let’s talk about death

tumblr_ootblo9Q0n1tliyzbo1_500

Content Warning: I talk about some pretty morbid topics, not because I necessarily want to but because it’s become important to process some recent events.

Last week, after an already incredibly emotional series of events, as I was waiting to board my plane to London, I found out that Eric Judge, my fraternity brother and someone I always respected and looked up to had passed away. If you have read my post about pain, then you’ll know exactly what my body and mind went through at that point. I had to find a space, sit down and try to calm myself before I got onto the plane, because I had lost someone I cared about and the realization that I would never see them again hit me. This time last year, my paternal grandfather passed away of old age, and I remember feeling a reeling sense of shock. Now, my body knew what death of a close one was and immediately reacted emotionally.

Eric was one of the first people I met in my fraternity as I began my education process and immediately I knew he would play an important role in my understanding of Lambda Chi Alpha. Yes, he was known as the frequent caps player and the teacher of all things beer related, but he was also a brother in the most expansive form of the word. He would celebrate everyone who joined the organization, and he would shut down anyone who spoke poorly of another brother without regard for their dignity. It’s weird to speak praises about those who have passed only after they left, especially knowing that he was in Chicago and I only spent one other occasion with him before his incident. I wish I could have told him all of this – how I respected him and how my time in the US was made that much more special because of him. I will remember him dearly. Eric, this is my way of processing your death. I tried speaking to friends and family, but it helped little knowing that I had lost someone I cared for. My friends mean the world to me and it’s horrible that the cosmos wouldn’t give us any more times to celebrate our lives.

Eric’s death made me all the more resilient in speaking my truth to others. I am no longer ashamed of being honest and spontaneous in my expression to those I care about. It’s naive for me to claim that as we get older, death will be a more commonplace occurrence because so will marriage, birth and all kinds of other celebration. I am entering a portion of my life where the innocence of living is eroding and I have to choose how I interpret the things that happen around me.

There is a part two to this post, one that I feel I must write although I’m not sure how to write it. As if Eric’s death wasn’t enough to dampen my mood, as I landed in London I saw on the news that there was another terrorist incident in northern London. The cities I plan to visit – Berlin, Brussels, Paris – are also no longer strangers to acts of terrorism. I am literally living in a time and place where the concept of chaos is close and familiar and I have to adapt to the fact that I have to choose daily to live my best possible life. I have to also choose more than ever to be cautious, alert and smart about things around me.

But there’s this weird what-if question that remains. What if I do die? I know, I know – the human psyche is afraid of the question. It’s one of my biggest fears in life – my mortality. It’s very much why I continue to do the legacy work that I do. I feel like I should start thinking about it though, not to give the enemy any upper-hand in mental victory, but to give it the intellectual space it needs to provide insight. I immediately thought of my family and my close friends, the ones who actually do care for me the same way I cared about Eric and maybe even more. I immediately thought of the same pain crashing through them and felt awful myself. I want my life to speak for itself, my values and my character to continue beyond my existence. I want my conversations to have lasting impacts on the people I had them with. I want people to keep believing in a community that supports itself and is resilient.

Ironically, even considering the impact of my death made me so much more committed to fighting to live and to fight the forces that threaten my or any of my loved ones’ existences. There’s so much more work that needs to be done on this planet and no one should be able to steal that opportunity from us. I also recognize that the issue is so complex because of the politics involved. Terrorism only seems real because it happens in cities with people of actual power, but attacks happen in other parts of the world including Syria and Iraq, by countries like the US and UK. People all over the world are dying because it seems easy to detonate a bomb. Death is becoming a stranger topic until it hits someone close.

That has to stop. This desensitization to death has to stop. We need to feel emotionally connected to every aspect of the human condition and that means recognizing that it’s completely wrong that people have to die for acts they were never responsible for. I am carrying and will continue to carry this pain. I have a few ideas of how to move towards addressing these problems and am making efforts towards them, but I hope everyone who reads this recognizes they have that power to change their perspective on death in the world.

this is a perspective shift.

make a difference.

austin + san antonio : where i saw so much burnt orange

antfeat

Welcome to Texas, or as it’s known in my childhood – Cowboy town. I’ve said this before but the US is really more of a conglomerate of different states than one unified country, which provides it an ample set of advantages and obstacles. Texas is one of its most distinctive states, with some even calling it a country by itself. To be fair, I discovered on this trip that at one point, Texas actually was its own self-governing country for a while. In fact, that was just the tip of a very large iceberg on how complex Texas’ history and legacy was, and I was just about to discover it. I started my trip by flying into Austin and taking the airport bus downtown.  One of my favorite things about the city is how well planned the public transportation is.  You can take buses everywhere for a flat price of $2.50 per 24 hour period.

