Thomas Mann in Laos

Last year in Laos, I remembered a passage from The death in Venice that I could not really understand when I was a teenager.

Back then, I did not enjoy the book. Its long sentences sounded unnecessary complex; the fears and doubts of an ageing man were too far from my sensibility. Now I see how the complexity of the prose mirrors the complexity of the inner life of the protagonist, and passages like the following make much more sense:

“Lively, clear-outlined, intellectually undemanding presentation is the delight of the great mass of the middle-class public, but passionate radical youth is interested only in problems.”

[T. Mann, The Death in Venice, 1911. English translation by David Luke, 1988]

This sentence came back to my mind after visiting Luang Prabang, the delightful, and Phonsavan, the problematic.

Luang Prabang is Laos’ ancient capital. It enjoys a unique location, on a hill facing the junction of the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers. The jungle that surrounds the city is still very present in the center, where nowadays a most perfect marriage of nature and urban architecture is achieved: tall, thick trees caress the many buddhist temples and the wooden colonial villas. And speaking of colonization, French influence is most evident in food: you can have excellent croissants for breakfast, or enjoy the typical sticky rice in those kind of restaurants you can afford once per year back home, and everyday here. The bar Utopia, faithful to his name, condenses the western concept of Heaven on Earth, and spices it up with cocktails and flirting backpackers. You can also stop at the night market or book a tour to remote villages or the breathtaking Kuang Si Falls. 

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The Kuang Si Falls

All this you can do in the 1km stroll between the two ends of the main street, and on the neighbouring roads. The few who dare to exit from this tourist ghetto will find a town more chaotic, dirtier, equally dominated by nature, and which surprisingly also hosts some Laotians (whom you cannot see, for instance, in the pictures on the Utopia website).

 

Phonsavan has instead been described as a “charmless town” (Guide du Routard), “pervaded by a feeling of incompleteness” (Lonely Planet), “like the set of a Spaghetti Western directed by David Linch” (Wikitravel). To me, it looks like a gigantic gas station. It has been established only recently, in substitution of the neighbouring town destroyed during the bombing of eastern Laos. They chose to build it where road 1D from central Laos meets road 7 to Luang Prabang. Most buildings in fact face those streets, and they are modern – in the ugliest sense of the term – and covered with the dust lifted by running cars. Behind them, fields and huts, but also governmental offices, shops selling building materials – everything needs to be rebuilt here – and mechanics working on old soviet cars, those donated by URSS when Laos was just a pawn in the cold war chessboard.

bustling-phonsavan

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Old Russian tank

If Luang Prabang satisfies your senses, Phonsavan and its problems pose questions stimulating them. How does a government that cannot afford to be generous with his citizens give a future to a region that did not yet recover from a war that ended 50 years ago? How to cope with the never-ending problem of cluster bombs that did not explode, and that today blow up farmers hoeing the ground and kids playing? How can one be positive about the future if even the local Buddha statue had his usual smile defaced into a sad sneer by a bomb?

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Despite all this, Phonsavan is growing. The ambition of the government scattered official buildings quite far away from the main streets 1D and 7, hoping that one day the empty space will be filled by a developed town. Small neighbourhoods with villas popped up here and there. MAG is clearing of mines larger and larger areas. The Lone Buffalo foundation teaches English and tries to recompose a split up community through soccer. And the neighbouring Plain of Jars with its mysterious civilization may bring to the area the attention it needs for further development. But neighbouring countries deny having stolen archaeological finds, whose return could ignite a deeper investigation of the area – for which, by the way, no money seems to be available at the moment. So the problem is nowhere close to be solved.

In Phonsavan, I met an Israeli couple that came back to Laos 20 years after their first trip. Back then, travelling in the country was a serious hazard, because of the attacks by rebels. They visited Luang Prabang when it was a troubled city, much as Phonsavan is today. “I am not completely happy how the problem was solved there”, the man told me.

Some colors from my world tour (without filters or photoshop) – part two

[Recently I have been travelling around the world for 74 days. I am writing a series of posts about this trip – a list of those can be found here. This post continues from here.]

