(US) Yellowstone National Park

Bisons sharing the road with us
Bisons sharing the road with us

9:10pm, 22 April 2016 in Stage Coach Inn, West Yellowstone, Montana

Hooold on, hold on to me. Because I’m a little unsteeeady-ey, a little unsteeeady-ey-ey. (Unsteady by X Ambassadors)

Part of the magic of a road trip, I’ve come to think, is radio. Over the past few days we’ve been driving across the states of California, Nevada, Idaho, Montana and Wyoming, and music’s been there every mile of the way.

At first I didn’t know about satellite radio. We hopped channels as we rolled by towns and their dedicated broadcasts faded into unreached territory. Having to change stations every ten minutes (or listen exclusively to signal noise) was a pain the ass and not very enjoyable. Satellite radio on the other hand is amazing. SiriusXM is good stuff, perfect for big countries.

We spent the entire day today more or less on the road. For the first two hours we drove north, stopped by a small town for clam chowder and hot pockets, and entered Yellowstone country. We must have drove around for six hours with multiple hop-ons and -offs. Anything from bisons to birds to steam rising from the ground (hot springs and geysers) got us out of the car.

For a nature lover, I’m surprised that I didn’t fall from a head-swooning experience driving through America’s oldest national park. It was okay. Wild animals roaming freely from horizon to horizon including the road was novel and quite fascinating, of course, but it wasn’t a teary-eyed experience for me. I think Mei enjoyed it more than I did today though, and that made it worthwhile.

Tomorrow we’ll carry on exploring Yellowstone Park by car and maybe hike a bit. Entry remains free for the week since it’s National Parks Week and the National Park Service’s centennial celebrations. I wonder how many people went to both Yosemite and Yellowstone in the week like we did. Going now would save upwards of USD $50 so I’m confident we’re not the only ones…

Trying to sneak a snowball attack on Mei
Trying to sneak a snowball attack on Mei
One of the surreal landscapes in Mammoth Hot Springs, Yellowstone
One of the surreal landscapes in Mammoth Hot Springs, Yellowstone

(US) Giant Sequoias and Other Surrealism in Yosemite

giant redwood tree

8:32am, 20 April 2016 in Travel Inn, South Lake Tahoe, California

We left Oakhurst for good early this morning. To be honest, I’m glad to be leaving that overpriced accommodation behind. Yesterday I made a mistake in the booking dates and booked our hotel just outside Yosemite National Park for 21st instead of the 20th. It was a pricey mistake – we paid an extra USD $25 for that night’s stay. Silly me be gone!

For about a decade I’d heard about giant redwood trees that stand in California. The photos I remember most of these ancient trees are those with a man with climbing gear on hanging on a rope and smiling to the camera, him looking like a tiny bug scaling the wide red bark of the redwood tree.

Today I finally saw it. I think we drove about 2 hours from the south entrance of Yosemite before arriving at the quiet Tuolumne Grove, home to about 20 giant sequoias. I counted about 15 standing and 2 fallen trees. They are astounding. Tall and broad beyond words.

Some brothers augered the tunnel in the 1870s to attract tourists - here we are!
Some brothers augered the tunnel in the 1870s to attract tourists – so here we are!

I hate to have to put it this way, but the two fallen giants actually helped me understand their hugeness. Standing beside a fallen giant sequoia, I come up to less than half its radius! I didn’t lie on the floor and do back flips so I don’t know how many me’s it takes to run the full height, but it’s safe to say that it’s extremely tall. It might have been over 10 storeys.

Awestruck, we started our return hike from the Tuolumne Grove. Before we even started the ascent, though, one of the most astonishing things that ever happened to me happened. I saw my junior college friends, Wan Pin and Ariel.

I stood there, feeling my eyes spring open and my jaw falling, when Wan Pin saw me and yelled, “NICK!”

It’s one of the most surreal experiences in my life so far. The world is kind of big, you know? To bump into someone you know well in a foreign land (none of us were living in the US) and in such an obscure part of one of a few hundred national parks in the US is an unthinkable coincidence. I never imagined this would be possible. It’s probably the same for them, I think. We skipped the imagination and headed straight for the implausible reality – we met in a small forest in a big forest in an enormous country tens of thousands of miles away from home.

Unfathomable awesomeness
Unfathomable awesomeness

I’ll leave it to you to imagine how it feels.

Leaving that behind took a while but I eventually came around and shook off the adrenaline, and we started our way north. Yellowstone National Park is our next stop but that’s over 900 miles away, a distance we can’t cover today and especially not by driving on the dark American highways. At night the highways are not lit and it can be extremely dangerous to drive unless you are practised in driving those roads. So we decided to push as far north as possible, and covered quite a lot of ground and arrived in the small town of Minden, Nevada.

