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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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fall travel series – boston & delton

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

____

Delton, Michigan

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

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

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

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

Thanks Delton.

hooah.

breath of the dragon – visiting east asia (part #2 – Shanghai)

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Shanghai – most people’s true gateway to China.  Most people think of Hong Kong as the best window into understanding the mainland, but in Shanghai only can one truly appreciate Chinese policy and influence with the familiar allure of a mega-city.  Shanghai’s main draw for the traveler aren’t just the pompous parties and beautiful skylines – there’s a story to be shared behind the draws of a city that was once divided and distributed to various international powers. To truly witness the struggle of a population with its own modernity, Shanghai unveils itself for you.

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Some history is probably necessary to understand Shanghai. After the First Opium War, which the Chinese lost, Shanghai was conceded (together with other ports such as Hong Kong) to the British. This led to the eventual formation of the International Settlement and the French Concession, a separate agreement made by the French because they probably thought they were special. The Bund then, is one of the most prominent remnants of the International Settlement, with old colonial style buildings lined up for all to awe at. Some of the buildings have interesting stories to them, especially ‘Big Ching’, based off ‘Big Ben’ in London, that you can see in the picture.

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What the Bund is more famous for though, is this amazing view of Pudong. It’s a lot better at night, but Pudong is essentially the Communist Government’s attempt at building a modern financial capital on the mainland away from Hong Kong. It’s been developed in the past 15 years only, causing massive changes in the environment and a very strong boast of the extent of Chinese willpower. Some buildings stand out for their gawkiness and some just stand absolutely majestic, but all in all Pudong from the Bund is a view worth catching.

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The French Concession is worth visiting too, it’s picturesque and its roads remind you of the alleys in Paris, with trees forming a shelter over the walkways. It’s filled with boutique fashion shops mostly, but take a trip to Tianzifang nearby and be overwhelmed by the transformation of the alleys to accommodate budding artists and craftsmen. It’s a supposed ‘hipster hangout’, although I’d dare say anyone can find something of interest here.

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Along the same lines of conservation and transformation, visit Xintiandi which is just north-east of Tianzifang. Although the eateries in this place are a bit more up-market, stroll around the neighborhood to witness how the old ‘shikumen’ houses (colonial facades with localised Asian interiors) are preserved. Cited as an exemplar of modern preservation methods, this neighborhood feels different from the rest of Shanghai and leaves you to imagine a different time. The site of the first congress of the Communist Party of China is here as well,  and with free entry you can gain insight into the rationale behind the formation of the Communist Party and the epic saga that ensued. Propaganda or not, it leaves you enlightened into the mantra spread across the mainland : The Communist Party is a necessary force for China’s freedom.

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Take a trip into Old Shanghai, by visiting YuYuan gardens, a beautiful enclosed neighborhood of old style buildings and rock gardens. One can spend a half day here just walking around and admiring the architectural beauty of the place. The Huxinting Teahouse (in picture) has witnessed many annals of history , most prominently being used a base in the Opium War and seeing Bill Clinton drink tea in its premises. You can witness many old Chinese crafts and trades in the Tourist mart, although I’d advise bargaining to around 20% of the price. I managed to knock down a bundle of items from 400 Yuan to 80 Yuan, and all I had to do was to stand my ground. After you’re done with the premises, walk around the extended neighborhood , in around a 50m radius to see more of Shanghai’s old architectural styles and take a whiff of how this city used to look like before Pudong became the standard.

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Shanghai cuisine is defined by sweet flavors and dumplings. I never knew how much I loved dumplings till I came to this city. Yang’s dumplings by far command a dominant place in my list of ‘Food I wish I could try again’ . Located in the food street of Huanghe Road, these dumplings are pan fried and hold together a mix of wholesome meat and delicious soup. They don’t skimp on any thing – quality nor quantity , but the best part is that your wallet hardly feels a pinch. You would be foolish to visit Shanghai and not try these.

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What is more famously known though, are the Shanghai soup dumplings. Sometimes called the xiaolongbao (although many would dispute it based on the thickness of the skin) , these soup dumplings spill out such rich and savory flavors that you could go for 5-8 at a time. There are many that are famous and there’s even a XLB index out there to help guide your choices although the XLBs near the City of God Temple are a good start. I’ve tried XLBs in Singapore and Taiwan, and the Shanghai ones are definitely royalty .

