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.

Advertisements

have you ever seen a grown man?

Salar De Uyuni In The Rainy Season

04 Feb 2010, Bolivia  — Image by © Kazuyoshi Nomachi/Corbis

I’m taking a break from all the travelogues to finally write a thought piece. It’s been a while, and I’ve forgotten how much I enjoyed writing in this space. This has served both as a dumping ground for all kinds of thoughts and yet, paradoxically also a curation of who I am. Leaving this space to rot will give very little for future-me to reflect on.

I’ve been in a naturally reflective state recently, given the stage of life I’m transitioning through. I’m graduating out of college, and while I’ve always believed I came in here at a different stage from my class (given my experience with the military and running a company), I still find myself grateful for the maturity these 3 years have granted me. I find myself thankful for the friends I’ve made – I’ve never wanted to stay in touch with people more than with these souls who I’ve had the privilege to encounter. I pause at moments to breathe and appreciate the range of opportunities I’ve been granted – from governing over a council of fraternities to producing a musical to signing a big name artist for a festival to running a research project at one of the world’s best museums. I struggle with the difficult lessons I’ve learned and I contemplate daily how to apply myself to advance social justice, community building, and leadership development both in my daily life and the various contexts I’ve become embedded in. The worlds I have to straddle become discrete yet overlap and I feel challenged yet empowered to care about all of them. I think frequently about Singapore, my home, but I also care about Evanston, the US, the world I belong to and to which my friends around the globe live in.

It makes me wonder how college is supposed to serve the individual. Yes, the primary purpose is the education. My Computer Science degree will serve me will in the future, both as a bolster for any career choices I make and a foundation to understand the world as it evolves.  But this environment has been rich in its experiences. I came to the US with an objective of transplanting myself away from Singapore – not because I disliked my home but because I loved it so and needed space to understand it from afar. Contrast and juxtaposition increase awareness of what makes us unique. Northwestern has provided me that platform to explore my passions and goals in a setting that is relatively free of expectations. I don’t have to fit a preconceived notion of a college student in the US – I can be whoever I want. Success belongs to those who find excellence in whatever form. It’s starkly different from Singapore, where as a country we struggle to appreciate the humanity of our society. We think in numbers, laws, and achievements – not in values that connect us. Because where the former keeps us safe and moving, the latter keeps us alive and excited for life. The joy of life is in our ability to choose our own struggles to earn the rewards that matter – not in inheriting struggles imposed by social hierarchy, hyper-legalism, and history and finding ways to accommodate our existence.  Our children must find meaning in their day, they must see themselves molding society. That shining sense of opportunity has to surpass the ‘needs of the economy’. The economy grows because of our ambition. Our ambitions should never be limited by the decisions of society.

College built my hope in change. I’m notoriously known for my optimism and it’s exacerbated by my youth. When I was running The Hidden Good, I remember the countless number of not only older people but also my peers feeling the need to provide a ceiling to my goals or a signpost back to their idea of reality. I’ve always been fearful that perhaps I do live in my own head too much – that perhaps my hope for society can only manifest itself in the smallest of doses. But college has given me the platform to shape my own future, not because it’s a magic bubble, but because if you look deeper it has similar levels of unfairness, inequality, and injustice. Yes, the progressive slant of Northwestern is enabling, but reality is encountered quickly when you push for anything more than a statement or declaration. Action requires getting down in the mud, and I’ve focussed my time away from the surface level politics and in the work of understanding and empowering change. The successes have given me momentum but the failures have only riled me up more to recalibrate and go again.

There’s so much more I could probably write about. From the thoughts on traveling as a student to the consistent effort to diversify my circles, but I think I’ve run out of mind-fuel. This post will continue to serve as my reminder of my optimism, just as my posts from the last 10 years have been equally charged with positive energy and the journey to improve the communities I’m a part of. I’m excited because I’ll be graduating college excited about possibility.

The world is a jungle and I’m excited to explore it.

hooah.

 

 

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.

16251771_10154374575769117_5390216701512382285_o.jpg

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

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.

___

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.

seeing south america: salta + buenos aires

Having been forced to take a detour around Uyuni, I was now on a plane from La Paz to Salta, Argentina. Northwestern Argentina is known for being beautiful to drive through with its desert like landscapes. Unfortunately, I missed out on that by taking this flight to avoid being held at gunpoint in Uyuni, but I guess I wasn’t trying to make this trip more dangerous than it already was turning out to be.

