Flourishing in Flores, Indonesia

Curiosity about Flores was the reason for our presence on the 500 kilometre flight from Bali to Labuan Bajo. The plane flew spectacularly over the crater of Lombok Island’s majestic Mount Rinjani, then the islands of Sumbawa and Komodo, and many smaller ones. Labuan Bajo is a small town in west Flores, with a population of around 10,000 that is rapidly growing, mainly in response to increasing western tourism. Many visitors come for diving and snorkelling and to see the Komodo dragon, the world’s largest lizard, as the town is near Komodo National Park, the UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Guidebooks aptly describe Labuan Bajo as having a ramshackle air. There’s much corrugated iron – some rusty, otherwise brightly painted – and the buildings are an interesting mixture of old and new. Many have open-sided pavilions to take advantage of cooling breezes, and to catch the views: the harbour and its boat traffic, the appealing setting of islands and colorful sea, and the town’s hypnotic sunsets. Curiously, it also has about five Italian restaurants with Italian ownership.

Flores illustrates Indonesia’s diversity; here you are not in Bali, Java or Sumatra. Although Flores is nominally Christian, with the inevitable Indonesian underlay of adat (customary tradition and rules), Labuan Bajo has a significant Muslim population.

This is noticeable as mosques in town have spent heavily on their sound systems. One of the town’s largest mosques is located next a shop specialising in public address sound systems. There must be serious competition for adherents, as the volume level was unmatched in my travelling experience. Although difficult to encapsulate in a few words, it was as if 3 or 4 heavy metal bands located a few hundred metres apart were competing to have your total attention, while playing different songs in different keys at a volume suitable for a major outdoor rock festival. Unfortunately in the case of the mosques, while some of the sound was pre-recorded and beautiful musically (I enjoy Arabic and Middle Eastern music), several competitors had live performers who apparently acquired their positions on the basis of their inability to maintain a key.

From our hotel  balcony 500 metres or more up the hill, the competing volumes from the mosques made it impossible to conduct a conversation. We quickly adjusted to the afternoon call to prayer – between 4 and 5pm – by designating it the Call to Drinks. Travel encourages adaptability. Early morning calls to prayer (at around 4am and 5am) were less open to such innovation. No doubt for locals these experiences are part of the aural fabric. If they travelled to Paris, would the chiming of the bells of Notre Dame be a strange intrusion?

Sunset at Labuan Bajo, looking towards the Komodo National Park
Sunset at Labuan Bajo, looking towards the Komodo Island and National Park, as the crimson sky fades into twilight.

After my companions rather haughtily declined my invitation to see Komodo dragons, we hired a traditional wooden fishing boat with two crew members (cost AU$100) and spent an idyllic day: a trip through sparkling tropical seas, past many islands, finally disembarking at Kanawa Island. The island is quite small, with an attractive sandy beach backed by hills, shady trees to loll under, and a small restaurant, and modest set of bungalows. The snorkelling at Kanawa is excellent and safe. The bottom shelves gently from the beach to the drop off and the coral is very colourful, the fish even more so. A young Balinese in her shop in Sanur later described her snorkelling experiences on the island beautifully: ‘It’s like swimming in an aquarium.’

It pays to be curious.

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

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A visit to Emei Shan, China’s holy mountain

Emei Shan (Mount Emei) is one of China’s four holy Buddhist mountains, a place of pilgrimage for nearly two thousand years, and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Traditionally, pilgrims hiked to the top of the mountain, a distance of about 30 kilometres, while stopping off at temples and monasteries on the way. Many monasteries still provide overnight accommodation. Modern pilgrims can take the easier option of ascending by bus and cable car, and staying in hotels.

Like important pilgrimage sites elsewhere, many now visit Emei Shan for reasons other than religion. The walk up the mountain is the pinnacle of the experience, and is reputedly a place of enlightenment in the Buddhist tradition. Pilgrims and hikers often use thick bamboo poles to assist their climb, a reminder of the wooden ‘Pilgrim’s Staff” traditionally used for the Camino de Santiago, the long walk to Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, Spain.

Emei Shan is 3099 metres high (10,167 ft), providing superb views of misty mountain slopes reminiscent of classic Chinese landscape paintings, lush forests, mirror like lakes, waterfalls and rushing streams. The temples and monasteries, of which there are more than one hundred, vary in age and style, and are often constructed to best fit into the landscape and exploit the views. Those interested in temples, Buddhism and Chinese history will find Emei Shan very rewarding, while hikers can enjoy the natural world and challenging walks.

Our friends from Chengdu observed that the admission fees paid to each temple or monastery, given the numbers of visitors, indicated a substantial source of income. An interesting point. Religious institutions often do have a very successful business model, whether in China or elsewhere, one that supplies more revenue than required to simply meet the spiritual needs of their devotees.

Before arriving at Emei Shan, our friends mentioned that on the return journey of a couple of hours to Chengdu, Sichuan’s capital city, they could take us on the ‘Narrow Road.’ Not quite understanding the meaning of this option, we agreed. During our several days on the mountain, they kept us informed about weather conditions, eventually explaining that the absence of rain meant that we could undertake the trip as there would be no landslides, and the road would not be too slippery. Should we have been more alert and a little alarmed? This road was not one of China’s modern tollways, or even a modest country road. It was something much more challenging. But that is another story.

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

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Graffiti: street art or vandalism?

Graffiti has been around for centuries. The Romans in Pompeii and the Vikings in the Orkneys showed a distinct bawdy tone in theirs. Graffiti can portray the spectrum of artistic and linguistic expression, from brilliance and innovation to blind rage, loss, despair, and garbage. It can be political, apolitical, satirical, sardonic, funny, sad, artistic, whimsical, ribald, or just plain vandalism, depending on the viewer.