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Many people say Shanghai is just a great city to party and make money. That’s true – I had one of my better parties in Shanghai. Mint, the club I was brought to, had a shark tank in it. I’m not kidding.

But to the true traveler, Shanghai invites a discussion on a shotgun transformation from old city to new. To serve this demand of modernity, people influx from all over the region and what you face is this interesting misplacement of cultures and values in a city that probably requires something else. Notice the taxi driver I caught, stopping his car in the middle of the road and going to take a piss in the probably recently pruned garden.

The young people definitely don’t show any signs of being out of place. They’re raucous, ambitious and above all else, optimistic about the future. Shanghai is their playground, and they will dominate it.

Special thanks to George Mao (for hosting me), Isabelle (aka Rat-Slinger), Karin, Jing, Cooper, Jimmy Zhao, Justin, Alan, Cheryl, Clare and Jing, for the amazing time in Shanghai and taking me off the beaten path.  Next post is on Taiwan.

Till then,

geronimo.

south india, tell me more


On 11 June 1993, I was born in India. 4 years later, my family migrated to Singapore and I called the place home ever since. I’ve always thought of myself as Singaporean first, and Indian only by origin. I never visited India again for the next six years.  I had grown up in such a developed city that is Singapore, I was slightly afraid to confront that the country I should call my birthplace was one that was dirtier, more unruly and so much less ‘cultured’. Obviously I hadn’t really grown up.

Even after visiting the country 3 more times since, I wasn’t convinced that I should acknowledge the country as having played a role in who I was. I visited family, and did some shopping with the folks, but beyond that I never got a chance to truly understand India. After catching the travel bug, I decided I should come to India again, this time by myself. I’ll visit as much of family as possible for sure, but other than my grandparents who I prioritized above all else, I was to be independent in my discovery of India. I had heard so much about this country from my friends who weren’t Indian, I needed to see what captivated them so much.

I planned a trip to some major cities and then some tamer areas , to get a good understanding of the region. The first thing I learnt is that India is huge, and because of that it’s so diverse. My political sense is conflicted on how to manage a country that is so rampantly colorful, contrasting it to Singapore’s relatively homogeneous composition. It’s an entirely different set of challenges. I shortlisted it to South India then, and given my two week constraint, planned to hit Mumbai (Maharashtra), Hyderabad (Andhra Pradesh), Bangalore and Mysore (Karnataka), Kochi and Allepey (Kerala) and Coimbatore and Kotagiri (Tamil Nadu).  There’s still so many places I need to see in South India (Goa, Pondi, Ajanta etc.) , not to mention there’s also North India, but this itinerary already gave me such an insightful look into what makes India so special.

Each city offered me something different and I’m still recovering from the range of experiences but here’s a city by city recap of what I did and saw. I’ve been told my travelogues are helpful and I’ll try my best to keep them as functional as possible.

Mumbai (or Bombay)

If you want to see the South India they show in movies, Mumbai is the city to come to. Slumdog Millionaire for those unfamiliar with Bollywood , is based on this city. For those familiar with Bollywood, I need not say more. While not really South India , more of West India, it provides a useful gateway into South India . Residents of this city affectionately call it Bombay, from the Anglicization of the name Mumbai by the Portuguese migrants before. Being on the west coast of India, one of the best things about the city is the view from Marine Drive or Queen’s Necklace, that stretches around the bay.  You can see pocket crowds on Chowpatty beach in the day , although it’s considered dirty, and bigger crowds lining the Drive admiring the view at night. It’s a popular romancing spot.

What caught my eye though was the range of British architecture set up here, like the Victoria Terminus station you see above, amongst various others including the High Court and Flora Fountain. It almost appropriately fits in, emanating a strong sense of colonial history.  These sights are definitely worth a walk through the streets of South Mumbai and will take half a day down to Gateway of India, where early travelers to India would enter under a giant monument.

