San Antonio: The Alamo City

One of the definite perks at work is that I have the chance to travel. Last week, I had another conference to attend. This time, in San Antonio. It was my first time in Texas and so I was actually quite looking forward to the trip since I’ve heard so much about Texas but never had a real reason to visit.

The first thing that was apparent to me was that it was hot. When I left Toronto it was like 6 degrees outside and when I got to San Antonio it was like, 35. I was sweating like crazy on the first day when I was walking around outside.

I guess that’s expected though considering how it’s literally Texas and quite a bit further south than Toronto is.

A Texan sunset.

Texas has a slogan “six flags over Texas” which represents the six countries that had sovereignty over the state throughout history: Spain, France, Mexico, the Republic of Texas, Confederate America, and modern America. San Antonio is a really interesting city because it really embodies this evolution. It’s a city that mixes all of these cultural and historical elements into one neat package.

I never really considered Texas of all places to be multicultural, but I was proven pretty wrong pretty fast on my trip there.

One obvious example of Texan history and culture would be the Alamo, a church turned into a siege area during the Texas Revolution. Honestly, it wasn’t very visually interesting but the Alamo is a very important Texan symbol and it’s smack dab in the middle of San Antonio. It seems like the city is pretty proud of that piece of history and when you learn about it, you can understand why.

The Texas combo, the Alamo and a sheriff.

It’s a pretty classic story of the underdog prevailing against a stronger opponent through pure determination and force of will. Modern day America is definitely a powerhouse country today, but it wasn’t always this way and things like this are a pretty good reminder of its history and origins.

This is further expanded upon if you go visit the other Missions in San Antonio. In total there’s five churches-turned-communities scattered around the area which showcases how San Antonio came to be. Once you start going through the history a bit, you realize that Texas and Mexico have a pretty deep and intertwined relationship.

Even though the Texans beat the Mexicans during the Texas Revolution to gain their independence, it’s interesting that San Antonio really feels like Mexico. Now, I’ve never been to Mexico before, but from what I’ve seen and heard, San Antonio looks and feels pretty much like what I’d imagine Mexico to be like.

The Historic Market Square, featuring a ton of Mexican shops and restaurants.

There’s a lot of Mexican influences in the city. When you’re walking around the streets you hear a lot of Spanish and all of the more cultural or historical buildings have a very Mexican style to them too. Considering how it’s also fairly close to the Mexican border, San Antonio has a really different feel to it as compared to any other American city I’ve been to.

The unique atmosphere also extends to the other parts of the city too. For example, one of the most famous landmarks in San Antonio is the Riverwalk, which is an (artificial?) river system running through the middle of the city. It’s below ground level and so you’re just in this like, path that has a ton of restaurants and bars flanking it.

Some restaurants by the Riverwalk.

The feel there was really nice both during the day and at night. There was always a lot of people there so it felt really lively and the combination of the water, plants, and decorations was pretty beautiful as well. Overall, it’s definitely a tourist trap, but it’s totally worth checking it out and just enjoying the walk.

Speaking of walking, San Antonio is surprisingly walkable which is nice because they don’t have a subway system so there’s limited options to get around. For the most part I just walked everywhere and that was enough to get around downtown. One interesting thing I’ve noticed is that there’s a lot of motorized scooters in the city.

And by that, I don’t mean the electric scooters like the ones you seen in Asia a lot (cough Taipei cough). I mean legit scooters that just have motors on them. Apparently it’s a fairly recent trend where instead of renting out bikes, you can rent out a scooter. You just scan the code on your phone and it unlocks, allowing you to take it for a ride. Then, when you’re done you just leave it somewhere.

True American freedom, untethered scooters.

That was kinda interesting since it just meant that all around the downtown core you saw these scooters strewn around the city. One of the Uber drivers I talked to had a pretty strong opinion about them, and I could see where the complaints are coming from, but it’s an interesting idea.

When you’re out and about walking around, it’s likely that you’ll also come across the San Fernando Cathedral. During the day it’s a pretty plain cathedral and looks as standard as they come, but come nighttime they put on this pretty cool light show which I can totally recommend.

San Fernando Cathedral lit up with some projection mapping.

