Saturday, May 3, 2014

Backroads, Bayous and Bogs of Southern Louisiana

Water, water everywhere!  That pretty much sums up southern LA.  Over the years as we drove across massive bodies of water exemplifying our preconceived idea of swamp land, Har & I promised ourselves we would one day take a swamp tour.  This was the year!

Maxie's RV park in Broussard, LA was the park we chose to stay in again this year.  Upon our arrival we  informed our host we wanted to go on a swamp tour and his immediate response was, "Have I got the man for you!"  And so it was, after one quick phone call, we had a date to meet Bryan Champagne (nice Acadian name) Saturday afternoon.   Turns out Bryan runs a business from a shabby/picturesque little building situated on one of the most popular lake/swamps in the area. We were part of a tour group, numbering 16, who climbed aboard a low, square nosed aluminum boat complete with comfortable swivel chairs for each of us.  Our guide was a black man with a wry sense of humour and a deep southern accent!  He expertly guided the quiet running boat through the labyrinth of cypress trees all the time talking and pointing out interesting things.  Because he is in the swamp every day his eyes were much keener than our tourist eyes thereby allowing him to call our attention to various birds, turtles, water plants, AND alligators!  The first one we saw was so docile most of us figured it was a decoy planted for gullible tourists but nope ... it was the real thing.  It let us get about 10 feet from it before SPLASH it was gone.  Boy, can they move quickly!!                                                     

We saw several of the ugly things and they all reacted the same way.  According to the guide, being cold blooded creatures, the gators like to stretch out on a log to warm up while they digest their food.  He gave us some interesting facts ... like a gator grows in length approximately one foot a year; the distance from the nose to the hind leg is the same length as the tail; a female gator can lay up to 150 eggs at one time in a "gator hole" which is approximately 50 feet long and one foot deep which she digs in the mud and shallow water close to soil; fire ants and other gators are the number one predators of the babies; a female can determine the sex of the egg by how long she sits on it to keep it warm ... to create a male it takes longer; the mother gator looks after the surviving babies for one year; a female has to reach 6 years of age before she can lay eggs;  the only meat sold for eating is harvested from the tail, legs and jaw.  Most importantly, according to a man who makes his living taking tourists out to view alligators, they are not vicious ... "crocodiles are the mean ones and they're in Florida".  You can believe it or not!  But we did see people kayaking, others picnicking on a raft, plus the guide said that water skiing is a big sport on the lake so......

One quick flip and he's gone!

At the completion of our exciting swamp tour we were happy to realize we had time to return to a spot we had thoroughly enjoyed last year ... the Liberty Theatre in Eunice.  The Liberty is a little piece of history.  It was built in 1924 as a vaudeville theatre.  It still has original wall panel paintings of burlesque dancers and well worn horsehair padded seats.  Each Saturday evening the theatre hosts a live radio broadcast featuring well known Acadian Cajun musicians. On stage, in front of an antique hand painted backdrop depicting a
typical bayou scene, four musicians entertained the audience with their rousing, toe-tapping brand of music.  Several couples enjoyed themselves by dancing the "two-step" on what we noticed was a decidedly slanted hardwood dance floor. The dancers ranged in age from octogenarian to adolescent.  We determined there are several different styles of enjoying the persistent beat of the music but all of them were entertaining to watch.  Experiencing first hand this ethnic "fais-do-do et joie de vivre" made Har and me wish we knew how to do the two-step so we could join the fun.

The day we decided to move on to another part of the state the weatherman was predicting heavy rainfall  beginning in the afternoon bringing with it a drastic drop in temperature.  Because we wanted to drive 125 miles to the next park, we elected to stay put one more day in Broussard and not run the risk of "pulling" in the rain ... or setting up in a downpour. So we visited a welcome centre we had been told about in the Atchafalaya Basin .  We watched a short movie about the swamp, looked at lots of pictures and artifacts/primitive folk art, got burdened down with pamphlets and advice for things to visit in the area (by the enthusiastic/knowledgeable greeter) then elected to travel the 30 miles back to the trailer via back roads.  YIKES!!  We got caught in the predicted torrential rain.  Twice we had to pull into deserted parking lots because the windshield wipers couldn't keep up.  Over the years the roads have been so well travelled the pavement was worn into ruts which quickly filled with water causing spray to splash up as high as the windshield as we drove through it reducing visibility even more.  In several places little flash floods washed streams of water and soil across the road.  Quite an interesting drive home!  Then once we reached our destination ... it stopped.  On the up side ... all the pollen and dust was washed off the truck and trailer and there were no leaks anywhere!

