Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Connecting in Today's World - Rio and Singapore Biennale

A Rio Landmark: Pão de Açucar
(Sugar Loaf Mountain)
There are days when the complexity of our connected world is beyond my ability to manage with any efficiency, let alone patience. This past Tuesday was one of those days. I spent much of the morning dealing with renewal of various registrations tied my Brazilian cellular telephone. These renewals were required since my 2016 Brazilian cell phone number expired during the months I was out of the country. I had to get a new one. Consequently everything that was tied to my old number had to be re-initiated. Then, via email, I asked friends in Washington state – my permanent home – to facilitate getting connected to a newly installed fiber optic system serving my home there. All of these undertakings were straight forward but time consuming. We’ve all been there dealing with some aspect of our connected society – hanging on the phone explaining to customer service the problem and getting it solved; waiting in line at the local cable service center; going into online help forums to try and understand why a particular action didn’t effect the expected response.

Twenty years ago we didn’t have cell phones or fiber optic systems. Now many of us are spending hours managing these new technologies – all intended to keep us connected. Whew. That is the down side. The upside is that I can email my sister who lives in England and hear back within hours, send loved ones birthday wishes via Facebook and other social media and receive pictures on iCloud from family and friends all over the world. Those are the good things and I’m glad for them. Why should administrative hassles annoy me? I can’t remember what the pre-Internet administrative hassles were but I am sure they were equally annoying. For sure we were not able to exchange photographs and commentary within minutes across continents before the Internet and cell phones were invented. We depended on expensive long distance phone calls and “snail mail” letters that could take weeks and even months to arrive. I guess I just expect it all to work!

Assembing for a Bloco (Carnaval Street Parade) in Lapa, Rio
Jeff and I arrived in Rio last Thursday for our annual sabbatical in Brazil. When we arrived, it was a few days after Carnaval officially ended. The city was still in party mode. On Saturday, Jeff and I joined a friend at a morning bloco – that is a community street parade with dancing and music. It was great fun to see the different costumes and dance with the crowd along the parade route. Once again I was reminded that keeping up regular exercise is worthwhile so that when an opportunity to dance in a street parade comes along I am ready! Of course in my American life there are not that many occasions when dancing in the street for a few hours is an option. We had great fun – me dressed as a hippie complete with a tie-dyed dress and my husband in an Egyptian headdress. We weren’t the only senior citizens having fun. We saw all ages and all manner of hilarious outfits – one of the perennial favorites is men dressed up as women. My first experience at a Brazilian Carnaval was almost thirty years ago. Someone told me that the key to remember about costumes, or fantasias as they are called in Portuguese, is “The men dress as women and the women take off their clothes.” Perhaps this blanket statement is a bit of an exaggeration but it is still quite apt.

It is more than a month since we left another tropical city, Singapore. During our last week there we visited the Singapore Biennale – a biennale is a large-scale contemporary art exhibit that occurs every two years. In the short time we were back in the United States, I didn’t have the chance to write about this wonderful exhibit. Now I will.
The Great East Indiaman by David Chan, Singapore
Raffles landing in an Imaginary Schooner powered by a Mythical Whale
The 2016 Singapore Biennale showcased diverse art works by 60 Asian artists representing nations from Pakistan to Japan and from northern China to the most southern island nations. It was hosted by the Singapore Art Museum. Like the Bienal de São Paulo that I visited in 2014 (see my blog about it at

Gate by Do Ho Suh, South Korea
A ghostly memory of a lost home
the Singapore Biennale was an eye-opening window on the emotions and visions of the artists and their nations. Many of the pieces (artists from South Korea and Indonesia for example) evinced a longing for home and nostalgia for what the artist perceived to be a more stable past. Others were delightful, even fanciful expressions of the joy of living or remembrance of historical events. What I like about visiting art museums is that the exhibits always show me something that changes the way I see the world. Sometimes it is just a moment of self-reflection or a sense of happiness at seeing something of pleasing to the eye. Sometimes a painting, a sculpture or a mixed media installation sticks with me, influencing my thinking and ability to understand the world around me. If you are ever in a city that is hosting a biennale my advice is go – you will experience paintings, sculptures, collages and other contemporary art forms that open your mind to the beauty and the challenges of our diverse world. I am posting just two examples of what we saw – hoping to tempt you into visiting a modern art museum next time you have the chance. We are so inundated with Internet distributed forms of video entertainment that I think we miss out experiencing art forms that do not adapt so easily to Internet distribution. Okay off my soapbox. I guess I am just a nut for broadening horizons and besides who doesn’t love to visit an art museum?

The Singapore River at dusk
It is interesting to compare the two tropical cities we’ve lived in this year, Rio and Singapore. Rio is known for its samba and beaches while Singapore is known for its strict behavioral standards, its efficient infrastructure and cleanliness. Without question the overall standard of living is higher in Singapore but Singapore is a tightly controlled independent city nation whereas Rio is the historical center of a large, sprawling and complex democracy. Despite the differences, both cities are great places to walk in – both are full of public parks and interesting architecture. Curiously both Rio and Singapore have good public transportation systems. Buses are abundant and cheap in Rio and the subway system is greatly upgraded since the Rio Olympics. While it does not reach as extensively into the neighborhoods as the city-wide system in Singapore does, Rio’s new lines and new train cars are clean, fast and remarkably similar to those in Singapore. There are of course more differences between the two cities than similarities. One that interests me as a former water engineer is the surface water drainage canals in Rio and Singapore. In Singapore, the Singapore River, that drains and flows through the center of town, is almost drinking water standard but in Rio, the big drainage canals that run from the inland Lagoa (lake) to the Atlantic Ocean are quite polluted. After rainfalls in Singapore there is little trash in the river but here in Rio rain flushes out endless forms of trash, particularly plastic bottles and bags. Singapore gets “bad marks” internationally for being so strict about littering. It is illegal to litter in Singapore whereas in Rio, despite many street trash cans, littering seems like the norm. When you see the difference in the water quality of runoff and in the amount of trash on the streets the idea of no littering becomes appealing. But for now the sun is shining and I’m thinking about going out to get some of my daily 10,000 steps in.
The pedestrian path along Copacabana

There may be a little trash here and there on the streets but Rio is a marvelous city. I’m going to walk in Copacabana, along Avenida Atlântica and take my new cellular phone with me – just in case I decide to explore a new neighborhood. Who doesn’t appreciate the fact that the whole world is mapped and those maps are available at the touch of your cell phone screen. I guess spending some time hassling with the administrative part of modern technology is not a bad tradeoff.

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