Saturday, July 14, 2018

I Went on a Swamp Tour

I was in New Orleans for a conference and checked off some things on my list that I always wanted to do (Preservation Hall Jazz, the World War II Museum, lunch at Cafe Amelie). Still, I found myself with an unencumbered Sunday afternoon in June, and thought to myself, "I've never seen a Cajun guy feed marshmallows to an alligator in the swamp, so maybe I should do that!" I have a special affinity for Louisianan swamps and Cajuns since that's where my father came from. This would mean I am half Cajun, obviously. (The half that likes spicy food, but not the half that is allergic to shellfish.) My father lived on the bayou not far from where this swamp tour would happen (LaFourche Parish) until he was about eight years old. He mentioned it often: pelicans and egrets, alligators and crawfish, sugar cane and molasses.

Okay, truth be told, I had no idea alligators like to eat marshmallows and that Cajuns like to toss them to alligators, but I found this out on the Swamp Tour. Our guide, Captain Reggie,
narrated a very informative (and fun) tour of the swamp. Bayous, he explained, are naturally-occurring thoroughfares through the swamp while canals are man-made ones. There is marshland in the swamp, too. So, the swamp, as they define it here, is the whole ecosystem which includes bayous, canals, and marshes.

We rode on a flat-bottomed boat almost exactly like the Salt Marsh Safari boat I'm familiar with in Cape May.
My ride
Other visitors were riding on large and small fan boats, but these things are noisy. As Captain Reggie explained, "You wouldn't learn anything."
A smaller fan boat (noisy)

A larger fan boat (noisier)
This swamp is in Jean LaFitte National Historic Park and Preserve, specifically the Barataria Preserve. We saw trees, moss, dragonflies, and yes, ALLIGATORS. Early in the ride we saw a small alligator swimming around by himself, and he came right over to the boat. Captain Reggie explained that alligators don't see the white marshmallows he tosses, but they feel the vibrations when it hits the water. Besides luring the alligators closer to us, those marshmallows allow us to see the reptile chomp down on something not alive (like a tourist).

The first reptile we encountered
We toured through some interesting heat-tolerant flora on our way through the swamp to see even more marshmallow-eating alligators. The stuff hanging from trees is sphagnum moss, and according to Captain Reggie, "Yankees actually buy that stuff." Yes, he's right, once or twice my non-Cajun Yankee side actually bought that stuff for various craft projects. It is used to stuff boat cushions, too.

Sphagnum moss hanging from tree

It looks tropical...
At one point on the tour, we passed a Cajun graveyard. One of Captain Reggie's grandmothers is in there, and he confirmed what I always suspected: when the area floods, the coffins can pop out of the ground and float around. I stopped listening at this point because I have nightmares about my long-dead ancestors floating around in their coffins during catastrophic floods. I started listening again when the Captain told us that the hill in the middle of the cemetery is an ancient Native American burial mound going back to 500AD.

At one point during our tour, Captain Reggie found a breezy spot to stop and give the boat a rest. From out of a closet that none of us had noticed, he brought out his companion, Elvis, a baby alligator. Cool enough to see one up close, but each of us got to hold it. (Kids got to wear Elvis on their heads.) I did hold Elvis, and here follows photographic proof. He squirmed a little, but more interestingly made soft little sounds almost like a dove cooing.

Margaret and Elvis (profile)
Elvis, straight-on
Finally, we saw alligators. I counted seven simultaneously swimming around our boat and grabbing whatever marshmallows they could.

See the marshmallow about to be eaten?
This was a fabulous tour in spite of the June Louisiana heat. Of course it was going to be hot, and I did the best I could dressing comfortably and sipping my water. My big worry had been mosquitoes, so I bought a yellow spiral bracelet which was supposed to form a forcefield around me unpenetrable by mosquitoes who love me. I can't tell you if the bracelet worked, but I can tell you no one else was complaining about mosquitoes.

After I was delivered back to my New Orleans hotel, I Googled Captain Reggie. He said some Disney movie character was named after him, and I was curious about that: Ray in "The Princess and the Frog"? I'm way behind on Disney movies, but I found something even more interesting. Here's Captain Reggie himself (the "Alligator Whisperer") feeding marshmallows to alligators on someone else's tour. You can hear him saying "Ici!" ('here' in French) to the reptiles. Now why didn't I take a video???

