Friday, September 30, 2011

The Weather Report

So far this trip we have been so blessed with the weather that there hasn't really been a lot of weather, if you know what I mean. Just sunny, with the only variations being between warm, hot or very hot. Oh, well, it did pour with rain for one day back in Hilo, Hawaii, but it always rains in Hilo. Today, travelling south from Lubbock to our half-way point to Austin, a nice mid-sized (pop. 100,000) Texas town called San Angelo, we enjoyed a stack of weather along the way, and as we got through it all unscathed, we can happily tell you that it was fun out there. Here's how it unfolded...

Texas is enduring one of its worst droughts in a long time, hence all those bushfires you've been reading about in the news. Any rain is welcome, and they need lots of it to break the drought. But I don't need to explain this to Aussies. We all know about droughts. And so as we headed south from Lubbock, the long, straight and very flat roads offered up a series of thunderclouds such as this picturesque one. As the day wore on cute little lightning bolts flashed down, tickling the ground.

As the miles ground by and the thunderclouds formed, the horizon grew progressively murkier, until the committee of two in our car agreed that there was a dust storm up ahead. Oh joy! Sydneysiders will all remember the great dust storm of September 2009, which I blogged about here. We were going to drive through a dust storm, oh great.

And so we ploughed on into the murk, with Pam heroically snapping away within the car of course (she got some great shots of wet and grimy windscreens!) but with the wipers and washers working away she managed to capture some of the action quite well.

It was quite incredible to be within a thunderstorm (don't worry, the lightning wasn't remotely close) and a dust storm at the same time. Every now and then, by some very strange quirk of clouds, dust and wind, a hole in the sky above would allow in a shaft of sunlight to turn the dust into a glowing spotlight of orange. Mother Nature is just unmatchable down the awesome end of beauty.

Uh oh... what's that? We nervously reassured ourselves that this was no more than a willy willy, a dust devil, one of those little swirling, dusty mischief-makers of the plains, and that's what it turned out to be. But seeing it for the first time was a worrying thrill because it was, for a willy willy (...gulp) a big one. Don't break down, nice little Mazda, just keep on chugging through it all. And the Mazda did its duty.

Much more suddenly than it began, it was all over. It was as if we had burst through a brown curtain into sunnyland again. One moment rain and dust, the next brilliant sunshine, fair-weather fluffy cotton clouds and "what storm?".

We're loving Texas. Out here in West Texas the plains are as flat and wide as any Australian plain (think the Nullarbor or the Hay Plain) and the sky above feels enormous. It really is Big Sky Country.

Tomorrow we'll tell you a bit more about the town we're in again tonight, San Angelo. It's a great spot. Last night we headed out for the Sealy Flats Diner, a spot we knew nothing much about at all (the guy on the motel counter recommended it). Turns out it was a very cool blues bar and diner, lots of friendly people there, and though we were stupid enough to not take our camera with us, at least I did find a You Tube video (not the best quality, mind you) of the band we saw last night playing here at Sealy Flats, working up a storm on stage. And so I'll conclude this weather report with the Jimmy Rose band, live at Sealy Flats, San Angelo.

Thursday, September 29, 2011


If you check out the updated map on the right side of this blog window it shows that we're in Texas now (in Lubbock, birthplace of Buddy Holly). So we're slightly lagging behind with this next blog that's all about a fabulous place in Santa Fe with fun decor, where we enjoyed some well-cooked and very hearty old-style US food. A bit on the food at the end of this posting but right now we're talking cowgirlz and decor, folks.

The two-step is a popular dance all through the Southern US, and it's mostly performed by two people, but no-one told this cowgirl and her horse. This is just one of the great photos on the wall at Cowgirls BBQ Cafe in Santa Fe, and I loved these photos most of all at Cowgirls, but it's a good spot to eat out nevertheless.

Here's the sign outside the place on Guadalupe Street, and here's a weblink to Cowgirls BBQ.

The front part has an open-air area, and lucky for us on the night we arrived, it was full, so they ushered us into the room out the back.

