Texan Pligrimage

I am a Canadian from the Maritimes, staying for the fall in Waco, Texas, with my fiance, while I apply to grad school at Baylor University. Here you will find an account of my stay in a strange new land.

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

The Football Prayer


Sorry I haven't written in so long. I am madly preparing for the GRE right now ( the Graduate Record Exam, which is an entry requirement for Grad School in the US), since I write a week from Friday. So don't expect to hear from me again before then!

Just wanted to drop a quick note about my first experience of Homecoming Weekend. It was a couple of weekends ago now, but the memories are still vivid. Homecoming, for those who, like me, have never before encountered one, is a weekend event where a school's alumni return to reconnect with their roots, and there is a big football game. And Baylor is NUTS for it! There was a parade, the campus was teeming all weekend long, and I think everyone but us in the city of Waco went to the game. It was Baylor against Kansas state, and we edged them out, in case you are interested.

For me, the weekend's highlight was the decorations: all of the residences had big dioramas set up out front on the subject of who was going to win the football game (us, of course). My favourite was a Wizard-of-Oz themed building complete with yellow chalk sidewalk, lollipop lane, and the feet of a Red Rooster (Kansas State's mascot) protruding from under the building. The day after the game, I saw a papier mache rooster swinging from a noose outside a frat house just off campus. Who knew frat boys could be so dedicated as to construct something so fine out of papier mache?

In Church that Sunday, we gave thanks for the football win. Last weekend, though, the football team was defeated by Texas A&M, so I guess God actually prefers A&M to Baylor.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Yee Haw

I have a funny story to relate. I get driven home from the afterschool program every day by a lovely fellow-teacher and Baylor music major. So we are driving down the higway this afternoon when we end up behind an authentic rattletrap of a truck: three-tone paint job, etc, with a bed full of junk. Have I mentioned that there are no car inspections in Texas? Hooray for freedom! JC and I turn to one another at the same time to say "Wow, that's a hazard on the road!" when all of a sudden, a bunch of the junk flies off the truck and onto the road. Big, metal, frame-like things, which emitted sparks when they hit the pavement! JC, with quick reflexes, swerves two lanes over, demonstrating to me for the first time the real use of all the superfluous lanes on roads around here, and narrowly avoids the still-tumbling junk. We are shaken but fine, and relieved that no one else has hit the junk either. The best part is that the truck didn't even stop!


I finally downloaded the pictures I took on about the third day I was here. Here are some highlights.

This is our lovely home, Ivy Square "lofts". As you can see, our location features a Quizno's, as well as Vietnamese and Thai restaurants downstairs. Both delicious!

And here is Buzzard Billy's, an authentic Cajun restaurant in Downtown Waco. We actually went here for a PoliSci department function last week, and Matt and I tried "hushpuppies" for the first time. They are fried sweet cornbread-balls, and we were informed that they were originally for getting the puppies and kiddies to hush. Anyway, I think the Buzzard Billy's facade is quite comical. At the bottom right hand side of the building, that is a buzzard holding a beer. All this reminds me: there are tons of buzzards around down here! After the ants finally finish me off, I fully expect the buzzards to get in on the action.

Here is a shot of one of the famous turkey-ducks of which I am so enamoured. Come to think of it, maybe they are water buzzards? Or maybe not.

And finally, here is the Waco suspension bridge. Sorry I don't know how to rotate it. Pretty, isn't it? It's actually a precursor of the Brooklyn Bridge: designed by the same engineer, but earlier. Just another interesting fact about Waco.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

miscellaneous news

Well, another sunny week has begun in Waco, and I, inspired by today's arrival of a shiny, brand new laptop on my doorstep, would like to tell you about the week that has just passed. Hopefully the laptop will continue to inspire me to write in coming days!

Last week, I was finally able to start volunteering at an after school program. I was supposed to start the previous week, but I was plagued, first by a cold, then by an ear infection--the first of my life!--and spent the time I would have preferred to spend with the kiddos, sleeping and visiting the doctor. I think my travel insurance has actually paid for itself at this point, which I didn't expect. I'm back in business now, though, and spending three afternoons a week at "Raising Saints Apostolate," which is run out of a church in Bellmead (a community just north of Waco). It has been great so far! The group is small, about a dozen kids grades 1 to 7, and there are enough instructors--mostly volunteers from Baylor--to give each of them individualized help with their homework. Plus they get music lessons every week: piano and choral.

I've been mostly helping kids with their homework, as well as doing general supervision. And I have to say, kids are not as scary as I generally assume them to be! It's true: I've been scared of elementary and middle school aged kids ever since I was one. What I am beginning to realize now, though, is that kids are far meaner amongst themselves than they are with figures of authority, and I have somehow, miraculously, become a figure of authority to them! In fact, I'm a pretty figure of authority, which is another mark in my favour! All I have to do is seem confident and cool, and the kids are falling all over themselves to gain my favour.

