Thursday, January 31, 2013

After lots of rascals, here are two gentlemen - Mandalay, Burma

The train to Hsipaw
Basing it on my memories from ten years ago we've decided to travel by train from Mandalay to Thibaw (Hsipaw). The trip is very uncomfortable, slow and bumpy, onboard some ancient cars equipped with wooden benches that travel on narrow-gauge tracks. We have already booked two moto-taxis that for a little sum will take us to the station at three-thirty in the morning. 
As I'm looking for some guest houses on the web I come across a page with some information about the same journey. And I realize that I got it all wrong. What we actually want to do is reaching Maymyo (Pin oo Lwin) via road, visit the town and catch the train there. The interesting part of the trip, the one which includes the Gokteik viaduct, is beyond that place and by doing like that we are gonna be spared a few hours on that Burmese roller coaster.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Internet in Burma, accessibility and navigation freedom

Teahouse in Mandalay with free internet access
The first time I came to Burma, at the end of 2002, using the internet was basically impossible all over the country. The best thing one could hope for was sending an email, not from one's own account but from the private address of the owners of a couple of shops in Rangoon, and only from there. 
At the beginning of 2013 the situation is very different. The new laws regarding press freedom and censorship have affected the web as well. Now in the big cities it is possible to find a wifi hotspot in pretty much every hotel and cafe. At Mandalay and Pagan I happened to go to some teahouses (places that, as far as the level of sophistication is concerned, can be compared to the Italian "osterie" of the '50s) that offer free wifi access. Some friends who came here a couple of years back told me that the connections were terribly slow. Now even that barrier has been torn down, at least in part and in some places. 
However, the nicest aspect of the matter is the navigation freedom.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Reporters, girls and Facebook - Rangoon, Burma

Another photo by my friend IZ
It's almost dinner time, We've been in Burma for few days and we haven't got tired of exploring and be surprised, even if only by a heap of trash on a riverbank. This is true for food as well. So far we've tested the probability to get food poisoning by always trying a different place and for tonight's dinner we've already narrowed down our choices to a couple of burmese-indian restaurants. We had a late lunch though, and we also ate some cookies at tea time: we still haven't got enough appetite to fully enjoy our meal. We stop for a beer at a fancy (for Burmese standards) pub: Japanese name, menu in English, international cuisine, rich local customers and some expats. 
We've almost finished our beers and we're about to leave when my friend IZ and a Burmese guy sitting in front of us - both equipped with professional cameras - look at, observe, understand each other and then start a conversation. For a while they only talk about photography. I listen to them in reverent silence. Then they switch to general topics, I get hold of the rope dangling from their hot-air ballon, I let myself be lifted up and soon catch up with them. The Burmese guy is a photo reporter who works for a local English language paper.

Monday, January 21, 2013

The Rangoon (Yangon) train station slum children, with photo gallery - Burma

A father kissing his child at Rangoon central station
We are not interested in the majority of Yangon monuments and museums: the entrance fees are exorbitant and you never know exactly who is pocketing them and what they are used for. Besides, for a westerner who is not a Buddhist art expert after a while those pagodas tend to look all the same. Every day in the late morning we go out with our cameras, we have lunch and then we stroll around, with a vague idea of where to go for the first half hour, and totally aimlessly after that. We come across curious corners, scenes, people, buildings, and our afternoons pass so fast.
One day we walk into an alley near the railway station, we pass a heap of rubbish where two scrawny dogs are having a feast, we proceed between two rows of wooden restaurants, barber shops, grocery stores and teahouses - the further into the alley we walk the more run down the structures become - then we turn right, we cross a narrow bridge over a canal whose radioactive water flows around isles of trash and we finally find ourselves in the main square of a slum.
The adults look curiously at us, some of them smile, others don't. The children draw near with shy little steps and then, after we've shown them the pictures we've just taken, they pounce on us, invite us to take more photos of them, bring there their friends or little brothers and sisters, tug at our t-shirts to see themselves in the pictures and make fun of one another. Their clothes are dirty and their hair infested: I normally suffer of numerous imaginary dermatitises and already start to feel itchy, but they soon make me forget about that. They fall over the stained ground, their flip flops slip on the gutters, they get covered in dust and grime, they keep laughing, embarrassed or amused, who knows. Someone opens the gate to the railroads for us: people are sitting, walking, peddling among the parked or slowly moving trains. There is even a shepherd with three goats.
Here are a few photos (they were taken with a point and shoot camera and I don't know much about photography, but I think that the subject is what matters here):

Sunday, January 20, 2013

What a country can tell you in just a few hours - Rangoon (Yangon), Burma

Photo by my friend IZ
If you haven't planned your trip too thoroughly, you are relaxed, you have a tendency to see the funny side of things and you are in good company, what happens in the first few hours can tell you a lot about the place where you've just arrived. Let's see...I NEVER plan too much, actually sometimes I don't plan anything at all, I'm always relaxed, I notice the funny side of things also when I shouldn't and I am traveling with my friend IZ, excellent company I dare say. And in fact Rangoon (or Yangon), and Burma in general for that matter, tell me a lot in just few hours. And they do it straight away, on the very first evening.
We left our bags at the hotel that we booked online before boarding our flight in Bangkok (it was IZ's idea, as a traveler he is less messy than me). We're not happy with it: it's very expensive, old and pretentious, it's good for a night but we have to find another one for tomorrow right away. We have a name without address and a vague landmark. Information that the taxi driver gave us on the way from the airport to our hotel. We start our quest in the web of unlighted Rangoon roads.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Italians in Thailand/5: a very bizarre prostitution story - Pattaya, Thailand

A picture I saw at a guest house in Hua Hin
I've recently happened to hear a really bizarre prostitution story. Just when I was about to leave Pattaya, the biggest mine of tales of this type, that in the various months spent there has revealed to me so many, so diverse and so colorful an anecdote that I came to think it would be nearly impossible to surprise me again. Nonetheless, I have to admit that I'd never heard a story like this before.

