2016 : smoked up ham sandwich

Source: wixgram.com

Source: wixgram.com

It seems customary to have a reflection post. After all, I believe one of the best things I’ve done for myself is to constantly reflect, burdening myself with the impact of my past so that my future may be brighter. 2016 is a tough one to think about, though. In a lot of ways, this has been a hodgepodge of a year and maybe that’s alright, but that makes the reflection process a bit tougher. I think I’ll try to elucidate this into a few points and we’ll see where we get from there.

The Music doesn’t Stop

If I was to think of 2015, it was a numbing pain on the weekdays and a blaring party on the weekends. It was the drawl, the inching to the end of a painful beat that would provide the impetus for a no holds barred celebration at the end. The music would be loud and violent and then stop suddenly, bringing on the misery again.

2016 taught me to find the music in the day to day. I found the sweet melody in rhythm and consistency – in poetic peaks and lulls and in escalations but also declinations. I heard my soul’s passion for adrenaline and experiences and learnt to accommodate my body’s need for health and rest. It’s ridiculous to think that it took me this long to learn how to pause (not stop), or even better, lower the volume.  Now I have music every day of my life because as great man Chance says: Music is all we got.

A Common World

I still believe in a global world. I think with the depressing rise of neo-fascism and populism, I was faced to confront whether my views were simply overtly liberal and fundamentally privileged. Was the world of opportunity I was able to see different from the world of hopelessness many others were observing? Perhaps, and I must choose whether to give up or persist. Should I still champion a connected world or must I relent and accept the world of our grandparents was better off?

I’ve learnt this year that I’m a strange person. I see strength in difference, and in my hope to connect the world, I’ve pushed myself to not only see the world but also to share the world through my socials to my community. I feel a moral prerogative to ensure that my friends and family see the need to empathize with the rest of the world – to see beauty in the diverse terrains I traverse and more importantly, the regular people I meet.

This experiment has been successful. I feel excited when friends rally from my travelogues and social postings to their own travels. I feel inspired when they ask me for travel tips, but I also feel energized when they ask me about my learnings.

I saw an invite for submission recently for the Global Challenges Prize: A New Shape that invites people to rethink global governance. It was at this point that I realized that very few of the world’s leaders have had much-conflicted exposure to the global experience aside from political matters. In my travels, I’ve seen matters of corruption, inequality, ecological damage and so much more. But I’ve seen them from a narrative that is intimate with the people I’ve talked to. I don’t know what a new model of governance looks like, and I’ll try to think of one, but I know for a fact that one important factor is a political leadership that cuts the bullshit and has seen this world for what it truly is – a non-idelogical mess of real lives that need to be reconnected to a common vision for humanity.

The Story must Go on

2016 was a lot. I had many takeaways, most of them small and all of them important. I’m not sure of what 2017 looks like. I think in line with keeping the music to a consistent beat, I can’t make any lofty goals till I decide the next step. I want to do a lot, and a lot I shall do, but I have to graduate and to decide my Master’s program. I have to tie up loose ends at Northwestern and say my goodbyes. I have to kiss my family all on the cheeks and I have to tell them I love them. I have a lot I must do before I do any of the lot I want to do.

But the Story must go on. The quiet but bold narrative of the naive Singaporean kid who wanted to see a world less broken than the one he entered in. I think this is the first time in a while that I have to accept I don’t know how the next chapter looks like. I can’t pretend that I do and it’s scary. But I do know one thing.

I’m sitting in Buenos Aires, in the airport, writing this on my laptop. 3 years ago, as I wearing my HAZMAT suit learning to clean up dirty bombs in the Army, I never imagined myself here. My life will change, as long as I commit the same energy to my principles that I always have. I will keep believing, and I will keep fighting bullies.

hooah.

I

going off the grid

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‘People seem to be nicer to you when they think you’re lost.’ I’ll write that down, Octi thought to himself. That’s a good line. That’s a really good line. The bus jerked again, and Octi had to grab the armrests. He didn’t have to be embarrassed; there was no one else on the bus. 2 more hours to Nasca, he muttered. That’s not a long time at all….

Lima had been fun, but it wasn’t what he was looking for on this trip. Maybe Nasca provided the answer. It probably didn’t, but he had time to kill and questions to mull over.

