Turismo Mexico City 2: Exploring the Colonias of Cuauhtémoc by Day

Regional History, Travel

After the rollicking good time we had on the previous night’s Urban Adventures tour of the capital (‘Turismo Mexico City 1: A Taste of the Capitalino Nightlife, Mezcal, Mariachis and Luchadores’) we decided the best way to catch more city highlights on our last full day in Mexico City would be to do the free city walking tour run by Estacion Mexico✼. We followed the tourist brochure’s instructions to look for a large pink umbrella…upon arriving at the designated meeting spot outside Catedral Metropolitana (AKA Catedral Mayor), despite the crowds milling round the cathedral, sure enough we were able to pick out the walk guide Mar, both from the pink umbrella she was brandishing and from her pink Estacion T-shirt with the upper case words “MAKE MEXICO GREAT AGAIN!” cheekily emblazoned on the back. Mar turned out to be a young “glass ¾-full” architectural student with a passion for the city’s heritage architecture which became readily evident as the tour progressed.

Cuba Street fashions
The walking route comprised a roughly rectangular course, fanning out from Centro and exploring the northern and western colonias (neighbourhoods) of Cuauhtémoc, the delegacíon (borough) which encompasses the oldest parts of the city, then circling back to Av Madero. Mar took us on a broad sweep of Cuauhtémoc including some of the less well-known back streets off the main drag of Turismo Centro…in Calle Donceles, away from the shiny, glossy 21st century shops of the city commercial hub, we saw a street with antiquated books (and bookshops) and an old theatre whose facade retained only a modicum of its past glory; in Calle República de Cuba we encountered a small shopping block which specialised in over-elaborate, ridiculous-looking bustle style ball dresses¤. Mar valued-added along the way…recounting various historical snippets, anecdotes and folklore about her city, a real insider’s perspective of the town which really enhanced our appreciation of Mexico City’s uniqueness.

Palacio Postal
One of the absolute stand-out sights architecturally we were indeed fortunate to see was Palacio De Correos De Mexico on the Eje Central. Also known as Correos Mayor (the Main Post Office), Italian-designed (same architect/engineer as the nearby, magnificent Pallacio de Bellas Artes) and built in the Spanish Renaissance Revival style with many eclectic features…but it’s Correos Mayor’s interior that is the real gem. Pride of place is the exquisite central stairway (laterial staris) with its two gilded ramps converging in sweeping fashion on the landing. By now means in the staircase’s shade is the building’s sublime elevator, a gorgeous feature which blends harmoniously with the interior’s gold-encased bars of the service windows. The bronze and iron window frames also set off nicely against the marble floor.
Palace of Fine Arts: Mexico City’s cultural hub and finest building. Constructed over 30 year period interrupted by the Mexican Revolution and CDMXs notorious soft soil issues (Designer: Adamo Boari)

The free walking tour wound up in the western end of Madero in Historico Centro at an early 18th century church (San Francisco) opposite the House of Tiles, another unique CDMX building (the end of a good five hours spent!). We thanked the ever enthusiastic Mar for her vibe, expert knowledge and insights into an enormous city we had only barely scratched the surface of…I’m sure she appreciated the positive feedback and the glowing affirmation of the tour’s merits more than the small quantity of pesos we were more than happy to hand over as a parting token of our thanks.
Entrance to Church of San Francisco in Av Madero

✼ I first heard about free walking tours when I was in Lima several years ago but it wasn’t until I was in Warsaw in 2015 that I really took advantage of this far-sighted tourism initiative and went on three or four city tours led by the local Warszawa legend Pse (this may be self-evidently obvious but its the skill of the actual tour leader in getting across the spirit and ethos of the place in only a few hours of contact time that really makes the experience memorable especially for first-time visitors)
¤ these utterly impractical dresses, shaped like grotesquely swollen vases, look like something Cinderella would wear, but I’d like to see some Mexican Señorina Cindy drive around the narrow streets in one of Mexico’s minuscule clone smart cars wearing this!

Turismo Mexico City 1: A Taste of the Capitalino Nightlife, Mezcal, Mariachis and Luchadores

Regional History, Travel

Having really enjoyed my first organised tour around the city markets and food outlets I opted to follow it up with one or two other city tours in the couple of days we had left in the capital. First, Urban Adventures’ night walking tour. We met up at six with our guide for the night, a relaxed, amiable guy with the unhispanic-sounding name of Milton, at a small design museum just down from the Zocálo. Milton took us first to nearby Cinco de Mayo (5th of May Street), a street notable for its restaurants, cantinas and drinking houses with names like Pata Negra, Sálon Corona and La Popular.

