Yangon Yarns

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Yangon in Myanmar has many faces: poor people quarantined from the outside world for decades, Buddhist pagodas, grand colonial architecture from the time of British rule, palatial mansions – replete with a bevy of expensive cars – built by corrupt members of the repressive military regime that ruled until 2015, when somehow, and peacefully, a form of democracy emerged.

These young monks were photographed at Yangon’s sublime Shwedagon Pagoda.

This is my contribution to Tiffin’s A-Z Guidebook, this month starting with the letter ‘Y’.

Xi’an, China: 1993

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China’s Communist Party decided to open the country to the outside world in 1978. By the early 1990s, there were only very limited observable results for a foreign visitor. To my Australian eyes, even as a reasonably seasoned Asian traveller, the country was resoundingly exotic.

I visited China in 1993 as a member of an Australian university delegation hosted by the All-China Youth Federation (the young Communist Party).  My friend and fellow delegate, Peter Snowdon, took the photo of street sweepers in Xi’an, and kindly agreed to allow me to use it in this post.

Xi’an was once the capital of China, and is now most famous for the Terracotta Warriors, constructed around 246–206 BC as a memorial for First Emperor Qin so as he could be represented in the afterlife in the same way as in life.

Of many memorable events I recollect from that first visit to China, one particularly astonished me. In Guangzhou, our delegation was hosted to yet another banquet, at a restaurant tucked away in the suburbs, and away from areas frequented by foreigners. The restaurant band provided backing for local patrons who wished to sing. As their consumption of Maotai (China’s famous hard liquor) increased into early afternoon, the accompanying toasts of ‘Maotai’ became louder, as did their singing.

Eventually, one of my fellow delegates decided to ask the band whether they knew a particular song, to which the band leader replied, in effect, ‘of course’. The band then played an excellent and note perfect version of the old Australian bush ballad Click go the Shears, a song about shearing sheep, accompanied less well by my colleague’s vocals.

This is my contribution to Tiffin’s A-Z Guidebook this month starting with the letter ‘X’.

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Way out West, the Golden West: Wimmera Silos

Four or five hours drive west of Melbourne, on the margins where wheat country merges into desert, many small towns that once flourished teeter on the edge of survival.

Wheat silos are the dominant human sign of continuity in the landscape. Their transformation into works of art may enhance their longevity. I wonder whether Michelangelo might have flourished in this environment.

Brim grain silos

 

This is my contribution to

A-Z Guidebook Badge

this month beginning with the letter ‘W’.

I have written a little more about the Wimmera here.

 

 

Valparaiso Contrasts

When the Panama Canal opened in 1914, Valparaiso on Chile’s Pacific coast was transformed from being a major seaport for ships voyaging between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans to something of a backwater.

UNESCO recognised Valparaiso’s old quarter and its faded glory as a World Heritage Site and the city is undergoing a resurgence in terms of art, culture, education and tourism, as well as building on its maritime strengths.

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Attempts to describe Valparaiso promote contradictory observations. Perhaps the city is a contradiction.

Houses seem to tumble down steep slopes, literally sometimes. Those clothed in rusted corrugated iron adjoin newly painted ones of the brightest colours; faded opulent timber houses nestle ornately within very modest localities. Elegant cobbled streets and lanes join weedy and seedy ones. Locals use stairways and colourful ascensores (funiculars or elevators) to negotiate the slopes.

Colour is everywhere: painted buildings are joined by commissioned public art and random graffiti to provide a vast palette of hue, subjects and thought.

Danger hovers over Valparaiso, as the area is prone to earthquakes and tsunamis. The 1906 earthquake destroyed most of the city, four months after San Francisco was similarly razed.

My feeble attempts to encapsulate something of  Valparaiso have been saved by Pablo Neruda, Chile’s Noble Laureate in Literature, who wrote Oda a Valparaiso. Neruda was a sometime resident of the city, and a visit to his home (La Sebastiana) is a feature of experiencing Valpo.

Ode to Valparaíso
by Pablo Neruda

VALPARAÍSO,
what an absurdity
you are,
how crazy:
a crazy port.
What a head
of disheveled
hills,
that you never finish
combing.
Never
did you have
time to dress yourself,
and always
you were surprised
by life.
Death woke you up,
in your nightshirt,
in your long johns
fringed with colors,
naked
with a name
tattooed on your stomach,
and with a hat.
The earthquake caught you,
and you ran
crazedly,
you broke your fingernails.
The waters and the stones
the sidewalks,
the sea,
the night,
all were shaken.
You slept
on the ground,
tired
from your navigation,
and the furious
earth
lifted its waves
more tempestuous
than a marine gale.
The dust
covered up
your eyes.
The flames
burned your shoes.
The solid houses
of the bankers
trembled
like injured whales,
while above,
the houses of the poor
jumped
into the void
like imprisoned
birds
who test their wings
and fall to the ground.

Soon,
Valparaíso,
sailor,
you forget
about your tears.
You return
to hanging your dwellings,
to painting doors
green,
and windows
yellow.
You transform
everything into a boat.
You are
the patched-up prow
of a small
brave
ship.
The foamy crown
of the tempest.
Your ropes that sing
and the ocean light
that makes the shirts
and flags tremble
with your indestructible swaying.

Dark
star
you are
from far away.
In the height of the coast
you shine
and soon
you surrender
your hidden fire.
The rocking
of your muffled alleys,
the uninhibitedness
of your movement,
the clarity
of your seamanship.
Here I conclude
this ode,
Valparaíso:
so little
like a destitute
undershirt,
hanging
raggedly in your windows
rocking
in the wind
of the ocean,
saturated
with all
the sorrows
of your land,
receiving
the dew
of the seas, the kiss
of the wide irritable ocean
that with all its strength
beats against your stones.
It couldn’t
knock you down,
because within your southern chest
are tattooed:
struggle,
hope,
solidarity
and happiness
like anchors
that withstand
the waves of the earth.

(translated by Hermitina – http://hermitina.com/oda-a-valparaiso/)

This is my contribution to Tiffin’s A-Z Guidebook, this month starting with the letter ‘V’.

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Being urbane in Urbino

Urbino is a small hilltown in Italy’s Marche region whose historic centre is listed by UNESCO. This beautiful and relaxing mediaeval town is notable for its buildings, streetscapes, and cultural richness, all enlivened by a large student population from the University of Urbino, which was established in 1506.

The town rewards strollers with views of fine buildings, cobbled streets and lanes, glimpses of the nearby hilly countryside, and that all-important find of the next venue for sampling delicious local food and wine.

The surrounding countryside is very picturesque, here including Chiesa di San Bernadino (Church of Saint Bernard), the burial site of a number of the Dukes of Urbino, including its most famous ruler, Duke Federico da Montefaltro.

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Urbino became famous during the Renaissance, particularly during Duke Federico’s rule (1444-1482) when his interests and efforts led to a cultural and artistic flowering, and a restructuring of the town on the principles that it be beautiful, efficient and comfortable.

If only modern town planning could achieve such a fine result.

This is my contribution to Tiffin’s A-Z Guidebook, this month starting with the letter ‘U’.

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Wild in the streets: Thekkady, India

Thekkady, in Kerala State, is best known for its closeness to one of south India’s main wildlife sanctuaries, Periyar National Park. Visitors hope to sight wild elephants and tigers, as well as other fauna.

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My visit purposely coincided with Kerala’s  biggest annual Hindu celebration: the 10 day Onam festival. Days and nights were punctuated by music, song and ritual. The streets went wild.

This is my contribution to Tiffin’s A-Z Guidebook, this month starting with the letter ‘T’.

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