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Things We Lost in the Fire

The first story grabbed me for its description of Constitución in Buenos Aires, a neighborhood that used to be prosperous but is now known for prostitution, drugs and theft.

But if you know how to move, if you understand the dynamics, the schedules, it is not dangerous. Or it is less dangerous. I know that on Friday nights, if I go to Plaza Garay, I can get caught in a fight between several possible opponents: the mini-narcos on Calle Ceballos who defend their territory from other occupants and persecute their perpetual debtors; addicts who, mindless, take offense at anything and react by attacking with bottles; the drunk and tired transvestites who also defend their tile.

The protagonist is a middle-class woman who lives alone in her family’s big house; the common type of house in Buenos Aires with high ceilings – a disaster to control the temperature inside. She tries to help a boy who lives on the street with his drug-addicted mother. Later, the boy turns up dead and mutilated or at least she thinks it’s him. In the neighborhood there are offerings to good saints and bad saints, which adds a touch of voodoo to the story. Maybe they killed the boy in a wicked ceremony or it was the drug traffickers who wanted to give a warning to their rivals.

The following tales are weaker, they have aspects of formulaic horror tales, such as the house of ghosts, the desire to kill one’s own children, and people who disappear without a trace. The protagonists have latent lesbian desires or unpleasant partners. Enriquez writes well about life in various areas and times in Argentina such as La Rioja with its dry heat and Corrientes with its humid heat and noisy insects.

In Spider Web they cross the border to go shopping in Paraguay in the times of the Stroessner dictatorship, the characters are well drawn and I liked the culinary details such as Grapefruit Fanta and roast served on wooden plates, but the twist as in other tales here is not very well developed. As horror stories they don’t come close to Horacio Quiroga, but as snapshots of Argentina they are very interesting and well written. The book ends with The Things We Lost in the Fire, which is about a cult in which women purposely burn themselves, ruining their beauty to avoid the attention and mistreatment of men, a powerful and shocking feminist message.

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El primer cuento me agarró por su descripción de Constitución en Buenos Aires, un barrio que era prospero pero ahora es conocido por prostitución, drogas y robos.

Pero si uno sabe moverse, si entiende las dinámicas, los horarios, no es peligroso. O es menos peligroso. Yo sé que los viernes por la noche, si me acerco a la plaza Garay, puedo quedar atrapada en alguna pelea entre varios contrincantes posibles: los mininarcos de la calle Ceballos que defienden su territorio de otros ocupantes y persiguen a sus perpetuos deudores; los adictos que, descerebrados, se ofenden por cualquier cosa y reaccionan atacando con botellas; las travestis borrachas y cansadas que también defienden su baldosa.

La protagonista es una mujer de clase media que vive sola en la casa grande de su familia; el tipo de casa común en Buenos Aires con techos altos – una desastre para controlar la temperatura adentro. Ella trata de ayudar a un chico que vive en la calle con su madre drogadicta. Después, el chico aparece muerto y mutilado o por lo menos ella cree que es él. En el barrio hay ofrendas a santos buenos y santos malos, que da un toque de vudú a la historia. Tal vez lo mataron en una ceremonia perversa o fueron los narcos que querían dar una advertencia a sus rivales.

Los siguientes cuentos son más débiles, tienen aspectos de cuentos de horror formulistas, como la casa de fantasmas, el deseo de matar a los propios hijos y personas que desaparecen sin rastros. Las protagonistas tienen deseos lesbianas latentes o parejas desagradables. Enriquez escribe bien sobre la vida en varias zonas y épocas en Argentina como La Rioja con su calor seco y Corrientes con su calor húmedo e insectos ruidosos.

En Tela de Araña crucen la frontera para ir de compras en Paraguay en los tiempos de la dictadura de Stroessner, las personajes son bien dibujadas y me gustaron los detalles culinarias como Fanta de pomelo y asado servido en platos de madera, pero el giro como en otros cuentos aquí no es muy bien desarrollado. Como historias de terror no llegan ni cerca a Horacio Quiroga, pero como instantáneas de Argentina son muy interesantes y bien escritas. El libro termina con Las cosas que perdimos en el fuego, que se trata de un culto en que mujeres se queman a propósito, arruinando su belleza para evitar la atención y maltrato de los hombres, un mensaje feminista poderoso y impactante.

