I was quite excited about the prospect of going to Beijing. I had been to China 20 years previously in Guangzhou, which was a major culture shock for me. Yet, at the time, it was so exciting because it wasn’t a common destination for tourism. In fact, China had only recently opened up for tourism (I visited in 1996) so they were not equipped for people to visit from the rest of the world (let alone Africa!) and the people were totally fascinated by us. Returning 20 years later, I was really curious to see how China had changed and wasn’t quite prepared for what I was going to experience.
The first thing that hit me was the size of the city. More than 25 Million people call Beijing home. This is equal to half of the population of the whole of South Africa all squashed up in one city! How do they live? All in high rises – tall blocks of flats wherever you look. I didn’t see one house. Not one – just miles and miles of blocks of flats. A mix of old dilapidated buildings, contrasting with beautiful modern structures. All the buildings were tall – maximising the space vs population ratio.
One would think that this city would be cramped, but it never gave that impression. Wherever you went, there was a feeling of spaciousness. The Chinese make a priority to create beautiful gardens for their citizens to walk, run, play with their model planes and kites. Their attention to detail is phenomenal. And yet they are not really concerned with health and safety issues. The conundrum of their society is mind-blowing and fascinating at the same time.
I expected to see a nation oppressed by the strict controls put in place and restrictions on their access to information and the outside world. Anything Google is banned in China, along with social media like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter – what was I going to do? There is a list of approximately 3,000 banned websites in China. How was I going to survive?? And they block VPNs as well, so unless you know someone who is able to hack on a regular basis (or you are a hacker), you are stuck (pretty much).
In contrast, what I did find was an extremely happy society. People make an effort to walk their dogs, have a run, spend some time in nature and they are laughing, smiling, friendly. The people of China are happy and have absolutely no idea that they are restricted in any way. In fact, they don’t need the outside world at all. They have created their own economy with huge companies that don’t exist anywhere else. Whatever we have and whatever we can do, they have figured out for themselves. They are an extremely resourceful nation. And that is extremely inspiring.
It did remind me of Africa every now and then, though – especially when it came to health and safety. And sometimes they just don’t seem to understand the meaning of “urgency”. But somehow they have managed to become a powerhouse internationally, while creating a balance of peacefulness. At no time did I experience or feel any atmosphere of stress – anywhere! China seems to be a nation devoid of stress. How do they get that right?
Beside the fact that I was there for work, and I couldn’t access my email or my Facebook, I was determined to experience the city to the best I could, given the limited time and resources that I had available to me. Our delegation comprised 7 endocrinologists (super specialists) plus two of us conference organisers. Our sole objective was to encourage people to travel to South Africa to attend the international congress in Cape Town in December 2018. So we organised a complimentary exhibition stand, produced some marketing materials (including bookmarks, post cards, baseball caps, beaded keyrings, button badges and bracelets). And we lugged around a super heavy banner wall (3m wide x 2.25m high).
I have just returned from spending 6 days in Lisbon, Portugal, and when I returned I realised that I had not bought one thing for myself in Portugal, and it didn’t concern me in the least. What I did have was 6 days of jam-packed memories, all captured in hundreds of photographs.
Lisbon left its mark and in a good way. I was excited before I left, but I had never been on the European continent before, so I didn’t quite know what to expect. The only words I knew in Portuguese was “ola” and “obrigado”, and I wasn’t sure how welcome an English speaking person was, and I also wasn’t sure of how many Portuguese people could speak English. (Yes, I did go in a bit blind.)
Granted, I didn’t have a lot of time to prepare myself to go to Portugal. It was a last minute decision made by my client, which left me with two weeks to sort everything out, including flights, accommodation and a Schengen visa. All to fit within a budget (eek). The timing was so tight that a day before I was due to leave I still didn’t have my visa (yes, there were a few nail-biting moments).
Anyway, back to my point. I went to Lisbon for work, but made sure that I still made the effort to experience the city for myself. The first day I was there, I couldn’t do any work because they were not ready for registration, so I decided to try to walk back to my hotel and experience the city on foot. Well, that was an experience! Least of all the fact that my hotel was so far away it would have taken me almost four hours to get there. What I did get to experience was the fact that I could walk alone, through an industrial part of the city, past construction sites, and still feel safe and welcome in this beautiful warm city.
The next four days were filled with work, but the evenings were available to experience something. Each day I chose a different part of the city. Two days I was on my own and the other two I was with a group of people that I knew. At no time did I ever feel unsafe – which was a marvellous experience coming from Africa.
I experienced the Lisbon creativity, LX Factory, Bairro Alto, the Time Out Market and Parque das Nacoes. My favourite part of the city was Bairro Alto. I loved the narrow cobble stoned streets with the trams and cars fighting for their space. The tiny restaurants and warm atmosphere. The quiet vibrancy of an ancient city with such rich history and culture. It is definitely an experience I will never forget. I enjoyed it so much that I walked 7,886 steps in high heeled shoes. My feet were dead after that and my poor shoes will never be the same, but the memories that I have from the experiences on that evening are absolutely priceless!
My hotel was located in Parque das Nacoes, the new side of Lisbon, which is also beautiful. The walks along the river shore were filled with magic. Peaceful moments to recharge your batteries. Everywhere you look there is a restaurant or pub along the river where you can grab a glass of wine and something to eat (which is exactly what I did on the last day while I was waiting to leave for the airport).
The day that I was to return to South Africa, I had a few hours to kill and decided to visit the Castello de S. Jorges, which is up on a hill overlooking the old part of Lisbon. I had never visited such an old building before. (South Africa’s oldest buildings are from the 1600’s.) This was really an experience for me. Climbing up the narrow staircase to the castle walls way up high (in spite of my fear of heights). The views were spectacular and the castle itself had precious snippets of beauty, different to the kind of beauty that we experience in South Africa.
All in all, I went to Portugal with no expectations, ready and willing to experience Lisbon and what it had to offer. I was totally blown away by the experience. I didn’t realise that it would have such an impact. Although the country is not a rich country (you can see this in little things – the fact that paint is peeling off of a lot of the buildings, burnt out buildings are standing neglected, and many derelict buildings are scattered among the beautiful historic buildings), but the people are so warm, so welcoming and even invited me to come and move to Portugal with my whole family.
I would recommend Lisbon to anyone and it is a pity that I didn’t have more time to explore the beautiful city. What I can say is that if I have the opportunity to return to Lisbon, I will do so willingly and I am waiting for the opportunity to experience more of the beautiful warm city.
So what matters to you?
I can tell you with confidence that I am not worried that I didn’t buy myself a T-shirt or a memento. I have more than 500 photographs and many memories that I will treasure forever. This is what counts to me. Not material things. After all, a T-shirt will be worn and tattered in a year or so, but the photographs will live on forever. No one can take my memories from me.
Capture Moments – Collect Memories.
So I found this mug at Typo (my absolute favourite store) – and it is me to a tee. Yes, be happy – it drives people crazy.
My name is Carolyn Melnick, better known as Caro (or Crazy Caro). My claim to fame is nothing extraordinary. I am a mom, a wife and an employee. My life revolves around making sure that my kids get what they need and trying not to neglect my husband too much (which is no mean achievement given the crazy job that I have and the amount of travelling I do).