Deep in the heart of Texas: Natural Bridge Caverns

 

 

I’ll conclude this series of occasional postings about places I’ve visited in Texas with an account of one that’s literally deep in the heart of the Lone Star State.

 

Natural Bridge Caverns was developed as a tourist attraction after a group of college students discovered some breath-taking underground passages there at the beginning of the 1960s.  Today, up top, it features a visitor’s centre, a souvenir shop (‘the Discovery Village Trading Post’), a confectionery and snack shop (‘Big Daddy’s Sweets, Treats and Brew’), a spot where kids can ‘pan for gems’ and a pair of high platforms between which you can zipline across and above the whole site.  In spite of the commercialisation it’s an attractive place, landscaped with rustic stone walls, lawns, flowers, ferns and plenty of trees and shade; though I would’ve enjoyed it more if they’d turned down the insipid country-and-western music that was pouring out of the PA system, courtesy of a radio show called Prime Country.

 

We had time to go on two tours during our visit and firstly we opted for the longest-established one, the Discovery Tour, which takes you 180 feet below ground and through half-a-mile of what is described as “the largest and most spectacular show cavern in Texas”.  The entrance to this was through a giant sinkhole behind the visitor’s centre, easily accessible because it involved going down a gently-descending tarmacked path at the hole’s side.  We also received a pep-talk beforehand where we were told not to touch the caverns’ rock formations because our skins, like the skins of all mammals, secrete oils that damage the formations and stop them developing in the first place.  Later, inside the caverns, the guide shone his torch onto the roof and showed us some large ‘bald’ patches, totally free of stalactites, that centuries earlier had been home to thousands of roosting (and oil-secreting) bats.

 

One good thing about how the caverns are presented to visitors is the lighting system.  The rigs of bulbs and cables are mostly well-hidden.  The lights shining on the caverns’ paths are concealed behind rocks.  Particularly striking formations on the caverns’ walls are illuminated by unseen spotlights.  Our guide would sometimes switch these on and off by remote control so that behind or ahead of us whole sections of the walls, with their fantastically-shaped tableaux, would dramatically leap in and out of view.

 

 

One small light illuminated a tiny clump of ferns growing on a rock slope far below ground.  Presumably the ferns arrived at this spot thanks to a spore being carried down on the clothes of a human or fur of an animal.  Apart from a few streaks of mould here and there, these were the only plant or fungoid life I saw in the caverns.

 

So – what can I say about the spectacles provided by the caverns’ rock formations?  Well, they were amazing.  To give an idea of the vast and phantasmagorical range of structures there, I’ll refer to the notebook I brought with me and list all the things that different ones reminded me of.  These were: icicles; strings of spaghetti; fangs; molars; needles; turnips; parsnips; carrots; stockings hung up for Santa Claus; candles; Japanese sake bottles; spiralling seashells; dangling entrails; toadstools; cacti; ginseng roots; ice cream cones; rats’ tails; elephants’ trunks; warts; pimples; beehives; broomsticks; Greek columns; church-organ pipes; soda straws; spires; plasticine figures, animals and buildings; giant protoplasm; hanging bats’ wings; stacks of bacon slices; molten toffee; dollops of manure; jellyfish; Portuguese man o’ wars; baleen from a whale’s mouth; Aztec carvings; eroded effigies inside ruined Asian temples; gargoyles; malformed gnomes; foetuses; Gollum from The Lord of the Rings; the face of Cthulhu; hands giving you the middle-finger; hands making a Vulcan salute; totem poles; and, frankly, penises.

 

 

Parts of the caverns looked as huge and grand as the interiors of cathedrals.  Though with the rock formations confronting us on all sides with bizarre, grotesque and sinister shapes, they didn’t particularly look like Christian cathedrals – more like ones erected in honour of H.P. Lovecraft’s Elder Gods.

 

The second tour we went on was the Hidden Passages one, which takes visitors through some caverns that were discovered, opened and developed more recently.  The entrance to this was beneath a gazebo-like building a little way past the Discovery Tour’s sinkhole and again we were given a pep-talk warning us not to touch anything.

 

The Hidden Passages’ caverns were found when a vertical shaft, a couple of feet across, was bored down from the surface and had a camera lowered through it.  The camera took four photographs, being turned 90 degrees between each shot.  One photograph revealed a cave wall.  The other three showed only darkness.  The three dark photographs told the investigators that they’d located a substantial cavern – there were no walls close by on three sides of the camera for the light of its flash to bounce back from.  During the tour, the guide pointed out the bottom end of the shaft, puncturing the cavern roof beside one of its walls.  If the shaft had been drilled a few feet away from that position, it would’ve missed the cavern entirely.

 

Looking up at the shaft-end, I heard a dribble of falling soil and then some dirt-particles and two big beetles dropped out of it and onto the rocks below.  The beetles promptly scuttled away.  Welcome to your new home, guys.

 

 

At the tour’s furthest point were a group of benches where the guide had us sit down.  He then turned off all the cavern-lights so that for a minute we could enjoy – if that’s the word – the sensation of sitting in darkness: absolute darkness, a darkness so dense that couldn’t see your hand an inch, or a centimetre, or a millimetre, in front of your face.  This, explained the guide in a now eerily-disembodied voice, enabled us to experience how life was for the organisms, such as bugs and spiders, which inhabit the caverns at these depths.  They’re wholly blind and, thanks to the absence of light, wholly transparent too.  Their other senses are heightened, however, and indeed, after sitting in that darkness for a moment, it seemed that my own hearing had become sharper.

 

I also have to say that, sitting there, I found myself thinking uncomfortably about a weird short story called The End of a Summer’s Day, by the English writer Ramsey Campbell, which has an insecure woman and her fiancé going on a cave tour and undergoing a similar experience when the guide turns off the lights.  However, when the lights come on again, the woman discovers that, somehow, the man now holding her hand isn’t the man who was holding it before.  Thankfully, when the lights returned in Natural Bridge Caverns’ Hidden Passages Tour, my better half, Mrs Blood and Porridge, had undergone no such metamorphosis.

 

 

Back on the surface and before we departed, I decided to make a first-ever attempt at ziplining.  This went smoothly until I was a few yards short of the destination platform.  Then, having whizzed across most of the site, I unexpectedly stopped and was left dangling from the line.  The guy on the platform had to throw out a rope and tow me in.  I was grateful this hadn’t happened while I was further away from the platform and beyond reach of the rope.  Stranded out there, I would’ve resembled former London mayor and general Tory buffoon Boris Johnson during his famous ziplining mishap at the 2012 London Olympics.

