Sketches of favorite cities, part 1

I’ve travelled across remarkable cities. Many inspired unforgettable sensations and made an extraordinary impact. In fact, some became a sort of a mental sanctuary for me. I can seek refuge in these cities anytime I please - in my mind. Here I attempt to capture some of those sensations, among a handful of personal favorites.

Tokyo

In 2012 this city marked the pinnacle of urban or cultural development in my then modest experience. A mix of urban and rural, contemporary and traditional, cutting-edge and retroactive, natural and concrete, it gripped me quiet viscerally. The visit evoked a kind of a shock, the nature of which, in all likelihood, I hadn’t experienced or anticipated since my half-forgotten immigration journey to the US from Belarus. I could almost characterize the phenomenon by an inferiority complex; that of arriving in an environment of a completely different league.

The unusual, almost rural residential structures scattered along a city that, upon but a twist of an enchanting roadway, revealed a glorifying megalopolis catering to all imagination. Some of it resembled a technologically hypnotizing concrete jungle, some a nature retreat, some a journey to the traditional origins. The fashion trend, among both men and women, arguably prevailed that of even the most developed western nations. The pervasive bicycle use among the overpopulated city gave Amsterdam or Denmark the run for the money. Sento, capsules, manga cafes, karaoke, tatami, Pachinko, represented but a small sample of local touches that I found absolutely singular in my limited cultural awareness.

Upon my departure from Japan, I had fully intended to further develop my then limited, although somewhat palatable hacked-together Japanese, apply my efforts and arrange affairs to enable my eventual, and hopefully more long-term sustainable return. Alas, I would soon contract the Latin-American fever and Japan would occupy a place of but a secondary citizen in those especially tender regions of my memory.

Detroit, US

I have a soft spot for cyber punk motifs. If Tokyo represents the well-packaged, illustrious, attractive, albeit potentially dream-shattering variant, Hong Kong the more particular, rougher-around-the-edges cousin à la what you see is what you get, and São Paulo the post-apocalyptic allusion to the likes of the version presented in the anime Akira, then, naturally, Detroit presents a much apocalyptic rendition of a half-abandoned city trapped in limbo, indecisive of what direction to proceed or who will conduct the proceedings.

I once watched one of those disaster themed sci-fi films, the end of which leaves most of the remaining humanity incapable of inhabiting outside regions, but their newly born offspring immune and capable of exploring and ‘recolonizing’ the abandoned outside. Since this twist of fate inevitably implies a period of of all manner of socio-economic inactivity while the youth treat the world as their playground, nature overtakes the streets, and cities turn into sorts of jungles. It further yet reminded me of a fusion between William Golding’s Lord of the Flies and Arkady/Boris Strugatsky Hard to Be a God (Трудно быть богом). Actually, for an apocalyptic setting, this one looked astonishingly pleasing and, from my ecologically sympathizing standpoint, quiet desirable. Now, to avoid turning this into a classic spoiler (only a spoiler derivative), I provide not the film title, nor the country of production.

Detroit circa 2014 reminded me of such a city abandoned to the forces of nature, although to a less dramatic end. I speak of the city proper, of course, and not the actively developed suburban regions.

Having settled in the only Detroit hostel of that time period, for a while, I was the sole occupant. One hostel functionary presided upon my arrival. He appeared to awaken from a cryogenic trance once I entered and startled him. The scenario would appear quiet Hitchcockian if not for the tale of 30 passing Russians having entirely sabotaged the establishment the day prior, like a military battalion stranded at an abandoned village. Two other occupants appeared in the days proceeding, but seemed overly apprehensive in leaving the boundaries of the lodgings, as if acknowledging the dangers looming beyond. One was incidentally also Russian. We held a 3-hour conversation on the merits of proper breathing.

I strolled the city for a few days, marvelling in presence of the crumbled buildings, patches of nature fighting through cracks in the sidewalks, and my personal favorite - total calm. The streets witnessed few traffic, and few pedestrians. Very few. At some point, it felt entirely film noir; an empty street, one barely lit diner, and inside, voilà, an establishment full of human beings. Granted, I may have arrived during a holiday period, causing this underpopulated city to appear completely desolate. However, it was precisely this cinematic version of Detroit that remains imprinted in memory and with such style!

Blumenão, Santa Catarina, Brazil

Where but in Brazil will one find this peculiar combination of elements? A city of German migration origins, Blumenão features much Bavarian architecture throughout the center. A famous Oktoberfest celebration takes place here in the respective month. Needless to say, this is not the time period I chose to visit. On the contrary, I arrived mid-December 2017, during a more isolated time period as I have the tendency. Having settled, again, at a mostly (at times entirely) empty hostel, short of the interchanging presence of the owner, the employee, and two domesticated hens, only nature and wildlife showed any indicator of life.

Characteristic of the state Santa Catarina, one notes a higher standard of living compared to most of the country, starting from what seems a well maintained and overall clean city. Yet a but a short distance outside the center, favela neighborhoods begin to appear among the otherwise massive patches of jungle enclosing the small European enclave.

In my 4-day visit, I used to take morning nature walks among these territories. What begins with a rural, fairly well developed residential housing area a mere two kilometers beyond the center, already beset by the pleasantries of farm animals and backyard agricultural pursuit, quickly transitions to the less developed favelas, in the midst of that impregnating scent of vegetation and burned wood.

A kilometer or two further out, the favelas turn into pure jungle. I recall one such steep walk uphill through the favelas, followed by a gradual downhill slope along a stone gravelled roadway, with imposing natural territory on both sides. The smell of recent rainfall, the moisture along the growth, served to further mobilize the already menacing wild insects. A bumblebee accompanied me during the entire downhill portion of that walk, making oscillating circles around my head. Finally, at some point, I approached open marshes. They seemed to stretch forever. The bumblebee, as if to acknowledge that I endured the trial, receded back into the wilderness. At a distance, a handful of small wooden houses appeared. It could have been a plantation. In sum, if pursued long enough, it could lead to quiet a surreal journey.