Perhaps what’s interesting about Mumbai is that it’s position as the Financial Capital of India puts it on the same level as cities like New York and Hong Kong in its dynamics. People from all around India hoard into the city, causing major congestion and overpopulation. It’s essentially a city that’s showing signs of stress, socially having to educate its population on what’s right and wrong, and managing the inequality.  I saw lots of signs like the one above, encouraging women suffrage and empowerment. It was new to me, and I realised this was probably another symptom of an eclectic mix of populations, with people from rural backgrounds moving in without the ‘modern’ upbringing provided in most cities.

This same stress can be seen in the obvious disparities in lifestyles that is perhaps unique to Mumbai. In other big cities, there are homeless people and that’s unfortunately been taken as a given in established cities. Here, not only do the poor and rich live together, they live side by side. Mumbai is home to most of India’s most expensive properties, with the whole Marine Drive area racking up millions of dollars in costs, and also home to India’s most populous slum areas. A lot of people in these slums don’t really care about pity, they just find it a cheap way of living, and work in various industries. In fact, it’s probably the luxurious lifestyles of the ultra rich that drives the population influx as more people come to work and serve their needs whether directly or indirectly through the jobs they create. You can find pockets in Mumbai of quiet bliss where the upper middle class to upper class enjoy sudden ambush of greenery, such as the Sports Clubs and Racecourse.

Mumbai is definitely a cornerstone to understanding India, and provides a lot of context for understanding the development of India. It’s not as cosmopolitan as Bangalore as a city, but boasts the same bravos as the biggest cities in the world. Also if you’ve built up the immunity , try to eat the street food here, it’s rumored to be among the best in India (especially the Pav Vadai).

Hyderabad

Hyderabad is the seat of power for the Nizams and Shahs who ruled over the region in the past. It’s a mainly historical city, holding so many architectural and cultural gems. The Charminar and Salar Jung Museum stand as symbols of pride of this formerly great city, as Cyberabad carries on the legacy of the region nearby. Come during Ramadan (or Ramzan as it’s called here) and be treated to especially delicious meals of Hyderabad Biryani and Haleem , rich dishes meant to help fasting Muslims replenish their calories at the end of fast.

I was lucky enough to be here on Eid, since Hyderabad is a dominantly Muslim state, allowing me to witness such festivities as the city transformed itself for processions, prayers and family gatherings. It compares so differently to Singapore-Malaysian style of celebrations, having a strong Arabic influence.

Take a day out to visit the ruins out in the Golconda area, especially the fort. When the Shahs ruled from here, they built the fort so intelligently and purposefully, you will be taken aback at all the tricks and secrets held behind the walls. Take a guide for this area, it’ll be well worth the 800 Rs. Around the fort is a few other historical areas, but the other one worth visiting most are the Qatb Shah tombs.

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You can skip the guide for this area and just wander around. They have written guides around the campus for reading and the sights are more than enough to overwhelm you. Strongly Indo-Saracenic , these architectural boasts remind you of the ambition of the old rulers and how things used to be so different. Hyderabad is but a taste of the larger historical significance held in India, with so many other features waiting to be explored. It’s definitely a special place to visit.

Bangalore and Mysore

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Bangalore and Mysore are two slightly different cities but are so close by each other we can talk about them together. Bangalore is really a lifestyle city , it’s a city you can live in. While it’s becoming heavily more like Mumbai especially with its developing Hi-Tech City , it maintains a strong balance in having a good mix of arts, culture, food and environment. Above you can see Cubbon Park, a park built during British time, that holds so much rich natural diversity, you could spend a half day here. The park is also in the Central Administrative Region, therefore holding all the important structures in Bangalore in the vicinity.

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Bangalore was built on the empire of Kempe Gowda, with  Mysore being also important. It’s said that the name behind Bengaluru (as it’s called here) comes from the Anglicization of the local term for Boiled Beans which is what was offered to Kempe Gowda by a local when he came here. Visit the Bangalore Palace and see how the Wodeyars (the latest rulers) lived, with its embellished interior. It doesn’t compare to the Palace in Mysore, also owned by them, but you’ll find interesting artifacts like the elephant leg stool made after they killed an elephant for sport. It tells stories of a different time with different norms, but this really killed me a bit inside.

It’s also called the beer capital of the world, so go down to 100 feet road to try some local brews. Check out the arts and culture here, and enjoy life as a South Indian.

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A must do is to visit MTR, and have the rava dosa. It’s so savory and well put together that you cannot resist ordering another. Rava is a kind of flour used by the restaurants here during food shortage post World War II, as it was easy to make and cheap. It ended up being so delicious people stuck by it.