The Darmouth Green of the Jungle around Luang Prabang, Laos.

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The bright green of the growing grass during the wet season in Kakadu National Park, Northern Territories, Australia.

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The honeydew green of crocodiles in Kakadu National Park, Northern Territories, Australia.

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The bright yellow of the leftovers of the rice harvest around Kampot, Cambodia.

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The dim yellow of the lights in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.

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The cream yellow of the opera house in Sydney.

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The yellows of Buddha statues in Luang Prabang, Laos.

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The pale gray of elephants in Luang Prabang, Laos.

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The ivory white of the limestone islands in Halong Bay, Vietnam.

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The white smokes of clouds in the Australian skies.

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The white snow in New York City.

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Some colors from my world tour (without filters or photoshop) – part one

[Recently I have been travelling around the world for 74 days. I am writing a series of posts about this trip – a list of those can be found here.]

The deep black of the Bendigo gold mine in Victoria, Australia, 70 meters below the ground, when all lights go out.

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The brown of the lava rock in Mauna Kea, Hawaii (and all the colors of the rainbow, too).

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The slategray of the Ghan, the train connecting north to south Australia.

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The reds in the Hong Kong market.

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The magenta from a Tai Chi lesson in Hong Kong.

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The flame red of Uluru, Northern Territories, Australia.

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The orange of the lava tubes in Mauna Kea, Hawaii.

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The purple of the sunset in Darwin, Northern Territories, Australia.

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The auburn Red of the moulds in the Angkor Temple, Cambodia.

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The Munsell blue of Bondi beach, Sydney, Australia.

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The petrol blue of the Mekong river around Can Tho, Vietnam.

IMG_5731 - copie IMG_5742 - copieMore colors here.

The kinds of people you meet while in a world tour (part two)

[Recently I have been travelling around the world for 74 days. I am writing a series of posts about this trip – a list of those can be found here. This article continues from here.]

The barber that came to Australia from Italy 46 years ago. “Back then, you could buy an apartment in the Italian district of Melbourne for nothing, nobody wanted to leave here. Then this place became posh, so Italians that sold their apartment made a lot of money.” “Did you sell yours?” “Me? I never owed one, when I came here I had less than nothing!”

The horse trainer from Victoria, Australia. “So you’re from Italy? I was there last year.” “Where exactly?” “Paris.”

The Facebook enthusiastic. They barely know you, but they already tagged in 14 pictures from what they describe as the best day of their life. Their degree of separation to anyone in the world is 3. The worst happens when two of them meet: then a pictures-uploading competition starts. Where do I find the time for not looking at all of them? (semi-cit.)

Picture from a David Shrigley exhibition in NGV, Melbourne

Picture from a David Shrigley exhibition in NGV, Melbourne

The backpacker. Any shelter is decent enough for spending a night, any food scrap is good enough to be eaten. Doesn’t miss a party, especially during the happy hour. May miss a couple of museums without thinking twice, though.

The working holiday visa traveller. In Australia, they are more common than kangaroos. They work for a few months saving as much as they can, and then spend all their money travelling. They mostly come from Europe, but sometimes from Asia, too. Most of them have just finished high school: “The government cheated us by reducing high school by one year – a German girl I met told me – so we’re taking it back.”

The Greek-American who grew up in Brooklyn. “It was an amazing place to be. Not false like Manhattan. Everybody was there: Europeans, Africans, catholics, protestants, orthodox and whatnot. Communities were very open. My lifelong friends are Italians and Afro-Americans from that time. That’s when I learnt racist jokes and to make an excellent Carbonara.”

The stargazing enthusiastic at Mauna Kea. They live in Hawai’i, but in the coldest and farthest point from the sea, surrounded by a landscape that comes out of some sci-fi movie from the 60s. And they adore it.

Mauna Kea, Hawai'i (Big Island), Hawaii, 45 mins before sunset

Mauna Kea, Hawai’i (Big Island), Hawaii, 45 mins before sunset

The couchsurfers. They will create out of nothing a bed to host you, some free time to show you around, and a crew for you to hang out with. Probably the best way to get a first impression of a city.