Thursday, May 3, 2018

San Antonio, Texas: Remember the Mariachis!

It's a strange phenomenon I experience before I leave for a trip lately: I'm looking forward to immersing myself in a place I haven't been or revisiting an old favorite, but this weird anxiety takes over. What is this pre-homesickness? It's not related to flying or solo travel. It's not related to the reason for the trip, this time a library conference. I really wanted to see San Antonio, so I pretended I wasn't pre-homesick and soldiered on, even though my airline changed my flight from a comfortable 1:30pm departure to an inhumane 6:00am.

in La Villita
What I hadn't figured was that I'd be in San Antonio early enough to enjoy a whole day there before the conference. I visited the Alamo, which to my delight was not "too small" or "no big deal" as I had been told. I liked the Alamo. The small iconic church is surrounded by gardens, the historic Long Barrack Museum, a living history encampment, and the gift shop, originally built in 1937 as a museum. There were interesting artifacts including a well and a millstone brought to San Antonio from the Canary Islands. News to me: in 1731 approximately 56 people (15 families) from the Canary Islands arrived in San Antonio. They were sent from Spain to help populate the Texas territory for that country which also controlled the Canary Islands. I noticed a street and a restaurant named for them. I have a Canary Island ancestor or two way back in my family tree, so this Texas connection has intrigued me into a new research project.

The Mill Stone from the Canary Islands
 I learned all about the Alamo from the IMAX movie starring Patrick Swayze's brother, Don, offered in the adjacent modern shopping mall. The Alamo was built by the Spanish-dominated Mexicans in 1718 for Spanish missionaries and their Native American converts in what was then known as San Antonio de Valero. It was taken over by the Texans. Eventually, Mexicans independent from Spain since 1821 wanted it back. They stormed the place under the leadership of General Antonio Lopez Santa Anna. It was a bloody struggle in March 1836, brought to life vividly in letters written by Colonel William B. Travis. He was writing to Andrew Ponton and the citizens of the city of Gonzales trying to get reinforcements because he knew the Mexicans were coming:

"The enemy in large force are in sight. We want men and provisions. Send them to us. We have 150 men and are determined to defend the Alamo to the last."

Additional soldiers never came, and the Mexicans overpowered the Texans and slaughtered any survivors (including Davy Crockett) once the fighting was over. All of the bodies were burned. It is dramatic and heartbreaking when you take the time to learn about it.

The Alamo
 After Texas became a republic in May 1836, the Army used the Alamo to store supplies. In 1883, Texas purchased the church and made it into a memorial to soldiers and a historic monument. My hotel was very near, so I walked around the Alamo area every day imagining that horrific battle and what the Alamo looked like before the big, modern city buildings were built. Some old buildings survive and give the impression of a movie set. In 2015, the Alamo and other missions in San Antonio were declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The Alamo, sideways

"You're going to love the River Walk!" I heard that more than once, and I did love it. Each evening after the conference, I'd take the hotel elevator down to the very bottom floor and wander out to this abbondanza of restaurants. I ate Tex-Mex the first night, then Barbeque the second, then Italian, and then finished with Tex-Mex again. The River Walk restaurants were fun, festive, and casual. I took every meal al fresco beside the river, watching the resident ducks and the tourists on river tour-barges. My weird anxiety evaporated by the second day because this evening eating experience was consistently comfortable, not like going solo in some crowded family emporium or stuffy date-night restaurant.

I embarked on one of those river barge tours on my last afternoon, when the library conference concluded. The San Antonio River winds around the city with concrete walks on either side. These walks date back to the 1930s (but have been restored since), and some of the bridges have WPA plaques on them. This is unique San Antonio. So many of the San Antonio sites are reachable from the River Walk: the Briscoe Western Art Museum (top on my list for next time), La Villita shopping and restaurant village with its own theater,
La Villita
and even the hospital where Carol Burnett was born.
Carol Burnett was born here.