Salta

cathedralcathedral2

Salta is a small city in the northwestern part of Argentina that is a good stop when on a multi-stop roadtrip in the region. It has beautiful architecture, as seen in the cathedrals above, and is deeply traditional. If you want to see true small-town west Argentina, Salta is without  a doubt a good choice. mercado

As part of the whole traditional gig, it’s quite the visit to Mercado San Miguel, where there’s wholesale sales of coca leaves and various other spices. I’m pretty sure you can buy large quantities of coca leaves here, which makes me wonder what people use it for…. Aside from that, you get to see life in motion at this market, especially early in the morning when people come to grab breakfast within the market.hotdog

What really made Salta stick out for me was the rich variety of food options that are renowned to have come from West Argentina. The Pancho (hotdog) isn’t one of them, I think, but they’re an interesting street snack. You start out with a regular hot dog, maybe slightly longer, and then you go to a full on buffet bar of sauces and toppings, where you can pile anything from corn to salsa to ham bits onto your Pancho. This can be found in Buenos Aires too but I just found it a lot more common in Salta.empanadas

Of course, you can’t go to Salta and not have empanadas, the Argentian version of saltenas, which are smaller but for some reason, tastier. They say that Salta has the best empanadas in the country, so I went and sampled a few from different stores. These puffed pastries make great snacks and are just an explosion of flavors.

The city is walkable so you don’t really need to use cabs other than to get to the airport, but even then they have accessible buses. It’s also very safe, so you can go out at night to some of the best traditional bars with folk music for an unique experience.

Salta was a pretty decent one-day trip on the way between Bolivia and Buenos Aires, and it gives you a good small town contrast to the big giant of BA.

Buenos Aires

9dejulio

Buenos Aires is a capital city, in every sense of the word. It has a metropolitan center, large busy roads, famous restaurants and lots of interesting districts. I definitely enjoyed my time in BA, as it’s affectionately called, but there’s not an immediate sense that you’re in Argentina or that you’re in South America. I quickly learnt through the city tour that a lot of this has to do with the fact that the first group of people were infatuated with the French to the point that they built most of their cities modeled around European cities. In fact, BA was a largely an immigrant city for most of its history. Of course, when you’re in BA, you’ll definitely spend some time walking or driving on the largest urban road in the world – Avenida 9 de Julio, which runs through the centre. It has 7 lanes in each direction, and it’s quite the sight when it’s busy.

obelisco

Of course, when you’re on the road, you’ll also come across the Obelisco, which is right in the centre. It’s quite the phallic sight, and commemorates the fourth centenary of the first stone laid in the city. I’m personally not a fan of obelisks, but I guess this is a pretty famous part of the city.

clocktower

I don’t know if it’s the fault of the walking tour company I was with (FreeWalks) but Buenos Aires’s early history wasn’t very captivating because it isn’t based on a lot of grand gestures or ideological shifts. It’s essentially a story of a rich establishment that had its way and its eventual erosion.  It’s modern history is a lot more interesting though, and speaks volumes of the kinds of people in Argentina and the issues they have to navigate. Stuff like the Falkland wars are the exciting blips in history that make you peer a bit closer. This clocktower was given by the British actually, and resembles the Big Ben. It’s called the Torre Monumental, and after the Falkland wars was vandalized and damaged by locals. Just goes to show how different signals can be sent the by same building as time changes.

santelmo

What’s really cool about BA is not really in the main squares however, and more in the districts. San Telmo is one of my favorite districts, where dockworkers and other industrialists used to work, making this the essential heart of local life. The district has a strong bohemian vibe and houses many excellent restaurants and bars. It is home to a lot of beautiful street art and is where you go for professional tango shows. San Telmo was like taking a walk though a photogenic neighborhood. I highly recommend a couple of hours to explore this area.

laboca

Another interesting neighborhood to explore is La Boca, which is all the way southeast, near the docks. La Boca is home to a lot of Italian influence, mainly because of the influx of immigrants from Genoa who stayed here. It’s known as the colorful part of the city, for good reason. It’s painted in bright exciting colors, and make for great pictures. La Boca is known for being mainly dangerous outside of Caminito where the tourist area is, so I’d advise being cautious if exploring out of the main streets or late in the day. I personally did both, but I was with another male so I didn’t feel as unsafe.