Cinco de Mayo
We stopped outside a fairly upmarket- looking establishment with velvet curtains and shimmering chandeliers called La Opera Bar whilst Milton explained the story of its particular fame. During the 1910s when Mexico was gripped by revolutionary fervour, the cantina had been the scene of a celebrated meeting between revolutionary bandit leaders Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata. At La Opera bar, Villa and Zapata, Mexico’s two powerful warlords got together to discuss their plans to carve up the strife-racked country. Villa immortalised the occasion by shooting a hole through the bar’s ceiling which is still visible today. Another more recent celebrity who frequented La Opera as a favourite watering hole was Columbian expat and literature Nobel laureate Gabriel Gárcia Marquez.

The tour then took us to Avenida Juárez and an elevator ride to the top of Mexico City’s tallest building, Torre Latinoamericanos, where we sipped cool cocktails (I had a frozen strawberry margarita) whilst admiring the 360° views of Mexico City from Level 37. Over drinks Milton talked about his environmental work for Greenpeace and mentioned that Mexico City had an ongoing major water problem (he hinted that one of the more affluent areas of the city has some sort of monopolisation of potable water which affects supply to the rest of CDMX!).

Surreal sculpture
Back down at ground level, we strolled through the small garden park next door, the area had been given over to a public exhibition of 23 bronze sculptures by Spanish surrealist painter and celebrity oddball Salvador Dali. The famed Catalonian artist’s most famous/notorious paintings of warped clocks, burning giraffes and women with implanted drawers were on display as sculptural representations in a nice garden setting. Rejoining Calle Francisco I Madero I ask Milton about the various guys I have seen on the street wearing military style uniforms, playing organ grinders (sans monkeys!) and asking for money. Milton says it’s an old tradition of the city dating back to around the 1930s when ex-army officers were given permission to do this, and it became an established convention. It’s so widespread that it seems to me that this is another variant of begging so common in the city, but with a bit more structure and embellishment to it.

Two mariachis looking for their instruments?
The next chapter of our tour linked up mariachi bands, cantinas, tequila and mezcal. We sampled some of the legendary hard liquor made from the agave plant to the accompaniment of raucous mariachi bands…in between songs Milton explained how a lot of the city’s many, many mariachi groups work. The mariachis congregate around Garibaldi Plaza, musical bands comprising violins, trumpets and guitars,who play randomly for people who turn up to hear them so as to hire a group for an upcoming wedding, party, etc. The musicians are effectively auditioning for jobs in the plaza! Mariachi band members are usually distinguished by their charro style dress (upmarket garb of Mexican horsemen), usually but not always in white, tight-fitting outfits with the broad-brimmed sombreros.

Upstairs after the tequila and mezcal sampling we explored a little Tequilia y Mezcal Museo/Tienda, finding out about the complex process of making these drinks (involving several stages of fermentation and distillation). The museum highlight for me was the staggeringly immense range of tequila and mezcal bottles and containers on display (characteristically the Mexican fatalistic obsession with skulls and the symbolising of death comes through strongly in the design of drinking vessels).

Trios match
We topped the evening off with a bit of a cross-country hike via the Mexico City Metro…travelling on a uniquely colour-coded network of lines following Milton as he went confusingly from the Pink Line following an alternate colour line that took us to a separate platform in the opposite direction, so that we eventually about 10pm reached Arena Mexico across town in time to catch the last few bouts of Mexico’s other national obsession, professional masked wrestling. Known in Mexico as Lucha Libre (Sp. “Free fight”), this took place in a huge, cavernous old stadium. The dyed-in-the-wool, rusted-on Lucha Libre-obsessed fans (just about everyone else here!) cheered on their masked favourites…the most popular type of contests are trios contests (three-man tag teams). However I was more intrigued with the reactions of the fans themselves, their unrestrained enthusiasms for their heroes and equally unchecked abuse for the luchadors (wrestlers) assigned to be villains. They all just seem to buy it, 100 per cent! Most venom and opprobrium on the night was reserved for a luchador called Sam Adonis, introduced to the crowd as an American (interestingly “US Sam” at the end of the bout grabbed the microphone and harangued the crowd in fluent Spanish for a full five minutes!)

We made a slightly premature exit from Arena Mexico – nothing was spoiled, we weren’t psychic but somehow we sensed the “good guys” would triumph in the deciding third fall (tres caídas) – to avoid the end-of-night rush. Back at Colonial Doctores station, clutching our cheap souvenir luchador mask, we boarded one of CDMX’s strange box-shaped carriages for another zig-zagging journey on the Metro to Centro. When we alighted at our nearest Metro station, the obliging and ever affable Milton walked us back to our hotel near the Almeida Park.

Mexico City De-Texmexified: the Authentic Comida Experience

Regional History, Travel

Venturing outside of our hotel in Calle Luis Moya, the first thing that struck me about Mexico City was how cold it was. It was night and winter time but I somehow supposed its proximity to the Equinox meant the climate would generally be fairly tropical✼. Certainly, the attire of the Mexiqueños I saw on the street indicated that the locals themselves clearly felt the cold – puffer jackets, coats, scarfs, beanies and (always) long trousers were the fashion de jour.