Having figured out that I am the boss, I think I'm beginning to be a real help to these kids. Despite my wariness of children in general, these ones actually are very sweet and eager and well-behaved. There are a few very young ones who are such dynamos: running around as fast as they are possibly able, falling down, crying, getting up and running around some more. I envy them their energy! I really like working with the older ones, though, who are serious about trying to get through difficult material. I like the challenge of finding ways to explain algebra, for example.

Anyway, as you can tell, I am quite enamoured of these young monkeys. It's fascinating the directions in which I have been led by just being open to the possibilities around me.

The weather has been getting cooler around here lately. Right now, it is a chill 84 degrees out, and my extremities are feeling a little bit frosty. Seriously. There is little humidity, which means that it can be balmy in the sun, and decidedly nippy in the shade: hence, my dark apartment is cold! Being down here has made me realize that I could become accustomed to a warmer climate with ease. I miss the changing seasons, but I do not miss the cold. We are approaching the rainy season at the moment, which is going to be another weather experience. At present, when it rains, it is such a momentous occasion that I feel like staying in all day and roasting marshmallows over a candle lantern.

This entry has not really been developing in any kind of logical order, so now seems as good a time as ever to enlighten you on a piece of trivia that I am anxious to share: Waco has a Democrat in Congress! Who knew? Here we are, a mere hour from the Bush ranch, and Democrat Chet Edwards is Waco's elected representative! If I had to guess why this is, I would suggest that the combination of college students and the poor make the voting base Democratic in Waco, but that is pure speculation. Anyway, both Chet Edwards and Van Taylor, his opponent, have been running some pretty funny ads leading up to the midterm elections. My favourite is Van Taylor's scandalous accusation: "Chet Edwards gives food stamps to illegal immigrants!" A damning allegation indeed!

Yes, Waco continues to amuse and bemuse. I have been bitten by another spider, and a mystery bug of some kind. Don't ask me what attracts them: no one else seems to have this problem. I must go, but I will write again soon, with more news from the Strange South.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Birds and bugs

It is a common misconception that Texas is a desert. Actually, there are five distinct types of ecosystems in Texas, only one of which is full-on, tumbleweed, scrub-brush, cactus and blowing-sand desert. Waco, and anything east of Waco, is more a kind of dry woodland. In Waco, because the city is blessed with a river, albeit muddy and sluggish, there is even enough water to grow grass with the help of sprinklers. I've been frequently amazed by the lushness of plants and wildlife in this area ever since I arrived.

On one of the first days I was here, and panicking that I would never find anything worth doing in the wasteland of freeways and parking-lots where I thought I had landed, I decided to go exploring. At least I would know, one way or the other, whether the desolation truly was universal, or whether Waco had any saving graces. I found the river. Waco's waterfront is mostly park, including a walkway that runs right along the river. As I mentioned before, the Brazos is not the most scenic of rivers: its natural muddiness is compounded by pollution. The wildlife in and around it, though, is impressive. On that initial trip, I ran across a great colony of large, black and white mottled turkey-looking ducks, as well as an assortment of water-birds. All of these were approximately as shy as pigeons, so they are probably not a novelty to locals, but I was inspired to take copious pictures (which I will post as soon as I figure out how). Since then, on the river, I've seen a white heron (I think these are actually of the same species as blue herons?) and two dozen turtles.

My encounters with Waco wildlife have not all been as inspiring or benign as my observation of the riverside. On another day near the beginning of my stay, when I was again feeling blue, I decided to walk over to the Starbucks across the street to cheer myself up with a Chai Latte. I got lost in the adjoining parking garage, finally found the Starbucks, and then was mortified when I had to pay for my drink with my credit card (I needn't have worried: everyone does that around here). I stumbled home again sheepishly, half blinded by the afternoon sun beating down upon me, and was bitten on the foot by a rotten spider, in my own parking lot! This did not make my day. Just a few days ago, I came on a busy little colony of ants rushing around, who looked like someone had dug up a clump of sod and exposed the poor critters to the elements. The overturned sod was a few feet off. I thought I would help the little guys by replacing the sod, only to discover that the "sod" was actually another anthill. This time through my own fault, the creepy crawlies of Waco again attacked. Why, oh why am I such a chronic anthropomorphizer? Why do I assume that because I want a roof on my house that the ants must want one too? And on what basis did I think they would understand my good intentions? Really, though, the biting bugs of Texas so far have not been as bad in terms of sheer volume as a hungry swarm of mosquitoes. I hope to avoid the poisonous ones, but I now feel fully equipped to deal with the bugs I have so far encountered.

I am definitely playing the tourist in terms of the wildlife I have sighted so far. My photographing the river birds is probably analogous to someone going to Fredericton and photographing seagulls and squirrels. But since I aim to bring you Tales from a Strange Land, I hope they will sound as wierd to you as they looked to me.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Day 10

I arrived in Waco ten days ago today, so I suppose I'm beginning this journal a bit too late to give you authentic first impressions of Texas. Nevertheless, I continue to be amazed, amused and terrified daily, so I don't think the project will be entirely futile. I think I'll start at the beginning, then skip to the present, and work my way through the middle in future entries. I hope it will provide an optimal balance of interest and freshness.