He heard footsteps coming up the stairs. “Hola, vas a Nasca?” the voice arrived before the person. Yes, Octi answered, realizing there wasn’t really an alternative given that it was the only stop left. The bus stewardess walked up to him.

“You speak English?” she asked, surprisingly fluently.

“Yes, do you?”

“Enough to chat,” she said, and then smiled. “Where are you going?”

Octi looked at her puzzled. “Nasca…” he answered.

She laughed. “Yes, this is obvious.” She sat on the chair in front of him and turned back. “What are you looking for? Adventure?” she asked.

“I don’t know. Maybe. I think I’m looking for answers”

“What is your question?”

“I don’t have an answer to that too”

She stared at him softly, her eyes scanning his face. “My name is Adalina,” she said, reaching out her hand. Octi shook it back. “This is the part where you say your name? Or am I wrong?” she responded to his silence.

“Oh yes. You can call me Octi. My parents named me October.”

“Why don’t you want to be called October? Is it too long?” she probed.

Octi stayed silent for a while. “That used to be it. But I think Octi lets me be myself, October reminds me of who the world wants me to be”

Adalina turned her body more and made herself comfortable. “Very interesting, Octi… do you not like who the world wants you to be?”

He turned his head towards the window and stared at the cliffs running past. They were majestic and unmovable. They must have been here for centuries, he thought. Yet, they spoke nothing.

“No, I do not.” he said, and then let out a sigh. That felt good. “I think all my life I’ve grown up wanting to live a certain way. I’ve wanted to change the world, to make an impact in history. And then I traveled the world, and I’m not sure if I want to do that anymore,” he went on.

Adalina kept her eyes fixed on him. Octi took that as a cue to keep talking.

“Listen, this may sound crazy, but I’ve been thinking. What if I go off the grid? What if I just disappear and travel around South America on what I make from odd jobs and things like that? It’s cheap enough to do so and I know I can survive. I can just leave everything behind, and everyone will be forced to forget about me. I’ll get to restart everything”

Adalina laughed, loud and involved. Octi looked at her, shocked at first, and then joined her. “I know, its ridiculous. What was I thinking?”

“No, not at all.” she said, coming down from her laughter. She placed her hand over his, looked at him staight and said, “Hazlo! Do it.”

“No, I was joking. What would my family think?”

“Write them postcards. Tell them to keep it a secret. You can’t live your life bound to someone else’s will… you’re not free at all.”

Octi looked at her puzzled. Her hands were still on his. He did not know what to say.

Adalina saw this and moved her hands away. “We’re almost at Nasca, it’s 30 minutes away. It’s a beautiful city, and I hope you have a good time.” She got up from the seat. “I can’t wait to see my family again.”

Octi watched her go back down the stairs. He went back to staring at the cliffs out of the window. I can’t do it, he thought, everything will change… everything! He turned his head to the other side of the bus, and noticed for the first time, the coastline. Dense, powerful waves slamming against the beach and drawing back to become join the expansive ocean. Octi looked up The National on his phone and played Sorrow on loop, plugging into the music as he stared at the ocean for the rest of the ride.

Adalina walked up the stairs again a while later. “We’re here, October,” she yelled across. Octi walked up to the front and took out his earphones. It’s Octi, he said, and are you planning on grabbing dinner?, he quickly followed.

Adalina looked at him for a second and then smiled. ‘Yes, Octi, of course. I forgot. And that depends, I know a good place, but we may get lost”.

That’s completely fine, he replied.

____

hooah.

fall travel series – boston & delton

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8 years ago, when I was 15, I made my first trip to the U.S. The first city I ever saw was Boston. I had the privilege of being introduced to America through this charming community and remember good times. 8 years later, I realize I didn’t remember much about the city as much as I expected, mainly because I was trying to take in the overall vibe of the US. This time, I went back with a purpose. Let’s see the historic city and get some lobster while I’m at it.