One day the anonymous protagonist of this story, an elderly Italian whoremonger that we'll call AW - the initials of Anonymous Whoremonger - gets out of his hotel to look for what the tourists of the category he belongs to often go out to look for when they are in places like this. It's not a peaceful quest though, as most of us might think. It's not just a matter of setting out for a short walk, bump into the first of the thousands of opportunities offered by the city and getting over with it. Nothing of the sort: AP is tortured by doubts, he's doing his utmost to get a totally satisfying idea. Going to talk with one of the mama-sans that he is acquainted with? Tedious procedures, useless rituals to go through, elaborate supply chain, numerous wheels to grease, negotiations to weave, all of it very expensive and complicated. The Beach Road free-lance hookers? No way, so many creepy stories about them! Too risky. The Soi Honey erotic massage parlors? Hmmm, lousy massages in dingy hovels that end up in hurried intercourses with bored women. That solution won't do either. He needs to do something original He has to improvise, making good use of the current situation and context, adding a bit of imagination and, why not, boldness. A bunny girl pulled out of the magician's hat, so to speak.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

When in Rome...wash your ass as the Romans do - with photo gallery

My friend LMB's Florentine bidet
I've often happened to hear some Italians complaining after finding out that in some country there is no such a thing as a bidet, something that made them wonder whether people there wash their asses or not after taking a shit.
Well, as a matter of fact in some places they don't. They use a lot of toilet paper, they scratch and scratch, then throw and throw, until the last piece of paper they've used doesn't show any of those typical brownish skid marks we all know so well. Unfortunately sometimes they have to scratch so much that the vanishing of the shit residue is matched by a simultaneous appearance of blood traces. The skin of the sandpapered area is in fact quite sensitive.

However, sometimes the lack of a bidet doesn't necessarily mean that in that place people don't actually wash their butt before standing up from the bowl. I'd like to emphasize the word before. In Italy in fact - or anywhere bidets are commonly used - we have to stand up, take a couple of steps, turn around and sit down again, on a ceramic surface by the way, which, lacking any sort of plastic cover, can become annoyingly cold. Bidets in facts are not necessarily the best solution to a dirty ass issue.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Italians in Thailand/4: the shady guys

Good old S just came back to Pattaya, where he's gonna stay for the next six months. His girlfriend is pregnant and he wants to stay close to her. I meet him at the Big Buddha hill trail, where I go jogging in the evenings. He's got another one of his bombs in store for me.
A few months ago, still in Pattaya, he met another Italian, one of those wretches who scrape through life in a not-so-clear way. Apparently he seemed to be a nice, easy-going, honest guy. Just apparently. We - who are endowed with hindsight powers - won't call him the honest guy, but the shady one. One day the shady guy wants to walk S to his hotel. S hasn't got any particular reason to say no. Once in S's room the shady guy looks carefully around, then he remembers that he doesn't have any money on him and asks S if he can borrow a few baht. S agrees, after all it's just a little sum. The shady guy insistently looks at him when he goes to fetch his moneybox. Just in case, a little thoughtlessly though, S decided to carry a big amount of money with him, a few thousands euros, cash. The shady guy drops a sequence of funny comments, such as: "Why so furtive?" and "Oh Jesus, I see, look at that stack of banknotes!"

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Cosmetic surgery: manga faces...for real!

Lum invader, once only a fictional character, nowadays you could meet her in real in an Asian metropolis
Recently, talking with a Malaysian friend of mine who lives in Singapore, I found out that a new ghastly trend is spreading among Asian girls. Ghastly for me, of course, as for them it seems to be a fantastic idea.
It's about plastic surgery. "Come on, new trend...are you kidding me?" You will be thinking. "It's been going on for decades!" Sure, but I'm not talking about getting firmer boobs, buttock lifting, inflated lips or wrinkle removal. Let alone sex change. I'm already puzzled by these practices, but I've found out that there is much worse stuff than that. The models this girls are trying to imitate are Japanese cartoon characters. Do you remember Candy Candy, Lady Oscar or Lum invader? I'm sorry about the outdated examples but, due to generational reasons, I can't provide more recent ones. In short, the ideal of the western woman as the Japanese in the '70s and '80s imagined her, with huge oval eyes and lake-blue irises, cutter-shaped nose, heart-molded mouth and plectrum-like chin. Have a look at this, this, this and this. And these three girls who even got identical plastic they all have the same face! Well, you understand what I am talking about. It's not about appearing younger or sexier (no wrinkle-removal or porn-star lips then), something that already seems rather perverse to me, but about looking like a character that doesn't even exist, something out of a manga author's creative mind!