Bangkok Days

A great book to read during a time when it’s hard to travel. Bangkok Days investigates various nooks and crannies of the Big Mango that, while fascinating, I don’t particularly want to go to personally. Osborne is “on the lam” in Bangkok a place he can live cheap, he makes this discovery while visiting to have dental work done.

“The days were empty by design. I didn’t have a job; I was on the lam, as old American gangsters had it. A perfect phrase. The lam. It means “headlong flight,” according to my Webster’s dictionary. Lamming, to run away.”

The book is meandering and unstructured, but Osborne is such a good observer and writer that this doesn’t matter. His days are not completely empty, he becomes a flâneur, a man who wanders observing society – through the malls and nightlife districts – and less accessible neighbourhoods.

“This part of Rattanakosin just north of the canal which empties into the river is one of the few remnants of the old city that the authorities, no doubt in a fit of absentmindedness, have neglected to bulldoze. The surfaces of the houses are a vertical maze of cracks and puzzles, in which cicadas are lodged as if they have mistaken it for a man-made forest.”

Osborne covers the much talked about topic of middle-to-old-aged Western men who have gone to Bangkok for one final hurrah before the big empty. He does this well without moral sermonising or crass lionising of his friends’ libertine ways. If there is any glue which holds the narrative together it comes from the bonds formed at the Primrose Apartments, where Osborne initially stays in Bangkok. There he first meets his cast of escapees, running from their life of invisibility in the West. The most developed character is McGinnis.

“McGinnis was six foot seven. He towered in doorways, in hotel lobbies, in the light of streetlamps. There was something wonderfully sinister there, and I love sinister men. A sinister man doesn’t just walk down a street, he rolls down it like a superior ball bearing. A sinister man cannot be amiable, but he can be good company. Despite his association with the science of air-conditioning, McGinnis was also subtly aristocratic and refined, while doing nothing better with his life than selling mass-produced cooling units.”

Then there is Dennis, a decrepit retired bank manager from Perth, with the best lines about how Bangkok is the place to be, where one can feel alive again.

“Dennis often said to me that Bangkok reminded him of an ancient Roman city, at least as we imagine them to have been. Cities of polytheistic lust. Nothing, he added, could be further removed from the cities of Anglophonia, which were based not on a love of pleasure but on a worship of power.”

New York, by contrast, where Osborne, a pom, lived for twenty years always sounds like hell when he mentions it.

“…not sure I have much talent,” I replied, quite truthfully as it happened. “And if I did have some, I wouldn’t go around talking about it. I come from New York, where everyone does that, even if they have no talent whatsoever. It makes me want to vomit. I think I came here to escape exactly that.”

Osborne travels to Malaysia and Macau for journalistic missions and tries to relate these episodes back to Bangkok, I found this an indulgence and the editor should have cut the non-Bangkok parts. Towards the end of the book, he takes a break from the libertines to visit a priest and nun helping addicts in a slum. He observes that a lammer like himself feels sorry for these missionaries alone and stuck in a foreign slum forever – but at the same time they feel sorry for the likes of him and his purposeless brethren. This reminded me of Graham Greene’s “A Burnt Out Case” where the worldly man seeks refuge with priests in a leper colony. Osborne has been compared with Greene. In interviews he has said he is a long way from that level yet, but is flattered by the comparison. I haven’t read Osborne’s novels – I have high hopes for them.

He relates a couple of his own sexual escapades but there is nothing too raunchy. He sleeps with a prostitute at the Primrose, an introduction to the kind of pleasure that is on offer in Bangkok.

“There is a word in Thai, sanuk, which embodies the idea of enjoying life to the full as a duty. It is usually translated as “fun” or “pleasure,” but it is really untranslatable. Porntip was a bearer of sanuk. She came every fourth day for a month, with a curious punctuality, as if she was coming upriver between classes.”

Whether we Westerners should or can enjoy a sanuk lifestyle is a debate for the ages. Can it be of benefit or just damage us and those around us? If there is anybody around us.

