Discovering the benefits of boredom in Nha Trang, Vietnam

Discovering the benefits of boredom in Nha Trang, Vietnam

If I say ‘tropical paradise’ do you have a clear picture in mind? I do. It’s the one where I’m lying in a hammock, shaded by palm trees with a cold drink in one hand, eyes resting on a white sand beach or drifting the clear blue waters that stretch to the horizon. Everything is quiet and serene. After 3 weeks (or 3 minutes, depending on your temperament) you might well get bored of the perfection.

Nha Trang isn’t like that.

It’s got a lot of the right elements (beach, palm trees, blue waters) but it’s a much more industrial kind of seaside. It’s like the well-established UK or Mediterranean holiday resorts. A grubby, going up or going down one without the gloss, chain stores and health-and-safety regulations of the big places. I’ve been thinking of it as Torquay in the Tropics.

Roofs and a big hotel against Vietnamese mountains

The hotels are all big, or at least tall. Ours is 8 stories, and we’re on the 7th which is why we’ve got such great views over the technical college (which has ostriches, for some reason), the local sports centre and the apartment block in front. But we can see the sea, and from this height you can’t see all the rubbish on the beach or the rubble on the pavement (better than it being on the road, I suppose).

We decided that we wanted a break from rushing around, a little bit of luxury and to try scuba. With unrest in the Philippines and Indonesia when we were booking, Nha Trang seemed like a good choice.

It kind of wasn’t.

I feel bad every time I suggest to anyone that this trip has been less than blissfully, perfectly wonderful in every single way, but actually we’ve made several mistakes, and some places just weren’t as interesting as we thought they would be. LA was one, Nha Trang is another. We’re learning as we go.

As an example, we’re used to travelling in Europe, where if you turn up on the day and look for a hotel you pay twice the price and may well get told they’re fully booked. On the backpacker trail, however, you pay the highest price if you book online, as you can’t bargain, and – most importantly – you can’t inspect the room before you fork over the cash. And you certainly can’t get a refund if you decide to leave early.

K picked a nice hotel in Nha Trang, and booked us in. We needed a couple weeks, as we weren’t sure when we’d be able to do scuba.

We landed in Ho Chi Minh City, and took the train up. We checked in, argued with the hotel until they gave us the room we paid for, and went to explore.

We really are out in the unfashionable end of the western spiral arm. The beach is close (and I do love a beach) but the town centre is 5k away. And thanks to the type of building around here (educational/commercial), there are very few market stalls or restaurants or shops. I couldn’t figure out where people bought groceries, until I realised that people don’t really live around here.

Football pitches and school buildings with the sea in the distance

There’s this notion of ‘authentic travel’ prevalent on travel blogs and in guide books. The ideal is to ‘visit the real {whatever country}’ and ‘see the heart of the place’. It’s characterized by deeply meaningful encounters with locals that typically only last 30 seconds. I find it a bit odd. It’s like the ‘travel like a local’ thing. Even if you live somewhere for years and years, you won’t necessarily see behind the scenes, so I don’t see how you could manage it in a week of rushing about.

And if you do spend time somewhere ‘like a local’ you’ll notice that locals are stuck in exactly the boring rut that made you want to travel. They work. They shop for food. They cook the same meal they made the day before yesterday. They buy coffee at Starbucks. (Actually, Nha Trang doesn’t seem to have a Starbucks. It may be the last place on earth not to. I bet Everest has one.) They eat at McDonalds and do all sorts of non-authentic things. They watch TV.

Locals don’t visit tourist attractions. They don’t go to major religious sites, except on the appropriate holidays. If you do a place ‘like a local’ you’ll miss out.

Nha Trang crushes those lovely ‘off the beaten track’ dreams. It’s an entirely ordinary town, where most people seem to have nothing to do with the tourism industry. As a result, they don’t speak English. And if they did learn a tourist language, it would be Russian. There are a lot of Russian tourists. Well, there aren’t a lot of tourists down this end, but the ones there are speak Russian. Or Vietnamese – our hotel seems to be a pretty successful conference center. We’ve already seen the classic ‘egg drop’ team building exercise and there’s 3 nights of corporate functions and weddings every week.

Nha Trang is, in short, boring.

