Winter Storm

Well, who would have thought that I would be writing my blog in Houston with snow in the back yard and freezing rain falling again. Today is Wednesday February 17 2021.The good news is that our power came back on last night at 8pm. We had 38 hours of no power during the coldest days of this winter storm. The temperature got down to -11C outside with snow and ice all around. We count ourselves lucky as there are still millions of people without power and water across the country, in even colder temperatures than we have here. Many of our neighbors have no water due to pipes bursting as they froze and now, as the pipes thaw, their ceilings are leaking water and they have to shut the water off. Oh, to be a plumber in Houston this week.

We had a few things going for us…

*Even though we rely on electricity for cooking and air conditioning we do have a gas fireplace. We kept this on low at the beginning while we had power to make sure we could light it if the power did go out.

*Our grocery shopping was done on Thursday which was just as well because the shelves were bare in fresh food and essentials such as eggs by Friday evening at our local supermarket.

*AND we had a good supply of camping gear including a camping stove which burns butane. We went out on Saturday to find butane cannisters and passed by some large local supermarkets. The car parks were packed. We later heard that Saturday was the busiest shopping day HEB supermarket had ever had; and this is counting hurricane preparation days too. Anyway, we bought 6 cannisters of butane and thought that would be adequate.

*We also could use our sleeping bags in our beds if things got really rough. Our daughter, who is staying with us at the moment, did use her sleeping bag on Monday night when the temperatures were really low. Camping at home.

We were very nearly camping this past weekend. The Valentine’s day weekend was a long weekend for my school due to President’s Day and end of term. We tried to book a camping ground in the lovely state parks near Austin. We planned on riding bikes and visiting wineries. Fortunately, there was nothing available, so we opted for the previous weekend and found a spot at Muleshoe Bend Recreation Area on the Lower Colorado River. It was a beautiful site- (almost) made up for the lack of facilities- only portable toilets and no showers! Anyway, after visiting a few local wineries we set up our camp and snuggled in for the night; a clear, COLD night. It got down to 3C overnight and we were really pretty cold. We thought that winter camping is still not for us. However, now I am really grateful that we could not find a spot this past weekend and that we had all of our camping gear pretty ready to go. Little did we know we would be winter camping in our house the next weekend.


We were recalling some other cold camping in our past as we sat around our indoor fire trying to stay warm last night just before the power was restored. We remember camping with the Robbos and Thorps at Wilpena Pound SA in July a few years back. It was freezing. We had a gas heater set up inside the tarp and all huddle around. Camping in Ballarat in winter also ranked up there with the very cold camping. Rob still thinks the night at Muleshoe Bend was one of the coldest.

We have been paying much more attention to the weather since we can access it so easily on our phones. It was interesting how the weather alerts became more serious as we got closer to the Valentine’s Day weekend. There was a certain amount of disbelief about it actually reaching the temperatures shown on the weather app (-13C with wind chill down to -18C). My Houston colleagues at work were saying that they had never seen weather temperatures like that. The news reports were saying that records would be broken and that rolling power outages were likely. In Houston we often get two different forecasts: the European and the USA forecasts. At the beginning of last week, the difference in the forecast was about 10C. The European forecast did not suggest we would get snow or even very cold temperatures. As the weather forecast became more concrete it was clear that we were going to get some extremely low temperatures and preparation became the key.

Our Harris County emergency alert came in loud and clear over our phones, TV, car radios and on the roadway public notice boards.

The preparation P’s were sent out as text alerts from ReadyHarris (our local county council) the various utilities and also from the weather channel. When public danger warnings are issued, they are a loud intrusive blare from your phone or television. You cannot miss them, we’ve had quite a few in the last 4 days. So, the preparation P’s are:





People: well, we dug out our thermals, down parkas, ugg boots and sleeping bags. We lit the gas fire and found camping lights and cooking equipment. Rob charged up his bike lights that are like turning on the sun and we charged our solar light (thanks Fishers). We also made sure that we had food and water enough for a few days.

Pets: Banjo is at home in Australia- so he’s OK

Plants: Rob thought I was mad, but I insisted that we cover our gardens. Then I decided, having heard that at -13C the ground will freeze, that we should dig up the important and ‘save-able’ plants and put them in pots inside. We did that, all bundled up arctic style. I’m glad we did bring some plants in as I am pretty sure after 3 days of living under plastic even if the others have not frozen, they are not doing so great.

Pipes: we were pleased that the owner of our rented house came and covered all of the outside tapes and fixtures with a special plastic cover and he also did something to protect the yard sprinklers. We were given some advice at church, from the Canadians and those from the northern states who know about cold weather, to trickle water through our taps through the coldest freeze times when we were out of power to heat the house. It must have worked, because our water pipes survived (so far) while all around us people are finding that they have broken pipes, mostly over their garages, which means that they are out of water until the plumber arrives. To make matters worse for many, the city of Houston water utilities have found that they also have burst pipes and many Houstonians are now either without water or have to boil it. We are lucky in our estate as we have a well supply. Apparently, when the City of Houston supply lost power our local water supplier switched to the well supply which is not contaminated and hopefully will last until the other is up and running again. It’s pretty wild all the things that can so easily go wrong when the power goes out.

Texas has a privatized energy system which is removed from the national grid. I guess when you sell oil and gas to the rest of the country you think you can go it alone. Interestingly, Texas also has coal, wind and nuclear in their arsenal of power stations. It almost defies understanding how, when you have such a diversified source, and you know the big storm is coming, that there can be such a catastrophic failure. At first the Governor blamed the renewable energy. He said the wind turbines froze off But as it turns out the natural gas that Texas prides itself on and provides most of our electricity froze in the delivery to the turbines so had to be shut down. the turbines were not winterized. There was also a problem in the nuclear reactor (I guess something to do with water freezing). Not sure why that is enough to bring a big state like Texas to its knees but there will be an inquiry. Heads will no doubt roll. Apparently, the situation was so critical on Monday night that ERCOT had to shut down power to the state because if they didn’t they would effectively blow a fuse that would take months of power outages to repair. The turbines would be irrevocably damaged. They were completely unprepared and so we were not suffering the short rolling blackouts they had promised, they just shut us down.

On the upside, I have not been trying to teach through this mayhem as school has been canceled for the week. It has been nice to stay home and do puzzles and nothing. Except for yesterday morning the weather has not been favorable for going out. We went for a very short walk at about 10am on Tuesday (yesterday) to get some sunshine. It was still very cold, about -6C, the ice on the road and footpaths was very thick in places and quite dangerous. There were a few cars out driving but most people were staying put. We discovered some tracks in the snow in front of our garage that showed that there had been a few small animals out in the snow, maybe a rabbit. There were also bird tracks at the backdoor. We have not seen a squirrel the whole time but lot of robins and smaller birds hopping around when the sun comes out.

So here we sit in front of our little fire, no power again but feeling a bit more like it will end soon. We are due to go back up to the wineries near Austin again this weekend but staying in a house with friends. I’m pretty sure that the roads are not yet passable up there. They have had a lot more snow and ice than us. We will sort it out tomorrow. Our little Audi is not 4 wheel drive so we are not keen to do too much ice driving. Temperature now at 2C getting below 0 again for the next couple of nights but no more rain. Things will be back in the 20’s next week no doubt…

Before the road trip: A reflection on our COVID-19 lives

The summer in Houston is pretty oppressive with high humidity and temperatures staying in the mid- high 30’s C for months on end. So with such a long school break it’s no surprise that many people take a holiday away from Houston. Well of course this year is vastly different.

I finished the school year teaching summer school online for about three weeks.  Rob has not been back in the office since we returned from Australia at the beginning of March. I have been teaching from home since mid-March. We have set up offices in different parts of the house, upgraded our internet and enjoyed having lunch together. The downside of this of course is that you are always at work. However, we are really the lucky ones; so many people are out of work and struggling to stay afloat.

We felt very cocooned in our lovely estate and even though the news each day was horrible we were able to stay at home except for grocery shopping. Rob became very skilled at making cocktails (quarantinies!)

The online shopping world is amazing here, you can order almost anything, except disinfectant wipes and disinfectant household spray. We gave online grocery orders a try but found it a bit of a pain. I think, if possible, choosing your own fruit, meat and veggies is better. It is quite remarkable how many “personal shoppers’ – the people who drag around a big trolley to fill online orders, there are in the supermarket now. Toilet paper and paper towel were in short supply for while in the supermarkets and yeast is yet to make a comeback at our grocery store. Apparently, everyone is making sourdough!

Dust storms made sunset fabulous.

To go out to the supermarket we put on our masks and gloves. In the early days when we did not know as much about the virus, we also wore goggles and wiped down all of our groceries before putting them away. Our local supermarket is rather good at social distancing and now everyone has a mask on. Once we are back in the car we use our hand sanitizer and back home wash hands etc. after putting the groceries away. Being a virus, corona-virus needs to reproduce in a host to survive but it can stay on surfaces for a while. We are now being told that we do not need to wipe down all of our groceries. Most of our purchases will be in the fridge or staying in the pantry for a day or two before being handled again.

With the summer break underway and kids out of school there was a major concern about how to ensure they are getting fed. The USA seems to have a fabulous system of feeding the children of poor families through the school canteen. School breakfast and lunch are the main meals in a normal week for these children. Many schools continued to provide lunches for their students; food bank lines queue around the block wherever they are available. People are generous and feel a strong sense of social responsibility for efforts like food banks. Like many countries the unemployment offices (like Centrelink) seemed to be taken by surprise and took a little while to gear up. The politics of handouts and income support has been dominating headlines here for months; and it goes on.

