the seattle travelogue – welcome to emerald city

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

skyline

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

seattlecenter

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

slu

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

poutine

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

starbucks

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

coffee

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

pikeplace

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

market

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

pike

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

macandcheese

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

fremont

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

beer

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

littlesi

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

sushi

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

portage

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

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

friends

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

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

hooah.

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

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

St. Louis

FastEddies

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

Budweiser

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

Budbuilding

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

Tap

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

teddrewes

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

gooeybuttercake

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

stlouisarch

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

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

TeeksParents

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

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

Nashville

nashville

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

countrymusic

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

honkeytonk

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

martinsbbq

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

hattieb

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

arnolds

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

arnoldsfood

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

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

Lynchburg

jackdaniel's

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

jdtaster

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

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

New Orleans

neworleans

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

jackson

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

jackson2

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

beads

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

lafayettesq

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

bourbon

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

bourbonjazz

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

grenades

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

spottedcat

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

frenchmenartmkt

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

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

bayou

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

gator

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

commander'sbldg

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

commander's

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

beignet

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

chargrilledoysters

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

poboy

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

gumbo

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

friedchicken

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

mother's

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

rbarcrwfish

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

crawfish

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

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

Memphis

centralbbq

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

____

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

hooah.

some southern charleston charm

church

They call Charleston the ‘holy city’ which is kind of weird, given that the Vatican City comes to mind with that nickname. It’s well-intentioned though, as this beautiful city is charmed with church steeples instead of skyscrapers, which were guiding points for ships coming into the port. When Travel + Leisure ranked Charleston as the “Best City in the World” and I saw Anthony Bourdain make an episode about this city, I knew that I had to add it to my list of cities to visit in the US. So off I went on this adventure.

customhouse

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

market

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

16251771_10154374575769117_5390216701512382285_o.jpg

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

college

Charleston is very heavily populated by students. Cistern Yard, shown above, is one of the more iconic parts of the campus of the College of Charleston and another reason to appreciate the beauty in the area.

horse

Contributing to the oldern charm are the horse carriages going about. I personally don’t go for these because they’ve become slightly cliche, but a lot of my fellow travelers have recommended this as a good way to tour the city with a guide and get a unique experience out of it too.

slavemart

There are many cool views and buildings to check out in Charleston, but if you were to prioritize any, it would have to be Chalmers Street in the French Quarter. This is a cobblestoned street, but it also used to be where the Old Slave Mart was. This is now a museum, but it’s a visual trigger for the disgusting past of the US, where slaves were traded and sold. It’s a necessary stop to understand that the beauty of Charleston hides some nastineness in plain sight.

ravenel-bridge

Aside from the city itself, it’s a good idea to explore the Lowcountry around Charleston and see more of what the region is about. The Ravenel Bridge is one of these sights, standing over the Cooper River, and connecting Charleston to Mount Pleasant. It’s like a mini Golden Gate Bridge but cool in its own way. I’d recommend driving through it too (walking may not be as pleasant).

fortsumter

A good place to catch a view of the bridge is on the way to Fort Sumter. You have to buy tickets for this, but it’s completely worth the cost as you take a 10 min ride out to this fort which has major historical significance. This was where the first ‘shot’ of the Civil War was fired and has contentious meanings for different people.

flags

One of the major reasons for this was because of the occupation of the fort by both Secessionists and the Union. Given that South Carolina was one of the first states to secede, this makes more sense. The Fort has seen a lot of damage and the history around it is pretty dramatic, so again I’d recommend the visit. The National Park rangers who manage the fort are very friendly and keen to impart the knowledge to visitors.

patriotspoint

Another historical sight to check out is Patriots Point which is in Mount Pleasant. This is mainly a museum area but it has aircraft carriers and major warships which are really cool. The tickets are slightly pricy which meant that I didn’t go onboard, but the view from afar is pretty stunning by itself.

boonehall

While in Mount Pleasant, take another 15 minutes east to go to Boone Hall Plantation which is one of the most gorgeous looking estates but again, another reminder of how slavery was such a big foundation of the economy here. Now the plantation serves more of a historical and an aesthetic purpose, providing backdrops for weddings and festivals with its beautiful promenades.

boonehallbldg

While in Boone Hall, the main building will definitely catch your attention. This is where The Notebook with Rachel McAdams and Ryan Gosling had some of its scenes and is therefore a photo attraction for many of the movie’s fans.

oyster

While we were in Boone Hall, the Oyster Festival was going on, which was a crazy good experience. They sold Lowcountry oysters by the buckets and my friend, George and I just gorged on them. This was definitely a highlight of the trip.

sullivan

Just south of Boone Hall is Sullivan’s Island, home to a simple expansive beach that provides a stunning view of the Atlantic Ocean. This is also the entry point for a lot fo the slaves that were brought into the Lowcountry. The island has seen a lot of battles fought here as well.

shemcreek

Finally, on your way back to Charleston, catch the sunset at Shem Creek, and if you have time, dinner and drinks too. This is one of my favorite photo opportunities I caught and is probably one of the best ways to capture the spirit of the Lowcountry.

angeloak

All the way on the west side of Charleston also lie many sights. Due to limited time, we couldn’t check out all of it (incl. Magnolia Plantation and some other marsh areas) but one sight that is grand is the Angel Oak. This is a 20-30 min drive from the city but is one of the oldest oaks around and you can see it the moment you arrive. It’s seen a lot and is truly gorgeous.

