lunedì 11 maggio 2009

12/02/09 Penang, “The Pearl of the Orient"

Finally I found what I was expecting from Singapore: an island blended of colors, flavors, scents, architectures and different cultures; a place bearing the mark of each silk merchant, pirate, adventurer, spices smuggler and British colon that had ever hit his paths.
Given by the Kedah Sultan to the Eastern Indies Company in change of protection, was a malaria haunt so infamous to gain the nickname of “white man's grave”, that until Captain Francis Light made it drain. They say that to reach that difficult and unpleasant task he ordered to load cannons with silver coins and then shot all in the jungle in order to encourage the men to work among mosquito. It was the 1786 and the quite citadel of Georgetown born as one of the most strategic port of international commerce, crossroads of any conceivable kind of exchange.
What is left nowadays of that “pout pourrie” is indeed all about food: it is the variety of different and mixed traditional dishes that tells about the genesis of such a border town, intersection of opposite continents and cultures.

Food and architectures: walking around Penang is a pleasure for both sight and taste, and the architectonic variety reflects the culinary one. It is enough to take a short walk in the center to see the influences of at least five or six different cultures.

A Mosque lies peacefully beside an old Chinese Temple, the colonial house of a former british colon is good neighbor with a moorish residence; walking few steps you can bump into a typical Malaysian food stall with its colorful curries and its fresh baked thin bread while the sharp scents of indian dishes are coming from few meters beside... on the seafront the Oriental Hotel is giving off coffee and tea flavors, but you walk a bit further in a back alley to meet an Hindu temple. It is night by now and the clubs boulevard makes its part in providing the western voice in this polyglot chorus: the performance is contradictory and laud, powerful and astonishing, is the comedy of history and human vicissitudes and the stage is once again the ground and the sea. The night is clear, and shining are stars.

martedì 5 maggio 2009


07/02/09 Singapore, night.

First was Panama, now is Singapore's turn. These two citys used to stand in my mind (with Alessandria, and other few) for the nevralgic hubs of travellers circulation, mixtures of cultures, pirates, smugglers and adventurers. I did expect to find beautiful mixed architectures and neighborhoods full of history and charm, shaped by the passage of all the different and contrasting influences throughout the centuries; on my way to Singapore I was fancing me wandering around narrow canals and dark alleys, eventually moving aside a dirty courtain to step into the workshop of an old chinese foreteller who would have read my palm boosted by opium smoke.

Nothing of that came true. What I found is a cement-casting without the bless of any art or style, a strict agglomerate of shining skyscrapers as cold as a prision of ice.
This, at least, was my first impression while a logorrheic taxi driver was driving me from the airport through the city, then I reached my hostel in one of the many outskirts, in this case little india, and I started to suspect something...

What you can see in these outskirts is a completely different landscape: short, coloured houses with architectures recalling older styles.

No skyscrapers, no huge streets, just small shops and lanes, were people crowd very easyly. Here life is still in a human rhythm and walking around is agreeable.

However my visit to Singapore is fated to be short, tomorrow I will jump on The Train... emphasis is due as we are not talking about an ordinary train, we are talking about the Oriental Express, the legendary train running all the way from Singapore to London.
Well yeah, to be onest I will not take exactly the Oriental Express (that one is a luxury equivalent to the best hotels ever, and it costs accordingly, for the curious: I am gonna take the normal passanger train, but that runs on the same route, and we'll try to be happy with that. I will go from here to Kuala Lumpur, then to Penang, finally to get to Bangkok after a total of almost 3000 km.

09/02 Kuala Lumpur, just exit a big mall.
I saw the light. The slight sickness that seized me as I arrived in Singapore, the very same oppressive sensation that I felt walking down the city center here in KL, is getting eased by a clear understanding.
The very concept of city that we Europeans bear in mind here is completely turned upside down. We are used to cities where the geographic center is also the historical and cultural center: not only it is the oldest part, but also the most beautiful, charming, and agreeable one. In the center is a pleasure to wander around, and streets and palaces are human-size. In the suburbs, on the contrary, big buildings and skyscrapers pile up, the streets get broader, and it's not convenient to walk anymore. There we use cars, elevators, escalators - things among other things - because all the spaces and the environment itself are on different size, not really human anymore.