The 125 miles to Bayou Signette State Park in Westwego, LA took us over typically rough Louisiana roads.  How rough?  Well, in order to prevent dislocated discs in my neck, I tried leaning back on the headrest only to have my head literally bounce forward and back instead of up and down.  What a trip!  While setting up in the pretty park we couldn't get power to  the microwave or computer desk.  Anticipating a major problem Harwood checked contacts, fuses, outlets at the park power post, wiring ... the whole gamut ... without any success in restoring electricity.  Finally, we noticed the plug to the microwave had become dislodged while travelling ... as had the power bar to the computer.  What a relief ... an easy fix.  All that frustration caused by driving on a state highway ... not even a back road!

One of the larger boats we saw
From Bayou (Canadian friends, it's pronounced "buy you") Signette we planned another jaunt into the deep southern section of the state.  Actually, we drove to the end of the road below Houma.  The well paved road ran parallel to an intracoastal waterway affording us the opportunity to see how true Louisianans live ... at least according to the young man at the Visitor Information Centre.  He was referring to the fact there was a boat in every back yard because the yards were right on the water.  We recognized a lot of shrimp trawlers ... from shabby run-down boats to a whole fleet of well maintained vessels.  It seemed people along the bayou were from two very different levels of society.

Raised trailer with add on porch
Note wheels for easy towing

For example, on the way to a big     expensive marina we passed several places we jokingly called, "Louisiana highrises". One raised trailer still had the wheels on it ... just in case the owners ever wanted to tow it again, I guess. 

Have you ever watched the television show "Swamp People"?  The stars of that show live in Houma ... the area we were exploring.  Much to Harwood's disappointment we didn't find where they film the show, nor did we meet Jay and R.J.  However, we encountered some real swamp people one day who were probably more accommodating to us ignorant tourists than the TV stars would have been.

A real swamp person
While out driving one afternoon we noticed vehicles parked along both sides of the road.  We couldn't identify any reason for them to be pulled over until a particular group caught our eye.  It seemed to be a young family ... the youngest children playing alongside the truck while older siblings and parents were working the edge of the bush with long wooden poles.  Fishing rods?  No, seemingly more like shovel handles. As we travelled a bit further we noticed a man about our age hunkered down behind his tailgate while a woman stood nearby holding one of the mysterious poles.  We were in luck!  There was a place for us to pull over.  We quickly hopped out of the truck and approached the couple introducing ourselves as "curious Canadians".  What we learned!!  They were catching crawfish ... a southern delicacy. The man was busy baiting his nets.  He grabbed a big handful of stuff (turned out to be fish guts and a large chunk of rotten meat), placed it in the centre of a 12 inch square mesh net then gave the net a quick flip so that it wrapped around itself in order to prevent the bait from falling out.  He invited us to watch him as he set the loaded net.  By placing this concoction on the end of the long wooden pole his wife had been holding he was able stand at the edge of the bush line to extend and lower the net into some muddy water.  Once the net was situated, he used the pole to stir up the water so the crawfish couldn't see the white mesh ... otherwise they would be too smart to get caught!  As I trotted behind him hoping for photo ops he glanced down at my sandal clad feet and said, "You best not come too close, ma'am.  There's lots of snakes 'round here."  Which would explain his white wellingtons!  Needless to say, Har & I kept a watchful eye on the ground as we followed our guide while he proceeded to check the rest of his nets. Using the pole, he adeptly retrieved each net, opened it up and dumped the unsuspecting crawfish into a big blue plastic tub which boasted a length of polypropylene rope for a handle. (It was a muti-purpose tub as when we first arrived he was reaching into same tub for his bait.  A little rinse with the nearby water had it ready for it's next purpose.)   The tub slid quietly and smoothly behind as he pulled it from net to net.  Over the course of the three hours he had been there he estimated a total catch of approximately 15 pounds of crawfish.  Considering the market value of $2.75/lb he was well pleased with his afternoon efforts and we were well pleased to have been introduced to the bounty, and dangers, of a back road Louisiana bog.