The universal adoption of long trousers by the locals puzzled me a bit, it seems that Mexicans, even the youth, don’t tend to wear long pants – it isn’t the done thing culturally in the country apparently even in the stifling temperatures of summer. This immediately marked me out for all to spot as 100 per cent tourist…I wore shorts most of the time, a Hungarian military style cap and either an Hawaiian shirt or a T-shirt. A hasty examination of the contents of my luggage revealed that I was well short on warm clothing, I had only brought one pair of long trousers (and these were lightweight Italian-designed jeans) and one warm pullover. On reflection I had the distinct feeling that my normal reductionist approach to packing was going to catch me out on this trip.

When I got out and about for my first exploratory saunter around the central part of Mexico City, I quickly became familiar with a characteristic of the city’s urban terrain, footpaths were consistently uneven, there were often large holes where concrete had broken up and been left unrepaired so long that people tended to use them as impromptu garbage bins! Walking on darkly-lit streets after nightfall proved hazardous…a couple of times I nearly came crashing to earth (actually concrete) when walking from a step onto thin air, not expecting the long, unseen (and unseeable) drop below to the ground. An added potential pitfall for pedestrians was the unevenness of steps, descending a series of small steps to suddenly find a large one meant you had to keep your wits about you at all times. Even on what you assumed was level ground you had to be wary, the pathway had a tendency to undulate all over alarmingly – this was probably the result of two related factors: the fairly regular seismic activity that CDMX was prone to✥, and the fact that the city, built as it was on a large lake, was slowly but inexorably sinking!

Crossing the road at intersections with significant car traffic proved challenging. The safest and wisest approach was to follow the locals, but you still had to be decisive whenever you set out to cross, Mexican motorists were uncompromising in their lack of restraint in using their horns at the slightest suggestion that pedestrians were taking liberties with the lights.

Being close to the old historical centre of the city my perambulations soon took me via the long pedestrian plaza of Francisco I Madero to the Zócalo. The Zócalo is very much the city’s hub. Easily spotted from the start of Madero by its steepling Christmas tree, the Zócalo is CDMX’s main square with a somewhat incongruous ice-skating rink on its perimeter. On one side is a line of grand government buildings including the National Palace, to the other is Mexico City’s main Cathedral. Just one block away from the Zócalo (= plinth) is the unearthed foundations of the Templo Mayor, In pre-Spanish times this was the principal ceremonial centre of the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan. In recent history the square has been the favourite venue for political protests (eg, 1968 university students opposed to police oppression, Zapatistas, etc).

Succulent cacti
Given the limited time we’d be in the capital we reckoned that signing on for a series of city tours was the best way to get to the heart of what Mexico City was about. The first day tour (of food and markets) was one offered by Urban Adventures. The food quest took us to the big central markets Mercado Abelardo L Rodríguez where we, wisely having skipped breakfast at the hotel, sampled the authentic diet of the masses. We started with different flavoured corn tortillas (vanilla maize tortillas a bit strange and challenging to the palate!) and later some delicious mixed tamales for lunch. The markets revealed a comida smorgasbord of idiosyncratically Mexican foodstuffs – from an exotic mix of spices and peppers to white corn to edible cactus leaves.

The massive, sprawling Rodríguez markets also does a sideline (very large sideline in fact!) in flowers and it was here that I discovered that the ubiquitous poinsettia plant (Euphoria pulcherrima, a Christmas favourite with its striking red and green foliage) though indigenous to Mexico was named after a Gringo from North of the Border! (1820s US minister to Mexico and botanist Joel R Poinsett).

Although I didn’t really appreciate it when I signed up for the trip to Mexico, a chance to taste real Mex-food rather than the bastardised and vastly inferior Tex-Mex substitute offered up in the West, was one of the best reasons to visit Mexico. Only then and there on the ground in Mexico can you evaluate its national cuisine properly and confirm among other things that the old Billy Connolly joke, thought funny and clever, is stereotypical and essentially wrong₪.

An interesting side excursion took us across town on a rickety old public bus crowded with locals. Like I had noticed in parts of Peru four years earlier, formal bus stops per sé didn’t exist, the people here also just somehow knew, from precedent and habit I guess, where to wait…the bus would duly stop at regular points on the journey to load and unload passengers. What I wasn’t expecting on the bus was the various hawkers who would get on the bus, travel a few stops without paying the conductor, and launch into a full-blown sales spiel for various products. One such Mexican “Joe the Gadget Man” who caught our eye (couldn’t but be aware of him!) was this chubby, perspiring guy who prowled up and down the aisle loudly proclaiming with speed-gun rapidity the virtues of some kind of ‘medicinal’ marijuana (in small green-topped tins labelled ‘Mariguanol’). Having made two, three quick sales within a short distance (to my great surprise) he promptly dismounted the bus to await the next ride. Our guide Pancho told us that many Mexicans believe in the healing powers of ‘grass’ for muscular ailments and the like.