 

Natural Bridge Caverns impressed me not just because of the sights offered by the subterranean tours, but also because of the care and effort that obviously goes into keeping the cave systems pristine and undamaged by human visitors.  I have a sad suspicion that in other parts of the world where there are similar caves, local entrepreneurs are less bothered about supervising the tourists traipsing in and out of them; and the delicate formations and ecosystems inside the caves suffer as a result.

 

 

The end of the road

 

© John Murray

 

A while ago I wrote about A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water.  These were the first two instalments in a trilogy of books describing a walking journey made across Europe in 1933 and 1934 by Patrick Leigh Fermor.

 

http://bloodandporridge.co.uk/wp/?p=5008

 

Fermor was only in his late teens at the time.  Subsequently, he’d make a name for himself as a soldier, decorated war hero, author and scholar, although nowadays, six years after his death, I suspect he’s best known for being a possible inspiration for the character of James Bond, who was created by his friend Ian Fleming.  (Fleming was always meticulous about his research and he can’t have been too pleased when, following the publication of the 1963 Bond novel On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Fermor mischievously pointed out an error to him.  At one point in the book 007 orders a ‘half-bottle’ of Pol Roger champagne.  But, observed Fermor, Pol Roger is never sold in half-bottles.)

 

A Time of Gifts chronicled Fermor’s progress from Rotterdam to the Czechoslovakian / Hungarian border, while Between the Woods and the Water continued his journey through Hungary and Romania.  He published these two books decades later, the first volume appearing in 1977 and the second in 1986.  The Broken Road, an account of the final part of his epic hike, across Bulgaria to his ultimate destination Constantinople, was published posthumously in 2013.  Fermor didn’t live to complete the third book.  The finished item was based on a draft he’d written and was edited by the travel writer Colin Thubron and Fermor’s biographer Artemis Cooper.  They used information from one of his old diaries to fill in any gaps in the text and, presumably, they gave it a final polish too.

 

I read The Broken Road recently.  How does it compare with the previous two books?  And does the fact that it was still a work-in-progress in 2011, when the great man passed away, lessen its impact?

 

The simple and welcome answer is: hardly at all.  There’s one moment where Fermor’s demise leaves things noticeably unfinished, which I’ll come to later.  Otherwise, this is pleasingly on par with the tone and quality of A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water.  You may feel at times that a further edit could have tightened Fermor’s prose by trimming some of its floridity – but then you may feel that way with the earlier books too.  A verbose chap, Fermor didn’t subscribe to the Ernest Hemmingway less-is-more approach to writing.  Indeed, his garrulousness is part of the three books’ charm.

 

One way in which The Broken Road differs from predecessors is its darker tone.  Now in the late stages of his journey, Fermor refers to fatigue and jadedness.  He’s also in a place, Bulgaria, where he feels more alien and out-of-his-depth.  Occasionally, he becomes gloomy: “…the falling depression had been hammered home by the unbroken downpour, lashed into a spiteful anti-human fury by the unrelenting north-east wind that felt as though it was blowing without let or hindrance, as it probably was, direct from Siberia…”

 

He’s more aware now of encountering duplicity and hostility and things that make him feel uncomfortable as an outsider.  During inclement weather, cart-drivers refuse to give him lifts unless he pays money that he can’t spare.  One evening at a restaurant-bar he’s disturbed when the patrons explode into frenzied celebration at the news that King Alexander I of Yugoslavia has just been assassinated in Marseilles.  (“They’ve killed the Serbian king!  Today, in France!  And it was a Bulgar that did him in!”)  And there’s a perplexing moment when, for no apparent reason, a Bulgarian youth called Gatcho whom he’s befriended turns on him, screams abuse and threatens him with a knife.

 

Afterwards, a chastened Fermor wonders about “…how much of a nuisance I might have proved to countless people during the last year: had I been a perfect pest all across Central Europe?  A deep subsidiary gloom set in…”

 

From ghostofelberry.wordpress.com

 

Though it can’t have been fun at the time, I actually like seeing Fermor out of his comfort zone here.  This is because in the previous books there were times when I felt he had it too cushy, thanks to his privileged background, his wealthy contacts and the easy manner with which he ingratiates himself with those contacts.  As I wrote previously: “Gradually… Fermor falls in with a succession of aristocrats and moneyed folk.  Each of these gets in touch with relatives or friends further along his walking route and arranges for them to put him up.  So Fermor makes increasingly-frequent stops at big houses, where he dawdles among drawing rooms, libraries, servants, vintage motor cars, lavish family picnics and sumptuous evening balls…  Between the Woods and the Water, in particular, contains so many of these aristos that they start to blur into one another.”

 

In The Broken Road, Fermor even has to endure a common hazard for solitary, long-distance budget travellers – the loony who attaches himself to you.  (As someone who’s done a fair amount of travelling, I’ve had many loonies attach themselves to me.)  Here, it’s a misfit called Ivancho, “threadbare and urban and with a face like a hare’s,” who talks “at such a speed that I could scarcely understand a word – at the same time eager, confidential and ear-splitting, and without the faintest trace of punctuation, accompanied by many gestures and with a fixed smile and those hare’s eyes projecting and rolling, as though loose in their sockets.  It continued for mile after mile until my head began to swim and ache.”

 

The book isn’t all misery, of course.  Its pages are frequently brightened by moments of rhapsody, moments when the ever-curious Fermor is genuinely delighted by his discoveries.  For example, the whirlwinds of thistledown, sticks and rubbish that appear on the Dobruja steppe: “The plain was still alive with mirages; these four pillars careered across a sunset that the hanging mantle of dust refracted into a vast and tragic drama of orange and amber and blood red and violet…  There are tales of whole wagons being gathered up by these twisting demons, with sheep and buffaloes…”  Or the dream-like experience he has in the final chapter when he spends the night in a firelit cave by the Black Sea that “arched high overhead but did not go very deep into the cliff side” amid a mixed band of Greek fisherman and Bulgar shepherds.  They entertain themselves swigging from bottles of raki, playing music on goatskin bagpipes, gourd drums and Eastern European lutes, and dancing – first a slapstick all-male Turkish belly-dancing number and then some intriguing variations on Greek rebetiko.  The chapter is a tour de force of descriptive writing and provides the book, and the trilogy itself, with a fitting climax.

