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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A Mekong River Meander

One of the world’s great rivers, the Mekong, rises in the Tibetan Himalayas, flows through China, provides a border between Myanmar and Laos, then Laos and Thailand, before journeying through Cambodia and Vietnam to the sea.

The 196 kilometre road journey from Nong Khai to Chiang Khan in northern Thailand keeps the river in sight for most of the trip, and Laos across the water. Travel guides rightly describe this as one of the most scenic trips in Thailand. As a drive of about 4 hours without stops, it’s an easy day trip allowing for local sights.

My journey began at Nong Khai, a small riverside city that has hosts a lively river trade, and the Friendship Bridge between Thailand and Laos, the closest border crossing to Vientiane, the Lao capital, about 25 kilometres north-west.

Sometimes the river valley is a few kilometres wide, while at others times forested hills plunge straight into the river. The journey offers beautiful river scenery, the varying moods of the river itself, running wide and deep, or more treacherously through rapids, islands and shallower water, bordered by fertile productive agriculture of seemingly endless mixed uses, the opposite of monoculture – rice paddies, coconut palms, fields of pineapples, many varieties of vegetables, banana palms, papayas, ponds for fish – along with sections of  lush rainforest.

There are other attractions: important and historic forest wats (Buddhist temples), riverside villages and towns far removed from urban Thailand, a waterfall in the rainforest, and the often surprising and varied sights of rural life.

Impressively along the way, there are kilometres of paved and fenced riverside walks for local use, even in tiny villages, a reminder yet again how many ‘poorer’ countries focus on improvements for the whole population as many wealthier first world countries limit access to those who can pay.

Laos always lies on the other side of the river, sometimes appearing prominently like the riverside buildings of Vientiane, but more usually in a less populated and wilder form than the Thai side.

Chiang Khan is proudly re-inventing itself, a town of 5000 or 6000 residents stretched along the river. Most old teak wooden houses and shophouses have been restored and renovated, and tourism has brought increased wealth. The style is retro chic. The bicycle is a popular form of transport and a town motif.

As a visitor who prefers that tourism does not cause a locality to overly pander to us and ultimately lose its identity, to me Chiang Khan is doing well. I have seen enough beautiful localities transformed into false and inauthentic playgrounds for short-term visitors, be they the Costa Brava in Spain, or some of the beaches and islands in Asia.

Chiang Khan currently has the advantage of being a destination mainly for Thais. I only noticed about 4 or 5 other farang (foreigners/Europeans) on my five-day visit, and certainly, signage, menus, the absence of western food and other indicators suggest the absence of a western invasion, hopefully to remain so.

Once in Chiang Khan, if you rise at 6am, it will still be hot (27 degrees celsius when I checked) and there is an opportunity to see monks receiving alms in the street over the next hour or so, as well as to view the river emerging through the morning mist.

Dawn on the Mekong at Chiang Khan
Dawn on the Mekong at Chiang Khan

Later in the day a relaxing stroll is in order after watching the fishermen negotiate the river currents, At night, particularly on weekends when Bangkok visitors arrive, things get busier. Join the promenade to sample the sights: street food everywhere, musicians playing traditional Isan (northern Thai) music as well as modern styles, girls in tribal outfits dancing in the street, cyclists and strollers enjoying the festive atmosphere, eating, drinking ….

Sunset is best seen next to the river as a few small fishing boats return home.

The hills of Laos
The hills of Laos

Practicalities

Travel Options

Car rental from Udon Thani (1 hour south of Nong Khai) is quite reasonable. Avis quoted TBT560 (about AU$22) per day plus insurance excess cover for a small automatic gearbox car.

Driving yourself might be a reasonable option, noting that Thais drive on the left. Once away from the bigger city centres, Nong Khai and Udon Thani, traffic is quite light. Most major traffic signs are in Thai and English. However, some of the sights off the road are only signposted in Thai. Also, parking could become an issue.

I opted for a car and driver. I recommend Mr Chang from Nong Khai (Phone 081-369787) whom I contacted through Mut Mee Garden Guesthouse. He is relaxed and pleasant, and drove safely and reasonably; an important attribute to me as I have had more than my share of suicidal Thai drivers whose main mission in life is to speed excessively and always opt to pass on the most dangerous corners and crests. We agreed on TBT3000 (AU$115 or US$81) for the day.

The car and driver option makes the journey more flexible and independent, while it does mean missing out on some of the experiences, positive and negative, of public transport in remoter parts of a foreign country.

A hired motorcycle an option. 

Boat travel is not available, presumably because some of the river along this stretch is not navigable.

Bus connections are available, but there is no single bus trip connecting Nong Khai with Chiang Khan. I decided that it would take too much time to be feasible in my circumstances.

Recommendations

Chiang Khan

Tonkong Guesthouse for basic inexpensive accommodation. TBT700 for a double per night (AU$28 or around US$19) with Air Con, breakfast and free WiFi. Own bathroom and toilet. Room 8 on the first floor is the best room with windows looking directly onto the river, and the room opens onto a guest terrace that also overlooks the river.

