It’s one year ago today that I left the UK to kick off living in a different city every month – from Mexico City to Jakarta. I’ve been back in the London for a few months now, but the memories of each of these places is still vivid in my mind. I thought it would be an apt time to share what I found surprising, shocking and heartening about these cities – and what I learned about these incredible places.
Ancient history, architecture and art
The first time I visited Mexico City was in the summer after completing my masters in 2008. I was warned about the traffic. My shock at the tail backs was slightly diminished however after having spent some time in Cairo the previous month, where donkeys moved faster than cars along the highway. This visit we stayed in Polanco on the edge of Chapultepec Park. I was happy to find Mexico City as beautifully inspiring as I remembered – the combinations of colours, textures, foods and smells make wandering around the city a complete sensory experience. The diversity of the architecture in each area is so revealing of the eras in which the city expanded, from colonial in the centre to art deco in Condesa to modern glass and concrete in Polanco. The food is fresh and diverse – and something typical is usually available from a vendor on most street corners.
Although the traffic, pollution and altitude can affects a good night sleep or jog in the park, April was a beautiful time to visit. The blooming Jacarandas added a splash of purple to the already green city. The government had done much to improve the liveability of the city. The major boulevard that traverses the city, Reforma, is closed on Sunday’s and open to joggers, bike riders and families. The new bike lanes also made our journeys between Polanco and Condesa-Roma super quick and hassle-free on our Chop Chop Bikes.
Views wherever you look…
There is never a dull view in Istanbul. Exploring the nooks of the Grand Bazaar, taking in the majesty of the Ayia Sofia, or scanning the Bospherous from a rooftop bar provides an insight into this ancient city. But while it is fascinating place to visit, it is a remarkably hard place to live. I couldn’t quite put my finger on why. Istanbul has a buzzing café scene. It has history, art, shopping and a metro. Like most major cities these days it has an old brewery called Bomontiada that has been turned into hipster bars, cafes and event spaces where young people with start-ups hang out. But coming from London, I think it was the lack of green spaces, or any public leisure spaces, that made it difficult.
Whilst we were there, Turkey hosted its election, which returned President Erdogan and his AK Party. I wrote about this election here and more broadly the worrying rise in strong man politics. Turkey has so much promise coming from its young people and its strategic location between east and west but it has had a marked slide towards illiberal democracy.
Street art, jazz and football
Sao Paulo is the city that most reminds me most of London. It is sprawling, grey, rainy, and the commercial centre of the country. But it is also awash with culture. We stayed in Pinheiros on the edge of Villa Madelena, the Shoreditch of Sao Paulo. Famous for its street art alley, Beco do Batman, this area of town is full of little independent bars, restaurants and boutiques – not to mention to ubiquitous Brazilian lanchonetes where you can get a hearty lunch deal, coxinhas and my favourite, acai na tigella. The cities art galleries are superb – I was lucky enough to visit the MASP on Avenida Paulista and the Pinacoteca. The city also has a buzzing music scene. We had the pleasure of listening to amazing bands at Jazz nos Fondos and JazzB. One of our favourite evenings involved take away sandwiches and caipirinhas from Casa do Porco then hopping next door to JazzB to check out the show.
Of course we took the opportunity to check out a football match while we were there and visit the central market and Libertade neighbourhood. We were also in Brazil for the run up to the election of new President Jair Bolsonaro. After visiting the Amazon rainforest and understanding how fragile and important an ecosystem it is, I wrote about the global implication of Bolsonaro’s election here.
Water all around, but none to use…
Cape Town is a breathtaking city, perched around the base of Table Mountain bounded by the south Atlantic Ocean. Our drive in from Hout Bay to the centre felt like real privilege. However during our stay our severe water shortages meant residents and visitors alike were restricted to the use of only 50 litres of water a day. This meant 60 second showers, not flushing the toilet and buying all your drinking water. It was a strange feeling to be in a city surrounded by water when you can’t use very much of it. The city has its fair share of problems, driven by the legacy of apartheid and enduring inequalities, and in some ways despite the levelling impact of the water crisis, it also exacerbated some of those problems. I have written more about the water crisis and the people I met in Cape Town here.