They use two projectors to turn the cathedral into an animated display of the history of San Antonio. It’s a 30 minute show and actually really worth watching. I walked by it twice and both times there was a decent sized crowd watching it. It’s also kinda funny because the projectors are run by a Windows computer so one time I walked by and it was booting up and you could see the Windows boot screens.

Considering the amount of Mexican influence in the city, it also meant that San Antonio has a ton of Mexican food. And of course, they’re all legit. I ate so much Mexican food in the five days I was there and it was all delicious. I keep thinking back to the chicken and beef fajita I got in the traditional Mexican market there and man, that was so good it was almost unbelievable.

Probably the best Mexican meal I’ve ever had.

Aside from Mexican food, you’re in Texas and so Texan barbecue is definitely something I wanted to try out. That was also really good so it honestly felt like during my entire trip I was just eating meat or Mexican. Not the most balanced diet but it was delicious. I was actually really pleasantly surprised by San Antonio partially because of the abundance of such good food. One part of me wasn’t very surprised since it kinda makes sense if you think about it, but I certainly wasn’t really expecting it.

Overall, I had a really good time in San Antonio. Not only did the conference I attended go well, but the city itself was also pretty fantastic. A decent amount to see and the food was great, what’s more to ask for from a work trip? The Mexican influences to the city has really sparked an itch for me to go check out Latin America though. It’s not super super far and now I really want to go haha.

Vancouver: The City of Glass and Nature

So despite being from Canada, I’ve actually yet to write any posts about any Canadian cities.

This is going to change right now.

Last week, I had the chance to visit Vancouver for work. I had to provide on-site support for another project and so I got flown to the other side of the country to do that.

The Rocky Mountains are quite rocky.

I have some family in Vancouver and so I’ve been there before, but as with any other place I’ve visited due to family, it means that I actually didn’t have that much time to check out the city too much since I was always just hanging out with family or doing other things. So, this would’ve been my first “real” trip to Vancouver where I would have a bit of time to go check out whatever and do some sightseeing.

Coming from Toronto, the first thing you notice about the city when you arrive is how beautiful it is. Toronto has a problem where the city is relatively grey. There’s a lot of skyscrapers and condos, but a lot of them are somewhat old, made of concrete and clustered way too close together so they don’t look super nice. I love Toronto, but Vancouver is definitely a much more aesthetically pleasing city.

Nature vs City.

This is due to the fact that Vancouver has more newer buildings it seems, so there’s a lot more glass and metal over concrete. Plus, Vancouver is in a part of Canada that has both the ocean and mountains, and so you end up with a city with a nice mix of artificial and natural elements.

I love the ocean and so I might be a bit biased here, but I really like just hanging out by the water and chilling. Unfortunately, Vancouver is still a part of Canada so you can’t just grab a beer and chill by the water like in Hong Kong or Korea or something, but it’s still really nice to just hang out.

One really nice part of Vancouver is Stanley Park, a giant park just outside the downtown core. I rented a bike after the conference one day and just biked all around the park and it was absolutely breathtaking. You got a lot of nice views of the Vancouver skyline and got to check out a lot of cool natural sites too. Definitely worth checking out, especially if you can bike cause the bike trail isn’t difficult and is quite nice.

The Siwash Rock in Stanley Park.

Speaking of biking, Vancouver is also surprisingly great for it. I pretty much never bike in Toronto because I enjoy life and prefer being alive. But in Vancouver, the infrastructure for biking is wonderful. There’s dedicated bike lanes and paths and feels super safe to just bike around the city and check things out.

Sightseeing by bike is pretty wonderful too. You can cover lot more ground on a bike and especially after standing around at a conference center for nine hours a day, it’s nice to use different muscles in your legs. Also, when you’re biking, you can also go to random places that wouldn’t normally be worth it to walk or bus to. For example, there’s a park called Dude Chilling Park in the middle of nowhere in the city. It was within biking range and I had to go check it out for the memes.

A bunch of dudes chilling and a garbage can.

Totally worth it. The park itself was pretty dull and unexciting, but it was literally free to bike there and so it was worth it to just take a few pictures in front of the sign. Plus, when you bike to a place, not only do you obviously get to that destination, but you also have a chance to just pass by other cool interesting things along the way. If you feel so inclined, you can just park your bike somewhere and check it out.

