Monday, 30 August 2010

Wanderings in Texas

Hi Y'all!
Austin is hot and humid but cooler than Bahrain so we've spent the weekend lapping up the sunshine and on Saturday the miles by driving through the Hill Country (rolling hills with oak and mesquite trees) to Fredericksberg. The idea had been to have lunch at the Brewery but having had one too many sherberts the night before whilst enjoying the music scene on 6th Street we were a little late having breakfast at Annie's before setting off. Annie's is a cavernous place that serves Texas style breakfasts  like tacos stuffed with spicy omelette mixture with lashings of coffee and toast. A full English comes with a bowl of fresh fruit like strawberries but no beans, tomatoes or black pudding!

We drove west along the highway to Fredericksberg stopping occasionally including purchasing $6 worth of fresh peaches from one of the many roadside stalls (a huge brown paper bag full that will keep us in peaches all week). If you have never tasted a freshly picked peach you will have no idea how wonderful they are; sweet, juicy but firm and flavoursome, no comparison with the often soggy or unripe imports we islanders find in the supermarkets. The town itself is picture postcard "cute", mostly limestone buildings on the main street leading into and out of a huge open area, we Brits would call a park but the German founders of this town referred to as the Market Square. The street is lined with shops selling touristy things, hunting shooting & fishing gear, food and the brewery. It was crowded with tourists mostly Americans with a few Japanese but still a pleasant place to while away an hour or so.

After finding space for a light lunch of soup and coconut shrimp we found a ranch road (sort of like a UK B road) and gradually headed south eastwards to Canyon Lake. Here at the "beach", for a couple of dollars, we could park and swim in the fresh lake water. The only regret was that we had no sun shade, BBQ or boat! A snooze in the sun dried us off before we finally made tracks back to town.

Sunday morning Kevin wanted to buy some books on Networks so we headed to a large Borders store (yes the chain is a live and well still in the USA) out of town at The Domain. This is a brand new outdoor mall built around a number winding tree-lined streets, more British in style than anything else I've encountered in the USA. Several large department stores are dotted at the ends of each street whilst a mix of local and high street chains fill the streets. At the various intersections small tree filled plaza's are surrounded by restuarants and coffee shops.  If you've ever visited Walton on Thames' Heart shopping centre the architecture is similar with several floors of apartments over the shops and further blocks of apartments and hotels nearby, just on a much bigger scale as the whole would match Kingston's town centre. We tried to get a light lunch but realised we'd failed yet again when the waitress asked what sides we wanted with our sandwich. Kevin had a meatball sandwich (3 balls in a scoped out crusty roll filled with a tomato sauce) served with roast potatoes and I had a chicken roll (two chicken breasts with melted cheese and spinach), a cauliflower salad on the side. We shared the sides and the efficient staff automatically refilled our soft drinks as soon as the glasses reached a third full. Two stuffed people rolled out of the door an hour or so later!

Kayaking on Lady Bird Lake seemed a good idea in an attempt to work off all the excess food we've had this week so we rented a large tin Canadian in Zilker Park and headed off down Barton Creek for the Lady Bird Lake (a dammed part of the Colorado river). The water was crystal clear and full of weed fronds reaching up from the bottom scrapping along the bottom of our metal boat. In amongst the weed we soon spotted our first turtles and lots of fish (we were later told these are bass) swimming around us. It seemed like most of Austin had had a similar idea and the tree-lined creek was busy with canoeists as well as kids jumping off the bridges. Once out on the lake proper it was quiet and breezy, the only sign you are in the city are the occasiona skyscrapers peeping over the trees and the sound of traffic. We paddled downstream against the cooling breeze for a mile or two not quite as a far as the bat haven of Congress Bridge before returning back under the Lamar road bridge and the railway bridge. Some of our fellow paddlers had stopped in the shade under the bridges tying up their canoe and lying on the flat concrete between the birdge supports or taking a swim in the lake. Back in the creek we had to work hard to avoid collisions with eager but untutored paddlers and the bridge jumpers were having to negoiate turns with the canoeists below!

Just a little  further up the creek is the Barton Springs pool, an idyllic swimming hole created a by a small dam across the creek. This is a legendary local oasis. The waterside has been concreted, the banks cleared of trees and grassed over and at the top there are changing facilities. However apart from that and the diving board this is fairly as nature created it complete with rough rock bottom and a certain amount of weed, right in the middle of the city. The spring feed pool was very chilly after the heat of the sun but extremely refreshing and you soon adjusted. I enjoyed a lazy swim to the lower reaches of the couple of hundred yards long pool and back. It was late afternoon and when the clouds came over it was pleasant just to join the locals sitting on the side dangling feet in the cool water chatting and drying off. They made more recommendations about places to eat, swim or simply enjoy the nightlife so I'll let you know when we've explored some more.

