'Dallas in Wanderland': USA Thru the Looking Glass

Trip Start May 05, 2011
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Trip End Sep 08, 2011


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Where I stayed
Valerie and David's House
What I did
Danced the night away, brunch'd, got in touch with my inner jazz-noodler, museumed, swam, ate (exceedingly well)

Flag of United States  , Texas
Saturday, July 23, 2011

Howdy all'y'all! (I feel immensely satisfied that I am FINALLY able to say that with some degree of genuine legitimacy. The sort of legitimacy that only comes from being in Texas. Some might dispute whether being in Texas that grants any sort of automatic legitimacy or not...But this is Texas. So those people are likely to find themselves run down by an angry gigantic herd of cattle).

Well, it's been an immensely busy week! I've sped halfway across the USA, had some pretty 'interesting' conversations with some rather bizarre characters on the Greyhound, and linked up with a whole tribe of long-lost (well, not really lost) family members in Plano, Dallas. I've also eaten remarkably well, and I've kicked back in the pool, which has been amazing. Ultimately, it's been another fascinating week in wanderland.

It began in Atlanta, a city that - I will freely admit - was not on my itinerary. Not in the slightest. In fact, I was only convinced to go there because of rather fantastic mad lady called Bridie (see my Brunswick entry) who seemed to think I had no choice but to go. I'm glad I did. After three days in the forest, the immensely clean-cut centre, bright lights, massive skyscrapers and - FINALLY - nightlife - was incredible.

After I arrived at my hostel, I dumped my stuff and headed straight out to join the party - wherever that may be. I found it pretty quickly, and managed to meet a group of fantastic yankee-rebel students (they were southerners through and through but oh so northern in mindset) in a club who decided that I was interesting enough to join the crew. Luckily, this happenstance allowed me to simultaneously engage in two of my favourite activities - dancing much better than my (drunken) peers, and talking about philosophy until well into the night. Indeed, we had so much fun that when I had to check out of my hostel the next day, I headed straight over to their house, dumped my stuff, and went out with them for a (bizarrely mexican) brunch. A few hours later, I was taken to what is in fact the best Vietnamese restaurant outside of Vietnam. Atlanta has good food (!) And then later that night, I was dragged out dancing yet again, after I had been convinced to miss my bus and stay at theirs. It was a pretty wild night, and since I hadn't (successfully) been out in the States prior to that weekend, it was pretty necessary! The only problem was that we got back home at about 2am and got to bed around 3. I then had to get up (to catch the next bus) at 5am. And so, although I miraculously dragged myself down to the bus station and caught my bus, the next day was a washout in every respect. But since I was on the Greyhound, and there was no one stabby sitting next to me, it didn't really matter if I slept.

Atlanta had been warm, but not baking. Nonetheless, sitting outside at brunch, I had somehow managed to get burned (and to develop a wristwatch tan). Not so in The Big Easy. When I got in to New Orleans at about 6pm, I was surprised to discover an unhelpful level of torrential rain. Although I really felt that this degree of precipitation was most improper, there was no one who could be easily held accountable, so I made do with furiously scuttling through the rain towards my hostel. That night, unsurprisingly, I slept like a log - but not until I had devoured a whole pizza, and then compounded my indigestion by watching ridiculous programmes on the food network (I sat down on the hostel sofa and was physically too full to move when someone came in and turned the TV on). My personal favourite programme was 'Extreme Chef' - a show in which the producers delighted in forcing chefs to cook in hostile environments using limited ingredients, whilst almost drowning them, sending them up trees, and poking them with sticks. Needless to say, it was frankly unnecessary but was televisual genius.