Tarta temptation
When we too alighted the bus, Pancho took us to a couple of other shops which showed that the Mexiqueños’ love affair with food extended well beyond the merely savoury. These popular patisserie shops are often known locally as Dulcerías (essentially candy stores), where sweet-toothed Mexicans can buy all manner of sickly-sweet indulgences in pastels (cakes), tartas (tarts) and postres (deserts). Dulces de leche (caramel-tasting milk candies) and rompope (an eggnog concoction dipped in rum) are two of the Mexican comestibles much in demand. One famous shop (Ideal Pasteleria) we visited specialised in huge celebration cakes – signs on the tall and lavishly decorated cakes for birthdays and such occasions included the weight of the cake in kilos! This is practical information indeed allowing prospective purchasers to work out what size cake was needed to match the anticipated number of guests at the upcoming party/celebration! And of course, as our travels were to enlighten us, no decent restaurante in Mexico would fail to include at the very least pan dulce (sweet bread) or more likely an elaborate array of pastels on its menu!
A 50kg cake – perfectly fitting the bill for a king-sized party!

PostScript: Whither Chocolaté in Mexico?
For a country whose indigenous people gave the world the cocoa bean and therefore chocolate, Mexicans surprisingly tend not to eat slabs of chocolate as the rest of the world do…their cocoa preference is decidedly for chocolate caliente (hot chocolate drinks). Even confectionary sold in the sweets aisle labelled as chocolate is usually wafer biscuits with icing rather than the real thing.

✼ had I done my prep homework a bit better, the significance of Mexico City’s location atop a standard elevation of 2,250 metres, should have provided me with a few salient clues in this direction
✥ uncomfortable as this news was at the time, one day after I had paid for the Mexico trip, a magnitude 7.1 earthquake tore up part of the city
₪ “the thing about Mexican food is that its all the same, they just fold it differently!”

Four Hours in ESTA-land: Enervating and Unavoidable Encounters with Homeland Security at LAX


Getting to the land of corn tortillas and agave plants via American Airlines meant 12-13 hours in the air plus a tortuous three to four hour stopover at LAX. The dragged-out 16 hour total journey, such as it was, meant that it was of little solace to me that we reached our ultimate destination, Benito Juárez International Airport, around 3 o’clock (only four hours later than we had left Sydney on the same day – courtesy of flying ‘backwards’ across the International Dateline!) The process of connecting to a flight to Mexico via the US had already proved a taxing exercise with an unexpected and costly twist even before I had left Kingsford Smith.

My frustrations began with several fruitless attempts to secure a boarding pass through AA’s Sydney electronic ticketing system. An airline official intervened at this point advising me that I needed to obtain something called an ESTA* before I could proceed with my trip. This was news to me as my travel agent hadn’t mentioned this requirement to me during the preparations for my Central American tour. Arggh, bad start! The official directed me to a nearby Flight Centre office where I obtained the ESTA (at a moderate cost of $US14 – $A18.95) only to discover the sting imposed by Flight Centre who ripped me off to the tune of an additional $45 just to photocopy the single sheet document!

Being well and truly monetarily stitched up by Flight Centre was only the first travesty or inconvenience I had to endure in order to progress through US territorial jurisdiction successfully (but no means unscathed). By the time I had hit the tarmac at Tom Bradley International Terminal in LA my mind was confused as a result of a US Customs and Borders inflight video…the guy in the video was offering me, it seemed, two choices of entry to the US. In my jumbled head I had been still trying to come to grips with the significance of ESTA, and now he was rabbiting on about something called APC…and what was this Global Entry whatsamajazz thingy he mentioned as well?).

In the arrivals terminal, feelings of bewilderment as a consequence of an overload of Customs bureaucratic jargon was exacerbated by chaotic scenes of passengers streaming this way and that way from one end of the terminal to the other…airport officials were shuffling arriving passengers through never-ending lines like rudderless cattle through shutes✥. Why was it, I pondered frustratingly, that all these people were emptying off planes at the same time?). After several false starts and blind alleys (wrong queue, wrong forms … miss-a-turn, go back to the end of the other queue, do not pass Go! etc) I eventually worked out what queue I should be in and what documents I needed or didn’t need to fill out.

Even after I had got past the electronic interrogator with its game of 20 questions, the whole boarding process continued on and on with no apparent end in sight – positively labyrinthine I concluded! Collecting and reassigning my luggage was followed by mandatory de-belting and de-shoeing at the insistence of Customs Nazis barking orders and commands with Third Reich-like zeal (OK, yes American customs officers have no monopoly on bluntness or lack of manners…but they are certainly world-class in that department if my two horror stretches through the LAX maze is anything to go by!).

