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.