tango

One of the things to definitely try to catch is an outdoor Tango show that happens spontaneously in Caminito. Tango is known as originating from BA, and was thought of as a dirty, lower class dance. Now it’s seen as a cultural essential and people flock to watch the shows in the city. You can catch it for free here!

cemetery

Spend some time in the Recoleta Cemetery, which is in the rich upper-class part of the city. The whole of Recoleta is populated with beautiful rich buildings, and the cemetery was meant to provide the same level of comfort to the rich when they died. They’re mini mansions, and each “grave” costs millions. You’ll find mostly aristocrat graves here, but there’s also the famous grave of Evita who many Argentinians adore as a woman for the people. It serves a good reminder of the level of inequality in BA.

floralis

Around Recoleta is also the Floralis Generica, a giant metal flower that was gifted by the famous architect Catalano. It opens up at dawn and closes at dusk, so definitely try to catch it at either time as it’s in motion.

el-ateno

If you have time, make your way to El Ateneo as well, which is a bookstore that’s housed in an old theatre. It’s known as one of the most beautiful bookstores in the world, and once you walk in, you definitely get why. The cafe is also housed on the stage, so you can grab a coffee there.

fugguzza

Buenos Aires has a lot of good food, both as an international city and a place of good local cuisine. One thing that you get best from BA is its pizza, known even as Argentinian Pizza, because of its adaptation from the recipes of the Genoans who immigrated. Pizzeria Guerrin is my go to, and I wanted to go back for more slices. The interesting slice is the Fugguzza, which is basically an onion pizza on white sauce, but there are also versions with ham and cheese.

offal

Of course, what does it mean to go to Buenos Aires or Argentina and not eat a lot of meat? I had so many different cuts of steak and ribs and other things while here, and I never got sick of it. At Gran Parilla Del Plata, you can get amazing portions for good value, even though it’s also known as one of the best parillas (steakhouses) in the city by the locals. One of the things I’d definitely recommend trying is the offal platter, which comes with intestines, kidneys, blood sausages and even sweetbread (the thryoid gland). This was what the poorer communities ate in BA, because grilling was universal, but it’s so good when done well.

asado

I also ate regular cuts of meat, including these short ribs, known as asado. Across the board, meat in the city is incredibly affordable and so well done. I was spoilt from the get go.

After your meal, try getting ice cream, especially Dulce de Leche which is a local favorite.

Buenos Aires is a fun city, and at night, you can go out to both traditional clubs/bars as well as local tango bars. I was here on Christmas and got to see magnificent fireworks on midnight going into Christmas, launched not so much by the city but by random people. There’s two main groups that launch fireworks: local Argentians and the Chinese immigrant community, and they tend to have a competition which was really cool to watch.

For hostels, I stayed at Rayuela Hostel, which I cannot recommend enough. It’s conveniently accessible and the staff are very helpful. They host a weekly BBQ, and we had ours on Christmas Eve which sweet Argentian wine (a lot of it in fact).

For SIM Cards, I recommend getting one from Personal,  but as with most South American cities, go to their local HQ and get it set up there because it can get very tricky, especially if you don’t know Spanish like I do. Personal has good coverage across Argentina.

ATMs in BA charge hefty transaction fees for foreign cards, so exchange money before coming in or front-load your withdrawals. Aside from that, the blue dollar isn’t much of a thing anymore so don’t worry about the scares about inflation etc. that used to be valid.

Uber is convenient and available, but the costs add up. Public transportation though is very accessible and well connected so I’d encourage using it as much as you can. Most hostels have travel passes you can rent to use on public transport.

15724652_10154260059889117_6969399862349540877_o

I want to thank Linus, who was such a good friend and resource on this trip. He provided a lot of good recommendations and even gave me a starter’s pack to the history and context of BA. I’m glad I managed to catch up with this friend from Singapore and have some good conversations on topics back home. Thanks bro.

The trip goes on its last leg, as I make my way to Sao Paolo in Brazil. All my Spanish that I had picked up will become useless as I quickly realize Portugese is the language of use here…

hooah.

seeing south america: lake titicaca + la paz

Peru had been an absolutely epic adventure, but it was time to move on and explore new territories. Taking a bus through the mountains, I was on a journey to Lake Titicaca and Bolivia. Whatever I thought I knew about South America was going to be challenged by what I was about to see across the border.

