Of Contradictions and Contrast

I know it is a travel cliché. I know.

Out of every ten destination introductions, literally half of them contain the phrase “city of contrasts”.

A common descriptor. An overused marketing ploy? Maybe.     

A quick Google search will bring up many, many cities supposedly fitting of the “city of contrasts” bill. São Paulo, Hong Kong, New York.

Manila, Madrid, Bangkok.

St. Petersburg, Doha, Berlin.

You get the point.

As long as there exists a visible variation within the city walls, travel writers and marketers are quick to acknowledge it.

Not to say that the use of the phrase is atrocious, or unacceptable though. It is a great way to acquaint a destination to a wider range of people, and possibly highlight the place in an entirely different light. Readers want to know of it; travellers will be attracted by such a fact.

But perhaps, it gets too boring.  Too tame.

Everyone and everybody is relating the moniker to quite simply anything and everything, so much so that the frenzied buzz and fuss that should be rightfully associated with the term is depleted.

Shrouding an existing crop of brilliant, intricate profound connections. When well made, it would give rise to an entirely surreal experience.

It is not just what you see. It is also about what lies beneath the surface.

Colourful umbrellas at the seaside district of Arcadia.

Overlooking the Black Sea

Nestled in the north-western corner of the Black Sea lies the port jewel that is Odessa.

The sweeping Potemkin Steps rise (or fall, as a matter of fact, really depends on how you see it) majestically and graciously, a monumental mirage of an entrance or an exit. Overly-imposing from the foot, almost daunting. You see almost nothing except for a statue of the city’s first mayor, Duc de Richelieu, who most certainly seem to be laughing at you in that prolonged instance. But from the peak, a vast plain of utter endlessness awaits you.

Potemkin Steps courtesy of Julian Nitzsche.

A multicultural maritime centre, 19th century Mediterranean architecture line the streets. Oh not quite Mediterranean though. A sprinkle of French design. And a (heavy) dose of Italian style. Somehow the mannerism dabbles across the Art Nouveau, the Classicist and the Renaissance and yet does not come across as particularly reminiscent of any other.

Deribasovskaya Street is filled with various interesting cafes that are worth a closer look. The Odessa National Academic Theatre of Opera and Ballet serves as a brilliant centre of history, art and culture. Odessa’s backyards and courtyards that hide in plain sight are home to some of the most beautiful areas in town. But beneath the streets, lie the Odessa Catacombs, perhaps a subtle but explicit reminder, of the city’s not so storied past. 

Top: The Odessa Opera and Ballet Theatre. Bottom: Bustling streets of Odessa. 

Much of the historical character of Odessa comes from the city’s Imperial Russian roots. Most of the locals largely go about speaking Russian. But it is a Ukrainian territory through and through.  

And the very entity that gave the city fame and spotlight. The access to the Black Sea meant that the region would be an ideal summer vacation for some. Sandy beaches, and the not-very black waters. The shore-side Arcadia district, is home to clubs, discos and a very colourful nightlife.

But it is this very entity that somewhat buoys the city down, shrouding it in a politically-veiled cloud. Following Russia’s annexation of Crimea, Odessa remains as Ukraine’s most important port, their gateway to the lucrative business of oil and gas. And Russia has designs on the exact same location. Not only would controlling Odessa give them an outlet to smother the Ukrainian economy, it would also give the country (whose territorial waters freeze in winter) a very valuable (albeit land-locked) warm-water port.

Top: Sailors stop by often. Bottom: A serene evening lure.

Here is a city that had a diversity of cultural and historical influences, a city that in a more modern era, welcomed people of various ethnicities, and a city that, because of the location on the world map, found itself enclosed in a geopolitical scramble.

Beyond a city of contrasts, Odessa is a city built on contradictions. It is more than just a visible divide. The very root of the town is constructed upon a series of confusions and variations, setting the stage for a future of variances.

The famous sake barrels outside the Meiji Shrine.

Irasshaimasei!

It is right in metropolitan Tokyo where the dignity and genuineness of the phrase is most apparent.

Asakusa is splendidly reminiscent of old Tokyo, a bustling lively district that has an astonishing semblance to the past streets of Tokyo. The 7th century Buddhist temple, Senso-ji, is the main attraction. And so is the very hectic, and aged-atmospheric Nakamise shopping street that leads to the iconic Kaminarimon.

Top: The Senso-ji attracts hordes of locals and tourists daily. Bottom: The Kaminarimon is a top photo spot.

