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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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the singaporean mystery

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It’s a curious time here in Singapore. 50 years have passed (now going on to 51) and every time I talk to someone, the same question has popped up. What does it mean to be Singaporean? Why should I be proud to be here? It’s such a captivating mystery for so many reasons, the most prominent being that we’re becoming politically more active and our guiding principles for voting are starting to shape.

This question is very much tied to another question : Do I love Singapore? For some, knowing the answer to the first question helps provide the response for the second. For me, they’re independent. I know I love Singapore, but in a more adult way. As a kid, you love as a kid. You love without prejudice, and without reservation. But as an adult, your love is tempered. You choose to love because of all the reasons you choose to put over the reasons that would push you away. You choose to accept the problems and the blemishes. This consideration is important, because while I do not know yet what it means to be Singaporean, my love for Singapore remains. Because I as I continue to try to discover the Singaporean spirit, I’m presented with both the attractive and ugly sides of my fellow people and I choose to continue to love them because we have a shared identity somewhere. I wouldn’t call this so much nationalistic as much as I think it is simply in preservation of what I feel strongly to be home.

I have come to some interim conclusions though. Some conclusions based on recent history and some based on history as we know it. I think these are important conclusions to accept, lest we face a Trumpesque bigotry or a Brexitesque xenophobia.

The first is that Singapore isn’t homogeneous. Who we are is simply not tied to the 8 defining characters of personal identity: Ability, Age, Ethnicity, Race, Religion, Gender, Sexual Orientation, Socioeconomic Status. John Cena recently conducted a video for Americans on the 4th of July (Link Here) asking them to close their eyes and identify a typical American. Where most people would identify a white able-bodied straight male in the U.S., I asked myself what we would answer in Singapore. Do we accept that we no longer just have Malays, Indians and Chinese as Singaporeans? So what if they’re the majority races, why do we not include the rest in our conversation of Singaporean representation? Do we accept that the Singaporean narrative cannot be a patriarchal one, about how men have built this country and that women are allowed to be oppressed through institutions that do not stop sexual assault and allow casual statements on rape and a gender hierarchy? Do we accept that we do have people who are not heterosexual, and that regardless of our religious views that they exist and consider themselves Singaporeans too, that they have gone through NS or school with us and deserve rights just as much as anyone else? These are not Western ideas, these are humanist ones. Singapore isn’t the same fishing village that we started off as that could be easily segmented. No, we’re nuanced, we’re diverse, we’re richly different and we need to find our common spirit away from the social identifiers.

The second is that being Singaporean is an attitude. Think about it, when you picture the ‘What does it mean to be ________’ for most developed countries, you picture an attitude rather than a physical trait. And that’s good, because while it’s important to celebrate diversity and provide spaces for people to celebrate their identities, the political question of ‘Why am I proud to be here’ must be tied to a secular, neutral but values driven aspect of being Singaporean. Is it that we overcome adversity, because hell yeah we do. Is it that we pack more of a punch that it looks like, because this little red dot has done so much for its size. Is it that we celebrate all, because that would be amazing. Finding something common and innate is difficult. But it must be done, for being a Singaporean is a mighty title these days, and it must stand for something.

Finally, the answer to my questions is not stuck in the past. One of my biggest grievances is that some of the biggest campaigns to find the answer to the questions has involved rehashing stories from the ‘good ol’ days’ and making us look to our forefathers. Yes, we’ve done great stuff to come where we are, and we should learn from them. But for all the great strides that we made in the past, we also took steps backwards in arenas of social progress and political maturity. And we’ll continue to make strides forward, and some steps backwards. That’s the way things are, that’s how societies evolve. History teaches us not to emulate the past but to grow from it. Is our future so grim (hardly, based on the work I’ve been seeing at EDB) that we need to be constantly reminded of our past in a form of propaganda to soothe our uncertainty? We need to look at everything: past, present and especially the future and realize that there is a continuum of experiences, each playing an important role in shaping our national identity, and that all must be appreciated to truly answer the questions.