Boston
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Boston is probably as historic as it gets with the US, alongside companions like Philadelphia.  One of the best ways to see how “New England”, which was essentially colonized America, broke away and became independent is to follow the Freedom Trail, a 1.5-3 hour walking trail that brings you through not only most of historical Boston, but also major food and cultural attractions as well. I learned so much about the US’s major independence leaders through this trail, starting at the Boston Commons.boston_union

One of my favorite stops was the Union Oyster House. Union is the oldest restaurant still running in the whole of the US and by extension is not only part of the Freedom Trail, it’s also a major US relic. The restaurant is still alive and well, and I had the pleasure of being their first customer of the day and getting a place at their historical Oyster Bar. I didn’t grab oysters this time, but apparently the shuckers here are in the Top 3 for Oyster Shucking nationwide annually.boston_quincy

Another one of my favorite stops on the trail was the Quincy market area. Sam Adams stands adjacent to the area, and invites you to partake in the delectable offerings of the market behind him. From fried oysters to Thai food, the market is quite the sight. If you’re lucky, you’ll get to see street performances on the walkways, which are definitely worth stopping a while for.

Continue on the trail and you’ll reach North End, which is essentially the Italian Village in Boston. This was by far one of my favorite parts of Boston because of its rich heritage and affordable food. You feel like you’re immersing yourself in this new world when you pay close attention to people, architecture and mannerisms all around. boston_harbor

And of course, the harbor. Boston is famous for many things, but its port was what made it functional. The view is beautiful from the Waterfront and you feel the same calming vibe of Boston just pronounce itself clearly here.boston_samadams

If you have more time in Boston, there’s definitely neighborhoods you can visit too. Cambridge is a natural choice, and I explored it with my host pretty extensively. South Boston is also increasingly recommended as a site to go to, and if you want something laid back, Jamaica Plains is where you should look. I went to check out the Sam Adams Craft Brewery in JP and it was definitely one of my favorite Brewery tours I had been on. The tour guides are very entertaining and the tours provide  a lot of knowledge on one of the US’s oldest craft breweries.

Now, food. Boston has a lot of great food options. Seafood is definitely on the plate, but so is Italian, and a growing New American scene. It’s an exciting time in the culinary world for Boston.boston_lobsterroll

I was insistent on having one of the best Lobster Rolls in Boston. After all, I could get Lobster imported in Chicago, but if I was in Boston, I only wanted the best. I couldn’t go to Neptune Oyster, which apparently had the very best roll, but James Hook and Co wasn’t far off at all. This small shack by the Waterfront is unassuming and a really good value for money deal, given the amount of lobster meat they put in the roll. I was blissful after this meal.boston_mikes

Another place that was highly recommended was Mike’s Pastry. Mike’s is in North End and it sells a variety of Italian Baked Goods, but primarily Cannolis.boston_cannoli

There’s really not a lot I can say about this place other than that it definitely meets the hype. These are some of the best damn cannolis I’ve had in my life, aside from the ones I ate in Rome, and the variety of flavors really don’t make it easy pickings. I had to eat my one cannoli in two servings because it was well stuffed and full of flavor.boston_chowda

Clam Chowdah is a Bostonian classic, and the Union Oyster House serves bowls up at a regular rate. Creamy, chunky and delicious – I definitely enjoyed this mid-day slurp with my beer. You can probably order other seafood here too, but the chowder is a staple.boston_jplicks

For some reason, almost 70% of the recommendations I was given for Boston were dessert recommendations, so I had to check some of them out. JP Licks was my choice and I wasn’t disappointed by both the rich flavors and wholesome satisfaction of the ice cream. A lot of ice cream these days tend to be empty, but JP Licks definitely gives you your money’s worth.delton_aldenharlow

And finally, in my effort to discover more of New American cuisine, which focuses a lot on farm to table and locally sourced food, Alden & Harlow is in bougie Cambridge and does exactly that. The brunch here was such a delight with new twists on traditional breakfast items. Their famous burger (of which they only make 30 a day!) was the star though, with a unique beef blend and a soft potato bun. I really want to come back here.

Nightlife in Boston is actually pretty huge, mainly because Boston has the most amount of students per residents in the US and probably the world. It’s unique because a lot of the hot spots also happen to be old taverns that are attempting to rebrand, which provides a very unique proposition to your night plans. Irish bars are definitely worth visiting too, because Boston just has so many of them.boston_derrick

Derrick was my host in Boston and I loved just being able to spend all this time seeing my bro fall in love with his passion here at MIT, and see a part of his life here. Thank you for hosting me and making me so comfortable.

