Friday 27 September 2013

The Unpublished 15: América Tropical, Los Angeles

When I visited Los Angeles, USA, in June, I dropped into the newly opened América Tropical Interpretive Centre to research the story of a remarkable mural. 

The first draft of the resulting article for The Age newspaper was too heavy with historic background, so I rewrote its introductory paragraphs to emphasise the contemporary experience.

However, the original intro still makes a good backgrounder, so here it is - followed by a link to the final published story:

Courtesy of the América Tropical Interpretive Centre

In the centre of Los Angeles, a Mexican-born artist stages a protest against the evils of extreme capitalism, imperialism and racism, aiming his scorn directly at the USA.

Sounds contemporary, doesn’t it? The world is still struggling with the aftermath of the global financial crisis triggered by America’s sub-prime mortgage crisis; geo-political tensions between the US and China are growing; and recent outrage over the George Zimmerman trial demonstrates the brittle nature of race relations, notwithstanding the nation’s black president.

It could be today. But it isn’t. The date is October 9, 1932, and a crowd of celebrities, artists and reporters have been summoned to an unusual opening on a rooftop in the city’s El Pueblo district.

This was once the heart of Spanish LA, a village founded by 44 settlers in 1781. Over the centuries it’s become dwarfed by the ever-growing metropolis around it, especially now that the city is the hub of the world’s film industry. 

Rescued from demolition by a nascent conservation movement led by wealthy socialite Christine Sterling, the streets of El Pueblo have undergone a kind of Disney treatment, decked out with a colourful Mexican-style marketplace along with south-of-the-border restaurants.

The latest addition to this Hollywood-style fantasy of an idyllic Mexico of small villages and smiling folk in sombreros is about to be unveiled in the form of a mural by famed Mexican muralist David Siqueiros, contemporary of the great Diego Rivera. 

The América Tropical mural stretches across the upper wall of a building known as the Italian House, facing the beer garden where the glitterati are assembled.

Sterling and her associates are expected a colourful depiction of Mexican jungle and villages to sooth the eye while sipping a beer on a warm LA evening. What they haven’t been aware of – or perhaps haven’t factored in fully – is Siqueiros’ radical past. They’re about to have a big surprise...

Courtesy of the América Tropical Interpretive Centre

Now read on, by following this link to my final published article about América Tropical.

Disclosure time... On this trip I was hosted by the Los Angeles Tourism and Convention Board. You can discover more about the América Tropical mural here:

Friday 20 September 2013

The Bed Report 3: Quest Warrnambool Accommodation Review

As Warrnambool is a decent-sized regional city at the western end of Victoria's Great Ocean Road, it makes a good base for sampling both urban and scenic pleasures.

The modern Quest Warrnambool apartment complex is well sited to take advantage of both, being placed neatly between the ocean and a shopping strip.

In one direction, past Lake Pertobe, is the excellent sandy swimming beach of Lady Bay and the refreshments available at its surf lifesaving club.

In the other, Liebig Street is lined by a variety of restaurants and shops, along with a theatre and art gallery.

Our one-bedroom apartment centres on a spacious living room, with a long sofa and TV at one side and a dining table at the other.

Behind the table, the kitchen area is equipped with oven, stovetop and dishwasher (with just enough utensils for some light self-catering).

The living room opens onto a long, broad balcony which overlooks the small communal swimming pool below.

The bedroom and bathroom are both a reasonable size, with a large wardrobe and washing machine respectively.

The decor, like that of the living room, emphasises unprovocative neutral tones with a tinge of natural colours.

Given its size and location, this accommodation would be a great place for a week-long getaway by the sea.

Just the Facts:
Quest Warrnambool
15 Liebig Street, Warrnambool VIC 3280, Australia
Phone: 03 5564 1200 (Internationational +61 3 5564 1200)
Rates: From $135 per night

Disclosure time... on this trip I was hosted by Warrnambool Tourism and V/Line. To read previous accommodation reviews, click on The Bed Report label below.

Friday 13 September 2013

Montreal: Red Light in the Latin Quarter

The best thing about travelling with a companion? I get out more at night.

When I'm by myself and I've had a full day trudging around a city, it can be very tempting to curl up in my hotel room for the evening, with room service or sandwiches from a local cafe.

But with Narrelle along for the ride this time, she was keen to see some nightlife and I was keen to show her Montreal.

So last Saturday night we stepped out at the Berri-UQAM Metro station, to take a look at the Latin Quarter.

This part of Montreal, wedged between the Downtown and the Gay Village, wears a few different hats. As the Latin Quarter it takes its name from Paris' Quartier Latin, partly because of the university at its heart.

It's also part of the recently created Quartier de Spectacles, a dedicated entertainment zone comprising numerous performance spaces and art galleries.

But don't let that renaming fool you. Under the modern facade is plenty of signs of the Latin Quarter's long history as the city's red light district.

It was particularly lively in the Prohibition years in the nearby USA, when Montreal became an irresistible lure for Americans looking to drink and have fun.