Checking into Travel Inn at South Lake Tahoe
Checking into Travel Inn at South Lake Tahoe, California
How to Get Cheap Accommodations Without Prior Booking

We didn’t have any reservations for lodging, so I pulled over at one of the large open-air carparks that are so commonplace throughout the states and took to Google.

Tonight’s lodging arrangement was deliberate. Mei and I meant it to be an experiment. We wanted to know the best way to save money on accommodation and we thought it made sense that some hotels and inns would cut their nightly price as night time drew closer, since making some money is better than making none from vacant rooms.

For today, our hypothesis was right and the experiment paid off. We paid a grand total of USD $32.70 for the room that I’m writing this in. It’s very comfortable and has all the amenities that a normal traveller would need but because we booked it last minute, we snapped a great deal. The Indian guy at the front desk who I think owns and runs the inn told me that it’s off-season, so that must have had an impact too. $32.70 for a night’s stay in South Lake Tahoe surrounded by mountains, with a long stretch of cafes and restaurants within walking distance from us – it’s budget travel perfection.

It was dark by the time we got here, but I’m looking forward to seeing the lake under the early morning sun tomorrow!

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Taking a moment to stretch our legs and absorb the sublime sunset
People Moving Around

We’ve so far eaten at about six Chinese restaurants and Mei and I take turns to ask each other “Why?” Why did these people migrate to X part of the US, especially if they are far flung places like the passing towns hundreds of miles away from major cities?

I haven’t gotten a suitable answer to that. I’m not sure how they’d react if I asked. What if they regret their decision and me bringing it up is like pushing my thumb into an open wound? But I’m still curious. That means I’ll probably ask soon before our trip ends in 13 days.

Near the Chinese restaurant where we had linner (dinner and late lunch…?) today was a petrol station, so I drove over to refill the tank of my rented Hyundai Elantra.

South Lake Tahoe was recommended to us by the lady behind the counter. She looked like she was slightly over 40. Over a short chat I found out that she used to live in San Francisco where they have “real Chinese food” compared to here, and that she used to work in a startup that at some point filed for bankruptcy after owing money to multiple foreign investment firms. Suddenly she was out of a job and because she had a house out here (in the middle of nowhere), she packed up and relocated.

A woman over 40 years old, a failed startup and a house in the middle of nowhere. I wonder how many times something similar to this has played out for people all around the world…

(US) Chicago, San Francisco, Bakersfield and Oakhurst

Took a picture of this roadside wildflower with stunning colours
Took a picture of this roadside wildflower with stunning colours

Finally found the time to write my travelogue. I’m behind by three days now I think. I’ve been experiencing and seeing and thinking about so many things I hope I don’t miss too many out.

Throughout the trip I’ve been taking short notes on Wunderlist on my smartphone. When an idea comes up, either something I’d like explore more as an essay or a potential business idea, I’ll summarise it in a short sentence on Wunderlist to review later. When I write a post I’ll typically cross out five or six of these. So far that list is the longest it’s been since we started.

We’re in Los Angeles now. In fact, we’re in a posh Hilton Hotel near the LAX airport (where we’ll fly home from), even though we’re not guests here. Our only business with the hotel is our Hertz car rental. Not all car rental locations will offer the same rental rates, and I found this one to be the easiest on the wallet, so here we are.

Prior to this we’d taken the Bolt Bus from San Francisco’s Transbay Terminal to LA’s Union Station for $30 for two. Then we paid $16 for two to get from Union Station to LAX airport, and took the free shuttle bus to Hilton Hotel. We got the VIP treatment because the driver was clueless we’re just renting a car that happens to be in the hotel lobby.

The driver did something worth mentioning though. He gave me the tipper stare. And it worked. When he had so dutifully insisted to offload our bags for us and pulled an eye-to-eye, I couldn’t not give the man a tip. This was despite the rehearsal I had in my head telling myself “These other people who are tippin’ him are rich, staying in Hilton and all. I’ll let them tip. I’ll just pay with a smile.”

Alas, eye contact was too effective. Had I proceeded to take the bag without tipping, he’d feel embarrassed and I’d feel slightly guilty and I’d surely look bad. I don’t mind the last, but I hate the first two and will try to avoid them if it doesn’t cost me too much. So I tipped a dollar.

Once we were inside the luxury hotel, I wasted no time and headed straight to the Hertz desk to pick up my car. I was already an hour late. The car should be spick and span, ready to be driven from south to north and back.

But it wasn’t ready. “We don’t have a compact as you requested, sir. But we have a full-sized car, a Chevrolet 200, that you can use with no additional charge. Except for insurance. Instead of $11 per day, to use this car you’ll need to pay $17”, the manager told us in a seasoned way.

My face turned red in a mix of disappointment and frustration. I also felt like I was being unfairly treated.