Once you’re done with Bangalore, take a day trip to Mysore, 4 hours away. This is where more historical places lie , like the Mysore Palace famed for its interior halls. No photos are allowed inside unfortunately.

Visit the top of the Chamundi hill for a beautiful view of Mysore as well as the temple that’s there with heavily ornamented features. You can skip Brindavan Gardens if you’re looking for the Musical Fountain, but go to see how locals spend their evenings in the parks, and how the same park is treated so differently in different countries. Here youths play Kabaddi , an aggressive sport, and families have picnics. You also see sights like these:

Coimbatore

Coimbatore isn’t really visited for touristic purposes. It’s normally just a step into the Nilgiris or into Kerala, but it provides an understanding of India probably crucial to appreciating its development. Coimbatore is known as the Manchester of India for its textile industry, but it also holds many other industrial posts  such as the radiator factory I was invited to tour. India is famously known for its cheap labor , and therefore its dependence on labor intensive industries. But every country wants to move away from labor intensive industries to knowledge intensive industries, and you can see the transition happening here. Locals are getting trained and upgrading themselves, already into the capital intensive stage of their economic development. These people aren’t just trained, but they carry the ethos of India – determined, thorough and tolerant. Enjoy Chettinad food while here as well, with true South Indian dishes finally being dominantly available. Skip out on Hot Chocolate, no matter the recommendations from locals, it is a weak attempt at Western style of cuisine and unless you’re desperate for a burger it can be replaced by visiting proper Indian establishments and enjoying dishes like Paya (Goat Feet) and Nalli (Bone Marrow) .  Look for Hari Bavan or Junior Kuppana.

Kochi and Allepey

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When the Portuguese came to India, Keralan cities and towns were used as their main areas of interest, where they built their establishments. Kochi is a beautiful town, reminiscent of Malacca, Penang and Panama City in these sense that it’s a coastal town with similar flavors. It’s full of heritage and culture. Take a visit to the Chinese Fishing nets, shown above, where you can see fishermen try to catch fish using cantilever style nets. It’s well worth the trip and underlies a rich heritage still being held onto here. Seafood in Kerala as a whole is so fresh and delicious, it will take you to another level, but take time to enjoy dishes like Fried Beef as well in Kochi.

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Take some time to visit Mattanperry where the Dutch Palace and Jewish Synagogue are. Built inside ‘Jew Town’ , the area is a hipster dream, with lots of alleyways , murals and photographic backdrops. Visit the antique shops and enjoy the relatively quiet  (there’ll still be the Indian honking) turn of the area. The Dutch Palace is where the Raj of the area lived, and you can see tirelessly done murals etched into the walls of the Ramanaya that are more than worth the meager 5 Rs entrance fee. Also visit St Francis Church, the first European Church built in India that reminds of old Portuguese style architecture. It is now a functioning protestant church under the Church of South India.

After you’re done with Kochi, go down to Allepey to visit the backwaters. No matter what anyone tells you, trust me when I say taking a houseboat and spending nearly 24 hours out on the waters provide some of the most beautiful and magical moments you can experience in India.

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The serene and tame waters allow you to enjoy nature and understand why they call Kerala ‘God’s own Country’. Stop for an Ayurvedic massage (Hindu medicinal) along the way and buy fresh seafood to cook as well. Watch how locals live , and have built their whole legacies on the backwaters. It bewilders me, a city slicker on how people can be satisfied to live here, and I’m reminded how much we distort our own realities to keep us moving, when all most need to do is to live comfortably. It was humbling to see how nature and people coexist so charmingly. Bring people you want to spend time with, because you’ll be bonding with them. I had my grandfather, an old ship captain who told me tales of his shipping adventures. He really lived quite the life.

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Lobsters, crabs, prawns and fish all exist for your consumption, but the most famous fish in the backwaters is the Karimeen. It doesn’t have much meat on it, but when cooked in Banana Leaves and grilled, it goes well with Keralan rice and Sambar. You can’t come to Kerala and not enjoy the amazingly fresh seafood.