capitol

The most iconic sight in Austin has to be the State Capitol. It’s almost like the center of gravity of the city, with its large stature imposing onto Congress Ave, the main road of Austin. It’s probably one of the biggest state capitols that I’ve ever seen and has a beautiful park surrounding it for a peaceful walk. I definitely took advantage of the ambiance for some quiet time.

ladybird

Austin has done a really good job of balancing its urban buildup with parks and natural expanses. One of my favorite parts of this effort is Lady Bug Lake on the east side of the city. It’s one of its largest water bodies and people frequent the area for all kinds of water sports such as stand-up paddleboarding and kayaking. Had I more time, I would have definitely wanted to hit the water too.

soco

If you’re looking for more of Austin’s restaurant and commercial life, head down to South Congress, which is literally south of Colorado River and Congress Ave. There’s a bunch of cool street markets, craft stores and amazing restaurants. I took a walk up back to the bridge crossing the river and stopped at a bunch of stores just to see what was being sold.

bats1

I would also plan the trip back up to the bridge to align with sunset, because one of Austin’s coolest attractions is the flight of the bats. At sunset, all the bats that lie underneath Congress Bridge come out in a swarm.

bats2

This is a hazy sight of it. I couldn’t get a good shot because it was storming and I really didn’t know what I was expecting and how to prepare my camera for it, but trust me when I tell you, it is one of the most memorable sights I’ve seen and I’ve seen some cool stuff around the world. The wait can be rather frustrating because the bats literally do what they want but I made some good conversation with the hundreds of people also in anticipation.

bartoncreek

Another cool place to check out is the Barton Springs. You have to pay a $8 fee to enter the actual pool where the water comes from naturally heated springs, but you can also swing through the children playground to this creek-like area. The actual pool is top-optional so note that when you’re heading there. Austin has a bunch of cool secrets like these.

6th

And then of course, what’s Austin without 6th Street. Austin is known as the live music capitol of the world, and the areas surrounding 6th street do host some of the liveliest pubs and bars I’ve seen in a city. There’s a bunch I liked including Jackalope, Blind Pig Pub and Bull McCabes (which is actually on Red River St). Grab a beer, chill out and dance with other tourists/locals. It’s a ball of a time. One place I highly recommend is the Midnight Cowboy speakeasy which needs reservations well in advance but does tableside cocktail preparations.

labbq1

Before I go on to talk about food, we must talk about food trucks. Austin has the most food truck parks I’ve seen in an US city, probably comparable to Portland. These are where some of the best food is dished out and it’s a lifestyle here to eat out on outdoor benches because the weather is always warm. I love love loved this.

labbq2

One of the places you MUST make your way to is La Barbecue. It’s a 2 hour wait if you just swing by but if you pre-order a week in advance, you can just come up and collect your order and pay immediately. The beef brisket is heavenly and is some of the best I’ve ever had in my life. It’s really depressing because I don’t know if I’m ever going to have such good brisket in a while. Their sausages are also really well done, with the meat mix being spot on and spicy. I also was a big fan of their potato salad.

torchys

The most recommended place to me was Torchy’s Tacos. I’m not sure if you’re aware, but Austin is famous for multiple things, and Tex-Mex is top on that list. Torchy’s is the epitomy of that celebration with savagely unique taco combinations and a mean queso dip. I’ve had comparable tacos in my travels around cities, but I will admit their queso is unbeatable. I personally liked their Green Chile Pork taco the best.

gordough

Another recommendation I’ll provided is for Gordough’s. I couldn’t make it out to their Public House where they serve ~donut burgers~ but I made a stop at a food truck and had one of their most populat donut dishes. I can’t remember what it’s called but it has whipped cream and fresh strawberries on a light fried donut. It was so good, but so sinful. Texan food isn’t known for being light but I didn’t know that so I was very overwhelmed quickly by how dense the food was. Make sure you take note of that, if not you’ll leave a few pounds heavier for sure.

Having seen Austin, I heard I had to check out San Antonio while I was nearby, so I booked a Greyhound and went out.

riverwalk

San Antonio is an absolutely beautiful city, and a lot more historically tied if you ask me. There’s a lot of events that happened around the area and the buildings and roads seem to reflect that. The centerpiece of the city though is the Riverwalk, which is a long expansive river that is banked by restaurants and bars. At some points, there are dams, bridges and even this performance area. You can take a boat cruise tour although I opted to walk the whole way and pick up on tidbits that the tour guides were sharing.

sanfernando

On the upper level lie more of San Antonio’s historical features, the most important being the San Fernando Cathedral. It is one of the oldest cathedrals in the US and has the architectural brilliance to show for it. I loved just walking around and admiring the stonework gone into the church, and the best part was that because I came on a Sunday, service was going on and I could peek into the stunning interior.

mexmart

If you continue westwards from the Cathedral, you’ll come across the largest Mexican Market outside of Mexico. This market has all kinds of stalls selling crafts, goods and memorabilia. There are also live music performances and talent shows.