Exercise at home became the thing and although the gym has reopened here, I don’t feel like it is the best place to be. My gym now requires masks in the gym at all times. Still, there is a lot of sweating and heavy breathing going on and running with a mask on does not really appeal to me. Anyway, for a number of reasons, we bought a bike for me. This was an interesting COVID influenced experience. Rob is the expert, so I let him decide. As we were looking online, we realized that bikes were fairly hard to come by. Everyone is rediscovering their childhood enjoyment of riding. There are fewer cars on the road so it is a bit safer too. Fortunately, I needed a small version of whatever we bought, so I did have a few to choose from. Our first purchase (not first choice) turned out to have a major gear problem so was returned to the shop after about two weeks. Rob decide I needed a Trek, so he started to hunt one down online for me. He finally found one in Portland Oregon, about as far away from Houston as you can get and still be in the USA. The problem was that we were supposed to pick it up instore, as Trek is a US brand, and so suppliers cannot infringe on another supplier’s market. However, as there was basically nowhere else in the country that had one of these bikes in stock Rob managed to have it delivered to us. Its fabulous fun to ride and I have even progressed to proper riding clips and shoes (purple to match my helmet). There is an endless supply of accessories available for bike riding, but I have resisted so far, apart from one set of riding knicks. I understand now why people wear the knicks, the padding is really more comfortable than regular leggings.

Sometimes we just ride around the estate, or if we want a more challenging (for me) ride, there is a flood mitigation wall just outside the boundaries of our estate that goes all the way around the reservoir near us. We usually see deer in the bushland around the reservoir and lots of birds. There are also LOTS of mozzies. After we have ridden along the wall, we can follow the road down to a large reserve called Bear Creek Park. The park is also within the reservoir area, so is covered by water after any heavy rain. Even so it is an area well used by the locals. There are a couple of baseball fields and many soccer fields, a long walking/running track around the outside and lots of BBQ’s and picnic areas. You just have to have a serious amount of mosquito repellent.

We settled into a nice pattern of working, eating and exercising. Church is on zoom and even after work drinks are on zoom. There is a prediction of isolation weight gain of about 15 pounds (about 7 kg) so we are trying to keep an eye on that. The community feel is tangible here. A young family in our cul-de-sac put on a concert in front of their garage on Sunday evenings and families from around bring their deck chairs and sit round their driveways to listen to the concert. It’s been quite pleasant. We felt a long way away from the chaos happening in New York and California.

Then, George Floyd was killed in Minneapolis, and a new movement rose up to distracte the press and politicians. It was amazing how quickly the protests spread and how diverse the individuals protesting were. It was also remarkable how quickly surface changes started to happen. Then, once again, it became something that was divided along political lines, just like COVID. Black Americans make up only 13% of the population here in the USA. That is still around 40 million people. But in 2016 black American households had a median wealth of around $17,100 compared to white non-Hispanic households’ median wealth of about $171,000*. I seriously doubt there has been much of an improvement in the recent 4 years. Similar accusations can be made of other countries such as Australia but nevertheless there is a big inequity problem here. There seems to be a hope for real change among the population. (I know… its and election year, sigh).  *

In light of this, I had a closer look at our current housing situation. There are very few black people living in the estate where we live. There are many people from all over the world who live here for work in the Oil and Gas sector, but the vast majority would be white people. Houston is a really interesting city. A study by the Kinder Institute at Rice University in Houston says “As of 2010, Houston metropolitan area is the most racially/ethnically diverse large metropolitan area in the nation, narrowly surpassing the New York metropolitan area”. So you might expect that there would be significant ethnic and racially based problems in this city. Harris county, where Houston is situated is a huge county, the second largest in the US with a population of around 4.7 million people. In 2019 the county’s total population is 31 percent white, 42 percent Hispanic, 19 percent black and 8 percent Asian. This diversity is also leading to lower levels of ethnic segregation. This may have contributed to why Houston did not have the problems of some US cities. Whatever the reason it was good to see things remain mostly calm.

gives me goose bumps

It seems we were so distracted by these protests that we took our eyes off the pandemic and it surged ahead. Things seemed to be going well in Texas COVID-wise but as the summer holidays got into full swing so did the infection rate. Texas became a hot spot. Fortunately, Houston is well equipped with hospitals but still things looked pretty bad and still are. One of the most disappointing things is watching the whole horror story become a political issue. States that had mandated mask wearing tended to be democratic states and those that did not make it a rules tended to be republican states. The story seemed to go…. The president wasn’t wearing a mask and said it was not necessary so why should I bother believing scientists and doctors with years of university training and decades of real infectious disease containment (rather than a guy who has made his living in property development). It just seems so ridiculous. I was at the dermatologist yesterday having my yearly skin check and she was saying that she has patients saying to her that COVID was just a hoax, or worse; was released by the government to control the people (plandemic)! Or that there was already a cure, but big pharma was not releasing it to the public. It always amazes me how people are so keen to believe conspiracy theories. The USA is a big place with every kind of opinion, but it still makes me take a pause. Even the small population in Australia has its fair share of conspiracy theorists. Part of the problem, I think, is that people do not understand how science works. In science you make observations and develop hypothesis about those observations. When you test the hypothesis, you can use the outcome to develop a better understanding of the disease. So, you change your hypothesis (or the way you think the virus will respond) and test that and so on. That is how you get to know the disease. I think people thought that the science should know everything about this disease immediately. If they had been able to do that, this would not be a novel disease but a known one!

I was due to start school the first week of August but now with the growing problem in Houston (and Texas generally) we are not going back to school until September 8. I am not sure how I feel about it at the moment. I would be happy to keep teaching online for a while, but it does not really make for a good learning experience for my students or their parents, who still cannot go back to work. I am a bit concerned about being exposed to the virus and hope that anyone who is showing symptoms is not sent to school. I have really small classes (only about 8 students per class) but I also have an exceedingly small room to teach in. My students are also special education learners so there are varying degrees of understanding when it comes to social distancing and masks etc. We will just have to wait and see. Hopefully, things will settle down and then next year they may have a vaccine ready for us all.

Some of the better things to come out of this year are “Bin Isolation” on Facebook, some excellent comedy associated with corona virus, a new appreciation for the work of those involved in medical systems, some wonderful displays of community, like the singing in Italy and the cheering for healthcare workers etc., realizing that holidaying in your home country is also a great thing to do……but best of all was that the planet got a chance to take a breath. Pictures of clear skies over Delhi and China and lower than expected CO2 levels across the world have shown us that we can let the Earth take a breath. Lets hope the next time it does not involve a pandemic.

Against this backdrop we decided to take a road trip……

I hope you are all safe.


Hi everyone,

We have had a few lovely trips since I last wrote about our extraordinary cruise to Alaska.

I have also started working full time in a special school here in Houston. It is a school for kids with neurological deficits. Its challenging rewarding work but I must say I enjoy it. Of course, I am teaching online at the moment. It is a bizarre role for any teacher but with the learners I teach, it can be both frustrating and hilarious. My students have adapted really well on the whole. I am very proud of them.

Having a fulltime teaching job has really put a stop to our free-range holidays. We are no longer in holiday mode; rather this is where we live. Friends who have moved did warn us about this sudden swing to this is our normal, but I was not really prepared for how I would feel.

The best part is that we have had a few visitors in the last few months and that has given us the opportunity to see a bit more of Texas and show off the bits we have loved seeing too. We decide the must sees are the San Antonio River walk, Fort Worth old town and cattle drive but also some spots in Houston like the BBQ and fabulous Mexican food. We have nearly exhausted the “within a day’s drive” places around Houston.

At the end of October an exciting change started to occur in the US (and it wasn’t the perpetual media coverage of the democratic nominees). We entered what is known as holiday season. The entre’ to this is Halloween. Houses were decorated with pumpkins and ghosts and cobwebs. Although it is not a true holiday many people say Halloween is their favorite event. I made enquiries of the locals and armed myself with a bucket of candy (each individually wrapped). I had some scarecrows to put in the front garden as my contribution to the festivities. I waited…..We are at the edge of our estate and there are not many kids in our particular cul-de-sac, but finally at about 7pm a few people started to drop by. Yay!! My last visitor was a family filming their daughter’s first Halloween. She was cute as a button dressed as a princess. I think she was maybe about 14 months old. Mum and Dad were dressed up and the family pug was also in his finest, with hat and vest. The little princess was quite keen to help herself to the candy and then decided she might take the whole bowl. When that didn’t work, she tried to invite herself in. Fortunately, she was retrieved by mum and went on her way, but she made my night for sure.

The next holiday is the big one for the US. As soon as Halloween was over the decorations came down and the thanksgiving decorations went up. Beautiful door wreaths, nervous turkeys and lots of food being bought in the supermarkets. When I compare now to then it’s like we were living in a different world… actually I guess we are.

Giant Saguaro Cactus

We had our first thanksgiving in the US in Phoenix Arizona with BFFs who live in California. Phoenix was fascinating. It is the home of the giant saguaro cactus in everyone’s backyards and the Sonoran Desert. These are the ones you see silhouetted against the sky in old westerns. They are really slow growing. On our tour of the botanical gardens we were told that a 10-year-old saguaro cactus may be only 1.5 inches tall. That’s remarkable when you think that they can grow to 40-60 feet tall (12-18m). At some stage in their lifecycle they may grow arms. Apparently, this does not happen until the cactus is 50-100 years old, depending on the availability of water. They dominate the landscape in the Sonoran Reserve where we took a twilight bike tour. We were riding on eco-bikes which helped you up the hills (ditches) if you needed it. It was a lot of fun and the weather was perfect (cold for Phoenix). We had intended going to Sedona, but it snowed that weekend and the road was closed from Phoenix. We enjoyed looking around Scottsdale and visiting the craft shops and the craft brewery.

