some southern charleston charm

church

They call Charleston the ‘holy city’ which is kind of weird, given that the Vatican City comes to mind with that nickname. It’s well-intentioned though, as this beautiful city is charmed with church steeples instead of skyscrapers, which were guiding points for ships coming into the port. When Travel + Leisure ranked Charleston as the “Best City in the World” and I saw Anthony Bourdain make an episode about this city, I knew that I had to add it to my list of cities to visit in the US. So off I went on this adventure.

customhouse

When I was first learning about the US all the way in Singapore, I had two contrasting images. I had a visual image of New York city, the home of glam and modernity and where Alicia Keys belted out while on the piano. But I also had the image of the America of Atticus Finch and Scout – of the cute houses and prairies. The bible-thumping anglocentric not-so-diverse part of America. I had seen a lot of the first image in places like Chicago and DC, but in Charleston I had perhaps one of my first peeks into life into the second image. Charleston is historic. The buildings are stunning and quaint, and emblematic of the architectural styles of the south. You’ll find something traditional or historical at almost every corner, which made the travel more of a blast into the past than anything else.

market

One of the places to definitely stop by is the Charleston City Market. This is where a lot of the farmers and plantation owners – the main economy drivers in the Lowcountry – used to sell their goods. It’s one of the most visited places in Charleston and a National Historic Landmark.

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A lot of the goods here are craft materials that are really cool, but I think what caught my eye the most were the people selling Sweetgrass Baskets, traditionally made to winnow rice on plantations. The designs seemed intricate and inherited from generations of passing down the techniques. It’s probably one of the many ways to understand the conflicted past Charleston has, in recognizing its slavery-based past and still honoring the people and culture that it brought to the US.

college

Charleston is very heavily populated by students. Cistern Yard, shown above, is one of the more iconic parts of the campus of the College of Charleston and another reason to appreciate the beauty in the area.

horse

Contributing to the oldern charm are the horse carriages going about. I personally don’t go for these because they’ve become slightly cliche, but a lot of my fellow travelers have recommended this as a good way to tour the city with a guide and get a unique experience out of it too.

slavemart

There are many cool views and buildings to check out in Charleston, but if you were to prioritize any, it would have to be Chalmers Street in the French Quarter. This is a cobblestoned street, but it also used to be where the Old Slave Mart was. This is now a museum, but it’s a visual trigger for the disgusting past of the US, where slaves were traded and sold. It’s a necessary stop to understand that the beauty of Charleston hides some nastineness in plain sight.

ravenel-bridge

Aside from the city itself, it’s a good idea to explore the Lowcountry around Charleston and see more of what the region is about. The Ravenel Bridge is one of these sights, standing over the Cooper River, and connecting Charleston to Mount Pleasant. It’s like a mini Golden Gate Bridge but cool in its own way. I’d recommend driving through it too (walking may not be as pleasant).

fortsumter

A good place to catch a view of the bridge is on the way to Fort Sumter. You have to buy tickets for this, but it’s completely worth the cost as you take a 10 min ride out to this fort which has major historical significance. This was where the first ‘shot’ of the Civil War was fired and has contentious meanings for different people.

flags

One of the major reasons for this was because of the occupation of the fort by both Secessionists and the Union. Given that South Carolina was one of the first states to secede, this makes more sense. The Fort has seen a lot of damage and the history around it is pretty dramatic, so again I’d recommend the visit. The National Park rangers who manage the fort are very friendly and keen to impart the knowledge to visitors.

patriotspoint

Another historical sight to check out is Patriots Point which is in Mount Pleasant. This is mainly a museum area but it has aircraft carriers and major warships which are really cool. The tickets are slightly pricy which meant that I didn’t go onboard, but the view from afar is pretty stunning by itself.

boonehall

While in Mount Pleasant, take another 15 minutes east to go to Boone Hall Plantation which is one of the most gorgeous looking estates but again, another reminder of how slavery was such a big foundation of the economy here. Now the plantation serves more of a historical and an aesthetic purpose, providing backdrops for weddings and festivals with its beautiful promenades.

boonehallbldg

While in Boone Hall, the main building will definitely catch your attention. This is where The Notebook with Rachel McAdams and Ryan Gosling had some of its scenes and is therefore a photo attraction for many of the movie’s fans.