White stuff in net is bait, dark stuff crawfish

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Farewell Tropic Star

April 9th ... one week beyond our three month booking in Pharr, Texas we felt it was time for us to begin our homeward trek.  Being restricted as to how much time we can be out of Canada really curtails our travels.  Where we would like to go and where weather permits us to go during our allotted exile are two different things!  So in order to comply with government mandates we had to bid adieu to fellow Winter Texans and our comfortable life style at Tropic Star to once again head the truck in a north easterly direction.

Feeling sorry for ourselves we drove along in companionable silence until Harwood's attention was aroused by flashing blue lights quickly approaching from behind.  Just as he mentioned them to me ... WHOOSH ... a nondescript black van flew past us with a police car practically riding the bumper.  We watched in awe as, in tandem, the two vehicles wove in and out and around the traffic ahead of us without any sign of slowing down.  Eventually the van pulled onto the shoulder and while it was still coasting toward a fence we counted eleven men hurtle themselves from the van, vault over the fence sprinting at breakneck speed into the nearby bush.  What could the lone officer do but sit and watch as he called in recruits?  Realization hit us ... we had witnessed first hand a high speed car chase involving Mexican illegals!

Following the road less traveled, as we tend to do, eventually lead us to Galveston Island.  Seasoned RVers suggested bypassing Houston with its constantly congested traffic by taking the ferry from Galveston.  Our friends, Ray & Cheryl, had done so in January assuring us the ferry could accommodate big rigs and, best of all, as part of the Texas highway system there was no fee for crossing!  Who could resist?  We waited a few minutes in one of four lanes of vehicles lined up to board the ferry.  Amazingly, under the experienced direction of  polite ferry personnel, everyone safely drove onto the waiting vessel, the ramps were secured, the great motors surged with power and we were off!  Exactly sixteen minutes later, at the tip of Bolivar Peninsula, the whole procedure was reversed as we drove onto the landing ... where another four lanes of traffic were waiting to utilize the ferry's return trip.  Thus we completed another first time experience.

Only ten miles from the ferry landing we discovered a campground to house us overnight.  While setting up the trailer we were once again reminded of what a small part of the world we occupy.  As RVers do, the fellow beside us struck up a conversation while we hooked up our utility services.  Usually the first question is, "Where are you from?"  Turns out, the gentleman we were talking to lives in Essex, Ontario AND he was a school friend/neighbour of our good friend, Bernard.  They owned adjacent farms and as retirees met for coffee together on a regular basis thereby cementing many years of close friendship.  The  three of us reminisced about the good times shared with Bernard during his lifetime.  How we miss that man!

 Exploring  Bolivar Peninsula proved interesting.  It is a very narrow spit of land between the Gulf of Mexico and Galveston Bay.  The bay affords Houston (and surrounding cities) sea-port access for huge ocean going vessels.  On terra ferme one highway runs the length of the peninsula along which we discovered just one continuous community.  It is comprised of brightly painted painted houses, built to avoid possible flooding, on 16-20 foot high stilts.
These colourful dwellings are scattered haphazardly along the sandy shores of the gulf ... no need to cut grass in this community although the wild flowers are spectacular!  During hot summer months this beach front community thrives on the use of it's beaches.  The sand along the shore is hard packed, road worthy, to provide ample opportunity for sun worshipers to amuse themselves.  This time of year we found the ever present wind causing huge white capped muddy breakers to pound against the shore bringing with them excessive flotsam.  However currently uninviting I'm sure the beaches are well groomed during high season and provide welcome relief from soaring temperatures for a great number of people.

Because we were only ten miles from the ferry, and since it was free, we elected to return to Galveston for the opportunity to experience a bit of the city.  As we drove along the seawall we felt as if we were back home in Niagara Falls driving along Clifton Hill ... except the ocean was within plain view.  The beaches in Galveston were much cleaner and we noticed several people braving the buffeting wind as they strolled, or jogged, along. Hopeful fishermen patiently watched their lines from various piers.  Big fancy hotels boasting luxurious surroundings lined the other side of the seawall.  Restaurants and bars flashed welcoming neon signs.  Pulsating music beckoned.  We drove past "Pleasure Pier" on which a two story Bubba Gump restaurant sat amid a brightly lit midway.  At the far end of the pier a ferris wheel created intricate patterns of coloured lights presenting a pretty kaleidoscopic effect reflected in the water.  As darkness closed in Har and I were content to return to the trailer feeling as if we our 2014 visit Texas was complete.  We have done and seen a lot these past three months!

