Notes From Texas!

Howdy, Folks!

Lil ol’ Gracie and me have just arrived in the Lone Star State.

Texas

The order of business?

Visits to the shopping malls for Grace, while I check in at the bookshops – Barnes & Noble, Borders, and Ink Bookstand - as well as a couple of schools. And in between times we’ll be enjoying whatever this famous state has to offer.

First stop, the state capital, Austin.

But before that, I can tell you the journey from Glasgow was painless. In fact it was very enjoyable!

It always amazes me how we can sit back in comfort, travelling at six hundred miles per hour, 38,000 ft up in the sky with temperatures of
–70F only inches away on the outside.

While this is going on we’re entertained with a choice of the latest movies, and the cabin crew serve up hot meals, drinks and snacks and see that we’re all happy and contented.

This time we travelled with American Airlines, and they were every bit as good as our usual carrier, Continental.

But back to Austin and Texas. Here’s the highlights of our trip . . .

First Impressions: Amazement!

We weren’t really looking forward to the ‘desert’ scenery, with the flat land, dust and tumbleweed which most folks from our part of the world associate with Texas.

And we didn’t see any of that either!

Austin and its surrounding area is hilly, green, picturesque and altogether delightful.

And the weather? Bright and sunny with temperatures in the 80s and 90s. Yet it wasn’t the oppressive type of heat you get in so many European countries. You could walk around AND breathe without feeling exhausted!

Cooling off, Austin
Here we are cooling off at Lake Austin, which is a man-made lake in the city and is actually a widened part of the Colorado River.

Lake Austin
Grace enjoying a chilled cappuccino by the banks of Lake Austin

Welcome To Texas, Folks!

On Day One we were introduced to Texas with a bang. Literally!

Our driver was making her way along a Left Turn lane, while the traffic in the two inside right lanes was at a standstill. Someone decided to make a U-turn out of the static traffic, didn’t see us coming, and rammed into the side of our car.

Thankfully we were in a large Ford Explorer SUV and it absorbed the impact. No one was hurt, but we had to stay until the police arrived.

And when they did arrive it was an eye-opener.

They couldn’t have been more courteous, reassuring and helpful. Nothing was too much for them as they explained the procedures and put us at our ease. The accident was clearly the other party’s fault, but she too was treated with the same courtesy.

I have just one criticism.

The only damage was to the cars and no one was hurt. Yet we all had to stay put until the fire department and an ambulance arrived to check out the situation. It seemed like an over-reaction, but as one of the officers put it: “We’re just looking after you folks, we want to make sure you’re all just fine!”

Oh well then!

Yes, it was a great big Texas welcome . . . in more ways than one!

Go, Saints, Go!

Unexpectedly we got the chance to do something I’ve always wanted to do: see a real, live American Football game.

The opportunity arose because the New Orleans Saints are displaced, following the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, and they’re now playing their games in the AlamoDome in San Antonio (Texas).

Tickets were readily available because their fan base is dispersed, yet their game against the Buffalo Bills still managed to draw a crowd of over 60,000.

New Orleans Saints

And this was another eye-opener!

The stadium was very similar to those we have at home, only this one had a covered roof and air-conditioning.

The intricacies of American football are a mystery to me, and probably always will be - but what an experience this event was.

I’ve been to football or ’soccer’ games all over the UK. But having experienced the American game, I wonder if I can ever go back to British soccer.

It’s not the game itself - ’soccer’ will always win as a spectator sport in my view. It was the atmosphere of the occasion.

Hats off to the Americans. Whereas we put up with loud-mouthed, uncouth individuals, yahoo-ing, cursing and swearing at everyone from the opposition to the referee and their own players, there was positively none of that in the AlamoDome.

Instead, there appeared to be family groups everywhere – grandparents, Mums and Dads, teens and kids as young as five - all out to enjoy themselves on a Sunday afternoon.

We sat together savouring our hotdogs, nachos, popcorn, drinks and whatever, cheering the team on. (Well, they knew when to cheer, I didn’t!)

But here’s the bottom line. It was a family outing in a civilised, cultured setting. There was never a hint of the anger, aggression, foul-mouthed and loutish behaviour that’s so typical our game back home.