oyster

While we were in Boone Hall, the Oyster Festival was going on, which was a crazy good experience. They sold Lowcountry oysters by the buckets and my friend, George and I just gorged on them. This was definitely a highlight of the trip.

sullivan

Just south of Boone Hall is Sullivan’s Island, home to a simple expansive beach that provides a stunning view of the Atlantic Ocean. This is also the entry point for a lot fo the slaves that were brought into the Lowcountry. The island has seen a lot of battles fought here as well.

shemcreek

Finally, on your way back to Charleston, catch the sunset at Shem Creek, and if you have time, dinner and drinks too. This is one of my favorite photo opportunities I caught and is probably one of the best ways to capture the spirit of the Lowcountry.

angeloak

All the way on the west side of Charleston also lie many sights. Due to limited time, we couldn’t check out all of it (incl. Magnolia Plantation and some other marsh areas) but one sight that is grand is the Angel Oak. This is a 20-30 min drive from the city but is one of the oldest oaks around and you can see it the moment you arrive. It’s seen a lot and is truly gorgeous.

Charleston is also famous for its food. It’s seen a revival in its culinary scenes as a lot of local chefs have started trying to recover ingredients and styles from the south and integrate them back into the minds of major food enthusiasts. I’ll be honest, one of the main reasons why I came to Charleston was to try some good southern cuisine.

nastybiscuit

One of the best places to go is the Hominy Grill on Rutledge Ave, where you can get the Nasty Biscuit. This is a fried chicken biscuit sandwich, with a slightly spicy sausage gravy generously poured over it. The chicken was brined and fried well and the biscuit was fluffy in the middle but flaky on the outside, just the way it has to be. The gravy added a whole new dimension to the sandwich as the biscuit continued to soak it up.

bbq

South Carolina BBQ is pork oriented, but what makes it stand out is the White Mustard sauce that is unique to the region. At Swig & Swine, the portions are large and the prices affordable for a range of BBQ dishes with a myraid of sauce options including the SC BBQ Sauce. Definitely worth trying the Sweet Red Sauce as well. Also their Mac and Cheese IS AMAZING.  AND THEIR BRISKET. Yes, I typed it in CAPS. Yes, it’s that good.

pigearsalad

Finally, you know I had to make my way to Husk, where Sean Brock (one of my favorite chefs) has created a cultural entity around southern comfort food. It’s hard to get a place, so reserve early. Their brunch is what I’d recommend, even better if you have someone to share with. I started with their Pig’s Ears salad, a sweet and crispy mix of caramelized pig’s ears, onions and fresh cucumbers.

shrimpandgrits

The star of the show though was definitely the Shrimp and Grits. I love grits now because, in this dish, the soft flavorful grits were such a simple but addictive part of the meal. The shrimp was fresh and the soft-boiled egg was a bonus. I was so happy at the end of the meal.

Another place to drop by in Charleston is AC’s Bar and Grill which has the cheapest beer I’ve seen anywhere in the US. Most beers go at 2 USD and they don’t stop becoming cheaper at any point aka all day happy hour.

Charleston needs to be added to every list of cities to visit in the US. It adds more dimensions to what this country is about and provides just as much of a cultural and histroical experience as most other big cities. You can Uber around but I’d strongly recommend renting a car to see a lot of the natural parts of the Lowcountry.

Thank you Charleston for showing me southern hospitality. I look forward to coming back.

hooah

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seeing south america – sao paulo + rio de janeiro + niteroi

The final country on the trip – Brazil. I was extremely excited for this last leg, especially given all the wild stories I’ve heard about times in this land. My ignorance was quickly challenged though, given that I had forgotten that Brazil spoke primarily Portuguese and not Spanish. There was a whole bunch of relearning that was about to occur.

