Spring has sprung! I was upstate NY recently at Easton Mountain and took a few photos of the beginning of a new cycle with a macro lens. Rebirth, renewal. This is an amazing time of year.
Okay, I admit it: I am a thief. Every time I stay in a motel, hotel or guest house, I take the shampoo, conditioner, soap and body lotion. Fifty, maybe one hundred, bottles and bars of individually packaged cleansing agents — ranging from high-end organic to cheap chemical solutions I would personally never use — fill my luggage and overflow into my Jeep. I even take the no-name mouthwash.
Sometimes I dream of displaying these items in my guest bathroom as I have seen my aunt Barb do with her soaps from Norwegian and Finnish hotel chains. Then I remember I live in a 500 square-foot, one bathroom apartment in New York City. Other times, I consider giving baskets as gift to friends who have too many bathrooms and not enough people to fill them. But then who would really appreciate a bathing basket of Quality Inn and Motel 8 shampoos and soaps?
In reality most of these hermetically sealed soaps and shot-glass sized bottles end up under my sink in a plastic shopping bag. There they rest, along with assorted other items I rarely, if ever, use. Why then am I collecting them?
The best answer I am able to provide is this: I want to feel as though I am getting my money’s worth. If I spend $59, $89, $109 or more on a room for the night, I want to believe that I maximizing my money. If all I do it sleep and shower, I think I am not getting the most out of the situation because I then have to spend money on food, soap and other essentials.
If, however, in addition to resting my weary bones, I get free breakfast (and take extra for lunch), take a dip in the pool, maybe get a cookie at check in, well then, I think I have gotten a deal more for the same amount of money. “Deal” being the key word.
So that’s the rationale, but here’s the problem: these bottles and bars are just more junk I really don’t need. And besides, I consume too much as it is. The last things the landfills need are more tiny soap bottles, wrappers or used tidbits from my travels.
Maybe instead of taking these things at the conclusion of a stay, my practice should be to leave an extra soap or two at the next few motels. At the very least, it might amuse the cleaning staff and maybe even save the next person from a life of soap thievery.
In many cities and towns across the country there is a wonderful collection of art in the signage of yesteryear. There was a style, which today seems lacking, in the billboards, advertisements and signs. This photo is from downtown Chattanooga – a wonderful town!
“Where’re y’all frum?” the lady at the Louisiana Visitor’s Center asks as Malaika and I walk in the door.
“What’d she say?” Malaika whispers, looking at me sideways.
“Where are you from?” I interpret.
“Oh, I’m . . . from . . . Australia . . . and . . . he’s . . . from . . . New York,” Malaika slows down as if speaking to an elderly non-English speaker.
“Well, welcum,” she says. “What can I dofur ya?”
“What?” Malaika asks, again looking at me.
“She wants to know how she can help,” I say giggling at the scenario: a Southern-American-English speaker versus an Australian-English speaker.
“We . . . want . . . to . . . take . . . a . . . swamp . . . tour.”
The woman behind the counter pulls out a map and spends the next ten minutes explaining the best locations in the state. As we leave, Malaika leans into me and says, “I hope you got that, ‘cause I didn’t understand a word!” We laugh as we climb into the Jeep and head East. Banjo music plays in my head.
Breaux Bridge is about halfway through the state and is one of the last towns west of the Atchafalaya causeway, an 18-mile bridge (the 14th longest in the world) that crosses rivers and wetlands. Whereas Texas felt dry and flat, Louisiana feels wet and full of bridges and causeways. This is swamp country!
After checking into a chain hotel off I-10 next to Waffle House, we change and drive a short distance to Prejean’s, a Louisiana favorite, for some Cajun food. Our waiter, Joseph, is a native son, recently returned from Los Angeles. He works as a dialect coach on the HBO series True Blood and wows us with an impressive litany of Louisiana dialects.
“If ya from Nu Orleens, ya tawlk like dis,” he says.
“What’d he say,” Malaika whispers towards me. I shrug my shoulders.
“And if ya here frum deese hur swamps, ya talk like dis,” imitating a Cajun accent.
Malaika and I clap and laugh to each other, then ask ,“What do you recommend for dinner?”
“Gaytur,” he says.
“Like alligator?” Malaika suddenly understands.
“Yes ma’am,” Joseph responds, “some of the finest farm raised in the South.”
I place an order. When it comes to the table, Malaika tries one piece. I finish the plate. It tastes like chicken. Joseph tells us that farm-raised gators are fed chickens, “In the wild, they taste like whatever they eat.” My mind runs through the possibilities while a horror movie plays in my brain. A trio plays banjo music from the stage. Malaika squeals in excitement and jokes that she should join them with her didgeridoo.