Staying with our friends was great. I was introduced to cinnamon buns in a tube. What an amazing invention. You are supposed to whack the tube on the edge of the bench and the tube pops open. We have since discovered the same idea for pizza bases and even (sort of) bread rolls.

December was lovely. The decorations in the houses around made it look like fairy land. We happily put our lighted kangaroo in the front yard, and I got to indulge some of my decoration fantasies; like a stair case bough and a beautiful new wreath. Like every city, there were of course some houses that were completely over the top. We trundled around to see the lights just like in Sydney and it was so nice, just a lot colder.

Three family members visited us over the Christmas break. We traveled around to San Antonio, Fort Worth and to NASA in Houston. Last year was the 50th anniversary of the moon landing and NASA was remarkably interesting. We actually saw the control room that was involved in the Apollo moon missions. It was very cool.

San Antonio River Walk

We all went to New Orleans for New Years eve. It was such a brilliant place to be and the fire works were great. This time Rob, Josie and I spent a bit more time in Magazine Street. The hop-on-hop off bus was busy, so we ended up doing a lot of walking. On New Year’s Day we took the Paddle Boat up the Mississippi. As we were lined up to get on we were entertained by the steam organ on the top of the boat. It was terrific and although I was a bit skeptical about whether the boat ride would be worth it, we thoroughly enjoyed it. We also discovered some interesting facts about the river and river traffic. There were many barges on the river to carry grain. Sometimes they were tied, three or four across; one barge holds as much grain as 15 rail-cars or 58 semi-trailers of grain! They just look like shallow barges. Amazing.

Well, holidays require a bit of a road-trip. After arriving home from New Orleans we headed in the other direction and took the ten hour drive to Big Bend National Park.

This amazing park is set along the Rio Grande which is the border with Mexico. There were a few highlights I had planned in the 4-day trip. We wanted to go Marfa, the McDonald Observatory star party and do a bit of hiking in the park. On the first day we drove the 650 or so miles to Terlingua. It was quite a pretty drive but a long way. Some of the town names had me a little confused, here in the middle of the desert was a town called Alpine! Seemed like wishful thinking? Not so.

We finally arrived at the Terlingua Big Bend “resort”. It may well be the worst hotel I have ever stayed in. The receptionist was pretty hostile and the room was pretty ordinary. This hotel was not cheap but it was about the only accommodation available, so we stayed for two nights. Terlingua is a fascinating town. It is an old mercury mining village that had about 2000 residents in the early 1900’s. These days it is a tourist destination with quirky buildings and the reputation of being a ghost town. The picture theatre is a funky bar/restaurant with a terrific sundown view over the Chisos Mountains. We enjoyed some yummy margaritas on the verandah but the restaurant was packed so no go there for us. We did actually eat at a Pizza restaurant owned and run by a young woman about 20 years old. It was great Pizza and we met some of the locals who regaled us with their hunting and outback stories. A very entertaining evening.

The first morning of the Big Bend trip it was seriously cold. We rugged up as best we could and headed up into the park making for the Park Office at Chisos Basin Visitor Centre. It was a beautiful desert landscape. All flat lands framed by sedimentary mountains, trees lining rivers and otherwise cactus and saltbush; but as we climbed up to the Chisos Basin Visitor Centre things started to change. The drizzle turned to snowflakes and the cactus were covered in snow! It was amazing. Big Bend NP is part of the Chihuahuan Desert and has an altitude rage from 550m to about 2400 m. The Chisos Basin Visitor center is at about 1650m. It was absolutely beautiful and unexpected to have snow in south west Texas, but it was winter, I guess.

Big Bend NP in snow

We spent a little bit of time at the visitor center enjoying the view through “the window” and drinking hot chocolate. After a chat with the park rangers we headed out on the Ross Maxwell scenic drive through the park to Santa Elena. The snow-covered cactus was so pretty and slowly the day started to warm up. The drive was really great, and we used an app called Just Ahead. It’s very clever because it gives a running commentary keeping up with where you are even when offline. The day started to warm up and we had lunch over-looking the beautiful Rio Grande at the Santa Elena Canyon Overlook.

with where you are even when offline. The day started to warm up and we had lunch over-looking the beautiful Rio Grande at the Santa Elena Canyon Overlook.

After lunch we did the Santa Elena Canyon hike. So strange, but wonderful. It was a beautiful and fun day. We topped it off with margaritas at the Terlingua theatre. Very satisfying.

The next day we decided to walk through the Rio Grande Canyon to Rio Grande Village, called the Hot Springs trail . It was pleasant hike but quite hot in the middle of the day. As testament to the layers of sedimentary rocks we stepped over fossils on the path including an excellent and large ammonite in a step cut in the rock.

The canyon is quite narrow at this point and we could see Mexicans across the river who had swum over to the USA side and left craft for purchase. It was an honesty system so people who bought the goods left the money in a little container on the USA side of the river. There were signs up discouraging people from buying the goods; so as not to encourage the Mexican citizens swimming the river.

Back in Rio Grande Village, coyote and roadrunner were there as we had (looney Tunes) lunch, it felt very authentic Texan desert and I may have been the only one in our party to get the Looney tunes joke (daughter too young and husband who did not have a TV as a kid). But we needed to get our skates on because we had a long drive to Marfa. It is a quirky little town but has transformed itself into an arty destination. We stayed in the Hotel Paisano (look it up:, a fabulous art deco hotel best known for being host to the cast of the film Giant. James Dean, Elisabeth Taylor and Rock Hudson all stayed at this fabulous hotel.

Hotel Paisano

Unfortunately for us we arrived too late for cocktails and Rob and I left too early for breakfast. We checked in and then hit the road again because we had booked into a star party at the McDonald Observatory ; another 40 or so miles but well worth it. It was a clear winter night and the observatory was set up with 10-12 telescopes looking at the moon, planets, and lovely galaxies of stars. We spent about 3 hours enjoying the views and the lovely staff helping us.

McDonald Observatory

Back to Marfa, short but restful sleep and then back to Houston next morning. It is a 10 hour drive but what a wonderful way to see south west Texas.

8 Tips for Flying to Australia | Flight Centre UK

At the end of February, we went back to Sydney for a family wedding. It was so nice to be home even though it was only for a week. I got a little bit of beach time and caught up with a few friends and family. While we were there the Novel Corona Virus was just starting to make headlines. A nursing home patient and nurse had tested positive in Sydney, the first in Australia. When we boarded the plane to come home a young male passenger near to us was wearing a mask. It made me pause, wondering if he knew something we did not. Little did I know….

North to Alaska

Disenchantment Bay

If you follow me on Facebook, you would no doubt know that we have recently had a trip to Canada and Alaska.

This has been a bucket list trip for me for as long as I can remember so when I booked the trip when I was on a cruise with my mum and sister last year, I was very hopeful that it would live up to my long held dreams.

We flew to Vancouver Canada from Houston on Thursday morning. It was an early start and I think we had a stopover in Calgary for second breakfast. I have never been to Canada before but of course it was also on my list. Vancouver proved to be a pretty fun place and the downtown area near the harbor was very charming. Vancouver is one of the most expensive cities in the world. Sydney-siders reading this will sympathize. It is a harbor city bounded by mountains and the ocean. Real estate is very expensive- it ranks in the top 10 of most overpriced cities in the world. However, Vancouver is also one of the most livable cities in the world. The public transport is pretty easy to use and there are lots of beautiful parks and green spaces including the massive Stanley Park. The harbor only has two bridges, one of which was financed by the Guinness family of Ireland, when the developer couldn’t raise money for the bridge at home.  It was pretty around the harbor. We went to a night market across the bay to a new swanky area and tried some local made gin and cute crafts.  Vancouver seems to be rebuilding its industrial areas to become chic residential areas.

The forests in British Colombia are temperate rainforest. Stanley Park and the fascinating Capilano Park have beautiful maples, red cedars and douglas fir trees. Both parks have lovely creeks running through them. The first day we were there was quite hot and there were people swimming in the water holes. The water was so clear it was mesmerizing. Of course, for us the main objective was to see the wildlife. The trees and creeks are beautiful but where are the bears….?

Vancouver has an historic area called Gastown. I thought it was because of the gas-powered clock but its actually named after its founder Gassy Jack. Such an unfortunate name to have for history. Anyway, the gas-powered clock is fun, and the wine bars are plentiful.

Now to the ship…

So, Alaska is an unusual shape. I thought, before I booked this trip that it was just the big part up in the north, but Alaska actually comes right down the west coast of Canada in a narrow strip called the Inside Passage. This was the area where we cruised. The most northern point of the cruise was Glacier Bay and the amazing day at Hubbard Glacier (pronounced “Glasha” for all you Aussies). Our cabin was at the back of the ship. I figured that if there were things to see on both sides then you want to be able to see both sides. It worked a treat. We were so lucky with the weather. On the first day which was an at sea day it was pretty foggy and I was worried that we might not see anything. We had been told that August was a really rainy month in this region of Alaska, but (thanks to climate change) we got lucky and the rain and fog stayed away for the rest of the trip.

We only made three land stops in the 7 days of the trip, but they were really memorable. The first was a tiny native Tlingit settlement called Hoonah and the port called Icy Straight Point. The locals have set up the longest zipline in north America and a whole lot of tours that get the cruise liners in. apparently its one of the busiest cruise ports in Alaska. We went on a bear searching tour with a local guide. The bus is met by other local guides with huge shot guns to keep us safe in case the bears need scaring away. We headed down to the creek and stood on viewing platforms. We had just about given up when a bear appeared in the distance. It was a long way off, but we could claim to have seen a bear. We moved onto the next platform and were again about to leave when we were told not to move because there was a bear headed our way. It was so cool. A big brown bear turned up in the creek quite near us and started fishing. He caught a salmon and stood there eating it for a few minutes while we all went crazy taking photos and feeling very happy with ourselves.

first bear

On the way back to the boat we chatted with the guide about how they live through the various seasons. He hunts in the hunting seasons to provide for his family and his parents and grandparents. When he has met his family quota then he will hunt for elderly people in the village. They have a deer, salmon and duck quotas. They preserve the meat by drying freezing or canning it. They also collect and berries and fruit and grow and preserve vegetables. There is a supermarket in town but its really expensive so they travel to Juneau once a month or so by boat to buy household things like nappies, toilet paper and so on. It’s a tough existence but they love where they live and it provides for them if they are careful with resources.