Puno

puno1

In order to cross the border, I booked a seat on Bolivia Hop which is a really affordable bus service that takes you from Cusco to La Paz, with stops along Lake Titicaca. Most of the people on the bus are fellow travellers and backpackers, making it a worthwhile time to get to know people who are probably on similar trails and willing to explore with you.

The bus makes a stop at Puno early in the morning, which is a Peruvian town on Lake Titicaca, the highest navigable water body on the Earth. Altitude is still high, so expect to see mountains all around and still have shortness of breath. The lake is absolutely beautiful and supports so many people. What’s really interesting though is the Uros Floating Village, a village made on reeds that sits in the middle of the lake. The people were escaping from the Incans and formed a defensive settlement on the lake so they could move quickly.

puno2

The islands are stable, housing ‘communities’ which are a couple of families pooling resources together to live on an ‘island’. The Uros start new islands normally when marrying out or wanting to start a new chapter of their lives, and the process takes a long time. The amount of reed needed is incredible, and the politics of it all is pretty interesting. The Peruvian government has committed to respecting indigenous populations and supports the Uros, even providing solar panels if you look closely enough, to ensure a basic standard of living. A lot of critics say that the Uros these days only live as such as a way to earn money from tourism, sharing that it’s kitschy. I don’t know how I feel about it, but I definitely found it interesting that such a way of life even existed and that there’s more to South America than just grand civilisations and beautiful landscapes. Indigenous people add to the flavour.

Copacabana

lake

From Puno, you’ll cross to Bolivia, which has quick border crossing process. People joke that it’s like stepping back in time, but honestly it’s not that bad. The visa process is a bit of a struggle, so I do recommend planning ahead for it, but Singaporeans get to go for free if you go to an Embassy or Consulate before crossing the border. To be honest, the only reason why I wanted to go to Bolivia was to see Uyuni, which ended up falling flat for reasons I’ll share later,  but I was about to discover some interesting sights. For one, Lake Titicaca is more beautiful on the Bolivian side, and Copacabana which is the city on the lake in Bolivia gives you access to more parts of the lake.

isla

One of the things you must do is to take a boat out to Isla de Sol, which is precious in Incan and Ayamara history as the birthplace of civilisation. It’s a small island and takes a hike to get around, which is difficult given the altitude. There are a couple of things to see on the island, including the famous but small Sun Temple, but the real prize are the views out from the island.

cordil

One of the best views are of the Cordillera Real, a beautiful snow-capped mountain range that just takes your breath away. Seated in the foreground is Isla de Luna, the sister island to Isla de Sol.

donkey

The Yumani village is situated on the island, and there are donkeys, alpacas and lots of hard labour. The woman are incredibly strong and visibly present carrying loads up and down the hills, while the men work on construction activities or are smoking outside. It’s quite the sight, seeing the villagers just live.

trout

Of course, while in Copacabana, you should try to get Trout which is caught from the lake. It’s fresh and delicious, and if you find the right local restaurant you can get the above meal for 2USD.

La Paz

lapaz

After Copacabana, I made my way to La Paz, which is the seat of government of Bolivia. It’s a chaotic city, with noise and confusion everywhere. Bolivia is one of the most corrupt countries in the world, which makes travelling around it slightly dangerous and sketchy. On the bus ride, we had to go through El Alto which is where most locals live (La Paz is more of an urban work area). The roads were horrible and you couldn’t help but get scared as you went through it, but I guess that’s why they tell you not to go there.

cablecar

One of the best things to do in La Paz is to take the cable cars, which is a form of public transport in the country and therefore only costs 3USD for a two way trip lasting 20 minutes. Locals actually use it to commute, but tourists are allowed as well. The views of the city are stunning and remind you of how many people actually live and work in La Paz, and how chaotic this sun-baked city is.

bowler

Now La Paz has a lot of history. It was the heart of a lot of revolutions, especially with the Spanish. The Ayamara, which is the indigenous civilisation before the Spanish, still have a large presence. The city was divided between the rich Spanish and the simple Ayamara, making city tours a diverse walk through two concurrent histories. The picture above shows the typical garb of a cholita which is an Ayamaran woman. The bowler hats are quite the sight.