That’s how I ended up at False Creek, a small inlet in the middle of the city which I had no plans of visiting, but when I passed by it, I was blown away by how cool it looked. It was a really nice place to just sit and watch the sunset after a really long and tiring day.

Damn, that was a cool spot.

My favourite picture of my trip to Vancouver.

Outside of checking out the natural sights, I also had a chance to visit a few more cultural areas like Granville Island. From there, you have another pretty great shot of the city and ocean, but they also have this public market which sells a bunch of fresh produce and is a pretty good place to grab lunch or breakfast or something, but overall not very exciting.

Another place I went to check out was Gastown, the original settlement for the city. Since it’s one of the oldest areas in the city, it was specifically preserved in an older architectural style and has some neat restaurants and shops. Unfortunately though, it’s pretty touristy so you’re just walking down the streets with a bunch of people waving their cameras around. But still, kinda reminds me of Main Street Unionville and still worth checking out.

The steam clock in Gastown.

Outside of sightseeing, Vancouver is still a major city in Canada, meaning that the immigrant culture is very real and you can get a lot of amazing food in the city. Specifically, Vancouver is known for their Japanese food. Honestly, outside of Japan, it’s hard to find a place that has better Japanese food than Vancouver.

Due to its proximity with the Pacific Ocean, Vancouver has a ton of Japanese immigrants who decided to open up restaurants. And considering how it’s literally the same ocean, you end up with people who know exactly what to do with the fresh seafood available to them. The sushi and stuff in Vancouver is pretty awesome and I would definitely recommend.

In addition to traditional Japanese food, Vancouver also has some cool fusion cuisine too. Probably one of the most famous of these are Japadogs, which are essentially hot dogs made with Japanese ingredients and toppings. I’m always down to try interesting things like that and it was actually pretty decent. Definitely a pretty cool twist on your traditional hot dog.

Japadog with Kobe beef, teriyaki sauce, Japanese mayo, seaweed, and fried onions.

So in this blog post, I’ve already compared Vancouver with Toronto a couple of times. One of my favourite things about Canada is that we’re a country of immigrants and despite being an extremely large country, our major cities are similar in the fact that we’re united despite the diversity. Everywhere you go, you see people from all over as both tourists and residents. You walk down the street and hear people talking in a multitude of languages. To me, this is what Canada is all about.

But obviously, considering the geographic distance and differences, there are some differences in the people. For example, I already mentioned how there’s a lot more Japanese people in Vancouver. But even the way the general population looks is a bit different too since it seems like they tend to dress more casually, so you see less suits and more people in bike or athletic wear.

You also smell more weed in the air and see more homeless people in the streets.

Overall, Vancouver just seems like a much more chill place than Toronto (explains the Dude Chilling Park). But at the same time I still felt like I was in Canada and never felt out of place. It’s very far from my home, but it still felt like home, if you get what I mean. I definitely wouldn’t be adverse to spending a longer amount of time in Vancouver and would love to go back another time.

Chicago: The Architecture City

So one of the perks of my job is that I’ll occasionally have the chance to go on business trips and do on-site support for my projects. I had my first opportunity to do so about a week and a half ago and had a chance to check out ASCO 2018, an annual conference about oncology, in Chicago.

I may write another blog post about ASCO some other time, but this post is going to focus on Chicago.

The main concourse for ASCO in McCormick Place.

Prior to this trip, I wasn’t actually sure if I’ve ever been to Chicago. I know I’ve been to the airport many times because of layovers, but I don’t actually remember leaving the airport. If I did, then I was probably so young I don’t remember it.

Since the primary purpose of the trip was to be at the conference, I didn’t actually have a lot of time to check out the city, but I tried to make the most of it every night after the conference. Luckily, my hotel was right in downtown Chicago right next to Millennium Park, meaning that I wasn’t very far from all of the major sights.

Coming off of another trip to America, Philadelphia, I was pleasantly surprised by how different Chicago was. If Philadelphia was Ottawa, then Chicago would be Toronto. Chicago just has that.. dominant and imposing feeling that Philadelphia was missing.

The view of Eastern Chicago from Willis Tower.

