A tale of two sterile cities

As I write this sentence I am sitting in the Business Lounge of British Airways at Johannesburg Airport. I write this not to brag, well maybe a humble brag, but to document that time I was upgraded to business class on a flight that lasted longer than a movie.

Today is the culmination of a business trip that has taken me to two countries, both a world apart (or at least 10 hours by plane, a few days by boat and the better part of a year on kayak) and both sterile, just in different ways.

The first stop was the city of Singapore, the island nation, the land of La.  It was my second time to the pocket rocket of Asia and I was looking forward to sticking my feet once again into its cultural melting pot.

Singapore is a land of many cultures and malls. Here shopping is the national sport and the malls the stadiums in which the game is played. Players come from all over the world and vary in skill level, but all are committed to the soulless joy of consumption for consumptions sake. They also like to run. This happens every night as they flee the corporate cages that make up the downtown forest of multinational concrete and glass.

Another way I observed many Singaporeans travelling is via motorised scooter. It seems the normal up-sized kids’ scooter wasn't enough for commuting corporate clowns, and now they stick a motor onto them so they can extend their smugness outside the office and onto the footpaths.

Of course Singapore is one giant food court, with amazing food offerings everywhere you go. We managed to eat food from Thailand, Japan, Singapore, Mexico, India and Burgeristan (the former USSR state where burgers originate from).

The people are lovely and friendly, accommodating of many cultural backgrounds and ethnicities. They live in city so clean it’s like Singapore has a magic city Mum always cleaning up after it.  When you speak with locals, all isn't as it appears. The government is  controlling and strict in its policies and you detect that Singaporeans would swap a few bowls of char kway teow and a mall or two for a bit more freedom and fun. On one hand it is filled with culture from its inhabitants, but then that is moderated by the big city, big business mentality that Singapore seems to exist for. As great a city as it is, it feels corporatised and sterile.

Next stop on our trip was every honeymooner’s dream- Johannesburg, South Africa. I had been practising my South African accent in anticipation of this trip. The trick was to repeatedly say the phrase “Tracksuit pants in the National Park” over and over again.

We spent the first day seeing the sites accompanied by our driver and security escort. Work were worried that our group walking around on the streets of Johannesburg with $30,000 of video camera equipment in backpacks may have stimulated the crime statistics in the wrong direction. I was dubious that your average street thug would be interested in Cannon cameras and lenses, but I suppose even slumlords have a creative side worth exploring.

The constant threat of being mugged on some scale keeps most Joburgerians in their cars or houses. As such, the city doesn't seem to have much of a cultural pulse. It is a place where you go to work, maybe one of the mall-cities, then go home. It is a land of chain stores, franchise restaurants and shopping mall dining. The type of town where the bootcut jean roams free and the skinny jean is rarely seen. Much like Leopards and Lions on the safari trip we took to Pilansberg national park.

On the safari we saw three of the so called big five, all the ugly five and none of the members of the late 90s boyband, 5ive.

I asked the Ranger on the tour and he said that the Lions and Leopards are harder to sight as they are cunning predators adapt to hiding. He also mentioned that in the 15 years he has been working in the park he has only spotted a member of 5ive three times and he thinks they may all now be dead, probably eaten by lions.

South Africans are bold and warm people, undergoing a tough time in their national identity. Their President is a corrupt idiot of a man with seven wives and who believes AIDS can be cured by having a hot shower. Everyone knows that isn’t true and that it only cures herpes.

You feel sorry for South Africa and its people. It is a country that has a huge divide between the haves and have-nots. A complex situation born out of historical and racial tensions. This creates a current climate of corruption, crime and confusion. It has the cultural impact of sending people into shopping malls or offices to escape the prisons they have built behind the wire-topped fences of their homes. All of this is designed to keep the outside threats at bay, but unfortunately it also seems to limit the richness of life that can be experienced here. Johannesburg is sterile in that it lacks true culture and lifestyle.

So what can I take from this trip? I have come to the conclusion that malls are evil. If we are not careful, our cities will be consumed by them and house will just be extensions of their car parks. Life is more than what we consume, but a mall only lives on consumption.

So kill all the malls. After all, as 5ive so poignantly said about life in their smash hit Everybody Get Up- “We here to get down and make em grab your biscuits”. 

Truer and more confusing words may never have been said.