Kotagiri

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Around Coimbatore are the Nilgiri Hills. Back when the British occupied India, in order to escape the raging heat , they built roads up into the hills and built hill stations for retreats into the cool climates. Eventually the locals took over and started growing the tea plantation industry that’s dominant here. There are three main Hill Stations – Ooty (the more commercial and touristy one) , Conoor (where the Military is based) and Kotagiri. There’s not much differences between the hill stations to be honest, and the best parts of the hills are actually around the stations anyway. I’d strongly recommend befriending a local who can take you around. I had the benefit of having family in the hills, who took me to some of the most beautiful natural terrain landscapes I’ve seen in my life. Colors mix so beautifully, and it feels almost surreal to be standing in the misty hills overlooking such beauty. If you really can’t find anything, ask for Emerald Lake near Ooty for a dazzling view.

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There’s tons of open wildlife around the area like bisons, leopards and elephants. I wasn’t fortunate enough to see any of them but if you come at the right time, you can hike into the forests (or sholas as they’re called here) and catch good views of them. Another interesting view is that of the tea plantation workers, working hard to pluck leaves every day for the industry. It’s an example of the labor intensive industry that’s still the bedrock of the economy, but also a reminder of the work gone into a simple product like the cup of tea. Supply chains aren’t just paper models, they’re real people living real lives, contributing to the final product.

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South India was such an amazing adventure. I made so many friends (thanks Nalin and Raghav for recommending your friends) and visited some old others. I’ve grown a deeper appreciation for my birthright. Although I still don’t strongly identify as Indian, I can see how the values my grandparents and parents gained by living here passed onto me. I can see how struggles here are real – corruption and recklessness is more rampant than tolerable and it’s bleeding through the cracks of the foundation India stands on. But in those struggles, I’m finding beauty of people making their lives work. I’m finding families , watching out for their own, sticking together, I’m seeing romance against the odds, and I’m seeing satisfaction in the minimal. Things are changing, and there’s hope.

I’ve definitely grown as a person from this trip. It was nothing like traveling in Europe and provided its own set of challenges , but as with every solo adventure you learn so much about yourself.

I’m grateful for the ability to travel. In two weeks time, I’ll be going to the Orient. That should be fun.

geronimo.

bouts of insanity – my thanksgiving post of the year – part 1

we all have our bouts of insanity. but i’ve found out in the span of the year that the capacity for wild , unthinkable moments increase with your willingness to discover and dream. 2013 was by far the best year of my life thus far.

i started a few big projects, i made a lot of new friends and my social circles shifted, and i gained a lot of exposure and experiences.

if i was to recap the year in bullets it would be like this :

  • Get posted into New Unit
  • Start The Hidden Good
  • Get Promoted
  • Go on CNA as an Expert for the first time
  • Visit my Grandparents and Relatives in India
  • Organise Singapore’s first ever Official MP3 Experiment
  • Hang out with the YouTubers
  • Hang out with the Community of Causes
  • Participate in NDP
  • Became a Platoon Sergeant
  • Go on a TimeMarch in Malaysia
  • ORD
  • Ran a Marathon
  • Transitioning out of Ministry Head Position
  • Go to the US with my Family

There was probably a lot more in between, including all the videos I created, all the events I spoke at and even the nights spent chilling with friends – but there’s no way I could remember everything. That’s why I found it incredibly important to snap pictures as and when I could. When you know you’re moving too fast , even for yourself, you capture enough memories to look back at when you’re slowing down.

I’m a bit of a weirdo when it comes to commitment. My mom scolded me before because I never stuck at anything longer than a few months. That’s true – when I’m not interested in something or someone, I can’t help but show it. I’m disappointingly rude like that (I’m trying to work with it) – but I move on very quickly. However, when I do find something I believe in, or someone I decide to trust, I’m fiercely loyal. My friends know that they grow with me , my bros know that I’m always the same despite the pace I’m pushing in the day. It’s really how I keep the core strong while strengthening the outer parts of my lifestyle.

When all is said I done, the lessons I learnt above matter ass much as the friends and people I learnt it from. So here’s the thanksgiving post – the one where I tell everyone how much they’ve impacted me, how much I love them, and where I eventually get scolded by the dear friends that escape my memory for not having them in.