Thank you Boston, for never stopping to be special to me.

____

Delton, Michigan

For Thanksgiving, one of my best friends, Jacob invited me to visit his hometown and see a new part of the U.S. When he said that, I definitely wasn’t expecting what Delton was – rural and beautiful. I haven’t been to a lot of countryside towns in my life, and Delton isn’t necessarily one of them, but it certainly an adventure to get to.

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First of all, you must be prepared to drive through dirt tracks and forests to get to your friend’s or family’s place . Second of all, you must get used to the fact that hunting rifles and crossbows are common household appliances, and that it’s just a way of life here. I honestly wanted to participate in some mock hunting myself, but we couldn’t find the time. Lastly, you must love nature and the ability to create out of what you have in front of you. I always saw that in Jacob in college, but coming here, I definitely saw how that evolved.delton_trail

I think my time traveling has always been biased to cities, mainly because I love culture, history and good food and they tend to centralize there. But coming to Delton just blew my mind on what I had been missing out on if I don’t aspire to see more parts of the world outside my comfort zone and immediate peripheral vision. 15235397_10154127493854117_4056201537452086465_o

I must give so much thanks to Jacob and his family for taking me in and making me one of them. I got a lot of mom and grandma hugs, which can never makeup from embraces from my own folks, but definitely made me feel better after the tough quarter. I had good food, a great experience and a more nuanced perspective on the US and the world from this.

Thanks Delton.

hooah.

fall travel series – washington dc

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Looking back at Fall Quarter Senior Year, it was definitely the most academically tiring and difficult quarter I have had so far. I was taking classes mostly to fulfill requirements and I was on the tail end of most of my extracurricular responsibilities. I had committed this senior year to unabashed traveling,recognizing that I am probably not going have this much access to the American continents in a while to come. The past few months saw me visit some great parts of the US, out of which I feel like I have gained a deeper but still incomplete appreciation of a cross-section of this country.

Washington D.C.

D.C. was the number one recommended area to visit by all my friends. ‘You really haven’t seen the US till you see DC.’

I don’t think you can ever say you’ve seen the US till you’ve seen almost every major region given its diversity, but DC encapsulates most of the US’s history and political climate. Half my trip was visiting the major monuments and museums, and the other half was hanging out with friends and checking out Georgetown.
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Now I’ve been to many iconic sights in the world, including the Great Wall and the London Tower, but the White House has by far been one of the few attractions I actually have always wanted to see in person. It’s surreal how so many people get emotional knowing that whoever occupies the House has such a large effect on their lives. This is literally where the most powerful person in the world lives. Security doesn’t let you in unless you request a tour from your Congress representative (or in my case, from the Embassy) so I didn’t get to see the interior, but the moment of reflection outside the House was profound enough for me.

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I spent the rest of the day walking the National Mall, which is a strip of monuments starting at Capitol Hill and ending at the Lincoln Memorial. Right at the center is the Washington Monument. The Monument doesn’t waver in intimidating you as you approach it, which in some ways is pretty reflective of the US. It’s large and phallic and is meant to remember George Washington, the first US President. I had some divided feelings about it. I was initially excited to see the Monument, given how iconic it is. But the more I heard actual Americans’ views on it, I realized the Monument strikes different sentiments to different people. Ironically, it sits right next to the recently opened and critically acclaimed Museum of African American History, which has a distinctive style from the marble and granite look of old American monuments, and my Uber Driver told me how some of his White passengers had expressed their annoyance of how the new Museum disrupted the feel of the Monument. My immediate reaction was to remark how that was probably the intent and how it helps to provide a draw away from what traditional history has represented to many citizens and an alternative look at their celebrated history. Yep, I had all these thoughts just at this monument.dc_vietnam

The rest of the Mall has its moments. A lot of it is about War and a lot of it is about sacrifice. I cringed every time I saw someone taking a cheesy selfie next to any of these. Perhaps having served in the Army helped, but I felt troubled that so many people had to die for these grandiose monuments to be built. It would be sad if what people took away from this was that the architectural or aesthetic aspects of these monuments were photo-worthy rather than that people had died for their current way of life. That question haunts me to this day – will I die for Singapore? And it should, it’s not a question anyone should answer blindly. This grim memorial of the Korean War definitely reminded me of that.dc_freedom