   Good bye, proud Texas with your     pretty springtime roadside flowers!  

3 M Days

What, you ask, are 3 M days?  Let me tell you ... one of the best things about wintering in southern Texas!

3 M = Mexico, Manicures and Margaritas

Pretty exciting, huh?  

A short, scenic driving distance from our RV park in Pharr, Texas is an international border crossing which gives access to an entirely different way of life.  Each day hundreds of Winter Texans drive late model, well maintained (often expensive) vehicles to a rough, dusty lot where we gladly hand over $2.00 for the privilege of parking our vehicles on the American side of the Rio Grande River.  Grabbing our passports we eagerly scramble from the car/truck, lock the doors, make our way to a turnstile where we deposit two quarters each and proceed to enter a third world country.  As we amble across the walled bridge spanning the Rio Grande River we pass a plaque indicating the exact spot where we leave the United States of America and enter Mexico. 
Sneek Family embarking on a new adventure
Proceeding to the far side of the river we gradually become aware of a low moaning sound.  Approaching the end of the bridge we can glance down through the slats in the concrete wall and see what appears to be a tent city.  Suddenly we notice baseball caps appearing through the slats, grasped firmly in dirty little brown hands jangling up and down to attract attention while from below comes a constant wailing for, "Money please, missus."  It's pretty hard to ignore the persistent pleas but that is exactly what tourists are encouraged to do.  The Mexican authorities do not chase the beggars away from the bridge but they do impress upon us not to offer support, for in so doing we encourage and perpetuate the situation.  Far better to distribute our money among the many street vendors, stores, restaurants and those who offer legitimate services.  Gladly, we follow their advice.

Walking along the crowded, narrow, uneven sidewalks our senses are assaulted from all sides!  Jostling Anglo-Saxons laugh and chit-chat with each other like the best of friends ... even if you've just literally bumped into one another.  Street vendors tempt the shoppers saying, "Almost free today," by displaying
beautiful jewelry, brightly coloured blankets, hand made leather purses/wallets/belts, unusual lawn ornaments, newly released (read pirated) movies at discount prices, bouquets of paper flowers, sombreros, cowboy hats, hand woven baskets, hot praline candies, bags of freshly diced edible cactus, garlands of potent garlic, and the list goes on .....   Then there are the wonderful smells emanating from the little mobile food carts lining the side streets where the locals (and some brave tourists) line up to eat.  Harwood and I were actually tempted on our last visit to try some street food.  A smiling man adeptly smeared mayonnaise along the side of a Styrofoam cup before filling it with hot kernels of white corn recently scraped off the barbequed cobs beside him.  Then after some broken English/lack of Spanish communication between us he chose a "not too spicy" condiment bottle and squirted it on top of the corn.  With adroit hand gestures he instructed us to stir it all together then eat it.  The big grin on his face was his way of indicating we would enjoy his "Eletoes" immensely ... and he was right!

In doorways opening onto courtyards attractive people offer, "Manicures, pedicures, waxing" as the crowd pushes by.  It is just too alluring an invitation to refuse!  Visiting a beauty parlor is Mexico is an unique experience!  The one we frequented was a family run operation.  Poppa and Brother professionaly cut and styled repeat customers hair into becoming styles.  Mamma and Daughter (along with several other women who may have been related) happily performed expert mani/pedi services.  Beautiful black eyed little 3 1/2 year old Granddaughter provided the opportunity for female clients to get their "grandma" fix while being pampered.  Sitting with fingers soaking, it was amusing for me to observe how people without the conveniences to which we are accustomed can adapt and improvise.  No need for foot baths with powerful vibrating jets.  An easily purchased Dr. Scholls foot bath placed within easy reach sufficed.  Who needs
those fancy massage recliners to keep you comfortable while you relax?  A cushion behind your back as you sit on the padded bench beside another customer is just fine.  And if both hooded hairdryers are being used simply roll out the 1950's version from the back room and turn it on!  Your hair cut is finished?  Don't leave without your free back and shoulder massage compliments of a hand held electric device in the hands of your stylist.  All this superb entertainment for the low, low price of $10.00 per manicure.  "Almost free today!"

