Here you won't find the pages of a pedantic journal, praises to fantastic places or accounts of memorable encounters. This is a collection of stories, thoughts, images, and most of all odd stuff, even though to someone else it might actually look ordinary. To discern its bizarre side, in fact, special filters are needed: cynicism, fussiness, stubbornness, isolation, impudence, nosiness and nerdiness. All flaws that, in different measure, this semi-nomadic being has got embedded in his genes.
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.
When I'm in Kuala Lumpur my days tend to follow a sequence that rotates and wraps itself up in a gauze of soft invariability. The mental weariness caused by a day of lecturing and its physical counterpart due to some jogging and a couple of push-ups come to meet me in the evening: they take me by the hand and walk me to a movie theater downtown.
Most of the times I'm not really interested in the movie itself: in Asia the multiplex cinemas often feature American and Chinese blockbusters or local stuff that you can't really trust. I rule out by default the ones of the second category and I chose the less toxic title of the first one: it often turns out to be a concoction of action, deafening noise and special effects: the usual bore meant to stimulate the production of adrenaline that ends up making you sink into a state of hypnotic daze instead. As far as I am concerned a good movie depends on: 1) story and director, 2) actors, 3) photography and music. Any other frill can only serve the purpose of concealing the lack of those main ingredients.
However, as I said, what really draws me to the theater has nothing to do with my passion for visual arts: I take care of that with some DVDs when I need to. No, what I really follow enchanted while I'm on the escalator are the notes of a different piper: getting swallowed by that black world scarred by slanting lines of white lights, being vaguely aware of the air-con blow that cools without freezing, reaching the seat next to the aisle, possibly without neighbors, carefully chosen at the box office, stretching out on the armchair - comfortable but not too soft - and letting the hum muffled by the sound-absorbing panels tickle my eardrums during the minutes that lead up to the commercials. When the show (show?) has already started, ignoring without the slightest spot of irritation those who talk and disturb a movie that is not really worth of respect, adjusting to the light air of an awkward drama or of a silly comedy, relaxing my muscles, activating my soul, meditating, slackening the reins of my brain, thinking, being pierced by such a beautiful sentence that it feels as if it was thought by someone else and jotting it down on my phone. Peeking now and then at the deer-like face of the pretty girl who's sitting a few seats away, then feeling ashamed for this fifth grader's instinct and directly jumping to the eighth grade by looking at the legs of a hot chick wearing a jeans miniskirt and high heels, while the tough guy who's sitting next to her is bewildered by a monotonous sequence of fast scenes and deafening sounds. Moistening my lips with a fake pervert air, laughing to myself for this form of self-inflicted sense of humor and while my temple is scratched by yet another sentence - somewhat less philosophical than the previous one - grabbing the phone again and challenging my creativity by trying to write some longshoreman's obscenity with the most poetic verses I can think of.
It's an alternative to Vipassana, Yoga Nidra and Tantra: the experience of a lousy movie as a Zen practice. As it turns out, the ways to reach Nirvana appear to be countless.
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.
No guys, this is definitely a big NO! (Stuck on the window of a taxi in Bangkok, Thailand)
Park safe (above)...at your own risk (below). (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia)
A variation of the one above. (Another taxi, still in Bangkok, Thailand)
A smoke-free...temple! (Vientiane, Laos)
Only one ticket per person. You never know, some smart ass might try to buy two, or even three! (Ferry dock, Samui island)
Drunk? Then don't drive! Otherwise... A very graphic sign sponsored by a...brand of beer! (Vientiane, Laos)
A passenger cannot do anything on this bus! Hold on, they forgot to say that you cannot get drunk! Notice the instigation to laying of information - by way of a 4000 baht reward - to pocket 16000 baht, a disproportionate sum (Tourist bus, Thailand)
Click on the photo to enlarge it. At the bottom of the Laotian immigration form you can read: "Our Tax, our Country". A fiscal variation of national pride (Vientiane International Airport, Laos)
A few years ago a friend of mine told me that he had just quit his permanent job at some office and started to work as a freelance. "Freelance?" I answered "You had just started in that field, how are you going to find new customers?"
It turned out that he already had two customers and they probably were the same ones that he was dealing with at the office. As an independent professional he was earning pretty much the same money, working half the time. My friend's revelation helped me to get a clearer understanding of some of the decisions that I had made myself a few years back. The calculations that he had done could have actually been done by anyone else who does the same job. Why then he's the only one I know of who got to that conclusion? Now I know the answer well, as it is in fact the same reason why I also left my job as a permanent employee more that ten years ago: he didn't care about the dose of uncertainty that the new situation would have injected into his life.
I'll leave out on purpose the other - more or less important - factors that might have made my friend feel at ease even without having a stable job and I'll focus on my point of view on the matter instead.
I don't want to be misunderstood: security is a very comfortable mattress on which I would like to lie until the last of my days. Even though it's a privilege for the sake of which I would commit (with my imagination!) the most heinous crimes, what has so far made me opt for a life which is lacking almost any of it is what you have to give up in order to have it in exchange. Piercing day after day with a skewer of repetitiveness, monotony, strict timetables, slowly roast them over a charcoal of minor depressions, of non exciting jobs, of loss of enthusiasm, to finally eat after a few decades the tasteless yet balanced meal of a planned life and hitch-proof old age, is something that rather than fuel me with security gives me vertigo. Actually there is some sort of certainty that I get from it all: the one of aimlessness and depression bouts.
It's not about instigating people to do any stupid thing one can think of as we only live one life. I've done many silly things but none of them was too bad. It seems to me that the concept actually makes sense: if I had three or four lives to live, investing one on a security fund might look like a good idea, however, having been educated to rely on the scientific method and as I still haven't come across any sound proof of a second or a third life, I prefer to handle the first one that I happen to live with great care. Maybe, come to think about it, the opposite approach has more to do with irrationality. And with some kind of phobia.
Of course this is not a criticism to those who made or are about to make different decisions. I got lots of examples of people who prefer to live an extremely secure life that I still hold in high regard. This is the way I am though, and I have learned by swallowing bitter pills and going through painful crises that it's better for me to follow my instinct. This is especially true as I know that fortunately mother nature provided me with a dose of rationality and common sense big enough to smooth the sharpest corners and to plane the most irregular surfaces of my impulsive side. Over the years my instinct has proven to be trustworthy. Obviously there are ups and downs, but if I think of what was crossing my mind, stretching my nerves and kicking my soul about(*) on some sleepless night only a few years ago, the issues that I am faced with now make me smile.
After all we're just talking about living: the only occupation for which everybody is born with the necessary prerequisites.
(*) I know, I said that I am a supporter of the scientific method and then I've mentioned the soul. Actually I have never been too good at living a life without contradictions...