mexstreet

Of course there’s a whole array of Mexican street food to choose from. I would say you’re gonna get more authentic Mexican food here than actual Tex-Mex which was a big thing for me because I’ve discovered a love for Mexican food since coming to the US. I’m really going to miss having easy access to Mexican food now that I’m out of the US.

alamo

And then we come to the Alamo, the highlight of my trip. From the memorable warcry ‘Remember the Alamo’, this area is a historical tribute to the complexities of Texas’s politics. The main building is actually a shrine of sorts to those who sacrificed their lives to protect the Mission (monikered ‘The Alamo’), but the whole campus holds artifacts and exhibits explaining how people fought over this area. It’s really an exciting and sobering visit, and completely meets the hype. It’s also completely free.

poblano

In San Antonio, I only had one meal, but this meal probably is as classic as it gets for my travels. I didn’t really want to drop a pretty penny on the Riverwalk restaurants but I also wanted good food. I basically camped outside the San Fernando church and followed those people who escaped church service early to reserve seats for lunch. I followed them to the nearby Poblano’s, which is a Mexican cafeteria that serves platters that are so affordable. I really had a hearty taco meal with chulapas here. Man, this was as good as it got for Mexican food.

Texas was an adventure and a ride. Be prepared for a very different part of the US when you cross these borders. There’s so much more I wish I did, like catch a rodeo or visit the famous Hamilton pools, but alas I must await my return to this exciting state. I will be back, Texas.

hooah.

the roles we must play

tumblr_oa6dn8CBGu1rp66ruo1_500.jpg

The Fujiwhara effect describes the phenomenon when two nearby cyclonic vortices (I am aware my title picture is not of a cyclone) orbit each other and close the distances between the circulations of their corresponding low-pressure areas. It’s really a fascinating thing to watch – a dance of sorts between two chaotic, unpredictable elements that ultimately lead to a blending. I’ve been doing a lot of thinking recently – a product of the void left after graduation and a bunch of other significant events recently – and I’ve been wondering about how I’ve chosen to interact with people around with me and what that says about me.

When I was in middle school, my class tutor wrote in a note to my parents, “People will feel the wake of Rovik’s crossing”. I was 14 when this was written, but it has since stuck in my head. I never comprehended what that completely meant till recently when I realized that I was definitely leaving a presence behind, not in an egotistical ‘People will miss me’ kind of way, but in the manner that I’ve always aspired to – a legacy that is evidenced in tangible change created. More important to me though was recognizing how I got here, as a matter of introspection.

Perhaps the biggest thing about myself that I realized is that I’m a provocateur and activator. Just like a cyclone, I choose to be bold, overwhelming and a force to be reckoned with, simply because I come with a hope to bring change and evolution. I choose to disrupt because too many things gone undone have been regretted by the quiet.

But what about everyone else? I recognize my role but I also recognize it isn’t everyone else’s. It’s team-building 101 – know who’s on your team, understand their skills and recognize the roles they will play to take advantage of their strengths. That’s simple enough.

How about if we extend it to inter-personal relationships in general though? Here, there isn’t an engineered effort to drive synergies. No, we’re forced by life to encounter people and choose if we want to be friends with them or not. But while we may start to piece together their personalities and characters, we inevitably also build a dynamic between us. These dynamics are again tied to the roles we have traditionally assigned to ourselves. So if two cyclonic characters meet, there will be a collision that causes a new set of chaos. If a cyclonic character meets a quiet calm sea character, you can expect some pain to be felt. If a cyclonic character meets a sturdy rock, you can expect erosion and challenge.

But the roles must be played, both for the individual’s sake to stay aligned to their character as well as for the sake of advancement of the existing state.  Things must move forward, and the roles people play will assign the attributes to the progress created. This metaphorical way of looking at things helps me understand why people do the things the way they do and how things evolve out of moments of collision. Other cyclones are rare to come by, and when you do meet them, history has taught me to brace full on for the impact.

hooah.

 

 

may we never forget these days

11157123_10152786081854117_948075987_o

This post is emotionally wrought with stories of nostalgia, themes of reflection and thoughts on moving on. This isn’t a sad post, but neither is it necessarily an extremely happy one. But that is also how I feel right now – at the perfect state of bittersweetness.

I’ve heard how college changes your life. I’ve heard how it’s the best four years of your life. I’ve also heard how you make some of your best friends here. I’ve seen all of that come true, especially as the past month unfolded itself. I find myself at a really important point in my life, wanting to give it the time and space it needs to fully affect me as it should.