After a good night's sleep I headed into town to see what the Big Easy had to offer. After checking out the Cathedral, I gravitated towards the shops (well, it was a Monday, and all the museums were closed), emerging with a very casual hat and a positive impression of the commercial nexus that was 'Nuworlins'. I dropped into a local bar for some famous rabbit and sausage jambalaya, and then decided that I was on a mission to find the areas of devestation that still blight the city in the wake of Hurricane Katrina six years ago. Actually, you don't need to go far off the tourist tracks to find broken-down houses, and coming into the city the day before, we had seen whole suburbs where plots of land were totally levelled. But, in the words of one resident (who I chatted to as I headed into one of the sketchier areas of the city): 'You can see beat-up houses all over. Problem is, a lot of them were like that (or worse) before Katrina'. So though I took a few great pictures, I can't be totally sure that the decrepit mansion that I found was 'what the flood wrought'. Still, it's nicer to assume that than 'crack den'.

Later that evening, I decided to keep the party rolling, by heading out into town. I wandered into the jazz heart of the city with George, a South-African art student whom I had met when I got off the bus. We hit the jazz clubs pretty hard, and although there were many there who were simply sitting at tables, drumming their fingers to the beat, we joined the locals at the front, moving our limbs to those crazy jazz rhythmns. I believe that I may have taught said locals a thing or two about dancing (probably a thing that they would rather forget). But it was a fantastic evening, and it has compounded my impression of a roaring, carnivalesque South.

The next day was another day spent in the city of 'Nuworlins' - and this time, it was mercifully sunny and hot. First and foremost, a couple of girls from my hostel and I dropped into the world-famous 'Cafe du Monde' in the central Jackson Square for world-famous beignets. For those of you who don't know what a beignet is (and I was one of you until 5 days ago), they are light, crispy, rectangular doughnut-type things, with a sprinkling of icing-sugar on top. In theory. In practise, Cafe du Monde consider it a challenge to pile as much icing-sugar on top as possible, perhaps in imitation of the Rocky Mountains: sugar form. And each portion included 3 beignets! I was glad we ordered one to share, otherwise I truly would have been buzzing all day long. Unfortunately, I still made an incredible mess whilst eating it, so that it looked as though someone had been having a beignet-fight in the immediate vacinity of our table. Next up, after a rather unspectacular free art gallery, I headed to the Presbytere, an old building housing new exhibitions on Katrina and the New Orleans phenomenon that is Mardi Gras. It was an interesting (if overly emotive) hybrid-museum, but my main feeling upon leaving the place was an overwhelming desire to attend another fancy-dress party. But not during monsoon season.

Later that evening, I met up with my two female companions again for a ghost tour of the city, which was a lot of fun and allowed me to engage with some of the local history (primarily fun gruesome local history). One mansion, in particular, had a rather grizzly past - the French millionaire couple that owned it used to lopp off their slaves limbs and swap them around, whilst entertaining guests at parties downstairs - a story which delighted my inner eight-year-old by its gruesomeness, but which lacked a happy ending (the murderers got away, somehow, by horse and carriage, though a miffed crowd who had just discovered their crimes). I think the others enjoyed it too, though they were of slightly more delicate sensibilities. What surprised me about the tour was the number of people who gave the haunting bits credence, and who were convinced that they would see an apparition. But hey, it's New Orleans, so the occult is never far away!

Next day, I waved goodbye to the Big Easy, and thus began a series of encounters with fascinatingly odd people on the greyhound. First up: in the queue for the bus west out of town, I met an (incredibly white) man called William who claimed to be the son of a Mexican drug lord whose life was recounted in the movie 'Blow'. He also claimed to be the adopted son of legendary Columbian drug baron Emilio Escobar. When I politely enquired about whether Mr Escobar was still around, William claimed that yes, he was, and that he had phoned him up the previous night to wish him happy 99th birthday. Emilio Escobar died in 1993, in his 40s. William also told me that next year, as part of the Maya apocalypse, the land in America would split apart, and that at age 6, Jesus had appeared before him. At this stage I was starting to get skeptical, but he insisted that I should let Jesus into my life before it's too late. Well, if the world ends next year, I guess the joke will be on me (!)