The Physical Journey

After a rejeuvenating stay with my grandparents in Portland, Maine, my journey began with a bus ride to Boston to catch the train. Thanks to my Opa's help, I boarded the bus with minimum awkwardness, despite my numerous unweildy bags. The fact that these bags would be an issue became evident when I arrived at the Boston bus station and had to walk next door to the train station. I huffed and puffed my way over (over the course of the trip, I developed baggage-carrying callouses--no joke), and in my concentration, nearly ran into an obliging porter. He heaved the bags onto his cart, and led me to the baggage check. An example, of which I encountered many on my trip, of the old-fashioned gentility of train travel. Unfortunately, my baggage woes were not yet at an end. My largest bag being over the weight limit, I was forced to unload some of its contents into a cardboard box, increasing my total number of bags to a whopping five. My mountain of luggage at this point grew from just-barely-manageable-on-a-single-trip to utterly-beyond-the-capacities-of-a-single-person. But it was checked to Dallas, so I tried, with some success, to put it out of my mind.

Unloaded of all but a single (still heavy) bag, I hopped aboard my Amtrak train. Our route, on the Lakeshore Limited, chugged across Massachusetts, on through New York, to Albany, where we had an hour-long stop. Then, the overnight to Chicago. Across the rust belt of America, as Dad wryly observed. The loveliest bit of scenery I saw the whole trip was in the hour before our arrival in Albany. During this time, we followed the course of the Mohawk river (I found out its name later from some fellow-travelers from Syracuse). Shallow and almost stagnant, the Mohawk is bordered in some places by tall, steep hills and in some by rocky overhangs. I saw a bird perched on a rock midstream, who looked like a hunch-backed gentleman in a tailcoat. I ate supper in the dining car that evening, shortly after departure from Albany, and attempted to enter fully into the spirit of the South by ordering a chicken fried steak. For any who have not experienced this delcacy, it is a pounded-flat chicken breast, coated in batter and fried, smothered in a creamy, bacon-bit-infused, cheesy sauce. Actually, at this particular sitting, I had two, and I cleaned my plate. A bit of train travelling advice: even if you travel coach, eat in the dining car occasionally. It is not much more expensive than a full meal from the snack bar (at least on Amtrak), and is a far more civilized experience. I got to sit with two elderly ladies from Oklahoma who had just taken a vacation to Eastern Canada!

I spent most of the next day in Chicago, waiting to catch the Texas Eagle direct to Dallas. In that interval, I met up with my uncle Hugh at the Chicago Art Institute for a whirlwind tour and a lovely lunch. Before I met up with him, I wandered my way through the mesoamerican collection. In a display case devoted to the Moche culture of Peru (100 BC to 500 AD), I was first captivated by a couple of breathtaking sculptures: busts of chieftains. Life sized, the busts were stylized in their regularity, but preserved distinct characteristics and intensity of expression which bespoke individual personalities. The material was a smooth, lustrous red brown clay, accented with paint apparently unfaded by their age. In the same case, there was also a ceremonial pot titled Assault of the Bean-Warriors, on which were painted dozens of little beans with hooked noses, overhanging brows and proud headdresses, rushing at each other as fast as their spindly legs would allow, each armed with mace, spear and shield held aloft by arms as vigourous as they were delicate (Sadly, the Bean Warriors didn't make the website). I laughed out loud, to the surprise of some of the more serious Patrons of the Arts nearby. A people's grand achievements have the power to leave me in awe, but I am often touched even closer to home when a millenia-old joke still has the power to make me belly-laugh.

I climbed aboard the Texas Eagle. This time the journey began in Chicago, crossed Illinois, Missouri, Arkansas and then Texas. After I hopped off in Dallas, it was scheduled to continue South, then veer West and keep on going until it hit the Pacific. This train had an observation car, but I think I slept through most of the good scenery. I did see the "gateway to the West" in St. Louis, but I ignorantly thought it was a single Golden Arch. The landscape in Eastern Texas, you may be interested to know, is not a desert, nor have I yet seen a single tumbleweed. It is more kind of dusty, sparse forest and grassland. Thus I arrived in Dallas.

Now comes my greatest achievement of the whole trip. We pulled into Dallas at 12:35. I hopped off the train, claimed my numerous bags and boxes, hailed a cab, got the cabbie to help me load up said bags, beat it to the bus station, got the cabbie to help me unload the bags, bought a ticket, got a bus station attendant to help me with the bags, and boarded the 12:55 to Waco. I was the last one on the bus, and I had to get a couple of fellow-passengers to help me with my ridiculous bags again, but I got them stowed, sat back, and arrived in Waco two hours later, about 56 hours after my departure from Portland.