Thursday, May 26, 2011

Motorbikes and potatoes - Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Photo by kibuyu (CC)
Finally out of the training center. I'm walking home with that vague feeling of exhilaration caused by fresh air after a day's plunge in an air-con sea when the typical metallic sound produced by an accident - its unmistakable motorcycle-against-a-4-wheel-vehicle variant - digs its nails into my eardrums.
I turn around and I see a motorbike of the Honda Dream type caroming between the queuing cars like a pinball ball among the springs of the game's rattling mushrooms. It has already hit a van when I start to watch the scene, then it proceeds between two lines of cars, alternatively bouncing against the coachwork of a vehicle on the right and one on the left, until it finds an empty space, threads its way into it like a blue fly into the chink of a window and keeps riding along the course that will lead it to a collision with the rear bumper of a Japanese sedan, it's a hopeless situation, you can read it on the face of the guy and on the movements that he's trying to convey to the handlebar: at this point he has already lost control of the bike and he won't be able to avoid it. Judging by the glittering of paint and chromium-plating this car interior still smells like new - it's a smell that one, not a bad one, but not a scent either: only gasoline and some fragrances of the Little Trees, in the world of automobiles, really smell good.
When the impact takes place the guy does what many people do in this kind of situation, even though it should be the first thing to avoid: he keeps speeding. The bike bends over and slowly falls to the ground. The man touches the asphalt with an awkward move, but he doesn't get hurt. His wife though, who sits in the back, falls like a sack of potatoes. She also looks like a sack of potatoes, by the way, but right now it's the dynamic of her movements that reminds me of this image. How she bends, hits the ground and keeps rolling when the bike has already come to a stop, while the engine revs up because the wrist of the guy got stuck on its initial position, I mean the one he had when he was shooting between two lines of cars - still along a straight path, not a zigzagging one - and that he hasn't changed ever since.
The man stands up, he can't be bothered to collect his potatoes, and starts to shout abuses at the driver of the van, the first pinball mushroom that he hit. Maybe this man was actually the one to blame, I'll never find out, because after replying to the biker with diversionary tactics, pointing and gesturing at a car that has already disappeared behind a curve, he engages the gears and after a few seconds he has also disappeared behind the curve.
The man is called for debriefing by the owners of the damaged cars, the sack of potatoes stands up just like a sack of potatoes that is being lifted by a farmer and oscillates for a moment around her point of stable equilibrium, somehow like a matrioshka, until she stops upright. In the meanwhile the potatoes that fill the sack where her bottom, torso and breast should be are rearranged according to the laws of three-dimensional geometry and gravity, occupying the vacant spaces of the new configuration. Then, dragging her feet (because even though she resembles a sack of potatoes we don't have to forget that she is still a human being and therefore is equipped with feet), she joins the lively group.
I leave them at that, after having followed the nth lesson of the Principles and elements of Oriental Societies course, a mix of couldn't-care-less attitude, male chauvinism, passing the buck, lightheartedness, fatalism, optimism and many other things that will occur to me later, while I keep walking under a leaden sky that looks like monsoon rain but could actually give us dog days sunshine. Thoughtless and indifferent: even if I still cannot act like that in a completely natural way I know that it's a perfectly suitable attitude. After all, they are the ones who transmitted it to me.

Accounts of more accidents (first hand experience) and more principles of Eastern sociology can be found here.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Not even a waiter - Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Photo by Keven Law (CC)
If one looks carefully and keeps the antennas of his sensitivity tuned in, it's possible to pick up some interesting details even in a scene of apparently little importance. I have an example of that right in front of me, at this open air restaurant. That usual sequence of moves of his, studied but carelessly and hastily executed, by instinct, as if he was a hare chased by a pack of wolves: shaking the stool, bowing his head, rolling his eyes, wiping with a wet cloth a corner of the plastic table. It's his coded message for the undecided customer, only weakly encrypted: "eat at our place, sit down here, don't keep on searching, walking past us towards the next restaurant of the huge line that stretches out for the whole length of Jalan Alor. Stay, can't you see how I'm arranging this stool for you and making sure that your table is clean?"
A message that could well be misunderstood, as the customer might spot the grease stains on the cloth and think "if you need to clean that table now it means that it was dirty one second ago, and how about the rest of the surface (the bigger part of it) that you have not wiped yet: will it be dirty because you haven't cleaned it or clean because that filthy rag hasn't touched it yet?" And perhaps he will decide to move on, only to find out that the next restaurant is not better than this one. Actually, all in all, the fact that it is located at the beginning of the street probably makes a better choice of it, if only because stopping here one is spared useless meters of chaos and nuisances, and that's exactly the reason why whenever I am in Kuala Lumpur and I come to eat around here, I choose this place without really thinking about it.
But this baby-doll, this teddy-bear, this racoon cub is absolutely irresistible: so sweet, moving, touching, almost pitiful. With his dark face, the darting, almost terrified look that pours out of those hunted deer eyes, the swift movements and the imploring pout.
You can't even call him a waiter because...well, because he isn't one. He's here just to do what he's doing right now, and that he does every day: the part of a net that the restaurant owner throws on the street to catch the highest possible number of passers-by that are looking for a place where they can eat something simple, genuine and cheap. And maybe to top that up with a beer in the fresh air. He's here to pretend that he's arranging the table and to open a menu with plastic-coated, greased pages in front of the customers. Only to run away soon after that, before someone asks him a question that he wouldn't be able to answer, letting the waiters, the real ones, who can speak English, Malay, Mandarin and two or three other Chinese dialects, take care of that.
Because he's only a poor immigrant, most likely Burmese, one of many who come here and to other countries of the region looking for a better life and that, for a few years at least, will spend thirty days a month shaking stools and wiping tables, cleaning toilets, carrying buckets, breaking roads, rummaging through rubbish. Some of them will be succesful, because they have the money to start some business or the skills required to shoulder their way through the fronds of that jungle of opportunities, corruption, organized anarchy, energy, optimism and inertial thrust that the majority of the Far East is nowadays. Others will go back home, not empty handed though, because the little nest-egg that they have managed to put aside will be worth a minor treasure in their country. This is a win-win situation after all. Especially for one who started from scratch.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Time killing thoughts/13

Photo by Brandon Christopher Warren (CC)
- Between fake open mindedness and genuine backwardness I have no doubt: much better the latter.

- Listen, it's very simple: I look like a loser because I AM a loser. For your standards and values, at least, I definitely am...

- Modestly - and recklessly - speaking, I think that I am one of the most free persons that I know. Only a few of my vices enslave me and they are, after all, things of little importance.

- You're on a train, comfortable, warm, the illusion of belonging might last forever. Then you arrive to your destination and the idea of having to get off tears you away from your seat like the hand of a giant. It's an alien place, its language and culture unknown, you haven't booked a room, you don't have any information, everything has to be found out...only one certainty: for the nth time you're back into the game.

- Everybody, at least once in his life, has felt like a Robert Deniro in the movie "Casino"...taken for a ride by some Sharon Stone...

Read more thoughts here