That being said – a good majority of the year was spent in NS and I’ve written a post for those involved – here they are

Part 1, Part 2, Part 3

This is for the rest

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of course, we have the customaries. and it’s good that they’re customary, because that means year after year they still rank the most important influences in my life.

God, for being so faithful. For always loving me despite my flaws, for teaching me, for guiding me, for growing me. For his providence ( sometimes I wonder how I still have money in the bank), and his blessing.

My Family for their support – for letting me be when I needed to be the lone wold , and for welcoming me back everytime I ended up drained or overwhelmed. For fighting with me so that I’ll remain humble, for encouraging me so that I’ll climb them mountains. My Mom for crying so much over me, my Dad for crossing valleys to enable me, my Brother for being there any time, my Sister for reminding me about the innocence of childhood.

My Closest Buds –

Imran – for being the bro who gives a damn. You give so much a damn, it hurts. Every year, I say the same thing and I stand by it. I’m glad we’re still solid after so many years – after all the wacky adventures we’ve had, we  probably are bound to build a lot more. You’re right though – I need to slow down. I will.

Ding Hao – Token Indian friend (You’re my token Sentosa friend) or not, this broship is something I won’t give up for anything. I  love how we have enough common love over craft beers, good music, games, ideas and philosophy that we don’t have a lack of stuff to talk about. And I’m excited that we’re both going to the US next year.

Gabriel –  We didn’t hang out as much as I would have liked to this year, but that’s because you’re a BMT spec. And I’m glad you got your ass out of being a storeman and dared to become a spec . I’ve always loved catching up with you, Shi Feng, Wendi, Brenda (who’s like AWOL now) – let’s do more of this

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My Partners in Crime, Hoodies and CoC buds,

Leon –  There’s no reason why you’re not a true blue bro after all we’ve been through. We created something magical , we’re leaving a legacy next year, and after all the ups and downs, the twists and turns, the smiles and stampedes we have a brand that is versatile, strong and powerful in impacting thousands. If we weren’t so yin-and-yang , this probably wouldn’t work, but we are and that makes a difference. Thanks for putting up with me – very few can. To know that I’m going to work with you in EDB , that’s a very empowering thought – let’s rock that place. The Honesty Pact always stands

Valerie –  You know you can click with someone when conversations just roll off the moment you meet. I’ve told you how inspired I was by PHS, and I was such a fanboy when we met. I’m glad you taught us what you knew – we’ve grown so much because of that. And I’ve found a dear friend in you – even though it’s super hard to hang out.

The Hidden Good team – Darren (thanks for being so damn committed, it’s contagious) , Jay (for helping us establish the basics when we set up – it was a sad moment when we realised you’re leaving) , Alvin ( again, for the great initial and continuous mentorship ), Ryan (for helping us set up) Jon, Joon Sin (part of the initial J-Crew, it was fun with the gang), Matthew, Jethro, Vishnu, Aiysh, Bella (the RJ Gang for being so amazingly brilliant in all the ways you were ) , Yihui (for leading the charge on the MP3 Experiment with us, you’re a powerful woman meant for big things. Don’t ever take anything less) , Shyen  (I’m glad I convinced you to join us, loved having you on board ), Lavanya, Viren, Nicole Kuek, Ada, David, Jia Lok, Shane, Chang Yen , Noel , Pixel Rife,  for helping us make The MP3 Experiment a reality, Ethan, Shawn, Zhen Jie, Shiuan, Luke, Chuni, Yohann  for always being willing to come down when we need more hands on deck. We appreciate the extra support.  Boon – SO MUCH because you’re so cool and indispensable. I’m glad I have you on our team.

And of course we have the next-gen team, who are going to help make next year even more powerful . Elyssa, Frank, Nick, Chloe , Jonas, Steph – who just joined us and have much to promise!

Shiaw – Yan , such  a bro. I would say I’m indebted to you but I know you do what you do cause you truly care about the people around you, and I want to appreciate you publicly for being an awesome human being. Thanks for watching out for us all the way man – and helping us when we’re in the ruckus, and celebrating with us when we’re in the highs.

Josiah, Adrian, Ashton, Arjun, Victoria, Chloe, Kenneth, Joseph, Hongxi, Audrey , Jerviel, Kim, Jin Zhi, Rifeng, Xiu Jing, – Thanks for caring about what you guys care about and being such inspirations for me. WE NEED TO MEET SOON DAMMIT.