The English butcher travelling around Australia. “This travel is a first time for me.” “First time out of Europe?” “First time out of south England!”

The old friends. While in a long travel, sometimes it is good to feel at home again.

The ex-alcoholic and drug addict. “I quitted drugs and alcohol seven years ago. But I need to be addicted to something, so now I am addicted to food and travelling.”

The Italians abroad. They almost unanimously believe in the seemingly contradictory mantra “Italians are nicer and smarter, but life here is so much better.” I am one of them.

The kinds of people you meet while in a world tour (part one)

[Recently I have been travelling around the world for 74 days. I am writing a series of posts about this trip – a list of those can be found here.]

The Italian who saved some money when he was working as a pizza-maker in Australia and spent them to be a volunteer at a family run guesthouse in a small village in Laos. Well, not just an average guesthouse, but one located here.

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The Indian who is too lazy to work, and too rich to need to work. So he decides to write a thriller, and his family sends him for 3 years around the world to get enough documentation to build his plot (and to keep him away from troubles back home).

The “purer” traveller. No matter how cheap you travel, or how much you go back to the nature, or to the “pure essence of travelling”: there will always be someone doing that more than you. Do you eat and dress only local, travel on tourist-free buses, sleep only in guesthouses where no word of english is spoken? You’ll always find someone who only hitchhikes on pickups, gets his food right from the farmers, and sleeps in temples.

The cyclists. The young Swiss couples that biked for one year and half from Switzerland to Cambodia, and are now planning to go back by train, because by plane would be too abrupt, but on the other hand “we cycled enough”. During their trip they spent on average 25$ a day per person, including extra money for attractions, trekking, etc. (but many cyclists travel with much less, see The “purer” traveller above). The not-so-young Australian who sold everything back home and will keep travelling by bike until he runs out of money, or finds a reason to stay. Much to my surprise, they share a very relaxed attitude towards travelling and the risks that come with it.

The Dutch couple that also sold everything they had back home to travel, but after 4 months decided to settle in Laos to build a butterfly garden. The outcome of their efforts is probably the closest place to the Eden I’ve ever seen. More about this here.

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The part-time workers. Every year, they work like crazy for 6-8 months, and in the remaining 4-6 they invest in travels all the money saved. They come from Canada, from France, from Australia.

The Vietnamese girl that is a journalist, that is also a chef, that also writes books, that also translates books from English, that is also a voracious traveller, that also hosts fellow travellers. Not exactly the image of Vietnamese you have back home.

The tourist. The category every traveller struggles not to fall into. He is shipped from an attraction to another as if he were a package, spending half of the remaining time taking nonsense photos, and the other half in places identical to those he can find back home. Saying Good morning and Thank you in the local language is the deepest he gets into the culture, but he is proud of that. His daily goal is to bargain down the prices as much as possible. His cold and abusive attitude towards most vendors is the main responsible (together with The vendor – level one, see below) of the absence of a normal dialectic between travellers and locals.

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The vendor – level 1. To him, a traveller is just a chicken with a big pot of gold lurking somewhere between his wings. Smiles and talking are timed to stop at the very moment a transaction is concluded.

The vendor – level 2. To him, a traveller is still a pair chicken+gold. But he is aware that the traveller may have more gold lying back in the henhouse, or many fellow chicken he talks to. So the vendor is eager to distribute smiles and, in general, every courtesy and attention that won’t cost him anything.

The vendor – level 3. The one every traveller wants to deal with.

The enormous amount of small, young beings that populate every village I saw in Laos: small children running after puppy dogs, chicks orbiting around hens, piglet playing in the mud.

The Khmu village in Laos that celebrates a wedding dancing (at the light and power of a generator) a surprising contamination of dance from the 80s, techno, and melodic traditional music – till 5am in the morning.