Finally free of electronic conveyor belts and scanners for a second time, I took some brief respite from the airport obstacle course by momentarily stepping outside the terminal long enough to get a sighter of the LA smog together with an accompanying olfactory dose of LA air before darting off to the departure gate for my connecting flight to Mexico.

Mercifully the second leg on AA2546 – from LA to Mexico City – was a much shorter and thus more tolerable experience, one fortified by an opportunity to sample the local Mexican cervezas…the aircraft however only carried Corona (which I was already familiar with being widely available in Australia) but I was to discover more and varied brands upon arrival in Mexico.

Yeah, sure!

FootNote: On the ESTA form Customs and Border Protection heralds its new program called Automated Passport Control with a boast that it “expedites the entry process for eligible Visa Waiver Program international travelers”… umm, if that was fast-tracking, then I wouldn’t want to see it in operation on a slow day when someone had thrown a gigantic spanner into the works!
* “Electronic System for Travel Authorization” – a visa waiver necessary to travel to/through the USA in this age of world-wide terrorism vigilance
✥ I can’t help but wonder what that cinematic cynical observer of modernity Jacques Tati would have made of the LAX spectacle of countless waves of humanity in the automatonic thrall of a Dalek-like army of little machines

Australia’s Foremost Valparaíso born Politician❈

Local history, Political History, Travel

If you ever take an international flight to South America and happen to stop over in Santiago, Chile with a spare day and find you are not much enamoured of what’s on offer in the less than pulsating capital, a trip to picturesque Valparaíso would be just the tonic! To escape Santiago’s grimy greyness … and its multi-millions of stray, mangy dogs, take a trip on Route 68 115km north-west to Valparaíso and Region V.

imageValparaíso, or ‘Valpo’ for short, today has a faded, glamour but stacks of aesthetic character – with a higgedly-piggedly, chaotic pattern of brightly coloured houses, “a heap … a bunch of crazy houses” as poet Pablo Neruda described them, and numerous run-down/falling-down Victorian mansions (conversely on a cautionary note, the city these days also has a criminal underbelly including endemic petty crime and prostitution). Remnants of the city’s former glory and especially its quaint charm remain however: the old and rickety ascensores (inclined lifts, called funiculars elsewhere) transport passengers up and down Valparaíso’s steep, undulating hills, from atop the cerros visitors enjoy sweeping views across the bay and the ports. It’s a city awash with the most brilliant murals on the walls of houses and commercial buildings which themselves exude colour and character.

Valaparaíso’s “salad days” were in the 19th century, during this period it was a world-class port on the Europe to California shipping route. A combination of the devastating 1906 earthquake and the opening of the Panama Canal in 1914 signified the rapid commercial decline of Valparaíso, once known as the “Jewel of the Pacific”. This small city on the eastern edge of the Pacific 11,326km from Sydney might seem an odd place for a turn-of-the-century Australian prime minister to be born◙, but in 1867 one such future PM was born there (also see Postscript). His name at birth was Johann Christian Tunck. Tunck’s father was Chilean of German stock whilst his mother was born in New Zealand of Irish ancestry. After his Chilean father disappeared early on, his mother remarried, changing the child’s name to John Christian Watson.

Later on Watson perpetuated a myth as to the truth of his origins which sustained itself throughout his political life. The name John Christian Watson emphasised his supposed ‘Scotchness’ and concealed an inconvenient, alien background. If his non-Britishness have been known, Watson’s eligibility for public office would have been imperilled (Australian politicians were required to be subjects of the Crown)[1].

Tanck (now Watson) grew up in the South Island of New Zealand, he trained as a compositor and worked for provincial newspapers such as the North Otago Times and the Oamaru Mail. Through these workplaces Watson had his first contacts with labour politics, joining the Typographers’ Union and the NZ Land League. Finding himself unemployed in his late teens prompted him to migrate to Sydney and peripatetic employment with local newspapers until moving to the em>Australian Star, a paper with a protectionist bent which matched his own economic thinking. As in NZ Watson found a path into the New South Wales Trades and Labour Council (TLC) via the Typographical Association of NSW[2].

Rising quickly through the official labour ranks Watson became both president of the TLC and chairman of the Labor Party (only recently established as the Labor Electoral League) by age 25. Watson served as a member of the colonial parliament of NSW, representing rural Young, and his star continued to ascend after the Commonwealth came into being on 1 January 1901.
A few months after Federation, still closer to 30 than 40, Watson was chosen as the first parliamentary leader of the Australian Labor Party (ALP).