My mentors –

Jeff –  i love our small chats. there’s so much transference of perspective, I look forward to the next one. I speak of you when I imagine who I want to be when I’m 40 , honestly. Powerful man, doing small things that make big change. I’m glad we crossed paths

Jeremy – so much spontaneity. Move fast, break things. I’ve taken some of that into my own life. We need to catch up soon, but thanks for teaching me life as a rebel can be worth it. Thanks for teaching me that things can be done if you put your mind to it

Pong – Man, oh man. Pong, you’re always exciting to talk to. Spiritually, I learn so much when I see you humbling yourself before Christ, I realise I have a long way to go before being truly a servant of God – but I wanna get there more. You’re a true coach, an enabler, and I must thank you so much for capturing my strengths and teaching me how to leverage off them. I’m excited to work together.

Shi-Mei –  thanks so much for mentoring me spiritually. being a ministry head can become tiring, but knowing you have someone walking through it with you (with God of course)  is a powerful thought. thanks for always caring – it’s exhausting to do it, but you always do. we all love you for it.

Louise –  When I first heard about you, I remember telling Cass to put me in touch. I wanted to learn so much – I was very impressed by the fact that you had two cafes under your belt. After meeting you, I don’t think I’m surprised anymore – it’s who you are. And to be under your mentorship means I can learn where I can reach and how to operate an enterprise efficiently and still achieve all that we set out to achieve.

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OC

OC has somehow continued to remain a big force in my life. It’s where I have many core friends as well

Cass –  my favourite big sister. I refuse to call you Grandma – it’s just weird. I’m always grateful to tompang your car cause I get to spend more time with you and just chat about all kinds of stuff. It’s because you’re so open to people that you’d make a great person in life. I rushed over the moment I could with my car to drive you around.

Ivfy –  You have a big job ahead of you, but a bigger God behind you. That’s the best advice I can give you. I have complete trust in you to take over the helm of OPEC and run it with full gusto and vision. I’ve seen you work and I know you have a heart of passion, and care about the people you work with. That’s what is needed now and you fit the bill! I’m always here for any advice so don’t worry!

Pastor Kay, Pastor Ling –  I’m a pretty irritating person when it comes to being a schoolboy Christian, but I thank God that I have the pastoral advice from you. Good luck Pastor Kay on your future endeavours! And Pastor Ling, thanks for being patient with me with my questions! I hope to grow !

My BS Group – Benji, Ernest, Elliot, Ivfen, Anton, Ade, Chuni, Keith, Guin, Steph, Ben, Cheryl, Muzay, Jer, Tingyi, Shyen , Matt Chim and everyone else for being such a strong support group for me and for helping me grow.

OPEC – Jon, Matt, Marissa, Micah,Jil, Steph, Nathan, Charles, Chaunce, Jason, Darryl –  for being an awesome ministry. Our job is a tough one – you guys are tougher.

The rest of OC of course – Luke, Darolyn, Emae, Justin, David, Celine, Laura, Sylvia, Joey, Chrystal, Justin, Kakit – OMG ALL OF YOU – for being a great community to keep coming back to. I’m gonna miss you guys when I go to us.

i didn’t think I’d need to split up my posts but it’s gotten pretty massive thus far.

i’m gonna write part 2 tomorrow – YouTubers, Facebook Friends, Partners and Synergisers, and good old people who have shaped my year.

till then,

geronimo

Rebutting Lee Kuan Yew

Former PM LKY recently said something that irked me slightly.
http://www.straitstimes.com/breaking-news/singapore/story/lee-kuan-yew-fate-singapore-100-years-time-20130811

So before I carry on with this post , let me say a few things. I respect good leaders, and by that virtue I have the highest respect for what LKY has done for Singapore. I am not partisan, I am merely opinionated.

And I feel like I must say this. As tactfully, and yet as sincerely as possible.

The tone of what LKY said scares me slightly, because not only is he dismissive of youths, but unaware of the stories present in today’s society. He takes on some major points –

  1. Youths don’t write as beautifully, if they write at all.
  2. Youths don’t appreciate the miracles of struggles past
  3. Singapore is not certain in the next century, and by extension, he’s warning Singapore of our future

I doubt most of his points stand to insult or degrade our generation – but the tone is certainly not optimistic of us. Having studied his writings for some time, I know he’s very stubborn and strong in his views – and that’s fine as well. But when people take their cues from him, when the older generation identify with him and adopt his opinions, we have a problem.