Located between Soi 2 & 3.

Nong Khai

Mut Mee Garden Guesthouse (mentioned in all the guidebooks) is a good budget choice with varying prices, TBT1400 (AU$56 or about US$38) for the best rooms (try Arun – Room A) – with Air Con, own bathroom and balcony overlooking the river. The best room is Arun (room A). The riverside restaurant is a good place to while away some time. Inform the cooks that you prefer spicy food if you prefer real Thai tastes.

Return to Dali: travels in Yunnan province, China

A quiet afternoon in Dali
A quiet afternoon in Dali

Two decades ago, I visited the ancient walled city of Dali in China’s Yunnan Province and left with vivid and fond memories. I returned last year, curious to see whether the city and its surrounds had changed, and a little apprehensive that my recollections would not be matched by the reality.

Then, transport to and from Dali was uncomfortable. The sleeper bus from Kunming offered a coffin-like bed on bumpy roads, so that sleep was virtually impossible. The return trip by day bus was even more challenging; no leg room, and no toilet stop for many, many hours. This time, the train from Kunming in Soft Sleeper class (the best train class in China) and then onwards to Lijiang was bliss.  Mrs Nomadic gave this mode of travel her unqualified approval.

Dali is picturesque, wedged between the impressive Cangshan mountain range (reaching 4122 metres high), and forty kilometre long Lake Erhei. Like much of Yunnan province, Dali and surrounds is famous for its ethnic minorities, and their distinctive cultures, traditions and attire.

One of the highlights of my earlier trip was to journey by boat to a village market across Erhai Lake, enjoying the reflections of the mountains in the water, seeing the old Buddhist temple located on an island, small fishing boats, and traditional cormorant fishing.  The most memorable images are of the village market: the women and girls all dressed in strikingly colourful outfits.

Twenty years ago, Dali was a popular place for backpackers. A couple of main streets had numerous cafes, restaurants, and shops catering for their interests, including the quaintly named Salvador Dali Cafe. Besides boat trips on the lake, and opportunities to see traditional village life nearby, there were, and are, many outdoor activities like cycling, walking, hiking and climbing pursuits available.

In two decades, much has changed in Dali, as in China. One of the most striking differences in Dali is the level of domestic tourism. Even in the couple of streets where westerners were so visible 20 years ago, they are now relatively rare in a sea of Chinese faces. I like seeing this change, as part of China recovering its identity.

The old town has spread, but rather well generally, in a manner reflecting increasing prosperity. A short walk of a few hundred metres outside the city walls two decades ago took you into the town’s rural fringes, up the hill to catch the view to Lake Erhei with the town in the foreground, or looking in the other direction, to the peaks of the Cangshan mountain range. A slightly longer walk allowed you to stroll around Dali’s famous 3 pagodas. Now the 3 pagodas are enclosed, with a large park for buses and cars, and access by paid admission only.

On my latest visit, I initially wondered whether the traditional dress worn by the women in Dali was part of a tourist thing. Generally this was not so, as traditional dress is still worn in the locals-only markets, both in Dali itself and in the outlying villages, whether the women and girls are working or not.

How true are recollections from twenty years ago? The lake now has a road right around it (something new, I think), the water doesn’t seem as crystal clear, cormorant fishing is now an event to see on a day tour, and motors and pulleys located on the side of the lake haul in large fishing nets dropped out far into the water by boat. Not quite so romantic and quaint, but life evolves.

Thank you Dali.

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

I have posted some tribute photos to the women of Dali here.

Chengdu Old and New

Chengdu Lane
Chengdu Lane

Chengdu is large, with a population of 20 million people including the surrounding suburbs.

It follows other Chinese cities in attempting to balance the old and new in a world of rapid industralisation, population growth, and modernisation.

Just around the corner from this lane, the Narrow Lane in Central Chengdu, stands a brick wall from the Song Dynasty (960-1279). Nearby is a memorial to the Tang Dynasty poet, Du Fu (712-770), one of China and Japan’s most revered poets. He is honoured by the preservation of his cottage and its surrounds. There are numerous other historic sites around the city including Buddhist and Taoist temples, and traditional gardens. They are refuges from modernity.

Chengdu is many things, like all cities.  As the capital of Sichuan Province, it’s the home of Sichuanese cuisine, claims to have the best tea houses in China, is best place to see pandas, and has an unexpectedly relaxed outlook on life.

A Quatrain by Du Fu

Against blue water birds appear more white;

On green mountains red flowers seem to burn.

Alas! I see another spring in flight.

O when will come the day of my return?

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

A-Z Guidebook Badge

A Trip to Far North Queensland

Far North Queensland is removed from the southern states of Australia by more than distance.

The Daintree Rainforest region is part of the Wet Tropics of Queensland World Heritage Site, the oldest surviving rainforest in the world, and notable for the diversity of its vegetation. Off-shore  lies the Great Barrier Reef.  The region offers wilderness, solitude, and a sense of remoteness unavailable in more populous parts.