Not that Montreal is trying that hard to hide its Red Light past. All over the district are light installations like this one, highlighting entertainment venues but also giving a nod to the sinful past:

There was plenty of liveliness evident in the Latin Quarter the night we visited. Firstly we happened upon this DJ, performing in a three-day Emerging Arts Festival:

There was some excellent street art on the walls of side streets, such as this combo of Batman, a fox, and, er, some other creature:

Despite the new respectability of the area, there were still some signs of the raunchy past such as this:

And this:

Another survivor from the past is this place - Les Foufounes Électriques (Electric Buttocks). A long-lived alternative music venue, it's the sort of vast grungy retro cheap-beer place which vanished in Melbourne long ago:

And here's another nearby stayer - the 101 year old Montreal Pool Room:

Despite the name, it's a fast food joint dishing up classic Montreal comfort food such as poutine and steamé (steamed hot dogs). We had dinner here - simple, tasty and cheap. Beats room service food anytime:

[And you can read Narrelle M Harris' take on our trip to the Latin Quarter at her blog post here.]

Disclosure time... On this trip I travelled courtesy of the Canadian Tourism Commission and Tourisme Montreal.

Wednesday 4 September 2013

Jasper, Canada: Echoes of Edith Cavell

The more I travel, the more I stumble upon links between places scattered across the globe.

For example, in 2011 I visited Belfast, UK, to trace the origins of the SS Titanic, a year before the centenary of its sinking. A year later I was in Halifax, Canada, at the cemetery where the bodies of many of the victims of the tragedy were laid to rest.

As part of the same 2011 trip, I visited the tiny Irish village where Ned Kelly's dad stole the pigs which saw him transported to Australia as a convict. This neatly matched an earlier journey through the High Country of Victoria, Australia, writing about the newly established Ned Kelly Touring Route.

And then there was Edith Cavell.

I won't go deeply into her story here - you can find it comprehensively covered in the relevant Wikipedia entry.

In a nutshell, however, Cavell was a British nurse who stayed in place after the German occupation of Belgium in World War One. Ostensibly treating combatants on behalf of the Red Cross, she secretly assisted Allied soldiers to escape capture and leave the country.

As a result, the German authorities arrested her, tried her under military law and executed Cavell by firing squad in 1915.

This shocking act was, as you can imagine, a serious propaganda blunder on the part of the German occupiers. The execution of a nurse filled front pages everywhere, reinforcing the line the British Empire and its allies were pushing about Germans' inherent brutality.

A wave of sympathy followed, with the erection of monuments to Edith Cavell around the world.

With the passing of time and another brutal worldwide conflict having taken place between her time and ours, Cavell's story has been largely forgotten among the general public.

So I knew nothing about her when I happened across her statue in the Kings Domain gardens in my home city of Melbourne, researching items for my mobile app Melbourne Historical.

Here it is, the plinth beneath bearing her statement made the night before her death, "Patriotism is not enough, I must have no hatred or bitterness towards anyone":

As interesting as Cavell's story had been to discover, I wasn't expecting to encounter it again. But last year, visiting Norwich, UK, in the company of a Wodehouse Society tour, I happened upon this pub:

And across the street, near Norwich Cathedral, was this striking monument:

On investigation it turned out that Cavell was a daughter of Norfolk, having been born just outside Norwich in the village of Swardeston.

Finally, Cavell far from my mind, I arrived in Jasper, Canada, yesterday by train across the Rocky Mountains from Vancouver. On the drive from the railway station to our accommodation at Jasper Park Lodge, the driver pointed out a lofty peak in the distance and said "That's Edith Cavell."

You can see it below, in the centre of the picture beyond the attractive grounds of the Lodge:

Reaching an impressive 3300 metres, this snow-capped mountain was given Cavell's name in 1916.

Its earlier title, "La Montagne de la Grande Traverse" (Great Crossing Mountain), was granted by French-Canadian fur traders who used the nearby Athabasca Pass.

Renamed after the nurse whose execution shook the British Empire, Mount Edith Cavell is probably the most impressive and certainly the largest of her memorials. (At least on Earth - there's a 100km-wide Cavell Corona named after her on Venus. I suspect I'm unlikely to visit that one.)

Her story, though not so well remembered nowadays, is a tragic and fascinating one. And my unintended encounters with her memorials have reminded me how moving travel can be, when it allows you to join the dots of great historical events in person, rather than remotely via the experiences of others.

Disclosure time... On this trip I travelled courtesy of the Canadian Tourism Commission and VIA Rail.

Sunday 1 September 2013

Victoriously Among Those Present (Eventually) in Victoria, Canada

We're now in Victoria, the capital of British Columbia.

It was well worth making the journey to the city at the bottom of Vancouver Island, as it's a picturesque place with good food and a nice balance between small town friendliness and big city attractions.