Second up, a crazy drunken confederate southerner called - wait for it - Tim. I should have known that Tim was likely to be a talker when he said to me 'Hey young 'un, you can sit here', whilst I was looking for a seat on the bus (but I was just too jazzed to be called 'young 'un'). What I did not realise was that Tim was drunk as a skunk, and that he would recount his life story - whether I asked for it or not. Despite a life of drugs and infideltity, Tim strongly believed in an ultimate allmighty God, and in that respect, he was quite typically southern. He was unusual, nonetheless, in his insistence that America was only strong because the twelve jewels contained in the Ark of the Covenant were buried in a secret location in Ohio (he wasn't sure exactly where), and these were giving the US superpowers. I also got a history lesson - apparently, said jewels were in England until the 1900s, which is why the British Empire happened. Somebody's been watching a little too much 'Raiders of the Lost Ark'...In spite of his hyper-eccentricity (and drunkeness), Tim was rather good fun, and even though he actually has the Confederate 'stars and bars' as his mobile phone wallpaper, and even though his main ambition was to leave his 'gold-digging wife' and to start drink-driving again, it was certainly an entertaining journey.

Luckily, after all this gentle insanity, my dad's cousin Valerie and her husband David were there to greet me and take me back to stay at their lovely home in Plano, just outside of Dallas. I have to say, it was great to get away from the crazies, and connect with some long-lost, warmhearted family members. And when I met the daughter Juliet, her husband Charlie, and their two sons - Colin and Cameron - a few days later, it was a lot of fun to meet some family members that I only vaguely knew existed! It has also been great to play the role of Uncle-once-removed - although I think that this mainly involves being jumped on in the pool by hyperactive little boys - and to share my travelling stories. Best of all, I have been able to eat well and relax - for the fist time in three months or so! From steak dinners and sundaes to tex-mex and authentic southern barbeque, I have certainly eaten well.

On Friday, we headed out to see some of the sights - including taking a photo of THE house from Dallas (oh yeah - yet to watch one episode) and seeing downtown Plano (which, despite the fact that most of the area is uber-new, is gratifyingly old-Texas). Then in the evening, after spectating at Colin and Cameron's piwi-soccer game (they move faster than me - I'm not gonna lie) we headed out to a baseball game. Now, it just might be my impression, but baseball seems like the IDEAL game for most Americans. It's fast paced, there are SO MANY loud noises and flashing lights, as well as mascot-dances and entertainment shows in between innings, and food is on tap throughout the night: ultimately, it's a lot of fun, and caters perfectly to anyone with a short attention span. The actual game itself was great, with our team (the Frisco RoughRiders) routing the opposition 19 to 4. So in that respect, it was great to be a fan, but it's also fun to follow the skill and strategy of the game itself - when you're not being distracted by the random music (mainly Abba or videogame music), or flashing lights, that really do bombard your senses. It's not cricket. What perhaps made the game for me, though, was that Colin, my 10-year-old nephew-once-removed, managed to run and find a baseball that was knocked out of the park, which he got signed and then presented to me as a gift. That was fantastically sweet, and it made me feel good about bringing the boys llama-wool hats all the way from Bolivia as presents.

Yesterday, we headed out to Dallas proper. We saw the first settlers cabin, and a nice by ridiculously disney Romanesque town hall, and then dropped into the sixth-floor museum, detailing all the events surrounding JFK's assassination in 1963. This appealed to my historian's perspective, and it was a remarkably balanced museum, even though it did, of course, include a large section on preposterous JFK assassination conspiracy theories. And after an afternoon in the pool, we headed out for delicious tex-mex (I for one have never eaten shrimp wrapped in bacon before), and then played family-style boardgames. Today is looking like another hot one (it's Dallas - the temperature doesn't get below 30 degrees celcius in the summer, and is more often around the 40 mark), but I'm looking forward to a relaxing day before I fly up to Seattle. Well, as relaxing as it gets, with two turbo-charged, ninja-inspired boys around!
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