Being a youth, my biggest obstacle is not my generation. It’s the wave of negativity that comes from people older than me , who continue to diminish the potential and promise of our generation by claiming us to be “spoilt, unexposed and ungrateful.” How do you grow up in a society where most adults and old folk treat us like the punks you see on MTV.

Just like no adult likes to be called old news, no youth likes call to be called lost hope.

Taking on LKY’s points

  1. While his point is seemingly trivial, I think it says a lot about how we understand beauty. I don’t write anymore – I type. I don’t write because with typing I can edit, I can combine visuals and I can format efficiently. I do appreciate letters and handwritten cards and I write for those close to me. But I wouldn’t write if I wanted a trusted mode of communication to an official. Yet that doesn’t mean, I wouldn’t write beautifully.

I’ve seen Facebook statuses that sum up experiences and moments so elegantly it connects hundreds of people. Combined with poignant pictures taken with Instagram, or videos captured on Vine, people are able to connect on a new level. The same goes for music, art , theater and essentially any form of expression.

Dubstep, Parkour, YouTube – they’re all here. They take conventional forms of expression and draw energy from the current atmosphere. Life didn’t use to be industrial, life didn’t used to be so technological – but now it is and we’ve added it into how we see ourselves. In fact, most of these ways we express ourselves are inspired by the age-old forms of expression. And as a final point, it was the older generation that made our country so industrial and technological – we’re just making more of what we we were given( and I think that’s some brilliant innovation)

2. I think if anything our generation has been loaded with more Social Studies, History and National Education lessons than any other generation. I love our past. I’m so grateful for the sacrifices made that when I walk past sites that contain heritage and echoes of lives gone , I really do stand and take a moment to recall the stories I was told. In fact, many Singaporeans can identify with the stories. We all know the same recitation that is told every Total Defence Day. We all know the story of political calamity during the formation years. And even if we don’t , we identify with the spirit of fortitude and commitment.

But that’s it. I’ll be the first to admit , we don’t obsess over the past. We take cues from it, we take lessons from it, but we want to look to the future. Because as much as the miracles of struggles past are important to appreciate, we believe it is important for us to make our own miracles and continue the legacy of Singapore. We don’t want a Singapore that cannot take care of itself , we want a Singapore where it’s society  is proud of its country and it’s country is proud of its society. Having started with The Hidden Good , I’ve been in touch with young people who are giants in their own right, tackling social issues and making things happen purely  because they want to. Jeremey, Josiah, Adrian, Val and so many other people who take cues from our forefathers and move to make our own futures. And they’re certainly not the minority. A wave is coming. Society IS changing.

3. I’m very optimistic about Singapore. I think leadership has to be dynamic. We need to make decisions that are not easy, and we need to realise there’s never an unsolvable problem. If ministers have a lower pay, does that really mean we’ll never get good leaders? I never had an opinion about the pay issue – I felt that leaders would step up eventually because they did care. Because people care about a lot more than money nowadays. I’m 20 , I know. I still have a lot to learn and live. But I know that I cannot survive on money alone, I need to be satisfied with the way I live my life, the environment my family grows up in and the way my society is. And that doesn’t mean I”ll fly away the first chance I’m not happy. I’ll stay and make change – because I don’t quit, and neither do a lot of people who I’ve met my age.

Knowing that there’s people out there fighting not to make Singapore  “more convenient and more Western ” only but actively fighting to make Singapore “fair, inclusive and open” – that’s what makes me optimistic about my Singapore.

So with all due respect, I have to disagree with LKY. I have to stand up for my generation and stop pleading “please give us a chance” but start saying “look at what we’ve done”. We’re growing up right – and we need you to mentor us, we need you to teach and share but treat us with the dignity. We need the older generation to stop perpetuating the “younger generation is always worse” syndrome and start encouraging more active citizenry through the way they talk, walk and live.

Singapore is changing, and my generation is excited to be a part of it. The future is uncertain, but we’re certainly not going to let it go bad, not on our watch.

rovik.