texas state capitol

rediscovering the lone star state (trip report, part 2)

texas and i go way back. i have a few dirty little secrets, and one of them is that i spent ‘the best years of my life’ (aka high school, also not the best years of my life to date) in west texas (aka bush country). actually, lubbock (or low-buck as i sometimes like to call it) was not all bad, in that i came away with some very good friends and a full cultural immersion in the ways of texas. there is also good music there.

to be fair, texas runs in my blood. my grandfather was born in a tiny east texas village called groveton. in the 2000 census, groveton had a population of 1,107, so one can only imagine what it was like in the 1930s, when at the age of 16, my granddad walked in overalls and bare feet, to the nearest “big” town, lufkin (a thriving metropolis of just over 35k in 2000), and eventually got work on the then-thriving oil fields of east texas.

JW Eaves
my grandad – j.w. eaves – in his ubiquitous cowboy hat

i believe it’s precisely because of my grandfather, who fed me barbecue ribs and cornbread and deep-fried catfish growing up, never lost his drawl and always wore a twelve-gallon stetson, that i’ve always felt strangely at home in texas.

this year’s stop in texas was to be a brief but brimming one. a short flight on my favourite american carrier, southwest airlines, brought me from albuquerque to houston, where i picked up a car hire and battled insane houston traffic (always insane) and a random monsoon downpour before retrieving bill, who’d spent the week working at his company’s houston office.

downtown houston traffic & storm
downtown houston traffic and impending storm.

i’ll have to be honest here in saying houston is not my favourite place. i have spent a fair bit of time there – although never as a resident – and to me, it’s the epitome of a big, ugly american sprawling city. it’s polluted, traffic-heavy and full of concrete flyovers and ugly, late-century architecture. but, i have a couple of houstonian friends that’d be quick to defend their city. it is gaining a reputation as a foodie destination (lots of african and southeast asian immigrants equals stellar eats) and bill had a great number of delicious craft brews at cute beer bars, so it can’t be all bad. nonetheless, i was glad to get on the road to austin with houston in the rearview.

it just so happened that my dad, a brilliant musician who now lives in new zealand, had been touring around the southwest for a few weeks with singer-songwriter donna dean and would be in austin that very night whilst attending a folk music conference.

we had booked in to the habitat suites, an eco-friendly hotel located in a converted apartment complex next to a dead mall in north austin. it sounds bad but it was outstanding. the rooms are all suites with a living area, kitchenette and huge beds. there was a complimentary hot breakfast every morning (with one of my favourite southern staples: biscuits and gravy. for the brits in the audience, this is like a savoury, fluffy scone covered in a cream-based sauce made from sausage drippings. a delightful heart attack on a plate.), and the staff were incredibly friendly and helpful. it’s also a stone’s throw to austin’s new light rail – convenient for getting downtown to see live music and have dinner.

biscuits and gravy
biscuits and gravy with heart-healthy turkey sausages.

we met my dad in the car park (he was staying at a motel on the other side of the dead mall) and, being the rock stars we are, opted to grab a taxi downtown for dinner and live music.

in an effort to sample as many american classics as possible on this trip, i wanted barbecue for dinner, so we made for stubb’s, a legendary barbecue joint and music club. the food here is super southern – we were heaped with plates of barbecue ribs and brisket, fried okra, macaroni and cheese and fried green tomatoes, all washed down with some serious local austin ales. stuffed to the gills, we toddled outside and – this being austin – straight into a street festival with – literally – live music tents on every corner along the legendary nightlife strip, 6th street. oh, and all for free.

austin is said to have more live music venues per capita than any other city in the u.s. and, walking around here, it’s not a difficult statistic to believe. from each passing door or bar pours a different genre of music almost every night of the week.

downtown austin at night
downtown austin at night

our speed was a little slower, so we ducked into the chicago house, a craft beer bar just off 6th street that opened earlier this year. like almost everywhere in the u.s., the craft beer scene has exploded here and i was surprised at the number of texas-produced beers on the menu. the place was fairly dead, especially for a saturday evening, but i imagine if the festival hadn’t been going on outside it would’ve been bumper-to-bumper (in a good way).