Cape Tribulation is located 139 kilometres north of Cairns. While the drive could be completed in around 3 hours, it is better to savour at least some of the offerings on the way. The chosen vehicle for this trip was a campervan hired in Cairns, and eventually returned in Brisbane 4,000 kilometres later.

The road between Cairns and Port Douglas is claimed to be one of Australia’s most scenic: it hugs the Coral Sea, meandering, and rising and falling with the terrain as the hills plunge into the sea.

Port Douglas is a popular destination, too popular perhaps for some, but it retains vestiges of its old frontier port ambiance, a raffish past, amidst the cafes, restaurants, pubs, and upmarket clothing and tourist shops. With a permanent population of  about 1300, which quadruples in holiday season, the town has a broad beach, a scenic location and port area with extensive offerings of reef trips, diving and snorkelling,  yacht cruises, and other marine adventures.

One end of the main shopping street, Macrossan Street, reveals the town’s palm lined beach, while the other terminates at a town park,  fronting the estuary and port.

Port Douglas
Port Douglas

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Mossman is the next major settlement north of Port Douglas, a farming town located in a sea of sugar cane farms, backed by forested mountains, and close to beautiful Mossman Gorge. Saturday morning is market time.

The Daintree River crossing, by ferry, marks a transition to the very far north. Things get wilder.

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No swimming is recommended

The camping ground at Cape Tribulation highlights an interesting feature of camping grounds and caravan parks in Queensland. In winter, many residents from the southern states and southern Queensland head north for the weather. Some camp grounds and caravan parks south of the Daintree are dominated by older travellers and rows of their very large caravans and matching sized tow vehicles. At times they almost resemble a retirement home where the residents occupy mobile homes/caravans instead of units or rooms.

As a contrast, the camp ground at Cape Tribulation attracts a different clientele. Adventurers in 4 wheel drives who are heading to or returning from Cape York (‘the Tip’) join a significant number of youngish overseas travellers, both backpackers and young couples and families, and Aussies of varying ages, who are all seeking elements of the rainforest, reef and wilderness experience. Most are keen to sight a cassowary, crocodile, and turtle.

Walk opportunities abound: on the beaches, into the rain forest, and beside the intertidal zone.

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A trip to the Great Barrier Reef is a highlight of a north Queensland visit.

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The soft coral surrounding this giant clam was dancing to and fro with the wave motion, like spaghetti cooking in a pot.

Cape Tribulation Recommendations

Reef trip from Cape Tribulation.

There is only one reef trip publicly available from Cape Tribulation. Professional and personable staff cater for snorkelling only with a small number of passengers (maximum 25) . At $134 the half day trip is much cheaper than those in Port Douglas.

http://www.oceansafari.com.au/

Cape Tribulation Camping

A really nice campground right on the beach with plenty of bush and rainforest. Friendly and helpful staff.  $40 per night for a powered site. Good facilities, including camp kitchens, which are a good place for informal chats with other campers, and a pub with modestly priced drinks and wood fired oven pizzas.

http://www.capetribcamping.com.au/

Bali Dawn

Bali Sunrise
Bali Sunrise

The sun begins to light up the sky over south-east Bali.

In the distance the island’s holy mountain, Gunung Agung, emerges from the morning mist.

As the light increases, a  fisherman casts his net around the moored traditional fishing boats – Jungkung in Balinese and Prahu in Bahasa Indonesian – while a couple of boatmen already have their boats moving in readiness to brave the often turbulent tidal streams and waves offshore.

The boats look like aquatic praying mantises in the morning light. With their canoe-like hulls and bamboo outriggers, they have a reassuring seaworthiness for their fishermen skippers, as well as for visitors who travel in them for snorkelling and diving pursuits, or as transport to the beautiful Gili Islands off Lombok’s coast.

A family of five comes to the beach for their morning ritual, saluting the mountain and the rising sun. They wade chest deep into the water, releasing and watching their floral offerings drift out to sea.

Others, alone or in groups, are sometimes silent, or murmuring, or conversing. They imbibe the dawn while the sea at this coral reef protected beach quietly and soothingly adds sounds to the hypnotic scene.

On a clear morning, across the Lombok Straight, another volcanic shape can be seen, 3726 metre high Mount Rinjani, as well as the white cliffs of Nusa Penida, another island about 15 kilometres across the sea.

The dawn described above is a world away from the gross features of mass tourism that afflict a small part of Bali, yet it takes place at a major tourist destination. Here, traditional rituals, culture and ceremonies flourish at least as strongly as a generation ago.

Perhaps the wealth generated by tourism has had some positive effects. Historians often suggest that the European Renaissance, the flowering of the arts, literature and intellectual pursuits, required a degree of wealth, patronage and leisure to promote those cultural activities. As in Bali?

As a regular visitor to Bali and quite a few other islands in Indonesia’s 17,000 plus archipelago over many decades, Bali remains a beguiling place to visit for the warmth, humour, respect and culture of the people, the great food, and the extraordinary diversity and beauty of its landscapes, beaches and undersea. Traditional life and culture have survived better than some imagine.

This post forms part of Fiona’s  A-Z guidebook, a monthly travel journal.