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, December 05, 2006

Remember this guy?

Mystery solved. I have this on good authority from a member of the staff at the New Brunswick Department of Natural Resources:

"Looks like an example of a Muscovy duck, most often a domestically bred species among aviculturalists"

How did it get into the Brazos river? That is still a mystery. How does it taste when roasted? A mystery I am tempted to solve.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Christmas in Texas

As I'm sure all of you are aware, the month-long season of Christmas is upon us. Despite the--to my mind--unseasonable temperatures, I am definitely beginning to feel the effects: increased laziness, desire to eat unhealthy foods, total inability to get anything useful done, and, of course, incontrovertible urge to shop! Sadly, my laziness of late has spilled over into my blogging, so I thought I should at least post you a few meditations on the season as experienced in Texas. Matt and I will be arriving home--in Fredericton on December 14--and in Miramichi on the 19th--and we are eagerly awaiting seeing friends and family when we arrive.

The weather has been utterly unbelievable lately. A week ago, we experienced a wave of humidity the likes of which I have never known. I practically lay stuck to the couch for three days. Every attempt to move resulted in my entire body being soaked in sweat. Our attempts to keep cool were thwarted by the fact that the apartment's central air had already been switched from cold-mode to hot-mode. Then, I believe on Wednesday night or so, the weather snapped, "winter mix" (variously identified as slush, hail and clod rain) started falling from the sky, and it became apparent how poorly insulated our windows are. I could see my breath on Thursday morning. The weather has now settled down to its sunny self, except that it is cold enough to require a sweater or light jacket. So, you see, in Waco, Christmas really is a season: the cold one.

One other event worthy of note: there is a Mennonite farming community called Homestead slightly north of Waco that holds a heritage fair every year, and I recently had a very nice time there. There is an extensive craft market, where I was quite overcome by the loveliness of the goods: everything from hand-made scented soaps and candles to pottery, artwork, handmade furniture and quilts. And the children of the community learn these skills quite young, meaning that half of the things on display had little tags on them, explaining that they were made by so-and-so, 13 years old. I had to keep reminding myself that I can come again next year, and that my finances will likely be in better condition by then. We also saw a sheep-dog at work, and checked out a lovely petting zoo. Actually, at the petting zoo, I saw one of the mysterious river turkey-ducks, but I still couldn't find its name anywhere. So that little mystery persists. Finally, there was a bit of a tour you could take to see bits of the working village: the blacksmith's shop, the grist-mill, the beehives. Very interesting! If anyone at Kings Landing is reading this, you may be interested to know that they run their grist mill off a small water-wheel rather than a turbine. How old-fashioned of them! ;) Also at the Heritage Homestead fair, I was stung by a wasp, bringing the total number of vicious bug-attacks I have suffered in Texas to four.

Anyway, pictures are always fun, so here are some pictures of Waco sites for your enjoyment.

Here is our apartment, featuring Matt hard at work on an end-of term paper. It's very small: you are looking at most of the living room and dining room, but it is big enough for us (just). Oh, also, in the foreground is my computer: the means of my communication with all of you.

This is Burleson Hall: home of Baylor's PoliSci program, and Matt's home away from home. It is decorated with its Christmas lights. This building is about four stories high: it frankly boggles my mind how they got those lights all strung up there. It's very pretty, though.
And here are Matt and I. Note the sweaters. Not our most flattering picture, perhaps, but we too about a dozen in a row trying to get one that looked this good, so it will have to do.

Well, I'll say goodbye for now, but I hope to see y'all soon.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Rudy's Bar-B-Q

Hello all!

After three weeks of intense study for the GRE, I wrote it last Friday, did quite well, I am happy to report, and have now re-entered the land of the living! It's funny how different the world looks when one is not exclusively focussed on a single event. I went for a long walk alone yesterday afternoon, and it felt like the first time I had been alone with my thoughts in ages. It was a beautiful day. With the breeze, the temperature was probably 18 to 20 Celsius. As the sun set, the wind came up and blew in some lovely mottled clouds, making it cool enough for me to put on the turtleneck I'd brought. I've discovered a park called "Pecan Bottoms" full of old trees and grassy expanses. It's about three or four kilometers from my house, and there are nice clean park benches facing the river: the perfect spot to take a book. I've often bemoaned the fact that I have yet to discover a really tranquil coffee shop in Waco where you could take a book. At least the weather is such, though, that you can read outside if you can once find a good spot for it.

I have few little bits of news which I realized I have not shared, so now seems an opportune time.

1) Matt and I have joined a choir, consisting of mostly Classics professors, and of Dr. Corey, with whom Matt has an assistantship (he's the one who invited us to join). We are a small chamber ensemble who meet for an hour on Friday afternoons to sing early music: you can well imagine that I find this delightful. The idea of the group is more to get together and enjoy music than to perform, so it is low pressure: just an hour's release from the stresses of the day.

2) We've also joined a crop sharing association which is an offshoot of the nearby World Hunger Relief Farm. For $14 a week, we get to pick up a basket full of weird and wonderful vegetables from the farm. Some of my favourites so far have been asian turnips, little mini eggplants, bunches of fresh dill, cilantro, basil and parsley, and most recently, baby cantaloupes! The growing season down here extends into December, so I am expecting many more delightful surprises.

3) We have been lent two bikes by two different charitable individuals: we are now free to cruise the streets of Waco in high style. For a while we only had one: a real roadster, with big wide handle-bars and a basket. I wish I had gotten a picture of Matt on it, because I probably won't be able to, now that we also have a sportier one. These bikes, actually, have been very useful in picking up our Crop-share vegetables. So obviously everything is working out as it should.

But now onto the title-event of this posting: the trip we took with friends last Friday night to Rudy's Bar-B-Q and Country Store (notice that one of the Rudy's locations is listed on the website as "closed due to lightning strike." I'm not sure why this should seem singularly appropriate to me, but it does.). This was a real experience. There are no plates at Rudy's: just big sheets of parchment-paper with piles of meat on them. You buy your meal by the pound, load the meat onto white bread, slather it in "sause," and top with onions, pickles and jalapeƱos. I have oft been accused of being a vegetarian, but rest assured, this is not the case! I LOVED it! Apparently the meat we had this time was a little dry (we ordered lean, so it serves us right), but it was still practically falling apart. We ate at picnic tables in a section of the restaurant decorated to look like a garage. And of course, we were serenaded by country music as we ate. Honest to goodness, it was really fun! Occasionally, when I put myself in a real Texas situation, I have a flash of understanding as to why Texans love their homeland so much. Every now and then...

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.