 

The cave sequence is the climax by default because a few pages later what you’d expect to be the real climax, Fermor’s long-awaited arrival in Constantinople, doesn’t materialise.  Rather, the text terminates in mid-sentence (“…and yet, in another sense, although”) and Fermor’s editors provide an apologetic note explaining that he never recorded the arrival in his draft or in his diary.  They speculate that “(p)erhaps the end of his journey was weighing on him with the traveller’s bewilderment of at last reaching his goal, and the uneasy question of his future.”

 

From Ouranoupoli.com

 

There’s compensation, however.  We get an 80-page epilogue wherein, post-Constantinople and early in 1935, Fermor describes a three-and-a-half-week sojourn on the Greek peninsular of Mount Athos, the ‘Autonomous Monastic State of the Holy Mountain’ that’s home to twenty Eastern Orthodox monasteries and that’s off-limits to women.  Indeed, Fermor observes, the peninsula’s off-limits to most things female: “for centuries, no mares, sheep, she-goats, sheep, cats, etc., have lived there, and all the flocks that I saw cropping what grass they could among the rocks, watched by a shepherd boy with a flute, were of rams and billy-goats.”  (Things have now been relaxed, apparently.  According to Wikipedia, “female cats, female insects and female songbirds” are allowed entry to modern-day Mount Athos.)

 

So after A Time of Gifts, Between the Woods and the Water and The Broken Road, I’ve spent about 800 pages in the company of the young Patrick Leigh Fermor during his trek across 1930s Europe.  Like with any travelling companion on a long and often arduous trip, there’ve been moments when I’ve felt irritated by him – by his poshness, his puppy-dog enthusiasm, his occasionally infuriating know-it-all-ness.  But at the same time, I feel I’ve formed a bond with the guy.  And now that the journey has reached its end, you know what?  I’m going to miss him.

 

Deep in the heart of Texas: San Antonio’s art museums

 

 

When I visited Texas a little while ago, one thing I didn’t expect to encounter a lot of was highbrow culture.  Indeed, during my first few days there, my expectations of encountering such a thing got lower still as I noticed certain details about the place.  Details such as a Texan fondness for car-window stickers saying WE DON’T DIAL 911, WE USE COLT 45.  Or the rolls of novelty toilet paper on sale in Texan souvenir stores that had Barack Obama’s face on them.  Or the hulking roadside signs bearing the message THINK GOD in stark black letters.  All these suggested I wasn’t in a part of the North American land mass much given to Manhattan-style cosmopolitanism and culture-vulture posing.

 

However, after another couple of days, I realised I’d been wrong.  There is culture to be found in the USA’s biggest state and it isn’t just the culture you find festering on a half-eaten and month-old Big Mac.  At least, there’s culture to be found in the Texan city I was staying in, San Antonio.

 

Here are my thoughts on three of the art museums I discovered in San Antonio which taught me not to jump the gun in drawing conclusions about people and how highbrow or lowbrow they are.  (That said, ‘jump the gun’ does sound like an appropriate Texan expression.)

 

Sandwiched between the River Walk and West Market Street in central San Antonio, the Briscoe Western Art Museum is the type of cultural institution you’d expect to find in Texas.  Its mission, to quote its website, is “celebrating the art, heritage and history of the American West”.   Hence you get to see such items as a painted wood, steel and leather chuck wagon that would dispense ‘hot coffee, beans and biscuits’ to tired and hungry cowboys out on their rounds; a monstrous-looking beartrap collected by “J. Frank Doble, among the West’s finest writers and historians”; a 1950s / 1960s prairie windmill for pumping water up out of subterranean aquifers; and a collection of more than a hundred cowboy spurs from the 18th to 20th centuries.  Seemingly hovering in mid-air behind sheets of display-case glass, those spurs resemble a moored fleet of steampunk submarines, powered by star-shaped paddles at their sterns.

 

 

There’s also a diorama of 1836’s legendary Alamo siege, which is much better than the one on display in the Alamo itself.  And you get to see some American West-themed paintings.  I recall being impressed by Terri Kelly’s Contemplación and Oleg Stavrowsky’s And Stay Off – both pictured below.

 

From pinterest.com 

From briscoemuseum.org

 

The final museum-room I visited had some lovely old posters advertising America’s national parks.  (Take a bow, John Muir.)  They had a pleasing 1930s-ish look to them and I detected a hint of Art Deco too, though maybe it was just me.

 

 

The Briscoe’s museum shop, of course, is dedicated to all things Western and cowboy.  I thought it was brave of them to have on their bookshelves a few copies of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian.

 

 

While the Briscoe deals with local culture, the San Antonio Museum of Art, on the River Walk too but out of the downtown area, up by West Jones Avenue and almost at the expressway, is unashamedly internationalist.  You should set aside a good couple of hours to do this institution justice for it contains a lot of stuff.  SAMA, as it’s called, features everything from 18th and 19th century European paintings to Oceanian spirit masks, from Buddhist statues to samurai armour, from Islamic-world ceramics to Chinese Qing Dynasty vases, from Korean folding screens to Egyptian sarcophagi.  I could probably fill this blog from now until next Christmas with information about what I saw there.  But I’ll mention a very few of my highlights.

 

Being Irish, I enjoyed the display of ‘Irish silver’ up on the fourth floor, which featured silver in every culinary form you could think of: corkscrews, wine coolers, cups, funnels, ladles, teapots, jugs, chocolate pots, toast racks, tankards, decanter stands, beakers, ewers, chalices, urns, cruets, sauceboats, butter dishes, fruit bowls, teaspoons and toasting forks.

 

 

In the Oceania section, I liked the ‘male ancestor figure’ from Papua New Guinea.  Made of wood and shells, he sported a conical head, long nose, vacant expression and large arched member and he stood upon a luckless-looking squatting monkey.  Another unhappy monkey was one in the Chinese section kneeling under the weight of a Tang Dynasty ‘spirit guardian’, whose distinctive features included a pig-like snout and chin, a twisting tusk erupting from his cranium and weaving flame-like spikes behind him.

