Tuesday, 15 November 2011

In the Desert…..

Many times during our conversations about our proposed travel route across the southern States people would mention the drive across Texas. They said things like, “started before sunrise, and now the sun has set, but we haven’t left Texas yet” and “it’s a good two day drive in a fast car” and “you should pace yourself, it’s a long way across Texas.” So with this advice we approached the drive out of New Orleans with some very positive thoughts and plans. We would enjoy the drive, taking in all the new sights and make it fun.

We travelled across more of the concrete above-swamp highways and finally left the bayous of Louisiana behind and crossed the border into Texas. Of course, there was a HUGE sign with a HUGE star on it, telling us we were now in TEXAS. Stopping at the Visitor Welcome Centre we gathered some information about State Parks and chatted with a couple and their little boy who were travelling from East Louisiana.

They were keen to get to Houston to visit a doctor there and check out the hospitals. Their son has autism and as they want only the best for him are considering a move to Texas to get better medical help. The medical system is so very different to what we have back home.

In the United States the medicare system provides health insurance coverage for those who are above 65 years of age. Medicare is a social insurance program that operates in a similar way to Medicare in Australia, except that in the US it is restricted to those above 65, plus some other groups of people such as the disabled. That means that you have to work til you are 65 or have private health insurance, which is very, very expensive. People we have spoken with live in fear of losing their job, getting sick or injured and needing medical help. They work in jobs that they really don’t like but stay for the ‘benefits’, which means they get health cover as part of their salary. Another reason we love living in Australia.

Anyway, back to Texas. Our first night we stayed at Village Creek State Park where I saw many little cottontails but wasn’t quick enough to get photos; also enjoyed a long chat with a young Christian couple from New Orleans, and then it was back on the road.

Our plans included a stopover in Houston but the closer we got to the city the more traffic surrounded us and the GPS was a little erratic. Johno did a fine job of manipulating the RV along the 7 lane (in our direction) freeway (speed limited at 75mphr) with semi-trailers, buses and trucks moving on and off continuously. When it all got too much he said, “we’re going through, I’m not stopping here” so we kept on going.

We needed a ration run to top up the pantry so finally stopped at San Antonio to pick up supplies. We enjoyed dinner at an “all you can eat buffet” - $9.99 per person – where they cooked our steaks and seafood while we waited – very tasty.
Then, we made friends with the security officer at the Walmart carpark who assured us we could park Freddie and sleep there undisturbed, so we did! And our new friend kept tabs on us all night long – driving by and checking our vehicle – not bad for a boondock.

Early the next day we headed back onto the road through Texas. It normally rains about 60 inches in the summer but this year they only had 30 inches so we had been warned about the hot dry plains. One old fellow told us, “It ain’t pretty out there, you know” and he was right – dry, dusty, flat, brown, barren land.

Nine hours driving and we were ready to stop. I found a State Park that looked interesting. It promised us a swim so we stopped and after inspecting it, decided to stay two nights.

Balmorhea (another unfortunate name - rhymes with diarrhea) State Park is a desert park but has a huge artesian spring pool that is open daily and fed by San Solomon Springs. It is one and three quarter acres in size, is 25 feet deep and a constant temperature of 72 – 76 degrees. We spent a lot of time in the water, as it was about 102 degrees on the days we were there. We got lots of great photos there in the morning before we left.

We met a bloke at Balmorhea who owned a bar in New Mexico. He had come over to Texas to do some diving in the pool. He advised us to avoid stopping anywhere close to the Mexican border. There has been a lot of trouble (drug cartels) lately and innocent people being shot.

Johno was keen to stop in El Paso to buy some boots so our plan was to stop, shop and scoot, and that’s what we did. Although we were tempted to make a detour and visit the town Truth or Consequences – yes – it really is a town in New Mexico, I kid you not. It is about 120 miles north of El Paso and has a population around 8,000.

SO! Johno got his boots and we drove right through New Mexico, only stopping for the Border Patrols who pulled us over about four times to check our passports and check the vehicle for ‘illegal passengers’. 

The vista didn’t change at all, dry desert conditions all along the way. I kept thinking of desert songs like Hotel California, Horse With No Name, and Peaceful Easy Feeling. Our radio isn’t very good so I just sang songs in my head to pass the time.