"Would you like to be serenaded?" asked the Mexican musician with the enormous guitar. Certainly I would. He asked if there was a song I'd like his trio to play. They knew no Bruce Springsteen material, so I told them to choose something. These guys who had elluded my camera for days now stood around me and my beef burrito performing "More" (the theme from Mondo Cane) from 1962. (I remember this tune from junior high school band.) I shot them repeatedly...with my camera...and tipped them heavily for the privilege. It was a thrill to be sure, and I loved that they chose a 1960s instrumental. In the evenings after dinner, I had worked on an essay about 1960s music in my hotel room. It was a perfect farewell to Texas.
My serenaders
The tune has been recorded from everyone from Frank Sinatra to Bobby Darin to Doris Day to Andrea Bocelli, but here's a 1960s instrumental version by Kai Winding:

I made no progress in figuring out why I experience that strange travel anxiety, or pre-homesickness. But I am happy to report that I enjoyed San Antonio once I got there and experienced Texan hospitality. On my last day, the travel day when both of my planes departed late, I experienced a strange and wonderful phenomenon. Both at breakfast in the hotel and at lunch in the SAT airport, I was offered a to-go cup of my beverage of choice (no charge!) by my server. This small gesture of warmth meant so much to my sense of well-being and relaxation. I sipped on my to-go soda with my book on my lap as I waited (and waited) (and waited some more) for my plane to arrive reflecting on the fine time I enjoyed in Texas. When can I go again?

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Finbar Visits Ireland, Part Two: Beyond Dublin City

Day Trips from Dublin

Finbar had proven that he is a fine, low-maintenance travel companion, so I had no reservations about letting him tag along with our group and subsets of it on excursions further afield. He slipped easily into my travel bag which was the same color as him and provided some camouflage where toads have not gone before.
Finbar views Howth Head on Dublin Bay, our first excursion into the scenic countryside
Trim Castle, which is haunted
Finbar suns on a flat rock outside Trim Castle; clouds filled with rain begin to form above
Another toad-friendly flat rock, this time in Glendalough in County Wicklow, south of Dublin

A small group of us took an independent bus trip to Northern Ireland to check out the coastal sites and the city of Belfast where it rained and rained and rained. Finbar came out to see the Giants' Causeway, but stayed in the waterproof travel bag for Belfast.

This is some challenging terrain, but not for toads.

Finbar requested that I show this photo of the basalt columns which make up the Giants' Causeway

Galway and the West

After the writing program residency was over, newly-graduated Kathy and I took a train across the middle of Ireland to Galway. We enjoyed the train ride as the people inside were merry and the scenery outside was green and lush.

I shared my snacks with Finbar.

We had a nice table which was similar to a flat rock (and the train filled up soon after I shot this.)
We walked around Galway, shopped, and ate in some swank pubs and restaurants. There was more music than usual as our visit coincided with the Galway International Arts Festival! Our real motivation for this westward journey was to launch from our Galway hotel on day trips to Connemara, the Cliffs of Moher, and Inishmor, the largest of the Aran Islands.

Connemara is a region just south of Galway, and we toured it on a comfortable motorcoach with a very entertaining and informative driver. We cruised through the area where the movie "The Quiet Man," starring John Wayne and Maureen O'Hara, was filmed. We saw a stone bridge which figures prominently in the film.

Finbar approves of this brand of water.
We visited Kylmor Mansion which features an outstanding garden.
Finbar inspects the rhubarb...

...and the flowers

A village called Leenane

I had heard of the Cliffs of Moher, but couldn't imagine their grandeur. (Although, after the Giants' Causeway I was starting to get the feel for Irish scenery.)

Finbar approves of the castle...
...and the Cliffs
Kathy, Finbar, and I agreed that Inishmore, the largest of the Aran Islands, was our favorite Irish spot. We did some hiking on rocky terrain, but the views were worth it!
We took a bus to the ferry and then a minivan around the island.
The highlight of the trip (besides purchasing a green Aran cardigan) was this fort, Dun Aonghasa.
This is what we were walking on!
We stopped for lunch near Galway Bay. This is a veggie burger.
We sat on this little piece of beach to eat our ice cream, purchased at the only place on the island that seemed to sell it!
Finbar and I loved Ireland and thought it a very friendly place for humans and toads. We walked a lot, and much of it was uphill. We saw more sheep than people, and thatched roofs, and stone fences. Everywhere I pointed my camera, there was scenery...or a small brown toad. Finbar is now back on my desk at work, in the shade of a spider plant, but I'm sure would be willing to accompany me on another visit to his favorite destination in the safety of the brown travel bag.

