeeper-driver is immersed in the darkness of a narrow corridor, without any side visibility, with only a few square centimeter-wide slot in front of him, at least two meters away. He stops after the next junction, sells something to a couple of customers, then starts the bike again and speeds off towards new business horizons. When asked "can you see the road well while you're driving?" he answers "Very well indeed!"
Let's hope that he knows what he's talking about.

The stall from behind


Sunday, September 11, 2011

Funny signs/2

I often come across some funny signs, billboards, notices and labels. When it happens I always make sure that I don't leave the spot without a photo. I'll post them here a few at a time.

Fabio Capello (on the sign) or Fabio Copello (on the rolling shutter)? Confused...and then, why choosing Capello instead of Gucci or Ferragamo for a shop that sells shoes? (Istanbul, Turkey)

I've always suspected that fashion people were not all great poets. This should confirm it, click on the photo to enlarge it. (Bangkok, Thailand)

"The refined vision of entertainment civilization"...look at that, and I thought that it was only a cinema! (Bangkok, Thailand)

No, they don't share them because the other cubicles are all busy... (Bangkok, Thailand)

In Singapore the authorities decided to demolish most of the old colonial buildings but at least they kept some old road signs like this one. As a consequence the numerous cows and horses that roam around the city still have to swim their way to the other shore.

Exciting new landscapes? What the hell is that? (Botanic garden, Singapore)

Smoking, alcohol, durians, sex, weapons, dogs and water buffaloes are strictly forbidden in this cab. (Stuck on the window of a taxi in Bangkok, Thailand)

Click on the photo to enlarge it. We import from Germany, suspension point...exclamation mark! An example of creative punctuation. (Vientiane, Laos)

The one who has to apologize for the inconvenience caused is not a city official, nor an engineer, not even a surveyor, it's that worker who respectfully bows, probably a smelly immigrant, even though we can't tell that from the picture. Anyway, it's all his fault...bastard! (Singapore)

You can find more funny signs here

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

At the alcoholics' - Bangkok, Thailand

The whole series "At the alcoholics" is dedicated to Jack London, author of "John Barleycorn".

There's a little place in Bangkok, half restaurant and half bar. The kitchen is open until 4pm, and after that they will only serve you drinks. Most of the tables are outdoor, under the shade of the trees or of a few umbrellas with holes. It's one of those typical family businesses, with a couple of extra people who lend a hand. A place like many others in S.E. Asia, with wobbling plastic chairs, shaky tables, English menus with funny pictures and spelling mistakes, uneven floor and unwelcome fauna. An ordinary place, you might think. Well, only apparently ordinary.
Part of the staff only works for the restaurant, while others continue until the closing time. If you look at them carefully, you will notice that, like many of the regular clients, those who are employed at the bar-section have an obvious problem with alcohol. While during the day some of them are sober - though they cannot hide some clear signs of hangover - others go from one drinking session to the next one without any break, like a song in repeat mode that keeps playing forever. There's a skinny girl whose face is disfigured by two huge bags under the eyes, an older lady who drags her feet while she moves among the tables, a group of regulars, table permanently reserved, who have their first glasses long before noon and keep drinking until they go to sleep. The most disconcerting case is a 45-year-old lady who, like many Asian women, if seen from a distance might look like a girl. Normally at noon she is already tanked up. She sits in the shade, between the fridge and the coffee counter. Every now and then she stands up to carry out her tasks, which obviously don't include taking orders or handling food. She throws the menus on the tables of the new customers, puts the dirty dishes into a plastic basket that she picks up from and puts back under a tree. When the basket is full she takes it to the kitchen. She grabs a broom and she sweeps the floor without using a dustbin, just shoving the rubbish on the street. When she cleans the space between the tables, as she cannot control with accuracy the movements of the broom, she tickles the feet of the clients, most of which are using flip-flops.
One time, when I was having lunch, it started to rain. One of those powerful monsoon showers. A Korean couple was sitting under an umbrella dripping with water. I grabbed my phone and I got ready to take a picture but just when I thought that I had found the right angle, framing the couple, the rim of the umbrella and a section of the leaden sky, someone tapped me on the shoulder. I turned around, abandoning that perfect posture, and I saw the drunk lady smiling at me - showing a pair of toothless gums that I had never noticed before and that I would have liked not to notice at all - inviting me with gestures not to waste my time with Koreans, monsoon rain and the scenery, and to take a photo of her instead. She was smiling coquettishly, changing pose, bending her head, raising her shoulders, pushing her flat breast out (dreadfully swaying at every little movement), pointing at her face so that I wouldn't make mistakes, or maybe so that she wouldn't make mistakes. I laughed as if to invite her to fuck off, or maybe with a laugh that meant a straight fuck off, and I turned again to face my subject but, as it often happens in cases like this, the magic of that moment was already gone. Just as I was about to mutter a real "fuck off!" I held my tongue, regretting my disagreeable irritation, and when I was getting ready to do her that favor that didn't cost my anything, she had already forgotten everything, like alcoholics tend to do, had gone back to her place and had already sunk in her narcotized languor. I thought this was good after all: considering how she totters whenever she's standing the photo would have come out blurred anyway. And then, some pitiful scenes should never been immortalized. 


Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Thai SIM cards

Photo by ucumari (CC)
Once in a while the blog of a guy who lives abroad, besides bizarre stories and mental masturbations, should also provide some useful advice to those who are about to visit the same places. Here I am.
Recommendation for the tourist who arrives to Thailand: unless you don't really need it, forget about international roaming, get into the first 7/eleven that you come across, buy a local SIM card and give your new Thai number to your family and friends. As a provider I personally use DTAC, but True and AIS-1-2-call offer similar services and rates.
Alright, what kind of advice is this? I knew that by myself, you'll be thinking. In fact I haven't finished yet. If you contact the call center at the number that you'll find among your contacts after the activation you'll be able to purchase dirt cheap SMS and Internet packages as well. Cheap SMS can only be sent to local numbers but if you're traveling in group or make friends with some Thais or other tourists this will still be a good idea, especially considering the cost.
The prices of the SIM cards and the calling rates vary depending on the applicable promotions: for example at the time or writing DTAC is offering a card for only 49 baht. You can also buy another type for 199 baht, with cheaper rates and a higher initial credit (currently 1 euro = 42 baht).
As for the SMS, I normally purchase a 100-SMS-package for about 60 baht, which means 60 cents a message. Considering that without promotion you normally pay 3 baht to send a text message to a Thai number this is definitely a good deal. Sending an SMS to a foreign number will cost you 9 baht in any case.
International calling rates (IDD) also vary, depending on the provider and the ongoing promotions.
Talking about internet options I normally buy a 70-hour-package for little more than 200 baht. Shorter length or unlimited use monthly packages are also available. You can use them with a smarphone or with a laptop connected to your device via USB cable or bluetooth. Of course there are also specific promotions for Blackberry, iPhone, iPad, etc. but you'd better buy them directly from your provider outlets. You can find them in most of the major shopping malls (for instance Siam Paragon, MBK and Central World in Bangkok).

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Barrage of thoughts/15

Photo by gwilmore (CC)
- Inverse proportionality: if the perception of living a good life is big, worries about when and how one will die will be small.

- Asian cuisine: if you find ginger disgusting it will always be like that, but if you don't give up on coriander sooner or later you'll like it.

- Self-deception: relishing the conviction that if a little belly is still bulging after a few months of exercise then some mighty abdominals must necessarily be pushing up from below is actually very nice.

- Only one financial condition can be more upsetting than poverty: shown-off wealth.

- Nowadays fascism has lost most of its old party connotations, being reduced to the rank of a simple, politically transversal attitude: a mix of bullying, cowardice and other more or less unpleasant ingredients.

- Inconsistencies: that type of woman that looks at you as if you had tried to rape her just because you smiled at her and a few seconds later is staring with Cinderella-like eyes at a baboon who is squeezing her boobs.

- I've never really been a fan of communism, nonetheless there are a few rich people who I don't like at all.

- It takes so little to achieve success, but this doesn't mean that it's easy at all! If one has more than that little needed it actually becomes quite complicated.

- If anger, frustration, irritation, envy or jealousy get the upper hand, before it's too late give vent to them with a pen and a sheet of paper.

- How many battles can you lose before the whole war can be considered compromised? 

Read more thoughts here.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Living under a bridge - Bangkok, Thailand

We hear someone saying: "That guy lives under a bridge." At once we think of a cardboard box and, huddled inside, a hairy body, its skin dark, wrinkled, hardened by sweat and inclement weather, wrapped in a dirty, crumpled and patched coat, wearing two different boots, its head covered by a torn woolen hat and a frayed scarf caked with dried up drool. Scattered around there are a few bundles of rags, cans half-full of stale food, newspaper pages, three greasy pieces of cutlery, a rusty metallic mug, maybe a bottle of cheap liquor. This mental picture is enriched by the inevitable stench of piss, human and other animals' excrements, syringes, used tissues and condoms. In short, we think of a hobo life. As most of us already know though, this bizarre world can often overturn even the most widespread beliefs.
On my way to the heart of Bangkok business district - where the modern skyscrapers, the elevated skytrain railway and the shopping malls are - at a certain point I have to get off some kind of Siamese vaporetto that sails down the sordid city canals (I'll talk about this in another post), pass under a wide road and come out on the sidewalk at the other side of the street. Right under Saphan Hua Chang (Elephant head bridge), on my right, trapped between ground and roadway like a wedge under a tire, there is a little house. Thirty something square meters removed from the urban architecture and used by the latter as a column in exchange. 
The concrete structure is provided with doors and windows, like any other house, and it's surrounded by a fence that encloses a courtyard. Here there are some plastic chairs, a wooden cable-drum that serves as a table, motorbikes and bicycles, rubbish bins, clothes hanging on clothslines and the usual knick-knacks that are usually hidden in the backyard of a house. 
Inside the room, illuminated by a dingy neon light, a family is enjoying the cool breeze of a fan in front of a TV set broadcasting a muay thai fight.
Who's living there? A road maintenance worker? The supervisor of the vaporetto pier? A family in league with a local politician? Or maybe this is a common practice around here? Honestly I have no idea, but in order to remember that the expressions "living under a bridge" and "being a homeless" don't necessarily refer to the same living conditions I have taken some pictures that I'm posting below.

The house under the bridge

The house courtyard

The back of the house

A different view of the structure