Going Somewhere Authentic

My son and I returned last weekend from a short holiday. It was the first time I travel to South East Asia, and my son was the one who chose the destination, the small island nation of Singapore. It is one of a handful of places that allows me entry without a visa, so I did not object, although the trip came with a large price tag.

My boy has a fixation with architecture and buildings. When we were in New York he pestered me to go up the Freedom Tower, but for many reasons we could not. When we were there the price for the excursion looked steep to me, and before we left the USA things got so hectic that we did not have the time. Last year we went to Dubai. I paid for the visa and a nice hotel, but the visit was hugely anticlimactic for me. I lived part of my youth in the middle east and my experience there as a growing young woman, then a single working woman, was anything other than positive. I could not wait to get out of there, and the first opportunity that presented itself was getting married to someone I hardly knew, but who was heading out of the middle east for good.

I might have passed through Dubai airport after 1999, but the last time I visited the city was perhaps in 1997 or 1998, almost twenty years before. During the nineties, I drove  sometimes between Al-Ain and Dubai. The Dubai World Trade Centre used to be the building that loomed large on the Dubai skyline on approach from Al-Ain, and the two Emirates Tower, where we ended up staying last year, were still under construction. Today they are dwarfed by all the giant structures around them, and the World Trade Centre is a puny, nondescript building, hardly visible among the other giants around it. I felt that the Dubai skyline bordered on the grotesque, a Frankenstein Monster of architecture, with clear examples of bad design and taste. The whole vista wasperhaps saved by the singularity of Burj Khalifa, which stands out as unique and beautiful. Since Dubai is often trumpeted as the Singapore or New York of the Middle East, I had really no expectations about the little South East Asian city/country, but I was in for a pleasant surprise.

The place is unbelievably clean and organized, and there are gardens and parks and natural green around. The weather, while warm, is tolerable unlike the alternating torture of Dubai between the furnace of the outside air and the freezer temperature of the malls. There are no traffic jams, the public transportation runs well, and is within budget. The skyline is not overly crowded with enormous structures and the tall buildings leave room to see the sky. The architecture is amazing, especially the new Marina Bay Sands Hotel, with its classy mall, museum and adjacent botanical garden. There is an interesting integration of art and nature, which was evident even to my young son. The artwork chosen is beautiful and speaks volumes of the artistic bent of Asians in general. The food was also great, there is plenty of opportunity to experience the authentic local food fare at very reasonable price.

I know that taste is highly subjective, but Singapore, in my opinion, is a nation city that works on many levels. I am not exactly sure about its environmental footprint but I am willing to bet that it is more environmentally friendly than Dubai or New York. I could not tolerate either of these cities, whereas I could imagine myself living in Singapore. Dubai is stressful, hectic, and extreme in its weather, while New York is snobbish and pretentious in addition to being stressful and hectic. It also suffers from extreme weather conditions. In summer, the sun bakes the tarmac and reflects on the concrete and glass structures creating heat islands that closely resemble the heat of the Sahara desert, while the trains and buses are cooled to winter-like temperatures. As for the New York winter it can get extremely cold as demonstrated by this year’s record-breaking freeze. Singapore is blessed by equatorial climate, mild year round.

Perhaps what made Singapore close to my heart is also its authenticity. I am sensitive against impostors of any kind. Dubai feels to me like an impostor. It pretends that it is modern, while hiding its underbelly of gender and income inequality, along with poor human rights record. It does not score well either on freedom or democracy. New York is better at hiding its vices in plain sight. There, the long arm of capitalism touches everything. It inflates property prices, crushes the poor and squeezes them out into filthy neighborhoods and crumbling schools. I know that poverty exists also in Singapore but I do not think its anywhere near the scale or desperation visible in New York.  Democracy might be another problem in the Island state, as the ruling party has been in power for half a century. Still, the place proudly displays its own ambiance, culture, food and technology. This cannot be said about Dubai for example, a city that borrowed whatever money can buy from everywhere else. In its quest to showcase the expensive, I feel that the desert metropolis lost many aspects of art, simplicity and beauty that do exist in its native culture. Singapore has a keener eye for beauty, and displays it stylishly in the Gardens on the Bay, the Museum and in its unique music and light show. Dubai does try with its musical fountains which impressed me at the time, but now I feel that they pale in comparison to what I have seen in Singapore.