Our next stop was Hubbard Glacier in the unfortunately named Disenchantment Bay. We had a perfect day, we were far from disenchanted. The weather was calm and clear and the captain was able to take the ship as close and any boat is allowed to the glacier (about ¼ mile). Hubbard Glacier is huge, about 400ft above the water and 600 below. It is one of the few Glaciers to still be advancing. It starts about 122 miles north and drops about 12000ft on its trip to the ocean. Apparently, it takes ice 400 years to travel the full length of the glacier. The color change of the water was fascinating to me. As you get into the area where the moraine and all of the tiny suspended particles are in the water it is a milky green color. There are a number of other glaciers in the bay all heading into the water, but it is only Hubbard that is meeting the ocean. The noise of the ice calving was unexpected. They call is white thunder and it sounds just like thunder. You hear the noise and then see the huge sheets of ice falling into the water. Because we couldn’t see the whole length of the glacier (its 6 miles wide where it meets the bay) sometimes we could hear the noise but not see the ice falling. It was the most exquisite thing. After a few hours on the deck we retreated to our balcony and toasted the grandeur of nature; (thank you God). It is a sobering point that our grandchildren may not be able to visit these amazing places. The naturalist on board showed us pictures of the glacier when she visited it as a child. It was very different to now. The biggest change was in the other glaciers in the bay. Something to think about. We were so happy to have such a great glacier view that seeing the seals and birds in bay almost went unnoticed.

Next stop was Juneau. This is the capitol of Alaska. It seems to be in a strange place to be the capitol but I guess the other parts including Anchorage may have been cut off in the winter and most of the people probably live in the southern parts. Juneau also boasts the beautiful Mendenhall Glacier. It was a very pretty place. The indigenous craft museum was really fabulous as were the MANY gem shops. The opalised ammonites were particularly interesting to me. Some of them were enormous. We did not buy anything but looking was fun.

Anyway, for us, Juneau was whale day. We took a boat tour doing a bit of scientific data collecting; dip netting and crab potting and then headed out to see the whales which we were identifying and recording. Straight away we saw 3 adult humpbacks in the bay, feeding and coming up for air. There was a bit of tail flapping too. They were quite close, but it was pretty tame compared to whale watching at Byron Bay. We then got word that there was a mum and baby a bit further up. Our captain asked if we wanted to go there or go look at the seals. Fortunately, the Kiwi lady and Rob and I prevailed, and we went to see the baby and mum humpback whales. They were being quiet and just feeding. I asked the guide if the babies jumped much and he’d said no, when this little fella started flapping his tail. Well, he jumped and flapped and played around for about 30 minutes. He even dived right under our (little) boat and came upright next to us. Amazing. It was the best day.

We thought….. our next stop was Ketchikan. On this stop we went to a nature reserve where the locals had built boardwalks over a creek where the salmon run. The outside of the reserve was open and bears were free to wander in. And they did. We had really wanted to see lots of bears well this was amazing. The salmon were everywhere in the river and there were bears everywhere. It was so interesting. The bears only eat the bits of the salmon they like and just leave the rest lying about for the birds. Bald Eagles and seagulls were dropping in for a feed of the leftovers. While we were there a mother bear and her cub came across the bank on the other side. The cub was very cute trying to mimic his mum and wanting to eat her salmon. They swam across the creek and mum just casually picked up another salmon as she got out of the water. We were so close, maybe 10 meters away. I got some fabulous photos of the bears almost right under me. This may have been another best day. Best bear day.

Ketchikan was a really interesting visit. When the local indigenous populations leave their houses and gardens, they allow them to just decompose to replenish the site. I guess they take away anything that won’t decompose but its an interesting idea. They have the luxury of space but perhaps we could all learn from their recycling and patience: understanding that time is also a part of respecting their environment.

It was such a fabulous cruise and really lived up to expectations. So much so that I have booked another Alaska cruise next year! Different itinerary- one way to Anchorage.

We had another couple of days in Vancouver before heading back to Houston, so we hired a car and drove to Whistler. This was a beautiful way to finish our trip. We did a bit of hiking and went on the most amazing gondolas going between peaks at the ski resort.  Like all of the other ski resorts we have been to in summer Whistler was full of mountain bikers and hikers. It was also a public holiday in Vancouver so there were lots of families having a day out. The we had a great time travelling between the peaks. The village was full of flowers and nice places to eat. It was lovely.

When we arrived back in Houston, I started teaching in the charter school system as a substitute teacher. What an amazing experience that has been.

I’ll tell you about it in my next blog.

Rocky Mountains High


We ticked two long held dreams off our list in one weekend in the second week in August. For a long time we have wanted to go to the Rocky Mountains in Colorado, I guess all of those John Denver songs from years back had melded into our DNA, and we wanted to see Billy Joel in concert while we were in the US. The stars aligned.

A few months ago, we were looking for Billy Joel tickets and discovered he was playing Corrs Stadium in Denver. Bingo! Two ticks. We booked tickets in about March (I think) and made some tentative plans for visiting the Rockies in the days following. Wow!

We flew into Denver on Wednesday evening and caught an uber into town. We were surprised by the flatness of Denver. Colorado and Utah sit on the Colorado Plateau; a massive area at the foot of the Rockies. Denver is called the mile-high city because it has an altitude of 5280ft (1600m). This plateau gets a lot of sunshine and not much snow but quickly rises up to the huge mountain range with many mountains over 14,000ft (called the 14ers). The Uber driver told us that Denver has more days of sunshine than just about anywhere else in the US. 300 days of sunshine in fact. However, the truth seems to be that the 300 days is actually a myth. Denver gets 300 days where, at some point, the sun shines. Anyway, that being said it was mostly sunny when we were there.

Once settled into our downtown hotel we went for a walk to find some food. Denver downtown has a terrific mall that stretches from Union Station to the Capitol Building. As the weather is so nice, there are lots of cool alfresco eating places and good bars. A free bus/tram system runs up and down the length. It was super pretty. The flower boxes were abundant and overflowing everywhere, the streets were clean and people rode bikes or walked much more than we see in Houston (which isn’t difficult).

We found a late-night bar and sat watching the sidewalk. Nearby there were tables on the median strip area with chess boards. It’s true most seats were occupied by drunks and homeless people sleeping haphazardly across the tables, but some were being used for chess. (Later that weekend, I did see people sitting playing chess in the afternoon sun.) Colorado has legalized cannabis and like Nimbin (where I don’t think it is yet legal) they advertise hippy trips to cannabis dealers etc. Now, I’m not saying it necessarily has a direct correlation, but, compared to Houston, there did seem to be quite a lot of homeless people who were either having intense conversations with themselves or screaming abuse at passers-by in that “I’m really disturbed and paranoid” kind of way. I think that was the only downside of a wonderful stay.

Denver on the first night

The next morning, we got up early and headed to the capitol building for our free city walking tour. We arrived quite early and viewed the impressive statue of a civil war soldier. The morning was beautiful and the flowers in the gardens were lovely. The group swelled to nearly 40 by the time the guide started. Our guide Janice was a little dynamo. Full of energy and enthusiasm. She explained that the Capitol building was constructed in the late 1800s out of Colorado granite and that the dome on top is really gold (leaf). This is because Denver, Colorado was really (European) settled by gold miners in the 1850s. This followed a period of Spanish then French ownership and Colorado was sold in the Louisiana deal to the USA by the French in 1803. The borders of Colorado were finally decided in the mid-1800s and it became the 38th state in 1876. Denver became the capitol and flourished as a silver and university town until gold was found again in the 1890’s. Another fun fact about Denver and gold: Denver has white fire engines and the story is that they ordered fire engines in the late 1800’s and decided that they wanted gold fittings on the outside as befitted their gold city status but when they had done that they found that there was no money left for red paint so the engines stayed white.

As I said, the capitol building has a dome covered in gold, really. Originally it was Colorado gold then Italian and now again its Colorado gold. As it is gold leaf it has to be replaced every 20 years or so. Impressive.

the gold dome on the capitol building

We headed down into the flower filled parks and streets. Denver has quite a lot of street art and we found a giant chair outside the library with a horse on it. Apparently, the chair was originally commissioned for a school but when the artist decided to add the horse, the school didn’t want it anymore, so it ended up in Denver outside the library. The Convention Center has a huge blue bear looking into it. It’s very cool. It was a lovely morning walk. We really recommend the free walking tour in Denver; we try to do these types of get to know the place tours when we can. We probably would have just walked by most of the buildings without understanding the significance and the history. The walk finished at the Union Station which has been beautifully restored. Railway stations were so important to settling the west, but Colorado was not on the main line. It was a spur built from Wyoming, no doubt to help with getting all of those rich minerals and mine owners safely back to the east.

art in the parks

One of the main reasons to go to Denver was to go to the Billy Joel concert on Thursday night at Corrs stadium a huge baseball stadium for the Denver Rockies baseball team. It was a magic night and when 50,000 fans sang Piano Man it was spine tingling. We (naively) thought we would just pick up food somewhere on the way to the stadium but as we walked towards it we realized that 50,000 other people were thinking the same thing and there was just nowhere to fit. That is until, of course, we got to the stadium which easily catered for that number. Our seats were actually on the field just in front about 14 rows back, it was awesome.