Our next stop was in Arizona at a little town called Wilcox – nothing much of interest there but our ever-so-friendly host said we shouldn’t drive further without going to visit Tombstone. “It’s only an hour south of here,” he said. “It’s worth a visit – not everyone can say they’ve been to Tombstone.” 
Well that sealed the deal for us – of course we would go to Tombstone, famous for gold and silver mines, Apache Indians, the Earp brothers, Doc Holliday, the OK Corral, gunfights, bordellos, saloons, gambling halls, Boot Hill Graveyard, the Crystal Palace Saloon, the Birdcage, and more.

We drove in on Sunday Morning, just in time for the gunfight re-enactment. The streets were closed off for two blocks, and the only traffic was horse & wagon, many local folk outfitted in old cowboy gear walk the streets. It really felt like we were in another world.

The original buildings still exist with bullet holes visible, the boardwalks are old and splintered, the shop fronts are authentic, their stores full of Western clothing and Tombstone souvenirs, and shopkeepers all dressed in period costume. It was fun to see what it would have been like in its hey day! The Tombstone legend remains - a town that is too tough to die!

Back on the I10 highway - heading west, the desert remained constant although the type of vegetation changed with different types of cactus edging the roadside. 

The Saguaro’s are astounding, they grow so tall and their branches (arms) extend upwards making them look more human that I could have imagined. 

Camped at Pichacho Peak in Arizona, the most prominent feature in the landscape for miles and miles, we saw huge tracts of saguaro and I tried to do them justice in my photos. I even got up early to get pictures with the light on their prickles.
It’s hard to find the words to describe camping out in that desert. It is sparse, dry, brown, sandy, hot, and barren. You could say it’s ugly but there is such beauty in the ugliness of it all. The colours in the sky at sunset and sunrise, the spooky howling of the coyotes in the dark night, cactus flowers and formations, the crackle of the soil under your feet early in the morning, and the little kangaroo rats that scurry around foraging for any crumb dropped by a human – all this and more make the desert a beautiful place to be. Whilst I couldn’t live with the brown-ness of it, I can now understand why people choose live in such places.
Still travelling west, we camped on the Colorado River at Yuma, AZ for two nights. Yuma is an unusual town in that its population swells by about 100,000 people during the winter when retirees from all over the USA and Canada move south to avoid the harsh winter conditions. There are RV resorts and golf clubs everywhere and the RV repair, sales and service industries have guaranteed customers. Again we made a friend of our neighbor who came to visit. When we asked what we should see in the area, she suggested Anza Borrego – “take route 78, that will get you there” she said, so we did!

Driving towards the park we came across an amazing site – there were all these huge iron sculptures sitting out in the grasslands – horses, elephants, eagles…. It is called Galleta Meadows and is a privately owned exhibit just outside Borrego Springs. The following info is from their website.
www.galletameadows.com/  History is unfolding in a town already filled with its own unique historical milestones, Borrego Springs with the first placement of the Gomphotherium free standing art structures. 

Dennis Avery, land owner of Galleta Meadows Estates in Borrego Springs envisioned the idea of adding 'free standing art' to his property with original steel welded sculptures created by 'Perris Jurassic Park' owner/artist/welder Ricardo Breceda based in Perris, California.

We stopped to take some photos before heading into Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, which is the largest state park in California. Again, we were in awe as we took in the rugged mountain ranges, the barren landscape, the scrappy grasslands, and the heat was nearly unbearable. Then sunset came and we ate outside watching the full moon rise in a clear black sky – just takes your breath away. I was also amused to watch a little kangaroo rat with the longest tail ever scurrying around looking for food yet trying to dodge the light from the campsites.

The next morning we were up early, breakfasted and off to hike into the Borrego Palm Canyon, the third-largest palm oasis in California. It was about 95 degrees that day and although it’s only a 3-mile hike, it sure felt a lot longer. The route led us over round riverbed stones, past huge rocks, through the desert landscape, across creeks and up mountain ledges…and our reward was a beautiful, well-watered oasis, tucked away in a rocky V-shaped gorge with a palm grove and a waterfall. A cool resting place - just right for a snack and water, then we headed back so we could get back on the road.