Early Federal Australian politics entailed a three-way tussle between Watson’s ALP, the Protectionist Party led by Deakin and the Free Trade Party under Reid. Watson’s ascension to the prime minister-ship in 1904 was a novel occurrence: (the ALP was the) first national, labour-based government in the world; Watson at 37, the youngest-ever Australian PM[3]. The advent of Watson’s “workers'” government was met with cynicism and hostility as it challenged the hitherto standard notion that the working class were capable of assuming the mantle of government and succeeding. It didn’t as it eventuated succeed, surviving not quite four months before Watson found his government’s position untenable and was edged out of power¤ … but this was more to do with the nature of the Watson government, a minority one, than the quality or performance. Basically it couldn’t muster the numbers in parliament to continue governing and the governor-general appointed George Reid to the PM-ship in August 1904[4].

Watson’s political ideology:
In the terminology of 2016 filtered through the media’s lens, Chris Watson would be called “right-wing Labor”. Pro-protectionist (much closer to the position of his friend Deakin than to that of Reid and his Free Traders), a staunch advocate of the White Australia Policy, committed to gradual, industrial change in the working conditions and wages of the working man (hence his constant championing of Arbitration and Conciliation reform whilst PM). On the enduring question of the ALP and socialism, Watson, a moderate and mediator by temperament, eschewed a revolutionary approach, seeing himself rather as a proponent of “evolutionary (Christian) socialism”[5]. At his core Watson was no ideologue, he was far from being a fan of the later, quasi-messianic NSW Labor leader Jack Lang and his style of politics. Not a fuzzy idealist either, Watson was a thorough-going pragmatist (albeit a well-liked one), ever happy to do deals and compromise with the Free Trade Party and especially the Protectionists to try to retain Labor’s hold on power.

Labor front runner from Double Bay with Van Dyke beard
Labor front runner from Double Bay with Van Dyke beard
The almost universally highly regarded Watson held on to the leadership for a few more years[6] but in 1910, at around the time his successor Andrew Fisher was forming the first Federal Labor government to rule in its own right, Watson was leaving parliament. One reason for this decision was to spend more time with his wife, the other was purely financial, MPs in those days were not handsomely remunerated. Watson’s early business ventures were unsuccessful, eg, investing in a South African gold mine, land speculation at Sutherland in the southern districts of Sydney. More stable income was to be had when he became a director of a wool and textile enterprise – he was able to put his prestige as an ex-PM and his political connections to good use as a lobbyist for the business[7].

Into WWI Watson continued to play a behind-the-scenes role in the ALP, allying himself with the new Labor leader and PM, William Morris Hughes. The 1916 Conscription debate, saw both Hughes and Watson on the wrong side of the argument … calling for the introduction of compulsory military service by Australians in the war, a stand bitterly opposed by the great bulk of the Party (also decisively rejected by the public at large in two referendums). In the internecine conflict Hughes factionalised the ALP, defecting in 1917 to form a new (non-Labor) party, the Nationalists and holding on the prime minister-ship. Watson joined Hughes in the new party (both he and Watson were expelled from the ALP for their actions). Watson spent the last part of the war enthusiastically trying to get a soldier settlers’ scheme for returned Great War veterans off the ground[8].

In the 1920s Watson played a leading role in establishing and guiding the NRMA (National Roads and Motorists Association), and in the formation of Yellow Cabs (taxi service), and in the 1930s, AMPOL (Australian Motorists Petrol Company), all of which illustrate the former PM’s interest in motor transport. One of his other interests, cricket, led to him being appointed a trustee of the Sydney Cricket Ground in Australia[9].

Chris Watson’s life journey took him from obscure and somewhat clandestine origins in Chile to a printing apprenticeship in Dunedin, NZ, to labour politics in Sydney and ultimately to the highest political office in Australia during the formative years of Federation. His brief stint in the top job (a mere 15 weeks) and early retirement at 42 from representative politics, leaves him as one of the lesser known PMs but one that nonetheless played a pioneering role in Labor leadership and in the shaping of Australia’s national identity.

Watson’s trajectory after 1916, if you were to be critical, could be seen as one in which he abandoned labour for the business world, and for the party of big business, the Nationalists (a choice of nationalism over social democracy it could be described) … clearly why, despite his achievements, he has never quite made it into the Pantheon of ALP political heroes.

Valpo view
Valpo view

When I undertook my day trip to Valparaíso, our tour guide, Adrián, who was equipped with excellent English and organisational skills, had this little technique he used on his tours. If he was taking an Australian group of tourists (as with my one on that particular day), he would tailor his commentary of the places we visit to include a sprinkling of references to Australia (or say to Mexico if that was the case). Such as pointing out the concentrations of imported Eucalyptus Globulus among the indigenous trees in the Andean valley. When we got to the city of the Porteños I casually asked the knowledgable guide if he was aware that an Australian prime minister was actually born right there in Valparaíso. Adrián, clearly someone interested in the wider world, was surprised, even doubting of such a claim. “No, really?!?” he inquired disbelievingly (how could this have escaped the meticulous Adrián!). Immediately he googled it on his iPhone and gleefully confirmed that I was right! Chuffed at picking up such a handy little revelatory fact, he added with a boyish enthusiasm that he would mention it to his next group of Aussie tourists. I laughed and replied, “Don’t worry, the overwhelming odds are they won’t have heard of Watson either“!