The room itself is homey and comfy, but it's the photos on the walls which had us captivated. Where are all the people? I came back the next morning just before lunch and asked if I could photograph it, and they were very friendly and obliging. And so, let's have a look at a few of the many great framed cowgirl photos on the walls.

There are some charming 'lady cowgirls' who looked like they didn't like to get dirty, and just loved the outfits.

And they had plenty of Sporty Cowgirls who could ride the hooves off a horse. As a motorcyclist, I really loved the way this woman is leaning her horse into that corner. They're going fast!

Showgirl Cowgirls aplenty adorned the walls, and I guess several of them were no doubt household names back in their heyday, as many of their photos were autographed as well.

Don't try this at home.

There were young cowgirls who seemed to be showing a lot of horse-riding prowess from an early age.

And beautiful Senior Cowgirls who had seen a lot of rodeos and probably ridden in a few, too.

Several starlet cowgirls looked like their photos were probably taken closer to Hollywood than Santa Fe.

This one was my favourite by far. Beneath her photo is a little biography, and let me share it with you.
Elsie Adams 'Billie' Blackwell. Born in Naco, Arizona, in 1920. Dual citizen of USA and Mexico. Occupation: rancher. First female licensed pilot in Texas, 1938.FBI employee, Washington DC, 1940. Enlisted pilot, USA Women's Air Service Program WWII. Red Cross Lifeguard Instructor, Los Alamos, New Mexico, 1940s. Married to Jack Blackwell 65 years. Mother of four children. What a life! All that involvement with the FBI and Los Alamos in the 40s suggests we might not have heard the full story...

And finally, what is the food like here? Well, for starters, Pam says they have made the best Margaritas so far. But for me, the food was hearty, but too much. This is actually what I had for lunch on the day I came to take the photos, as we didn't have our cameras with us on the Friday night. This is a 'pulled pork sandwich'. It consists of five times too much smoky, tender, pull-apart BBQ pork, coleslaw, half a pickle and fries. I actually pulled away four-fifths of the pork from the burger (er, sandwich) and ate it with a knife and fork. I don't think I'll be eating all that much BBQ here in the USA, as everyone here seems to love slathering meat with sweet barbecue sauces, and I don't. I'm a savoury flavour kind of guy, and so barbecue is probably not meant for me, which may turn out to be very good news for my already hearty waistline. So what's in the big red drink container? Iced tea, of course. Yummy and refreshing, as always.

PS: you might have noticed few little changes to the way the blog looks today. As well as updating the map, we've changed the main photo at the very top of the page. On this trip I'm carrying around a diecast toy model of a 1957 Corvette car (much like Gulliver our gnome). So far we've photographed the car parked in Hawaii, at Vegas, Grand Canyon and Santa Fe. So, yesterday I sent these photos to my mate Ben Hewett, the Photoshop wizard where I work. Ben then improved the Grand Canyon shot, quickly taking some photos of Pam and I from the blog, dropping us into the Grand Canyon photo, and presto! We now have the perfect header photo that will last us all the time we are on the road. Thanks for that Benno, brilliant work!

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Tummy time USA (2)

We've been eating out very enjoyably in the United States so far, and Santa Fe has probably provided the best USA tummy time experiences so far. That's not to forget that the dinner last Friday night in the Artichoke Cafe in Albuquerque was a good first taste of New Mexico, but here in Santa Fe each of the eateries we have visited has been a good mix of value, interest and fun.

Pam liked the look of this Leguna con Chile Verde that she took this photo and plans to do a painting of it later on. The 'Leguna' part is very slow-cooked, ultra-tender beef tongue, while the green stuff to either side of it is green chilli salsa. The spicy salsa rice, pinto beans and tender sauteed spinach rounded it out nicely. This was served at Tia's Cocina. Here's the rest of the menu there. We washed it all down with a good Chilean Sauvignon Blanc. The wine lists so far have been very international (USA, Oz, NZ, Chile, Argentina, South Africa, France, Italy all well represented) and we haven't had a problem finding the type of wine we like anywhere.

It was our good fortune that they brought out the wrong dessert, so we ate them anyway. These are Sopapillas, light and hollow puffy dough balls which you dunk into the bowl of honey in the centre. They are also served filled with cherries, when in season but ours were fresh and light, tasty simplicity itself. Think featherweight doughnuts.