Charleston is also famous for its food. It’s seen a revival in its culinary scenes as a lot of local chefs have started trying to recover ingredients and styles from the south and integrate them back into the minds of major food enthusiasts. I’ll be honest, one of the main reasons why I came to Charleston was to try some good southern cuisine.

nastybiscuit

One of the best places to go is the Hominy Grill on Rutledge Ave, where you can get the Nasty Biscuit. This is a fried chicken biscuit sandwich, with a slightly spicy sausage gravy generously poured over it. The chicken was brined and fried well and the biscuit was fluffy in the middle but flaky on the outside, just the way it has to be. The gravy added a whole new dimension to the sandwich as the biscuit continued to soak it up.

bbq

South Carolina BBQ is pork oriented, but what makes it stand out is the White Mustard sauce that is unique to the region. At Swig & Swine, the portions are large and the prices affordable for a range of BBQ dishes with a myraid of sauce options including the SC BBQ Sauce. Definitely worth trying the Sweet Red Sauce as well. Also their Mac and Cheese IS AMAZING.  AND THEIR BRISKET. Yes, I typed it in CAPS. Yes, it’s that good.

pigearsalad

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

shrimpandgrits

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

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

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

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

hooah

seeing south america – sao paulo + rio de janeiro + niteroi

The final country on the trip – Brazil. I was extremely excited for this last leg, especially given all the wild stories I’ve heard about times in this land. My ignorance was quickly challenged though, given that I had forgotten that Brazil spoke primarily Portuguese and not Spanish. There was a whole bunch of relearning that was about to occur.

Sao Paulo

spcity

I landed in Sao Paulo early in the morning (around 4am) and learnt that the airport is around 40 min away from the main city. It took me a long Uber ride, but I slept in and went downtown in the early afternoon. Av. Paulista is the main road where the business of the city occurs, and to be honest, given Sao Paulo’s positioning as Brazil’s economic and financial capital, this is where you’ll see a lot of your typical cityscapes. I quickly got bored on this road however. With the exception of some interesting architecture and the Museo de Arte, there wasn’t much to do in the city.

beco

I’m sure if I had stayed slightly longer I could have taken better advantage of what the city had to offer (such as the gardens), but I was mainly in Sao Paulo to transfer to Rio and had to prioritize my sightseeing. One of the things I definitely wanted to see was the Beco do Batman, which is in the west-central part of the city. It’s an alley filled with beautiful, stunning and absolutely trippy graffiti. It’s interesting given that the pursuit of law and order globally has sought to eradicate forms of expression such as graffiti, but here it’s celebrated and embraced.
fogo

There’s a friendly but not-so-friendly competition between Argentina and Brazil on who does meat better. Brazil’s steakhouses do whole cuts of meat and serve you slices. It’s normally done buffet style, such as in Fogo de Chao, which was overwhelmingly recommended as the best (and priciest) option. One must note that Fogo de Chao has restaurants in the US as well, and is now owned by American owners, so if you want a more local experience, you should look more. Having said that, Fogo de Chao in Sao Paulo was one of my favorite memories in Brazil and I was absolutely stuffed for the amount I paid. The meat cuts were delicious, having been seasoned right and done to perfection. My favorite cuts were the rump and short ribs. The chicken hearts are also a personal indulgence.

When I was in Sao Paulo, I stayed in JS Hostel, and I’d highly recommend it. The staff are very kind and the owner’s mother was such a darling in making sure I was taken care of. She even gave me a pillow to sleep on the couch (I had already checked out) and a towel to borrow for my shower while I waited for my night bus.  It’s also really good value for money.

Rio de Janeiro

I took the night bus from Sao Paulo on Expresso Do Sul to Rio. The SP bus terminal was expectedly chaotic, but the bus ride was safe and comfortable. They  even had charging ports and ‘wifi’ which was pretty clutch. I reached Rio at 3am and made a dumb mistake by deciding to walk a distance from the bus terminal in Rio to avoid paying exorbitant taxi fees. I quickly remembered everyone’s warnings about avoiding danger in Rio and given how dark it was, started realizing I was putting myself in a precarious situation. I quickly hailed a cab (which became difficult away from the terminal) and struggled to navigate us to my hostel. Lesson learnt – invest in safe transport to and fro your accommodation because you don’t want to lose all your belongings.