Sao Paulo

spcity

I landed in Sao Paulo early in the morning (around 4am) and learnt that the airport is around 40 min away from the main city. It took me a long Uber ride, but I slept in and went downtown in the early afternoon. Av. Paulista is the main road where the business of the city occurs, and to be honest, given Sao Paulo’s positioning as Brazil’s economic and financial capital, this is where you’ll see a lot of your typical cityscapes. I quickly got bored on this road however. With the exception of some interesting architecture and the Museo de Arte, there wasn’t much to do in the city.

beco

I’m sure if I had stayed slightly longer I could have taken better advantage of what the city had to offer (such as the gardens), but I was mainly in Sao Paulo to transfer to Rio and had to prioritize my sightseeing. One of the things I definitely wanted to see was the Beco do Batman, which is in the west-central part of the city. It’s an alley filled with beautiful, stunning and absolutely trippy graffiti. It’s interesting given that the pursuit of law and order globally has sought to eradicate forms of expression such as graffiti, but here it’s celebrated and embraced.
fogo

There’s a friendly but not-so-friendly competition between Argentina and Brazil on who does meat better. Brazil’s steakhouses do whole cuts of meat and serve you slices. It’s normally done buffet style, such as in Fogo de Chao, which was overwhelmingly recommended as the best (and priciest) option. One must note that Fogo de Chao has restaurants in the US as well, and is now owned by American owners, so if you want a more local experience, you should look more. Having said that, Fogo de Chao in Sao Paulo was one of my favorite memories in Brazil and I was absolutely stuffed for the amount I paid. The meat cuts were delicious, having been seasoned right and done to perfection. My favorite cuts were the rump and short ribs. The chicken hearts are also a personal indulgence.

When I was in Sao Paulo, I stayed in JS Hostel, and I’d highly recommend it. The staff are very kind and the owner’s mother was such a darling in making sure I was taken care of. She even gave me a pillow to sleep on the couch (I had already checked out) and a towel to borrow for my shower while I waited for my night bus.  It’s also really good value for money.

Rio de Janeiro

I took the night bus from Sao Paulo on Expresso Do Sul to Rio. The SP bus terminal was expectedly chaotic, but the bus ride was safe and comfortable. They  even had charging ports and ‘wifi’ which was pretty clutch. I reached Rio at 3am and made a dumb mistake by deciding to walk a distance from the bus terminal in Rio to avoid paying exorbitant taxi fees. I quickly remembered everyone’s warnings about avoiding danger in Rio and given how dark it was, started realizing I was putting myself in a precarious situation. I quickly hailed a cab (which became difficult away from the terminal) and struggled to navigate us to my hostel. Lesson learnt – invest in safe transport to and fro your accommodation because you don’t want to lose all your belongings.

I spent the next 3 days exploring what Rio had to offer.

arcodalapa

Rio has a number of memorable locations. One of my favorites is the Carioca Aqueduct, situated near the Lapa district. This is a historical aqueduct that now transports a tram to Santa Teresa. It used to bring water from Carioca down to the city and stands as a pretty iconic sight in the city of Rio. What’s even more exciting though, is that at night (especially weekends), this whole place turns into a giant party, with alcohol and food stalls and open drinking. There are lights and noises, and the bars/clubs are right behind the Aqueduct. It’s quite the experience.

santateresa

Of course, you also have to explore the districts in Rio. These tend to be slightly less safe if you don’t have your wits about you, but spend some while in Rio and you’ll figure out how to navigate around. Santa Teresa is one of these districts, next to Lapa and built mostly on a hill. This makes for amazing views, and there are a lot of local bars and hangout spots here, especially in the evening.

escadaria

When you’re in Lapa, you should also check out the Mosaic Steps or the Escadaria Selaron which was a gift from a Chilean artist to the Brazilian people. It’s stunning and quite an artistic splendor. Of course, you have to bustle around other tourist, but there are so many interesting quirks here that you could spend a solid amount of time enjoying the different colors and combinations.

rioview

Rio’s main gift is in its ability to be a giant playground and such a diverse city. Right in the center of the city lies its Tijuca forest which is home to so much biodiversity.  If you take the tram up to the Christ the Redeemer statue, you can get a quick view through the forest and some pretty snazzy views such as this one.

cristo

One of the two iconic view spots in Rio is the Cristo Redentor statue (the other is Sugarloaf Mountain). Do not underestimate the line for the tram up here. Buy your ticket the day before from one of the tourist offices or at the station, or be prepared to buy a ticket for 4 hours later. Also time your trip. Some days, the top of the mountain is just so cloudy that you can’t see anything. I waited here for a total of 3 hours before I got this picture (I wasn’t going to waste my money and time already invested), but you do feel small when you stand next to the statue. The religious significance of the statue was felt but also it was mostly a giant tourist attraction. There is an area to pray behind the statue though. The whole trip up came up to approximately USD 30.