Following on from the squirrel and the turtles some more quirky views of Austin can be found here

Wednesday, 25 August 2010

Am I On This Planet?

Have you ever had one of those moments when you wonder whether you've been whisked off to another planet entirely? Early yesterday morning I needed to fill up the tank of our hire car, a little white Nissan Versa so pulled into a Shell garage somewhere in N Austin after dropping Kevin off at the office.

Now I am used to two petrol station methods:
  • UK: drive in, get out and place noozle in car, wait a few seconds whilst they take a picture of your registration plate, fill up then go into the shop and pay seventy plus pounds sterling for forty litres or so of fuel
  • Bahrain: drive in, open window say fill up please, scruffy middle aged man fills the car and you hand over a couple of Bahraini dinars for your forty or so litres of fuel and you might even get a few Fils change.

Once I'd got the unfamiliar car on the right side of a pump I got out, opened the filler cap and inserted the noozle. Nothing. Peering at the pump I noticed two things, firstly a sun-faded notice stating that as drive offs were common I needed to pre-pay and secondly that there was a credit card payment slot on the pump (and yes I have used these in the UK). I returned the noozle to its holder and rummaged for my card. Inserting it and removing it quickly as instructed produced no result. After a couple of tries I gave up and went in to speak to the garage attendant.

He spoke... I said pardon... he repeated his low growl slightly slower and more clearly; "10 bucks, 20 bucks or 30 bucks ma'am?" Uh? Fuzzy, slightly hung over, still sleepy brain panicked as it realised it had to do some maths (or is that math). Average small white car takes 30 or 40 litres, not quite empty so say the former. "How much is petrol?" I ask brightly. Blank look from man behind counter. "Look ma'am I'm trying to help you " and he repeats his initial litany of amounts.
"How much a litre?" I ask innocently. The man looks very disconcerted
"No ma'am 'Gallons'.... 2.55, no" he paused "2.51 per gallon, I changed it this morning"
Brain vaguely in gear...2.5 litres per gallon, 2.5 bucks a gallon so 30 bucks would possibly give me 30 litres of fuel? Not certain I could trust my maths this early in the morning but I decided to go for it. "30 please".

I was not out of the woods yet. Card swipped and receipt signed (chip and pin doesn't seem to have reached Austin) I headed back to the pump. Noozle in car, press leaver. Nothing. Try again still nothing. I looked round as the attendant knocked on his window and made jerky movements upwards with hand. I peered at the pump again. Beside the other two noozles were small labels stating pump on and pump off but not by the noozle I was using. Finally I realised that you need to lift up the noozle rest in order to turn the pump on. Machinery whirred, fuel flowed and 30 bucks worth just squeezed into the tank. At least I could still do maths in this strange land. Next time Kevin can fill up.

Monday, 2 August 2010

Messing About in Boats

Monday morning and I'm stiff and sore from a weekend's boating. Friday and Saturday I was on the south coast pottering about getting Temptress ready to go to sea for a couple of weeks next weekend; provisioning, polishing and trying to tick off a few jobs on the eternal to-do list that every boat has. Sunday morning I joined other Minima Yacht Club members on the balcony (piccie left is the same location on another sunny day back in July 2002) to watch umpteen hundreds of crazy people complete a swim from Hampton Court to Minima YC's landing stage opposite the clubhouse in Kingston. That's around 2.25 miles in the river Thames. I know the river is much cleaner nowadays but its not somewhere I would voluntarily swim! Will upload some pictures later when I can retrieve them from my camera.

Later it was Barclays Bank Trophy day - handicap dinghy racing for a cup donated around 10 years ago by said bank. I took part on (rather than in) a Topper. For those uninitiated in sailing the Topper is a slim plastic bathtub-sized, indestructable dinghy. The red deck and once white hull are instantly recognisable as is the multi-coloured single sail that needs lots of wind to make this boat skim over the water. The Topper is really designed for teenagers but still can be fun for a middle aged adult. For once, despite the light winds I managed to complete all 3 races which is something of a personal best but the lack of wind meant even with the massive handicap the Topper has I couldn't get a placing much above last but one! However I don't do it for the prizes but for the peace and enjoyment of a bit of constructuve drifting round the River Thames on a sunny Sunday afternoon sitting on the leeward side of the boat. For relaxation there is nothing better but for the next few days my neck, legs and arms will remind me that there is no gain without pain.