I spent the next 3 days exploring what Rio had to offer.

arcodalapa

Rio has a number of memorable locations. One of my favorites is the Carioca Aqueduct, situated near the Lapa district. This is a historical aqueduct that now transports a tram to Santa Teresa. It used to bring water from Carioca down to the city and stands as a pretty iconic sight in the city of Rio. What’s even more exciting though, is that at night (especially weekends), this whole place turns into a giant party, with alcohol and food stalls and open drinking. There are lights and noises, and the bars/clubs are right behind the Aqueduct. It’s quite the experience.

santateresa

Of course, you also have to explore the districts in Rio. These tend to be slightly less safe if you don’t have your wits about you, but spend some while in Rio and you’ll figure out how to navigate around. Santa Teresa is one of these districts, next to Lapa and built mostly on a hill. This makes for amazing views, and there are a lot of local bars and hangout spots here, especially in the evening.

escadaria

When you’re in Lapa, you should also check out the Mosaic Steps or the Escadaria Selaron which was a gift from a Chilean artist to the Brazilian people. It’s stunning and quite an artistic splendor. Of course, you have to bustle around other tourist, but there are so many interesting quirks here that you could spend a solid amount of time enjoying the different colors and combinations.

rioview

Rio’s main gift is in its ability to be a giant playground and such a diverse city. Right in the center of the city lies its Tijuca forest which is home to so much biodiversity.  If you take the tram up to the Christ the Redeemer statue, you can get a quick view through the forest and some pretty snazzy views such as this one.

cristo

One of the two iconic view spots in Rio is the Cristo Redentor statue (the other is Sugarloaf Mountain). Do not underestimate the line for the tram up here. Buy your ticket the day before from one of the tourist offices or at the station, or be prepared to buy a ticket for 4 hours later. Also time your trip. Some days, the top of the mountain is just so cloudy that you can’t see anything. I waited here for a total of 3 hours before I got this picture (I wasn’t going to waste my money and time already invested), but you do feel small when you stand next to the statue. The religious significance of the statue was felt but also it was mostly a giant tourist attraction. There is an area to pray behind the statue though. The whole trip up came up to approximately USD 30.

cristopeople

One thing to note though is really how incredibly packed this area is. Even with all the clouds, the area was filled with tourists who also would not budge till they got their photos. It also meant taking photos gets difficult, as everyone is using annoying selfie sticks or blocking up large spaces. You really have to go fast and furious on this.

ipanema

Of course, how could we talk about Rio without talking about its beaches. True to the stories, Rio’s beaches are beautiful with breathtaking backdrops and large amounts of space. There’s a strong mix of locals and tourists just taking in the heat, although I went in December and it was burning hot. Both Ipanema and Copacabana are beaches worth going to (they’re both right beside each other), but I’m a bigger fan of Ipanema simply because of the views.

fishingniteroi

When you’re in Rio, I’d strongly encourage taking a day trip to Niteroi, which is accessible by road or ferry. This is a neighboring with city with a quieter scene. You get better views of Rio from this side of the bay though, and a more local-centric community. For example, most of the fishing boats stay on this side of the bay.

viewfromtop

If you go up to Niteroi’s city park, you get access to these ledges where people paraglide from. Aside from paragliding, you also get these magnificent views of the bay.

niteroiview

As I was with my friend Ivana and her family, they also took me to this lesser known area (essentially a fort), where you get a sick view of both Sugarloaf mountain and the Cristo Redentor statue. The number of times where I was just overwhelmed by Rio and Niteroi’s beauty could not be tracked.

caipirinha

Moving onto to food and drink, I must start with the star of Rio – the Caipirinha, Brazil’s national cocktail. This is made with sugarcane liquor, lime and sugar and is a very potent drink that gives you the kick ready for the night. When people in Rio pregame, they normally buy 2 USD versions of these cocktails from street stalls and just go hard the whole night.

feijoda

Brazilian food tends to involve mostly rice, beans and a dish. They also have a really spicy chili extract sauce that is not for the weak. The dish people say is local to Rio and must be tried though, is the Feijoda. This is a stew with pork ribs, sausage and beans and is normally reserved for special occasions or the weekend, but at Bar do Mineiro in Santa Teresa, you can get this for a good rate. Man, I still remember the taste sometimes….

acai

Another common sight in Brazil is the Acai stalls. Acai is extremely expensive outside of Brazil, but here you can get smoothies, ice creams and other variations for incredibly affordable rates. It’s highly caloric but it provides energy quickly to the body. MegaMatte is a chain that provides this around town, along with Matte – another drink popular in South America.

ivana

I must extend my deepest thanks to Ivana, who I met 3 years ago in Berlin, Germany and who I’ve been so happy to continue keeping in touch with, for taking care of me and showing me around Niteroi. Her family and her really made me feel welcome in Brazil and showed me all the cool sights. It was good to see a familiar face after a long time!! Thank you Ivana!

In Rio, I stayed in PopArt Hostel which is in the Centro district of the city (away from the beaches). I would not recommend staying here, because the facilities are pretty battered and the staff aren’t as pleasant. I was there during the New Year season though, so I had to make do for affordable rates.

You can also Uber to get around everywhere in both SP and Rio, and they’re both pretty affordable. Rio has really good bus services though, and the tourist lines accept cash so I’d recommend using those more.