What we really intended to eat, and finally did devour, was this Pastelito, an apple turnover flavoured with cinnamon and sugar. As the evening went on and our outdoor dining area's light grew dim, our food photography descended in quality somewhat as well, relying on a flash to get a shot. It tasted a lot better than it looks here, believe me!

Pammy had something nice and interesting (if you can get past the 'tongue' thing, that is), so what did I have? Well, it didn't look brilliantly photogenic, so we didn't bother with taking a photo of it. I had the Plato de Chimayo, which is basically a mixed plate of one taco, one enchilada and a tamale, along with the same spicy beans and spicy rice Pammy had (everyone gets the beans and rice, it seems).

My interest in ordering the mixed plate which included the pork tamale with red chilli is that earlier in the day I enjoyed my first tamale (a vegetarian one with green chilli salsa from a street stall). I did take some photos of my lunchtime, inaugural tamale, so here goes.

What you get for your $2 is a little package wrapped in paper.

Unwrap the paper and it reveals... another package, this time wrapped in a corn husk.

Unwrap the corn husk and the first thing you get is a sense of anticlimax. Not exactly a thrilling food to behold. Bite into it and it's very moist and favoursome thanks to the melted cheese inside and, as it's filled with a green chilli salsa, an extra hit of flavour and just a mild glow of warmth. What's the outer casing of the tamale? It's a type of corn dough called Masa, made from corn crushed into a fairly coarse flour (hopefully some of my US readers can provide a better description than mine). The masa dough is rolled around the filling to form the rolled cake, then it's wrapped up in the corn husk, then they are steamed in batches for some amount of time (not sure how long). The popular alternative tamale filling is ultra-tender, slow-cooked pork teamed with a hotter red chilli salsa.

To wash down my inaugural tamale with another $2 I bought a large, home-made lemonade, and I'm becoming very fond of these concoctions indeed. Wherever you go it's different from the last one. Some are less or more sweet than others, less or more lemony, too. None are fizzy or sickly sweet, and all are wonderfully refreshing thanks to the lemony tartness. My other new favourite drink is iced tea. If I can't find a home-made lemonade on offer I'm finding home-made iced tea aplenty, and they share the same virtues as the lemonade. Not too sweet (in fact a few are so unsweetened you need to add sugar), each is obviously different and home-made, and all are very refreshing in hot-to-warm and dry Santa Fe.

At this point I think I really ought to sign off for the day, but there's actually another place where Pam and I ate out on our first night in Santa Fe, and while the food there is hearty and tasty, it was the whole ambience of the place, and the story behind it, which really captivated us both. So I know I promised to blog at some stage soon on those cute and cuddly rattlesnakes, but I'll have to ask them to wriggle aside for another day or two, because next on my blogging list is the wonderful world of cowgirls!

Hey hey, Santa Fe

Let's start off with a bit of name-dropping here: Robert Redford, Tommy Lee Jones, Gene Hackman, Brian Dennehy, Shirley MacLaine, Ali McGraw, Val Kilmer – we didn't see any of these well-known Santa Fe residents, but we did meet lots of other nice, more ordinary folks like us, while wandering around town.

This is one of the most remarkable places I've ever been to, architecturally speaking. About 90% of buildings here – not just in the touristy 'old' part of town, but out in the suburbs, everywhere you go in fact – are in the adobe style. I've never seen a town so devoted to the one style of architecture, but maybe I just haven't got around enough....

Here's a beautiful example of what I am talking about. This is the courtyard of the New Mexico Museum of Fine Arts, where the exhibition playing at the moment is 'How the West is One'.

On Sunday morning I popped down into the touristy part of town before the crowds arrived, and there are many streets of these charming, old buildings now armed with EFTPOS machines and, to their credit, a really interesting array of locally handcrafted wares.

Not far away, along a street called The Old Santa Fe Trail, there stands the oldest building in North America. It's so old they don't actually know how old it is. Some think the original parts were built as long ago as 1200AD, and certainly it was standing here when the Spanish arrived with their Native American guides to set up the original settlement around 1600. The guides took over the old building and just moved in.