 

 

And in the South Asian section there’s a fascinating Buddhist mandala made of marble sand.  A mandala, it’s explained “is a cosmic diagram made of concentric circles and squares representing the symbolic home of a deity… used as tools for meditation and in spiritual development.”  SAMA is only one of four American museums to contain a mandala, as normally they are taken apart after a few days to symbolise the transience of things: “Permission to preserve this mandala was granted by his Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama as a gesture to promote peace and harmony.”

 

 

Alas, I didn’t have time to look at SAMA’s collection of Latin American art, contained in the Nelson A. Rockefeller Centre on the ground floor.

 

And lastly to my favourite gallery in San Antonio, the McNay Art Musueum, north of the city centre, in Alamo Heights and on North New Braunfels Avenue.  The McNay is the oldest institution of its type in Texas, dating back to 1854.  Just inside its entrance stand some fun sculptures, such as Seymour Lipton’s Moloch, which resembles a mantrap folded into the shape of a pitbull terrier, or one by David Smith, which resembles a tangled weather vane but is really a representation of Groucho Marx’s face – look closely and you might spot his bowtie, cigar, moustache and glasses.  However, the real goodies are the paintings on display further inside.

 

 

They include works by Cezanne, Chagall, Matisse, Monet, Picasso, Rousseau and Van Gogh.  I particularly liked Edward Hopper’s Corn Hill, 1930, whose explanatory notes include this quote by the artist himself: “Maybe I am not very human.  What I wanted to do was paint sunlight on the side of a house”; Paul Gauguin’s Self-Portrait with the Idol, which has lurking in its top right corner the Polynesian goddess Hina, “symbol of happiness, calm and peace”; and Georgia O’Keefe’s From the Plains I, inspired by the summers that the artist spent in the stark landscapes of New Mexico.

 

From wikiart.org

From wikiart.org

 

There’s also a neat little Medieval and Renaissance Art section, containing more paintings as well as altarpieces, limestone and wooden statues (of Mary Magdalene, St Paul, St Anthony and sundry other saints), stained glass and the inevitable representations of the Madonna and Child.  Actually, the atmosphere engendered by those venerable religious artefacts did more to make me ‘think God’ than any giant sign planted by the roadside.

 

 

Deep in the heart of Texas: the Mi Tierra Cafe and Bakery

 

 

When I was a wee boy at Christmas-time, when the Christmas tree in our house had been fully decked out with tinsel, baubles and fairy-lights, I would look up at it and indulge in a fantasy.  I fantasised that I’d shrunk to the size of one of the tiny snowmen, fairies and Santa Clauses hanging from the ends of its branches and I was living in the centre of it in an equally miniature treehouse.  So that all around me were those shiny, shimmering, glittering Christmas-tree decorations, now fantastically big and a thousand times more spectacular.

 

Having lunch one day at the Mi Tierra Café and Bakery brought back memories of that childhood yuletide fantasy.   This famous eatery does business in El Mercado in the Texan city of San Antonio.  It celebrated its 75th anniversary in October this year and is as much a restaurant and bar as a café and bakery.  And it’s so elaborately decorated that its dining experience is like having a meal at the heart of a gigantic Christmas tree.

 

Covering the ceilings are dangling constellations of big multi-coloured stars and floating galaxies of glinting fairy lights.  The columns supporting those ceilings are wrapped in artificial greenery, which itself is so wrapped in coloured lights and tinselly decorations that it’s impossible to tell what the greenery is meant to be – pine, ivy, whatever.  Adding to the phantasmagorical effect of the café’s interior are golden orbs, glittery ribbons, baubles shaped like hot-air balloons, miniature piñata, little snowman and angel dolls, sparkly-winged butterflies and squares of shiny coloured foil.

 

 

At one end of the premises is a drinking establishment called the Mariachi Bar, about which I scribbled in my trusty notebook at the time: “…rather less glitzy and, dare I say it, less chintzy…  Its comparatively sparse decorations include a cello, mounted at a skewed angle on the wall, and a big wooden eagle raising its wings dramatically before the central mirror of the gantry.”  However, this photo I took of the bar-sign hardly suggests sparseness and a lack of glitz and chintz.

 

 

At the café’s opposite end is a room containing a remarkable mural that folds around two walls.  It depicts an array of Hispanic celebrities and political heavy hitters who’ve achieved prominence over the years, especially in the United States.  I have to ashamedly confess that I recognised very few of them – only a handful whose fame has crossed the Atlantic like guitarist Carlos Santana, director Robert Rodriguez, actor Edward James Olmos and the dog whisperer himself, Cesar Millan.

 

I’m told that the mural includes the San Antonio-born Henry Gonzalez, who served as a Democrat member of the US House of Representatives for nearly 40 years and who was in Kennedy’s motorcade in Dallas on that fateful November day in 1963; the civil rights activist and labour leader Cesar Chavez, who co-founded the National Farm Workers Association; and the surrealist and folk artist Frida Kahlo, whose feminism-inflected work was once described by Andre Gide as being like a ‘ribbon around a bomb’.  The mural began life in the 1970s, has gradually expanded since then and today incorporates over a hundred people.

 

 

Meanwhile, another corner of the same room houses a shrine dedicated to Selina (Quintanilla-Perez), the Mexican-American ‘Queen of Tejano Music’ who was murdered in 1995 by a former friend and employee.  Since then her adulation by the Hispanic community has reached Elvis-like proportions; to the point where George W. Bush, when he was the Governor of Texas, was moved to designate her birthday ‘Selina Day’.  The shrine is topped by a big framed picture of her singing on stage, the picture sounded by a purplish mane of tinsel, fake flowers and artificial birds.  Smaller framed photos of her from various stages in her life crowd around the shrine’s base.  There’s also a figurine of the Virgin Mary, enveloped in a halo of light, standing guard over the shrine on one side; and a statue of a girlish-looking angel acting as a sentry on its other side.

 

 

When I was there, the entrance area was dominated by an additional shrine.  This was a Dia de los Muertos – Mexican Day of the Dead – shrine dedicated to deceased members of the family who’ve run the café for three-quarters of a century, most notably Pedro and Cruz Cortez, who in 1941 founded it as an early-morning breakfast place for market-workers.  Back then it contained all of three tables.

 

A green-robed angel stood at the shrine’s summit, with a somewhat H.R. Giger-esque arrangement of horn-like spikes forming a vague halo behind her.  There were also dolls, flowers, candles, papier-mâché skulls with cartoonishly-drawn features and the inevitable clutter of framed photos.  I visited the café shortly before Dia de los Meurtos, which takes place from October 31st from November 2nd, and I don’t know if this shrine was a temporary one erected especially for the holiday or if it’s a permanent feature there.