I’ve provided some conclusions to what it is NOT to be Singaporean. I haven’t really given any more clarity into what it actually is, but the danger I’ve seen is that people fall into the traps of the incorrect conclusions way too often and that provides only problems for the country. The answer won’t be some major announcement, nor some big statement. It would be something that’s said once, maybe twice, and it will echo in the hearts of every Singaporean. The truth of the matter is that we’re getting closer to the answer and we must keep talking. We must keep discussing issues of importance; political, social, interpersonal, all of them. We will form a truer representation of who we are through that, and then we can finally demystify the great mystery. Wouldn’t it be great to be able to finally say what it means to be Singaporean?

hooah.

in tribute to the universe – part #3 (infect me with the travel bug)

When I was a kid, I wanted to travel like crazy. It was always a childhood ambition. My biggest dream was to travel to the US. I’d always ask my parents , “When are we going to the US?” , and they’d reply “Ask God. Just pray.” Despite their intentions to get me to rely on God, I hated the reply. It seemed like there wasn’t a desire to make it happen. I wanted to see all these grand and majestic sights that they’d show on the television and internet. I wanted to see the same places my friends were visiting. I didn’t appreciate then how difficult it would have been for a family of my size to afford trips to countries in the West ; but I also knew I wanted to make it there as soon as I could.

With a mix of grace, fortune and a good head , I found myself in Boston when I was 15 as a result of being shortlisted for a programme to Harvard. We went as a school group, but because of the uniqueness of the programme, we ended up having as unstructured a programme as we could have. It gave us the  opportunity to see a bit more of Cambridge Town, and Boston – and that was when I was enthralled to study in the States. Fast forward to when I was 17, and I was shortlisted to travel to Hong Kong University by myself to see the University. Again, being by myself, I saw Hong Kong and was dazzled by the difference in culture. I wanted to learn, and be fed with stories.

When I finally got the EDB scholarship, I knew my dreams were being realised. I was going to be able to study in the States. I had played the game, and I was winning , but I also knew the craving to discover could not be limited to the States any more. I wanted to know what was in every corner of this world – what had God built , and what had people made out of it? How did people live , and did they face the same issues as us back in Singapore? Are we truly the same, or are we unique beyond resolution? I gave myself significant goals this year ;  but the most significant of  them was to travel at least once every two months. To get out, discover, and most importantly apply myself. I wanted to use the stories I had gained and make new things – I did not want to be a passive consumer.

So I did exactly that.

I visited Vietnam in January as a Post-ORD Trip with Ding Hao. Thanks for being exactly the kind of travel buddy I need, fun and not rigid ; and most importantly adventurous.

I had tons of fun meeting people like Bradley (who would  have thought when we met at the Burger Bar, we’d find out we were actually room-mates) , Angus, Megan , Sadie, Ronny  –  right in my hostel.  Thanks for making our time in Vietnam as enjoyable as it was, and being great hostel-mates. You guys were our first hostel-mates, and it definitely encouraged me to stay in hostels in the future. Again, if you guys are ever in Singapore, give me a holler and we’ll hang out.

The next major trip was to Cambodia with Ivfen , Luke, Leon . The trip started off with an adventure in itself with Ivfen missing her flight because of a miscommunication between the airport and us. This was probably a defining trip simply because of the level of adventure I experienced on the trip . Thanks guys for being such sporting companions and definitely making the trip an exciting one. Also I was really grateful to Sokpier, Reaksmey and everyone else in the village we visited for hosting us, taking care of us and showing us authentic Cambodian hospitality.This was probably when I discovered the need for authentic experiences – not just tragedy tourism, not just commercial tourism but a discovery of everything the country is .

There were a lot of trips in between, with the Gushcloud gang to FMFA in KL, with my church to Cameron Highlands and a bunch of others with my family to neighboring cities but the next defining trip was the one to Europe.