No trip to Mexico is complete without a stop at an outdoor patio bar for a frosty, frozen margarita!  Pick your spot ... there are many.  Unwind from a hard day of enjoying yourself as you sit in the glorious sun serenaded by wandering mariachi minstrels.  Purchase your last minute souvenirs from sad-eyed street urchins.  Get your shoes (or leather hat) polished to a gleaming "just like new" shine by an energetic rag-slapping shoe shine boy.  Sip on that deliciously cold beverage served by your smiling, attentive waiter.  In other words, simply relax with laughter and good friends acknowledging your good fortune of having been able to enjoy yet another perfect 3 M day!


Monday, March 24, 2014

Bubba's Favourite Food

Remember "Bubba" in the movie Forest Gump and how he went on and on about shrimp?  We got a first hand opportunity to discover for ourselves the fascination "shrimping" held for Bubba!

Our friend, Ray, organized a very interesting outing on Valentine's Day and graciously included  7 couples from the park.  Doubling up, we piled into 4 vehicles and drove about 80 miles to the Port of Brownsville where we participated in a Texas Gold Shrimp Tour.  The tours are given by an enterprising young man whose family has been shrimping for several years.  Shrimp season is closed during February & March leaving the 15 vessel fleet inactive, thus, unproductive.  During this time frame each vessel is routinely overhauled assuring the 20 ft wide, 70 ft long boats are properly outfitted with sound engines and workable rigging so they are generally seaworthy, ready to go, when the season re-opens.  In an effort to educate the general public, including visiting Winter Texans, this young man came up with the brilliant idea to offer tours which explain the shrimping industry in Texas.

Using the large property adjacent to their marine repair business, which abuts a private harbour, a large pole barn was erected.  Over 100 people can comfortably sit at banquet tables, watch an interesting, educational power point presentation and listen to the well delivered narrative regarding the third generation family run business.  After an introduction to the shrimping industry in general, the tourists are divided into two groups.  One group remains under shelter to learn about processing procedures while the second group boards a moored trawler to see first hand where the four man crew lives, and works, while on their average 45 days at sea.
  Wow!  Talk about small, close quarters!!  We couldn't imagine spending one night aboard let alone 45!  Naturally the working area with all the rigging, extra nets, buoys, brine tanks and freezer compartment where the catch is preserved comprises about 3/4 of the vessel.  The galley and bunks and wheelhouse seemed minuscule.  No comforts of home aboard these boats!

We learned the crew normally "fish" during the night when shrimp are more active.  Once the captain has chosen a location, the bottom of the sea is dredged as the boat trawls along at 12 mph scooping the shrimp into huge nets.  (Shrimp live about 4-6 inches under the seabed so have to be "dug up".)  When the nets are filled to capacity they are hauled up and emptied onto the deck.  At this time the  "header" crew members spring into action.  They sit amongst the catch, pick up individual shrimp in each hand then using their thumbs snap the heads from the shrimp bodies.  The heads pile up on the deck as the mutated bodies are flung into plastic containers.  These eventually get dumped into the brine tank where they go through a lengthy process of soaking, then being rinsed numerous times with fresh water before being frozen in a separate refrigerated hold. The boats leave shore carrying 3,000 gallons of fresh water to cleanse the catch!  The "headers" get paid about $25/100 pounds of shrimp. We were fascinated to watch how quickly the "header" could decapitate those shrimp!

Following the lecture and boat tour all the tourists reassembled in the barn where the patriarch of the business had been boiling fresh shrimp.  We were treated to a "de-veining/shelling" demonstration before being fed a delectable appetizer of fresh wild-caught Gulf shrimp ... complete with home made dipping sauce made from Grandma's favourite recipe.

Besides developing a new respect for commercial fishermen we came away realizing how to important it is to check while shopping for packages labelled "Wild Caught Shrimp".  Without those words the shrimp have been farm raised, usually in Asian countries, thereby competing with the local fishing industry which is suffering as a consequence.   It was also pointed out that farm shrimp are usually not as healthy nor as firm and tasty when cooked.  Something we can personally attest to having tasted first hand some of Bubba's favourite food!

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

"High Hopes"

"Once there was a little old ant
Thought he'd move a rubber tree plant
Everyone knows an ant can't
Move a rubber tree plant!"

A familiar song which, until now, I didn't take too seriously.  However, after being called to watch a neighbour's interesting discovery during his daily morning walk, I am having second thoughts about those lyrics. 