SIM cards – now this is probably where some advice is due. If you can, fly into Rio and get the TIM Tourist SIM. Brazil has a lot of restrictions for SIM cards to tourists (they mostly only allow citizens to get SIM cards) but the TIM tourist SIM is available in Rio readily and has the best value. I got a temporary SIM in SP because the Tourist SIMs ran out, but that was still expensive.

Finally, banks and ATMs charge hefty withdrawal fees in Brazil so either frontload your withdrawals or bring money already exchanged.

Brazil was a great time and an absolute party. I’m so happy  I got to see these three stunning cities and participate in local culture. There’s a lot I missed out on – such as favellas and the nature part of the country, but that only means I definitely have to come back.

___

It’s been three months since I did this trip and I still miss South America sorely. The food, the people and the rich culture are so difficult to find anywhere else, and the cautions of safety wrongly shadow the the trove of warmth you find from the communities you visit. Yes, things are unexpected and danger abounds in new environments, but that’s also become countries are complex, pluralistic and ultimately still not developed. There’s so much to understand about the human condition from that alone.

hooah.

seeing south america : lima

Winter Break 2016 saw me go to South America, to explore a continent I had never been to and to interact with a metaculture that I had just started to become familiar with. The first portion of this trip was in Peru, and we’ll start with Lima. Let’s just say that quickly into the trip I learnt I can’t travel in South America the way I’ve been familiar with so far – I was about to be schooled.

Lima

Lima is the capital of Peru. When I talk to other SA travellers a lot of them mention how less alluring of an option the city is compared to other Peruvian wonders, but I’ve come to disagree. Lima has a rich past and a promising future, and that energy is something different that can be tapped into when you walk the streets. Historically, Lima also was a huge strategic city for the Spanish Conquistadors, who play an important role in most of my trip, and a good entry point to understanding Peru and other parts of SA. Lima is a lot more of a collective of districts, rather than one big city, and exploring these districts provide a lot of diversity and wholesomeness to the traveler’s understanding of Lima.barranco

One of the more iconic districts is Barranco. Located in the south-eastern part of Lima, this district is known as the Bohemian District and has played host to the inspiration of many Peruvian creatives and intellectuals. Its colourful baroque buildings stand out and encourage you to consider indulging in your own creative moment. There are many beautiful graffiti pieces and architectural sights to look at as you walk through this district.

bridge

One of the more iconic parts of the district is the Bridge of Sighs – a beautiful wooden bridge that overlooks a deep ravine (Bajada de los Baños) and puts you in the heart of what Barranco is. Come here for some cool views.centrohistorice

If you want to see the historical (Spanish) part of the city, you have to take a 20 minute drive up away from Miraflores to the Centro area, which is essentially downtown Lima. Here you’ll find the Plaza de Armas, which is the main city centre for most Spanish cities, and a lot of beautiful Spanish buildings. Almost every Plaza I’ve seen has a Palace and a Cathedral almost assured, and the Spanish don’t hold back on the beauty of these structures.

miraflores

Of course, Miraflores is where most tourists go to in Lima, and that’s because of the beaches, backdropped by tall cliffs and sights of the district behind you. I was lucky enough to be brought to a private beach which had sand on it, but some of the public access beaches are rock beaches so take your pick. There are also some pretty sweet spots amongst the cliffs if you look online for you to catch the sunset. They call some of these ‘Lovers Area’ because of the obvious connotation but the sunsets from Lima are amazing so you should go there even if you’re by yourself. ceviche

Onto food. You’ll hear it again and again. Lima is the culinary capital of the Americas. There’s not only direct access to a rich diversity of ingredients here, there are unique flavour profiles and cooking methods that really push the boundaries of good food. One of the things you must try is Ceviche – cured fish (or other seafood) with lime zest and spiced with aji, a Peruvian take on chilli. If you like sushi or sashimi, ceviche isn’t that far off, and Canta Rana in Barranco comes highly recommended for its local focus, so no touristy overpricing, and community vibes.

maido

If you want to Fine Dining anywhere in South America, you have a number of options. Don’t let Lima slip away. Maido is an amazing Japanese-Peruvian fusion restaurant that offers stunningly exquisite dishes. If you want to try the kitchen’s best, go for the Nikkei Experience, a multi-course menu that takes you on a journey of Peruvian ingredients. My favorite was this reduction of a shrimp based broth over spices and herbs from the Peruvian jungle. It was eventually served a baked cod belly, and was absolutely mind blowing.

luquma

And don’t do yourself a disservice by not trying the fruits. Luquma is a sweet and addictive fruit that is served best when mixed with milk (so ice creams or yoghurts) and is readily available. This picture is also from Maido and shows a Luquma ice cream in a chocolate shell and served with milk foam.

Here are some general travel tips for Lima:

Location to stay in: Miraflores and Barranco are your go-tos. Miraflores if you want access to the beaches, Barranco for the beautiful bohemian district and bars. I stayed in a hostel called Family Backpackers Club. It’s a pretty no-frills and reliable hostel (6.5/10 from me) but don’t expect to leave feeling anything special about the place.