Back to Part One, Dublin

Finbar Visits Ireland, Part 1: Dublin

Finbar is a toad. He accompanied me on my 2016 trip to Ireland and graciously posed for many photographs. Finbar usually hangs out on my desk at work, among the plants, and as I was closing up shop on the last day before this three-week trip, he jumped into my bag to demonstrate how easily he could travel. He squishes to almost flat in any bag, he's quiet, and therefore can sneak into any Irish tourist destination. Finbar was a nameless toad when we set out for this trip, but would acquire an Irish name in Dublin. More on that event below....
A nameless toad helps me pack for Ireland
On the turnpike to the airport on a stormy day in July
We made it to Newark Airport safely, but our plane was delayed.

In Dublin

Nameless Toad surveys the menu at Bobo's in Dublin. We would eat a lot of burgers these three weeks.

The trip to Dublin was a requirement for my MFA writing program. A group of twenty-or-so of us were to stay at Trinity College in the center of Dublin to learn about the location, its history, and its literary importance. Nameless Toad and I flew from Newark Airport to Dublin with Kathy, a fellow Creative Nonfiction writer and student who would graduate this year. The three of us arrived at Trinity via taxi ride with the most friendly driver ever. Our rooms weren't ready yet, so we stashed our bags on campus and went exploring in the Trinity neighborhood. We had lunch at Bobo's and shopped at Carroll's where I would later buy a box full of fun souvenirs, including an Aran sweater, and have it all shipped back to New Jersey.

Even the extra small sweater is too big for a toad.
After a few hours of weary wandering, we were allowed into our rooms. These were single dorm rooms, comfortable but small, and I would share the facilities with two other students new to the program. We had a nice window at treetop level, and the Toad found his favorite spot here.
Nameless Toad looks for flies

Through this window we would hear the sounds of nearby Grafton Street at night, revelers, singers, and buskers including an electric guitarist who played famous guitar solos of the 1970s and 1980s. Some nights we would hear the rain on the leaves just outside. It rained every day in Ireland, I think, even if only for a short shower. Carry your rain jacket or umbrella always.

Every morning we'd have breakfast at The Buttery on campus, scones and yogurt mostly,

There's a toad eyeing my Irish scone
and then we'd be off for lectures, workshops, excursions, and general exploration.
Waiting for the seminar to start
Preparing for workshop where our work would be scrutinized
The little Nameless Toad finds Trinity College on the map
Everyday, we monitored the line to get into the Old Library to see the Book of Kells.
One day we found a short line and went inside to view the Book of Kells and the Long Room. Chills!
In the evening, we would listen to the presentations of the graduating students, attend (or speak at) an Open Mic, or experience the literary life of Dublin at a Faculty Reading in an old bookstore or a play at the famous Abbey Theater.
Nameless Toad listens to the graduates
The little toad listens to me read about Prague at the Open Mic event
Our group + a toad attended a play called "The Wake" at the Abbey Theater.
I don't attend many plays without music, and the toad doesn't attend many plays at all, so this was a special event. The title refers to a gathering after a death, not the wavy water in back of a fast-moving boat. In this play, there was a memorable character, actually a goofy but lovable  guy, whose name was FINBAR! And that is where the Nameless Toad picked up his Irish name.

We did some other exploration of the city of Dublin:

Finbar at the City Hall Arch
Stephen's Green was our favorite grassy spot.
Finbar found a great spot to perch on the Oscar Wilde statue in Merrion Square Park.
Later, I learned about that Wilde statue and all of the exotic materials used:

We even got to attend a hurling match at Croke Stadium in Dublin. Neither of us can say we understand the game, but it was fun!
Before exporations further afield, we'd better do some laundry at the college laundromat.
  Finbar Visits Ireland, Part 2