Next day we picked up a car and headed into the mountains. We took a scenic byway (Highway 9) through to Frisco via Fairplay, Alma and Brekenridge. Fairplay has a street called South Park City where the shopfronts like a wild west movie. We ended up in a shop that seemed to sell everything, chatting to an old couple about the animals that visited their home just out of town. Bears, moose, elk were apparently regular visitors. They also described some Aussie tourists they had rescued after they were stuck in the snow, completely unprepared for the weather. Not surprising really when they also said that they usually got 10ft of snow each winter. The backdrop is straight out of an old western movie. Alma is the highest town in the USA at 10578ft. The scenery soon became amazing. Huge mountains and deep valleys forged by glaciers and rivers. It was (naturally) rocky and steep but there were wildflowers growing everywhere and towering pine trees. We passed through a few towns that had been or still were involved in mining at some stage.

They call this the top of the Rockies because there are so many 14ers; (these are mountains over 14,000ft). So, we started the day at around 5300ft in Denver and went across the continental divide and Hoosier pass, which is 11,500ft. We got out at Hoosier pass as we had decided to do a short 3mile walk to the top of a lookout are which took us to 12200ft. While we were aware that we needed to drink lots of water to help stave off the altitude headaches we were completely unprepared for the tiredness of walking at that altitude. Seriously, (I’m pretty fit I jog regularly in Houston and usually work out more than 3 times a week) we really struggled to walk up to the lookout even at a slow pace. It was a good lesson in the effect of altitude. My brain was just taking all the oxygen for itself and vital organs so the little mitochondria in my muscle cells were starving. My heart was racing, and I was breathless. Not nearly enough ATP being produced on that day to go for a walk. Lucky, I didn’t choose the 6mile up to 14000ft hike I was thinking of doing. The guidebooks do warn you that everything will take longer at altitude but of course I didn’t believe them. We were much better after a couple of days up in the clouds.

The treeline ends at about 12000ft so looking across at the mountains all around you can take a guess at the altitude. There was evidence of avalanche damage in some valleys along the road; the trees are just missing or pushed over in the downward direction and then up a little bit on the other side of the valley too. We were glad we were driving in summer. Another great thing about this area was the number of cycle paths. There seemed to be paths all along the roadside and we saw quite a few intrepid cyclist peddling up these enormous mountains.

Towering mountains with snow and flat grassy plains in front.

Brekenridge was a busy place. It was full of summer holidaying families and flowers. The shops wer generally upmarket and beautiful. We went into a shop selling huge crystals: they were thousands of dollars but staggeringly beautiful. You would need an enormous atrium to display one. Brekenridge has a series of chairlifts and Gondolas that will take you up to 14000ft but we arrived too late in the afternoon to do it that day. Instead we sat in a lovely outdoor pub and ate pizza and drank wine. 😊

We were staying just a few miles out of Brekenridge at a cute little town called Frisco. Its main street had some older buildings and lots of places to eat. The whole area was having an art festival that weekend so there were lots of stalls and fetes going on all over.

Next morning, we headed out on a mini road trip to Aspen and back. We took a byway on the way there which took us through some impressive mountains and the ski resort of Vail. Vail was busy having a kids festival. Lots of tiny kids racing through a series of challenges including tubing down the river, mountain biking and running. It was packed. We didn’t stay very long, but it was beautiful and very European looking. The road continued to wind up through fabulous mountains and wide glacial valleys. Again, the wildflowers were everywhere.

Towering mountains with snow and flat grassy plains in front. We stopped at the lookout near Camp Hanes. This place was where the US trained their snow soldiers during the second world war and for a while after. There was nothing left of the camp that we could see but it was certainly steep and remote. As we walked to the lookout Rob struck up a conversation with an old gentleman who was walking very slowly. It turned out he was from Houston! During the walk, which was about 150yrds and back he told us a story about his father who served in PNG during WW11 and how he thought that Aussies were the toughest breed on the planet. We heard that story at least twice on our slow walk.

We finally arrived in Aspen. It was much bigger than Vail or Brekenridge but the ski area did not seem as large. Again, it was busy having end of summer festivals and there were lots of people around. We wandered through a lovely tranquil park dedicated to the memory of John Denver, an Aspen local and had a drink outside a pub where we met a guy who had been riding his dirt bike through the mountains for a few days. He was living in the UK but was another Houston local. Small world.

The drive back was via a different route on a major highway. We were very surprised to see that the cycle path continued for nearly the whole 200 odd miles of the trip. Because the road and bike path followed the river it was also mostly flat. Well done Colorado.

On our final day we went back to Brekenridge to ride the Gondola and hike down. Unfortunately, it was raining this day and we were not able to go right up to the top of the mountain. We did walk down through one of the ski routes called the 4o’clock trail. It was a wide path. We saw a sign indicating moose crossing but sadly didn’t see any moose. Back in Denver, it was sunny again and warm. (Back in Houston it was HOT. The next day the thermometer hit 104F with a “feels like” 108F.)

Colorado was flowery and fabulous, and the Rockies were magnificent. We sang a lot of Rocky Mountain High and of course Billy Joel. We ticked off a couple of bucket list points and had a lovely time being tourists. This is a quick turnaround because as I write this, we are sitting in a plane bound for Vancouver and a cruise to Alaska. Stay tuned for the next blog post.

Critters and NOLA

the very tiny Spiny orb weaver spider that made this great web in our backyard

In the past few weeks things have really warmed up here in Houston.

Just as we got home from our fabulous Utah trip, Rob left for a work trip and I went to New York to visit my sister, who was at a conference there and also stay with friends for a few lovely days. New York Central Park in summer is so beautiful (I have only seen it in winter before).

Central Park New York-summer 2019

Anyway, since getting back the weather has been HOT every day. We have had quite a lot of summer storms but that is to be expected when it is so hot and humid. Houston has a latitude of about 29N. It is about 3300km from the equator (similar to Grafton in NSW) but the proximity to the warm Gulf of Mexico, lots of lakes and rivers and the flat topography combine to make it extremely humid. Its weather patterns are really like a tropical region, with just two seasons, rainy and dry. The annual average rainfall in Houston is over 1200mm, more than Townsville Qld, so it is very wet. We have been having big thunderstorms most days for the past couple of weeks. (I love thunderstorms….just saying..). The water lies around in big dish gutters once it rains and the flood mitigation reservoirs are close into the suburban areas and are huge areas of low-lying greenspaces, all adding to the humidity. The streets are briefly completely flooded when it rains hard. Its is most humid in the mornings around 90%. The condensation on the outside of our windows is remarkable. We use the air conditioner at night to keep the house cooler and so the windows fog up on the outside! The evening humidity is usually less, around 70% but it depends on if we are having a storm. Consequently, even though the temperatures are around 33C most days, the humidity makes it feel over 40C.

These nice warm temperatures really suit the reptiles and insects. I drove out of our garage on Thursday last week and as I closed the garage door I glanced across towards the front of the house and there was a large snake quickly slithering towards the front door garden. I think it was about 1.2 meters long and stripy. I reflected, that if I was in Australia, I would be thinking tiger snake. It was moving very fast, (I guess I just about ran over it) but stopped in the low hedge out on the verge area. I got out of the car to take a photo incase I needed to get a snake handler to remove it. I was thinking how crazy that seemed but, I had seen that it wasn’t a viper which are the most likely poisonous snakes around here. It didn’t want to have its photo taken and headed for the hedge right next to our front door. One of my neighbors was out the front of his house and came over to have a look. He put his hand into the bushes to push them aside to have a look! (As an Australian I thought that was a bit crazy) and he assured me that because the snakes head and body were about the same diameter it was not likely to be poisonous. That is not a rule of thumb to follow for Australian poisonous snakes, by-the-way. Anyway, that was a bit of up-close excitement. I expect the snake was after the little skink lizards that are everywhere around here. I’m pretty sure it was a rat snake.

A couple of weekends ago we went to Corpus Christi. It’s about a three hour drive south west from Houston, with a stop at Aunt Aggie De’s Praline shop in Sinton. There is a statue of a big squirrel out the front and an excellent little shop selling yummy pecan praline and pecan brittle.

Corpus Christi is an interesting place. As you drive in its highly industrial with oil and gas processing plants all along the river. Then you come to the business area of town and an enormous bridge over the river with an old aircraft carrier moored next to it. The ship is the USS Lexington which was commissioned in 1943 and served in the US navy until 1991. It is now a museum and was quite an fascinating place to look around. I thought how frightening it would have been to be inside it when it was involved in combat during the war. Apparently, the Japanese announced on four separate occasions that it had been sunk so it was nicknamed the grey ghost.

Corpus Christi and the Lexington Museum

The beach at Corpus Christi is on the Gulf of Mexico, so, no waves, except those caused by the wind, and it was very windy. Along the Gulf coast from Mexico to Galveston Island are a series of long sand barrier islands that protect the mainland from the water of the gulf; handy in hurricanes. The area off Corpus Christi is designated a National Seashore. Which is a national park on the sea. It is called Padre Island National Seashore and is an area rich in nature. Lots of turtle species nest on S. Padre Island and it is managed by the national parks service. They allow the public to come and watch the baby turtle release early in the morning. Unfortunately, there was no baby turtle release the day we were there but we know about it now, so might be back. The Kemp’s Ridley Sea Turtle is unique to this area and lay their eggs on the beaches, along with leatherbacks and green sea turtles. The  nesting areas are carefully protected and monitored. The national parks officer told us to go to a jetty near town to see turtles in the wild. We saw about four juvenile green sea turtles swimming around. It was lovely to see although there was also a large amount of plastic debris in the water too.  We were really struck by the juxtaposition of the heavy industrial and nature trying to coexist. The national parks service is obviously doing a great job, but I fear one oil or chemical spill and it will be all over.

