Wednesday, 29 April 2009

Austin part 2

Well, I wrote about Bats, Bluebonnets and Breakfast Tacos in a previous post, but that only seemed to cover about half of what we actually did in Austin (were we really there only for a weekend?). And we had several more great photos that Graham has been bugging me to post on my blog, so prepare yourselves for an extravaganza of colour, light and image!

Austin is known as a great place for live music, which presumably explains the psychadelic guitars left lying around the streets. Here's Graham with a couple of his dream instruments.






















We visited the Texas State Capitol, built on a grand scale from tons of pink granite and limestone. The state capitol, you understand, is located in the state capital. Don't get confused.
Americans definitely tend towards the domes-and-pillars school of architecture for their governmental buildings. I had a feeling this was true, so did a quick search for corroborating evidence and discovered this great site by a photographer who's travelled around to take photos of all the state capitol buildings in America. I rest my case.
Inside, this is the dome looking up:


and this is the dome looking down:

The terrazzo flooring represents the seals of the six nations that Texas has been governed by. From bottom and anticlockwise, The Kingdom of Spain, The Kingdom of France, The Republic of Mexico, The Confederate States of America, The United States of America, and in the centre, the short-lived but very proud Republic of Texas.

Even the door hinges are ornamental.

Sixth Street is the bar strip for the young, trendy and beautiful of Austin. I'm not sure how many counts Graham and I qualify on, but we ventured out for a few drinks and a sampling of the atmosphere. We listened to a couple of guys playing great guitar in a place called the Blind Pig, and watched the streams of beautiful people passing by.

Wandering back about midnight, we passed a still-open coffee shop and impulsively decided to turn in for a coffee and a bite to eat. It was quite an atmospheric contrast to the packed and noisy bars around the corner, containing a scattering of somewhat less beautiful people reading books and quietly chatting, and a number of quirky works of art. Graham added to these with the above photo, which we thought was just awesome. It's a pistachio muffin, which wasn't quite that green in real life, but close; and the colour swap option on the camera highlighted it perfectly.
Next day, before going to the wildflower centre, we spent a short while at a nature reserve and park where many peacocks lived. It looks most uncomfortable to have that much tail dragging behind you all the time, but it has to be said they are highly photogenic birds. This is a small selection from the 50 or more peacock photos we ended up with.

In full glory.
With triplet of grudgingly admiring females.
Sun on tail feathers.
And finally, I never really thought how cacti grow, but I didn't think it would be like this. Those miniature cactus-lets are so cute!

Friday, 24 April 2009

Like Lego? Watch this!

I know... three posts in one day. Bit over the top, isn't it? But this is just a quickie. A guy I know called Anil is part of a band called Mirrorkicks, and they've just put their latest song and video on YouTube - a stop-action Lego extravaganza! Watch and enjoy...

A visit from the parents

I suppose it must be some kind of growing-up rite: the first time your parents come to stay with you, rather than you descending on them, hoping for some home-cooking and maybe a few clean clothes. Apart from a brief overnight stay in Bristol, this was the first time that I was entertaining Mom and Dad in my own home - and the first time for Graham entertaining his in-laws! All four of us had a really good time.
This will be a brief photo tour as much as anything, because we managed to cram a lot of stuff into a mere week. Most of the places that we went to have had previous entries on this blog, anyway, so if you want more pictures of the scenery you can always browse backwards till you find what you're looking for.
The first couple of days Graham and I had to work, but Mom and Dad walked to the Botanic Gardens and Modern Art Museum and along the Trinity trails. I had the morning off one day so took them into downtown to see the water gardens and other sights - here's Mom and Dad at one of the water features there.


On Good Friday we went to Granbury, which has a well-preserved town square with some interesting shops, and then on to Dinosaur Valley State Park. It has the obvious attraction of real dinosaur footprints and quite a lot else to recommend it as well - a pretty river, an extensive network of trails through woods and streams, and some preserved prairie.

By the Paluxy River



Real dinosaur footprints!
Real dinosaurs, too!
Out on the trails - in a dried-up creek bed


Graham took Dad on a tour of the American Airlines workshop on Saturday; Mom and I, being somewhat less interested in dismantled aeroplane parts, stayed at home and made hot cross buns.
In the afternoon we did the obligatory tour of the stockyards, complete with "cattle drive" of half a dozen sleepy-looking longhorns with almost as many cowboys to accompany them.


In the evening we went to a production of the Easter story by Travis Avenue Baptist Church. They'd rented a fairly large auditorium and it was a really spectacular production - a full-on musical with a cast of about 100, all written and produced by the church. The following morning we went to one of the three Easter morning services at St Andrews Episcopal Church, which was almost as spectacular in a rather different way - robed choir singing choral arrangements of the Easter liturgy, and excerpts from Handel's Messiah. It's still hard to get over just how many resources the churches here have.

We did an overnight trip to Caddo Lake, after some debate about whether to go or not because it was raining (raining? in Texas???). It was semi-sunny and just about the right temperature for canoeing, however, and we had the lake pretty much to ourselves as we meandered around between the cypress trees and spanish moss.


Coming home we drove past several Sonics ("America's Drive-In"), which concept intrigued Dad somewhat, so we stopped to try one. Basically you drive into a bay where there's a menu posted on a board. You choose what you want then press an intercom button to order, pay by slotting your card into the appropriate place, and a few minutes later a girl comes along with a tray holding your drinks. Personally, on a long car journey, I'd rather get out of the vehicle for a bit, but it's always interesting to engage with another little bit of the American culture.