This close-up of the ancient one shows the furry texture of the old adobe, with its pieces of fibre breaking free from the surface, and the old timber beam finally withering down flat with the rest of the wall, after several centuries of stout resistance.

Santa Fe lies on the famous Route 66 highway, and no matter where you go on this famous road, even in this narrow back street in the old part of town, there are signs to remind you where you really are.

Santa Fe is famous for its arts and artists, and the most prominent of them all is Georgia O'Keefe. This isn't the Georgia O'Keefe Museum, it's the administration building across the road, and it's one of the prettiest houses in Santa Fe.

Excuse the slightly wonky skewing of this image above and the one below, as they are just photos of cards we bought at the O'Keefe Museum. Any artist would be thrilled to have a whole museum devoted to his or her work, and our visit here really was inspiring, as you can see how an artist constantly changes and develops over time. I loved her modernist landscapes the most, but it's also the sheer variety of subjects she painted in her career, and the many different ways she treated them, that stands out. Her creative spirit never stood still – wherever you turn you can see her mind working away on ideas, colours and perspectives. Pictured above, for the record, is 'Chama River Ghost Ranch 1937'.

And this is 'Jimson Weed 1932'. O'Keefe loved to 'blow up' flowers to huge sizes in her paintings, making them striking and bold, and reducing us, the viewers, to mere bees hovering at the threshold.

Sunday is market day, and people gravitate to the central plaza, edged on all four sides by old adobe buildings, with a green square in the middle shaded by trees already showing a bit of autumn colour.

One of the old buildings around the central Plaza is the Palace of the Governors, one of the city's oldest buildings. All along the shaded verandah sat a long row of a few dozen native American artisans, each with a blanket laid out before them, selling rugs, blankets and finely crafted jewellery featuring silver and polished stones.

In the shops, however, anything goes. I loved this Chook in Boots.

And a colourful string of chillies was probably the easiest thing to find. Lots of stalls had them. Fancy a steer skull with your chilli string, sir?

One store distinguished itself with its multi-tiered New Mexican water fountain outside the front door.

And across the road this hotel looked like it has been here for centuries, but it's really a new boutique hotel catering to the well-heeled spa-lover. Adobe-style rules!

There's so much more that we could show you about Santa Fe; this is just a taste. Even though we have spent four days here it's not really enough to take it all in. As well as posting this touristy blog today, I'm also going to do a second one later today on the great food we have been enjoying here.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Condo condo condo

We're both really glad we made the decision to slow down for a few days. The constant cycle of packing, driving, checking in, unpacking, then repacking and doing it all again a day or two later becomes a bit of a chore, and so we're spending four whole days here in lovely Santa Fe. And instead of staying in a hotel, we found a reasonably priced, fully furnished condo to stay in not far from the centre of town.

This is the adobe-stye exterior (virtually everything in Santa Fe is adobe style; I've never seen such a dominant architectural style in the one place). Our condo is a one-bedroom spot, but this complex has two- and three-bedroom condos available too. It's called Fort Marcy, and you can check it out at its website, here.

For me, the absolute lap of luxury is a separate living room. I often wake up earlier than Pam, and here I can wake up whenever I feel like it, sneak into the next room, on with the lights and keep on reading the book I am currently enjoying very much ('Travels with Herodotus' by Polish writer Ryszard Kapuscinski). The cute cactus in the corner is carved from wood, and the cabinet contains the TV and audio gear.

I love this old cabinet with its ornately decorative punched metal panels. I'm not sure whether this is a classy reproduction or just a nice old piece, but it feels like its a charming old New Mexican piece to me, as they usually don't bother with making worn looking dovetail joints in the repros.

The bedroom is comfy and the place itself is extremely quiet; can't hear a peep from any of the neighbours.

The bathroom is a colourful New Mexican classic.

I love the handbasin.