SIM Cards/ Data: Avoid getting a SIM Card in the airport. It’s overpriced and not worth it. Go into the city centre and get one for 10 soles (~ 3 USD) and add money to your account and purchase a data plan for around 25 soles (~8 USD). That should set you up for at least a week.

ATMs: Don’t be tricked into using any regular ATMs. Peru has ATMs that don’t charge local withdrawal fees like Scotiabank and a number of others. Save up to 8 USD per transaction by using these

Transport: Uber is available and super cheap in Lima. Try to use it wherever you go and avoid getting your directions misinterpreted.

Crime: Not as present. I’m sure there’ll be regular pickpocketing if you don’t keep your wits about you, but I didn’t feel unsafe in Lima at all.

elna

I have to thank Elna for showing my around this beautiful city and telling me about what it has to offer. She was also such an amazing person in providing me tips around Peru in general and bringing me to some local haunts. People like Elna are hard to come by. Thank you!

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In the next post, I’ll cover Nasca and Cusco so look out for that! Till then,

hooah.

 

fall travel series – washington dc

dc_capitol

Looking back at Fall Quarter Senior Year, it was definitely the most academically tiring and difficult quarter I have had so far. I was taking classes mostly to fulfill requirements and I was on the tail end of most of my extracurricular responsibilities. I had committed this senior year to unabashed traveling,recognizing that I am probably not going have this much access to the American continents in a while to come. The past few months saw me visit some great parts of the US, out of which I feel like I have gained a deeper but still incomplete appreciation of a cross-section of this country.

Washington D.C.

D.C. was the number one recommended area to visit by all my friends. ‘You really haven’t seen the US till you see DC.’

I don’t think you can ever say you’ve seen the US till you’ve seen almost every major region given its diversity, but DC encapsulates most of the US’s history and political climate. Half my trip was visiting the major monuments and museums, and the other half was hanging out with friends and checking out Georgetown.
dc_whitehouse

Now I’ve been to many iconic sights in the world, including the Great Wall and the London Tower, but the White House has by far been one of the few attractions I actually have always wanted to see in person. It’s surreal how so many people get emotional knowing that whoever occupies the House has such a large effect on their lives. This is literally where the most powerful person in the world lives. Security doesn’t let you in unless you request a tour from your Congress representative (or in my case, from the Embassy) so I didn’t get to see the interior, but the moment of reflection outside the House was profound enough for me.

dc_monument

I spent the rest of the day walking the National Mall, which is a strip of monuments starting at Capitol Hill and ending at the Lincoln Memorial. Right at the center is the Washington Monument. The Monument doesn’t waver in intimidating you as you approach it, which in some ways is pretty reflective of the US. It’s large and phallic and is meant to remember George Washington, the first US President. I had some divided feelings about it. I was initially excited to see the Monument, given how iconic it is. But the more I heard actual Americans’ views on it, I realized the Monument strikes different sentiments to different people. Ironically, it sits right next to the recently opened and critically acclaimed Museum of African American History, which has a distinctive style from the marble and granite look of old American monuments, and my Uber Driver told me how some of his White passengers had expressed their annoyance of how the new Museum disrupted the feel of the Monument. My immediate reaction was to remark how that was probably the intent and how it helps to provide a draw away from what traditional history has represented to many citizens and an alternative look at their celebrated history. Yep, I had all these thoughts just at this monument.dc_vietnam

The rest of the Mall has its moments. A lot of it is about War and a lot of it is about sacrifice. I cringed every time I saw someone taking a cheesy selfie next to any of these. Perhaps having served in the Army helped, but I felt troubled that so many people had to die for these grandiose monuments to be built. It would be sad if what people took away from this was that the architectural or aesthetic aspects of these monuments were photo-worthy rather than that people had died for their current way of life. That question haunts me to this day – will I die for Singapore? And it should, it’s not a question anyone should answer blindly. This grim memorial of the Korean War definitely reminded me of that.dc_freedom

I took a lot more pictures and they’re in my album but I really felt like I walked away from the Mall with a different feel than most tourists there. I came to get some good photos, but I left with a heavy heart and a reminder of the role I play in peace and war.dc_smithcastle

The eastern part of the Mall has most of the Smithsonian Museums which are amazing publicly accessible museums that celebrate one of the things I think the US does well – to search for knowledge and to discover. The architecture of most of these buildings by themselves are fascinating but the interiors are filled with boundless sources of information and exhibits.dc_natlhistory

I spent some time in the Museum of Natural History which was just a joy to walk around in and immerse myself in.dc_newseum

The Newseum isn’t a Smithsonian Museum but it definitely sits on my list of favorite museums in the world. (My favorite is the Pergamon Museum in Berlin.) This museum takes you on a journey of the history of the Press in the US and how the four Freedoms have played a huge role in shaping American history. I absolutely loved the variety of exhibits and the thoughtfulness that went into sharing how so many lives have been affected by the press. I guess that becomes even more relevant now with the rise of uncredible news sources and their impacts on how people see their worlds.