Ever hear of leaf cutter ants?  That was Jerry's discovery!  He took us to watch a fascinating display of tenacity, determination and strength.  Just down the road from our trailer, under an orange tree, Jerry had spotted a wide, deeply etched trail created by these industrious insects as they travelled to and fro from the orange tree to an unseen nest which could be anywhere on the other side of the park fence, over in the long grass bordering a low lying drainage area.  From our vantage point we couldn't see where they were hauling their booty.  What we could see was about 30 yards of the path they had created, winding from the tree, under the fence, into the tall grass where we lost sight of it.  The path was about two inches wide ... the majority of it strewn with pieces of  glossy, green leaves which had been stripped off the tree. The little bug- eyed, long legged insects formed two continuous lines. Heading toward the fence, a line comprised of ants bearing chunks of leaves much larger than they.  One ambitious worker was even lugging a seed from a decaying orange!  It had to be much heavier than the ant itself.  I watched mesmerized as that amazing little thing followed the smooth path of leaves, struggled over a rocky obstacle course of pebbles, maneuvered  the over-sized load under a twig and continued determinedly to the assigned destination point.  The second line consisted of workers returning to pick up yet another piece of leaf and retrace their steps.  We noticed how they often greeted one another by touching antennae.   

Examining the tree itself, we saw several ants crawling up the trunk out onto the branches.  Many of them were not carrying anything so we wondered if perhaps their job was to cut the leaves off the branches allowing them to fall to the ground where another crew could chew them into manageable pieces.
A piece of decomposing fruit also attracted a lot of attention.  Several ants swarmed over it working diligently at breaking the pulp into individual cells.  While observing the ants meandering toward the fence we saw morsels of the fruit being carried along the trail.

Apparently (according to Goggle research), these insects carry all this interesting "stuff" to the underground nest of the colony. The leaves are chewed into a pulp which is left to decay, along with other foraged organics, thereby cultivating a fungus which provides a substance the ants eat for survival. Interestingly, it is the female members of the species that do all the work!  The males are for reproduction purposes only.  Sound familiar??

As for moving that proverbial rubber tree ... I'm still not convinced.  But I do know that "little old ant", and her female relatives, can strip a tree of its leaves, put them to good use, and, in so doing provide a fascinating study of nature for several curious humans.


Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Safety on the Rio Grande

What interesting things we see and learn while out enjoying ourselves!  One glorious afternoon, 8 of us decided we should visit a nearby attraction, The Riverside Club.  It was a perfect afternoon for sitting outside on a shaded wooden deck along the Rio Grande River, surrounded by flowering hibiscus, gently swaying palm trees, tropical cacti, listening to the beat of dance music playing in the background.  As we munched nachos and sipped our Margaritas we became aware of huge speed boats, bearing Texas Highway Patrol insignia, racing up and down the river.  While jokingly remarking about their intent we also noticed an army helicopter flying back and forth across the cloudless blue sky.

When it was time to leave, the lead car (bearing our appointed tour guide) chose to take an alternative route back to the RV park.  We drove along the top of a very narrow levee with the Rio Grande on one side and a deep irrigation ditch on the other.  Eventually, we arrived at a popular park situated at the base of the Anzalduas Dam.  As we drove through the gate we could see Mexican families throwing nets into the river.  They had fires burning in nearby bar-b-ques just waiting, we were sure, to cook their catch.  Waving, we travelled a little further to a parking area where we spotted half a dozen police cruisers stopped along the boat ramp.

Alighting from the truck, we approached one of the officers who was leaning against the hood of  his car observing fellow patrolmen as they loaded one of the huge speed boats we had been watching onto a trailer.  We were just in time!  At close range we could see there were three 300hp motors mounted on the back of the boat.  No wonder they were able to speed along so smoothly!  There were two similar vessels pulling out of the water, each manned by 6 officers and each heavily loaded with an arsenal of deadly looking artillery.
The informative policeman we were talking with told us the patrol boats are capable of travelling at 90 mph but normally cruise at 60. During the course of their 12 hour shift they frequently encounter illegal aliens and drug smugglers.  The two countries are so close to one another at that precise location that we could easily see a cluster of buildings on Mexican terrain where several men were seen to be observing the activities of the patrol boats.  The officer told us it is a losing battle trying to stop illegal activity, for once they (policemen) move on, the Mexicans swim across often carrying drugs and other illicit booty.  As the police presence, via patrol boat, departed another contingent arrived prepared to patrol by land.  Those men were mounted on four-wheelers, sporting bullet proof vests also all geared up with weapons. Definitely a very visible presence.  We asked our friendly officer if he felt safe standing where he was and he told us he felt extremely safe at the moment because we were shielding him from enemy fire!  Glad to be of service!!