❈ a superfluous distinction of course given that as far as is known, short of a forensic examination of Hansard, Watson was almost certainly the only Australian political figure to be born in Valparaíso
◙ all other Australian prime ministers born outside Australia came from the British Isles
¤ the specific trigger for the government’s downfall was Watson’s failure to secure a double dissolution from the Gov-Gen.

[1] the Scottish myth was sustained throughout Watson’s political career, eg, the (Sydney) Bulletin lavished praise on him when he became the government’s treasurer in 1904 – concluding that “public finances are in safe Caledonian hands”, The Bulletin, 28 April 1904, cited in J Hawkins, ‘Chris Watson: Australia’s second Treasurer’, The Treasury: Australian Government, (Economic Roundup – Winter 2007), www.archive.treasury.gov.au
[2] B Nairn, ‘Watson, John Christian (Chris) (1867-1941)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, Vol. 12, (MUP), 1990
[3] at the same point in time the British Labour Party (BLP) had precisely four MPs out of a total of 670 in the House of Commons, and the first BLP UK government didn’t occur until the 1930s, R McMullin, ‘First in the World: Australia’s Watson Labor Government’, Department of Parliamentary Services, (2005), www.aph.gov.au/
[4] ibid. Reid’s term, similarly, was one of only 11 months … Watson’s and Reid’s terms were characteristic of the early Commonwealth governments – minority rule, composite, multi-party based governments and (consequently) short-lived
[5] Hawkins, op.cit.
[6] Even when he was PM or Leader of the Opposition, Watson was still highly responsive to his local constituents in Bland (and later South Sydney) and worked tirelessly to address their “grass roots” needs, ‘Chris Watson’ (Australian Prime Ministers), Museum of Australian Democracy, www.primeministers.moadoph.gov.au
[7] A Grassby & S Ordoñez, John Watson, (1999)
[8] ibid.
[9] ibid.

Visit to a Sandy Malldom II: A Bedouin Day Pass with Bonus 4WD Camels

Society & Culture, Travel

On our last day in the United Arab Emirates our tour guide took us on an afternoon drive for a spot of dune-buggy “rally driving” in the sandhills. Well, that was the pretext for the decision to first head for the hinter-hills … desert dwellers with SUVs?

Desert City
Desert City
Actually, when we got to the designer desert track we spent an hour or so hot-footing it up-and-down in 4WD land rovers. The first time our Emirati driver drove over the edge of a steep ‘wave’ of sand and the vehicle dropped straight down, it did feel pretty ‘hairy’ … but it was all quite safe as the 4WDs were equipped with roll bars and the drivers kept completing the same circuit countless times till we got rather bored with it. We then stopped on a sand ridge and admired the sunset for a while.

After the desert romp we went to a camel park and Bedouin fort camp … I wondered if this was a “fair dinkum” Bedouin encampment or if it had been slightly sanitised or ‘Disneyfied’ for tourists. Seeing the old wooden walls of the fortification though, did manage to conjure up a sense of the Beau Gestes for me!

Those visitors that didn’t want to do the camel ride (speaking personally, I had sated my taste for camel rides striding atop a collection of even-toed ungulates in Egypt previously), went for a combined dinner and show. The eating conditions were pretty rudimentary (one tick for authenticity at least!) – we were seated on large sand-filled cushions which were resting on ancient-looking strips of carpet bleached dry of colour by endless exposure to the harsh sun … however I would concede that the meal was quite good (falafel & kebab roll) except for the rather tasteless penne.

The show itself was only of short duration – the main part was a bearded male dancer in a colourful, traditional costume, a Arab tunic and a sort of umbrella dress (come to think of it he looked a bit like Max Klinger from Mash, or at least he seemed to share the TV character’s wardrobe tastes!).

The dancer twirled around in circles – in one direction – ever more frenetically. He did this for so long I thought he would surely have to unwind in the opposite direction for the equivalent amount of time before he would be able to regain his balance! … but he was OK. Halfway through his twirling performance his whole outfit lit up like New Year’s Eve … at this point for some reason, randomly, the idea of suicide bombers came into my mind – maybe it was the way he was self-activating the light show (ie, himself) by repeatedly flicking a switch on and off! Fortunately for all the show ended peacefully and we eventually returned to our more comfortable beds in the hotel.