All in all, the Mall was definitely a day’s worth of exploring (possibly two if you want to visit multiple museums). I would encourage people to go with a reflective mood to really get the most out of it. A lot can be trivialized easily but I really took a lot away from the walk up and down the strip.

dc_georgetownbridge

20 minutes away from downtown D.C. is Georgetown.  Now Georgetown is beautiful. I honestly would want to retire here if I was to retire in the US (probably won’t happen). It’s a quaint neighborhood with a European charm and a good number of recreational options. As expected, Georgetown is heavily White. There’s a SoulCycle that’s packed and multiple high-brow brand stores on the central street, but it’s become almost fun watching this way of life being insulated from the rest of the world and even closer home, to D.C.  I would definitely recommend coming here for brunch and a walk down the Promenade.

dc_georgetownu

Georgetown University also sits nearby and its architecture is Neo-Medieval, with gargoyles and steeples. It was quite the delight walking around their main campus and seeing the building.

D.C. isn’t really known for its food, but as you probably know, I’m a big foodie and see food as a lens to understand culture and history. So here’s the food section.

dc_halfsmoke

The only D.C. local specialty is the half-smoke. I find it kind of weird how such a distinctive city hadn’t formed its own local cuisine, but in some ways I get it too, because D.C. only recently became a livable city. Tons of young people live here now as a way to climb up the political ladder, and in another 20 years we may hear of DC local dishes, but for now only the half-smoke holds a spot. The half-smoke is essentially a chili-dog, except the dog is smoked instead of grilled/steamed which adds a spicy kick to the dog. I enjoyed it, but definitely think it’s not that much of a deal. Ben’s Chili Bowl is apparently where the original is made, and where Obama has gone to, so I went there for this.dc_ebbitt

Not so much of a local dish as much as it is a regional dish are the oysters. I went to the Old Ebbitt Grill which is the oldest restaurant in DC and where a lot of high brow political dinners happen apparently. I went for the famous Happy Hour Oyster special where everything is half off, and sat at the Oyster Bar and became friends with the bartender over an extended time. Greenspeake oysters join the choir of other regionally sourced oysters to provide a good range of options. I simply enjoyed pretending to be bougie for a while.dc_georgetown

Finally, going back to Georgetown, go for the cupcakes. I went to Georgetown Cupcakes and waited in line for an hour but honestly, there’s a decent number of other cupcake stores in town that are just as phenomenal. These were pretty great. If you don’t know, Georgetown Cupcakes is the store that had a whole TV Show made after them and became famous as a result.

On a side note, nightlife in DC is a thing. There are whole bar districts and club districts that are packed and I patronized a couple of them. Like I said previously, DC may be run by old people but the city is populated by youths and you see that clearly at night. I loved it.

dc_elyssa

All in all, my short weekend in DC was an absolute blast. Elyssa, my dear friend, was such a blessing and hosted me for the weekend and I’m ever so grateful. I definitely think I can make one more weekend trip out of DC, to see some of the other museums (the African American History one especially), to check out more of the bars and to take a trip out to nearby Baltimore where I have more friends studying. DC, you were fun, and I’m glad I got this opportunity to walk down your streets.

hooah.

 

scenes of canada – a travelogue

wreckbeach

Ask about Canada and most friends tell me it’s just a country north of the United States. People are more polite, the temperature is lower and the mountains are higher ; these are the descriptors used often. It’s unfortunate that all these descriptors are comparative, referring to the US as the foundation. In my two weeks, travelling across the country, I’ve come to discover that Canada is a country completely in itself, rich with its own independent history and blessed with the nature of the north.

The nature of how I ended up in Canada is a story in itself. After discovering that it would be too complex to make the journey back home, and consequently to my grandparents’ wedding anniversary, my parents elected to allow me to travel this winter break. The Stooges were all over the world this break, with one in China and one in Austria , and I didn’t want to spend Christmas and the New Year alone. So we remembered we had family friends in Saskatoon, Canada and I ended up plotting one of my iconic cross-country adventure trails. Starting off in Vancouver, I made my way to Saskatoon and took a day trip out to Banff and the Canadian Rockies, spent a couple of days in Quebec City and finally ended the weekend in Toronto. I had also decided to go on a Ski Trip in Breckenridge, Colorado , for a week before this , but that’s a story in itself. Another important note before we start is that this trip happened in the early winter, which is a very different experience from Canada in the summer. I would imagine if I came back in June, I’d see a very different sight.