In a strange case of small world syndrome, I met Siki who has set up his own coffee shop and community space in his mother’s garage in Khayelitsha, Cape Town’s largest township. He used to run Café e Vida in Golden Square, Soho – one of my favourite places to go work (nothing to do wth the free Lindt chocolate you would get with your coffee, I swear). He’s now trying to raise money to expand his business, to take it out into the community and train baristas to improve their employment opportunities.
City of the future
Talk about a city of the future. In just the last 30 years Korea has gone from one of the least developed countries in the world, to one of the most digitally connected and high tech countries in the world. Seoul itself rivals Tokyo for its diversity and dynamism. What I found incredible is the sheer amount of free wifi in the city. But as a society Korea continues to be heavily influenced by its past. The interplay between old and new is so apparent everywhere you look. Traditional Korea culture is still alive and well, with its beautifully preserved palaces and hanbok villages, to the traditional food which is available in every neighbourhood. The legacy of the Korean War is also an ever present spectre. When we moved to Itaewon I was excited about the prospect of having a major park on our doorstep. But rapidly I found out that not only was the large green area on the map not a public park, but a major US army base – in the centre of the city. US military presence has translated into a major US cultural influence. I have written about this here, and in particular the burgeoning coffee culture which defines so much of the neighbourhoods Itaewon and Hannam Dong, where we lived.
The peace process will continue to rumble on between north and south with the conflicting motivations of wanting to reunify the country and families that have been split up against the relentless drive South Koreans have to better themselves against not only their northern neighbours but also other successful countries in the region.
Not so seedy after all…
Bangkok was the most surprising city to me. I didn’t think I was going to enjoy living here. I had an impression of it being a sprawling, dystopian, seedy city, from my backpacker day. Which it is. But in fact Bangkok can be any thing you want it to be. There’s an incredible amount of diversity – from luxury shopping centres to cool bars and restaurants tucked away down back alleys filled with gambling dens. We lived in Saladaeng, a stone’s throw from Lumpini Park. The week we arrived Fix Coffee opened and it rapidly became part of our morning routine. Our street had a number of great restaurants and local food market which we frequented for lunch, enjoying enormous bowls of duck noodles and mango smoothies. We could also walk to any number of rooftop bar and a fun strip of bars and restaurants, including Smalls which had live music on Wednesdays and Fridays. I also developed a new found appreciation for local fashion design.
We took a short trip down to Phuket for a wedding. What struck me most about this trip was the impact that tourism was having on the country and many of its natural attributes. Thailand relies heavily on tourism and many countries include tourism in their economic development strategies. But tourism doesn’t always translate into positive outcomes. What matters most of all as a traveller is the decisions and choices you make. You can read more here.
Jakarta is a tough place to live. Most of the places we lived this year have problems with traffic and pollution – an unfortunate by-product of rapid growth and relatively poor governance. They are fairly ubiquitous characteristics of most developing cities. But Jakarta was another level. The city has such a fascinating history as a meeting place of cultures and commerce. It has grown so quickly that now 40% of the city lies below sea level and is sinking further. I wrote about that here. Jakarta really brought home to me the challenge facing most developing country cities – of dealing with rapid growth, limited resources and rising expectation of its growing middle classes.
Despite all this, Indonesia is an extremely exciting place to be. It’s economy is booming, it has a huge growing and as yet untapped middle class consumer market. The country has already produced four unicorn businesses. But with all this potential alongside all these problems, it did make me wonder: how much longer until breaking point.
These are just some short reflections from 7 of the 20 countries we went to last year. If you’d like to know more or want some tips for any of the places listed above, do get in touch!