My favourite tale is of him buying bathroom plugs. He rings his upper class Thai landlady but she has no idea how to say plug in her language – or refuses to share this knowledge with a foreigner who couldn’t possibly be able to use Thai words. He eventually finds out that Thai for plug is ‘pluk’. But at the store they can’t understand him – he has the tone wrong. Eventually he points and gets his plug. He goes through the process of buying a plug multiple times before he can ask for a “pluk” and the store assistant gets one right away. He then has a bunch of plugs he’ll never use, but hey one word of Thai mastered, however many thousand to go. The same happens with a chicken dish, he practices saying it (and eating it) everyday for a week before Thais can understand him. He recognises that not understanding the language provides a kind of protective cocoon. I know what he is about. In China it was reassuring when I finally learnt to understand conversations. Mainland Chinese shout so I thought they were constantly fighting, in fact they were discussing lunch. However, from time to time I’d pick up on rude comments directed my way, I remember being at the Summer Palace and a mother warning her child (in jest?) to stay away from me or I’d kidnap him and take him to America (the home of all Westerners obviously)…Another time on Lamma island in Hong Kong a Mainlander said to his girlfriend “look at the size of the great white hunter’s feet!” If you don’t know the language, you don’t have to hear these things. But enough about me…read Bangkok Days.

A Dead Bat in Paraguay

There is a lot about how to bed girls in Dead Bat. In hostels and nightclubs from Ecuador to Brazil, Roosh and other young Western males scheme to score local women, with the less exotic but more accessible gringas as a back up. Having experienced this hostel scene myself, it’s hardly controversial or uncommon for guys and girls to have casual hookups as they travel the world, sometimes their free and easy Western values may clash with the more conservative local cultures. In South America the people are often more sexually conservative than their highly social manner would indicate. What is unusual about Roosh is how much he analyses and obsesses about how to pick up girls. He wants the algorithm that will get him as many girls as fast as possible. In fact, his first few months in South America are a total failure in this respect.

Dead Bat is not only about trying to score, Roosh is actually really good at describing things that most will experience along the gringo trail between Lonely Planet attractions. His humourous descriptions of long distance bus travel are a highlight:

“When you ask the fare catcher how long it takes to get to the next city, the time he gives you is based on maniacal driving. Regular driving takes twice as long to arrive and just isn’t as fun for the adrenaline junkies that compose the bus driver corps. It didn’t matter than the road to Tena was this gravel and dirt thing that days of rain had turned into thick mud. I could feel the back of the bus sliding as the driver hurried anyway like he was rushing the President of France to an important diplomatic meeting.”

The first half of the book, when Roosh is in Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia is the stronger half. There is more a balance of social commentary focusing on transport, the poor and food as well as unsuccessful pickup attempts. Roosh is not afraid to say that he is completely underwhelmed by the continent’s number one tourist attraction: Machu Picchu – other gringos are shocked by his attitude. He is disparaging of the lack of hygiene in Bolivia, but sympathetic to the fate of the miners in the Potosi mines. The mines are another “must do” attraction, Roosh is not breaking any ground, but his description of the appalling conditions of the miners is quite good. So here are two examples of him sharing his raw thoughts:

“Bolivia has no redeeming qualities beside what nature bestowed on it, not to the credit of the people or culture. I hate Bolivia. I was on the road to health but Bolivia destroyed it, and now I was sick again. I should have rode the bus right through the country.”

“I felt small for complaining about my relatively easy job at home that paid me a salary the miners could only dream of. How did I come to the conclusion that a professional job with fair pay in a modern building was actually torture?”

Many have had the emotions in the first quote on a long bus ride but wouldn’t write them down. We’d certainly like to express the sentiments in the second quote – whether we felt them or not.

It is in Mendoza, Argentina that young Jedi Roosh turns in the Dark Vader pickup artist. Sitting on bench he is overwhelmed by the beauty of Argentine womenpassing by. Up until this point Roosh has failed to get laid, but here he might make up for that. He and his crew of hostel friends hit the clubs hunting. But Argentine culture has some surprises in store for Roosh. He finds that he’ll get into conversations with girls and they’ll show great interest in him only to disappear if he takes a toilet break. They’ll touch him on the forearm, a real sign of interest in the USA, but again just disappear. They are toying with him and he is offended. When he gets close and goes for the kiss he finds another hurdle as girls turn their heads at the last moment. Why does it have to be this way? Roosh is very upset. He is discovering what many have about the Argentine social scene: it promises a lot to the outsider but delivers little. Here are beautiful girls who draw you in, but it is only their endless need for attention that motivates them, they are not interested in you at all. Argentines of the class that the beautiful girls of Mendoza come from are actually quite cliquey and conservative – and arrogant to boot. Wanting something from them will damage your self esteem, and this is a tipping point for the bold and cold yet sensitive Roosh.