The next morning, we rise early to join Champagne’s Cajun Swamp Tours. Bryan, our guide, is a friendly Cajun who tones down his accent for the group (which includes a foursome from New Jersey, an older couple from Arkansas and a few other folks). He’s operated in these swamps for over twenty years. His tour makes the swamp come alive. Well, it is alive, but it comes alive in a way I might not have experienced otherwise. Malaika is happy to see that America hasn’t drained the swamp and filled it over with a parking lot and Walmart. I am please with this as well.
The highlight of our tour comes when Bryan follows a bayou, which is different from a swamp, upstream to a secluded area. He juts the boat forward, nearly landing on shore. As the people in front stand up, a female gator hisses ferociously. “She guardin’ her bay-bies,” Bryan says. One of the New Jerseyites hyperventilates and leaps towards the back of the boat. I climb forward to snap a few pictures. The gator hisses louder and opens her mouth. “She’s pissed you ate her cousin last night!” Malaika yells, then howls at her own joke.
We survive the swamp and make it back to shore. The nearly two-hour journey with Bryan comes to a whopping $20; I give him a $10 tip, thankful for people like him who protect and guard such amazing nature. I fear that if he and his kind where not around, we Americans might just fill in these places with blacktop and strip malls.
As we drive east towards New Orleans, Malaika and I practice our best Louisiana accents.
“Where’re y’at, dawlin?” I ask with an unfortunate stiff upper lip.
“Jus bindown in dem dere swamps, dawlin,” Malaika responds sounding a bit like a drunk Crocodile Dundee.
We laugh at each other then make a pact to stick to our own languages, happy to have at least witnessed some of the local color in swamp country.
Happy St. Patrick’s Day to all those who celebrate this cultural and religious holiday. Shamrocks for all!
Across the country, I encounter odd, whimsical and interesting detailing on cars. This one particularly caught my attention: gas cap messiah.
You wouldn’t guess that San Antonio, Texas, is the seventh largest city in the United States just by looking at her. But then, River City, as she is sometimes called, is full of surprises. And I love (nice) surprises!
I pick up Malaika in Austin, the vegetarian/Australian/dancer I met in Oregon, which is another story for another time. We drive south, hell bent on quickly visiting the Alamo and then moving on to other parts of the South, namely New Orleans. Our plans change, however, due to poor timing. By the time we arrive in S.A., our options are to spend the night or risk a long drive in a desolate, dark part of Texas. We choose to bunk down for the night in the grand ol’ St Anthony Riverwalk Wyndham Hotel.
The Alamo is, well, the Alamo. I am disappointed by the historic site as there is not much there. Malaika, however, takes great pleasure in reading placards about the Spanish-American War and looking at the oversized cowboys hats men wear here and throughout the city. I am just about to consider San Antone a bust and head back to the hotel for a night of television and bathing in what is perhaps one of the largest tubs I have ever seen, but then something grabs me. I take my camera for a walk to chase architectural exposures. Now, the city reveals herself.
Street after historic street makes me feel as though I have stepped through a time portal and witness what it was like to live in 1912, rather than 2012. Impressive old movie theaters, such as the Aztec and the Majestic, share sidewalks with massive Neo-gothic buildings like the Tower Life and Emily Morgan Hotel. A cornucopia of Terra-cotta facades, gargoyles, bell towers, intricate rod iron entryways, and historic street lamps beg me forward into the guts of the city.
Going deeper, I find she is not all pretty and gentrified – something I rather appreciate. Parts of downtown are boarded up and burned out. Seedy bodegas sell cheap beer in brown paper bags to men and women who look like they know how to drink, and live, hard. Homeless folks – just a few – camp on corners and in quiet locations between buildings. Despite the grunge, I never feel unsafe, threatened or harassed. I continue along an unknown path chasing scenes in my lens.
The crown gem of this town – in my opinion – is River Walk. No where else in this country have I encountered such a celebrated riverfront. One story below street level, the San Antonio River is tamed by pedestrian walkways and lined with shops, bars and restaurants. It is alive down here. People jostle for waterfront seating while gondolas motor up and down the river and a din of voices, music and motion waft streetward.
Malaika and I happen to visit just before Christmas when red, green, yellow, and blue LED lights fill nearly every tree. It is a sight to behold and adds to the wonderful experience. We dine at a forgettable Italian eatery, then walk and witness others enjoying this remarkable public space. An added bonus: the people of San Antonio – large hats and all – are nice and welcoming. Perhaps they realize they live somewhere special.
The next morning, we take a long walk along the river before packing up and heading east. As we wave goodbye to this gem of a town, I realize why I am so pleased with our stay: I erroneously held few expectations of this dry, dusty town in the middle of Texas. My expectations, as always, color my experience. It is a good reminder to keep them at a level that allows me to see the beauty in every place.