Vancouver

ubc

Vancouver starts in the University of British Columbia for me , also affectionately known as UBC. I was hosted by Kenneth, who served in the Singapore Army with me in Basic Training. The first thing you’d notice about Vancouver is that the city is on the frontier to an amazing amount of nature. The mountains paint the background and you feel like nature is your companion through your time. The UBC campus itself is interesting, paying homage to the issues surrounding Vancouver, and is on the west coast looking out at North Vancouver. My favorite part of the campus is Wreck Beach , which is the first photo in this post. It unsettles you the moment you finish the climb down , with the vast amount of wreckage found. In warmer seasons, it is populated with nudists, that make for an unique experience.

gastown

Historical Vancouver is found in Gastown where someone with the nickname ‘Gassy’ started his first saloon. You feel like you’re in a different time, with retro looking buildings and complete gentrification with classy restaurants, cafes and a number of souvenir shops. My favorite highlight was the Gas Clock –  a clock that runs completely on steam, and on the dot at every hour conducts a musical symphony from the pressure released as steam is let go. The rest of Vancouver is an interesting conglomerate of districts , with the Harbour hosting the main scenic sights. Most districts have unique qualities, but what I found enjoyable was the mass quantity of Asian food. From Taiwanese to Vietnamese and even to Japanese, there’s quality food found anywhere in the Downtown and Chinatown areas.

stanley

Perhaps the most iconic part of Vancouver is Stanley Park. Historically significant for various reasons, including being home to military use and iconic sights, Stanley Park is an hour of exploring temperate nature. My favorite part was the totem poles, paying tribute to the First Nations [Canada’s way of referring to the Natives]. Canada , in my opinion, does a lot better of a job respecting the fact that they are ultimately immigrants to a country populated by people with an already rich culture. Finding ways to coexist and respect each other are seen throughout the country and provide good lessons to take away.

stormbrew

Vancouver is ultimately known as one of the world’s most livable cities. Had I not sprained my ankle on Ski Trip , I would have taken advantage of the natural backyard that’s so accessible. Instead, I looked out for other exciting parts of the city, including Storm Brewery, a super microbrewery specializing in craft beers and unique flavors including pickled beer and whisky wine. They’re all in a slightly shady industrial part of town, but are worth the trip out for the cheap tasters and the rich conversations with the other patrons and craftsmen.  mounties

If I was to choose one part of Canada to come back to, it’d definitely be Vancouver. It has most of what I love in a city – good food, affordable lifestyle and vast amounts of nature. It has its fair share of quirks though, from early closing hours to the Mounties [I’m so happy I managed to see these guys] plodding around on the pavement in the city.  Thanks for a good time Vancouver, and thanks to Kenneth, Sarang and Visha for taking the time to host me and show me your city.

Saskatoon/Banffsaskatoon

This was the part of the trip that I needed the most. Staying with friends of the family, allowed me to be an ‘adopted’ son for a week and have some semblance of a family after a while.That did mean I had to make an unorthodox stop in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, which has the unique catchphrase of being the ‘land of the living skies’. What that essentially means is that there’s vast amounts of flat land, allowing you to see the horizon far and wide. It makes for amazing landscape photography like the photo above, but I was also very excited to see the Northern Lights while on the road near Saskatoon. If anything, that made Saskatoon capable of providing a traveler his kicks.lakelouise2

Moving out of the plains of Saskatoon, we took a road-trip out to the Canadian Rockies – mainly the Banff region. Now, I had just spent the week before in the American Rockies at Colorado and was already pretty impressed by the mountainous terrain. But the Canadian Rockies are plenty times better, being unfettered and home to so much more natural wonders. There are visual sights around every corner, and lots of photography moments. My favorite was here at Lake Louise.snowfun

In the summer, Lake Louise is an actual lake people go to take boat rides in and engage in other lake activities.  But in the winter, it freezes up, providing the breath-taking view of a lake surrounded by mountains. You can do plenty of activities include sledding, as my family friends did above, or even play ice hockey or ice skate, which was super risky in my opinion but YOLO right?lakelouise

It takes a true traveler to break off the regular tourist paths and appreciate Canada’s natural abundant beauty. Here, moments are frozen for you to stare back at and enjoy; humbly presented for your awe. For that, Banff did a lot for me.albertasteak

Food in this part of Canada isn’t especially creative, although the beef is famous [AAA Alberta Beef] for being not just free of food enhancement, but also more delicious. I tried one up in Banff and was not disappointed – probably in my top 20 steaks. Go to Banff, enjoy the beauty. Thanks to Uncle Anand, Aunty Mercy, Deepa , Esther and Janet for making me feel like home.

Quebec Cityquartierpetit

Before I spent New Year’s in Toronto, I wanted to spend some time in East Canada, also known as New France and/or True Canada. This is where Canada deviates from the U.S. plentifold. Rather than visit another big city like Montreal, I took some of my friends’ advice and visited Quebec City instead. It’s smaller, more French and a lot more charming. This is where New France actually started, and in the winter, this city is beautiful beyond measure. With warming Christmas lights and charming buildings in the Old City, destinations like the Quartier Petit make for not just great photo opportunities but encouraging spirits as people carol and enjoy each others’ company. There’s plenty history embedded in this small city, and fulfills a full weekend’s agenda.lacstjean

I took the time here to truly enjoy Canadian French cuisine then, as this is where culture takes priority. At Aux Anciens Canadiens, staff dress up as waiting staff from the past in a cosy little cottage and transport you back to the days of old. The lunch set menu is value for money, and the food is authentic. I had the Lac St Jean meat pie, a pie unique to Quebec that makes use of game meat and roasted vegetables. With the sweet potato mash and tomato jam, this meal was rich in flavors and definitely reminiscent of my time in France.poutine