It’s too far away from anything friends with local knowledge or the guidebook recommends to make a day trip. HCMC, Hanoi, Hoi An and Hue are all at least 8h away. Even the Lonely Planet Guide to Vietnam and Trip Advisor are at a bit of a loss. LP recommends visiting the local medical centre and Trip Advisor is all about the scuba. Pool, beach, sea: that’s it.

That’s not a bad thing though.

Street at night in torrential rain

It took a while to get into the habit of having nothing to do. We visited over 20 cities in the 2 1/2 months it took us to get from the UK to Vietnam. We didn’t really mean to go so many places, it just kind of happened that way. Did you know that it’s only 20 minutes on the metro from Osaka to Kyoto? And the same to Kobe? Me neither, but once you find that out, how could you resist?

The first couple of days, I think we slept and ate pizza. After that, we read books, swam in the pool and the sea, and explored the hotel’s menu. After that, I got bored. I got itchy feet. I complained to K that I wanted to move on. I got cross that the hotel was booked and paid for, so we couldn’t go away or change it without wrecking our budget.

I think at that point, K booked the scuba to distract me. He’s asthmatic, so has to wait for his breathing to be perfect before he can dive. It didn’t happen, but he got me out of the hotel for 3 days. (And then fish! fish fish fish. Seriously, I saw so many cool fish. And a purple slug with a crown of yellow horns on its butt.)

Lit up football pitch at night masked by palm trees and torrential rain

After that, I relaxed. I suddenly realised how lovely it is to have nothing to do. All our successes from Nha Trang are small, things that could have happened anywhere, but they happened here. We planned out a website we’ll probably never build, I started a book I’ll probably never finish. K taught me to play his favourite computer game. We actually watched some TV. I swam 1.5km for the first time this year.

It’s been good.

Now, our time in Nha Trang is coming to an end. We leave on Wednesday and it’s all a rush again. We’ve got things to do today, tomorrow and the next day. After that, we’re in the hands of the airlines. We’ve got a train to HCMC, an overnight layover there then a flight to Singapore. 18h in that city, then on to Brisbane. A weekend there, then on to Auckland. It’s all down to when flights are affordable, and so whoosh we’re off!

Staying in a capsule hotel

Staying in a capsule hotel

We’re staying in a capsule hotel in Tokyo. I was excited to book it because I like small space living, trying new things, and trying uniquely local things. Capsule or ‘pod’ hotels seem very Japanese. I was a bit worried though, because I didn’t know if we’d physically have enough space to sleep, without driving each other crazy (we do – just!). I also thought I might find it claustrophobic, or spend the whole time banging my head.

A row of pods in a capsule hotel. Each is half the height of a room and about as wide as a small double bed

Another worry was, of course, the level of service. This capsule hotel was cheaper than a hostel (about £25/night), and it’s right by (50m from) a main line metro station. It’s also near shops and restaurants. It’s so convenient, and it has free Wi-Fi, so I figured there had to be a catch. But we risked it, and oh man am I glad we did. I don’t know if this would be true in other Japanese hotels (we’ll find out in Kyoto), but so far we’ve had clean bedding, towels, pajamas and slippers every day. There are nice toiletries in the shower rooms, including things like q-tips, hair mousse and toothbrushes, and there’s a hot tub (too hot for me, unfortunately). It’s a bargain, particularly the clean pajamas.

A pile of brown pajamas and beige towels in a locker

They’re not the most flattering things, but it’s absolutely decadent to have someone hand you clean, pressed, neatly folded pajamas every evening. This is particularly true if you’ve been wearing the same few bits for two months, and sweating like a tourist in the hot sun.

So! What’s it like staying in a capsule hotel? Well, I can only speak from experiencing this one hotel, this one time, and it’s also my first time in Japan. Everything is clean and tidy, and pretty well organised. This hotel clearly caters to backpackers, as there are signs in English and beds for women. Some capsule hotels are men only, and that’s probably because you’re expected (but not obliged) to change into your pajamas when you arrive and the showers and hot tubs are both communal and entirely clothes-free areas. It’s not somewhere to stay if you’re a never-nude, but if you’re OK with a sauna or communal changing rooms at the gym, you’ll be fine.

This hotel is happy for you to eat in the lounge, so we’ve bought our own breakfast. You do, absolutely, definitely, I really mean it, have to take your shoes off when you get in. Leave them in your locker. I don’t think anyone will shout at you (like they would in England!) if you don’t, but it’s polite.