The Laotian who studied in the French school in Vientiane, then took advantage of the connections between Laos and Eastern Germany to obtain a degree in Economics from Dresden. Once back home, he became a white-collar in a bank, then a radio dj, then a live dj, then the owner of the first discoclub in Laos, then the first tourist operator finding financial support for removing bombs from the the archeological site of the Plains of Jars. Or at least, that’s what he claims.

(continues here)

Visiting the Collection de l’Art Brut in Lausanne

The Collection de l’Art Brut is a museum in Lausanne, Switzerland, of a very rare kind. It displays art that is not aware of being art – created by people at the margin of society or of the art world, mostly for they own pleasure or just for expressing themselves.

With the words of Jean Dubuffet, who invented the name Art Brut (the English version comes below):

Nous entendons par là [Art Brut] des ouvrages exécutés par des personnes indemnes de culture artistique […]. Nous y assistons à l’opération artistique toute pure, brute1, réinventée dans l’entier de toutes ses phases par son auteur, à partir seulement de ses propres impulsions. De l’art donc où se manifeste la seule fonction de l’invention, et non, celles, constantes dans l’art culturel, du caméléon et du singe2,3.

In English it reads:

We mean by that [Art Brut] works realized by people not affected by the artistic culture […]. With them, we can see the purest, rawest1 form of artistic creation, where all phases are reinvented from scratch by the author starting from him/her impulses. So this is a kind of art where only invention plays a role, and, differently from what usually happens in cultural art, there is no place for chameleons and monkeys2,3.

Pascal-Désir Maisonneuve -  L'éternelle infidèle

Pascal-Désir Maisonneuve
L’éternelle infidèle, entre 1927 et 1928
assemblage de coquillages divers
haut. : 42 cm
Photo : Claude Bornand.
Collection de l’Art Brut, Lausanne.

Some of the authors are then just talented people who, within an ordinary life, cultivated their passion for creating, but in fact most share the salient points of their biography: uneducated to art, born or grown up in straitened circumstances, after a period in a mental hospital they came to art as a mean to get in touch with the others, or just to express themselves. As one of them –  Vojislav Jakic – said about his works:

This is no drawing or painting: this is sedimentation of pain.

Vojislav Jakic - Les effrayants insectes cornus (1970)

Vojislav Jakic
Les effrayants inscectes cornus…, ca 1970
stylo à bille et crayon de couleur sur papier
141,5 x 101,5 cm
Photo : Henri Germond.
Collection de l’Art Brut, Lausanne.

Those similar personal backgrounds often imply some recurring features in their works: the obsession for filling the space – each empty room needs to be covered with details, that are everywhere and hence uninteresting or at least of different comprehension for the viewer. The canvas as a mean to explicitly express ideas with written words: many of them had physical or psychological inabilities to speak, hence they delegate their thoughts to the characters of their paintings or would even write around the pictures or in the empty room between objects. The repetition of the same subject, even within a single canvas: for instance, Madge Gill paints figures of the same woman, that constantly look at the viewer from slightly different poses, repeating her face multiple times over several slightly different canvas, often glued together in an hypnotic pastiche.

Madge Gill - untitled, undated

Madge Gill
sans titre (detail), s.d.
encre sur calicot
213 x 86,5 cm
Photo : Jean Genoud SA.
Collection de l’Art Brut, Lausanne.

Sylvain Fusco

Sylvain Fusco
Moire, 1938
pastel sur papier
62,5 x 47,5 cm
Photographe non identifié
Collection de l’Art Brut, Lausanne

Willem van Genk - Tube Station (1970)

Willem Van Genk
Tube Station, 1970
collage et peinture sur bois
75 x 124 cm
Photo : Claude Bornand
Collection de l’Art Brut, Lausanne

And originality is of course central, declined in many aspects: from the themes, to the choice of materials, with shells that become ears and lips and journal paper that is used to shape three-dimensional objects. To the canvas, often obtained by gluing more pieces together as the painting expands, as to form non-convex, strangely shaped pictures.

