The Eagle Landed Today

The wedge-tailed eagle is Australia’s largest raptor, typically having a wingspan of 182 – 232 cm (6 feet to 7 feet 7 inches), and has been recorded diving at 80 kph (about 50 mph). In the wild, wedgies live for about 40 years.

In my area wedgies are regular visitors, usually seen majestically soaring in circles high in the sky, perhaps 2000 metres up, using thermals in seemingly effortless flight. At other times they seek prey just a few metres above the ground, sometimes even landing quite close to the house.

Although in the past farmers often had a negative attitude about wedgies, mistakenly believing that they were preying on lambs and calves when in fact they were just consuming dead animals, now they are seen in a positive light. In particular, their role in killing Australia’s feral pests – rabbits, cats and foxes – is now applauded.

To the local indigenous people (the Wurundjeri) the wedge-tailed eagle is Bungil, their creator and spiritual leader. Many country people of European background also see the wedgie in a special light. My friends who left their home just minutes before the 2009 Black Saturday bushfire raced into their valley and destroyed most houses in the area, killed neighbours and cut off the road as an escape route, feel that they were alerted to the danger by the continually circling wedgie over their house.

When we moved into our current home in 2009 after losing our previous house in the same fire, a wedgie also featured. On arising on my first morning in the new home, I was greeted by a wedgie perched on a fence in the paddock about 40 metres from the front door. It was quite relaxed and unconcerned, and became a regular visitor over the next month or so, sometimes gliding a few metres above our car like a welcoming plane as we returned from an outing.

Perhaps today’s wedgie is the same one. Thanks for your welcome, Bunjil.

 

A wedgie in flight

A wedgie in flight.

Tha tail shape is the source of the name. I'm glad I'm not a rabbit
The tail shape is the source of the name. I’m glad I’m not a rabbit.
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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.

A-Z Guidebook Badge

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’.

A-Z Guidebook Badge

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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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.