Thursday, November 29, 2012

They sold the shopping mall entrance - Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

The late mall entrance, recently replaced by a shop
In Bukit Bintand, right in the heart of the city, there is a shopping mall. Like any other shopping mall this one also used to have its entrance, with large automatic glass doors, fancy lights and stylish floor. Those who run the mall decided to sell it. Yeah, they sold the entrance. The mall is still open, as usual, but the entrance was replaced by a clothing shop, that you have to walk through in case you wanna go in or out of the mall. With its smaller doors, aisles and the typical shop-feeling to be an intruder.
Let's try for a moment to go back in time and imagine the following scene. The steering committee of the company that owns the mall is having a meeting. An important client is willing to open a new outlet and wants a lot. 
"We've got nothing to offer him."
"What do you mean we got nothing? The upper floor is half empty!"
"You don't give this kind of clients the upper floor. They want the first one, possibly close to the entrance..."
"Moreover we don't have any rental contract expiring before the year 2020."
The room is suddenly wrapped in silence. Nobody has even the slightest idea of something to say. A young assistant, a recently hired graduate, rather bored leans over the map of the structure and points a finger at it. Then, almost to himself, he mutters:
"There is a vacant space right here.."
The boss quickly looks at him, starts to laugh in an arrogant way and dismisses him with a scornful remark:

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

KL Monorail: the world's sweetest means of transport - Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

The KL Monorail mouse-like nose
KL monorail looks like a toy, a model city train, a sort of Lima elevated railway line.
With its tiny stations, tiny tension structures, tiny bulbs, tiny signs, tiny traffic lights, tiny stairs to move between the tiny platforms, tiny cars, tiny mouse-like nose, tiny headlights, tiny seats, tiny doors, tiny alarms that signal when they are being closed, tiny voice announcing the tiny stops, tiny wheels, tiny rails, all those tiny curves that make the tiny route so winding. As a matter of fact the monorail, poor thing, has to adapt to everything and nothing in this city ever bothers to budge even a little for it. On top of that they only gave it one rail: for such a train two would have definitely be too many.
In Bangkok the Monorail has a bigger cousin: the bulky, self-assured, haughty Skytrain, which proudly advances in a straight line over the main city thoroughfares: few curves and obstacles to get around.
The Monorail, on the other hand, is some kind of a joke, and a tiny one at that, of course. Yet, it is so sweet: every time I get aboard it's as if a ghost pinched the corners of my mouth, stretching a big smile across my face. The further I walk into the car the stronger the ghost's fingers pull my flesh and the more that smile expands. Torrid heat, monsoon rain, traffic, smog, the situation outside can be desperate indeed but the KL monorail never lets you down: every time you use it you get in a good mood.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

The business class humiliation - Bangkok to Kuala Lumpur

I had often heard people talking about it as a quality choice, as compensation for overbooking or damaged seats issues or even as a shortcut to making useful acquaintances. I had always managed to stay away from it though. A proud member of the common people as I am, prompted by wild aversion for the parvenus' habits: golf, exclusive clubs, showy cars, jewels, middle class cottages and, precisely, business class. Finally, after a lot of uncomfortable and dusty journeys, cattle trucks, groups of prisoners, buses in unstable balance on the brink of deep ravines, long waits in no man's land, anti-illegal immigration control procedures, I ended up suffering that ignominy. I can't believe it was me, the same person who complained about getting from Venice to Bangkok in only 32 hours and who intends to do it overland one day just to make up for it. That guy, me, in business class, sneaked in on the sly. Don't get me wrong, it wasn't my choice, of course. The people who hire me to teach the courses booked my flight at the very last minute: all the economy seats were already sold out and they had to opt for an upgrade. Hadn't they done that they would have had no teacher for the first day's class: definitely unfeasible.
That's how I found myself stunned by a sequence of privileges that I have never needed before: dedicated check-in desk, outbound immigration premier lane, luxury lounge, priority seats at the gate, priority boarding, flying sofa, wide selection of glossy magazines, flight attendants stopping by to have a casual conversation (you have never noticed me when I was packed along with the other sardine-passangers there in the back of the plane, are you on the hunt for a rich husband? Well, you can keep looking then...), cool drink after take off, selected nuts (less than 30% peanuts!!! Isn't that great?), brocade tablecloth, tungsten cutlery, crystal glasses, a neighbor that smiles, thanks and nods like an Eton student and then again immigration premier lane upon arrival. Had they caught me walking the few hundred meters separating the airport shuttle station from the hotel, carrying a big bag and a guitar on my back, they would have banned me from their luxury club for life. 
Don't get me wrong, it is all very convenient: those details can totally change the way you travel. They actually make you feel as if you were not traveling at all. Yet, I have to say bad things about them. Even though these whims are not my cup of tea one can easily get used to them. When I come across anything that shines too brightly...I prefer to adopt the tramp's mistrust.

