Wednesday, February 23, 2011

A piece of soul - Singapore

Old Singapore
What do we feel when we look at the pictures of a place that we know, when the images date back to when we were not yet born? I can still remember what I felt the first time I saw some old pictures of Singapore. I looked at them, changed angle and read the caption: a comment, a date and the name of a place that I knew but couldn't recognize. My curiosity aroused, I returned to those places, convinced that I had missed something, because of carelessness or bad choice of the point of view. Roads, quarters, squares, bridges, wharves: the names had remained the same, anything else was unrecognizable. I could place myself behind a column, stare at the view for minutes trying to get hold of some half-hidden detail, but there was no way to bringing back to life the foreshortened image of the photo, sometimes not even in part.
It's true that the same thing would happen pretty much everywhere if one looked at a sixty-year-old picture, but in Singapore the concept of restyling has been pushed to a level that might have never been reached anywhere else. Demolitions, renovation and restoration works, planning, experimentations, regulations, standardization, all this with only one goal in mind: the realization of a vision. The one of a hyper-modern, hi-tech, functional, organized, controlled, clean, safe, ordered city. And as none of these qualities has something to do with the past (actually they are all its children, but they don't need it anymore...ungrateful offspring), the heritage of that past has been ignored. Therefore anything that was not an obstacle has been molded and reshaped to meet the new requirements, whereas what was seen as a hindrance was removed outright. As a consequence the city-state has inevitably lost its character, got rid of a piece of soul, thinking perhaps that it could live off the body alone. The aseptic veil and the sophistication are things that you can see not only on buildings, restaurants and streets: you inhale them with the air you breathe, they brush against your face when you turn at a corner or cross a threshold. Singapore could have been a rich and advanced version of Rangoon, Malacca, Goa, Luang Prabang, Phuket town, Penang, Hoian. It decided to become the copy of some city fancied by a science-fiction writer instead. An imperfect copy, as they all are. And it did so without many scruples.
Perhaps the zealous authorities do feel some remorse though, if they love to retrieve these photos and show them in public, or if they organize some nostalgic old postcards exhibitions.
That's why I advise those foreign visitors who arrive to Singapore and are amazed by its organization, cleanliness and order, but most of all by its offer of cutting edge technology, to search for those images, watch them carefully, then turn around and look out, and ask themselves whether it was worth wiping off history in order to offer the tourists this life size scale model and lots of shop-windows filled with electronic trinkets that will arrive to their cities only a couple of months later. 
As for myself, this is one of those moments when I would like one of my favorite dreams to come true: getting hold of a time machine and travel back...years...back...back...decades, to when the photographer took those shots. Even a black and white, vaguely milky world would be fine.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Catalan irony

Conversation held in Thailand between a friend of mine from Barcelona (F.) and an American backpacker (A.B.).

A.B.: Where are you from?

F.: I'm from Spain, Barcelona, and you?

A.B.: I'm from the West Coast...

F.: ahhh...the West Coast! (then, to himself): West Coast...que coño es West Coast...Portugal??? (West Coast...what the fuck is this West Coast? Portugal?!)

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Worse than a widower

Photo by jcoterhals (CC)
There it is, another one who asks me whether I'm married. Well, as it often happens in Asia, he asks the question but actually means a statement: of course you are, tell me a little about your family then...And there it is: that face that he makes when he hears my answer. I keep meeting people like this, who are surprised when they find out that I don't have a wife. Worst than that actually: surprised to find out that I have never had a if been a divorcé or a widower, sad as it may be, were still a lot better than the highest form of damnation: being single.
To be honest in fact, the very institution of marriage does not completely convince me. Not in itself, of course, as it has proven to be a fundamental instrument in building solid societies and good growing environments for children. It's the mechanism as it is made available today that I find faulty, especially in the western world, even though the differences between East and West are getting narrower and narrower.
People seem to be anxious to get married because they are told that they have to, and actually it has always been like that. In the past though, besides being taught that they should marry, young people were also told that marriage would last forever. No matter how serious the problems they would have to face, no matter how close to hell life within the new family could turn, the couple had to find a way through it. Or put up with it, until death would part them. 
Nowadays newlyweds are given options to get out of it, and on top of that they are brought to think that it's not even such a bad drama, or that it is their fault for that matter...shit happens - seems to be the message - don't think too much about it, just move on. 
While I have spent a large part of my adult life as a single and I've never really got close to planning my wedding, I've seen so many friends celebrating their marriages and a few years later mourning for their failures. That's why I think that if the paradigm has changed and there is not a fairly high probability that marriage will last forever, it's better to teach young people that they shouldn't feel so anxious about it. 
Convincing them to get married just to sell more insurance policies and washing machines, knowing that many of them will split up - or even counting on selling more products after a second or a third wedding - might seem an effective way to boost consumption economy: actually it's nothing more than a moral crime. Either you promise them a stable future or you don't promise anything at all, otherwise you're not guiding them: you're only deceiving them.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Enraged - Bangkok, Thailand