“I was so mad I wanted to throw my drink into the crowd. I wanted it to smash on some girl’s head and I wanted her to bleed and cry. How much worse would I feel if I bought them another drink! God I was so stupid. Every night these girls disrespected me and played me like a cheap toy, and I kept going back for more. I leaned against a column, stewing in anger.”

There is an explanation for the Argentine woman’s behaviour and that would be Argentinian men. The men are aggressive in trying to pick up, in a way that in America may be considered harassment. I recently talked to a kiwi woman traumatised by travelling in Argentina saying that the Argentine men were touching her all the time. So the women have natural defences against the men chatting them up – they can calm them by showing interest – but then disappear at the first opportunity. Often they are actually interested in the conversation with gringos, Argentines are quite intellectual if not particularly broad in their outlook. Roosh when talking about neighbouring (and in some ways similar) Chile sees the situation as chicken and egg: what came first the hard-to-get women or the aggressive men? In English speaking countries it’s not easy to get into conversation with an unknown woman at a bar – it’s often seen as creepy in New Zealand – but if you do hit it off with someone, it can very often lead to something physical. Would you rather go out and talk to beautiful women but get no action? Or go out talk to nobody new – apart from once in a blue moon? After a lot of suffering, Roosh gets the low down on the behaviour of the girls from a local:

“The first: “There hasn’t been a sexual revolution in Argentina.” The second: “Girls have been trained that they aren’t worth anything if they are easy.” That would explain their unrevealing dress, lack of sexual suggestive dancing, and maddening head turns. His information helped me connect the dots, but the boat had already sailed.”

Just on a (probably unnecessary) personal note I experienced the scene in Mendoza in 2004 and 2005, several years before Roosh’s trip. I remember the exhausting schedule of going out at 2am that is the norm there – Roosh and his buddies start drinking at 9pm, giving them a full 5 hours before time to go out – I started at 6, the time I would start drinking in NZ or Asia, and this often had me too intoxicated to hit the clubs – which I was never much a fan of anyway. Another feature of Roosh’s trip is the deterioration of his health both physical and mental, and this punishing nightlife schedule hardly helped. His guts give him a lot of trouble. He realises some of his other health worries are in his head but can’t help it. Sigmund Freud may have enjoyed psychoanalysing Roosh, a man with hypochondriac neurosis stemming from frustrated sexual desires. He is the sort of person who needs a project otherwise his racing mind starts attacking:

“South America is not kind to even the mildest of hypochondriacs, which I had to accept I was. In the past I easily diagnosed a slight rash as scabies and odd headaches as brain tumors. When I got tested for HIV I’d browse through AIDS forums on the internet and calculate the odds I actually did have HIV before the results came in. A little twitch in the leg and I might as well be in the advanced stages of multiple sclerosis, a pain in the chest and it was a serious heart problem.”

Roosh makes a lot of male friends, often Irish or Aussie guys, hard drinkers, who are committed to going out at night. Roosh realises these friendships will be short-term and doesn’t get too attached. He befriends locals where he can too but never makes much effort to move beyond gringo hangouts, despite the fact he studies Spanish diligently. He details a nice episode with a friend, Max, where they walk out to an offshore island at low tide to see some sea lions, there is nobody else out there, and for a moment feel happy because they have had a unique adventure:

“It was just me and a big piece of plastic in the ocean, away from the gringos and crazy Argentine girls, waiting for the water to lift me up. After riding a wave I’d turn around to face the ocean and feel the same as when on the rock with Max, when we watched the lobos sleep as the sun set in the background. My spirits were coming back. I was tired of moping and feeling sorry for my stomach and my luck.”

Finally Roosh has sex with an Argentine woman in Cordoba, getting his flag as he says. He also comes across a couple of characters he admires, the shameless ‘predator’ , who goes for the kill with girls without doubts and a high energy Italian who is a natural through his joyous demeanor which is impossible to replicate. Before leaving Argentina Roosh gives us some interesting positive cultural insight, largely absent from his blow by blow accounts of nights out, which have begin to get tedious:

“Along with the huge bottles of beer that one person can’t possibly finish on their own before it gets warm, the Argentines have a culture of sharing and community that is only dependent on your luck of getting an invitation. My Quilmes beer is your beer, my mate is your mate, like weed smoking almost, but sip-sip-give instead of puff-puff-give. The best way to get to know an Argentine is through beer or mate (they smoke weed, too).”