Twenty minutes away, just across the Sumida River, the Tokyo Skytree towers over everything else. 634 metres high, this skyscraper is the tallest in Japan, and the second tallest, at the time of completion, in the world. This futuristic behemoth of a structure offers stunning panoramic views of the city and beyond at the spectacularly dizzying heights.

Take a stroll through the peaceful and serene Yoyogi Park and you are likely to come across the spiritual Meiji Shrine. Dedicated to the Emperor Meiji and his consort, Empress Shoken, this Shinto shrine is a quaint retreat, from the hustle and bustle of the whizzing Japanese capital.

Top: The Tokyo Skytree is illuminated at night. Bottom: Thousands of people scramble through the Shibuya Crossing.

Several train stops down the famous JR Yamanote Line, the renowned Shibuya Crossing dazzles and astonishes everyone that comes by. As the traffic man turns green, the road traffic comes to a momentary halt and the human masses take over in a converging form. More than just the busiest intersection in the world, here is a symbol of development and progress, of urbanisation and augmentation, of novel ingenuity and sheer shrewdness.

One need not travel too far back in history to see why Tokyo turned so brilliant yet bizarre. Closed to the world for centuries and generations, the Meiji period oversaw dramatic Westernisation, and shortly after, the rise of their imperialistic intentions. Post World War, Japan, whose soul practically shattered in the wake of two atomic blasts, oversaw expeditious efforts to redesign their economy, rebuild the country, and most importantly rekindle their spirits.

Top: Purchase some pretty souvenir handcraft at the Nakamise shopping street. Bottom: Anime lovers would be familiar with this Gundam statue. 

Throughout the sharp escalation from closure to subsequent globalisation and rapid growth in just over a hundred years, the bulk of her people were still much grounded in their traditional way of life. This, despite the fast paced relentless pursuit of technological development we so often associate with Japan today.

Here is a city that unknowingly found themselves in the mystique of contrasts. Rooted in their traditional values, yet forward looking and progressive in nature, giving birth to a delightful combination of the old and the new.

An aerial shot of the lovely Cape Town.

Where Beauty Meets Poverty

The port city of Cape Town in South Africa is bound to wow any nature lover.

An hour away from the main hub, the Table Mountain (3500 feet above sea level) surges upwards in a divine demeanour. At such gorgeous heights and alluring surroundings, the view at the peak – show stopping and resplendent. The nearby Lion’s head offers an easier hike, but equally impressive, jaw dropping views of the city, skies and seas beyond.

Top: The scenic Table Mountain is the perfect backdrop. Bottom: The rocky surroundings at the Cape of Good Hope.

Close by, thousands of feet down, the nautically important rocky headlands by the coast, Cape of Good Hope continues to fool many. Commonly incorrectly regarded as the continent’s Southern Tip, as the point where the Indian Ocean allegedly meets the Atlantic, the area boasts spectacular coastal scenic views.

The Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens, often dubbed as Africa’s most beautiful, spans 528 hectares, and showcases over 7000 species of flora and fauna from the region. With the Table Mountain serving as a scenic backdrop, it is quite simply a thing of natural beauty.

Shy away from the lush greenery and venture into the colourful, pastel-sprinkled town of Bo-Kaap. Once the quarters of Muslim slaves, the bright, vivid neighbourhood is now an emblem of freedom.

Top: The coastal waters of Cape Town. Bottom: Bo-Kaap is lined with colourful houses.

And at the heart of it, amidst the beauty of it all, lies the cruel reality of poverty. Thousands of people reside in barely liveable accommodations, have hardly any access to clean drinking water, and make do with scarcely passable sanitation standards.

It is somewhat a shame that a city can be geographically blessed with such surreal charm, yet historically and politically not blessed, with a dark past of enslavement, then persecution, and now widespread corruption. The beauty of the landscape is thoroughly unmatched by the inner beauty of regions rulers past and present. It is as if Robben Island, the prison that held the revered Nelson Mandela meant close to nothing, almost an afterthought amongst the dazzling scenery.

The beaches at Muizenberg, Cape Town.

Certainly, labelling a city as one with full of contrasts can be admittedly stale and tiresome. But writing it off purely based on that reason is a dangerous, bordering precarious mistake. Because if you were to venture deeper into the expression, beyond the outer appearance and façade, and into the inner intellection of fusion, a whole new world of opportunity and ethereal appreciation.

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