Next, we’re going to the zoo, zoo, zoo; how about you? you? you?

Monday, 7 November 2011

Way Down Yonder in New Orleans

A few years ago whilst attending a Floods Conference I met an engineer from New Orleans. He was a keynote speaker and he talked about that city’s
recovery effort after Hurricane Katrina and the resultant devastating floods. He was very candid and delivered a very enlightening but heartbreaking presentation about the slow rebuild and I have to admit that I was ignorant of so many details of its topography, the history and the culture - so add to that Johno’s interest in ‘all things blues and music’ and we were ready to discover our very own N’Awlins.

As we approached the city area we came across huge expanses of concrete roads and bridges, wide enough for at least two lanes of traffic in each direction, and high enough to avoid the rivers, tributaries, swamps and wetlands below. They were everywhere. One fellow told us that Louisiana has six of the longest bridges in the USA and I don’t doubt it. Johno said he’d like to have had the concrete contract.

Our RV Park was located right in the heart of the city, and getting there was a real challenge. Our GPS, Jill, was great but even she didn’t know that some roads were closed and one-way streets had been reversed. After some frustration for Johno and road rage from other motorists, we finally got to the French Quarter RV Resort. It is situated directly under the I10 but as we had to have the aircon on all night because of the high temperatures we didn’t hear the road noise.

New Orleans has a reputation for not being safe so we chose to stay here ($80 a night – thank you very much) with gate and razor wire security and only a two-block walk into Bourbon Street and all the action. The resort also had a pool, spa and provided transport to and from the hot spots for free. So we stayed five nights and had the best time.

The city is alive, and boasts deeply rooted cultural, culinary and musical traditions.

see the beads hanging on the balcony?

I loved the French Quarter. The architecture is just beautiful, with century old buildings with central courtyards on narrow streets, lacey ironwork and colourful hanging pots on balconies, the ‘French influence’ as you would guess has been maintained and restored, despite many wanting to tear it all down some years back. The quaint streetlights and bollards that look like horses heads amused me. (like to see those in Lismore’s beautification program – ha ha).

We found a lovely little cafe just off Bourbon Street to eat pastries and drink good coffee (yes – real coffee) and listen to excellent jazz musicians. They even played a jazzy version of Waltzing Matilda – very funny.

New Orleans food was soooo tasty. It is a mix of French, Spanish, German, Native and Black American people all coming together. Cajun is spicy and has a lightly peppery flavor, not chili and more like Tabasco – some favourites included etouffee, hush puppies, po-boys, red beans and rice, catfish, gumbo, jambalaya, soft shell crab, crawfish, a shrimp dish made with four cheeses (so rich) and, of course, beignet at Cafe Du Monde.
Beignet is really just donut dough that is deep fried and heavily coated in icing sugar. Yummy - but not something that I would eat often.

Locals joke that you can always tell tourists because they come to eat beignet in black clothes and walk out with icing sugar down their front. So if you get there make sure you use the ‘napkins’ so the locals don’t make fun of you.

We expected to find some really good music on Bourbon Street but were a bit disappointed. The bars were full of people and every one had a band or some type of music and staff at the front enticing you to visit their place. The problem was they are all chasing the tourists and so there is competition between establishments – the noise is deafening, each band trying to outdo the one next door, the music was mostly popular covers (to attract people into their bar) and as we were there night after night, we discovered that the sets were the same each night. That is not to say that we didn’t find some good music to listen to, just not in Bourbon Street.

Mostly it was the street performers who captured our attention for hours. We watched acrobats, an accapella barbers quartette, a great brass band, drummers, and a very good blues singer – we tipped them all and they played with gusto. Much more entertaining that being squeezed into a bar with questionable ladies and ordinary music, I say!
The French Markets were markets on the Saturday so off we went to find some beads to make Heather (my Nashville friend) some earrings. We took  detour to the Visitor Welcome Centre to listen to a colloquium discussing the influences that shaped Louisiana and its people. The speakers were an historian, a journalist and cookbook writer, and a fifth generation New Orleans resident and author who writes both fact and fiction. Between them they shared a wealth of information and gave a great insight into the history, culture and lifestyle of the locals. They also spoke about the Hurricane and how it has changed the people and their city.