The crowds cheered, the cheer leaders danced and the marching bands marched at half-time.

Marching Band
Sorry about the picture quality. It was a bright afternoon, but I hadn’t allowed for the fact that the AlamoDome was covered to keep us all nice and cool!

Yes - Go, Saints, Go!

I came away feeling I’d been entertained, but more than that, I was both humbled and impressed. How come the Americans have got their big sporting occasions so right, while ours have, for the most part, gone so woefully wrong?

SeaWorld In San Antonio

Having previously enjoyed visits to SeaWorld in Orlando, Florida, I was delighted to discover another SeaWorld Theme Park in San Antonio, only an hour’s drive from Austin.

I’ll never forget my first visit to SeaWorld. Up ’til then I’d been of the opinion that caging animals for humans to gaze at was cruel and should be banned. I’d seen too many polar bears in a variety of zoos, living in cramped quarters, going through the same lurching back-and forth movements which were symptomatic of boredom and frustration.

So when I was originally persuaded to visit SeaWorld I was quite hostile to the idea, but eventually decided to go along with an open mind.

And what I saw amazed me.

There was an astonishing atmosphere of peace and tranquillity in a truly beautiful natural setting, and there were episodes of fun and excitement at the frequent shows.

Performing animals there were, yes, but I never saw a hint of the boredom and frustration mentioned above.

Instead these animals appeared to be thriving and enjoying performing as much as the humans enjoyed watching them.

The level of care was impressive, and it was difficult to see how these animals could have been better off in the wild.

Indeed, Anheuser-Busch, the owners of the parks, claim that they “rescue and rehabilitate more animals than any other organisiation in the world.”

You only have to see the SeaWorld manitous, scarred and maimed from encounters with ships and speedboats and now on the verge of extinction as a species, to know Anheuser-Busch take this claim seriously.

I find a stroll round SeaWorld one of the most relaxing and uplifting experiences, and I always come away refreshed.

Here’s a few samples of the San Antonio SeaWorld snapshots we took. Hope you enjoy them!

SeaWorld1

SeaWorld2

SeaWorld4

SeaWorld3

SeaWorld7

SeaWorld5

An Unexpected Surprise

On October 1, a strange thing happened. Grace and I came out of our apartment to go about our business as usual, only to find the place had been transformed overnight.

Everywhere you looked there were pumpkins: decorating the shop fronts, hanging from the trees, arranged like pyramids in the supermarkets.
Pumpkin

Not only that. Witches, ghouls, goblins, bats, werewolves lurked in every tree or bush. Piped music of the gruesome variety mingled with horrific laughs and groans. Yes, the Halloween season had arrived in Texas.

And this amazed us. We thought we in the UK were the ones who celebrated Halloween - but only on the night of the October 31 itself. This month-long celebration was something different, and came as a shock.

Not only because it was so unexpected. It just somehow seemed - well, weird to be celebrating the feast of darkness and gloom in such a bright, sunny, cheerful environment.

But as one local put it: “We don’t get much gloom around here. It would be nice to get some real weather! Maybe that’s why we make up for it by starting Halloween so early.”

To cap it all we saw something we never knew existed: Halloween Stores.
Halloween costumes

Not just little shops on the corner, I may add. These were large, walkabout stores like supermarkets, but selling only Halloween stuff. Costumes, toys, treats, you name it - even pumpkin decorating kits.

We came home laden with gifts. And just as well! On the night itself (here in Scotland) we had over forty Guisers calling at our house - that’s ‘Trick or Treaters’ only they have to perform (e.g. sing a song, tell jokes, or dance) before they get their rewards.

Yes, it was definitely Halloween-With-A-Difference this year!

The Rising Cost Of Gas!

During our trip we hired a car (a Chevrolet Malibu). Public transport is not well developed in Texas, so you simply can’t get around without a car.

When we stopped to fill up with petrol – or gas as they call it in the States – we would hear everyone complaining about the cost of fuel, which has risen quite dramatically over the last year.

Yet we could only nod sympathetically and suppress a smile.

You see, to us it was unbelievably cheap. If they only knew what we had to pay for gas in the UK!

Galveston, Oh Galveston, I Still Hear Your Sea Winds Blowin’ . . .