Wandering away from the activity at the boat ramp we ventured over to a wooden deck overlooking a dock where three Border Patrol boats were lined up.  Never shy, we struck up a conversation with the uniformed men sitting at a picnic table.  They were waiting for the arrival of a retiring superior who was slated for one last tour of the river.  As the time drew near for the person to arrive we watched as the six employees vested up in their Kevlar and PDF's.  They got their guns into position ... one in the front of the boat, one in the rear ... and Ray noticed that the one lying on the front seat looked like a huge paint-ball gun.  In fact it was!  Those bazooka type guns are used first as a warning shot.  Then if the desired effect isn't achieved the gun loaded with real bullets is brought into play.  I don't know about you, but I think the first shot would be enough to deter me from any ill intent.

These are two female officers
Get those vests in place
 The dignitary was to ride in the enclosed boat ... safer that way!

As is often the case, being in the right place at the right time and initiating conversation garnered lots of information reassuring we tourists that safety on the Rio Grande is alive and well! 


Monday, January 20, 2014

Adventure Miles

As the weather warms up here in Texas we find ourselves becoming more adventuresome.  Of course, having friends from our Care-A-Van group, Ray & Cheryl Beecraft, staying in the park for the first time is also good incentive ... we want to get out and show them around.  Consequently, we found ourselves on what Ray terms "adventure miles" a couple of times this past week!

The first excursion lead to the nearby town of Los Ebanos ... the site of the only remaining hand pulled ferry in the USA.  Actually, Los Ebanos can hardly be described as a town.  To our Canadian way of thinking, it is little more than a grouping of very run-down, uncared for dwellings sitting alongside dusty streets each  contained within a fenced yard which sprouts prickly pear cacti but otherwise very little vegetation.  The yards are strewn with litter and debris of every sort, long clotheslines strung with laundry drying in the hot sun, tethered mangy animals (dogs, horses, ponies) and seemingly ever present rusty old vehicles.  The village cemetery is the only bright spot in the community!  It is full of white headstones and raised concrete graves (also white) all overflowing with a dazzling array of artificial flowers in an amazing hue of colours.  Why then, you ask, do we go there?  Quite simply, to visit the ferry.

At the end of the road, just past the deserted once thriving general store, we come to an impressive modern customs building manned by federal employees of the state of Texas.  We park the truck on the side of the road about 100 yards before reaching the building.  Walking across the road, each of us cheerfully hands over an American dollar bill to the Mexican gate-keeper before we are allowed to pass through the turnstile and descend a fairly steep hill to reach the ferry.  Of course, if we were very brave (and had the appropriate required Mexican insurance) we could drive the truck down the hill and onto the ferry.  The little ferry can accommodate three vehicles ... if they aren't too large ... plus 8-10 foot passengers who sit on benches along one side of the boat.  On the other side, six strong Mexican men stand under the shade of a tin awning, prepared to launch the boat and pull it across the international border which runs down the middle of the Rio Grande River.  On the Texan side of the river the ferry and it's operating system is anchored to a huge Ebony tree estimated to be 250 years old.  Once everyone is aboard the rusty metal ramps are pulled up by chains, secured to the metal rails of the ferry and the Mexican fellows start pulling, hand over hand, on a rope which, by a system of overhead pulleys, slowly moves the boat an estimated 100 feet across the river.    
Upon reaching shore the passengers disembark onto Mexican soil.  We did so, and being very adventuresome, walked up the hill to a little shaded area where pedestrians can sit and wait for the ferry. As we sat and watched vehicles drive onto the ferry we struck up a conversation with a gentleman who was waiting for a family member to return from Texas.  Time seems to be of no essence to the laid back Mexican race.  They are very patient and masters of not becoming harried.  What better way to spend the afternoon than sitting in the warm sun in air so quiet we could hear insects chirping and the gentle lap of ripples spreading from the silently maneuvered ferry?  Having discovered through our dialogue with our new friend that it was approximately two miles from the Mexican customs, which we could see a little further up the hill, to the nearest town, we decided it was time to return to American soil.  So once again we boarded the last hand pulled ferry in the USA and enjoyed a leisurely voyage back to Los Ebanos, Texas.

Heading to Mexico
A new acquaintance
US Customs ahead