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.

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┬áthe 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.

Philadelphia: The Birthplace of America

So over the weekend I had a chance to go visit Philadelphia, my first actual trip to America in a long time. I’ve been to America a bunch of times, but recently the trips have mostly been simple day trip border crossings to go check out a Trader Joe’s or something so this was a unique trip in the sense that it was an actual trip.

Which is also neat too, since as far as I can remember, I think this was the first time I’ve actually flown into America as an actual destination. Every other time I’ve flown there before was for a layover or something so those don’t really count.

The main purpose of the trip was to attend my cousin’s wedding. But since it was a long weekend for us in Canada, that meant we had some extra time to actually do some sightseeing and walk around. To be honest, I didn’t have many expectations for the trip going in. America isn’t typically a place that I’m too interested in visiting.

The very first time I’ve attended a wedding that was hosted in a museum.

I’ve technically been to Philly before, but that was over a decade ago so I don’t remember too much about it. So I decided that the best way to handle this trip was to just kinda go with the flow and check it out like I’ve never been before.

Now, typically when you think of America, I don’t think you’d normally use the words “historic” to describe it. Oddly enough, Philly was pretty historic. It’s pretty unique in the sense that America was pretty much founded there like 250 years ago. The Founding Fathers got together one day and signed a piece of paper that led to the creation of what is now the most powerful country in the world.

Not bad for a day’s work right?

Independence Hall, a place where some dudes a while back signed some papers.

But pretty much as a result of that, a lot of the older elements in the city were preserved since they are a direct link to America’s history. This means that you have buildings that are over one or two hundred years old, which in European or Asian terms is practically nothing, but for North America that’s pretty old.

One of my favourite aspects of cities in other continents is that they typically have an interesting mix of historical, cultural, and modern architecture. North America doesn’t normally have that so I was pleasantly surprised by Philly’s downtown core since it actually had old stuff in it. I have to say I am a fan of seeing the contrast between an old architectural style and modern skyscrapers.

The main tourist attraction in Philly would be the Independence Mall, which is a large park which contains the Independence Hall, the building where the Declaration of Independence was signed. The building itself isn’t extremely exciting, but the significance of the place is not lost on you. Between all the information kiosks and the statues hanging around, you are very aware of the events that once took place where you are standing.

A statue of John Barry, the “Father of the American Navy”.

Aside from that, if you check out a map of Philly, you’d see that around city hall there are four parks that make up a larger rectangle with city hall in the middle. The four corner squares are Franklin Square, Washington Square, Rittenhouse Square, and Logan Square. These, alongside city hall, were designated as public areas hundreds of years ago and still exist today.

The interesting thing about them is that when I went, they were all slightly different with a different feel and atmosphere. Franklin Square had some random Chinese Lantern Festival going on which was weird because it’s definitely not time for any Chinese Lantern Festivals, and so the atmosphere there was kinda.. cheesy and fake?

Washington Square is nearby the Independence Hall and carried a more somber tone. The square contained the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, which represents the fallen soldiers during the Revolutionary War. I have a great respect for soldiers, especially those who died fighting for their country, so these monuments are kinda neat. This was especially interesting since I visited another Tomb of the Unknown Soldier last year in Moscow, but obviously they were focused on different soldiers.

Freedom, what a word.

Rittenhouse Square was the least exciting square in my opinion. This is probably also due to the fact that it was pouring rain during my walk to there and so not only was that an annoyance, but the park was also fairly wet when I got there. It felt more like a typically European park with some paths and fountains, but it was wet and I was tired so I didn’t stay long.

Logan Square was honestly more of a circle than a square, but it contained a giant fountain in the middle and it was pretty nice. They had a lot of signs saying no swimming but there were a ton of people swimming in the fountain. I guess America is truly the land of the free.

City hall, in the center square, is probably the best square. But at the same time it’s totally cheating since it has city hall there so it’s not a true public square. Regardless, the city hall looks absolutely beautiful. You have this giant intricate building and right in front of it there’s a few grassy areas, small water spouts, and some chairs for sitting. The atmosphere was very relaxing and wonderful.

Despite being a bit squished, I’m pretty happy with this panorama.

It was a long day of walking around and so I just kinda sat there for a bit to take it all in. It was really nice. I definitely felt some of the similar ambiance that you’d feel in some parks in Europe, with the people chilling in the grass and the big fancy building in the background. It would’ve been the perfect place for a cold drink and a book or something.

Considering how nice city hall looked and how modern the subway entrances there looked, it was a pretty big surprise for me when I actually got down to the train platforms and saw just how uh, different things were down there. Not only was it run down and old, but the subway service was pretty garbage and people were literally smoking on the platform. That genuinely surprised me a bit since city hall looked so nice, but it was a pretty stark reminder that Philly is in North America, the continent with terrible public transit.

And of course, you can’t talk about Philly without talking about Philly Cheese Steaks. They’re delicious so I made it a goal to have some legit cheese steaks during my trip. I asked a friend of mine for recommendations and he pointed me to a restaurant that he said was good and so we went and tried it. It didn’t look super great but it tasted pretty ok. Would probably go back.

A non-photogenic, but pretty good, cheese steak.

Overall, Philadelphia was pretty ok. As far as North American cities go, it was actually pretty interesting. I liked how there was a good mix of modern, historic, and open spaces in the city and it was definitely very walkable. Might be a bit of a random trip to go there just to visit the city, but it would definitely be a list of places I’d recommend as part of a road trip or something though.