Morocco – Jewel of the North

Still thinking about where to go this autumn school holidays? How about stepping back in time and embarking on an adventure in Morocco? 
We traveled with our 2 boys, now 8 and 4 years old, to Marrakech in October last year. We thought the kids are ready for something a bit more exotic and rustic – basically, a place where finding the first-world staple of pommes frites and pasta for a meal would be a mean feat.

And what an amazing hidden jewel Marrakech proved to be.

What to see:

The Medina – which is the largest traditional market square in Morocco, was a real eye-opener for our kids who have never seen a donkey plying the same busy roads as cars and trucks. On weekends, locals would travel far and wide from their villages in the mountains or desert here to catch up with friends, treat themselves to a hearty meal, or simply soak in the thrilling energy of the big city.

Our senses were treated to the constant buzz of animal hooves click-clacking on narrow cobbled stone streets and the friendly banter between stall owners selling their wares and potential customers negotiating prices; the fragrant scent of spices, aromatic oils and soaps, the whiff of piping hot sesame buns and flatted breads sold by women with their young children in tow; the fine warm dust caressing our sandaled feet and the hypnotic pipe tunes of the snake charmers.

The main market square can be liken to the heart of the city, but the fun begins when we start meandering through the narrow veins to the many souks that sell unique artisan wares. One street is flanked by stalls selling leather goods like footwear that looked like elves’ shoes with their pointy tips; another souk sparkled and glowed with starburst streams of light coming from pendant lamps made of pewter and silver. One street sold only olives!

Adventures with kids:

You can’t leave Morocco without seeing it in all its golden glory in a hot air balloon. We woke up at 4.30am and a tour guide drove us from our hotel to the desert in a muscly four-wheel drive. We had a breakfast in a rustic tent before seeing a whole entourage of workers set up the balloon for our ride. 

Even seeing the set up was an adventure in itself. The kids were really happy that the balloon we were going up in is a bright red and yellow color. The desert soon glittered below us as the sun began to rise over the Atlas mountain range. There was nothing to do but enjoy nature’s beauty.

The minimum age for kids to be in the hot air balloon is 3 years old. After the ride, we had lunch in a small desert village and went for a camel ride as part of the tour too.

We made a day trip to the Ourika Valley in the Atlas mountain region, a 70 km drive from Marrakech. It is inhibited by the Berber people who still embrace a traditional way of life. We did a wonderful trek up the mountain to see a waterfall, climbing over slippery and sharp rock surfaces. Do bring your usual Swiss hiking attire and shoes. I hiked in a dress that wasn’t too convenient for climbing over rocks but at least I wore sensible shoes! This was apparently where they filmed the movie ‘The Mummy’ as well. 

Where to stay:

There are many family resorts and all-inclusive hotels but we chose to stay in a lovely riad run by a wonderful French couple called Riad Dar Alfarah. It is only 5 minutes walk from the Medina – the grand traditional market square. Our hosts gave us good tips on how to travel safely and arranged for a driver and tour guide to show us around. On our last night, we were treated to a lovely Moroccan meal with a merry band of musicians and a belly dancing performance.

The intoxicating combination of lamb stew, constant flow of wine and spiced teas, the heady scent of shisha smoke and the nimble belly dancer flitting from one table to another definitely left an indelible mark in my mind.


Cuba Calling

This is my first time visiting Latin America and I can’t imagine a better place to start with than Cuba.

It is a momentous time for this beautiful Caribbean island – the last fraying thread of the iron curtain snapping with the recent visit from President Obama.

Many people have told us before we flew out that going to Cuba is like traveling back in time to the hedonistic lifestyle of the 1950s, punctuated by decadence, fancy cars, opulent villas and sensuous song and dance all wrapped up in the heady smokes of cigars and the intoxicating burn of well-aged rum.

What we saw in reality is a more sepia version of that romantic notion of Cuba. To me, it is as if the ancient and modern, the opulence and austerity, the spontaneity of music and the curfews on social life are all merging to create a new Cuban identity that is both relevant and timeless at the same time.

We caught a glimpse of this emerging new identity with Chanel fashion house holding their very first Latin American fashion show last week in the Prado Boulevard 300 meters from our hotel. We also saw the first American cruise ship dock in the Havana port after the last one was allowed to sailed in 50 years ago. The old weapons of invasion – missles and economic embargoes have now been replaced by fashion, pop culture, social media and the tourism dollar. And the impact is a lot quicker too.

Stargazing at the Chanel fashion show – Tilda Swinton

We love the vintage cars – the ‘Old-Timers’ with their repainted and glued on (a million times I think) chrome (more matt now) fenders, their bright colors, the cracked vinyl bench seats that you can’t help but leave sweaty thigh imprints on and the naughty vibrations in the car every time the drivers shift gears. It is not unusual to see cars being fixed on the side of a busy road or a few people trying to push start a car.

You can clearly see the influence of the Spanish colonial masters in their beautiful architecture. Many buildings have high, brightly colored walls, intricate albeit faded frescoes, imposing living spaces, and very tall windows and doors. A lot of the monuments, theatres and religious sanctuaries in Old Havana are kept in surprisingly pristine conditions. However they often stand alongside buildings in precarious state of decay and misery, some with only the front façade of a concrete wall with rusty steel beams jutting out.