Of course. the star in the Canadian cuisine world is the Poutine. The original dish is made from fries, poutine sauce – which is similar to a light steak sauce – and cheese curds. Anything else is a deviation, but welcome addition. Ashton is a fast food chain dominant in the city and particular only to east Quebec. This is where most people go to eat Poutine, and I’ve seen people so much that I felt embarrassed with my small portion. Worth the hype? I’d say it’s an interesting dish to try and Quebec did it best for sure, but it’s not my go to indulgence.duckcrepe

My absolute favorite meal in Quebec City was in the Creperie Le Billig for brunch. Famous for affordable crepes that are incredibly well prepared, the Creperie Le Billig sits on Rue St Jean, a famous street for food and shops, and hosts plenty of patrons in a small outfit. I had the duck confit eggs benedict crepe and spent a whole one and a half hours just enjoying the crepe and ambience. I guess it’s at moments like this where I relished in being a traveler in a foreign city where no one knew me. I had my own schedule and was blissfully enjoying my time , and God, was it fulfilling.

Toronto

dundas

Toronto ended my Canada tour, and boy, did it end on a grand note. Toronto is the New York of Canada – flashy, diverse and exciting. The Yonge-Dundas Square in central Toronto is the main city district and you can find most retail and entertainment options here. It’s similar to Times Square, with the addition of a huge central promenade for activities. steamwhistle

Heading down to south Toronto and you’ll see most of the tourist attractions. One of my favorites was the Steam Whistle Brewery, which embellished its grounds with vintage locomotives and trains. It lent a very rustic feel to the brewery that was refreshing. Steam Whistle is a uniquely Toronto beer brand that adds pride to the Toronto identity. Its Pilsners are pretty good and are a good try while in the city. You can also take tours of the brewery and taste samplers.CN

Rogers Centre, Air Canada Centre and the Ripley Aquarium all occupy south Toronto as well, but the prominent landmark is always the CN tower, a tower that at one point held the world record for tallest building. You can conduct an edge walk at the top that’s really exciting, but I didn’t dare given the cold winds. It’s a quiet reminder of the power of the city, following you around most of downtown and exciting you with every look.hockey

Something else that is big in Toronto is hockey. Probably most of Canada, but especially Toronto. The Hockey Hall of Fame sits in South Central Toronto and is filled with memorabilia and cool motifs from Hockey History. I don’t really follow the sport, but even I enjoyed the walk through the past of how hockey has become the great sport it is.lawrence

St Lawrence Market is a classic western market, that throws back to Toronto’s history. Most of it is regular groceries and meats, but on the west side, one can find many hot meals. Toronto’s ‘famous’ food is the Peameal Bacon sandwich , a thicker bacon placed in a sandwich. It’s severely overpriced, but I wagered it must be worth the price. It wasn’t really, so I’d recommend to try splitting it with someone to make it more value for money. Markets are a good look into the daily lives of locals as well, and I enjoyed seeing how locals interact and go about their lives.tiff

What I looked forward to most to be honest was The Toronto International Film Festival’s Lightbox Cinema that screens movies selected for TIFF and that are significantly important. I watched Son of Saul, a Hungarian film about the gas chambers in the Nazi regime, that was extremely disturbing in showing the realities of being a Jew in those times. The cinema is slightly less commercial and provides a better appreciation of the film genre. I was really happy I managed to spend some time here.AGO1

Another place that surprised me was the Art Gallery of Ontario. It provides free entry to everyone from 6pm – 9pm on Wednesdays, and the exhibits cover a spectrum of periods and themes.  AGO2

What made my night though was the surprise visual arts performance that was held in the central hall. There was a rock band that played, which contrasted awkwardly with the poignant paintings and sculptures around the building, and my favorite was the light art being done with water containers and projectors that projected shapes as the artists made movements in the container. It reminded me of how cities are ultimately destinations of youthfulness and promise , and why I love taking in the energy there. Major thanks to Angel and Kesigun for spending time with me and adding to the life of the city.niagrafalls

My final stop on the trip was a Day Trip out to Niagara Falls. It’s a lot cheaper to book way ahead and use MegaBus to get to Niagara Falls. The falls are everything people say it is – beautiful, magnificent and inspiring. The town itself is extremely touristy the closer you get to the falls, but it’s probably a good idea unless you have restless kids, to make your way straight to the falls. The Canadian side of the falls is definitely better, with the American side only being able to see the American Falls and glimpses of the Horseshoe falls. I even bought tickets to go behind the falls and stand at eye level with the middle of the falls. It’s here that the weight of my journey finally pressed down on me and I realized how blessed I was to be able to stand here and witness this.

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It took me 19 years to realize my dream, but now I’m travelling so frequently I have to remind myself of the advantage I possess with what I do. Travelogues help me remember my own journeys, but my hope is that people get infected with the same wanderlust that I have. Break out, explore and be pushed out of your comfort zones. Let yourself be exposed to beauty , and let yourself breathe the air you are given.

Canada, you’ve been simply beautiful. I definitely want to come back.

hooah