Tokyo - our capsule

The pods are half the height of a room, which means that I can sit up comfortably in one. They’re over 6 foot / 180cm long, as my feet don’t touch the end. If you’re much taller than my 184cm, get one on your own so you can curl up. I do manage to bang my head, but not more than I do in normal rooms, so, um, I win?

There’s a TV and radio in the pod, in case you feel like watching something. The rule is to be pretty quiet though, as there’s only a thin screen at the end of the bunk. Apart from K’s snoring, and someone quietly leaving at 4am, I haven’t really heard anyone else although I know the pods around us have been occupied.

It’s not entirely relaxing, but this is primarily because (a) there’s that hostel element to it, which means not much privacy and (b) our stuff is scattered between the pod / wherever we are; a locker and luggage storage at reception. If they just had luggage lockers on the wall opposite the pods, it would be much more pleasant.

I do like the capsule concept, and think it’s a great idea. It’s a clever way of fitting more people in, without dropping the level of service. I’d like to see them in London and Paris. We’re on a pretty tight budget as if you take any number, multiply it by 30 days in a month and then 6 you get a scarily big number. So we’re aiming to spend £30 or less per night on accommodation (a figure which is probably making a few of you shudder or worry for our safety, but it’s been fine, honestly). The thing is, even that tight budget still adds up to £5400 over six months. And that’s a lot of money.

Tokyo Tower at night

Tokyo Tower at night

So we landed in Tokyo on Monday, and one of our first stops was the Tokyo Tower. This is a copy of the Eiffel Tower with a few tweaks: for one thing, it’s 13m taller and for another it’s bright orange. Like its French counterpart, it’s beautifully lit at night.

Tokyo Tower - very similar to the Eiffel Tower only bright orange - lit up at night

I should warn you, that this post is mostly a bunch of pictures I took that I’m pretty pleased with. I’ve only got a point-and-shoot so getting decent shots at night can be a bit hit and miss.

Tokyo Tower - very similar to the Eiffel Tower only bright orange - lit up at night

My last camera stopped working entirely about 3 weeks before we left on this trip (sort of good timing…). I spent about £150 on a Panasonic Lumix TZ35, which was as close as I could get to my old camera with a better zoom. As cameras go, it’s a pretty low-budget option (and certainly cheaper than an iPhone!) but I’ve been very impressed with it. The IA (intelligent auto) on it is very good, giving me time to figure out the other settings.

A Tokyo shrine with the light trails of taxis rushing by

The last two shots were taken using its built in ‘creative control’ modes. These are clearly designed for the Instagram generation, and include fun things like ‘model’ (as in model village, not Kate Moss) and ‘dramatic art’.

In case you’re wondering, the tower really is that orange:

Tokyo Tower - very similar to the Eiffel Tower only bright orange

 

You can go up it, but as usual the fee is approximately our daily travel budget, so we didn’t.

Adventures in time and LA

Adventures in time and LA

Although I don’t love shopping as much as the next person (and the next person is K…) I have picked up a few bits and bobs on my travels. I think all my souvenirs so far are either yarn (essential), postcards (small) or things I can wear (both useful and necessary, clearly).

In this picture, I’m wearing pretty much all of them: new leggings from Walmart (I know) to replace the ones with holes I can’t repair (but they’re hanging on, so now I’ve got two pairs, oops); a Big Easy Roller Girls t-shirt from the Roller Derby bout we saw in New Orleans, and which I haven’t blogged about (oops) (it was very good); a recycled-glass pendant of the world (does that make up for shopping at Walmart?) and my newest acquisition, a totally practical skirt I found at Hot Topic. This is the XXL, in case you’re wondering about sizing.

Me on some steps, wearing a black tank top, white sandals and a skirt covered in Tardises

I’d been wanting a skirt so I could wear tops and leggings together, as I have a surfeit. I’m not comfortable wearing leggings on their own, except as sportswear, and particularly not when they have small holes in the crotch. So I’ve been looking for a skirt and this one is PERFECT.

In case it’s not entirely clear why I’m so chuffed with a blue and white skirt, here’s a close up:

Close up of a skirt printed with Tardis pictures

And in case you were wondering where we are, here’s a long shot:

Me on the steps of LA's towering city hall

That’s LA’s City Hall. You may have seen it staring in productions like the official LAPD badge, Torchwood’s Miracle Day, the GTA games, War of the Worlds, LA Confidential and many others.