I took a lot more pictures and they’re in my album but I really felt like I walked away from the Mall with a different feel than most tourists there. I came to get some good photos, but I left with a heavy heart and a reminder of the role I play in peace and war.dc_smithcastle

The eastern part of the Mall has most of the Smithsonian Museums which are amazing publicly accessible museums that celebrate one of the things I think the US does well – to search for knowledge and to discover. The architecture of most of these buildings by themselves are fascinating but the interiors are filled with boundless sources of information and exhibits.dc_natlhistory

I spent some time in the Museum of Natural History which was just a joy to walk around in and immerse myself in.dc_newseum

The Newseum isn’t a Smithsonian Museum but it definitely sits on my list of favorite museums in the world. (My favorite is the Pergamon Museum in Berlin.) This museum takes you on a journey of the history of the Press in the US and how the four Freedoms have played a huge role in shaping American history. I absolutely loved the variety of exhibits and the thoughtfulness that went into sharing how so many lives have been affected by the press. I guess that becomes even more relevant now with the rise of uncredible news sources and their impacts on how people see their worlds.

All in all, the Mall was definitely a day’s worth of exploring (possibly two if you want to visit multiple museums). I would encourage people to go with a reflective mood to really get the most out of it. A lot can be trivialized easily but I really took a lot away from the walk up and down the strip.

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20 minutes away from downtown D.C. is Georgetown.  Now Georgetown is beautiful. I honestly would want to retire here if I was to retire in the US (probably won’t happen). It’s a quaint neighborhood with a European charm and a good number of recreational options. As expected, Georgetown is heavily White. There’s a SoulCycle that’s packed and multiple high-brow brand stores on the central street, but it’s become almost fun watching this way of life being insulated from the rest of the world and even closer home, to D.C.  I would definitely recommend coming here for brunch and a walk down the Promenade.

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Georgetown University also sits nearby and its architecture is Neo-Medieval, with gargoyles and steeples. It was quite the delight walking around their main campus and seeing the building.

D.C. isn’t really known for its food, but as you probably know, I’m a big foodie and see food as a lens to understand culture and history. So here’s the food section.

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The only D.C. local specialty is the half-smoke. I find it kind of weird how such a distinctive city hadn’t formed its own local cuisine, but in some ways I get it too, because D.C. only recently became a livable city. Tons of young people live here now as a way to climb up the political ladder, and in another 20 years we may hear of DC local dishes, but for now only the half-smoke holds a spot. The half-smoke is essentially a chili-dog, except the dog is smoked instead of grilled/steamed which adds a spicy kick to the dog. I enjoyed it, but definitely think it’s not that much of a deal. Ben’s Chili Bowl is apparently where the original is made, and where Obama has gone to, so I went there for this.dc_ebbitt

Not so much of a local dish as much as it is a regional dish are the oysters. I went to the Old Ebbitt Grill which is the oldest restaurant in DC and where a lot of high brow political dinners happen apparently. I went for the famous Happy Hour Oyster special where everything is half off, and sat at the Oyster Bar and became friends with the bartender over an extended time. Greenspeake oysters join the choir of other regionally sourced oysters to provide a good range of options. I simply enjoyed pretending to be bougie for a while.dc_georgetown

Finally, going back to Georgetown, go for the cupcakes. I went to Georgetown Cupcakes and waited in line for an hour but honestly, there’s a decent number of other cupcake stores in town that are just as phenomenal. These were pretty great. If you don’t know, Georgetown Cupcakes is the store that had a whole TV Show made after them and became famous as a result.

On a side note, nightlife in DC is a thing. There are whole bar districts and club districts that are packed and I patronized a couple of them. Like I said previously, DC may be run by old people but the city is populated by youths and you see that clearly at night. I loved it.

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All in all, my short weekend in DC was an absolute blast. Elyssa, my dear friend, was such a blessing and hosted me for the weekend and I’m ever so grateful. I definitely think I can make one more weekend trip out of DC, to see some of the other museums (the African American History one especially), to check out more of the bars and to take a trip out to nearby Baltimore where I have more friends studying. DC, you were fun, and I’m glad I got this opportunity to walk down your streets.

hooah.