 

 

During my visit, I was so busy making notes about the décor that I forgot to record anything about the Mexican food I ate.  All I can say is that I don’t recall having any complaints about it.  Actually, if you’re likely to be in San Antonio in the future and fancy trying the place out, here’s a link to its menu:

 

http://www.mitierracafe.com/menu

 

By the way, the Mariachi Bar has a Happy Hour every weekday evening from five to seven o’clock.  However, if there’s a Christmas-loving wee kid inside you, any hour spent inside the Mi Tierra Café and Bakery is an enchantingly happy hour.

 

 

Deep in the heart of Texas: Gruene

 

 

I’d like to write more about my travels a while ago in the United States of America.  Mind you, that’s felt difficult to do since the events of last week.  It’s hard to summon the necessary enthusiasm and positivity when you’re aware that the USA, the place you’re writing about, has just elected to its helm someone with the grace, intellect and attractiveness of a shaved baboon that’s been dipped in a vat of orange paint.

 

Anyway, here goes.  Here are a few words about the little town of Gruene in Texas.

 

Founded beside the Guadalupe River by German settlers in the 1840s, its economy originally based on cotton, Gruene was lucky not to disappear from the map a century later.  By the 1950s, a series of misfortunes, including the loss of the town’s cotton gin in a fire, a cotton-destroying infestation by boll weevils and the construction nearby of a highway, had stripped Gruene of its trade, driven away its population and turned it into a ghost town.  Then, in the 1970s, its derelict but architecturally-precious, turn-of-the-century buildings came close to being flattened and replaced by condominiums.  Before that happened, however, an architecture student called Chip Kaufman stumbled across the former town during a kayaking trip.  Kaufman was so impressed by what he found there that he persuaded the developers to back off and the authorities to preserve Gruene as a site of historical importance.

 

Now restored and repopulated, and with a new economy powered by tourism, Gruene exists in the 21st century as a district within the city limits of New Braunfels.

 

 

What caused Chip Kaufman to stop his kayak, get out, go exploring and discover the abandoned Gruene was the sight of an old water tower jutting above some treetops at the riverside.  That water tower still dominates the townscape, its tank sporting a conical roof and with name GRUENE emblazoned across it for all to see.  It’s supported by four long slender legs and, like a skinny fifth leg, a vertical pipe descends to the ground from the middle of its rounded base.  Despite having two legs too many, the structure still resembles one of the Martian war machines in H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds.

 

Most of the buildings that the tower looks down on have painted or varnished wooded walls – the varnish baked dry in the sun, the paintwork gently scabbed or peeling – and corrugated-iron roofs.  I also saw a few buildings that were entirely made of iron, their walls as well as roofs a patchwork of corrugated metal sheets.  The iron usually showed a drizzle of dark red rust, which wasn’t displeasing to look at.

 

 

The most famous building in town is Gruene Hall, built in 1878 and one of the oldest dance halls in Texas.  According to its Wikipedia entry, it’s hosted gigs by “Willie Nelson, George Strait, Townes Van Zandt, Jerry Jeff Walker, Lyle Lovett, Hal Ketchum, Gregg Allman and many more”.

 

 

The hall was smaller than I’d expected, consisting of a white-painted timber façade with a modest entrance and several narrow windows and, behind that, a long, low building under the inverted V of another rusting corrugated-iron roof.  The entrance takes you into a bar area that’s appropriately saloon-like, thanks to some wide-brimmed hats hanging on pegs, a counter fashioned out of wooden panels and scuffed planks and a sign announcing WELCOME COWBOYS.

 

 

Past this area is the dance-hall proper.  The acts perform on a stage at its far end, in front of a painted backdrop depicting some rustic Texan valley.  There are long, high gaps in its sidewalls, covered with chicken-wire, which allow you to view what’s happening outside while you sit at one of the tables and sup your beer.  And opposite the stage-end, a couple of big hatchways give audiences access to the serving area of the front bar.  Decorating the wall above the hatchways are a row of coloured electrical beer signs, glowing gorgeously in the hall’s shadowy interior: Budweiser, Coors, Shiner, Lone Star, Dos Equis and Heineken, their names etched in lines, curls and squiggles of fluorescent white, red, orange and green.

 

 

The rest of Gruene is a hodgepodge of souvenir shops, antiques stores, arts-and-crafts places and wine-tasting centres.  One shop I wandered into housed a glorious clutter of Americana – old automobile lamps, number plates and exhaust pipes, illuminated bar signs, beer signs and signs from gas-stands and gas pumps, framed pictures of Marilyn, Elvis and John Wayne.  I was less impressed, though, by the Texan God-bothering T-shirt hanging out on the porch.

 

 

Despite the crowds of visitors, I found Gruene a peaceful and beguiling place.  Particularly tranquil was the scene down by the Guadalupe River, where you can spend time in the shade of the trees, listening to the rustle of water and doing that hippie ‘communing with nature’ thing.  While I was there, I even spied three cyclists go past on the road.  I think during the whole of my time in car-crazy Texas, that was the only moment when I saw anyone attempting to ride a bicycle.

 

So all praise to Chip Kaufman for managing to convince the developers in the 1970s to leave Gruene alone and save it for the edification of future generations.  Though I suspect the outcome might’ve been less happy for the town if those forces of real estate had borne the name ‘Trump’.

 

 

Deep in the heart of Texas: Barney Smith’s Toilet Seat Art Museum

 

 

This may look like a sedate and unremarkable, if pretty, house in a leafy neighbourhood in the Texan city of San Antonio.  However, two features suggest there might be more to it than initially meets the eye.  One is a hand-painted sign half-hidden in the foliage outside, announcing the existence of a museum.  The other hints at something stranger – a toilet bowl and cistern parked in its back garden, used as a big porcelain plant-pot, green blades poking out over the bowl’s rim.

 

 

In fact, this is the home of San Antonio’s Toilet Seat Art Museum, created and run by the wonderful Barney Smith who, when a couple of friends and myself visited him a while ago, was 94 years young.  He keeps his museum-collection in a corrugated iron garage.  It’s a big collection and he has a small garage, but Barney has managed to cram the former into the latter in Tardis-like fashion.  