So yes, we’re finally in LA, which means this is our last week in the USA! We’ve been walking the star-studded (literally, more on that another time) streets of Hollywood, spotted another film crew (a commercial this time), and, of course, shopping for Doctor Who merch. We’ve seen where they shot Fight Club and Heat. We’ve got a few more days here, which I predict will be full of K standing on street corners and telling me about how one time this totally epic gun battle was filmed just over there somewhere or maybe down the road. I’m hoping that lots of great car chases happened at the beach, so I can go for a swim…

I’ve written a couple of other blog posts to slot into the archive. In Texas, we went to a drive in movie (best way to see a film, IMHO) and discovered the small town of Bagwell (I kid you not. It’s real). K’s written about what we did in San Francisco, so if you want to know about that, you can read his blog instead.

Watching the days rolling away

Watching the days rolling away

We’re in San Francisco, where we have friends. We’re staying with a friend, in fact (THANK YOU!). This means that on top of going and seeing all the cool things, and the tourist things, we’re going to pubs and hanging out and stuff.

Seals on a dock at Angel Island

So I’m falling even further behind on this blog and I give up. I’ve jotted down a list of posts I’d like to write, and when I have a minute I will. I’m going to back date them though, so they’ll appear in the right order in the archive (because that makes sense to me) but link them in a ‘where we are now’ post (like this) so you don’t have to hunt for them (because that seems fair). Seems like a tidier solution than rocketing back and forth between six weeks ago and now.

Graffiti reading 'if at first you don't succeed - call an airstrike'

Speaking of, we’ve been on the road for over a month! In fact, as it’s now the 20th and we set off for Iceland on the 6th, it’s been a month and a half. We’re still enjoying the trip and the travelling. Texas was very quick travel, with a new city and a new place to stay pretty much every day, which was kind of exhausting. We’re slowing down a bit, with a week each in SF, LA, Tokyo and Osaka, then hoping to have a good long break on a beach in Vietnam. If we can work it out, we might do some scuba there, which would be brilliant. But first, we’ve got a weekend wandering around SF, and another Amtrak ride.

Seagull flying against a blue sky

 

In the meantime, K has updated his blog, and I’ve written about our visits to San Antonio and Oklahoma City.

This is my town

This is my town

Travel is almost entirely self-indulgent (we’ve seen a few friends along the way, and I hope they got something out of that!), and rationally there’s no real difference between taking a tour to Alcatraz or what we did in Texas, but it does feel different: this feels like the most self-indulgent thing I’ve ever done, and that’s from someone who quit a good job to travel at least twice.

Me under a road sign that says Bagwell

In Texas, we went to see my town. There’s a small town called Bagwell in Texas, and I’ve wanted to go see it since my uncle told me about it a decade ago. K’s current fascination with cowboys and the Wild West gave me a great excuse to get us to Texas, and once in Texas it was an easy drive to Bagwell.

Well, I say ‘easy drive’. It was easy from the passenger seat. Did I mention that K did all the driving in Texas? Well, he did, and was a star. There were all kinds of crazy things to deal with, too. For instance, we eventually saw some wildlife that wasn’t road kill – he had to drive around a frog, a giant spider (bigger than the frog), an armadillo and a tortoise, all in one day. This is our second tortoise, which was almost under the road sign pictured above.

Tortoise by the side of the road

Although ‘Bagwell’ sounds like a typical British surname, it’s actually fairly rare. I’ve only seen my surname unexpectedly twice in my life: once in a museum in Devon, and once in Castle. Having a whole town named for me (clearly that’s what’s happened, right?) is PRETTY COOL.

Standing by the Bagwell Community Center sign

Bagwell is a tiny town, a couple of hours outside of Dallas. It seems quite rural, with few businesses and not much going on, but that could just be because we arrived at something like 9am on a Tuesday. 

Abandoned pick up truck with vegetation growing through and around it

To be even handed, we also visited K’s town. His is in Oklahoma, so it’s clearly smaller (everything’s bigger in Texas).

K standing by a street sign that says Kendrick

The sat nav took us there along a dirt track, which was quite pleasing, and over bridges the same colour as the earth and water in the river underneath.