Charles Steffen is the star of the current exhibition. He did study art, but he had to stop after just one year because of psychiatric problems. After that, he spent 11 years in a mental hospital. He often paints images of nudes that are supposed to represent men and women, but actually look like wrinkled baby monsters of hybrid sex that lie somewhere between living beings and plants, and that look around with a grotesque gaze. Their details are carefully drawn as if Steffens was depicting something that was really appearing in front of him, and they are surrounded by inscriptions that explain their genesis and place them in the context of a fantastic world. I found the evolution of the sunflower especially imaginative (see below for the picture). It starts as a proto-human being with a single eye, and slowly, from top to bottom, it transforms itself. Its head becomes a flower, its hands twist into the stem, roots exit from its legs, and a sunflower is born.

Charles Steffen -  Development of the Sunflower Nude, from the One-Eyed Nude into a Sunflower (1994)

Charles Steffen
Development of the Sunflower Nude, from the One-Eyed Nude into a Sunflower, 1994
mine de plomb et crayon de couleur sur papier
90,9 x 122,5 cm
Photo : Atelier de numérisation – Ville de Lausanne
Collection de l’Art Brut, Lausanne

Charle-s Steffen - One of two Seated Nudes (1992)

Charles Steffen
One of two Seated Nudes, 1992
mine de plomb et crayon de couleur sur papier kraft
138 x 92 .6 cm
Photo : Atelier de numérisation – Ville de Lausanne
Collection de l’Art Brut, Lausanne

If you are looking for an aesthetic guiding thread through the exhibition, you will be disappointed. Most authors are represented just by a bunch of pieces (up to 5), and there is no link between one and another, or any of them and any artistic current, since none of those authors shared a past with mainstream art.

But some of them had in fact a future, influencing modern well-known artists (see eg here), as well as imposing their charm on popular culture (the Vivian Girls, named after some recurring characters in Henry Darger‘s work, is an indie American band, and the name of the English-German band Art Brut speaks by itself). For even though the images are often cryptic, the emotions behind them are clearly visible: the obsessions, the search for oneself, the fantastic worlds they created are not mediated by any artistic theory, hence they appear vividly to the eye of the spectator. This creates art that constantly swings between being disturbing, romantic, and grotesque, but is nevertheless direct and powerful.


Notes

1. I think the best English translation of brut is raw. A somewhat related, but more general concept, is that of Outsider art.

2. Jean Dubuffet, L’art brut préféré aux arts culturels, 1949.

3. I personally think that the idea that pure and innovative art only comes from people outside the artistic community is a cliche itself. But that’s another story.

Chuquicamata, Chile

Have a look at the following pics taken in the city of Chuquicamata, Chile.

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What stands out? There is nobody around. Chuquicamata is an inhabited town or, equally (but more charmingly) said, it is a Ghost town. A stadium, playgrounds, schools, offices, even a theater, but nobody there to use them. Trees dry and die out, roads get dustier, buildings crumble, and the only ones who can witness this are touristic guides.

Chuquicamata, often called just Chuqui, lies in the northern part of Chile, in the middle of the Atacama desert, a stripe of land between the Pacific Earth and the Andes known for being the driest area on Earth, as well as the ideal setting for professional and backyard astronomy. Getting to Chuqui is not easy: first you have first to reach the close (alive) town of Calama, that you can do with a 24 hours bus trip from Santiago, or by making your way somehow from the south of Bolivia or Perù, or again from Santiago with a flight that lands in a middle-of-nowhere tiny airport. From Calama then you have to reach Chuqui with a trip organized by the mining company (write to VISITAS@codelco.cl), since free access is not permitted.

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Ghost towns usually witnessed economic or political failures, or natural catastrophes: an economic boost that died out, earthquakes, a volcano eruption. The Atacama desert hosts many of those: Humberstone, Santa Laura, Chacabuco are only some of the leftovers of the Nitratine (a mineral used in fertilizers and other chemical compounds) business, that rocked Chile at the beginning of the 20th century and declined in the ’50s. Chuqui instead is proudly shown by the Chilean government to testify its economic growth and its role in international economics. For Chuqui is also the name of the nearby huge copper mine – the biggest open one in the world in fact, nearly 1 km deep – where as many as 16,000 people have their job and 443,000 tons of copper are produced per year. The mountains that you see surrounding the city in the previous pictures are made of production scraps. Copper feeds Chilean economy (its exportation represents one third of the government income) and international (especially China’s) hunger for (not only) wires and electrical components. The status of copper as Chile’s Red Gold is witnessed by the renown Centro Cultural Gabriela Mistral in Santiago, which is completely covered with it.