However, getting here wasn't without its challenges. On Thursday we left the Great Bear Lodge in BC's northern wilderness, travelling by seaplane low over mountains, trees and waterways to the town of Port Hardy.

There we were to board a small plane to Vancouver's South Terminal, with a quick change to an even smaller plane to Victoria.

Flight manoeuvres

When organising this trip I suspected the seaplane might be a spanner in the works, but in fact the flight from Port Hardy was the one with issues. Running some 45 minutes late and having to deal with turbulence, it seemed it would be delayed just enough for us to miss the final flight of the day to Victoria.

Luckily Pacific Coastal delayed the Victoria flight, and when we touched down at Vancouver the airline's staff were ready to whisk us onto the waiting plane.

However, we hadn't yet been through security (not a requirement at Port Hardy) so there was a certain sense of chaos added to the urgency.

Stepping off the first plane, we had to wait a minute for the crew to retrieve our backpacks from the 'valet' hold, where they'd been placed just before boarding due to the lack of cabin luggage space.

Security and insecurity

Then we scooted into the terminal, and zipped down to the gate at the other end to go through security.

This was tricky. Not only did the usual array of metal items need to be divested at speed, but my lace-up boots had to come off as well as they contain enough metal to bother the detector.

Also, as I lifted my arms up at one point the security guy noticed my belt, and asked for that to come off too (I never usually remove it, and it never usually sets the detector off). So off it came too, all while the Victoria plane was waiting outside.

Once all the gear was scanned, I hastily and poorly tied my bootlaces, and shoved the belt inside my backpack rather than take the time to put it on. Then we dashed through the door, headed out to the plane and dropped our packs again on this new craft's valet cart.

To infinity and beyond

We clambered aboard, into what appeared to be more a model airplane with an engine than a real live plane. It was tiny - just 21 seats, one to each side of the minuscule aisle beneath the very low curved roof (I had to scurry bent over to board). What with the shiny white cylindrical interior, I felt as if I was in the first manned rocket to Mars.

Then, 25 minutes later, we landed at Victoria Airport. Upon which we grabbed our bags from the valet cart, found the airport bus and hopped aboard. Shortly, seated within its pitch-dark interior, Vancouver Island nightlife flashing past the windows, we were barrelling toward the city. And laughing, as you might imagine, slightly hysterically.

When we stepped out of the bus in front of the majestic 1908 Fairmont Empress Hotel in the historic heart of Victoria, laces askew and beltless, I recognised at once that were unwittingly part of a PG Wodehouse scene. I imagine the master humorist would've written it like this:

Backpacks in the Offing
(with apologies to PG Wodehouse)

The doorman at the Fairmont Empress Hotel was feeling pleased with himself this evening. Not only had he won a little wager over the visiting Governor General's preference in tie colour with the boy who cleaned the boots, an upstart lad who needed to be taught to respect his elders and betters, but the weather was distinctly like that which mother makes.

Pink sunset, one, balmy breeze, one, and cloudless starry sky, one, he thought, having found it hard to shake the ordered thinking habits of his stint in the army. On top of which, he'd had a delightful chat with the Crown Prince of Japan about which racehorses to back.

The doorman, though of humble origin, found no difficulty in conversing with those he regarded as "The Quality". Having been a doorman for decades at the Empress, he had developed an easy manner with which he could charm the richest and most famous.

Also, his uniform contained enough in the way of coloured braid, extravagant epaulettes and cap peaks to make even a sultan or maharajah feel underdressed and not a little sheepish in his presence.

As the airport bus pulled to the kerb, the doorman drew himself up to his full height and prepared to welcome new guests. More members of the aristocracy, he conjectured, or perhaps a president or high-born native chief. No matter, he was prepared for all comers.

Then a man and a woman stepped out, and the doorman froze. There was something not quite right about this couple.

His keen eye for correct dress perceived that both of them had bootlaces badly tied, and the male half of the sketch was holding the top of his jeans as if they needed support. Moreover, their luggage consisted merely of two backpacks. It was hard to suppress a shudder at the sight of them.

He was about to direct them to a suitable boarding house in a less particular part of town, when the man spoke. "Is this the Empress?" he asked. "We have a reservation."

The doorman was struck dumb. The newcomers seemed to shake like aspens as he reeled back, dazed.

Then, reason returning to its throne, he suddenly perceived the truth. This duo must be an example of the eccentric celebrities he'd read so much about in the hoard of colourful popular magazines he kept secreted in his little booth within the hotel. Appearing "of the people", but tycoons in secret, seeking whom they might reward with riches.

He could play along with this game, and with any luck secure a sizeable tip for his carefully indicated discretion. "Welcome to the Empress," he said, bowing low.

This doorman, stout fellow though he was, would soon have his illusions soundly shattered. But not yet. He flung wide the hotel doors, and the bedraggled couple entered.

Or at least, that's how it felt at the time.*

*[Doorman added for dramatic effect]

Disclosure time... On this trip I travelled courtesy of the Canadian Tourism Commission and Tourism Victoria.