An Argentine friend told me that when she was in a club in Florianopolis, Southern Brazil, Argentine men on holiday would come up to her and ask “mina or menina? ” meaning ‘Argentine or Brazilian?’. If the answer was mina the men would walk away, it being too much effort to pick up an Argentine girl compared to a Brazilian. So Roosh’s last stop is Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, a place that he has been told is the promised land for the pickup artist. Before getting there Roosh moves through Uruguay and Paraguay, where he wakes up with a dead bat in his bed, hence the title of the book – which I think was well chosen.

In Rio the girls are more friendly and Roosh starts to enjoy himself, despite lingering problems with his stomach. He enjoys the fresh juices especially the acai, and makes friends with the guy who runs a juice stall, Marcelo. Roosh is quite taken by Marcelo’s upbeat attitude despite his six day a week work schedule. As a natural introvert brought up in an Anglo culture, Roosh realises his life can never be as immediate and social as the average Brazilian. On one of his many pickup stints in a crowded club, he approaches a girl who actually finds him interesting. So begins the great romance of this book – Roosh can’t quite believe luck – she is beautiful, passionate and caring. He also meets up with some Brazilian girls he met earlier in his trip, forms solid friendships with them and gets insights into how Brazil ticks.

In the end though he pines for home. He misses his family and wants to fix his stomach. He buys a plane ticket and leaves his girl. This is sad, what he sought did not seem to mean much to him in the end – surely he could have given the relationship a go? But to this point the story is not too tragic – it’s the epilogue that spooked me because of its near nihilistic tone. Two years later Roosh, now thirty, returns to Rio, by this stage he has already begun publishing his bang books. Unfortunately one of his local friends has discovered his writing and is obviously shocked – this must have been a constant danger for Roosh. Amazingly he meets up with his old flame and she is willing to take him back – such things don’t happen! But again he can’t commit and their dates are increasingly hard to read about. Despite this downer there was some stuff I could really relate to in his Rio vignettes. For example: I got robbed by knife wielding favela kids outside the Help disco at Copacabana beach in 2005. My friend and I didn’t have much money on us so that was OK – but after the robbery we had nothing for a taxi and so had a spooky 2am walk back to our hostel. This was made worse by the fact that my friend was legless drunk and I virtually had to carry him. Roosh also leaves Help club late at night and on foot, but has an interesting tactic not to get robbed – he takes his shirt off – reasoning that a shirtless man will be a less likely target for potential muggers.

Dead Bat is an interesting book about the gringo trail in South America by a man looking to self-actualise while fighting his own demons…don’t read it as a how to guide, but also don’t let it get your moral hackles up without due reason.

Un Retrato Prohibido

Chiang Kai-shek sobre la Puerta de Tiananmén

Chaing Kai-shek sobre la Puerta de Tiananmén, Wikipedia

En 2016 en el Salón Conmemorativo de Chiang Kai-shek en Taipei, Taiwan, ví una foto que mostraba el mismo Generalísimo, Chiang Kai-shek, sobre la Puerta de Tiananmén de la Ciudad Prohibida. Siempre había pensado que era Mao quien primero tenía el mal gusto para poner su retrato en la Ciudad Prohibida en Beijing, por eso fue una sorpresa saber que Chiang había estado allí antes que él.

En el retrato la postura militar de Chiang era evidente, a pesar de que solo se lo podía ver desde los hombros hacia arriba. Su expresión era seria y penetrante, su cabeza afeitada y el bigote le daban una mirada de sombría determinación. Se colgó el retrato para celebrar su victoria sobre los japoneses en 1945. El retrato de Mao Zedong reemplazó lo de Chiang en 1949. Mao ha estado allí desde entonces, pero de vez en cuando se había honrado a otra figura, como Joseph Stalin en el 9 de marzo de 1953, para conmemorar su muerte.

Retrato de Stalin sobre la Ciudad Prohibida, Wikipedia

Un tradicionalista y autoritario, Chiang Kai-Shek fue líder de China y jefe del ejército nacionalista antes de la victoria comunista en 1949. Derrotado después de una larga guerra civil, Chiang y sus seguidores escaparon a la isla de Taiwán y allá establecieron un alternativo gobierno chino. Chiang llegó a Taiwan después de décadas en China luchando contra caudillos, los japoneses y los comunistas de Mao. Una vez allí, no cayó en una depresión, de inmediato se ocupó de dominar Taiwán, cometiendo algunas atrocidades en el camino, y nunca abandonó su sueño de conquistar de nuevo la China continental. Chiang no es popular en Taiwán hoy en día (el nuevo gobierno incluso reunió sus estatuas y las reubicó en un solo parque), pero el Salón en Memoria de Chiang Kai-Shek sigue siendo un homenaje impresionante.