“I don’t really care about a better car, but I care about having to pay extra $6 every day for something I don’t care about. I’m sorry to say this, but it’s not very fair to us”, I replied.

“I see what you mean. I think it’s a little unfair too. But the fact’s the fact. We don’t have a smaller car here.”

After explaining to him our previous experience with Hertz in the US being good (we’d gotten a free upgrade with no extra charge to a Chevrolet 200 convertible because of similar reasons), I think he finally realised that we weren’t soft boned first-timers in the car rental scene.

“Okay, I can call and check nearby Hertz outlets to see if they have a compact that they can transfer”, he conceded.

I tell this story because when it played back the first time in my head during our drive along the American highway, I realised how much I’d grown as a mature consumer.

Frequent travellers mature as consumers the earliest, I think, because being abroad puts you closer to your survival than cruising mode. That means you’re more alert to people who don’t care about you (since at the back of their minds they probably won’t ever see you again) and might be out to profit off you. Ultimately for me, travel has made me a much more savvy consumer and accelerated my growth in self-reliance in general. And what more are we but consumers most of the time throughout our short lives?

Our $33/day Hertz Elantra car parked near Yosemite National Park's south entrance
Our $33/day Hertz Elantra car parked near Yosemite National Park’s south entrance

So we got ourselves a Hyundai Elantra in the end. Renting with car companies is always an interesting experience because you never know what car you’re going to get exactly. I can’t say I’m disappointed this time. This white Elantra looks like as though it just slid out of the factory floor; it’s clean inside and outside and has only been driven 18,000 miles. I happily hopped in with Mei and pulled out of the driveway of Hilton Hotel like a play-pretend rich guy in a Ferrari.

In minutes we were on the great American highway. Even though this is the second time we’re driving in the US, the distance of the Interstate highways still remain unfathomable to my Singaporean mind. In fact the vastness of the United States is something I find difficult to wrap my head around even till this day. I like that.

Enroute to Bakersfield from Los Angeles where we’ll spend the night the ‘Car Pool Only’ lane caught my eye. It’s actually quite hard to miss, since it’s the leftmost lane meaning it’s the fastest lane. Somehow I’d forgotten all about it, this wondrous piece of social engineering.

A car pool lane here is meant only for cars with two or more people in the car. So drivers who are alone cannot access the lane to skip traffic and drive comfortably at 80 mph (132 km/h). What a brilliant invention! By reserving an entire lane on the highway for cars with two or more people, the state government is nudging people to car pool. They’re effectively saying “Hey, if you wanna get around faster, you can do it on this lane. We’ve reserved it just for you. All you need to do is bring a passenger or be one with your friend!”

I’m not sure of the numbers but I’m quite confident this has an impact on the number of car owners in the state of California. It boils down to two options:

  • Buy a car to use on your own (ie. single driver) most of the time -> drive in congestion-prone traffic
  • Buy a car only if I know my partner or someone from my family will ride with me most of the time -> drive more or less congestion-free

Since heavy traffic is the biggest pain in the anus for drivers, especially for those like me, I think this is a strong incentive. The sight of an empty express lane on a congested highway gets people thinking. It got me thinking for sure. I hope the Singapore government will seriously consider implementing this on our expressways eventually…

On the topic of driving still is another interesting fact: non-US drivers who drive on the opposite side at home can rent cars without here without paying any extra for insurance. Isn’t that odd?

With many firsthand experiences driving on the opposite side from what I’m used to, I can attest to the potential risks involved. It’s confusing. Throw in the differences in traffic rules—like San Francisco’s four-way junction no-rolling-stop rule—and car insurers should have a quandary in their hands. Strange as it seems though, they don’t. I’m not complaining though, since I’m not asked to pay more and besides, I’ve always sold myself as quite adept when it comes to driving.

* * *

Sometimes I think I digress way too much with these travelogue entries. Should stick to more documenting the journey and less philosophising on ideas as they come along. I think I’ll make use of the latter as fodder in future posts.

* * *

9:02pm, Tuesday 19 April 2016 in Yosemite Sierra Inn

First of all, I have to remark that this post is turning out to be a mega post. I’ve been slowed down by my sore throat and threatening body aches in the past two days and haven’t found the energy to write. But I conceit that’s just an excuse. Moving on.

We left Bakersfield today, which is a 3-hour drive away from Yosemite National Park’s south entrance. I pulled us over at a town just 10 minutes from the entrance called Oakhurst. We had a filling meal at Burger King for under $10 accompanied by two of their six or seven types of packet sauces. I think there’s only three in Singapore: chilli, ketchup and ranch. I have no difficulty imagining an American adult dipping everything in everything though.