It’s hard to explain, but if you’ve been to enough large cities, you kinda know what I mean. Philadelphia is by no means a small city, but Chicago just feels different. It has more skyscrapers, a more visually dramatic style, and just seems busier.

One of the highlights of the trip was definitely the architecture boat tour I took with some of my coworkers. I didn’t know much about Chicago before and so it was kinda impressive to go to the river and just see a huge assortment of tall skyscrapers, all with different architectural styles.

Two hotels, different styles.

It kinda made sense though given the history of the city. It was, and still is, one of America’s biggest cities and it burned down in the Chicago Fire, giving the city a chance to rebuild itself any way it wanted. And apparently the way it wanted to be rebuilt was with a bunch of skyscrapers and nice parks.

Not a bad way to do it really.

Now, I’m no stranger to skyscrapers. Cities like Hong Kong and Dubai have plenty of amazing ones. But, the interesting thing about Chicago is that it has a similar feel to Dubai since it has a bunch of unique and impressive looking buildings. But unlike Dubai, it has had a bit more time to mature and grow and so the rest of the city had a chance to develop as well.

In that regard, it’s similar to Hong Kong just due to the density of tall buildings. Of course, Hong Kong is still both denser and taller, but Chicago brings this North American flair to it which is pretty neat.

Willis Tower from the Chicago River.

Overall, I enjoyed the boat tour a lot. It’s nice to learn about the history of the city and to obtain some insight into the context of the development of these buildings. I’m pretty interested in stuff like that so it was definitely worth it for me.

Aside from skyscrapers, Chicago is also well known for their parks. They essentially just have a giant chunk of land by the lake that are just parks and it’s a pretty nice hangout spot. One of these parks is Millennium Park, which is famous for having the Cloud Gate. I’ve seen many pictures of it and well, it’s pretty much exactly the same as the pictures you’ve seen. It’s interesting and different, especially when you see a cool reflection, but it’s not super super special in my opinion.

The Cloud Gate at night reflecting a bunch of buildings.

They had this other fountain nearby that was a bit more interesting since they were essentially two rectangular blocks that looked like mini skyscrapers that spit out water. They were illuminated and displayed a projection of some person’s face, which was super weird and too artsy for me. That said, I’m always a fan of seeing unique things, and that’s definitely something I’ve never seen before.

In generally, I really liked just walking around the parks and checking them out. It was a pretty relaxing area but it still had a good density of interesting things to check out and see and so it was nice to explore. I even rented a bike on the first day and just rode around the parks and along the lake. It was a pretty chilly and windy day (Windy City right?) but it was also really awesome to just bike around.

For one, I just kinda missed riding a bike. I rode a lot in Korea and haven’t had a chance to do so since coming back to Canada so it was nice to just be biking again. Plus, it was especially cool cause you really can cover a lot more ground on a bike so you can go to places that are a bit more out of the way. One of the favourite places I went to was this beach on Northerly Island. It was a pretty small beach, but it was quiet and all you could hear was the waves crashing along the shore and it was just so nice.

A small beach with big waves.

Aside from its sights, Chicago is also famous for some of their food, namely their pizza. I had a chance to go try some proper deep dish pizza during my short stay there, and it was pretty good. It honestly looked more like a cake than a pizza, but it was still made of pizza ingredients and so it tasted wonderful. I don’t know if I could eat it often, but I’m very glad I tried it and would probably get it again if I go back to Chicago.

Chicago is also well known for their popcorn mix as well. I bought some at the airport on the way back home and it was actually pretty nice. The cheesy parts were super cheesy and the sweet parts had this nice caramel flavour to it. Pretty legit stuff.

Based on the meals I had in Chicago I can definitely see the appeal of just eating.. this type of food all the time. Can’t be healthy but damn does it taste good.

Deep dish pizza from Giordano’s.

So in conclusion, I really liked Chicago. It reminded me a lot of Toronto, which is a good thing. I love big cities, especially ones that have had some time to mature and carve out its own personality. Those are the most exciting because it’s interesting to just walk around and explore the city and figure out how it’s managed to differentiate itself from the thousands of other cities around the world.

I don’t know if I’d make a deliberate trip to Chicago anytime soon, but I know I wouldn’t be upset if I got sent there again on another business trip.