callejean

Calle Jean is a neighbourhood in the Spanish side of the city that’s colourful and full of art galleries and shops. It’s said to be haunted at night, but there’s also alternate explanations that describe how secret conversations of revolt happened here, sparking some of the biggest moments in Bolivian history.

witches

Another good sight in La Paz is the Witches Market, that’s in the Ayamara side of the city. It could make you a bit queasy, with all the strange smells and sights including Alapaca carcases, but it’s an insightful look into local culture and traditions.

sopademani

A lot of what I loved about Bolivia was the food though. It was exceptionally cheap, simple but delicious. Sopa de Mani, or peanut soup, is a local favourite and is a slightly peppery concoction that fills you up well. Llajuita is a good chain restaurant that serves local dishes in a clean environment so go there.

sillp

Silpanchos were one of my favourite meals, made up of rice and potatoes with a large thin piece of meat and egg over it. It’s really tasty, but very greasy. Silpich is where you want to go for this for a clean and cheap meal.

saltena

Of course, you can’t go to Bolivia without trying Saltenas. They were my favourite snack and I had so many. The chicken one comes with an egg in it, and while it’s similar dishes around the world, what makes a saltena stand out is its mix of spices and sauce that bring out so much flavour. The famous ones come from Pacena La Saltena and they’re really cheap and quick. Add some peppers for a strong kick.

Bolivia doesn’t use Uber so walking is probably your bet for getting around, although cabs so exist. I only used it to go to the airport, so I think you’ll be good with walking.

TIGO should be your choice of SIM Card, costing only 5-6USD for a comprehensive data plan for a whole week, and I’d recommend going straight to their HQ building to set up your phone.

Be careful of ATMs in Bolivia, because they have heavy transaction fees and also some of them run out of cash but don’t tell you until they return your card. Some have been heard to even deduct the amount from your card without giving you money so go to banks to get money from the ATM and make sure you can talk to someone in case things don’t work out.

Be prepared for unexpected changes in your plans to Bolivia though, as protests happen frequently and they mean business. My trip to Uyuni had to be cancelled as they shut down the town and had gun patrols blocking travellers going in or out. I met people who had to sneak out at 2am under the cover of darkness and walk for 20KM before reaching the nearest town to take a bus out. Don’t plan for more than the next day.

As for safety, practice regular safety habits and you should be fine. Go where there are a lot of people, and eat at places where there are lines. A great hostel to stay at is Loki Hostel, which is admittedly a party hostel but a great community. I have a lot of memories at their rooftop bar that has a beautiful view of the city and some of the craziest party animals.

Next post, I’ll share about my time in Salta and Buenos Aires, Argentina. Look forward to it!

hooah.

reconciling greek life

frat-house-party-keg-stand.jpg

It’s a debate known long to colleges: should traditionally social fraternities continue to persist on campuses? Today, I officially finish my term on the IFC Executive Board and so can reflect wholeheartedly on my learnings over the past year, as well as speak honestly without fear of distraction from my work. Those who paid attention to articles on campus know that I, together with others, have posted previous posts on fraternity life.  Some of mine are here and here, and some of the critics’ posts are here and here. Today, I attempt to reconcile many of these seemingly opposing ideas, clarify some large misconceptions and propose a future for fraternities on campuses.

I’ll start by saying the past year on the Executive Board has broken my heart. I came onto the Board with an idea of what my role should be, a lot of it based on lofty ideals. I held myself to a lower standard then, and in retrospect, I was very much a typical new fraternity member, with warped ideas of masculinity, alcohol use and mental health. A lot of it came from the way I grew up, with the military and my own wrongful interpretation of popular influences. But as I sat on the board, something compelled me to spend Winter and Spring quarter listening to and understanding my community. That’s when I heard real stories, stories that weren’t about kegstands or rolling joints, but about difficult nights feeling alone or about being hazed and feeling ashamed or the worst, sexual assault and rape.