By the way, (part of) the open pit looks like this. The dots you see are huge trucks.

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In a country where mining is so important to have a ministry of its own (Ministerio de Minería) it is not surprising that the operations at Chuqui are run by a state-owned company, named Codelco. It was founded in 1955 when Chile started the process of nationalization of copper, and took complete control over the mine during the Salvador Allende government in 1973. This control was left untouched even by Pinochet, despite its pro-foreign companies views. But the mine has not always been under Chilean control. After centuries of unprofessional mining, the Guggenheim family (from US) smelled the business and founded the Chile Exploration Company (Chilex) in 1912 to professional extract the copper from Chuqui.

The nearby town of Chuquicamata started to systematically grow around that time to host miners, engineers, visiting businessmen, and everyone who came looking for a well paid job: nowadays, a truck driver working in the mine can earn 6,000 $ a month. In 2002, Chuqui counted about 20,000 inhabitants. So, what turned it into a ghost town? Two main reasons: first, as the request for copper was increasing, the mine was getting bigger and it needed more room to expand. Second, the high incidence of diseases among the inhabitants, mostly due to the massive presence of arsenic and sulfur in the air. In his book Desert Memories, Ariel Dorfman reports the story (legend?) of a miner from Chuqui that died while being in vacation in Madrid: he had so much arsenic in his blood that his wife was suspected of having poisoned him and arrested by the local police.

So between 2002 and 2008 people from Chuqui were relocated in the nearby Calama, after exhausting negotiations – being copper the vital ganglion of Chilean economy, trade unions of miners have a huge power. But working in the mine in Chuqui still means jeopardizing your health, and people who take a job there know that a high salary comes with a low life expectancy (I could not find explicit statistics on this, but informed people told me many miners do not get into their fifties). Even for just visiting the mine for one hour or so, you must wear long sleeves and trousers, and closed shoes.

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This risky lifestyle is shared by many miners in South America, from those extracting rare earths in Potosi, Bolivia, to the ones from Peru. But the governments and the miners seem to accept to pay this price: the latter to maintain a good lifestyle, the former to keep propelling South America’s economic growth.

To learn more about Chuqui, you can read Ariel Dorfman’s already mentioned Desert Memories (chapter Mountains of fire), or look here or here. And you may have forgotten about it, but you probably have already heard about Chuqui, see the video below. 

Bell towers

In the last two years, I have been spending almost every long weekend (Friday evening to Monday morning) in a small town in Italy, staying in a comfortable flat facing the main square and a typical village church. Next to the church there is a bell tower, which is supposed to beat time during the day. I would not be able to say whether the bells were really ringing every hour, but I seem to remember they were not. For sure, there was no bell ringing between 11:00 pm and 7:00 am (probably a consequence of the message Basta con le campane! – which means Enough with the bells! – which I saw hand painted on a side wall of the church). There was a long loud ring every day around 7:45 am, and at some other time during the day, with intensifications on Sundays, but I was not able to deduce a specific pattern.

In the last four days, I have been staying in a small German village, roughly the same size of the Italian above. My (uncomfortable, this time) flat again faces the main church and its bell tower. Its bells not only ring every hour, but every quarter of the hour, according to the following system: each 15 minutes account for a dong. So if you hear dong dong dong it means it is 45 minutes after some hour, which is not specified. When the clocks strikes an exact hour, you hear 4 dongs, and then as many dangs (a tone slightly different from the one before) as the number of hours, from 1 to 12, without distinguishing between am and pm (which is perfectly reasonable, you should be able to tell yourself). So if you hear dong dong dong dong dang dang dang dang dang dang dang it means that it’s 7 o’clock, either am or pm. And yes, the bells continue with the same procedure all night long. The system is consistent and robust (if you cannot distinguish the dongs from the dangs, you just have to count), even if maybe a little redundant (for instance, you could agree that 12:00 count as no dang, and spare the bells and everybody 24 dangs a day). Ah, and there is no message painted on the walls of the church.