On Tuesday Mom, Dad and I took the TRE to Dallas, and saw some of the sights there, including the bronze longhorns (which looked a lot more lively than their flesh-and-blood cousins in the stockyards!), the JFK memorial, the McKinney trolley (restored tram), and the Thanksgiving Chapel, which has a spiral roof inlaid with beautiful stained glass. This is Mom and Dad at the JFK memorial.

And some of the longhorns.
Mom and Dad enjoyed seeing where we live and what we do, and we enjoyed showing them around our new little bit of the world.
PS Our washing up is missing you - come back soon!

Koto and Taiko

Know what these words mean? No? Well, nor did I till we went to the Japanese Festival last Sunday at the Fort Worth Botanic Gardens. They're both musical instruments, and we heard them played by some very talented people in a spectacularly beautiful setting.

The koto is a long stringed instrument, which can have 13, 17 or even 22 strings. Fumiko Coburn, a dainty lady with halting English but a great sense of humour, has the 13 string version.


As we watched, she tuned it up by inserting wooden bridges under each string, and adjusting them carefully to give the right pitch for each song. She explained that most of the older tunes for koto included a song, whereas the new ones were mostly for koto solo. It was interesting to hear the difference as she played a piece from 400 years ago and one from 4 years ago. In the older tune, the notes dropped singly into the silence, scattered across time and pitch. Like brush strokes in a Japanese painting, each note had its own place and importance. Fumiko used her right hand, with three plectrums attached to her thumb and first two fingers, to pluck the strings, and her left hand to adjust the pitch of certain notes by pressing down on the string above the bridge.


The newer piece had more of a western influence; it was faster and more harmonic. Fumiko's left hand plucked some of the lower strings to create chords below the tune played by the right hand.

The scales and rhythms still sounded exotic to western ears. She told us that it's impossible to play western-style music on a 13-string koto; it simply doesn't have enough notes. A 22-string instrument is able to produce all the necessary tones and semi-tones.


We ate some sushi and wandered over to see the Dondoko Taiko Drummers. There's your second word: the taiko is a large Japanese drum. The drumming group had about ten, of various sizes and shapes, and when they were all played together the noise thrummed through your body and reverberated around the garden.


It was a feast for the eyes as well as the ears; the drummers wore bright outfits and drummed as if they were dancing. Sometimes three men would rotate around a single drum or a pair of drums, each beating a few strokes before the next took their place.

They crouched, stood tall, and threw their arms up to create strong poses. Some pieces were interspersed with shouts, too.


Well, there's your Japanese lesson for the day. If you ever get the chance to hear the koto or taiko played, go for it - they're well worth hearing!

Friday, 3 April 2009

Bats, Bluebonnets and Breakfast Tacos: A Trip to Austin

Bats

We waited on the bridge, leaning on the handrail, watching the dying sunlight reflect red on the Austin skyscrapers. All along the road and on the banks of the river others were doing the same, and on the river below three or four tour boats wound lazily to and fro. Waiting.

The sun went down. Suddenly there was a flick of something that wasn't a bird. Then another. And then a stream of fluttering black shapes poured out from under the bridge and flew off towards the darkening skyline. If you looked straight down at them, they were merely a blur of speed and a rapid clicking noise, but if you looked out along the river, you could see the cloud of bats forming and swirling and moving on.


Ten minutes later it was over, with only a straggler or two as a reminder of the hundreds that had flown.

Congress Avenue bridge in Austin is home to a large colony of Mexican free-tailed bats. They breed there during the summer months and there can be up to 1.5 million in August. In March they've only just moved in; still "sweeping the corners and arranging the furniture," as one of the bar staff at TGI Friday's described it to us, so we didn't see so many. But it was still worth seeing.

Bluebonnets

When the pastures are green in the springtime
And the birds are singing their sonnets,
You may look to the hills and the valleys
And they're covered with lovely Bluebonnets.


From "Bluebonnets" by Julia D. Booth and Lora C. Crocket.



The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center is a beautiful place. It has the feel of somewhere that has been built with care and thought, from the natural materials that fit in with the landscape to the extensive water-conserving features. Most of all, in the springtime, it's an ideal place to see the state flower of Texas, the bluebonnet, as well as several other wildflowers and native plants.


...And snakes! Graham was delighted when a small, brightly coloured snake whisked out from under a rock and back again. It was so quick we didn't get a photo, but I think it was a black-necked garter snake. Later, as we were standing by a pond, a volunteer pointed out to us two ribbon snakes sunning themselves in the reeds. We never would have spotted them for ourselves - it took me quite a while to see them even with her description!


Breakfast Tacos


Scrambled egg, ham or sausage, and grated cheese, served with a couple of soft tortillas and a side of tangy salsa. This is a breakfast taco, and, we read somewhere, is a distinctive Austin food, so we had to try it. We were in Zilker Park at the time, so after a pleasant walk along the river watching turtles, we found a nice little cafe called Austin Java, and sat on the patio with the fountain playing and the sun soft on our backs, enjoying a late lunch. I wouldn't have ever considered eating salsa with egg and ham, but I suppose it's similar to ketchup - anyway, it works pretty well!