We planned to do a 3-hour hike today in Mariposa Grove surrounded by giant redwood trees (also known as giant sequoias) but it seems we were out of luck – the National Park Service has shut it down for restoration work till 2017.

But saying we were unlucky wouldn’t be true. By some remarkable means, we’d visited Yosemite at just the right time. From 16 to 24 April 2016, entry to all national parks around the country is free! We saved $30 for a 7-day pass right there for being lucky.

National Parks Week is wonderful annual affair that encourages people to step into the closest thing to the wilderness. I love that they have an initiative like this. Collecting substantial fees that go into the preservation of the vast (and I mean gargantuan) national parks throughout the US for 358 days is enough. Seven days of free admission might just be the most democratic thing I’ve witnessed so far.

Driving through the windy and up-and-down single-lane roads in the ‘park’ is really enjoyable. It’s fun to go with the flow of the road which itself follows the mountain contours, and magical to be surrounded by untainted trees and herculean granite mountains. I absolutely loved driving in Yosemite.

Getting out and sitting on a huge slab of granite that must have fallen from the face of the mountains is also an experience not to be missed. Photos don’t do justice to the majesty of a place like Yosemite, but we try anyways. It’s just too beautiful to be left unrecorded. In these situations, a photo serves merely the function of eliciting the shape and form of memories; it’s dull and mostly unremarkable until you fill it in with your unique memories that colour and give it depth.

Spectacular rainbow mishmeshed with the waterfall at Tunnel View, Yosemite
Spectacular rainbow mishmeshed with the waterfall at Tunnel View, Yosemite

As I wound along the road of the Yosemite, I eventually caught up with the car in front. On the way in there were take-over lanes that periodically came up, but on the way down there were no such thing. And this car was going so slowly I almost fell asleep tailing him.

While I drove, displeased, behind the car in front, I realised that I was being silly. I knew I hated driving behind someone who drove slower than they should, especially when the road is supposed to be fun to drive on, yet I continued to tail this stranger with poor driving skills. In my mind I had the perfect solution to this problem: pullover to the side when the chance presents itself and wait half a minute before carrying on. That should put some distance between us and I’d redeem my joy ride.

But while the plan sounded perfectly logical and I knew it was going to work (at least I won’t be stuck behind that car), I didn’t put it to action until a lot later. Strange!

I think this happens in other areas of my life too. I’d think of a great way to solve a perplexing problem like how to get away from a social situation I disliked and I’d hesitate to make it happen and break free. In moments like these a hundred alternate reasons spring up that try to convince me not to do what ought to be done. My stupid human mind.

Merging back into the lane half a minute later, I regained every bit of enjoyment driving through Yosemite.

A Note About the Camera I’m Using

Days prior to this trip Mei and I decided it’d be a good idea to invest in another camera. My previous camera purchase was more than five years ago and is a DSLR. I brought that with us on our previous trip to the US in 2012 but found it cumbersome. Travelling abroad already comes with many things to worry about. I shouldn’t have to stress over whether to bring the camera with us on walks everyday.

After some research—okay, too much research—I decided to get the camera we’ve been using for this trip – the Fujifilm X100S (here’s a link to the X100T, the latest generation of the camera). I bought it second-hand from a Filipino guy for SGD $750 (original price over $1,100), and I really like it.

It’s very light compared to an entry-level DSLR. It’s also much smaller, about half the footprint. Despite its size, it packs a punch. Controls are very easy once you get used to them. Since I used a Canon 550D before using this, it was a breeze learning to set the shutter speed, ISO and aperture on the Fujifilm.

Without sounding like a reviewer I’m just going to say one last thing about the camera. It’s impeccably designed to encourage use. So light, small and fun to use. Neither of us regret investing in this camera.

Some Photos From the Journey
Snow! Ok, it felt more like a blizzard; luckily we were in the comfort of the California Zephyr train
Snow! Ok, it felt more like a blizzard; luckily we were in the comfort of the California Zephyr train
Member of the Amtrak staff who I saw throughout the two-day cross country ride
Member of the Amtrak staff who I saw throughout the two-day cross country ride
The splendid Observation Deck onboard the California Zephyr
The splendid Observation Deck onboard the California Zephyr where all the socialising happens

(US) Crossing States of Being

(Guacamole) man of the hour at Qdoba Mexican restaurant in Boston
(Guacamole) man of the hour at Qdoba Mexican restaurant in Boston

For today’s travelogue post I’m going to try something different from what I’ve done so far and write about one (maybe two) thoughts inspired by events on the road at some length instead of just recounting them.

As I write this we’re in the bus on the way back to New York from Boston. We leave Dai Nan behind, our good friend who’s put us up (and put up with us) for the past 3 nights in his graduate residence room. In a month’s time he’ll have to make a decision on leaving or staying in Boston. Everyone’s going to move at our age, it’s one big adventure.