A European in New York City

Manhattan skyline from above, below, from the sea, from New Jersey. The cabs: yellow on the outside, white, black, indian and hispanic on the inside. The barber shops that increase in number with the poverty of the area. The buildings, shining on front, ugly and crumbling on the back. The works, always in progress. The jobless, the drunkards, the junkies. The junk left stinking on the streets and in the subway. The brick houses of Greenwich village. The small houses of Brooklyn. The Brooklyn bridge: why is it famous?

The sports bar full of people uninterested in sports. The hate for Boston Red Sox, but they play basketball, right? The Home runs at the Yankee Stadium. The Home runs in Central Park. Squirrels running in Central Park. People running in Central Park. People running everywhere in the city. The Italian restaurants run by Turkish.The Turkish restaurants run by Turkish. Yet another Dim Sum, yet another Starbucks. Tipping to someone who earns twice your salary. People in Wall Street that earn ten times your salary. The lone protester in Wall Street.

The gazillions of events, everywhere. The smells and sights and sounds of Harlem on a weekend afternoon. Malcom X and Bob Marley painted on the walls of Harlem. Pino Daniele playing at the Apollo Theater in Harlem. The lofts in Tribeca. The useless shops of Times square. The sophisticatedly useless shops of Soho. The sophisticated and witty plays in Broadway. Artists playing with Fashion and Art and continuously reinventing them, sometimes with terrible outcomes. The museum of Natural Science where you can touch fossils. The Christian Science Reading Room. The Madonna shrines in private gardens. The Gospels. The Jazz.

The crowd. Those working in shops and big food chains, of three kinds: the Rookies, that enthusiastically cheer you; the Depressed, that won’t even talk to you; the Friendly Resigned to their job. Those from the Bronx who speak like Al Pacino in Scarface or De Niro in Taxi Driver: “You talkin’ to me?”. Those who spend their holiday in mid-Manhattan. Those who spend their life in Harlem. Those who repeat you that “no other place has the same energy of NYC”. Those who think they have something to say about NYC and make a post out of it.

2.5 days in Tokyo

[This is the last of a series of three posts on Japan. An introductory one can be found here. A second one on Kyoto and Takayama is here.]

He who has the lucky chance of travelling around the world, knows how much major cities may differ from the “average” country. But I never found so much difference between a city and the rest of a nation as between Tokyo and the remainder of Japan. With 13 million inhabitants just in the city itself distributed in an area as big as 200 Manhattan (or 10 Rome), Tokyo is a massive cluster where skyscrapers and huge malls replace two-level houses and regular shops you see all around Japan. Widespread tunnels run below the street level, connecting adjacent underground stations or just conquering more room for shops. The only trace of tradition is represented by the few wooden temples and shrines, whose size, gardens and colors clash with the cement, glass, and grey of the buildings ten times taller and hundreds years younger that surround them.

Tokyo is crazy as only massive, larger-than-life cities can be, but in a very special way I never saw outside Japan. First of all, the importance given to exteriority – especially to clothes – is astonishing. In central areas, fashion boutiques are everywhere and huge, and you see a lot of people really suited up1. Others, who maybe cannot afford expensive clothes, go buy themselves costumes of their manga heroes in (again, huge!) shops that sell everything related to comics, from 250$ fake plastic swords to 50cm hand painted dolls (like those you find in this video). And they do go around dressed like that on weekends. Second, the amount of people you see everywhere downtown: go at 6 pm in a working day in the “busiest crossing” on Earth, just in front of the Shibuya Station. A huge number of people will be walking around in every direction. This may not be so peculiar – you may have seen so many somewhere else. But then choose any direction, and keep walking for 20 minutes. Throughout your walk, you will see the same incredible amount of people coming and going2. Third, the widespread passion for lights, neon signs, and over the top continuous noises: try entering a Pachinko (sort of gambling pinball) parlor.