Rusty red bridge over a rusty red river

Oklahoma!

Oklahoma!

We dipped into our 8th state, staying about 24 hours. Oklahoma City is very similar to the Texan cities we’ve visited. It’s got skyscrapers downtown, quickly fizzling out into strip malls and single family homes. I didn’t get a picture of the skyline because we were driving, hopping between different places. I really don’t have a good feel for the city at all, but here’s a bit of an impression.

Oklahoma state capitol

That’s the state capitol building. It looks much like the other state capitol buildings we’ve seen. The quirk in Oklahoma is that there are oil wells next door, literally under 100m away. In fact, there are oil wells all over the place. I thought oil wells had to be whacking big North Sea type platforms, but here it’s just a ‘nodding donkey’ pump in a field.

'Nodding donkey' oil well

That one’s out by the airport, near the 99s Women Pilots Museum. It’s a small museum in what looks like an office building near the airport, but was well worth a visit. Women were flying and setting records right from the earliest days of aviation, the days when you bought a plan from the Wright brothers and fixed it yourself.

Cordoroy flying suitPurple silk flying suit
These are both flying suits, modelled on ones worn by America’s first female licensed pilot, Harriet Quimby (purple silk) and the second, Miss Moisant. They both got their licenses in 1911. I think these reflect two different reactions to women’s struggle to being taken seriously in a male-dominated field. Both suits are shockingly practical (bifurcated, in fact) but one is overtly feminine, disarming those critics who suggested that flying would cause a woman to lose her femininity, while the other is more male, perhaps disarming those critics who suggested that femininity would disqualify someone from flying.

We drove a bit of Route 66, which seems hard to avoid (not that we were trying) and stopped at this flour mill, simply because K’s using a picture of it for one of his games under development.

Yukon flour mill, looks like a large tin bread box

We were actually on our way to the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum. It’s more of a museum to the myth of the cowboy, and western in the sense of movies, than a history of the conquest of the west. It’s got a recreation of a western town at dusk, with a school house and a bank and all that. It’s a bit like a theme park. I did learn quite a bit about rodeo (and when women got pushed out from competing, and how black cowboys were critical in the early years and then got pushed out, but I don’t think that was the main point).

Oklahoma is kind of an odd place to visit, I find, as I mainly know it as (1) the end of the Trail of Tears, Indian Territory, and (2) Oklahoma!

So, the territory that now makes up the state of Oklahoma was promised to Native American tribes in perpetuity, and for a while it looked like the US government might honour their treaties. If you’ve read Little House on the Prairie, you might remember that the prairie in question that the Ingalls family go off to settle is in Indian Territory. They’re squatting on Osage land, hoping that the US government will open the land to white settlers.

While the Ingalls family have to leave as they get word that the US military is coming to enforce the treaty, this doesn’t last and by the 1890s about half the territory granted to Native American tribes ‘in perpetuity’ had been taken back or granted to the railroad companies.

Today, many Native American groups are represented in Oklahoma, including groups that were pushed their during relocation in the 19th century. The Cherokee, Choctaw and other Eastern tribes were forcibly relocated. So many died along the way that the routes are known as the ‘Trail of Tears’.

Native points of view were not represented in the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum, although there was a gallery featuring Native American arts and crafts. Overall, our flying visit had a lot more to do with the cheerful, singing cowboy motifs of the hit musical Oklahoma! than how the west was ‘won’.

Driving the highways in Oklahoma, there were loads of casinos. The World Casino was worth slowing down for a look.

Replica of Big Ben at World CasinoThat’s a car park. No, I mean inside. The Tower of Big Ben and, I guess, the Houses of Parliament, hide a multi-storey car park.

Replica of the Colosseum at World Casino

 

I don’t know what’s inside the Colosseum – it certainly doesn’t seem to have any windows.

We made one more stop in Oklahoma, but I’ll tell you about that in another post. If you can’t wait, see if you can spot it in K’s post about Oklahoma City.

Spent my evening down at the drive in

Spent my evening down at the drive in

I’ve heard Summer of ’69 about five times in the US, and it seems so apt. It just oozes American summer for me, and that’s what we’ve been enjoying. I haven’t heard Boys of Summer yet, but that’s really an end-of-season song. Maybe on the way to the airport.