A couple of interesting things I’ve learned about America these few days:

  • “You all set?” means “Are you done with that? Can I clear the mess on your table?” It does not mean “Do you want to order more food?” Think the wrong thing (like I did) and you’ll have someone clear your remaining delicious mess in front of your eyes.
  • AT&T offers a no-obligation prepaid SIM card with 2GB data and unlimited talk for a month for $47. The surprising fine print? After the 2GB you still get data, just slower. We’re counting on it to power our road trip GPS!
  • Wanderu is a bus service aggregator that works very well. I’ve gotten tickets to and from New York City and Boston and from NYC to Chicago (yes, we’re going by bus) at great prices. $30 from Boston to NYC. $16 from NYC to Boston. <$200 from NYC to Chicago. All prices for 2 tickets! That’s affordable travel. Cool fact: Wanderu was advertising on public buses in Boston when we were there. I hope they stay in business! (EDIT: Someone from Wanderu actually wrote me after he’d read this post. If they keep this up I’m confident they’ll still be in business the next time we come to the states!)

* * *

Enroute to Chicago via NY, there's Wi-fi on Bolt buses!
Enroute to Chicago via NY, there’s Wi-fi on Bolt buses!
Shuffling From State to State (of Being)

It must have been close to 8pm when our food finally arrived. Today’s our last night in Boston and our host, who’s also our good friend from secondary school, thought it’d be a great idea to eat at the famous Barking Crabs restaurant as sort of a welcome-and-farewell dinner. I thought it a swell idea too but didn’t want him to pay, so we tussled back and forth for a while before finally deciding on who’s paying.

Between scanning the simple menu at Barking Crabs and deciding how many clam chowders to have, I realised that we were struggling to decide what to eat because some items on the menu were expensive. We’d look at an item and check the prices to see if it falls in our acceptable range before deciding whether to get it or move on to something more affordable.

We’re in a highly rated restaurant so there’s no worry at all that we’d be paying good money for bad food. It’s good money, good food in here, that much we were sure about. But we still had trouble ordering food, especially for Mei and I because our arrangement was that Dai Nan (our friend host) would pick up the bill for food and we’d pay for drinks. Seafood remains more expensive than hops even in Boston.

Boston Barking Crab restaurant has amazing lobsters and seriously the perfect white beer
Boston Barking Crab restaurant has amazing lobsters and seriously the perfect white beer
DSCF7693_edited
Inside Barking Crab, overseeing the harbour and Boston skyline

At times I’d come dangerously close to getting a jolt down my spine when I catch the word ‘market’ in the corner of my eye. Market is short for ‘market price’, which could pretty much be substitution for ‘more expensive than you’d think to pay’. Those are the ones that truly scare the likes of me off. Market price? I’ll order it when I have money.

And that’s the thing I realised: we’re still young! This wouldn’t sound like a surprise to anyone except me, I guess, since we’re still only in our mid–20s, but it does surprise me because I’ve been feeling old lately. It’s become a thing for Mei and I to say to each other “Oh man, we’re old”, although I think we’re mostly joking.

Not only do I think we’re quite old (particularly when we saw the undergraduates during our tour of Harvard University and noticed just how youthful they are), I’ve been having a tougher time finding areas in my life that I feel young and inexperienced in, except in the arena of work. The daily routines in other aspects have settled into more or less a steady rhythm. Very few lines remain uncrossed.

Believe it or not, what I’m saying is that not being able to tell the waiter “I’ll have this lobster platter” without batting an eyelid makes me feel young. I feel great! And now I have a new state of being to look forward to, like I did two or three years earlier with adulthood. You’d know what I’m talking about if you’ve recently crossed over too – you know, when you notice that you’re being spoken to as an equal when talking to other adults.

What’s really important here for me is to remember that with time, we all cross these lines naturally. The way then to savour it is not with nonchalance but with awareness. So even if it might be inevitable (at the rate I’m going) to be able to occasionally walk into a seafood restaurant and order something expensive without worrying the bank will claim my collateral, it’s best to learn to feel the youthfulness while it lasts – even if it means having one less market-priced just-caught fresh lobster at dinners. I’ll just have the fish and chips, please.

New York to California in 4 Days
We're ready for our hands-free part of the trip from NY to Emeryville, California!
We’re ready for our hands-free part of the trip from NY to Emeryville, California!

In other news, we’re on the way to Chicago now. We’ll leave New York for Chicago in half an hour from now by bus (Megabus). It’s an 18 hour journey. Once we’re there, we have 5 hours before boarding the California Zephyr Amtrak train that stops in Emeryville, California. The plan is to take a connecting bus from Emeryville to San Francisco which takes half an hour, and we should be able to walk to the Youth Hostel and crash in our bed.

I’m looking forward to everything along the way.