Graffiti is usually defined as illicit drawings scribbled, scratched or sprayed on a wall or other surface in a public place. Authorities are often ambivalent about graffiti, but recognise that prohibition usually doesn’t work. Sometimes therefore, limited acceptance occurs. In Melbourne, the city council authorises controlled street art that has become a major tourist attraction. In Valparaiso, Chile, the local authorities have at times commissioned and encouraged street art, although recent moves in Chile suggest a negative approach through plans to regulate graffiti by punishing parents for the actions of their children.

On my daily train commute to work in Melbourne, I was always amused by the slogan painted on a bridge beside the train track: ‘Don’t vote, it only encourages them’

Melbourne

Here are some recent photos taken in inner suburban Brunswick, Melbourne.

Chile

Valparaiso was once the major port on the South American Pacific coast for ships crossing the Straights of Magellan/Cape Horn to and from the Atlantic Ocean. When the Panama Canal opened in 1914 Valparaiso lost most of its maritime port trade and declined. The city is now having something of a resurgence, and is a UNESCO World Heritage site. It’s renowned for its colourful housing, lanes and stairways, its ascencores (funicular railway system) linking the steep residential neighbourhoods with the port, and has some truly noteworthy graffiti.

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Even an old car can become a canvas in Valparaiso
Even an old car can become a canvas in Valparaiso, as the old graffiti behind it fades away

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I left the previous photo at a wonky angle to allow those with Spanish skills (or who want to translate) the chance to read the sign. Deposed former President Salvador Allende’s image appears on the red door, and I’ve written more about Chile and Allende here.

India

If you might be offended by strong language or sexual connotations, don’t look at the next photo.

Graffiti in Fort Kochi, India
Graffiti in Fort Kochi, India

Rome 2008

I’ve left the worst for last. Without claiming to be the arbiter of good taste, for which I am grossly underqualified, I share the general view that some graffiti is bad. In Melbourne, crude scratches mar the windows of many expensive new train carriages, and pathetic and meaningless swirls of paint appear in the wrong places. However, generally in Melbourne and elsewhere, there is a level of respect for older buildings and surfaces.

I haven’t selected Rome as my candidate for a bad graffiti award because of dislike for the city, as it’s one of my favourites. I was dismayed to visit in 2008 and discover that large numbers of classic centuries-old stone buildings were indiscriminately and unattractively sprayed, with no message, appeal or communication. Perhaps that was the point: a sign of urban decay, despair, powerlessness? It was the year of Silvio Berlusconi’s return to political leadership as prime minister for the third time, surely evidence that Italy had fundamentally lost its way. Of course, there may be other factors not readily apparent to a visitor.

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Good and Evil in Santiago, Chile

I innocently booked a hotel room in a central location in Santiago in 2008, not knowing that it was in a street holding extremely emotional, divisive and disturbing memories. I chose Londres in fashionable Barrio Paris-Londres, a quaint and attractive neighbourhood with its winding cobblestoned streets, ornate metal street lights, and stylish historical facades. The photo of Calle Londres (London Street) was taken from my hotel room window.

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Barrio Paris-Londres, is a vibrant area with excellent restaurants, cafes and bars, is a 5 minute walk to San Francisco Church (Chile’s oldest Colonial era building), a few more minutes to the city centre, and has easy access to Santiago’s excellent underground train system, the city park with a stunning view of the city’s backdrop of the snow-capped Andes, and is near the best lively inner city suburbs.

A little history is needed to appreciate the nature of the evil secret lurking just down the street from the hotel. In 1970 after a fair and democratic election, and proper legal rules being followed, Salvador Allende, a socialist, became Chile’s President. In a USA-backed military coup in 1973, Allende died and was replaced by General Augusto Pinochet, who headed a brutal regime until 1990 that engaged in a terror campaign against the opposition; seizing, kidnapping, torturing and killing many thousands of its opponents.

On my visit 35 years later, Santiago was alive. I went for a 5 minute stroll from the hotel to Avenue O’Higgins, the major thoroughfare through the city, and saw thousands of protesters chanting slogans, waving banners, and tearing cobblestones from the street and hurling them at police and other authorities, whose armoured vehicles moved in using water cannons to disperse the crowds. I later discovered that the protest, one of many around that time, was about the state of education in Chile.

Mrs Nomadic and I became fond of nearby Cafe Radical, where the patrons seemed to have stepped from a 1960’s or 70’s film; most sipping red wine, ostentatiously smoking, the men frequently wearing a beret, the women elegantly alluring, in an atmosphere of equality, debate and style.

Cafe Radical, Tinto and atmosphere.
Cafe Radical, a cheap glass of tinto with radical 60s atmosphere.

After a few days in the city, we noticed a nightly phenomenon in our street. There were large gatherings outside a particular graffiti covered building . One night it was music, the next night a screen was erected outside the building and seemingly endless pictures of people were displayed while their biographical details were detailed over the sound system. This was in memory of the disappeared, victims of the Pinochet regime’s atrocities. 38 Londres was where many of the victims were taken to be detained, tortured and killed.

A 2008 commemoration of the disappeared at 38 Londres.
A 2008 commemoration of the disappeared at 38 Londres.

Like many countries with a fractured and polarised past, Chile has not yet exorcised the demons of history.

In spite of efforts in the late 1970’s by Chilean military connections to erase the memory of 38 Londres by altering the address to 40 Londres, the persistence of those who did not want this to become a forgotten era prevailed, and 38 Londres is now a National Monument, open to the public as a place of remembrance.

This photo of an image of Salvador Allende was taken in Valparaiso, Chile’s atmospheric port city, and the site of much impressive graffiti.

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