– an amazing restaurant with quality service, ambience and food. Obama and his family dined here recently

The food in Cuba is amazing, and you can find grilled lobster on the menus of most reputable restaurants. Music and singing is very much part of the eating experience with a small band playing in the background in most bars and dining places.

The Cuban people are very friendly and easy going; random people kept coming up to us to ask where we are from and whether they can show us around and give us any information. Initially we were abit suspicious, but after the first day, we realize they were genuinely curious to find out about other cultures and people of different nationalities.

Key museums to visit are the Museum of the Revolution, Museum of Fine Arts and the Museum of Rum. It is definitely interesting to read important documents pertaining to crucial historical events from the local perspective and see first-hand, the crude weapons the militants used in their fight for freedom. I love the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes. Cuba art is so vibrant in themes, styles and colors and that you feel like you are walking through the pages of a children’s storybook where history, culture and politics are reduced to their basic form that everyone, young and old can understand. The Cubans take their alcohol, notably Rum, or ‘Ron’ in spanish, very seriously. We were treated to a very informative tour of the entire rum making process at the Museum of Ron and ended the tour with a rum tasting session. image.jpeg

The highlight for me on this trip was when we chanced upon a restaurant featuring a music act called the ‘Traditionals of the 50s’. We were blown away by the quality of the band and the singers although they all look like they were at least 60 years old. 91 year old singer Juana Bacallo, famously known as the ‘Black goddess of Cuban music’ came out at the end of the show. Her voice is still strong and commanding, and like a witch doctor, if felt as if she had cast a spell on the captive audience, drawing everyone in through her very presence. The hairs on my arms stood up when she started singing. It was such a privilege and honor to see her perform in person.image.jpeg

It will be interesting to see how much the social, cultural and political fabric of Cuba will change in the next few years. I don’t know how many in the same league as Juana Bacallo will still be around to show the world Cuba’s beauty, strong spirit and resilience.

Spring blooms

This time last year, I was in Japan for a friend’s wedding, enjoying walks through parks lined with pink and white cherry blossom trees. Spring has finally arrived in Switzerland, and what an amazing change from the dreary foggy greys to lovely pastel floral blooms and bright greens of new young leaves appearing on bald branches. 


Wild Inspirations

I visited the Zurich Zoo last weekend and had a wonderful time with my mum and my youngest son. There were several food stands littered throughout the zoo, interesting and challenging playgrounds and the open enclosures allow visitors to get up close and personal to the myriad animals.

I couldn’t help but marvel at how fortunate animals are in Switzerland. Compared to the smelly, world-weary camels we saw in Morocco – with their constant groupie of gnats buzzing around them, their humps, or should I say, ‘stumps’ flattened to non-existence for tourists to sit on, the camels here boasted of thick, luscious golden brown fur, have access to a wide open field to roam around that is filled with food aplenty.

We were really excited standing in front of the glass divider of the tiger enclosure. A majestic looking tiger swaggered up to his lunch with strong, sure strides. We couldn’t see what his lunch comprised of, until he sank his teeth in, and starting parading his meal – a big, furry rabbit infront of everyone. There were loud gasps amongst the children, watching avidly at the exciting and at the same time morbid scene of the tiger mauling and gnawing his meal and seeing fluffy fur flying everywhere!

Well, this poor bunny sure didn’t survive past Easter!

I got inspired to do a new painting, this one of a few cows grazing on the  alps by the Furka Pass. I remembered more than 10 years ago, I painted a few t shirts to sell to friends, many of which were animal inspired. 

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What animal-inspired crafts have you made recently?

The Art of PlaY

We dedicated last weekend to making big messy art and learning all about the concept and engineering of PLAY at the Kunsthalle.

We joined Lemady at her weekend Storycraft session which was inspired by all forms of construction vehicles in ‘Dig, Dig, Digging’, written by Margaret Moyo. The kids plunged toy tractors, steam-rollers, cranes and trucks into trays of paint and ran these vehicles with multicolored wheels over a large paper canvas. It wasn’t long before hands, tiny feet and bums in nappies joined in the fun to create a beautiful abstract piece of art.

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IMG_4218The Kunsthalle in Zurich is currently showcasing an educational and interactive exhibition called The PlaYground Project (20 Feb – 15 May 2016). Art workshops for families, guided tours and even pop-up yoga sessions are available too.

We learnt how the concept of a public play space evolved from the post WW2 years to the present, and how the changes in the design of playgrounds reflect society’s changing ideas of adventure, education and childhood, creativity and control.

It is interesting to learn how the ‘new’ playgrounds after WW2 started as an initiative to help traumatised kids, with play used as a form of rehabilitative therapy. The Scandinavian urban landscapers and architects were the pioneers of independent creative play in the 1930s. They introduced the use of natural material, water and sand around abstract play sculptures.