cristopeople

One thing to note though is really how incredibly packed this area is. Even with all the clouds, the area was filled with tourists who also would not budge till they got their photos. It also meant taking photos gets difficult, as everyone is using annoying selfie sticks or blocking up large spaces. You really have to go fast and furious on this.

ipanema

Of course, how could we talk about Rio without talking about its beaches. True to the stories, Rio’s beaches are beautiful with breathtaking backdrops and large amounts of space. There’s a strong mix of locals and tourists just taking in the heat, although I went in December and it was burning hot. Both Ipanema and Copacabana are beaches worth going to (they’re both right beside each other), but I’m a bigger fan of Ipanema simply because of the views.

fishingniteroi

When you’re in Rio, I’d strongly encourage taking a day trip to Niteroi, which is accessible by road or ferry. This is a neighboring with city with a quieter scene. You get better views of Rio from this side of the bay though, and a more local-centric community. For example, most of the fishing boats stay on this side of the bay.

viewfromtop

If you go up to Niteroi’s city park, you get access to these ledges where people paraglide from. Aside from paragliding, you also get these magnificent views of the bay.

niteroiview

As I was with my friend Ivana and her family, they also took me to this lesser known area (essentially a fort), where you get a sick view of both Sugarloaf mountain and the Cristo Redentor statue. The number of times where I was just overwhelmed by Rio and Niteroi’s beauty could not be tracked.

caipirinha

Moving onto to food and drink, I must start with the star of Rio – the Caipirinha, Brazil’s national cocktail. This is made with sugarcane liquor, lime and sugar and is a very potent drink that gives you the kick ready for the night. When people in Rio pregame, they normally buy 2 USD versions of these cocktails from street stalls and just go hard the whole night.

feijoda

Brazilian food tends to involve mostly rice, beans and a dish. They also have a really spicy chili extract sauce that is not for the weak. The dish people say is local to Rio and must be tried though, is the Feijoda. This is a stew with pork ribs, sausage and beans and is normally reserved for special occasions or the weekend, but at Bar do Mineiro in Santa Teresa, you can get this for a good rate. Man, I still remember the taste sometimes….

acai

Another common sight in Brazil is the Acai stalls. Acai is extremely expensive outside of Brazil, but here you can get smoothies, ice creams and other variations for incredibly affordable rates. It’s highly caloric but it provides energy quickly to the body. MegaMatte is a chain that provides this around town, along with Matte – another drink popular in South America.

ivana

I must extend my deepest thanks to Ivana, who I met 3 years ago in Berlin, Germany and who I’ve been so happy to continue keeping in touch with, for taking care of me and showing me around Niteroi. Her family and her really made me feel welcome in Brazil and showed me all the cool sights. It was good to see a familiar face after a long time!! Thank you Ivana!

In Rio, I stayed in PopArt Hostel which is in the Centro district of the city (away from the beaches). I would not recommend staying here, because the facilities are pretty battered and the staff aren’t as pleasant. I was there during the New Year season though, so I had to make do for affordable rates.

You can also Uber to get around everywhere in both SP and Rio, and they’re both pretty affordable. Rio has really good bus services though, and the tourist lines accept cash so I’d recommend using those more.

SIM cards – now this is probably where some advice is due. If you can, fly into Rio and get the TIM Tourist SIM. Brazil has a lot of restrictions for SIM cards to tourists (they mostly only allow citizens to get SIM cards) but the TIM tourist SIM is available in Rio readily and has the best value. I got a temporary SIM in SP because the Tourist SIMs ran out, but that was still expensive.

Finally, banks and ATMs charge hefty withdrawal fees in Brazil so either frontload your withdrawals or bring money already exchanged.

Brazil was a great time and an absolute party. I’m so happy  I got to see these three stunning cities and participate in local culture. There’s a lot I missed out on – such as favellas and the nature part of the country, but that only means I definitely have to come back.

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It’s been three months since I did this trip and I still miss South America sorely. The food, the people and the rich culture are so difficult to find anywhere else, and the cautions of safety wrongly shadow the the trove of warmth you find from the communities you visit. Yes, things are unexpected and danger abounds in new environments, but that’s also become countries are complex, pluralistic and ultimately still not developed. There’s so much to understand about the human condition from that alone.

hooah.