I’ve learnt so much about myself the past 3 years, constantly facing challenges and having to evolve as I learn more about the world around me. I came into college with a head bigger than it should have been. I had completed some significant chapters in my life, but it wasn’t experience that beget opportunities, but humility and curiosity. I learnt that vulnerability is where you are fully taking in what is around you because you have fewer guards to stop you. For example, when I signed up to produce a musical, I walked into rooms, shut up and learnt from others before speaking my part. I learnt to trust the knowledge of the community and my peers, and that made me even more important as a collaborator and manager.

It is also this humility and curiosity that stopped me from judging people who were different from me, something that is almost endemic to the conservative Singaporean psyche and allowed me to connect with a fascinating diversity of people. I am so so happy I got the opportunity to come to Chicago, which is the crossroads of culture, politics and experiences in the US. The days I’ve spent just wandering the neighbourhoods and the nights I’ve spent traversing the beautiful urban landscapes of the city will always be etched into my memory as some of the most classically romantic points in my life.

Before college, I thought I understood what friendship was and what it stood for. A step backwards, I was also a very angsty teen growing up. I really thought I was undeserving of love, that I was someone who had to claw his way up in every situation he was in and prove his utility to earn a place amongst others. It’s a huge part of the underdog story I had to live as a part of growing up, both as a minority and an immigrant. But in college, again in the past month, I’ve seen my real friends take their place and make their love for me known. I’ve felt my heart explode a thousand times over as I feel emotionally connected to the people who have surrounded me for the past few weeks, months and years. I’ve felt distraught as I realise that this chapter is ending, that this story is taking on a new turn and that the cruelty of the life will not allow me to have the privilege of being just a five-minute walk from any of these people. But I’ve also felt the showers of affection. The more I give myself away, the more I get back and the more honest I become, the more connected I become to the people around me. I’m leaving college having a vastly different understanding of friendship and love, and I really am standing on a bittersweet intersection of this realisation.

I am a product of my experiences, my character and the people who support me. I have never felt more connected to life itself, to the wider ways of the universe. I will always be that kid from Singapore, the one with dreams bigger than he can handle, but I will also always be your friend and loyal companion if you choose to be mine. I will take every adventure on with you, and I will promise that our memories will be laced with surreal moments.

These are my transformations in college. may we never forget these magical days and may we always remember who we were at this point in our lives.

hooah.

we are complex.

tumblr_oprac7yvbV1qzwmsso1_1280

Recently I celebrated my 24th birthday and I’ve asked myself what changes I’ve seen in my life so far. I’ve gotten into the hobby of watching the world evolve as we speak. It’s very much being conscious of the changes that are happening around you and the dynamics that build into them. It’s also being aware of the complexities that intertwine our lives. It is a fair truth that the world belongs to those who engage in these complexities – of growth, love, passion and many others. But these complexities give both immense joy and tragic pains and I’ve experienced both in the past few days.

This will be a short post for the most part, not because not a lot has happened, but because so much has happened that cannot and should not be written. For the first time in a while, these records will have gaps that are intentional and there.

Now, immense joy. I’ve recently felt the true sensation of bliss in my life. Time and again, I’ve sought out the gem of happiness (pure, unfiltered and lasting) and I’ve sought it in various places. This is why I travel, why I write, why I try to solve problems. But I think the moment I felt bliss was when I felt love, in all of its forms, when I didn’t earn it. Love that was bestowed upon me because I was who I was and furiously committed to that. Love that was enveloping and entrapping. From my family that has been there since day 1, to my friends who have taken the journeys with me, to the cosmic sense of the world that has shown me its beauty, I have felt love in consecutive waves that built upon each other and it is beautiful. I am so grateful for these stranger things.

But tragic pains also are part of the parcel of existence. I stay conscious of the fact that too many good things beget one bad thing, and while there’s no rationale for that belief, it keeps me wary. I stay wary that others are complex and are on their own paths, and sometimes in my attempt to understand their complexity, I can misstep. I stay wary that the world is built on tensions between dualistic forces and sometimes we got caught in the midst of them. I stay wary that sometimes pain is an energy by itself, and it can inspire thought, empathy and progress. Emotional pain drives itself to the soul, lunging at the core safeties that we’ve built for ourselves and tears them apart. It drains you of your energy for the quickest moment, leaving you a vessel, but then provides you the option of response. How one deals with pain show probably some of the most defining moments of their character, especially if it is tied again to the understanding of our lives. I have felt pain recently and it was excruciating, but it was honest and truthful and the most connected I’ve felt to my humanity in a while. These too are stranger things.