On the way out we were stopped by some other visitors who asked from where we hailed. We answered “Australia’ and so the conversation developed as it has done so often during this trip. How long? where have you been? what’s your favourite place? And in this case – “Have you been to New York because that’s where we are from?” Again we said ‘yes – loved New York.” The gentleman asked what we liked best and I responded that I really loved Bryant Park, NY.  We spoke for some time on that subject and about the adjacent toilets, which I may not have mentioned before. They have big, beautiful fresh flower arrangements in the foyer of the toilet block and there is an attendant on duty full-time. THE most beautiful and cleanest public facility I have ever seen and…. it’s free!

Why am I telling you all this? Well serendipitous moments are the bright stars on this trip and here was another one. The man we were speaking with is ‘on the Board of Management for Bryant Park’ and he was tickled pink that we gave it such a rave without prompting. Such a lovely friendly couple to brighten our day.

Then we were off to the markets down by the river. Lots of people, exciting, colourful, so much to look at, laughing, singing, and dancing – too much to be specific but a great fun day!

Cajun village
The following morning we went to a local church service and then spent the afternoon on a Honey Island Swamp Tour. We wanted to see a bayou and a real swamp and were not disappointed. There is an indescribable beauty in the ugliness of the swamp. We were blessed with blue skies and sunshine which helped when we were creeping up the through the slimy back bayous on the hunt for alligators. Found them!! They are smaller than a crocodile and nowhere near as frightening but still an interesting looking creature. We also saw an authentic Cajun village where residents can only get there by boat.

Some of the houses looked very unstable, half on land, half on water and not much holding them together.  Other wildlife we saw included water birds, a turtle and a raccoon.

Honey Island Swamp is about an hours drive out of the city so we got to see quite a lot of the residential and industrial areas that were affected by Hurricane Katrina. Although most other parts of New Orleans are now ‘back to normal’ the area to the east has long-lasting scars that will never repair. Many people have chosen not to return to the area and neither have the service providers and retailers. We saw schools and hospitals rebuilt but empty, the Walmart carpark remains but the company decided not to rebuild there along with a host of other stores and service providers. That means that those who have moved back have to travel long distances to get groceries, medical treatment and all manner of help. We were told that some areas may never be rehabitated. 

After all their disasters and troubles you might think that it would result in sadness or bitterness, but the people we met were all cheerful, appreciative, fun-loving, resilient and proud New Orleaneans.
 They show huge respect to those who loss their lives in the hurricane and we came across many remembrances in their honor.

New Orleans is unique for its cemeteries. There was a cemetery directly behind our RV Park, which captured my interest as all the vaults were built above the ground. It seems that most were originally constructed during the 18th and 19 th century and explanations about ‘above-ground’ burials are a mixture of fact and folklore. The water table around New Orleans is very high and the soil is soggy in low-lying areas, so caskets would rise whenever there was heavy rain or flood. “You just couldn’t keep a good person down!” is a favourite saying over here! However the vaults are in fact more due to French and Spanish tradition than they are to water table problems. 
(That’s the official version from a very nice lady at the Visitor Welcome Centre).

We went for a wander among the vaults in Saint Louis #2. It didn’t feel morbid or intrusive to do so. The crypts, crosses and ironwork depict age-old skills and workmanship and the weather has aged them nobly. Although there has been some defacing and vandalism, the crypts provide a beautiful resting place, and effectively put an end to coffins rising up from the ground when it floods. Most of them were originally built way back, but we noticed they are still being used and people are still being buried there in family crypts.

Voodoo, superstition and rituals remain part of the culture for many New Orleaneans and candles, flowers, food and effigies were left on many graves.

After five nights sleeping under the I10 we were happy to hit the road again, although we both agreed that visiting New Orleans has added more cultural depth and understanding to our US adventure.

Some more pics if you are interested.

love this place!

Statue - Joan of Arc

public art everywhere

more public art
funky, eh!

and more 

and more, it's everywhere

Busking on Bourbon

in memory of those who lost their lives during Hurricane Katrina

spot the ibis

for Ryan!