* * *

Currently reading On the Road by Jack Kerouac. Recently watched Automata (2014) by Gabe Ibáñez, Begin Again (2013) by John Carney and Ex Machina (2015) by Alex Garland.

(US) Sounds of The City – NYC to Boston

It’s Tuesday now, which means I missed two days of writing and posting, so I’m going to make up for it now in subsections.

We spent Sunday doing precisely nothing outdoors, except running to catch our long-distance bus to Boston from Manhattan because it was rainy in a particularly cold spring day. For all of humanity’s technological progress since our cavemen days, we continue to be contingent on good weather. It’s quite ironic. And for all our growth as individuals, we continue somehow to have to run after buses. Weird.

Thanks to Mei’s quick thinking, we flagged a taxi and got to the Bolt Bus just a minute before departure, and arrived at the Boston South Station at 10:45pm. With an empty stomach we approached the McDonald’s and got ourselves $10 worth of carbs and downed them desperately hoping it’d help generate some heat in our bodies. Out here in Boston at this time of the year with visiting snowstorms, body heat has become the currency we’re most concerned with.

Our friend Dai Nan came to receive us at South Station. I have to admit, it’s amazing to be picked up by a familiar face when you’re this far away from home.

He’s in Boston University doing his masters in education and offered to put us up for the three days we’ll be staying here, for free, in his college dorm. (Thanks Dai Nan!) I predict we’ll deplete some of his food stashes while we’re here since its so freaking cold outside.

Harvard Yard
Harvard Yard
A Walk Through Harvard University

We got up at 9am yesterday morning to prepare for our Free Tour By Foot in the famous intellectual powerhouse that is Harvard University. Next door MIT comes close but Harvard’s name has a real shine to it in our eyes, probably from fantastic marketing, so we signed up for that.

Truth be told, the tour wasn’t too interesting. Our guide David was a knowledgeable local Bostonian (Bostonite?) and a great storyteller, so it wasn’t his fault. One thing that kept coming up was interesting though, and that’s Harvard’s unabashed elitism, both from the establishment as well as parts of the student body.

This isn’t too surprising, but it’s interesting to observe up close how this plays out. People in Harvard are top notched intellectuals and most of them are also good all-rounders. They’re good. David (our guude) tells us that it’s home to 47 Nobel laureates who are teaching staff here. That can’t be right… can it? Notable alumni include 6 or 7 US presidents, including the current one. Barack Obama graduated from Harvard Law.

Ok, so they’ve proven themselves to be good – great, even. But their elitist mentality still bugs me.

Originally, I wrote three full paragraphs on why I think elitism can be problematic for society but I think they’re not yet polished thoughts and I probably wouldn’t be able to defend them, so I’ll hold back from posting them here for now.

But I’ll state two facts I learned on the tour:

  • More than a handful of Harvard’s yearly intake of students consist of those whose parents also went to Harvard.
  • Apparently there are about 12 invitation-only clubs that against the wishes of the administration, and these clubs have millions of dollars in assets.
Dim sum in Boston
Dim sum in Boston Chinatown
Tipping: The Most Unbearable Thing In American Culture

Well I think it’s best to state here upfront: perhaps it’s just me. But I have a feeling it’s not, and the tipping culture here is something I believe many non-Americans berate. A quick lowdown on what’s to hate about the ‘tipping’ culture:

  • It’s ‘tipping’, not tipping, because you are expected to pay it. That’s not tipping, my dear American friends, that’s soliciting! I wonder how long it’ll take the US government to take things into their hands and institute a proper service charge to help service-related businesses and end this nonsense.
  • It’s actually kind of rude to call it a ‘tip’ when really what you mean is ‘mandatory service charge’. To me, this exposes an ugly truth – that most people are serving you with a false smile just to get your money (just try not tipping and you’ll see that this is true).
  • Expected tipping is socially dreadful, because you’re always being judged of your ‘generosity’ after every meal is just unpleasant. Recently after a meal in a Chinese dim sum restaurant in Boston, I’d forgotten to tip and was called out in front of everyone, “Hey, you haven’t paid your tip ah!” I didn’t know whether to laugh or hide in embarrassment seeing that it was an elderly Chinese lady who said that to me in a Chinese restaurant (only in America, truly).
  • This way of collecting gratuity is cumbersome (read: inefficient) because it splits service charge collection (let’s call a spade a spade) into two parts unnecessarily. Just collect them both instead of waiting for the tip!

These are my top reasons for hating the American tipping culture. And no, I frankly can’t find anything to like about it.

/end rant

On a laundry run with our Airbnb host, Ariell, in Brooklyn
On a laundry run with our Airbnb host, Ariell, in Brooklyn
Sounds of New York City

On our final subway ride in NYC on this trip, I decided on a whim to record the sounds. Initially it was for posterity, but very quickly I’d realised that this might make for good travelogue-ing material, so I’m posting it here.