Photo by caribb (CC)

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Being a heroine might not be enough

Besides a few fake stories Facebook can also be used to spread some interesting bits of news. Most important, true ones. The following one for instance.
During WWII a Polish lady, Irena Sendler, saved 2500 Jewish children from certain death at the hand of the Nazis by sneaking them out of the Warsaw ghetto in small groups. Eventually she was caught, tortured and sentenced to death. Fortunately somehow she managed to survive. In 2007 she was among the nominees for the Noble Peace Prize, with the official support of the Polish and Israeli governments. She didn't win: the 2500 innocent lives she saved, the risk she took, her courage, the tortures she suffered, the death sentence she escaped and the illustrious sponsors did not prove to be enough. As far as the awarding commission was concerned there was a worthier candidate that year: the former vice-president of the US, Al Gore. Oh yes, I didn't write the wrong name, you got it right. The 2007 Nobel Peace Prize was not awarded to Irena Sendler, but to Al Gore instead. The guy who managed to squander the great advantage that the Democratic party was enjoying at the end of Bill Clinton's presidency and let the ordinary George W Bush win the elections and play the bully guy around the world for eight years. And then moved on to shooting movies.
I already explained why I thought the prize had lost a big share of its credibility when it was awarded to Barak Obama. Fortunately the application for Silvio Berlusconi's nomination was not successful, if not at stirring up lots of irony and loud laughs (including mine). Al Gore instead of Irena Sendler, though, is unsettling. If this is how the commission selects the award winners then that prize is just a huge pile of rubbish.

Monday, November 19, 2012

The legend of the "good" German policemen

Demonstrators and police have recently clashed in numerous Italian cities. As usual, the country is torn over matters of this kind: who is right, who is wrong...probably the truth is that both among the demonstrators and the agents there are a few hotheads, not very interested in the issue at hand and willing to make some noise, show off and get into a fight. Just like those bare chested guys at the football stadiums, yelling into a bullhorn, a scarf wrapped around the face and their backs always facing the field. This is not the main point of this post though.
After the incidents many Italian Facebook users have decided to post a few-month-old photo, taken in Frankfurt, whose caption states that those smiling German cops have just removed their helmets and are marching shoulder to shoulder with the demonstrators.
That picture, or at least that kind of interpretation of it, is a fake. Proven by an online newspaper,, in an article published few days after the photo was taken, in May 2012. Everything is backed up with statements by the paper correspondent, the same AP photographer and the leaders of the demonstration.
However, those who like to spread this kind of stuff in Facebook are not interested in this details at all. What matters to them is playing the part of the know-it-all educator and ending their posts with a "WAKE UP ITALIANS!!!" call, yelled by means of those arrogant upper case letters. While continuing to sleep unperturbed in real life. Well...sweet dreams then!