 

When we telephoned him to say we’d arrived – we’d made an appointment to view the museum a few days earlier – Barney crossed his back garden with the aid of a Zimmer frame, unlocked the big garage door, swung it back and propped it with a stob.  And then it seemed that Aladdin’s Cave had opened, an Aladdin’s Cave of toilet seats.

 

 

Now I should clarify something.  This is not a museum of toilet seats per se, not one of antique toilet seats, or exotic toilet seats, or unusual toilet seats.  What Barney has done over many years is take a huge number of toilet seats, or more precisely, toilet-seat lids, and decorate them according to different themes.  The theme might be a country, city or state, or a profession, or an organisation, or a special occasion, or a newsworthy event.  And he works on each seat with the artistry of a medieval craftsman engraving, gilding, inlaying, embossing and enameling the front of a medieval shield.

 

 

At the time of our visit, he mentioned that he was currently working on six new toilet seats to add to his collection.  I can’t quite remember how many seats he said he’d already completed, though for some reason the number ‘1172’ is lodged in my memory.

 

The interior of the garage is absolutely dense with the things: lining the walls, propped along the floor, dangling from the roof, suspended along rails in tightly-packed rows.  Entering it is like venturing into a congested pocket of rainforest, one where the leaves are all big, solid and shaped like loo-covers.  When he leads his visitors inside, such is the clutter that Barney has to swap his Zimmer frame for a walking stick, which handily doubles as a pointer when he’s indicating the more notable items in his collection.

 

 

Despite the sheer number of exhibits, each one seems to have its own identity – largely due to the bewildering range of bric-a-brac Barney has used in decorating them.  I saw seats adorned with action figures, badges, baubles, beads, buttons, cards, car number-plates, CDs, chains, cell-phones, cocktail sticks, coins, corkscrews, computer keyboards, coral, crosses, dolls, electronic circuitry, feathers, keyrings, keys, Lego, marbles, medallions, medals, miniature flags, neckties, notes of money, pebbles, penknives, pennants, photographs, rocks, rosettes, scent bottles, sections of plumbing, sew-on patches, shells, smokers’ pipes, spectacles, stained glass, stationery, stones, surgical instruments, taps, toy cars, toy trains and watches.

 

Barney is also an accomplished artist and calligrapher and many of the seats, in part or in their entirety, are emblazoned with his drawings and / or inscribed with his handwriting.  Indeed, such is the aesthetic effect that you soon forget that what you’re looking at are, essentially, the top parts of latrines.

 

 

About the only exhibit I remember seeing that had a connection with an actual toilet was one bearing a souvenir that a visitor, an American soldier back from service in Iraq, had given Barney one day: a chunk of porcelain allegedly salvaged from the ruins of Saddam Hussein’s personal ‘khazi’.

 

In his time Barney has worked as a plumber, electrician and fireman.  Looking at the exhibits here, and thinking of the many skills that were necessary in fashioning them, I’m sure there are a dozen other professions he could’ve successfully turned his hand to.  He’s also a bit of a publicity hound – clearly, he keeps an eye open for any opportunity to promote himself and the museum.  Thus, the garage comes equipped with a television set and an old VCR, on which he plays footage of his appearances on TV over the years, on programmes like the Tonight Show, Offbeat America and the BBC’s All Over the Place.  As a thank-you for the coverage, those shows have been honoured with their own toilet seats in the collection.

 

 

While I didn’t go to the Toilet Seat Art Museum with the intention of scoffing, I expected to have a good chuckle about it.  Where I come from, at least, toilets are supposed to be funny – hence the expression, ‘toilet humour’.  Yet I went away feeling impressed and oddly inspired.  This was partly because of the time spent in Barney Smith’s company.  Despite his advanced years he seemed as alert, vivacious and energetic as a man a third of his age.  Why, the following week, he told us, he was planning to pop up to Tennessee and visit Dollywood, the theme park devoted to the mighty Ms Dolly Parton.

 

 

And the sheer variety of things displayed in his garage made me admire his curiosity and enthusiasm for the whole rich tapestry of life.  I particularly admired the way his work showed respect for and gratitude towards those many groups of citizens who keep society ticking over and glued together – all those many professions, services, institutions, associations, sports clubs, social clubs, faith groups, youth groups and so on.  You name them, he’s got a toilet seat dedicated to them.

 

 

Tellingly, at a time when the bile, bombast and general ghastliness of the Trump-Clinton race for the presidency have acted as the worst possible advertisement for America, it strikes me that Barney and his eccentric but charming little museum are an advertisement for the very opposite, for America at its best.  Both the man and his creations seem to embody the virtues of a nobler America, virtues such as neighbourliness, civility, loyalty, positivity and all-round decency.

 

 

Deep in the heart of Texas: the Alamo

 

 

Originally a Roman Catholic mission, later a military fort and now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Alamo is found in the Texan city of San Antonio.  Today much of the site is parkland where long-trunked deciduous trees cast dappled shadows and provide shelter from the unrelenting Texan sun.  The atmosphere there is infinitely pleasanter than it was between February 23rd and March 6th, 1836, when, amid a ruckus of cannonballs, rifle-shot, bayonets, flames, smoke and blood, a hundred Texan defenders held out against a besieging Mexican force of 1500.  The siege ended with the deaths of the Texans – who were then known as ‘Texians’ and whose number included such personages as Davy Crockett, Jim Bowie and William Travis – but it had an important legacy, inspiring many to join the Texian army and hasten the success of the Texas Revolution and the formation of the Republic of Texas.    

 

 

The few buildings there, such as the chapel and barracks, seem to be kept in pristine condition.  But I have to admit that on the day I was there, I made a mistake common among many visitors.

 

What happened was, I wandered into the Alamo gift shop, housed in a historical-looking building that, according to www.thealamo.org, was “built in 1937 as one of nine Texas Centennial Museums honouring the hundredth anniversary of Texas independence.  Dedicated in 1938 the Alamo Museum held historical artefacts until the Daughters of the Republic of Texas decided to also use the space to sell souvenirs in order to raise money for care of the mission.”  And as the website notes, this building is “often mistaken as part of the original Alamo compound.”  That’s certainly what I thought.  I went into the eighty-year-old gift-shop building and assumed I was somewhere that’d seen heavy-duty action back in 1836.