S. Padre Island National Seashore

The beaches (and parks) of Corpus Christi are beautiful with white soft sand. When you go to the beach, you park right on the sand. It felt kind of bizarre driving our 2WD Audi onto a beach. Despite being quite hot, it was a very windy weekend so (spoilt Australians) did not feel tempted to get in the (not blue, kind of brown) water.

Our drive home took us further up the barrier islands and we crossed at the biggest domestic car ferry terminal I’ve seen. There were 6 ferries crossing a very busy but short waterway. There were oilrigs sitting in the river waiting to go into service, huge boats going up and down, tugs pushing barges and these 6 car ferries. In the middle of it all was a big pod of dolphins, just having a great time like there was nothing else about. Again, an example of nature adapting (I hope).

Last weekend we ventured the other direction (East) and headed to New Orleans Louisiana, or NOLA as it is known. This was a five-and-a-half-hour drive, so we got a fairly early start. Like Houston, the coastline towards Louisiana is flat, flat, flat. We soon seemed to be on bridges more often than land roads. Crawfish ponds were everywhere. Crawfish are freshwater yabbies. The ponds are rotated to grow rice in the other year. It’s a great idea. We stopped in a little place outside of Lafayette called the Gator Chateau. Here you can hold baby alligators and talk to the handlers. The babies are quite cute, like most babies, and their underbellies are super soft. We enjoyed that little break and it got us interested in doing an airboat swamp cruise. We picked up a few brochures and booked one on the Lac Des Allemande, about 30 minutes out of New Orleans.

After we left Lafayette, we travelled over one of the longest bridges in the US. It’s over the Atchafalaya Basin and the bridge is 18.2 miles long of mostly dual bridges, two lanes wide. The Atchafalaya basin contains the largest connected block of forested wetlands remaining (about 35%) in the lower Mississippi River valley and the largest block of floodplain forest in the United States. Its about 70% (cypress) forest sitting in the water and 30% marsh lands. Its really quite remarkable. The birdlife, even from the road at 60mph was amazing. The wetlands of Louisiana are under threat due to the flood levies put up in the 1930’s and the damming of the Mississippi River which would naturally dump tons of sediment into the delta everyday but now does not. Balancing the needs of the resident people with the natural environment is difficult at the best of times but climate change seems to be having a huge effect on this already damaged ecosystem. Our tour guide suggested that a football-field size of wetland is being lost every day (or was it every hour?). The impact that will have on the gulf coast is significant.

We traveled to Baton Rouge where we looked on trip adviser for somewhere to have lunch. We found Louie’s café. Wow it was a real picture postcard classic diner. The food was good too. We drove around the university lake in Baton Rouge and it felt like we were in “Gone With the Wind”. The mansions were beautiful, and some were that classic “southern” white house. Gorgeous.

From Baton Rouge we headed to the airboat tour. We sat on the first row of seats on the airboat, collected out ear protection and headed off. Going up the river was pretty with water hyacinth, ducks and little turtles. As we got into the swamp the egrets and cranes became more abundant. The Whooping Crane is the tallest bird in the US; it has a wingspan of 2.3m and stands 1.5m tall; and we saw a couple of them at the Zoo in Houston a few weeks ago but did not see any on this tour. They are beautiful white birds and have black tips on their wings that you can see when they fly. However, we did see some other enormous birds: the Great Blue Heron; it has a wingspan of up to 2m, and the Great Egret; wingspan 1.5m, which is a large white bird that was endangered due to over hunting for their pure white feathers in the 1800’s early 1900’s; they are making a comeback.

The real interest in the tour was of course the alligators. They are really very different to crocodiles; they seem much less threatening (from the safety of the boat). Our guide fed two big males each about 12 feet long at different places and I was brave enough to pat one. There is a clip on my Facebook page if you haven’t seen it. There would be no way I would get that close on purpose to a salt water croc. I was surprised and pleased to note that the gator, who climbed onto the edge of the boat to get fed, reminded me of the crocodile in the original PeterPan. I do not know why that stuck with me, but it did. Disney must have used an alligator to mimic rather than a real crocodile.

Alligator up close

Finally we arrived in New Orleans and checked into the hotel, walking distance from Canal and Bourbon streets. That evening we walked along Canal street to the river and watched the steamboat go out. The Mississippi River is still used as a transport corridor. It starts way up north in Minnesota and is the second longest river in the US. (The longest one is the Missouri River which empties into the Mississippi.) Apparently, a raindrop that falls in Lake Itasca where the river begins, takes about 90 days for it to reach the Gulf of Mexico near New Orleans. It was flowing quite quickly even though we were right at the delta.

We kept walking until we found Jackson square. This is sort of the heart of the French Quarter and reflects the history of European New Orleans. Jackson Square was the site of the hand over of Louisiana from Spanish to French and then the signing of the Louisiana Purchase. Louisiana territory in the mid 1800’s stretched from the Mississippi River to the Rocky Mountains, and Louisiana to Montana; it was big. Napoleon apparently traded New Orleans for $7, but the whole purchase cost more than $11 million. It must have really opened up the continent.

Jackson Square also has the beautiful St Louis Cathedral which is apparently the oldest cathedral in the USA. It was rebuilt in stone and brick after the great fire of New Orleans in the late 1700’s. There are lots of great restaurants all around the area of course but we decided to try a seafood one right on Jackson Square with a view of the river walk called the Moon Walk. Cajun food is spicy but not as hot as Mexican. We loved it. Next time we will do a food and history tour. and try more Cajun and Creole food.

After dinner we walked to Frenchmen Street to go to the Spotted Cat Music Club. It was packed and the band was fabulous. There were lots of these little music bars all along Frenchmen Street. As it was summer and the fourth of July week, the whole street was busy and felt like a party. We caught the St Charles Street streetcar back to the hotel around midnight. FUN!

The next morning, we headed back over to Jackson Square to get on the Hop-on Hop-off bus. We have found this a really good way to get to know a city (in a bit of a hurry). New Orleans seemed to be freshly washed down; although, as it was early there were a few drunks passed out in the gutters. The police were picking them up as we wandered by. We did the entire bus tour which took us to places like Basin Street Station and Armstrong park (I thought how much my dad would have loved it). We drove through Tremẻ‍, the Garden District and the French Quarter. It was beautiful in places and run down in others. The garden district was very grand and pretty. We also discovered something called shotgun houses. In a shot gun house there are no walls inside; so the story goes, you could fire a shotgun from the front door through the back door and not hit anything. We also learned about the difference between a balcony and a gallery house; it’s what holds up the top floor verandah (or not). Support columns mean it is a gallery and no supports make it a balcony.

After our tour took us back to Jackson Square, we walked through the French markets, which were just the same as all flea markets of the world, and had a stop to listen to some more great music in a café nearby. We finally made it down Bourbon street and peered into the shady courtyards behind the bars.  We must come back again. What a fabulous and interesting town.

Deep in the (flowering) heart of Texas

Last blog I told you that we would be taking our driving tests this week. This is the last official residency thing we needed to do. It will also provide us with photo id rather than our passports or NSW drivers licenses.

Like NSW we booked a specific time at a center about 30 minutes from our home. I think it is called a mega center because of the number of people they try to cram into the two big waiting rooms.  It was packed. People can wait all day at these places. Bad luck if you have to be at work. Anyway, we couldn’t really work out what we needed to do and despite asking two uniformed people who seemed to be directing the waiting masses where to go, we still were not sure. Finally, I went back to the harried looking concierge and reexplained that my appointment was now, and I had to do my driving test. He sent me to a clerk who then told me I had to go with my car (of course) around the back of the building and do the test from there! We headed around the back and joined that queue. There were eight cars ahead of us and only one stressed looking woman taking paper work and then going on the drive with the candidates. The driving part was only about 10 minutes each. I was so nervous- I haven’t done a driving test for more than 30 years. When I finished, Rob had to rejoin the queue for his turn. It was quite chaotic. The system seems completely overwhelmed by the sheer number of people. All-in-all it took from 1pm to 4.50pm for Rob and I to do our tests and PASS (yay!). Anyway, we are now waiting (again) for the cards to arrive in the post (sigh).

Well we have been to some interesting places the last two weekends. This will probably be the last of the quick trips on weekends because apart from a few local sites we are nearly at the end of the easy to get to places.

I did not really know much about Dallas except that JFK was shot there and there used to be a show in the 80’s with JR and a whole lot of big hats and big hair. Not a high level of knowledge, I agree. So, my approach to this weekend visit was to first book us into a JFK tour on Saturday morning. I figured we should get educated. We left Houston at about 6am as it’s a nearly four-hour drive.  The fog was pretty thick early, but it warmed up to a beautiful day. It was nice to get out of the city.

We made it in time for the tour and joined our slightly manic guide and a couple of other people from Las Vegas (there was a hockey game in town). It was quite fascinating but sad too. There was a big emphasis on how the shooting of JFK sort of marked the end of innocence in the states.The guide was completely sure that Lee Harvey Oswald was the shooter and that all of the conspiracy theories are just crazy and misinformed. The lack of security was what really struck Rob and I. Compared to today, the president’s tour was so casual. How the world has changed.

We went all over the old part of Dallas; Dealey Plaza, the Texas theatre even to the backyard of someone’s house to see the picket fence where a photo of Oswald was taken (we were a bit worried we were actually trespassing). We ended the tour at the book depository where there is a fine museum on the 6th and 7th floors.