We are essentially dancing all throughout our lives, between moments of joy and pain. Some are stumbling through, and some ride the waves, but everyone is in their own complex performance. But the dance cannot be beautiful without the tension, and it cannot be interesting without the momvement, and so dance we must, and dance we shall.

hooah.

the seattle travelogue – welcome to emerald city

In the range of regions in the US, the Pacific Northwest is a favorite amongst anyone who wants to see the future of American cities. My previous trip on the West Cost stopped in Portland, and I was still itching to see Seattle, the emerald city. I finally found the opportunity to make my way there in April.

skyline

Seattle is a beautiful city and ranks high on my list as one of the most liveable cities I’ve been to. Aside from the rainy winter weather, Seattle has everything going for it – from a young progressive population to a beautiful natural backyard. From Kerry Park, you can get a sick view of the city and skyline including glimpses of the snowcapped Mt. Rainier and the Space Needle.

seattlecenter

The downtown area that caters to tourist basically revolves around the Seattle Center, which I honestly accidentally chanced upon during the walk down from Kerry Park. This area is a futuristic one with Glass Gardens, exhibitions, and other interesting sights. I’d say it’s more telling of Seattle’s commitment to being a city of the future and a meeting place of minds than anything else.

slu

One of the best things you can probably do for yourself while in Seattle is to find a way to do something at the Lake Union, the lake that stands in the middle of the city. The lake is absolutely beautiful especially with the mountains in the backdrop and the sun setting. You can do sports activities, ride a yacht (if you just so happen to own or rent one), or as I did, grab dinner by it. This is at White Swan Public House. 

poutine

I normally keep food recos for the end, but while we’re here, I’d say this restaurant’s main merit is its location and vibe. It’s charming and heartfelt, with good shellfish such as this clam poutine, but its service tends to be slow.

starbucks

Another place that is worth the visit is the Starbucks Reserve Roastery, where Starbucks shows its chops as a legitimate coffee producer. The place is divided into a coffee tasting area, a cafe, and a publicly viewable roastery.  You can talk to professional coffee roasters about the variety of blends and methods to extract coffee. It’s slightly sad that every other Starbucks in the world tends to be just sugary concoctions without the same appreciation for the coffee bean, but this was slightly redeeming.

coffee

I’d definitely recommend getting some flight from the menu. I got the cold brew flight, with one being a nitro version and they were really interesting profiles. They even give you info cards on the beans and where they come from.

pikeplace

Another big place to visit in Seattle is Pike Place Market. This is near the main downtown area of Seattle and is another tourist hotspot, although if you’ve followed my travelogues you would know I love markets anyway.

market

There’s a decent amount of goods here from flowers to spices to spreads. What’s especially captivating is the wide array of seafood that is freshly caught from the Pacific Northwest. I didn’t manage to get a good picture but there’s a shop that’s famous for throwing seafood between its folks when you order something, so if you’re willing to drop a dime just to see the act, definitely go for it.

pike

It’s probably worth taking the side-step to talk about some real issues in Seattle, beyond just the sights. Seattle has a huge problem with homelessness, and it becomes obvious once you walk the streets and look away from the mountains and straight onto your sidewalks. The city is largely filled with white upper middle-class to upper-class people, especially with the tech boom from Amazon and Microsoft, and it’s displacing people fast and furiously. Even at Pike Place, there’s a viewing area that is just occupied by homeless folk and it reminds you of how different people can experience the same city in vastly different ways. It’s worthy perspective to hold as you visit this city.

macandcheese

While you’re in Pike’s Place, make the slight detour to find the original Starbucks (which isn’t that interesting but worth noting of its existence) and also Beecher’s, which apparently has the best mac and cheese in the world (shown above).  The Mac and Cheese is extremely creamy but surprisingly not too heavy. You can see how they make the cheese in-house from the peering window.

fremont

Another good area to check out is Fremont, slightly north of downtown Capitol Hill, and where most people try to live. This is where our Airbnb was and the neighborhood was just such a pleasant place to be at. On the sunny day that we were there, it’s a beautiful walk to check out the town and have food at Paseo’s, a carribean sandwich place that will blow your mind away, and grab a cold beer at Fremont Brewery.

beer

Slightly west of Fremont is Ballard, which is where all of Seattle’s famous breweries are. My friends and I did a bar-hop and we got a good fill of amazing beer from the likes of Peddler, Populuxe and Reuben’s. You can go for flights at each place or enjoy a beautiful pint of it’s signature beers.

littlesi

Don’t miss out on exploring the natural backyard while you’re in Seattle. Make sure you go hiking or some sort of adventuring. We climbed Little Si, which was a 2 hour hike each way (mostly because I had lost a lot of my fitness), and the trail was absolutely stunning with the different terrains we had to traverse. Again the sights are amplified with the presence of snow-capped mountains.

sushi

For food, we’ll continue with seafood. You must appreciate the local catch including salmon, albacore, and geoduck. Moshi Moshi in Ballard is a good place to start with the sharing platter being around 60USD and the service being top-notch. It’s a small place and the neighborhood is a charming one, but the sushi and sashimi stand out as stars in this place.

portage

Brunch is also a big deal in Seattle, and Portage Bay is a well recommended venue with tons of gluten-free and farm to table options. I got the vegetable hash with pork belly strips and I ended up with a very filling yet healthy meal that tasted so fresh.