Photo by humblenick (CC)
"Sawat-dee-krap, pai Khao-San dai mai krap?"
The taxi driver nods and I sit on the back holding a chilled can of Leo. From Major Cineplex to Central Mall it's the usual, smooth Bangkok night ride, then a car sprints out of Lat-Phrao rd and cuts across our way. My driver utters a guttural sound and slams the brake pedal down. I'm surprisingly calm - it might be because of the sedative effect of the Saturday beers, my innate fatalism, or a bit of both - while the car slows down quickly, skidding a little, until our front bumper ends up kissing quite gently the pirate car's rear one.
We came out of it rather well - or at least I did - but I know that it's not over yet: I picture the worst case scenario and I hope that the other car stops soon. In vain: the guy is speeding away as if he didn't even realize what happened, and my driver, without an official opening ceremony, has already declared the beginning of chasing time.
Speeding makes me quite nervous, especially if I don't know the driver and he's enraged. He doesn't show it much but I know he is. Unlike a hypothetical Italian counterpart of his, who would have vented his frustration through a litany of a heretical-mystical nature, he's only emitting some mono-syllabic sounds, driving nervously, accelerating and steering intermittently. 
At a certain point he follows the runaway vehicle into a road that won't definitely lead us where I am supposed to go, and that's when I come out of my trance and start yelling "Stop, stop right now!" I say it in Thai, English, Italian, Chinese and Spanish. He finally stops the car near the curb and I suspect it was not because his ancestors came to the Kingdom of Siam from Toledo or Madrid. 
I quickly get out. He does the same, without minding me at all, and goes to check the damage. I don't care about him anymore, he has given me a bad five-minute-time, I spot the first available cab and flag it down. 
Now that I'm safe I think about what just happened. Often Bangkok taxi drivers don't own the cars they drive, they just rent them from a company, and in cases like this they will probably have the cost of the repairs deducted from their income. 
I take a sip of the beer that by now has got warm and I silently wish him good luck: hopefully the car got out of it unscathed, like we both did.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Shades of angel - Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Photo by Neil Krug (CC)
I close the book, I'm about to turn off the light but I realize that I am not sleepy enough. The muffled street noise is seeping into the room through the chinks of the window frame, people are having fun outside: tomorrow is holiday in Kuala Lumpur, but I'll still have to teach.
I wear a pair of flip-flops and get out of the room. The furniture is rather lousy but the apartment is large and for once in a while I don't have to share it with anyone. I grab a chair and I take it with me to the balcony. There must be at least 25 degrees and I'm only wearing a pair of boxers, but the lights are off and I live on the eighth floor, nobody can see me and, even if they could, I am only a shadow: a dressed shadow and a naked one look pretty much the same.
I just need a look to realize - for the nth first time - that a balcony with a view is actually cool. There is a crossroads just down here, a confused knot of small streets without a traffic light: it has to bear the weight of traffic only when there's some nightlife, just like tonight. Cars, motorbikes and taxis advance with the same speed as the pedestrians, looking for parking space or for their way back home.
I almost never smoke but I light myself a cigarette. If you don't have a habit that's what cigarettes are made for. I smoke, look around and write sentences in my mind, in Italian, in English, in Spanish, with cuneiform characters and ideograms, without being able to save them, as in offline mode. Maybe, if I look carefully, I can manage to spot those Russian girls as well.
A few hours ago, when I was mooching a wi-fi signal in the lobby, they got out of the lift laughing and singing, together with those male model friends of them, some kind of self-propelled bronze statues. They were muttering when they walked past me, probably tipsy, maybe they were taking the piss out of me: I'm always by myself, writing at the PC or walking around the neighborhood, I don't open up easily like the other men in the building. What a nerd, they might think, maybe even an asshole: well, nerd is alright, and I might also be a bit of an asshole, but most of all...I'm shy! Then the one who often sits near me with her laptop - always wearing shorts and t-shirt, ponytail and no make-up - turned towards me and I almost didn't recognize her: tight black clothes, loose hair that could finally flow down her back, long and wavy, soberly made-up, just like an angel would be. Hopping as if she was dancing, nay, like a little girl with her friends at the public gardens, she smiled at me and waved her hand. All of a sudden on the contact surface between body and chair I felt some sort of liquefying sensation, not as if I was sweating or bleeding, just as if my skin and muscles were actually melting. Then it was all a sequence of changes, of temperature, of light intensity, of color shades, of perception of space, as if a new dimension had seeped into this little world of mine, and finally I understood: I was completely bonkers. I didn't really have enough time to say anything and I was afraid that she might find me quite rude, but when I got hold of the various parts of my face again, I found a smile that almost beheaded me stamped right across it: if she didn't notice that she was not only drunk, she was completely lost in a hyperspace trip. I knew better than cherishing false hopes about the future, but I sucked the present until I could almost hear the noise of a straw that drains away the last drops of a fruit shake.
The traffic jam clears, the group of tipsy guys leaves, I haven't seen the Russian angels but others are passing by: fluorescent Chinese, Indians blended with the night, alternating with Malays of different qualities of chocolate. Snazzy, with stylish hairdo, some are swaying a little, they clasp their purses as if they were afraid of losing them, or they hold on to them not to fall over: from up here, in semi-darkness, they all look beautiful.
A car alarm goes off, one of those sirens that sometimes sabotage my siestas, this time I'm not in bed but on a balcony instead, and even lounging around: I enjoy it as if it was a soundtrack slightly out of phase. Then I yawn and it's the cue I was waiting for, I pick up the stub and I put the chair in its place, then dragging my flip-flops I grope my way back to the room.
Now I can go to sleep: a balcony in the darkness and the wake of a smile have tucked the night in.