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.