The kitchen has a stove, dishwasher and a full set of pots and pans, etc. One of the things which I know I am going to miss the most on this long drive across the country is cooking. I just love to cook, it always soothes my spirit (as I discovered many years ago on my last long holiday: back then, I felt strangely unhappy and unsettled after a month or two on the road, and it was only when I started renting self-contained units and started cooking for myself that I actually started to feel happier and enjoy that long holiday back in the 1980s). So last night, as we were both fairly tired after an afternoon being tourists in sunny Santa Fe, instead of going out again, I did some cooking, baking some chicken marylands (with lemon and thyme) plus lots and lots of vegetables, to make up for the relative lack of vegies in the restaurant offerings we've been eating these first two weeks on the road. Pammy loves her vegies, but she demolishes chicken portions, too!

Another blessing of the kitchen is that it allows us to boil some water and make some good, strong coffee using the coffee plunger loaned to us by a good friend (thank you Jolanda!). Contrary to all the stories told to me before our departure, the coffee served at restaurants and hotels hasn't been terrible. It is merely a bit weak for Aussie tastes accustomed to Italian baristas in Sydney's inner city suburbs. The coffee here is about the strength and flavour of any ordinary instant coffee. Not great, not terrible either. In most hotel rooms they have little drip-filter coffee machines, and they produce that drab but OK instant coffee standard drink. What we quickly learned to avoid was the 'creamer' powdered milk which is all that's offered in hotel rooms. So we've been buying small cartons of real milk and taking them up to our rooms.

However, the other big motivator for staying here in Santa Fe for a few days is to let Pammy do some painting. The 'on-the-road' lifestyle isn't exactly conducive to whipping out the paper and brushes at a roadside stop, and so each morning of our four-day stay Pammy is sitting in a corner lit by the morning sun and working away at her art, serenaded by the folky and sometimes Mexican-flavoured tunes played by the very good local radio station.

In the afternoons we head out to do some shopping, but here in Santa Fe there is so much art to take in that we'd need to stay another week to see it all. Along the main strip of art galleries, Canyon Road, there are no less than 130 commercial art galleries. And then there are the major institutional galleries of New Mexican Art, of Folk Art, of Indigenous Native American Art, and of the work of Santa Fe's most famous artist, Georgia O'Keefe. I'll save up the travelogue of Santa Fe art and architecture for tomorrow though.

The weather? Fine, sunny and in the high 70s and low 80s (25-30°C). The skies here are that same clear, vivid blue you see in Australia. No wonder this place attracts so many artists. It's a beautiful place to be, the light is inspiring.

In a few days we have some long drives ahead of us, down through Texas, but in the meantime we're recharging our batteries here in our cosy little adobe condo.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Some like it hot

You're going to hear me bang on with this theme a few times during this trip: it's the things you come across by surprise, which you had no idea existed, which really stick in your mind on your travels. Today was the perfect example of this, hence this 19-photo blog! There we were in Albuquerque, New Mexico, with only 63 miles to drive to our next destination, Santa Fe. So, let's go downtown and check out Albuquerque, we thought. Naturally enough, being tourists, we headed straight for the charming 'old town' part of Albuquerque (ie, the tourist trap), and we had a lovely time there, we did!

You want to see adobe buildings? Come to New Mexico. Here in the old town the buildings really are old, with the various leans and warps that only time can bestow on a sturdy old building.

The centrepiece here is the Church of San Felipe, built in 1796, the serenely beautiful Mother Superior of old town buildings.

Its gardens look almost as if they were here before the building itself.

This adobe building looked suspiciously modern, not ramshackle enough, – hell, it might be only 100 years old – but inside we discovered a treasure trove of culinary pleasure and pain (and maybe even some agony, if that's your kinky thing).

Chilli sauces, hundreds of them. Now, when you're in the business of selling your hot sauce, your only hope of gaining attention in the throng is your little bottle label, and the variety of label designs on display was a lesson in marketing.

You could try a solemn promise of guaranteed results to your customers. Love that coffin-shape packaging...

Maybe a twin pack of fiery pain might grab the customer's eye.

If you're really desperate, sigh, I guess you could resort to vulgarity? Many do...

Maybe just relying on one word, painfully honest in its content, might garner a sale? Fortunately for us, we resisted the temptation to buy some guaranteed instant death, but this did set the scene for what was happening outside in the main square, just across the road.