 

 

Confronting me at the entrance was a sign that urged me to “shop and support”, in order to “preserve the Alamo and its legacy for future generations”.  Fair enough, I thought, but it seemed a bit tough that such stout-hearted defenders of Texan, or Texian, liberty as Davy Crockett, Jim Bowie and William Travis had to depend on hard-core capitalist retailing for the memory of their sacrifice, and the scene of it, to survive into the 21st century.

 

As I wandered among the wares on sale inside – flags, T-shirts, Davy Crockett-style raccoonskin hats, cuddly-toy eagles, lots of things emblazoned with the defiant old Texian slogan ‘Come and take it’ (which, when you think about it, is actually what the Mexicans did) – I still mistakenly believed that the building containing this shop had existed during the 1836 siege and Texians and Mexicans had really died here.  I got a bit cynical about it.  I found myself thinking sourly: “Here’s where William Travis went down, bravely battling to prevent the Mexicans from taking the Alamo’s supplies of fried-egg shapers…  And here’s where Davy Crockett heroically gave his life whilst holding off the Mexicans from the Alamo’s stock of hoodies…  And over here is where Jim Bowie was bayonetted to death as he tried and failed to stop the Mexicans from getting their hands on those boxes of delicious Alamo fudge.”

 

 

Anyway, I later discovered I was wrong.  So while you’re spending money in the Alamo gift shop, don’t feel you’re desecrating a site of the fallen.  The only thing that fell there was the occasional Alamo souvenir, falling off a rack.

 

 

In the centre of the shop is big glass case containing a model of the 1836 Alamo and a depiction of the siege with toy soldiers, horses and cannons.  Mind you, the siege is much better represented by a diorama that’s featured in San Antonio’s Briscoe Western Art Museum.  There’s also a selection of Alamo-related DVDs on sale, including films like 2004’s The Alamo with Dennis Quaid, Billy Bob Thornton, Jason Patric and Patrick Wilson, and 1960’s The Alamo with John Wayne, Richard Widmark, Laurence Harvey and Frankie Avalon, and the mid-1950s Disney TV mini-series Davy Crockett with Fess Parker as the raccoonskin-wearing frontiersman.  No sign, though, of the 1969 comedy Viva Max!, in which a rogue Mexican general played by Peter Ustinov leads a small company of Mexican soldiers into present-day Texas and retakes the Alamo.  The original plan was to shoot some of Viva Max! in the real Alamo but the Daughters of the Republic of Texas, its then caretakers, were so outraged that instead it had to be filmed at a replica Alamo elsewhere.

 

 

Outside, the most interesting feature for me – being something of a Japan-o-phile – was an inscribed stone from Japan that commemorated the medieval soldier Suneemon Torii.  He’s sometimes known as the ‘Bonham of Japan’, after James Bonham, an Alamo defender who was sent out to get military aid for the garrison, only to have his requests for help turned down.  Bonham finally returned to the Alamo three days before the culmination of the siege, even though in doing so he doomed himself to the same fate as his comrades.  Suneemon Torii performed a similar feat of heroism / martyrdom at the siege of Nagashino Castle in 1575, which has been dubbed ‘the Alamo of Japan’.

 

I also saw the name ‘Bonham’ sculpted into one side of a square, stone fountain.  As I walked around the fountain, I saw that three more names were sculpted into its three other sides: “Travis… Crockett… Bowie.”  I have to confess that, as a Led Zeppelin lover, I would have been pleasantly surprised if instead the names had read: “Bonham… Page… Plant… Jones.”

 

From www.musiclipse.com

 

The view from the bridge

 

 

The Bandra-Worli Sea Link – the Rajiv Gandhi Sea Link, to give it its official title – is a bridge five-and-a-half kilometres long that connects the busy office district of Worli in southern Mumbai with the more residential district of Bandra in western Mumbai.  I have to say that for much of its length it doesn’t feel like a bridge.

 

When you go onto it at Worli, you speed straight out across Mahim Bay and it seems bridge-like enough.  But then the thing bends around and the next thing you know, Worli is no longer behind you – it’s actually passing alongside you, on the right.  Thus, the Sea Link feels less like a bridge between Place A and Place B and more like a bypass that helps you avoid the congestion of Place A.  Albeit a bypass that rises out of the sea on giant concrete piles, pillars and pylons.

 

 

Four lanes of traffic shuttle in either direction along it, between pairs of huge concrete frames that are wishbone-shaped at one point and look like gymnastics high-bars at another, and between myriad cables that fan down at the sides.  Meanwhile, scrolling past inland from the bridge is the burgeoning cityscape of Mumbai – many of its tallest buildings still under construction so that crane-jibs stick up from their summits like lopsided antennae.

 

 

It’s only when you arrive at the toll-booths up at the bridge’s Bandra end that you’re reminded of being in India – a country famous for its overabundance of workers.  When drivers stop beside a booth, they don’t hand the bridge-fare to a guy in the booth.  They hand the fare to a guy next to the booth, who then hands it to the guy in the booth.

 

Now from a link across the sea to a forest in the sky.  In central Mumbai – where my work had sent me for a three-day training course – I often found myself looking out of the window of the office I was in and looking into the concrete-and-steel skeleton of a new monster-building that was taking shape next door.  This structure, an Indian colleague told me, had already been given a name: the Sky Forest.  For the time being, its wall-less floors were desolate and filthy, strewn with construction-rubble and awash with grey pools of monsoon-water.  But according to my colleague, it was envisioned that one day the Sky Forest would have 18 lower floors housing ‘service staff’ and then, on top of those, many more floors of luxury apartment buildings for Mumbai’s best off.

 

 

My response to this information?  “Have you ever read a book,” I asked, “or seen a film, called…  High Rise?”

 

http://bloodandporridge.co.uk/wp/?p=6499

 

Bandstand rules OK

 

 

A few weeks ago, my work sent me to Mumbai for a training course.  Frustratingly, most of what I saw of Mumbai was limited to three confined spaces – the office where I did the course during the day, the hotel-room where I spent the nights, and the car that shuttled me between the two every morning and evening.

 

Still, when I learned beforehand that my hotel was in the Mumbai suburb of Bandra and it overlooked the sea, I did some Googling.  I read how the promenade there – ‘Bandstand’ – was worth seeing, “especially liked by young couples who like to sneak out onto the rocks below and spend some time alone.”  So although I hadn’t time to do much in Mumbai, I thought I could at least take a walk along Bandstand one evening before it got dark.