I’d be a liar if I told you that I initially didn’t want to justify some of these stories as blips in the larger picture. I couldn’t reconcile my experience of friendship and heightened solidarity with what was happening in the larger community. Where was the accountability and where was the trust? Did chapters feel okay simply letting another chapter run its course, despite knowing that it was set on the wrong path? I realised this ought to be my mandate – empowering our community to own our problems and make sustainable changes to address these issues. There were, of course, definitive stages that had to be met:

  1. Acknowledging we’ve done wrong
  2. Recognising that we can do right
  3. Collaborating and trusting
  4. Transitioning to a new normal

I spent my year focused on bringing us into the first stage and preparing us for the second stage. I frequently ran into challenges both from within and out of the community. Members would refuse to acknowledge that we had issues or struggle to change their chapter cultures given general memberships’ lack of adherence. It was a hard enough to stay the course and maintain membership involvement, and now the prerogative to think about complex issues challenged how leaders should prioritise their time. From without, we faced no shortage in shelling about the problems we had. Personally, one of the frustrating thing about Daily columnists (and I used to be one) was that they never tried to ask the board about our views or about what was being done. In some ways, it was a true temperature check of the visibility of our measures to the community, but in other ways, it was misdirecting in where reality was truly at.  We were trying, but our focus wasn’t to let the world know we were doing good work so that we could get a pat on the back. It was to convince our members of this mandate and to get their participation onboard. That’s why the Board rarely wrote a letter back. We listened, and we tried to make sure we stayed consistent with our goals of improving our community. The letters merely reminded us that we had work to do and no shortage of critics.

So why keep fraternities around?

Why allow institutions that were built on racist and sexist principles continue to exist? Firstly, can the foundations of an institution change? Can people join an organisation, re-evaluate the principles, take what’s good and leave what’s bad, and therefore redetermine the future of an organisation. I think we must first be open to the ability for institutions to change. Why not tear them down and start something new all over again? Because it’s costly and the costs affect everyone. Think about Northwestern. Northwestern started out as a racist institution, but it’s been able to redetermine its future by establishing new fundamental principles and deconstructing elements of its racism. Its people (administrators, students and faculty) believed its core purpose of education was still valuable and made an effort to change from the inside. Has Northwestern changed altogether? Not yet, but it’s a journey and it has benefited so many from its change.

Fraternities provide the same promise. Fraternities provide the facilities to improve its members and provide a support system for them. But rather than its past where it encouraged toxic masculinity, it can now use its all-male-identifying environment to promote healthy masculinity in a space that is challenging but still in its own ways ‘safe’. Of course, masculinity defined by men alone isn’t enough and must be shaped by interactions with society at large, and different identity groups. We must interact with women, with members of colour, with non-heterosexual men and realise that masculinity is not a box. Fraternities done right can transform young boys, corrupted by the world and popular media already, into mature men who care about issues around them and are compelled to work for what’s right.

But all that’s ambitious. and all that’s bold. The reason why I believe it’s possible, though, is because I’ve seen change happen. I’ve seen my chapter grow and try to navigate complex territory with values-based discussions and debate. I’ve seen growth in members and I’ve seen fraternities provide support systems for people that have fallen through the cracks.  So, every time I hear something bad about our community, I acknowledge it and accept that we have to do something about it. But I don’t rush to the abomination of every member. I identify the institutional structure that perpetuates injustice and I work to tear them down, but I don’t invalidate the institutional structures that perpetuate goodwill. Because we can do with whatever good we have, given that it’s so scarce these days.

Some elements of fraternities will never change, I believe. Competitive drinking is endemic to most student organisations, and fraternities are no exceptions. Symbols and rituals and recruitment are how organisations practice its values and ensure members coming in are aligned with said values. But in all of these things, we can curb the bad and promote the good. We can promote inclusive values-based recruitment instead of casual alcohol-based recruitment.  We can promote responsible and intentional social planning instead of reckless partying.

I believe in possibility, and I must trust that people can become better. It is this trust and belief that has allowed me to move past initial challenges and build valuable relationships with so many people. I used to make enemies by disagreeing with others, but I now trust that through listening and negotiation, everyone comes out with some level of empathy that is useful for building a better future.

Because fraternities are fundamentally social organisations, members have to build leadership in navigating social phenomenon and convince others about issues. Value judgements have to be made, and competency must be built. This is another opportunity that must be fully exploited by chapters to transform members to powerful members of our community. There is a promise.

Trust that the IFC at Northwestern can change, and trust that people are listening and trying to champion this change, as vigorously and vehemently as possible. I leave the community slightly better than where it was last year, and I hope it can continue doing good to its members and the communities it interacts with.

Keep Believing.