Hence, after the first walks, I was disappointed with Tokyo. I thought: is this all ? The largest metropolitan area of the world, producing a GDP of $1.5 trillion (almost as much as that of the whole Italy!), host to 51 of the top 500 word companies, heir to an empire and a culture thousands of years old, just to have 6-floors Prada stores and a bunch of guys going around dressed like their favourite superheros3? Then, I understood that was my approach to the city to be wrong. And my approach is usually the following: I decide where I want to go beforehand, but then wander around, getting to know the city as I got lost in it. From time to time I peek at the map to be sure I am more or less going where I’m willing to. You just can’t do that in Tokyo. First of all, it is too big, and many areas are quite, sort to say, focused: if you end up, say, in Akihabara, you’ll keep seeing manga-related shops and nothing else. Moreover, most street names are in Japanese, and you may well be completely lost before you find a map with english names on it.

But Tokyo is not just a big cultural shock, there are in fact things to see there. Some of this you may find by chance: many peculiar, old-style labyrinthic small areas, which survived gentrification, between yet another huge mall and the train rails. Others are everywhere: Tokyo is exceptional for those who love skyscrapers and technology: a marvellous, free of charge view of the city from above can be enjoyed from the top of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government offices. Most places worth a visit, you have to know in advance. Let me mention a couple. As a side effect of their interest in exteriority, Japanese are really into visual arts. The Tokyo metropolitan Museum of photography has excellent exhibitions: among others, I really enjoyed the Diorama maps by Sohei Nishino, that takes pictures of the people and building from different parts of a city, and then glues them together as to form a highly personal map of the city. I also liked another exhibition on the role of images in science (which, much to my surprise, included a collection of pictures from books related to the Copernican Revolution). Again related to visual arts, special mentions are due to the Mori Art Museum (multimedial arts) and the Leica Ginza Salon (photography). Tokyo also has a big Fish Market. As lively as a market can be, its informal and relaxed atmosphere clashes with the aloof attitude of the rest of the city. You could get high quality sushi at a good price, and spend some time walking around, looking at trading going on.

Also, nightlife is really crowded. Despite the big city-attitude of people, there are so many clubs, and restaurant, and events you just can’t get bored. Some areas are too flashy and noisy to be enjoyable, while others are lively and pleasant. Roppongi is especially famous for having a relaxed international evening atmosphere.

Hence, the bad name Tokyo has among travellers often comes from the fact that it is a city where people live, more than a city for tourists. Because of that, its beauty is not everywhere: it is often overshadowed by attractions built for a frantic lifestyle most people (including me) do not appreciate. Nevertheless search well, and you will be rewarded.


Notes

1. I believe that this importance is somehow the outcome of the mixture of traditional japanese values, where wealth was extremely important, and the sudden discovery of western culture soon after World War II. In fact, immediately after the war ended, the US army settled in Tokyo and basically called the shots for 7 years. Japan, that had never been occupied before by any foreign army, abruptly absorbed American culture, where image was becoming more and more important (this is clearly explained in several Yukio Mishima‘s essays).
2. While doing this in Shibuya, I tried an experiment: I counted how many seconds I had to wait before seeing another foreigner. (But you can’t do it in a foreigners-friendly area like Roppongi, else it is too easy.) It took me 4 minutes, and I was literally looking at a dozen people per sec. This proves you that despite the Armani clothes people wear, the neon signs advertising the latest Hollywood movie or the Nirvana cover bands strumming in pubs, Japan is still a country almost 100% lived by, and hence tought for, Japanese people.
3. After visiting the Manga Museum in Kyoto (see this post) I became much more tolerant with manga- and anime-related culture. But I still find no point in being 30 years old and regularly going around dressed up like Doraemon or Kenshiro.