 

The Internet had mentioned rocks, but I didn’t expect the Bandstand shoreline to contain so many of them.  In fact, it consisted of nothing but black slabs of stone, mired amid tracts of gravel and pools of rainwater.  (I was there during the monsoon season and a slate-grey sky spat down on the city continually.)  But as promised, there were plenty of young couples in evidence – seated on the presumably cold and wet rocks and huddling and canoodling under gaudily-coloured umbrellas.

 

 

Many of the people walking along the seafront seemed more interested in looking at what stood inland than in looking at the rocks and waves.  For the neighbourhood was a prestigious one and some very big and costly-looking residences loomed among the buildings lining the inside of the shore-road.  One in particular, its compound wall bearing the title ‘Land’s End’, attracted a lot of sightseers who were eagerly snapping photos and selfies at its front gates.  This, it transpired, was the home of superstar Shahrukh Khan, veteran of some 80 Indian movies and Baadshah (‘master-king’) of Bollywood.  He’s also a philanthropist, the co-owner of the cricket club the Kolkata Knight Riders and, according to Newsweek in 2008, one of the 50 most influential people on the planet.

 

 

Presumably because that road was packed with so much money, respectability and, dare I say it, snobbishness, the atmosphere on the promenade on the coastal side of it was a bit authoritarian.  A lot of rules had been drawn up to keep the promenade and the rocky beach as decent and decorous as possible, worthy of the privileged folk whose houses looked over it.  And they weren’t hesitant about displaying those rules.  Every couple of yards, it seemed, yet another sign shoved yet another rule about how to behave into my face.

 

Hardly had I started along the promenade when I was confronted by these:

 

 

And then by these:

 

 

It made me wonder how angry the local residents would get if a film crew, consisting entirely of beggars, suddenly showed up on bicycles and started filming (whilst gobbing onto the paving stones).  Wow, I thought, that would really piss them off.  However, although saliva, bicycles, beggars and film crews were strictly verboten, there at least seemed to be no ban on dogs, which was good news for his dozy soul:

 

 

Neither was there any ban on crows.  This was just as well since such a rule would have been unenforceable.  The place was overrun with the wily cawing birds, their black feathers glistening in the rain.  At one point I looked up and noticed a great flock of them, surrounding the top of one of those fancy seafront buildings like a cloud of iron filings being pulled towards the head of a magnet.

 

 

Oh well, I thought, I at least hadn’t seen a sign telling me I wasn’t allowed to imbibe while I strolled along the seafront.  I had the freedom to swig liquor out of a hip-flask, if I so wished.  But then I saw this:

 

 

Which was reinforced by this:

 

 

No food, drink or tobacco?  The atmosphere was fast becoming oppressive.  Even the one sign that tried to cheer people up with some wry philosophical advice couldn’t resist sticking a warning on at the bottom, telling them where they ought to be walking.

 

 

You were also warned to keep away from ‘baggers’, whoever they were.

 

 

So, to paraphrase Adam Ant, you can’t drink, can’t smoke – what can you do?  Well, you’re permitted to jog along the promenade.  That is, going by this sign, if you’re a particularly well-endowed female.

 

 

I have to admit, though, that there were a few rules I was glad to see posted up.  I just hoped the ‘no latrine’ one was strictly enforced.

 

 

After that barrage of tyrannous rules and regulations, it was a relief to arrive at the far end of Bandstand and then, a little way past there, to wander into the grounds of St Andrew’s Church.  Founded as a Christian site in 1575, it boasted a venerable, if damp-stained, church-building and a crowded graveyard whose crosses displayed an agreeable colour scheme of black, white and orange.

 

 

Keeping with the spirit of Bandstand, it also had a sign – though one expressing a religious rather than a social imperative.  At least the St Andrew’s Church people managed to wrap their message up in a joke.

 

 

Maqam Echahid – the Martyrs’ Monument in Algiers

 

 

The Maqam Echahid – in English, the Matyrs’ Memorial – stands on top of a hill overlooking the Jardin d’Essai du Hamma botanical park and the Mediterranean Sea in south-central Algiers.  92 metres high and made of concrete, it depicts three giant palm leaves propped against one another to form a tripod while an ‘eternal flame’ burns underneath.  It commemorates Algeria’s War of Independence and those who died in it and was opened in 1982, twenty years after the country became independent.

 

Despite it symbolising a very Algerian event, the monument was the result of an international collaboration.  Working on its design were not only local artists – including the painter Bashir Yelles and calligrapher Abdelhamid Skander – but a Pole, the sculptor Marian Konieczny, while the company responsible for its construction was a Canadian one, Lavalin.

 

 

The most popular way of reaching the monument from the bottom of the hill is to use a little cable car, but as the passengers seemed to be squeezed inside it like sardines, I chose to make my way up the hillside on foot.  It’s climbed by a zigzagging road but the space at the roadside gradually dwindles and disappears so that the cars using it pass too close for comfort to the pedestrians.  Alternatively, you can follow some paths that wind their way up independently of the road, but the ground around the paths is dispiritingly strewn with garbage: plastic bags, papers, cans and many plastic bottles.  Blackened patches of earth and charred rubbish and undergrowth show where people have tried to remove some of it by burning it; but generally it’s depressing that the hill supporting this immensely symbolic monument should be allowed to become such a mess.

 

 

At the top, those delicately-balanced giant palm leaves make an impressive sight.  Statues of soldiers stand guard before each leaf as it swoops up majestically; while high above, a cylindrical capsule with a viewing platform is clasped between the leaves’ top ends.  I couldn’t help thinking that the capsule would make a great location for a James Bond villain’s headquarters.  Meanwhile, the huge smooth floor directly under the three leaves is considered so sacred that you aren’t allowed to walk across it.

 

 

When I visited it, the space behind the monument was a strange mixture of things.  In addition to a military museum, stalls and a play-area where kids were whizzing down inflatable, bouncy, stripy slides and riding on go-karts, mini-jeeps and mini-quadbikes, there was a huge round opening with staircases leading down to a two-level subterranean shopping mall and underground car-park.  Disconcertingly, I scarcely saw a soul down there, many of the mall’s shop-spaces were empty and it contained a cinema that was showing the hoary American horror movie from 2009, The Orphan.  All in all, that mall had a definite J.G. Ballard vibe – it felt as if it’d been depopulated by a weird cataclysm that’d occurred a half-dozen years ago.