What riding a New York subway train sounds like:

Boston ‘T’ train (their subway):

Interesting Sights in Boston:
boston police harleys
Boston Policemen have badass rides
squirrels in boston common
Shameless American squirrels
squirrel in a bin
A squirrel’s gotta do what a squirrel’s gotta do (to eat)
swan lake boston public garden
Swan Lake in Boston’s Public Garden, established in 1873
swan lake
Contemplating in Boston Public Garden
spring flowers in boston
Signs of Spring in zero degree celsius
boston common
Boston Common, established in 1634 – that’s 140 years before US independence!
Downtown crossing
The happening Downtown Crossing in downtown Boston
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Near Chinatown – looks straight out of a romance movie scene

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(US) The Gem of Dumbo and Faraway Friends

manhattan skyline

It’s four days into our trip to the US and I think we’ve settled into a groove. We’d get up unhurried, wash and prepare for the day at a pace similar to when we’re back home. After carefully considering our options we’d calmly pick two out of the list of over ten possible things to do instead of trying to do five in the day.

That’s a good sign. Internal stability on a trip like this is something I consider very important – how else can we reflect deeply and truthfully, unhindered by vagaries? That’s the point of travelling to me–to think and reflect and learn things about people and places–so I always hope I’ll get to that state as soon as possible (sometimes it’s not possible, especially for short getaway-type vacations). Glad I’m able to notice it today.

The dog has entered Barnes and Noble - this should be a problem, except it isn't and shouldn't!
The dog has entered Barnes and Noble – this should be a problem, except it isn’t and shouldn’t!

Interesting things that happened today:

  • We saw someone bring their dog into the Barnes and Noble bookstore we were in. I was browsing an article of Emma Watson and Tom Hanks discussing gender equality when I noticed a black furry thing in the corner of my eye.
  • We discovered the Dumbo district in Brooklyn, which happened to be the perfect place to see the Manhattan skyline and the iconic Brooklyn Bridge. This marks the first gem we’ve discovered on this trip – I’m hoping we’ll find a few more great ways to experience a place in a relaxed manner without being squashed by tourists!
  • We had dinner with two lovely people—Keng and Sherry—who were our former Airbnb guests and now friends at Dumbo in an upscale “Michelin-recommended” French restaurant called Atrium.

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Over dinner at the Atrium restaurant

Can I sit on your lap while you’re pooping? I think that was the title of the book I was reading when someone tapped me on the shoulder and said “You should definitely read that, it’s a great book!”

After recovering from a mixed moment of surprise, shock and awkwardness I greeted Keng with a firm handshake and a look that I’m sure said “How have you been?” We proceeded to some chi-chi restaurant with waiters who are extremely well-versed with everything on their menu. Not my kind of place, but it’ll do as a place to catch up with friends in.

Our friends who were our former Airbnb guests in Singapore have been living in New York City for a couple of months now, both working at the same startup in Brooklyn. One is a developer, the other is a business person, or if you have to, a hustler.

Eating charred broccoli with them in a small restaurant in NYC was oddly fun and familiar, and us four sitting at a table together reminded me of the nights that they spent with us in our home in August last year. Sherry is the business person with an explosive personality and Keng is the developer with a serious penchant for open-source software and artificial intelligence.

Said charred broccoli - I'm sure this wasn't part of the plan. Right?
Said charred broccoli – I’m sure this wasn’t part of the plan. Right?

Now the thing is, with only less than two weeks of intermittent interaction back in Singapore in our apartment, our friendship shouldn’t be robust enough for us to want to meet up in a faraway land (they’re not from NYC either). But we did. It was a pleasant surprise hearing from one of them asking to meet when they’d seen some update on social media about us being in town. It’s always a nice surprise to learn of a friendship that you weren’t sure existed.

While the food and setting had too much of a high-end faux sophisticated vibe to it, I thoroughly enjoyed their company. I’ve always loved being in the company of friends in unfamiliar places. The different social context thwarts all established practices and everybody comes to the table with fresh and open minds.

It’s the perfect recipe for a memorable and eventful night, and a much better way of spending it than eating takeout from the Chinese restaurant one block down from your Airbnb apartment.

Other photos in the roll:

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Beautiful brownstone houses, just like the kind in the movies where the girl kisses the guy by the porch

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(all photos in this post were uploaded direct from my camera – I’m too tired this evening to do post-processing.)

(US) A Little Broadway

Every train has a thunderous arrival in NYC
Every train has a thunderous arrival in NYC

A train in New York City’s subway first sputters before growing into a series of clanging as the old train grates the tracks that are more than a century old.