En el Beijing de hoy, una gran cantidad de turistas se toman fotos frente a la Puerta de Tiananmén. Un lugar popular para sacar una foto está al lado del Huabiao, una columna de mármol grabada con un dragón retorcido. La columna está rematada por un denglong, una criatura mítica. El denglong mira hacia el cielo para transmitir el estado de ánimo de la gente hacia los dioses, un papel importante porque en la Plaza de Tiananmén ha pasado mucha historia. Más allá del Huabiao, el retrato del presidente Mao está flanqueado por pancartas gigantes que dicen “Larga vida a la República Popular de China” y “Larga vida a la gran unidad de los pueblos del mundo”.

La Puerta de Tiananmén hoy en día, Wikipedia

Beijing no era la capital de China durante el mandato de Chiang, su gobierno nacionalista se había establecido en Nanjing, literalmente “capital del sur”, en el interior. Más tarde, la invasión japonesa lo forzó trasladar la capital al oeste a Chongqing. Y después de su derrota en la guerra civil, Taipei se convirtió en la capital de la República de China, con su propio museo del Palacio Imperial, lleno de artefactos extraídos de la Ciudad Prohibida.

Sería difícil encontrar una copia de la imagen de Chiang Kai-shek mirando por encima de la Plaza de Tiananmén dentro de China. Otros incidentes en esta plaza central que no coinciden con la versión de la historia del Partido Comunista han sido borrados. No se trata solo de las famosas protestas estudiantiles que terminaron con las matanzas masivas del 4 de junio de 1989, sino también de las protestas contra el acoso policial de miles de practicantes de Falun Gong en 1999. El presidente del momento, Jiang Zemin, nombró al grupo como un culto ilegal y subversivo. Inicialmente, la gente se preguntaba por qué había tantos problemas con un grupo de abuelas meditando y haciendo ejercicios de qigong. Sin embargo, en 2001 hubo un incidente donde los miembros de Falun Gong se autoinmolaron en la Plaza de Tiananmén. Esto ayudó a que la opinión pública se volviera contra el grupo. Los de Falun Gong discuten los hechos, y ha afirmado que las autoinmolaciones fueron organizadas por el gobierno; las figuras sentadas con las piernas cruzadas y envueltas en llamas, según ellos, eran en realidad soldados del Ejército Popular de Liberación en trajes ignífugos.

Cartel de Falun Gong, foto: Frank Beyer

En Taiwán, los practicantes de Falun Gong son comunes, y hablan a los turistas de China continental, tratando de cambiar las mentes de sus primos, que han sido sometidos a veinte años de propaganda demonizando al grupo. Noté carteles en el campo taiwanés, con una niña europea y la frase “Falun Gong es bueno”; el otro lado tenía una mujer china sonriente, y el mismo mensaje.

La matanza de 1989 en Beijing también se conmemora ampliamente en la prensa taiwanesa y en la cultura popular. Y el nombre de Chiang Kai-shek, aunque vilipendiado, es una vista común, con edificios y calles que llevan su nombre, aunque en Taiwán usan el título honorífico de Chiang Chungcheng.

Chiang, que murió en 1975, ya no es una espina en el lado del partido comunista chino. Pero para ver esta foto de él en la puerta de la Ciudad Prohibida, tuve que ir a Taiwán. Un gran jugador en la historia moderna de China había sido barrido bajo la alfombra. La historia está escrita por los vencedores. El derrotado Partido Nacionalista, enemigos del pueblo, rara vez se menciona. Hay un museo para Chiang Kai-shek en su antigua residencia en Zhejiang, pero por lo demás no es tan vilipendiado como ignorado. La foto del retrato de Chiang sobre la Ciudad Prohibida probablemente existe dentro de China, pero no es una que quieras sacar en una cena.