EDB has a programme in which it offers to sponsor its scholars a language programme while waiting for school, and a trip to the country of practice to take a course there as well. I had been taking German for a while and so  used the opportunity to make a whole Eurotrip of it all.

I start in Berlin where I meet my host, Marina ,who was the sweetest person ever. She helped me practice my German every morning, and did not withhold any sense of German experience from me (she taught me how to be environmentally friendly too) . I also had the best housemates, but I’ve misplaced their names (I don’t want to spell them wrongly) who cooked authentic meals and showed me places they already knew.

I also had the opportunity to meet up with amazing classmates Patrick, Henrique, Suleiman,Aliz, Jean Sebastian, Domingo, Thea, Albert, Ivana, Anja, Martina (2), Elisa, Andrea ; my friends outside of class : Patricia, Catarina, Guillermo, Quentin, Charles, Martin and everyone else!

Special thanks to my hosting group of friends, who made the trip everything it was. Thanks for showing me around the cities when I was there, for providing important travel advice, for being friends; for being companions and for helping me fall in love with Europe. To Jer (who showed me London and reminded me what how exciting it was going to be studying in a foreign country) ; my aunt, uncle and cousins in Falkirk, Scotland ; to Martina in Milan for being probably my favorite companion on the trip – the conversations and time we shared always stay close to me (and Silvia for being so helpful and fun too, you’re not old at all 😛 ) ; to Coral (and Pol) ,for taking care of me in Barcelona – I always laugh when I remember the silly adventures we had (both in Berlin and Barcelona) ; to Atte, for the amazing amazing time I had in Paris – it definitely ended on a high with you (I still remember dancing on the streets of Paris man…) . We definitely need to make this annual trip a thing.

To the friends I made along the way – Shana , Jessica, Julia, Malik, Arthur, Elsa, Amen, AnneCha, Emily for making this adventure exactly so much more magical.

I grew up so much on this trip. I had to take care of myself and absorb so much information that I could help but come back a different person. I became overwhelmed by the grandeur of creation that had occurred across all of Europe, and the range of history created by people , both horrific and splendid. If so much had been possible, so much more can be possible – and that was what ignited the fire in me.

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When I was in college, I enjoyed myself a lot but there’s was a longing in my heart that I couldn’t initially understand. Life was good in college, but I wanted to continue discovering and being uncomfortable. I wanted to dance on the streets again, I wanted to fall in love with Baroque architecture, I wanted to climb mountains and overlook beauty. And I felt like I spoke a different language. I had seen so much, and while people had probably travelled more than me, there simply was a difference in the experience. So I knew I had to travel again. As much as I missed home the break was too short and so I decided to use my Winter Break to revisit Europe – focussing on central Europe.

This part will probably be updated towards the end of my trip because I’m only one week into the trip but I’ve made quite a number of friends already.

I have to start by thanking profusely Igor and his family for hosting me in Olomouc and making me feel so welcome ; for cooking homecooked food for me and for taking the time to care for me. To Anna, Zuza, Nick, Martin, Tomas, Lucie, Vojta, Jan, Martin, Tadeas for showing me Brno, Prague and making me feel like a local for the time I was here.

Makoto, Li Han –  Meeting Singaporeans anywhere in the world has always been thrilling, but you guys were especially fun to hang out with in Prague, and Vienna.

Istvan, Julie, Barna, Dodo, Anushka and the rest of the gang – for making our first night in Budapest such an eventful one ; we truly felt like locals.

(Space reserved for adventures i Budapest)

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You can’t be the same after you see so much. I’ve shared a lot with my team back home on stuff we could explore bringing back to Singapore (e.g. Train of Dreams), based on what I’ve seen around the world.  No trip of mine has been short of unexpected twists and turns, but I’ve embraced the spirit of change and challenge , and have become excited by the notion of the unknown. Oh what a life.

Life is too short to  leave dreams and ambitions for when we’re older. The time is now, the adventure is ours to make.

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“To travel is to take a journey into yourself”

Danny Kaye

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geronimo