Tourist Town
Tourist Town

International bragging rights!
International bragging rights!

Visit to a Sandy Malldom I: Showcasing all the Trappings of Modernity and Conspicuous Wealth

Regional History, Travel

Upon arriving at our Dubai hotel, the Mecure Gold, I tried to exchange some of my money for the local currency, but I couldn’t interest the next-door Islamic Bank on Al Mina Rd in my AUDs. They directed me to another bank “five minutes” down the street but after walking for more that five minutes in the extreme midday heat and not spotting any banking establishments lurking amongst the sand, I gave up, retreating back to the hotel and decided to wait till later in the day when we made the trip into Downtown Dubai.

Mall & Burj
Mall & Burj
At the supersize Dubai Mall we found a money exchanger just inside the entrance. The woman inside the glass booth thinking I was trying to change USDs at first offered me AED2.63 to the $ but when I clarified that I had AUDs she offered 2.65 (to my surprise!). I gratefully and swiftly accepted lest she realise her error (a very rare victory over the money changers!). Equipped with my enhanced sum of dirhams I found we could only shop, not eat or drink (alcohol) in public, ie the Mall was public … Ramadan was still going on!

Dubai Mall or “Sandy Malldom” (an apt metaphor for all of Dubai), is a massive place, numerous elongated passageways crisscrossing each other all over. The Mall is a tourist epicentre of course – “The Diver” waterfall fountains, an Airbus simulator, Arab-themed village, etc. The thing that gets most attention though in the Mall (unless you’re a terminal shopaholic) is the Aquarium. Interestingly one side of the Aquarium is fully visible from outside through a huge glass wall facing the passageways on several levels … so you don’t actually need to pay and go inside to see unless you want to experience the special features – eg, tank dive with the sharks, etc.

All manner of piscean life can be viewed from the transparent wall – sharks, hammer-heads, stingrays and multifarious smaller fish. We saw scuba divers swimming among the sea creatures, cleaning the gigantic pool with long blue hoses. The neoprene-clad divers were getting unnerving dead-eye stares from the sharks. Hopefully for their sake the human “Creepy-crawleys” do their work AFTER the members of the lamniade family have been fed!

Whilst we were in Downtown Dubai we plunged into high tourism mode by taking in the obligatory Burj (Tower) Khalifa, at 829m (give or take a half-metre) the world’s highest skyscraper/human-made structure.

We did the standard thing, paid to go up to the Observation Deck, Level 124. If you want a higher view you can go up to the top viewing deck at Level 148 (out of 163 levels all up) – which will cost you about AED350.

But level 124 was high enough for us, the view from there was like looking at a space age city – vast modern buildings and vast intersecting arterial freeways, surrounded by an ocean of sand – made to look all the more Sci-Fi by a constant haze circling around the periphery. The waterworks of the Dubai Fountain was a spectacular hydro-sight from above. Back on ground level the Burj has an interesting info display on the history of the building’s construction, charting it stage-by-stage and metre-by-metre.

D. Museum
D. Museum
This small museum is a former fort (Al Fahidi), which was founded in 1787 and is the oldest surviving building in Dubai. I especially liked the various exhibits, dioramas depicting everyday life in the desert … mannequins of artisans, merchants & vendors at work. The series of black-and-white period pictures from the 1930s onwards, are a good indicator of how Dubai has grown & developed since its days as a modest village settlement.

The fort is square-shaped & towered, in the open courtyard are some aged cannons and a summer hut composed of palm fronds (known as an Arish). On display both outside and inside the walls are dhows (traditional boats). The museum provides a good grab of local history amidst all the newness of Dubai.

The fort-cum-museum is very close to the city’s principal waterway, Dubai Khor (or Dubai Creek). We went on a traditional water taxi (abra) ride on the Creek … more of the old contrasting with the new! From near the fort we churned over to another part of the city (historically the creek has been viewed as splitting Dubai into two section – Deira and Bur).

imageOn a conservation note for Dubai, the end of the creek has a waterbird and wildlife sanctuary. The abra is a pretty basic, old form of watercraft but it got us across the creek reasonably quickly so we could spend plenty of time visiting the network of street and arcade vendors alongside the creek.

The City’s Back-story:
Sheikhs from the Al Maktoum Dynasty (hailing from the dominant Bani Yas clan), have ruled Dubai since 1833, taking the title of Emir of Dubai. Before 1971 Dubai was part of the Trucial (treaty) States, a group of Arab Gulf states under a British Protectorate (governed via British India). Unlike other parts of the United Arab Emirates, Dubai was late in discovering its oil bonanza (1966), but on the back of it, the city since that time has transformed itself into a economic powerhouse❈ and a model of modernisation, if not exactly liberalism.

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❈ according to Business Insider Australia, UAE is the third richest country in the world with a GDP per capita of $57,744