Una versión de este artículo apareció en inglés en LARB China Channel

Indonesia Sketches: Good Karma and the Becak Driver

The becak drivers of Solo were some of the most destitute looking guys I dealt with in Java. Sure, there are people worse off in a slum somewhere in Jakarta — but not the ones I’ve been to. The people in marginal neighbourhoods I’ve seen didn’t look as malnourished as the Solo becak drivers. Jogjakarta, an hour away from Solo, was another story, the drivers there had more meat on their bones and were more rapacious — consequences of Jogja being a booming tourist city.

A becak is bicycle rickshaw with a covered seat for the passenger up front, the driver sits behind peddling. Solo being flat, drivers don’t have to pedal up hills, however, with their rusty-chained and non-existent brakes, most becaks didn’t get a warrant of fitness from me.

After thirty minutes walking around the centre of Solo trying to find a hotel I decided I needed a ride. As soon as I’d made that choice the becaks vanished from the scene, none of the usual cries of ‘transport mistar’ to be heard. Normally becaks were waiting on every corner, here was a case of Murphy’s law in effect.

A Benkor, motorized rickshaw, Tidore, Indonesia, photo: Frank Beyer

Eventually, I did find one. The driver, lounging in the passenger seat, had a mullet and was staring at his cell phone through supermarket reading glasses. Five foot nothing and forty-five kilos, he couldn’t have been a day under sixty. His name was Budi, he seemed like a good guy.

Budi took me around to a bunch of hotels but they were all booked up. I was starting to think I’d have to go to a mall with wifi, get onto Agoda to book a hotel. Finally, we found a place with a vacancy, they didn’t have wifi but by this stage it didn’t matter. Budi said he’d wait for me outside the hotel, because surely I’d want to ‘jalan jalan’ (go about) Solo later in the evening.

There was no polite way to get rid of him. I decided to give him some money then and there, even though he told me to pay later and that tomorrow we’d tour the town together…I tried to make it known to him that I had other plans, but he didn’t get it. I went into the hotel and had a shower. When I went back out onto the street, Budi was right there. He laboriously peddled me to a cell phone shop where I bought credit for my mobile. Then he wanted to take me somewhere with a lot of choices of things to eat — it turned out to be street food and I didn’t want to risk an upset stomach. OK, he said, and drove me to a Chinese restaurant which wasn’t bad at all.

Back at the hotel he told me he’d sleep out in his becak and wait for me to get up the next morning. It was warm, I don’t think Solo is an unsafe city by night and the front seat of the becak was pretty spacious for someone his size. So I figured sleeping out wouldn’t be much of a hardship. In fact during the day the city was full of drivers asleep in their becaks. Solo had a climate suited to nocturnality but the city wasn’t well lit, putting you off nighttime wanderings.

A Bajaj, Jakarta, Indonesia, photo: Frank Beyer

I went to bed without paying him for the last trip around town. Paying him in dribs and drabs would get expensive, better to fix him up when we parted company for good. The next morning at seven I went out onto the street and he was nowhere to be seen. I got another becak to McDonald’s to use the wifi. At ten still no Budi. I was going to change hotels — he would never find me again. He’d biked me around town for free. Well, that was his fault I thought.

In the afternoon I remembered he’d given me his number, but I hadn’t given him mine. It was a moral test. I didn’t want to fail, so texted him to see what was up. Budi was at home ‘boz’, he’d be in back in town sometime ‘nanti’ (later). Why had he upped and gone home? Poor guy looked hungry and what I was going to pay him was definitely three days of decent eating. A mystery.

The next day I wanted to leave Solo for the more bustling Jogja. What to do about Budi? It was hardly my fault I told myself again, but I couldn’t leave town without paying him. I left an envelope at reception, and texted him that it was there. Lo and behold if he didn’t suddenly turn up with a clean shirt on, all smiles. I didn’t get an explanation about why he’d disappeared. When I was at the station waiting to get the train to Jogja he texted me, saying to call him if I ever came back to Solo. You could interpret that as meaning as he was happy with what was in the envelope or that he was just genuinely friendly.

I asked middle class Indonesians what they thought — was his behaviour weird? Why had he taken off without being paid? They said he was happy to drive me for free because I was a foreigner. But that was their reason for everything — why I had diarrhea, why I found that hike hard or easy….why? Because you’re a foreigner — often they were right in a way. I wanted a deeper analysis though. Never mind.

I left Solo feeling pretty good. I hadn’t forgotten various past peccadilloes, but I’d gained an inch back in the Karma stakes thanks to Budi.

 Header Image: Becak rickshaws, Bogor, Indonesia, Wikipedia