You might think that I am biased against my native culture. Yet I still appreciate parts of this culture, the undulating curves of Arabic calligraphy that are drawn into symmetrical or artistic shapes, the heart-rending whine of a violin tuned into the melancholy Arabic musical scales, a touching poem about love sung to the tune of the Oud, and the rhythm of the tabla (goblet drum) to which you cannot help but dance. There were so many authentic examples of art, traditional crafts, and culture in the Arab and Islamic world. Unfortunately the natives did not value them and they mostly end up collected by western orientalists, museums or curators. I have been blown away by the Aleppo Room at the Berlin Museum for example, but I have not seen anything similar in its artistic quality preserved in my native city.

Authenticity in places and people touches me, while spuriousness and falsehood repel me. Living in pretentious New York exhausted me, and visiting Dubai felt like sinking into a spiritual vacuum, eviscerating and exhausting too. Singapore enriches and invigorates with its orderliness, vitality, authenticity and artistic flair. There is a soul to places too, and that place has a calm and gentle soul.



Playing Tourist in Cape Town

It is an absolute hazard to walk Cape Town as a tourist. A hazard to your pocket that is.
Yesterday my colleague Kirsten and I walked out of the office to have a cup of coffee.
It was a beautiful Saturday afternoon, but in Cape Town this is not exactly the greatest time to tour the coffee shops on St. George’s Mall. Most shops close by one, and the Mall turns into a silent and empty space, save for a few coffee shops that cater mainly for tourists.
We ventured first to the Gold Museum on Strand Street, but its coffee shop was closed for a function. The museum itself has a collection of exhibits, traditional African gold pieces as I understood from Kirsten; their owner made them available to the public in one of the older buildings on Strand Street. The street is incidentally where we both work.
We marched onwards looking for our cup of coffee, and ended up on the Green Market Square.
Here one of the coffee shops has spilled over its white plastic and metal chairs onto the pavement. A few people were indulging outside while the person working on the take away hutch looked glumly outside. Inside the restaurant a handful of African waitrons and waitresses where swaying to loud African rhythms blaring from stereo loudspeakers, and in true African tradition they continued their merry-making oblivious to the pair of us waiting outside on the empty table. Kirsten turned her head on all this, preferring to watch a group of youngsters, barefooted and scrawny, singing and dancing and drumming for the pleasure of the bored tourists. The youngsters smart as they are in peddling their primitive music, caught on immediately and Kirsten could not resist giving a full five Rand coin to the little girl who had just finished jumping around and doing the split, I had to dig into my wallet as well for a couple of stray coppers ( and one or two silver coins no less).
After a few minutes of being caught between these two conflicting rhythms ( the street dancers on one side and the staff’s choice of hip hop on the other), we decided to move on, especially since we have seen only the backs of the merry waiters at the coffee shop. Oh, maybe we just caught them at a bad time.
In the end we had our coffee, at a small place called Afro Cafe. This place has the uncomplicated feel and colour of the African continent. The plastic table cloths sport the African colours and dance with the brilliance of yellows, reds and greens. The lighting fixtures are made of recycled material, green plastic bottles and red caps among a myriad of other brightly coloured scrap.
Here as well we did not fail to attract the tourists. One guy came to sell us the ‘Big Issue’ a magazine whose sole purpose is to create an income for the people selling it.
Once he sold us one copy he turned to the next customer begging him to buy another one from him, it was the last one he said.
Next came the bead artist, he had wall hangings and key chains, composed of beads threaded on fine wire. The shapes and colours were really amazing and very true to life, I pondered buying a gecko or a chameleon and in the end settled for a plump little aircraft – that was not as well proportioned as the animals, but which I thought would be more practical for me to carry around in a bag.
At one time I actually succeeded in turning the gentle African salesman away, by telling him I worked in this place, I earned my money in Rands, but then I made a mistake of asking him where he came from, and he said from Zimbabwe, and at once I felt his polite admission tug at my heart. How could I resist helping a Zimbabwean brother, whose whole family could be dependent on selling one ornament.
So I came back after this outing, poorer in pocket but richer in experience. I must say Kirsten and I make a terrible pair, she can’t resist buying stuff and she mostly shames me into doing the same.