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Soi Country Club, the right place for adultery - Pattaya, Thailand

The name is misleading: Soi Country Club. Soi in Thai means alley, but this is a road, long and crowded, lined up with shops, restaurants, resorts, a golf and a polo club, a riding school, the Pattaya Utd stadium and a lake - the Mabprachan - where people come for a short trip, sometimes even at night. Yes, at night. Along the southern shore, in fact, there is a line of bars with nice ladies who won't resist like a sieged medieval fort if a man approaches them, and then beer, music, pool tables, even ladyboys, just like the red-light districts downtown. That's the interesting part: who would want to come here, from downtown? Who is going to drive ten kilometers just to enjoy a lousy and limited version of what can be found a few hundred meters from home? 
The answer is not a secret for those who've been living here for years: it's those men, engaged or married, who need a safe place to surrender to the pleasures of adultery without feeling paranoid. The area also offers short-time motels and sauna/massage centers where the hands - and maybe something else - of other obliging ladies will take care of each single spot of their customers' bodies. 
Two kilometers ahead the motorbike noise is partially muffled by the cries of some school children. Not only the bike is slowing down here: progress also downshifts and starts creep driving. It's not so much a matter of technology or fashion, as of details and atmosphere. Red dust, flip-flops, corrugated roofs, slanting bamboo poles, the conflict between those old shacks and the surrounding vegetation that still seems it might end either way. It smells like Cambodia, Laos, maybe even Burma, right here in old Siam!
Then a truck puffs black smoke and raises a cloud of dust. In a matter of seconds the road becomes a swollen torrent of motorbikes, cars, traffic lights, with whirlpools of horns, whistles and concrete, that flows all foamy into the six-lane basin of Sukhumvit, with its megamalls, supermarkets, interchanges, crossroads and service areas. 
We're back to the beginning…it's already the end. 

Friday, November 9, 2012

Fresh as a daisy - somewhere around Urumqi, China

A guy sleeping on the street in Saigon
Memories from summer 2006

Hey, look at that!
Everybody draws near the window and watches outside, amazed, in utter silence for a few seconds. Then anxiety gradually creeps in.
He fell over! He might be injured, we need to stop the coach and help him!
I think he fainted!
Maybe it was an accident!
No, no, he's just sleeping...
What...sleeping? On the ground? In the middle of the road? It cannot be...
Look carefully at him. His bicycle and cart are nicely parked along the edge of the road and he's also lying on the dirt, right next to the lane, parallel to it. Besides that, he's put something soft under his head and he's found a nice place in the shade. He's definitely sleeping. Obviously in the west nobody would do it, but here, in the Xinjiang countryside, it makes perfect sense. You're drowsy, therefore you sleep, no matter where you are. If you think about it and try to leave conformism and hypocritical petty rules aside, it kind of has its own logic. It might not be too safe, but the Chinese are as anarchic as brave a people, this type of danger is not a big deal for them.
Maybe he's been awake since 4am, a short rest can only be good for him. Soon he'll wake up, get on his bike and ride his way back home. Fresh as a daisy.

Monday, November 5, 2012

The end of the month - Pattaya, Thailand

Sometimes circumstances can generate some problems. Within the scope of these problems a new saying is born, a thought that captures, even with a little irony, a photo of an era. In Italy these times of crisis have given birth to the expression non arrivare a fine mese. It is a metaphor, a play on words, in fact its literal translation in English - "not being able to reach the end of the month" - makes little sense. Everybody, unless they die, can reach the end of the month. What people who use that sentence actually mean is that their salary will not last until the end of the month, as due to the high cost of living they will have spent it all before that. However, is that really so?
I am under the impression that - leaving a number of extreme, real and tragic cases aside - most of those who say that are indulging in one of Italy's favorite pastimes: dramatization of events.
On one hand it is true that due to the effects of the economic crisis and price increase the spending power of an average salary tends to decrease, on the other hand it must be noticed that many people don't easily give up their satellite TV subscription, touchscreen phone, expensive car, classy scooter, drinks at expensive bars, dinners, nice shoes, trendy jeans. Quitting a few of these habits would allow them to reach the end of the month with no need to hold their breath. 
R - an Italian guy who came to Thailand to spend his holidays - met T at the fruit stall where she works. They soon started dating: she often goes to see him at his hotel and he also had a chance to visit her place. A studio apartment in a condominium, or I'd better call it a mini-studio apartment, as it's just a four by three meter cubicle.