Now what happen here is exactly the opposite: the center of these big cities is composed entirely by huge skyscrapers, and the everyday life is spent confined inside the big shopping malls. It is a modern middle ages: the core of the city is enclosed in cold walls without any art, while is in the borders that the different ethnic groups have built cultural structures. In the center people are confining themselves inside impenetrable walls, to escape the terrible heat of the streets; and actually the streets of the center are really unwalkable: overhead roads, eight lanes streets, choking quicksands of cement, make nonsense to wander around. It is in the outskirts that we can find some nuance of that idea of city we keep in mind: little India, Chinatown, the Muslim neighbourhood, in these kind of place we recover the concept of town. Here the life is lived on the streets, narrow and well shadowed, where people impress their culture and tradition.
The night markets are the best expression of that. Taking advantage of the better temperature, the streets get animated: is the time for relax and feast, everybody stay around till late. Here in Orient the night is really and fully lived.

lunedì 4 maggio 2009


06/02 Somewhere in the border waters between australia and singapore....

Yeah, of course: mountains, seas and then rivers I will cross, but paper-made: bureaucracy, as sad as it sounds, is the real traveler's nemesis. The hardest legs of World to pass through are indeed the borders with their mountain chains of “international agreements” and their wall-ferns of controls and customs, the boisterous rivers of stupidity regularly swelled up by bureaucrats and the desolate deserts of niggling and uncritical enforcement of rules.
One of these requirements that I hate most is the necessity of showing with evidences that you will leave the country you are entering. Naturally I understand it, and I would even agree on the benefit of such a rule somehow.
The annoying flip side is that most of the times is not enough to show probative documents of personal liquid assets covering staying and leaving the country, but a payed outbound ticket (better on a plane) with a specific date is required.
Now, as clear as the day is light, this for me, and everyone who is willing to travel hitch hiking boats, is quite a problem as, when a new place is reached, both destination and transport further on are all to be searched (and found) in most of the cases. Even supposing to have already some kind of agreement with another boat, authorities will always scowl such kind of “onward transport” so that will be easily rejected or restricted to some impossible conditions (as happen to us in that caribbean island when they required the captain of the yacht to come at the airport with all the boat's document as proof).

Such a situation doesn't leave much choice to the traveller who builds up his destination day by day: three are the main options.
The only one perfectly legal is to buy an onward air ticket fully refundable, but that entails one big disadvantage and a second minor one: the biggest one is that this kind of flight is generally quite expensive, and even if soon or later will be actually refunded in the meantime it will hack personal liquid assets and the credit card limit for that month. The minor disadvantage is some cancellation fee that will be charged in any case, beside the waste of time involved by the whole operation.
Another option is to print a fake ticket or booking to be shown with nonchalant. This method works pretty well with immigration officers (who very unlikely will take the effort to check with the airline) and can be used on the spot; otherwise if you are flying inbound with the intention of looking for a boat it might not work as it is the flight company itself that, at the check in, could easyly verify the validity of the booking (on the contrary such a thing would required the immigration officer to do some bothering phone call or even to stand up from the chair). Moreover some company will very likely check as they are forced by the authority of the country they fly in to pay for the fight back of the passenger found devoid of all the due documents. In short, if we can manage somehow to board the plain, the likelihood of being rejected by immigration on arrival are poor, as we are supposed to have been checked already.
In the case of being actually checked trying to plead for a malfunction of internet booking never hurts. Nonetheless eventually we could be forced to actually buy an outbound ticket (don't be tempted to buy the cheapest one, very few times it will be cheaper than the cancellation fee of a more expensive one).
If for any reason the latter was not possible would only remain the third option: try to corrupt the controller. This third way is obviously quite risky and fully illegal, without saying that succeeding is quite unlikely in most of the cases. Those willing to pursue this path in any case should bear in mind some general rules:
once started is a one way game: the only chance of success is to actually make the controller accepting the money under the table, that means if we don't guess the right amount of money at the first shot we'll be forced to a prolong raise, without even be sure of succeeding.
It requires a ready to spend amount of cash that we will hardly have.
On a strategic point of view to catch the right amount of money at the first guess is as hard as important: if you bid low to rise later in case your opponent will feel free to rise at his own peace.
Make the corrupted officer empathizing is a key-factor and it needs to always play on the edge, with ambiguity and diplomacy: never be direct, it is definitely not about paying money in order to turn a blind eye to a violation of yours, it is simply about “find a little shortcut, an easier alternative more convenient for everyone in order to skip long and boring waste of time and money”...
In any case always bear in mind that fail in this kind of game can lead to a range of very unpleasant situations, from the loss of all your money beside the purpose to the loss of the purpose, all your money, and imprisonment for a quite serious crime.

So that is more or less what you need to know before approaching a border, and the bottom line I think is clear: be as prepared as possible, well informed on the rules and requirements of the country you want to enter, dress wisely and act so in order to avoid any unrequested attentions, and if you will really have to lie practice a lot home and support your effort with the best fake papers you can (it means credible but nothing too official, as nobody will see any malice in a questionable air ticket you definitely don't want to be convicted as a passport forger...)