Yesterday I wrote that I found some New Yorkers to be a loud and uninhibited when talking in public, and that I quite like it. Now I’m certain that the subway and its thunderous metal gnashing has something to do with it. Perhaps the same way the modern—and come on, let’s admit it, virtually silent—trains have imprinted on Singaporeans to be more reserved in our mannerism.

Case in point: I’m someone who gets easily nauseated on moving vehicles and I don’t get light-headed while reading on a train in Singapore; there’s no doubt that I do in New York. Ask the person who sat next to me today.

Times Square and a little weirdness from that naked Cowboy Oysters guy
Times Square and a little weirdness from that naked Cowboy Oysters guy
Broadway

Every trip to New York has to be accompanied with patronage of a Broadway play or musical, right? I thought so, but neither of us felt an urge to catch one so we waited for chance to creep up on us like it did in Times Square.

Sitting at one of the red tables in the renown Times Square—popularised the world throughout by film makers everywhere (the latest movie I remember with a scene there is The Martian, when Mark Watney played by Matt Damon is on the cusp of forced ejection out of Mars on a emergency launch module with a tarp-lined nose)—Mei and I talked about London v. NYC, the crazy guy from Cowboy Oysters playing a guitar in his underwear in near zero degrees weather and the scented candle store behind us that Mei had heard Asian American Youtube celebrities promoting for months before we’d gotten here.

That’s a memory I think I’ll have for a long time to come.

After flattening our butts on the metal-grill chairs in the middle of Times Square on 260 Broadway, we were on our way to explore the area a little more before heading home to Brooklyn when we chanced upon a giant white capsule with four letters “tkts” emblazoned on the side. It looked so peculiar we had to find out more, so we approached the digital board beside the capsule.

It’s a list of Broadway shows, some at 50% off!

tkts I suppose means tickets
tkts I suppose means tickets

Tkts is apparently an initiative by the Theatre Development Fund, which I imagine is a non-governmental organisation, maybe even a non-profit with the self-understood aim of developing theatre in New York City. Even though Broadway is Broadway, there has to be unsold tickets, which I suppose could be let off cheap?

We queued in a line that snaked by one side the capsule, and there must have been at least 50 other people in front of us. A few theatre-talking people were scattered throughout the line offering unsolicited advice about which plays and musicals to watch because of which famous director who won how many Tony Awards – we just smiled at them (no words) because we didn’t want to appear ignorant.

“Hi, we’re thinking of getting two tickets to Matilda. How much would that be?”

“Ah ok, two tickets to Matilda. The 50% discount applies to the best seats in the theatre. Let’s see… Okay, two tickets at 50% off will be $160.”

I looked at Mei and she looked back at me and we knew we weren’t going to watch a Broadway show. Not on this trip.

You see, we’re on a budget trip. We have to control how money flows out of our wallets, because we don’t have that much. And even though catching a Broadway act is quintessential to a New York experience, we had first to be quintessential penny-pinchers, otherwise we wouldn’t be able to travel to more places.

I did try thinking of hacks to catch an act cheap, but we’ve only got one day left and it felt like too much of a hassle, so I just dropped the idea. At least I’ve watched Les Miserables and Billy Elliot and School of Rock in London’s West End. I’ll just equate them one for one.

We’ll return a few years from now and if there’s little reason to pinch pennies then, we’ll catch a couple.

A guy whose shoes must be shined... Wall Street!
A guy whose shoes must be shined… Wall Street!
The NYSE
The NYSE

wall street chef

Some other things I thought about:

  • The library is one of my favourite places in the world. It has a clear higher purpose and manifests as a peaceful environment. I love libraries!
  • Amish people in their black coats, velvety top hats and long sideburns look a lot like magicians to me.
  • I’m definitely visiting NYC this time as an outsider, a tourist, and I’m not seeing it for what it is. That must be the reason I feel done with the city in just 3 days. (I didn’t feel that way in San Francisco or London).

Some other photos:

chrysler building
The Chrysler Building – I think this looks better than the Empire State
Grand Central Terminal, a herculean beauty
Grand Central Terminal, a herculean beauty
police NYPD NYC
Police raiding a car in Broadway. I bet brutality is on everyone’s mind as they watched
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In the New York Public Library
subway ride NYC
Typical of a subway ride in NYC – everyone’s tired

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(US) Manhattan And A Desire To Belong In NYU

Few flowers have bloomed even though it's Spring time
Few flowers have bloomed even though it’s Spring time, but these ones are doing well

Oh, what a day it’s been in Manhattan.

Actually, it’s kind of been one and a half days. We were so beat at 5pm when we got back to the apartment, we’d slept till this morning, waking with a throbbing head while nursing ourselves with blackberries and grape tomatoes.

Continue reading “(US) Manhattan And A Desire To Belong In NYU”