I was a bit JFK’d out by that stage, so we went to the farmers market for crawfish and margaritas (as you do). The markets were fun and were celebrating St Patrick’s day. It seems that St Pat’s day is a very big deal in Texas (probably all over the US). Anyway, I have never eaten crawfish. From what I can make out they are freshwater yabbies of a type and must be pretty abundant because the special cookers that are used to cook them are enormous. We ate them at a Cajun street food stand and had them three ways: deep fried tails, pistolette and etouffee (like a chowder). It was really yum.

We wandered around for a while and then bought a tasting plate of local cheese and a bottle of local wine for dinner. Dallas was a really worthwhile visit.

The following day we headed to Fort Worth. Dallas Fort Worth is one of the biggest city areas in the country but quite a contrast. Fort Worth stockyards were great fun and really the highlight of the weekend. About 30 longhorn cattle are driven down the main drag twice a day. Apparently, longhorns developed from escapee cattle from the early settlers and became their own feral breed. They are well adapted to the dry hot conditions in Texas. After the civil war, there was very little stock left in the north and the ranchers of Texas became very rich rounding up the longhorns and driving them to Fort Worth where they could be put on trains to go north for sale. That’s when the Fort Worth stock yards started. 

Longhorn cattle were nearly extinct by the mid 1960’s and are still listed as critically endangered. They are pretty lean so while good for those of us who don’t like a lot of fat on our steak, they are not so popular in the bigger market. Still, Fort Worth stockyards keep a small herd of rescue cattle and there are breeders who also keep them.

 We took a free walking tour and it really helped with understanding the place. Fascinating little piece of information- bulldogging (now cattle wrestling) was started by a bloke called Bill Picket who watched how trained bull dogs pulled down escaping cattle by biting them on the lip. He decided he give it a go (as you do) and that’s how bulldogging started. He actually did bite the cattle on the lip as he wrestled them down (not recommended). He did it for the crowds at rodeos all over the place for many years.

We finished off the day in a honky-tonk saloon chatting with a bunch of people from Oregon and enjoying the music. Fun.

The drive home was a bit of a drama as we ended getting a flat tyre. (my US computer does not like how I’ve spelled tire). The roads here are not only crowded but the potholes are extraordinary. When you add to that the speed, it’s tough on tires and expensive.

The Texas wildflowers are out and so we thought we would take a long weekend and drive up to what is known as the hill country and then onto San Antonio. Wow, wow, wow. This was probably the best weekend so far.

The drive up to the hills went close to Austin then headed west along state highway 29. The wildflowers are mostly a blue/purple flower called bluebonnets, but there are also buttercups, primroses and Indian paintbrush. They probably needed another weekend to be perfect, but it was still spectacular. We really enjoyed being out of the towns and found the scenery a bit reminiscent of the northern tablelands around Tenterfield although not as hilly. There is a big granite uplift called the Llano uplift and in it is a pink granite hill called enchanted rock. We thought we might go into the state park and have a look but the queue just to get into the park was about a mile long. We gave it a miss and continued onto Fredericksberg. This is a German settlement town a lot like Hahndorff near Adelaide. Unfortunately, we did not find any apple strudel.

We did, however, find some wineries. Some grapes are grown in the area although we discovered that most are grown in north west Texas and then brought to the “Hill country” because its more accessible to the big cities of Texas and therefore is more of a tourist destination. The winemakers no doubt prefer to live in Fredericksburg too. We enjoyed the short visit to winery 4.0 where four wines are showcased, all but one is made from 100% Texas grown grapes.

On to San Antonio. Our son and daughter-in-law told us about San Antonio and how pretty it was. Really it surpassed my expectations. There are two main things to do in San Antonio: the river walk and the Alamo. The Alamo is almost sacred to Texans. A bit like how Australians celebrate Gallipoli, Texans revere the Alamo. Two hundred rebels held off 6,000 Mexican soldiers for a short time before they were defeated, and all were killed. However, it became the battle cry for the rest of the war between rebel Texans and the Mexican army. A few days after the fall of the Alamo, the Mexicans were defeated at San Jacinto and Texas became a republic. I don’t know really what I expected but the Alamo is a very small fort with a few lovely old brick buildings including a Spanish mission style church. It’s a well-done exhibit with long queues every day.

The River walk is another thing altogether. It is beautiful. The gardens and bridges along the way are artistic and interesting. It reminded me a lot of Italy but cleaner and newer. We used the hop-on-hop-off bus to get around and have an overview. One spectacular place was the Pearl, on old brewery site now turned into residential high-rise with market places and restaurants. As it was Saturday there was music and lots of people sitting on the grass eating ice-cream and shopping at the markets. We walked about 3 miles from there to the main part of the Riverwalk area which is restaurants, gardens and artwork; so pretty and restful. At night the restaurant area is full of people music and food; excellent fun.

There is lots more to see in San Antonio. We loved it.

Luckily, petrol (Gas) is pretty cheap here, so, these long drives are not too expensive on the fuel. When you go to a service station you pay up front at the bowser. Put in your credit or debit card and choose your gas. There is no 98, only standard (83%), 87% and 93%. The price for 93 per litre is about cents (US). Its no wonder everyone drives, and they have not bothered with public transport infrastructure. I am travelling to Australia next week and will be there for most of April. I may not post again until May.

Hair meets Humidity

This week something seemed to change in the weather. The flowers are starting to appear on the trees in the estate, the clouds are clearing and I have BIG hair. As I told you a couple of blogs ago, I have ventured to the hair dresser a few times now and they have always made comment about how much hair I have. I have bought lots of product to help keep it in order and have even learnt how to wield a blow dryer and straightening iron, things I have avoided as much as possible in the past. Alas, all of my hard work is going to be for nothing. I spent about an hour trying to straighten it to less than frizz on Saturday before heading out to the Rodeo and within no time it was back to big hair. I feel like a character in a 70’s sitcom. Rob says he thinks it looks good, frizzy, (we have been married for a lot of years) so I am just giving in.  Embrace the big hair.

On Saturday we pulled on our boots and decided to go to the Rodeo to check out the “Super Shootout” (no guns involved). It was a team event of winning rodeo contestants from some of the major rodeos around the country and Canada. There were 8 teams from Calgary, Fort Worth, Austin, San Antonio, San Angelo, Denver and an interestingly named Days of 47 from Salt Lake City Utah and of course Houston.  Each team had competitors for five events: Bareback riding, barrel racing (which the girls do), steer wrestling, saddle bronc riding and bull riding. Its pretty brutal. I was pleased to see that many of the competitors had safety gear like neck protectors to prevent whip lash and helmets. Still they are pretty brave and seem to be limping back after each event. Its amazing what adrenaline drives us to do. I’m sure that they must all be in it for the thrill. It was all exciting to watch but I think that the barrel riding was absolutely brilliant and the crowd really got into it.

The whole evening’s performance is such a spectacle. Of course, it is held in an indoor air-conditioned arena that holds about 70000 people. It is a bit like ANZ (-is it still called that?) Sydney Olympic Stadium with wide walkways up to the seating areas. Lots of food and drink stalls inside including my personal favorite a yard glass of margaritas. The show starts with a grand parade which weaves around itself to fit all of the riders and wagons inside. This was not a parade of the livestock as it’s only the rodeo, the livestock is in another pavilion. Then the field is cleared and they have a prayer. I must say that the Americans wear their hearts on their sleeves about God and patriotism, the cowboy who prayed really prayed. It did not feel like he was just saying some politically correct words which were designed to not offend anyone.  No doubt he was getting on the back of some bull later that night and realized he needed all the help he could get. Everyone around us stood up and was quiet, even if they were not praying, they respected the moment.

the NRG stadium

Then, came the national anthem. Like in Australia, the US has a song as its national anthem. They only sing the first verse of four. The song was actually written about the battle for Fort McHenry near Baltimore in 1814. I did a little bit of research and discovered that this battle was a turning point in a war with Britain called the war of 1812. It seems to have involved Napoleon stirring trouble in Europe and Britain and France being a bit heavy handed with neutral “colonies” (although the US was not a colony at that time). Anyway, the war didn’t last very long compared to what was going on in Europe, but it did result in this great poem which then became a song and then the national anthem.

So, back to the rodeo. A cowgirl rode in with the flag held high and went around and around the stadium while someone from the armed services sang. When they got to the bit about the battle raging, red flares and fire works are let off (great horse). There is lots of smoke and emotion and she rides faster and no hands holding the flag up and then out of the stadium. It’s a real emotional spectacle and I loved it. The cowboys then get to do their thing.

The rodeo competition finishes with “Mutton Busting”. This is different. A small area is cordoned off in the stadium and bring in a dozen sheep. Then they put little kids on the sheep and see who can hang on the furthest/longest. The kids are all 5 and 6-year old and wear helmets and chest guards. We saw a few casualties where the sheep ran over the kid who had fallen off but they mostly leave intact. They only have to fall a couple of feet. You do best if your sheep runs fast. That means you get to the end without having to hang on for very long.

The biggest boot

At the end of the mutton busting they have a very strange event called the calf scramble. This is actually an event that provides scholarships for agriculture students from high schools around the area. How it works is; the scholarship hopefuls are called scramblers and they line up at the edge of a big square box marked out on the stadium. A stack of calves are let into the area inside the box and then the scramblers run in to try to catch one. Of course, the calves run out of the box and all over the arena. When the kids catch a calf the have to put a bridle on it and lead it back into the square to get their scholarship papers. Easy right? It is hilarious seeing these kids try to firstly catch a calf and then get it back into the square. The calves weigh about as much as most of these kids and are not that keen on being caught. There are scramblers falling down all over the place and being dragged around by some calf whose tail they have hold of. The calves are even less keen on being led anywhere. They sit down or dig in their heels and just won’t move. It often takes a scrambler on the front and back to get the calf over the line. Anyway, once they are in the box the scramblers get a certificate and scholarship money to buy and raise a beef heifer or steer to show at the next years’ show. It’s a neat way to give agriculture students the chance to stay involved. The money for the scholarships is donated by people and businesses. We met a guy after the rodeo that night who had donated a calf. He was very proud to have done it.