Anyone who grew up in the 70s remembers Glen Campbell’s world-wide hit, don’t they?

Up ’til now the song was probably the only association most folks had with Galveston. I say ‘up til now’ because Galveston was in the news recently when it was evacuated in the path of Hurricane Rita. Fortunately, Rita veered to the right causing only minimal damage.

So we were delighted to have the opportunity to visit Galveston Island (to give it its full title). It’s a small island-town in the Gulf of Mexico, just off the mainland near Houston.

First of all Grace and I drove to Kingwood, near Houston, for a lovely evening with friends whom we’d only ever met over the Internet. They’d prepared a real Texas Barbecue for us and gave us an equally huge Texas welcome.

Any BBQ I’ve been to in the UK consisted of burgers, chicken, some steak if you were lucky, and the inevitable burger buns. Was it like that in Texas?

Not on your life! They do things in style: melt-in-the-mouth brisket, spicy sausage, potato salad to die for, real coleslaw, Texas beans – all with a delicious BBQ sauce. And followed by the best home-made cookies I’ve ever tasted, bar none!

It was a great start to a fabulous weekend.

Next morning we left for Galveston. Thank heavens for our Dell onboard satellite navigation system. We’d never have made it through the massive urban freeways without it! But with a calm voice in your ear telling you to ‘turn right at 5,000 feet, then drive for five miles’, it was a scoosh!

Next stop Galveston.

Hotel, Galveston
I really enjoyed seeing Texas in my hired Chevvy Malibu!

And a strange thing happened. I’ll tell it without comment and leave you to form your own opinion!

As soon as we drove over the causeway onto the island I had an indescribable feeling of apprehension. A shiver down the spine - only this one kept coming back.

I was puzzled, because I loved the look of Galveston. It was a laid-back, slightly faded but by no means down-at-heel southern town, with old rambling houses nestling side-by-side with their modern counterparts.

Yet the feeling persisted.

We checked in to our hotel, and in the reception area I picked up some tourist brochures. The first one stopped me in my tracks! The Ghosts Of Galveston was the title. And the first sentence read, Galveston has been described as a graveyard with a beach!

It went on to list some of the colourful characters who’d lived there over the centuries, like the pirate Jean Lafitte, and who have apparently not gone away!

On a more serious note, however, there was the Great Storm of 1900. That’s when a hurricane claimed the lives of up to eight thousand people, almost wiping out the entire population of the city.

Grace and I saw a film presentation that recounted the event in the most atmospheric and dramatic way possible. If you ever go to Galveston, it’s a ‘must see’.

Now they have a 17 ft high seawall and they’ve literally raised the surface of the land to make sure a similar disaster never strikes again.

We also visited some of the old houses and saw first-hand many of the mementoes of the Great Storm.

As well as that we enjoyed the beach, a visit to Moody Gardens, with it’s simulated Rain Forest and Aquarium, and we spent some time in the Strand, a historic district down by Galveston Harbor.

Cruise ship
Cruise ships as well as freighters from all over the world come to Galveston. This pic shows just how big a modern liner really is. You can also get a flavour of the old Strand area, with its low-rise buildings, sun porches and high sidewalks.

Gulf of Mexico
This is the Gulf of Mexico at Galveston. You may not know that Scotland enjoys really mild winters (I couldn’t tell you when we last had any real snow!) That’s because of the Gulf Stream, which originates here in the Gulf and travels right up and across the Atlantic, surrounds Scotland, and keeps us (relatively!) warm in the winter.

Central Scotland is on exactly the same line of latitude as Moscow, yet they have sub-zero temperatures, ice and snow for many months every year. So it was good to have a wee stroll in the water where it all starts!

Laid-back South
This is the laid-back, southern town of Galveston, seen from the seashore.

We were able to see first-hand why the citizens of Galveston were caught out by the hurricane in 1900, and why the prospect of Hurricane Rita filled the modern-day citizens with such dread.

On our third day, the weather changed from dry and sunny with temperatures in the 90s, to this:

Storm 1

Storm2

storm3

It was time for a hot cappuccino in Starbuck’s, before leaving Galveston and heading up to San Antonio - which took only a few hours, but in that short time the weather changed back to the normal Texas warmth and sunshine!