There’s a lot more places I didn’t get pictures of, but definitely, check out Canon (a whiskey speakeasy with great service and selection), Kedai Makan (a malaysian fusion restaurant if you miss southeast asian food) and Li’l Woody’s for greasy late night burgers. I’ve also heard Dick’s is a good place to check out for late night but I didn’t get the chance to go.

friends

I do want to take the time to thank Daniel and Mac for being such great hosts, showing me around this amazing city, taking care of me when I was enjoying myself too much and making me remember this city with such fond memories. I’m almost down for more adventures with these folks.

I’ll miss you Seattle and you better bet I’m coming back to visit you.

hooah.

spring break travelogue – st. louis, nashville, new orleans and everything in between

I’m 2 months late, but my Spring Break trip still provides lasting memories of amazing places we visited and delicious food we tried. This year, the lads and I took a road trip from St. Louis, Missouri to New Orleans, Louisiana with pitstops in Nashville, Lynchburg, and Memphis, Tennessee. The trip was by far one of my favorites, with lots to see and lots to learn about the South. Here are some of my memories:

St. Louis

FastEddies

The journey began almost abruptly at Fast Eddie’s. Yes, it is exactly as it looks – a giant beer garden-esque area with extremely cheap American grill food (burgers, steaks, hot chicken etc.) and a range of beer selections. In the words of the Mills, our gracious hosts for this leg, this is as Midwestern as it gets. That speaks to St Louis’s charm as a true midwestern city. The food is pretty good, the vibe is energizing and the whole place sets you off on the right note for St Louis..

Budweiser

Continuing on the midwestern vibe, we visited the Home of America’s favorite beers, the Anheuser-Busch Brewery. This is actually a really interesting venue and if you can, do try to sign up in advance for the Brewmaster Tour. This is the most expensive package but also the tour with lots of special access and privileges. For one, we get unlimited beer at the end of the tour from their fridge.

Budbuilding

Aside from the alcohol, Anheuser-Busch does has a rich history, especially in its attempt to stay alive during Prohibition. The architecture is captivating, and the stories of the Clydesdales and other Busch insignia do make you more attached to the brand. For all the jokes made about Busch and related brands of beer, this brewery has basically been one of the biggest reasons for the US’s thriving drinking culture. It’s a big deal.

Tap

My favorite part of the tour was being able to drink beer straight from the tank. We got to try both unfiltered and filtered beer, and both types were astoundingly better than the regular beer we drink in college. If only the beer we got in cubes tasted as good, my college experience may be a lot richer.

teddrewes

Another favorite from St Louis is the Frozen Custard from Ted Drewes, which is supposedly ranked as the World’s best Ice Cream. I would agree that it’s pretty darn good and worth the search. We even had it again on our way back home. I personally liked the Turtle flavor which is made with hot fudge and caramel.

gooeybuttercake

Gooey butter cake is also a St Louis (and midwestern) favorite. It’s extremely sugary so expect to be satisfied with a small piece. Ours was made with love from Nathan’s (one of the lads) mom, so I can’t really provide recommendations on where to get it, but if you do find it in a bakery, definitely try it.

stlouisarch

We didn’t really have the time to visit the St Louis Arch, which is the major landmark of the city but it is quite a sight and I managed to catch a quick photo while driving past it. It’s especially interesting because it commemorates Lewis and Clark’s journey to explore the west of the US. I never think too much about how most of the US states were discovered, but amongst this country’s extremely complex and layered history there are some stories that have changed the lands we walk on.

St Louis has other sights that are worth visiting that we couldn’t make time for including watching a Cardinals game at the Busch stadium, catching a blues show or visiting Forest Park. If you can, do go for those and let me know how they are.

TeeksParents

I especially want to thank the Mills for hosting us and making our time such a pleasant experience. They really set a high standard for hospitality and I’m so glad I had the opportunity to meet them.

We now make our way south and take a stop at Nashville, Tennessee.

Nashville

nashville

I’ve been to Nashville in 2015 and so my second pass at the city was supposed to build off that. Nashville is a must-visit when in Tennessee for its thriving food and music culture. This is where country music takes front and center, and where you can enjoy the south without making too long of a trip from Chicago.

countrymusic

There’s many places to visit but we mostly stayed on Broadway and did a self-guided walking tour to understand the history of the city. A lot of it is steeped in the evolution of the culture of country music and the bars the country music ‘legends’ played in. Some good ones to check out are Tootsie’s, Wildhorse Saloon and Honkeytonk Central.

honkeytonk

In fact, you must come back to Broadway at night to explore the various bars (also called Honkeytonks) and listen to a range of country music. Most tend to cater to tourists (which is fine especially if you don’t listen to country music on a regular basis), so if you want some ground-up country music, it’s a good idea to explore Division near Music Row, especially Winners and Losers. This has a good college crowd from the nearby Vanderbilt University, but they also have regular features of local up and coming artists.