After the rodeo there was a concert by Kane Brown. I confess I had never heard of him, but he was pretty good. Sort of modern country, I guess. The crowd all knew the words. I’ll have to let it grow on me.

We then headed over to the ranch rodeo. A lovely man and his special needs daughter showed us the way and gave us some tips. His daughter who had Downs Syndrome had been awarded a special belt buckle that day because it was her tenth year of attending the rodeo and she loved it. She had lots to say about her buckle, which was spectacular, and that we should make sure we come to the ranch rodeo because it was such fun. This was much more like the Lismore show of my childhood. Dad would have loved it. Teams of cowboys from working ranches cut cattle from herds, a bit like team campdrafting, bare back riding, roping events and cattle wrestling. At the end there was a crazy event that topped it all off. It was called wild cow milking. The teams had to rope a cow front and back, hold it still long enough for one of them to milk it enough to get a few drops in a bottle. These were not small calves but big cows. The teams all rode full belt at the cow so of course it ran away from them. I had the thought that approaching it quietly might be a better option but none of the teams did that. The milker then had to run with the milk bottle and ropes back to the judge. It took the whole team to hold it still long enough for it to be milked. Pretty sure there were some very sore cowboys going home that night from this event.

It was Saturday night, so we continued to the wine garden. There was excellent live music and local wines. Houston likes to dance it seems and there were people of all ages dancing to some gentle country and blues. The weather was warm (albeit humid!) and it was just a really nice way to finish off a terrific evening.

We went back to the Rodeo to see Santana last night. Again, it was a great night with more and different events at the Rodeo. Santana were incredible. They had three drummers who no doubt were relieved that the stadium was air conditioned. The sound was phenomenal, and the stadium was packed. We had decided to park at the park and ride station we had used last weekend and catch a metro event bus stadium. It was a good set up, a bit like the way Sydney does big events (but no trains). You still have to park fairly close to the stadium, but it was very easy. As always everyone is friendly and happy. We piled on the bus to go back to the car after waiting in the line for about half an hour. While we were underway the driver announces that we are going to a different park and ride station. Everyone on the bus exclaimed that we were supposed to be going to west loop…. He was just kidding, making sure we were awake…..having a good laugh. Happy people.

However, it rained while we were in the concert making things a bit slippery. Driving home late at about 11.30 we were overtaken by a few speeding cars weaving in an out of traffic already traveling at over 60 mph in wet conditions. Rob and I commented that they must have been going at least 70. We drove past some thick black smoke on the side road under the freeway. I heard this morning that one of the speeding cars had flipped off the freeway onto the side-road and burst into flames. A young driver was killed and his passenger is critical. So sad.

Last blog I wrote that we were going for our Texas Drivers license. We have done the paper work and are approved but have to do the actual driving test next week. Let’s hope its fine. It is a driving environment that really makes me realize more than ever that focus and caution are so important.

We are off to Dallas and Fort Worth this weekend.

Thanks for the feedback. I am looking forward to catching up with a few of you in Australia in April. 

It’s Rodeo Time

It’s Rodeo Time in Houston- that means boots!

We have been busy since I last wrote, hence the delay.

On Monday the Houston Rodeo started. It is absolutely huge and goes for three weeks. It has the familiar feel of the Sydney Royal Easter show but of course bigger (it is Texas). On top of the carnival and usual exhibits there is also a considerable lineup of 20 evening concert performers some of the names I recognize are; Cardi B?, Camila Carbello, Tim McGraw, Kings of Leon and Santana. Josie, ZEDD is also playing. Wasn’t that who came on before Katy Perry? Anyway, not planning on seeing him again; I think my cells were vibrating to the electronic noise at that concert. (I was worried they might reach simple harmonic motion and explode- showing my age and taste in music). Rob and I have tickets to Santana in a week or so. I hope that we can take the afternoon off to go to the actual Rodeo as well.

I had morning tea with a fabulous Texan lady on Friday last week. A friend of a friend, who told me that last Friday was Back to Texas day. This meant that all the school kids were encouraged to wear their blue jeans, checked shirts and cowboy boots and hats to school. As I did not have any boots yet, we made a stop into a fabulous shop called Cavenders, where you can get all variety of Texas clothing and bought my first pair of boots.  They are so comfortable, I’m sure they won’t be my last pair. (Sharon Wilson). The only problem is getting them off. At the moment, I need Rob at home to pull them off for me. I have just put them on to take a picture, so I guess I’m in them for the rest of the day. It fun to see how people really get into the spirit. Boots are just part of the daily dress here for many people; just like RM’s in Australia.

Friday was also the day that the trail riders came into Houston to signify the start of the rodeo. The rail riders are an historical group who take covered wagons and horses. The first trail ride to the Houston rodeo was in 1952 from Brenham, just near to Houston. This year there were about 2000 participants and they come from as far away as San Antonio and Louisiana. It’s a big deal. We did not get to see the trail riders in person this year but next year it will definitely be on the list. The rodeo kicks off with the trail riders but also the World’s Champion BBQ contest. Of course, there is a lot of BBQ meat and beer. Unfortunately it rained, although I’m sure that did not deter the enthusiasts.

There was so much going on last weekend, not realizing there would be a clash, I booked us into the Galveston Mardi Gras fun run.  It is a five kilometer (strange to have the fun-run measured in km despite being an imperial system here) run around the main blocks in Galveston. It is a nice old town with some really grand looking buildings, harking back to a wealthy and genteel time. It does seem a bit run down now though, and the weather again did not help. When I went to Galveston with Ben and Maddy it was super foggy. This time is was a bit rainy and cloudy early in the day. That was ok for the run of course. We were sort of expecting thousands of runners but there were probably less that one thousand and many of them walkers. The streets are cobbled and have tram tracks, so you need to watch your feet. It was fun though and over before it started to get humid and hotter in the afternoon. Not knowing what to expect (traffic and event-wise) I also booked us into one of the “balcony parties”. These are balconies above the parade where you can watch (and drink). In Texas, bars only sell alcohol, no food. So unlike NSW where, in my experience, if you sell alcohol you should have some food available. So, we arrived to watch the parade at lunchtime and the waitress said there was no food available, not even crisps. She also said that we could not bring food into the venue. I knew that would not work for me (I was starving and I’m a light weight) so went back down to the security guy at the door who checked and said I could go out and get something to eat from the food vans everywhere. Italian-sausage-to-share later and we were set up to watch the first or three parades- the golf buggy parade.

The thing about Mardi Gras apparently are the beads! I don’t really get it, but people throw strands of beads from the carts to the crowd and the party crowd on the balconies throw beads down to the people in the street. Anyway, needless to say we got lots of beads. There must be some tradition associated with this, I will have to investigate further. The golf carts were fun. The next parades were 4 hours later so we decided to head back to Houston. It was a fun day and a lovely way to get involved in some Texas traditions.

The only-alcohol/no-food in bars thing seems odd to me. If we had stayed on the balcony for the four hours we were entitled to, and continued to buy drinks only, I doubt we would have been in a fit state to drive home. But then again if you want to buy a beer for the road you can get it with your gas at the service station. They even have it on ice in big ice cream fridges at the front of the store as you walk in. so much for don’t drink and drive. I had to go to the pharmacy this morning and they even sell alcohol in the pharmacy, cold in the fridges if you need it or by the gallon on the shelves. I’m not sure if that indicates that Texans have a more mature relationship with alcohol than Australians or not.

We also visited Austin a few weekends ago. Austin is the capital of Texas and a really cool place. It rates itself as the best live music city in the US, with more live music venues than anywhere else. It was freezing Saturday when we drove the couple of hours to Austin. We checked into the tourist information Centre and booked a short highlights of Austin bus tour for later in the afternoon. We then drove to the Capitol building. It is very impressive with a huge dome and lovely mosaics. They have pretty gardens around the building and so when they needed to expand it a few decades ago they went underground. The underground offices and administration actually takes up twice as much area as the on top part but does not interfere with the historic building or the parks. A great idea.

After that we went to a little pub nearby for some lunch and to warm up. (did I mention it was COLD). The bus tour was very informative and run by AO tours and booked through OnceThere. I recommend them. It was a quick overview for orienting yourself and covering a few main points. That evening we went down to 6th street area to hear some live music. It is winter so I think some of the venues are in recess, but we got recommendations from the tourist office and ended up in a fabulous jazz club called Parker jazz club. It is in the basement of anther club on west 4th street. The cover charge was reasonable and the food and cocktails yummy. However, the best part was the music. The Ryan Davis trio featured and then Kris the club owner and his wife joined them. Kris played every kind of wind instrument I have ever seen and many I have never seen before. Then he invited Ephram Owens onto the stage (he just happened to be in the club). Owens played (red hot) trumpet. The whole evening was such fun and perfect for a cold night.

On Sunday we went along to the Bullock Texas Museum. This was a fascinating stroll through the history of Texas. This state has been under 6 different flags and is the only state allowed to fly its flag next to the stars and stripes at the same height. It was its own republic for a while and was not involved in the war of independence because it was part of Mexico at the time. Fascinating. In the spirit of Bullock, we stopped at the Southside Market and BBQ on the way home and had…. BBQ. It was delicious.

We have had a couple of weekends at home and will again this weekend but hopefully in a couple of weeks we will head out again to check out the scenery. In the meantime, we are doing our tax and getting ready to take the Texas driving license test! I’ll let you know how that goes (I hope I pass).