having said a bittersweet goodbye to my dad, the next morning we made for the texas state capitol – something i wanted to take the chance to revisit (and photograph) while we had the chance. built with local red granite that gives it a groovy pinkish hue, at the time of its construction in 1885, it was said to be the 7th largest building in the world. whether or not that’s true, it is an impressive structure, especially the central atrium and dome, and it’s free to visit.

texas state capitol
texas state capitol – a rosé affair

after a quick scoff at the george w. bush portrait and a refuel at my favourite austin coffeehouse – mozart’s – which has a huge deck overlooking lake austin – we were back on the road to houston, where we’d return our car and hop a plane to boston.

the thing is, no matter how well travelled you are, if your information is 10 years old, it may not be the most reliable. my memory said that it was a 2.5-hour drive from austin to houston. i’d done the drive a million times (not really a million). and, sure, we’d hit rain and traffic on the way over, so it’d be quick enough. no problem to have a lunch pitstop. a few pictures of a passing oil tanker train? why not!

needless to say, this is not a tactic i’d recommend. an hour and a half before our departure time, we were still in the car on the houston freeway. houston freeways are long, and no matter that i was driving like a bat out of hell, we were simply not going to make this flight.

this astoundingly artistic photo of an oil tanker train (not pictured) could've cost us our flight.
this artistic photo of an oil tanker train (not pictured) almost cost us our flight.

an hour before the departure time, we barrelled into the avis return centre and came to a screeching halt in front of a man with a clipboard who took one look at us and knew. ‘how late are you?’ was the first thing he said to us.

‘our flight’s in less than an hour,’ we panted, watching the terminal shuttle pull away as we scrambled to get our suitcases out of the back.

‘hop in, i’ll drive you.’ so, he drove us straight up to the departure terminal (we tipped him heartily) in that brave little ford fiesta that did most of the work to get us there in the first place. when we finally got to the gate – sweaty and out of breath – we were told the plane had been delayed. hashtag typical.

if you are out there, kind avis employee, i swear, you saved us about $400 in change fees. we owe you a drink.

santa fe, new mexico sunrise with windmill

rediscovering my home of enchantment (trip report, part 1)

santa fe, new mexico sunrise with windmill
sunrise at mom’s house

it’s been three years since i was back in new mexico. well, that is until three weeks ago, when i finally went home. bill was working out of his houston office, so i took the chance for a couple of days visiting my family and eating lots and lots of green chile.

if you aren’t familiar with new mexico, the first thing you should probably know about is our food. we have very special food. it is not quite mexican, it is not quite native american and it is not quite spanish, but it is definitely a mix of all three. and here’s one for your next pub quiz: new mexico is also the only state in the US to have an official state question, which is, “red or green?”. this refers to our incredible chile sauces, the green derived from unripened, roasted chile peppers and the red from ripened peppers of the same plant.

combination plate at la choza - red and green chile present.
combination plate at la choza – red and green chile present.

i stayed the first couple of days with my mom in my childhood home – a stately little adobe house that sits on a good few acres of lovely, scrubby high desert land with views of the mountains in every direction. we ate at a few of my favourite spots. the first morning was a breakfast of huevos rancheros (eggs with beans, cheese, corn tortilla and chile sauce) at san marcos cafe.

huevos rancheros at san marcos cafe, santa fe, new mexico
breakfast of jetlagged champs: green chile huevos at sue’s.

growing up, this was the only restaurant local to us, as our house is rurally 20 miles south of santa fe. we called it either sue’s (in reference to the owner/chef, susan macdonell), or ‘the feed store’, as there is an actual feed store connected to the back where local ranchers buy everything from hay to halters to live chicks in the spring.

while in santa fe, i also did some touristy stuff – not something most locals get up to. on santa fe’s plaza, most days local native americans from various tribes set up on blankets under the long portico outside the historic palace of the governors (now the museum of new mexico) and sell handmade jewellery, much of it turquoise. growing up in new mexico, wearing turquoise was always something for tourists, but now living away for so long, i really wanted a nice piece to remind me of home. i came away with lovely necklace stone and silver and turquoise bracelet made by a navajo craftswoman – so beautiful.

palace of the governors, santa fe plaza
palace of the governors, where native americans sell jewellery

time goes a lot slower in new mexico than it does in london. there is time to just sit and watch the sunrise. and the sunset. there is the space of the day when dusk falls over the house silently like a blanket of snow. there was time to enjoy that quiet, which i realised i miss a lot. even when london is quiet, the city still has a faraway rumble. and, not least, i got to play with my horsie, ren’ai, who lives at my mother’s house and is a complete dote. some readers here may not know about my past life as a horse trainer, which i did for many years before i became a world traveller and writer.

