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.

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

market

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

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

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

shrimpandgrits

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

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

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

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

hooah

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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.

shah

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.