Albuquerque's Seventh Annual Salsa Contest was happening, and it's a serious bit of fun for the whole community. This is just one of the rows of marquees for the contestants. There was another down the other side of the square, and a third across the bottom of the square as well. At a rough guess, maybe there were 100 serious salsa makers vying for the honour of being the best.

Each of the contestants' stands were piled with the fresh ingredients for making that magic salsa. Ripe Roma tomatoes and red and yellow chillies aplenty.

Boxes of green chillies, too.

Not sure if this company has cornered the market in tortilla corn chips or is the event sponsor, but every contestant had a big box of these tortilla chips on hand. The idea is that local residents and visitors register as official salsa tasters (they get to wear an official wrist band) and then they wander around tasting all the salsas on offer (dipping the corn chips in then tasting) then voting on their favourite at the end. How their taste buds survive the first few hits of heat I don't know, but being an official tester is about as prestigious around here as being a contestant. You may feel free to boo and hiss at this stage, but we piked out on burning our mouths to smithereens by becoming testers (in a very friendly way they wanted us to become tasters, very hospitable folk indeed here in Albuquerque).

This is Philippe and his mum, newbie contestants at their first-ever salsa contest. Philippe easily would have won the 'best-dressed contestant' title had there been one, but that would have been a bit too frivolous for this serious event.

While no-one here would be so foolish as to share their recipe, the basics of salsa-making that all them agreed upon were these: first barbecue your tomatoes and chillies until the skins are blackened.

Then add in other flavours, such as these dry-pan roasted dry chillies. After these basic formalities are attended to, then the secret saucery begins, with varying mixes of other spices, coriander, salt, sugar and God knows what going into the winning blend. (Lots of contestants' stands had modern electric blenders to do the hard work for them). Now, you might be on tenterhooks at this stage and want to see the winner... but sorry, we left for Santa Fe before the whole thing ended sometime late on Saturday night. We photographed the mere beginnings of this long event around midday. The tasting really got underway just before sunset. Wonder how the tasters felt the following morning? We'll never know, but they were probably still glowing.

All the time that the salsa makers were barbecuing their chillies and tomatoes, a band in the rotunda in the park outside San Felipe struck up a rhythm, which sounded more South American than Mexican American to my ears. The cool dude second from the right in the black shirt played a long wooden flute that had a bit of that pan-pipe sound we associate with South American music, but with a bass and drums carrying the rhythm along, I'll just call this the Albuquerque sound. It was great.
EDIT: today we went shopping in Santa Fe, and one shop had a beautiful selection of these long, wooden American Indian flutes. They come in all shapes and sizes, too. All hand-made, they were too expensive for me though.

Around lunchtime we were both thirsty and hot, and so we stumbled into this tiny spot just off the main square, for a long, cool drink of their own lemonade (which hit the spot!). And a green chilli cheeseburger for me.

There probably isn't ever going to be a beautiful cheeseburger photo taken for this blog, but let me tell you that this is in the top 10 hamburgers of all time for me. Hell, it might even be the best-ever. The light green stuff squelching out under the top bun, right next to the gooey cheese, is the green chilli salsa, and it's very flavoursome but very mild on the heat scale. Out of 10, it's a 2 for heat. Unlike average burgers with mere tomato or barbecue sauce, which are runny, drippy, messy critters to tackle, this was moist, juicy and yet not messy at all, and the green chilli salsa was the star. I want more of these! And if you think those fries look a bit pathetic, they're Romero's curly fries, a specialty of the house, sprinkled with a very light dusting of spice and, again, not too much chilli. Yum.

Before we headed off for Santa Fe, there was a bit more shopping to be done here in the old part of Albuquerque. We really lucked out coming across the annual salsa making contest, but that's the kind of thing you cannot plan for on a trip, but you do treasure forever.

I'm doing this blog from our little 'condo' in Santa Fe. We've been belting along Route 66 at such a rate that we've decided to hit the 'pause button' for three or four days and take it easy in this beautiful adobe town. Pammy wants to do some paintings, and believe it or not I have some more blogs to write as well. I want to tell you all about our condo, about Santa Fe and, oh yes, rattlesnakes.