me and ren'ai chilling out
me and ren’ai chilling out

after not nearly enough time with mom, it was off to a packed day of breaking bad tourism in albuquerque, which is 60 miles south of santa fe, for a work article. my stepdad was the lucky candidate to drive me around the city, where we went from breaking bad location to location, seeing and photographing in the space of a few hours walter white’s house, the infamous “a-1 car wash” (actually the octopus car wash on menaul and eubank) and many others. all of that driving called for a hearty lunch, so we had to stop at my favourite restaurant on god’s green earth: duran’s.

green chile burrito at duran's station, albuquerque
green chile burrito at duran’s station

duran’s has two locations, though the original is literally a cafe in the back of a pharmacy in old town albuquerque where little old hispanic ladies in hair nets cook some of the meanest new mexican fare ever, including homemade tortillas. their second location – duran’s station – opened a few years ago and has become a rival to the original and one much easier to reach, though for atmosphere i still prefer the original. either way, the food is INCREDIBLE and we stuffed our faces.

that afternoon, i was scheduled for a press visit to routes rentals for a breaking bad-themed bike tour. perhaps a bit ill-advised after such a large lunch, but the prospect of beer at one of my favourite albuquerque breweries helped me press to the end. actually, heather and josh (partners and owners) gave one hell of a tour, showcasing the downtown filming locations (such as jesse’s house and tuco’s hideout) and bringing a laptop so we could watch the scenes at their filming locations. the tour ended with a sampler of marble’s heisenberg dark, which i will talk more about on brew travel.

by the end of the day, i was wrecked, but made two last stops: one into the candy lady, to buy samples of the prop ‘blue meth’ used on the show to bring back to colleagues in london, and two into a kelly’s liquor store to buy a nice bottle of wine to bring to my aunt’s house. my aunt just so happens to be a regular customer of saul goodman’s nail salon (breaking bad reference), so we stopped in for a quick pedicure and to chat with the owners about what it was like to have breaking bad filmed in their store.

the evening was topped off family-style, with all of my paternal aunts and uncles turning up for green chile-topped pizza and many bottles of wine on my aunt’s beautiful back patio, overlooking the sandia mountains. there is nothing better than sipping a nice cab in the crisp desert air with family and laughter (and some good old fashioned egenes arguing) all around.

this is part 1 of what will be a 3-part series.

Photo by hobvias sudoneighm

check-ups in a foreign land

Photo by hobvias sudoneighmone of my favorite stories to tell people is about the time that i got rolled over on by a horse two weeks before my first trip to china and fractured my wrist and L3 vertebra. i was pretty out of it for a few days, but i got a cute, short cast (in purple) put on my left forearm and somehow managed to go on my merry way across the world for nearly a month of english teaching and then traveling.

despite my pleading, the US hospital was unwilling to take off my cast just four weeks into the healing process when i was due to fly out. instead, i’d have to wear the cast for an extra unnecessary four weeks because of my trip.

i was not prepared for the 40-degree heat and high humidity that would make my cast an unbearable prison within the first two days in china. the itching was so bad that i began sticking a chopstick down the cast, which would inevitably bring up chunks of rotting skin. that’s when i asked marco, an enigmatic chinese dude who wore aviators, carried a black man-purse and had connections in the nanjing mafia, to help me out.

[tweetmeme]off we went in marco’s little black VW jetta with its tailpipe barely rigged on by a coat hanger. we were staying at a private boarding school quite some distance from nanjing city, so the nearest hospital was one village away. it looked like something straight out of the cultural revolution. nurses wearing paper hats with red crosses on them had me fill in paperwork (thanks to marco, for my chinese reading was minimal at the time) and head down the bare concrete hall for x-rays to see if i was fit to have the cast off.

after two x-rays (the first of my casted arm and the second of my good arm, for comparison) taken by a massive and indescribably ancient machine, i was sent in to see the head honcho, who was seated in a dusty office with several other doctors, musing about my x-rays over green tea and cigarettes.

i was fit to have the cast taken off, he said, and i would be tended to in his private office, no less, just around the corner. after paying the mere $13 for x-rays and consultation, i sat nervously in the office.