After them came the concept of adventure playgrounds, where parents and children become more and more involved in the creation of play spaces as community projects. The premise of an adventure playground is … ‘it is never complete, never developed. It is a sort of ‘terrain vague’ that can be many things to many children’ (Jack Lambert, pioneer of adventure playgrounds).

I can imagine it to be like being on an episode of the reality show ‘Survival’, where children get to mess around with junk, build houses with timber and any material found on the ground and developing their own brand of play. Switzerland’s brand of adventure play comes in the form of ‘Robinson Crusoe-playgrounds’; and of course, kids here can sign up for playgroups in the forest or at a farm and learn to play independently in different natural settings.

I remember growing up in Singapore with sandpit playgrounds, with traditional fixed equipment like a swing, slide and see saw. The playgrounds in the 1980s were pretty iconic with shapes of lions and dragons. In land scarce Singapore, these limited open spaces are play4.jpgstill very much the pulse of the heartlands/community. It is where children, families and retired senior citizens congregate and have a short reprieve from the hustle and bustle of city life. The last few times I’ve visited Singapore, I’ve noticed that although public housing are becoming taller (think living on the 50th storey!) and rural land have given way to new shopping malls, the government still managed to make this little island city green for its 5 million dwellers. New high rise housing and office buildings often have ‘floating gardens, swimming pools and play areas’, water play areas are built on top of shopping malls and in places of interest like the Zoo or at the Gardens by the Bay.

In this modern day, it seems like norms and boredom have crept into the play space. People are more paranoid about safety of play equipment, sturdiness of trees for climbing, water and sand not cleaned or replaced often enough etc. It is becoming more and more challenging for urban planners to find a happy balance between adhering to strict safety standards and making daring play creations that are capable of challenging our discerning and easily bored children to ‘make the first leap, the first jump and the first climb’.

Of course, the greatest threat to public PlaYgrounds is other forms of play, notably computer and video games where kids can escape to a virtual playground. Nowadays (gosh, I sound like an old fart when I use this word), kids are happy to exercise their nifty fingers and hand-eye coordination on the video screen. They find contentment in building virtual forts and cities with bricks that do not take up physical storage space, use bitcoins and tokens to learn the concept of buy and sell, and of course, figure their way out of complex mazes all from the comforts of their air-conditioned bedroom, or from their baby car seat.

(We signed up for the art workshop and created our own playground with paper, sticks, straws and napkins)

Check out Lemady’s weekly storycraft sessions: and find out more about the PlaYground project and dates for their family art workshops:





Zurich just became a little more hip and cool…

… like it was a century ago.

Switzerland has never been known to be a magnet for the creative and literary arts in Europe. Unlike Paris, known for being the pulsating center for the artistic avant-garde, the Scandinavia for their minimalistic Nordic coolness, or Barcelona for its Picasso-Miro-Gaudi eclecticism, Zurich is more known for its staid work ethic and clockwork efficiency.


FullSizeRender (31)It came as a surprise to me that 100 years ago, the present little bar/student cafe in the heart of Zurich old town – Cabaret Voltaire, was where the Dada movement, the predecessor of the more famous Surrealism (Salvador Dali) was born.

After World War 1 in the 1920s, neutral Zurich became the natural meeting point for many European artists and a sort of ‘anti’ art emerged – where anything in your day-to-day life can be used as a form of artistic expression. The Dada mandate became a visualized critique of the war led by Germany and nationalistic sentiments.

A series of art shows, talks, city tours and even a costume ball will be conducted throughout Zurich for its centennial celebrations from February to July. A special 165 Days of Feast will culminate in a Dada Benediction with reference to the Holy Catholic Mass at the Cabaret Voltaire. I think it is very fitting that the Mass will give the Dada blessing to Lady Gaga.

Swiss visual-arts maestro

I couldn’t help but snicker at the name Pipilotti. (Isn’t it the name of a Swiss cartoon character?) Besides the ‘Dadaglobe’ exhibition, the Kunsthaus is currently showcasing a retrospective exhibition by the Swiss-born female artist, Pipilotti Rist.

Bizarrely titled ‘Your saliva is my diving suit in the ocean of pain’, it is an entire pitch-black floor space filled with her object assemblages and video sculptures.

I like her audiovisual installation ‘Yoghurt on skin, velvet on TV’ made up of 3 big seashells and handbags with built-in LCD monitors. If you look closely inside the shell, you can see a giant moving eye peering through.

Another interesting one is ‘Little Make-up table with feedback’, with an array of jewelry, make up and knick knack casually thrown on a dressing table. If you look at the mirror, you see a video clip of someone puckering her luscious red-stained lips. It is as if the subject becomes the object, the protagonist seeing how something or some situation is seen from the ‘opposite side of the mirror’ so to speak.

The most arresting installation would have to be the large chandelier above a non-descript dining table, made up of many pairs of underwear with colored lights projected on it called ‘Cape Cod Chandelier’. These 2 art exhibitions at the Zurich Kunsthaus are definitely worth visiting. I don’t want to post up too many photos so you can experience the art in person.

In the spirit of Dadaism and experiencing the visual arts, care to buy a pair of funky spectacle frames along bahnhofstrasse?