Anyway, the point is: we went to a drive in and it was awesome. (K gives a brief review here.)

White drive-in movie screen seen against a cloudy dusk blue sky

Drive-ins are an American icon. They’re kind of baffling and pleasing to me (and probably other Europeans) in a way that I doubt Americans will understand. There’s something retro-cool about them, but something a little space-age as well. See, in Europe, particularly in Switzerland or the UK, if you want to go to the cinema you either drive into town (and pay about as much for parking as for the ticket) or drive to the bleak middle of nowhere and hide in a dark room wasting the few precious hours of sun that make up a UK summer.

Driving to the middle of nowhere (as we did) on a sunny summer evening (which it was) to sit outside, getting to enjoy both sunset and a film was bliss. Plus, it was super cheap. As you can see, the screen is the side of a barn or something similar. The ticket price was $10 for 2 adults for 2 films (Godzilla and X-Men: Days of Future Past). Sadly, we (well, K) still had a couple of hours of driving to do, so we couldn’t stop for Godzilla. A shame, really, as it seems like such an appropriate film to watch at the drive-in.

Texas sky at dusk, silhouettes of trees and puffy clouds

Anyway, I enjoyed it immensely, hardly got bitten by bugs at all (unlike everywhere else we’ve been, seriously, why am I suddenly so tasty?) and didn’t even have to try to sneak our snacks in. Kind of wished we had a cooler, beer and a pickup truck like our neighbours….

The only downside was that the film started while it was still light, and X-Men starts off really dark – literally dark, as in, I think they’re actually in a cave. And actually, considering the weather on the drive to San Antonio in the morning, these puffy little clouds (and the lightning we saw later) were a good outcome. We started with this: 

Rain on the motorway so fierce you can't see the truck ahead

I don’t know if you can tell, but it was raining so hard that visibility wasn’t really a thing. Everyone else stuck at 70 mph, which give sensible drivers a difficult choice: slow down and risk being rammed from behind, stay up and risk sliding off the road or pull into Taco Bell.

You know how sometimes the radio coincidentally plays something really apt? Well, we’ve had that a few times on this trip. When I was worrying about the lightning, I switched the radio on. I was half expecting it to be a sign of tornadoes or the end of days or something (it wasn’t! we’re fine!) but instead of the weather report, I got a girl singing about the weatherman not predicting rain, when her life sucked. In a bar in SF we heard If You’re Going to San Francisco, which was great, but the best one happened in Texas/Oklahoma. As we headed for cowboy country, we got the most cowboy song ever – something about the shotgun he got from his pa, and how he was going to give it to his son but in the meantime horses and cheatin’ women and probably baked beans and the deep dark midnight sky. It was brilliant.

San Antonio: a walkable city by car

San Antonio: a walkable city by car

We decided to drive across Texas, as the trains weren’t terribly cooperative, so we’ve had the freedom to go where we like and book things last minute. The downside is that we’ve really been booking things last minute. It’s worked out surprisingly well, but we’ve been round in circles a few times. We’re getting more organised though.

San Antonio was one of our mistakes. We really meant to stop on the way to Austin, but ran out of time. So we came back, instead, adding at least 3h of driving to a long day.

So! San Antonio. It seems like a pleasant, walkable city. But we had a car, which we had to park, tend and drive a few hundred kilometers before bed, so we really only saw the Alamo. We had wanted to do a couple other things, including visiting the Institute of Texas Cultures, but they were shut. Mondays, eh?

K and I standing in front of the Alamo building on a sunny day

The Alamo is a shrine. It says so as you walk in. The central building is (or at least was) a church, too. I don’t think there’s a dress code, but you do need to take your hat off. There’s also a museum, and that gives a pretty thorough overview of why people remember the Alamo. Both parts are free and well worth a visit, if you’re in the area, which we weren’t exactly.

The Alamo is a shrine because it’s a memorial, and it’s a memorial to a Famous Last Stand. In the early 19th century, the territory that is now the state of Texas was part of Mexico. After a certain point, the Texians (as they were apparently known) decided they no longer supported the government that ruled them. Several battles were fought. The Battle of the Alamo was one the Texians lost: all the soldiers and fighting men were killed. We saw estimates of 100-300 deaths on the Texian side; I don’t recall the deaths among the Mexican army. Non-combatants, including the wives and children of several officers, were unharmed.