Photo by David Schroeter

two nurses arrived and inspected the cast as if it were made from the intestines of an alien life form. they murmured a moment, disappeared and then reappeared with what can only be described as a humongous pair of scissors. one of the nurses struggled to stick an edge of the giant scissors down my teeny, silicon cast while the other watched with mysterious eyes. a lot of intense sawing ensued, none of which was successful in breaking me free of the little purple cast.

more murmuring and they were off again, this time returning with a tiny round saw. as they approached my cast, i prayed to god that this was the type of saw that could cut material but not skin and finally, my arm felt fresh air for the first time in five weeks. meanwhile, the nurses were enthralled with the cast and wanted to keep it as a souvenir, nasty rotten skin and all.

most people i tell this story to are fairly horrified by it, and that is in part why i love to tell it, but also because it is an apt example of just how harrowing it can be to receive medical attention in a foreign country. in all my moving around the world, i would venture to say that having a medical problem abroad has got to be the single worst part of expat life. the language barrier alone is enough to scare the lights out of you, not a mind fears about hygiene, sanitation, general medical knowledge of the doctors and everything else.

having just come from my first appointment at a sparkling new czech clinic with a brilliant doctor that spoke perfect english – all of which cost me only $1.69 in total – i can safely say that what is most interesting is that the scariest, most expensive and generally WORST doctor’s experiences i’ve ever had have been in the united states.

Photo by Flickr user Sugar Pondsure, the chinese hospital was dusty and old and the doctors were smoking inside, but they cared for me perfectly and didn’t send me bankrupt for it. and yeah, chinese pharmacists have given me a pill made out of cow gall bladder to soothe a cold before, but guess what? it worked.

same experiences in ireland, even seeing basic student doctors or walk-in clinics – all were incredibly well-appointed, clean and, most of all, the physicians were quite competent.

and best of all, unlike in the united states, most doctors around the world don’t just brush off your symptoms and shove the latest Pill of the Moment down your throat. they listen to your symptoms, check you thoroughly and offer remedies – whether they be herbal, pharmaceutical, dietary or otherwise – that are right for your condition. best of all, you are not asked to hand over ungodly sums of money to them for it.

and that makes all the scary moments of “will the doctor understand me?” and “will my medical history translate” completely worthwhile.

oh, and if anyone in prague wants the name of my awesome, english-speaking doctor, just lemme know and i’ll gladly send you her way.

we hated americans

Photo by ardenswayoflifei was having a discussion with my friend, lydia, earlier about travel. she was picking my brain in anticipation of her first international trip and she posed this question to me:

will they hate me because i am a damn yankee?

this is not an easy question to answer, but what i came up with (and told her) was essentially… yes and no. in addition to our often horrific politics, as travelers, we americans do a lot on an individual basis to give ourselves a bad name across the world. i’ve even written about it in the past. it is a subject that every first-time american traveler should consider before embarking on a trip abroad, and one that far too few actually do.

let’s take this photo above. Continue reading “we hated americans”

plastic paddies

Photo by Photobucket user ayinmcfyei learned a new phrase today: plastic paddy. it happened as bill and i were walking along silver ave. admiring a lofty irish flag hanging randomly from one of the houses. we pass this flag everyday and we admire it everyday, but i constantly feel a strange sense of oddness with bill, and actual irish person, by my side and this flag just hanging there.

it has caused me to think in wonderment back to when we were in ireland, what if there was just a random house with an american flag hanging on it. how would that make me feel? weird? grossed out? offended? patriotic? i’m honestly not sure and it would probably be some nauseating combination of them all.

this leads me to plastic paddies. Continue reading “plastic paddies”

a first bourdain experience

The Pepper Pot in Hatch, NM

it is no secret that i’m a huge fan of anthony bourdain, cook and travel foodie extraordinaire. his show, no reservations, is one of the only shows on television that i actually watch regularly, and i thoroughly enjoyed reading his books, kitchen confidential, about his experiences coming of age in the underbelly of the restaurant world, and a cook’s tour, a sort of diary-esque travelogue about eating adventures around the world.

so we’ve established that i am a bourdain geek. i freely admit it. [tweetmeme] Continue reading “a first bourdain experience”