martinsbbq

On this visit, I made sure to take advantage of the range of food offered in Nashville. This city has an amazing selection of southern food, starting with BBQ. There’s a couple of options but Martin’s BBQ is a great start. My favorite was the brisket and pulled pork which were both juicy and flavorful. The dry rubs are outstanding but it’s Martin’s adaptation of West Tennessee’s whole hog bbq style that will stay in your memory.

hattieb

A Nashville-only find is Hot Chicken, and there’s no better place than Hattie B’s. Now, objectively, this is some of the best fried chicken I’ve ever had. The outer cripsy later is delicious and the chicken is juicy. The pimento mac and cheese is also uniquely flavorful. But what will get you is the spice rub. Hot Chicken is no misnomer, and if you dare to try the Damn Hot (which I did) or the Shut the Cluck Up (which is the hottest flavor), you will know what it’s like to have a fire in your mouth. I was running around the restaurant looking for something to soothe my tongue. This is my favorite food from Nashville and I want to come back.

arnolds

One of the best finds on our trip was Arnold’s Country Kitchen, in the Gulch area of Nashville. This place cooks southern food daily on a rotating menu with authentic dishes. It’s cafeteria style where you grab food along the way and pay at the end.

arnoldsfood

There’s many options including liver, catfish, chicken etc, but I got the roast beef (so damn good), mac and cheese, collard greens and cornbread. Everything worked so well and I left jealous of  Nashvillians for having constant access to this food.

After all this good food, we made our way back towards New Orleans, but we had to make a pit stop in Lynchburg, Tennessee.

Lynchburg

jackdaniel's

Without being disrespectful, there’s really only one highlight in this quiet (and DRY) city – the Jack Daniel’s Distillery. This is the one and only place where JD’s is produced for worldwide distribution which made it even more exciting. I do appreciate my whiskeys so it was interesting seeing the end to end process of how some of my favorite whiskey is made. Once again, we went for the Angel Tour, which is the highest value tour and we got a treat for the price.

jdtaster

We were treated to a flight of rich, rare whiskeys, including the single barrel select and single barrel, barrel proof varieties. These are crafted artfully and have so much texture in their flavors. It’s interesting how this distillery exists in a dry district and walking around the distillery understanding the secret to JD’s whiskey (the water source that Jack Daniel found and the surrounding location) was such an insight into the dram I will consume next time at the bar.

It was now time to go non-stop down south. We were on our way to New Orleans, Louisiana.

New Orleans

neworleans

If you’re in the US and want to explore a selective range of cities, New Orleans has to be on your list. This southern town is reputed as a party city but it also holds culinary prestige and a complex history. One of the first things we noticed as we hit the city was the presence of old streetcars that seem to continue to provide reliable transportation to the city. If that doesn’t tell you how much the city holds onto its history, I don’t know what will.

jackson

The main place to visit in New Orleans is Jackson Square. This is near all the hotspots, including the French Market and Bourbon street, and is full of tourists. Again, that’s fine for a first visit because it’s undisputedly beautiful and there are legitimately good musicians always playing hot tunes for your entertainment.

jackson2

Right at the square  (aside from the park) is the oldest cathedral in the United States – the St Louis Cathedral. This sight reminds you of the role Louisiana played in the religious conservatism of the American South, and how much New Orleans is still a ‘religious’ city at heart. In fact, people forget that Mardi Gras is actually the last chance of crazy celebration before Lent, which is in itself questionable as an intention.

beads

Right beside the square, appears this elegant tree which is just embellished in the notorious Mardi Gras beads. That’s essentially the spirit of New Orleans – elegant with a bucketload of craziness.

lafayettesq

Before the partying, you must take the opportunity to explore the actual city and see what the locals do. Lafayette Square has regular food and music festivals and I was fortunate to catch the monthly jazz festival where people just bring out lawn chairs and catch local jazz bands play their hearts out.

bourbon

People will, of course, tell you to make your way to Bourbon Street, where two things exist. Beautiful french-style buildings that have balconies that peer out for you to overlook the crowds. In addition to that are more bars than you can even imagine. Bourbon Street is where the true Spring Break part of our trip came alive. Again, elegance smashed with bucketloads of craziness.

bourbonjazz

Come to Bourbon street early enough (around 5 pm) and you’ll catch jazz bands playing on the streets and adding to the liveliness of the area. New Orleans, in general, allows you to carry alcohol out in the open, but Bourbon Street is where it makes the most sense to do so as you hop in and out of bars where jazz bands play all night. My favorites are, of course, on the streets, but the bar is already high here. Bars I’d recommend are Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop, Old Absinthe Bar and Pat O’ Briens.

grenades

You’ll also be enticed by the range of interesting drink offers from fishbowls to frozen daiquiris to grenades (which Nathan is holding above). All of these are highly alcoholic but also very very sweet so watch your alcohol count with these.

spottedcat

If you want something classier, go to Frenchmen street which is just northeast of Bourbon street. Jazz musicians here tend to ‘take themselves more seriously’ and bars are known for being stricter with their clientele. There’s only a great selection of music either ways so I’d compare it to having different styles of the same beer. A good recommendation is Spotted Cat.

frenchmenartmkt

What I would recommend while on Frenchmen though, is to check out the night art markets. The local fare is really cool and it’s always interesting to see the talent brought.