The Alamo memorial at the Alamo, a large white statue

The Battle of the Alamo became a rallying point for Texian Independence, and they eventually triumphed. Texas was an independent nation from 1836. Did you catch that? Texas was a country. It didn’t last very long though: in 1845 they decided to join the United States – many of the movers and shakers of the Texas Revolution had come from other American states, and relations with Mexico continued to be tense, so apparently it made sense at the time. Having absolutely no stake in a decision made almost 200 years ago, I think it’s a shame. I also find it a little odd that the people we’ve met in museums and such have still been very keen on Texan independence, even though they’re, well, not.

And thus endeth the lesson for today.

K has written up his post about San Antonio here.

Austin: natural urban wonders

Austin: natural urban wonders

One of Austin’s slogans is ‘Keep Austin weird’. It’s known as a hip, liberal, arty enclave in conservative Texas. It was certainly a fun place to visit, and in a couple days we managed find indie restaurants, pleasant shopping streets and live music. We discovered K’s favourite cinema ever (the Drafthouse chain feeds you at your seats, vg) and an absolutely excellent place to swim, so if it wasn’t for the visa issues, the heat and the fact we have a life in Europe, I think we’d be happy to live here.

Barton Springs (first things first!) is an absolutely gorgeous swimming hole. A natural spring has been shaped and molded to create a 200+m long swimming space, most of which is 5 feet deep or less (I know I’m mixing my measurements, but this is how the lifeguard gave the info out!).

Barton Springs pool, still water in the sunshine

Interestingly, people use it like the did the hotpots in Iceland. Most people seemed to be in a group of friends, and loads of people came down just to stand about in the water and chat. No food, alcohol or pets are allowed in the Barton Springs bit, so the water just downstream is where all the people with those things congregate. It’s a bit of a party.

Crowd of people hanging out in the water near Barton Springs

I love swimming and being in or by the water, so we actually went twice! It was free the first day ($5 for parking) and the parking was free the second day ($8 for two entries) so a bit of a bargain, I think.

Driving meant that we saw more individual things, and could eat at restaurants that were recommended, but it was harder to get a feel for the city. We had to park the car, make sure it wasn’t going to get towed or scraped or what have you, and then get back to it before the meter ran out. It’s daft, but that was quite a bit of hassle. That said, the places we went were miles apart, so I don’t know what the alternative would have been as we didn’t see many buses.

The other awesome thing we saw in Austin was the flying of the bats. Austin’s Congress Bridge is home to the world’s largest urban bat colony. There are around 1.5 million bats living in the bridge, and they all fly out at dusk to go and hunt bugs. It’s absolutely amazing. Unsurprisingly, there were a few other people there to watch:

Crowd waiting to see the Austin bats

It took over half an hour for the stream of bats to die down. It was astonishing, and I’m so glad to have seen it. As the sky was dark, the swarm was subtle. When it started, people began to move towards the river, trying to make out the bats in the darkness. The flood picked up and went on and on, thousands of bats just streaming out, doing their own thing.

Blurry picture of bats

This crappy picture is the best I have. Sorry!

Natural wonders aside, Austin is home to some pretty cool, slightly weird, stuff. The University of Texas has is apparently one of the richest in the world, thanks to oil. As a result, its collection of documents is large and varied. On permanent display at the Harry Ransom Center are the world’s first photograph (very cool) and a Gutenberg Bible (also very cool). We also ambled round a WWI exhibition which was good (lots of primary sources) but disjointed (no real narrative). I would have preferred either a local focus (since I’ve seen similar displays in about 5 countries now) or some other tighter theme (graphic design, nurses, war literature, letters home…) that would have tied it all together.

Austin is the Texas State Capital, and it’s capitol building is, yep, slightly weird. It’s in the classic vein (columns, cupola, stone, statues…) but it’s pink. This is not a sunset effect. It’s just pink.

Austin's pink capitol building

We stayed with Airbnb hosts in Austin, who turned out to be a lovely local family. They recommended a couple of great places to eat, and we found others using the TripAdvisor app (free!). They also suggested running routes, fed us breakfast and were generally great all round. So far, Airbnb has worked out really well for us, we’re loving it.

My face and a Gutenberg Bible are included in K’s blog post about Austin.