There’s more nightlife that I didn’t take photos of, because it was inconvenient to carry my camera, but definitely also make the journey down to Magazine Street to check out Red Dog Diner and The Bulldog for good beer, Rum House for great Carribean food and Le Bon Temps Roule for amazing amazing jazz music by Soul Rebels, a famous band. Audubon Park is also worth the visit in the evening to drink a few beers along the Mississippi River.

bayou

While the city itself has a lot to explore, it is worth the day trip out to Lafitte to take an airboat and explore the swamps of Louisiana. We booked our package with Airboat Adventures which was really reliable and our captain was both friendly and safe. The airboat itself was fun to ride on, especially when the captain speeds up and takes a few thrilling turns.

gator

The highlight of the package is interacting with gators though. We don’t necessarily have to if we don’t want to but these captains know how the gators live and interact, and play with them for your understanding. Everything is respectful and you end up learning a lot about the natural environment in this region.

commander'sbldg

Now onto food. This is a long list, but we’ll start with the star – Commander’s Palace. This is the best restaurant in the city and for good reason. Its history precedes it as a destination for fine Creole cuisine. You need to dress up for it, so don’t come in anything less than Business Casual and make sure you make a reservation at least a week in advance.

commander's

There’s a lot to enjoy but the fried catfish on grits, with crawfish tails took the show for me. The seafood is fresh and the flavors are well matched with the spice in the sauce accentuating the catfish incredibly. You can get a set meal here for approximately 30USD, and you can also get up to 3 martinis for 25 cents each. Yes, 25 cents. They’re all strong so take your time with them.

beignet

Another must visit is Cafe Du Monde for beignets. This place runs 24 hours so you can get your powdered sugar fix any time of the day. Lines are really long in the morning but they move fast. Each serving comes with 3-4 beignets that are freshly fried and are soft and chewy, and the powdered sugar just makes each bite an explosion in your mouth.

chargrilledoysters

To get good oysters, go to Acme Oyster House. Chargrilled oysters are a NOLA local favorite and it’s a creamy rendition of the commonly raw dish.

poboy

In the same restaurant, we also got some good po’ boys – this one has both shrimp and oysters. ACME Oyster House has an exciting NOLA-esque vibe that makes the dining experience fun.

gumbo

The next dish on our list was some savory gumbo, so we went to Dooky Chase, one of NOLA’s remaining traditional dining houses where even Obama has gone to visit. The gumbo here is rich and scrumptious with all its ingredients.

friedchicken

We also got the fried chicken with a side of rice & beans. The chicken was good, but what really stood out was the simple rice and red beans with its classic yet complex flavors. Dooky Chase is definitely a must-have on the list.

mother's

For Jambalaya, baked ham and other southern soul food dishes, Mother’s restaurant is a worthy visit. There are no tips allowed but service is outstanding. The jambalaya is famous for its rich flavors and it definitely deserves the fame. This is also a cafeteria-style setting which has become my favorite kind of place to eat in the US because you know the focus is on the food.

rbarcrwfish

One of the things I told myself to eat while in NOLA is crawfish. And I wanted a homely non-restaurant version that was as close to how it was meant to be served. R Bar has a weekly crawfish boil on Friday evenings that has no charge as long as you buy a drink at the bar. You should tip the chef though. The boil is done on the spot and you can see the skillful chef bring the right mix of ingredients to the pot.

crawfish

What results is this beautiful and so so flavorful tray of crawfish that reminds you why Cajun style food is by far one of the world’s best cuisines.

New Orleans gave me a lot and it was worth every mile traveled towards it. Now it was time to go back but we had one more quick stop along the way.

Memphis

centralbbq

We went back through Tennessee, this time actually going through Memphis – one of the BBQ Capitals of the US. This is where whole-hog bbqing is said to be done best, and at Central BBQ this is the absolute truth. The pulled pork sandwich is legendary and will blow your mind.

____

At the end of the day, this Spring Break offered a lot in terms of sights, food and activities but the brothers and lifelong friends I got to hang out with were really the highlights. I will keep great stories emboldened in magnificent destinations as memories from this trip.

hooah.