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Category Archives: Travel Stuff

Posts and pictures from my travels

A chicken, but no eggs

Sunday afternoons are best spent in a laid back manner, maybe combining a few drinks with a chat over dinner.

Or, if you’re in Texas, you could bet on exactly where a chicken is going to defecate.


For this is Chicken Shit Bingo, where a couple of hundred people gather each weekend to experience a world famous attraction. One visitor her is from Sydney, and told me she “just had to come” and see it. Quite why is anyone’s guess, but as the tickets for each round are sold, customers make their way from the parking lot (which also doubles as a social venue in itself) inside the small bar room of the Little Longhorn Saloon.


“It’s like the Super Bowl in here,” says one patron, referring to the scramble for the best views of the coop. Whole families pose for selfies, though with a typical round lasting less than five minutes, you’d better be quick if you want the bird in the picture.

The Saloon’s current owner is Terri, who bought it four years ago. “And I say thank you for this crazy game every single day.” And here’s the thing. The Little Loghorn is fair drive into the outlying part of town. It’s on a bus route, but most people bring their cars, making a specific effort to come and watch.


The small irony is that this bar is right next to one of the best fried chicken joints in town. But don’t worry, the birds are well looked after and show no signs of stress. It’s just another reason to Keep Austin Weird.

 

Don’t Mess With Texas!

Among the clash of musical styles blaring out of Sixth Street, it’s easy to forget that Austin has much more to offer for an evening’s entertainment. Just a couple of miles south of downtown, at the Broken Spoke, they do both types of music – country and western. And nobody goes home disappointed. 


The Spoke is one of the last remaining traditional Texas dance halls. From the outside it resembles a shack. But inside, the back room opens up into a long dance floor lined by tables on hinges, which can be closed up to the walls should they need any extra dancing space.

The owner, James M White, is something of a local legend. He opened the venue when he left the army in 1964, knowing very little about business, other than having to offer cheap beer, basic good and a good time. It worked then and it still works today – just two weeks before my visit, country music start Garth Brooks played here. Tonight, James helps out on vocals with Two Tons Of Steel.


What’s most noticeable here is the sheer variety of customers. An old Latino man dressed entirely in white woos and dances with young girls on a hen night, without a hint of sleaze. Young couples show that they have the moves and the interest to ensure this tradition continues. I meet a couple from Brooklyn who’ve been introduced to the Spoke by a rabbi from Newcastle.

Being away from the city, it looks like the Broken Spoke is safe for now. Yet downtown is full of construction sites, making way for road improvements and new hotels.


You can’t halt progress, but mess with country music at your peril. As a heavy thunderstorm hits town, I watch a rerun on TV if the recent Country Music Awards. The guest performer? Beyoncé. Her backing band is the Dixie Chicks. Disaster averted.

 

We Built This City (on food and soul)

“I’m going to show you where I grew up – and a place you should visit.” It’s an offer I can’t refuse, mainly because it’s come from the driver of the Aiport Shuttle bus and he’s taking a detour to avoid the Friday afternoon traffic. Nestling beneath the shiny corporate skyscrapers of downtown Austin is Rainey Street – a collection of former houses turned into a strip of fantastic bars.

This is a world away from the more famous Sixth Street and has a low key, after work feel to it. It’s also hidden away from the city centre, and somewhere I would have never without the driver’s local knowledge. And yet, plenty of visitors have found it. They include Ben, an IT consutant from Toronto who’s in town on business. It’s always good to find a drinking companion, so we work our way up to another Rainey Street favourite, the Container Bar. Made up of shipping containers. Obviously.


It’s just another reason for the city’s favourite slogan “Keep Austin Weird” – dreamt up to promote small, independent businesses like these. It’s hugely refreshing to see places like these thriving. Alongside the bars, street food trucks crowd into the car parks – ensuring plenty of variety for a night out.

Eventually, though, all roads lead to Sixth Street, and we’re joined by two of Ben’s business colleagues. Julio is from Brazil and seems suitably impressed by the array of music bars here. Nathan, on the other hand, is from Florida and has decided to dress to impress. But while many here sport baseball caps or cowboy boots, he’s in a rubber shirt. Despite the universally heterosexual nature of Sixth Street, Nathan gets an unusual amount of attention from the girls. Their boyfriends, presumably, are too scared to ask.

But nothing stops the music. It’s loud, rocky and wonderfully weird.

 

Treme-ndous

The Mississippi is arguably the river that can claim more stories than any other in the world. The earliest settlers in America quickly realised its importance for establishing crops, for travel and later for trade. Today, Ol’ Man River is just as impressive – and still a busy place around the port of New Orleans.

The first picture is of o e of America’s largest sugar refineries. It’s one of the hundreds of facts relayed to the passengers on board the Creole Queen – an old time paddle steamer that treks up and down the river three times a day – by our enthusiastic guide. Wendel has plenty of stories about the Mississippi, past and present. And while we learn a lot, it’s about 35 minutes of continuous commentary without a break. 

It’s a wet day outside so people cram into the restaurant room, before we reach Chalmette – the site of  the Battle of New Orleans.

This was the final attempt by the British to conquer the whole of North America, but it failed thanks to the leadership of General Andrew  Jackson. That’s a really simple summary of the whole thing – the full story is told by a knowledgable National Park ranger. 

Back in town, it’s time to drink with the locals, which means getting out of the French Quarter and into the Treme neighbourhood.

This area was made famous by the TV show, and is still the home of some of the best performers. It’s outside the safety zone of the Quarter, but once through the door there’s a big welcome from the bar tender Missie. Every newcomer is greeted with a “How you doing, darling?” Or “What you having, honey?”. It’s a full house tonight, and rightly so – as Kermit Ruffins starts his set.

He’s a local legend, and the audience is made up roughly half and half of regulars and tourists from out of town. But everyone seems to know him. Included on the drinks menu is what’s known in these places as a “set up” – a half pint bottle of your favourite spirit served with a bucket of ice and soda. It’s a good way of sorting out your evening’s drinking without ever having to return to the bar. And if,you’re hungry, there’s  some convenient street food.


Once again, New Orleans has managed to deliver surprises on every street corner. Next stop, Austin, Texas.

 

I Get Around 

“We opened a water park just a few miles out town,” explains Glen over a drink in the hotel courtyard, casually adding, “about five weeks before Katrina.” Glen was born in New Orleans and moved back with his wife Melissa a few years back. It’s one of the hundreds of ordinary stories about an extraordinary event – and having seen the exhibit detailing the hurricane, it’s fascinating and humbling to meet someone who’s prepared to share their own individual story with a complete stranger.

Melissa didn’t always run a visitor attraction. She was also a radio DJ in a small military town, “back in the day when radio stations were run by people rather than computers.” I can relate to that. Like the UK, much of American radio is run by huge corporations with just a token nod to local output. There are exceptions : WWOZ is New Orleans’ most famous jazz station. But like most independents, it relies heavily on public donations.

But tonight isn’t about jazz : because Brian Wilson in town.


Surrounded by eleven of his closest friends – including original Beach Boy Al Jardine – this is a singalong show like no other. The second half includes a complete performance of the Pet Sounds album, plus an encore to fill in any of the songs that weren’t played in the first half. 

Once again, New Orleans comes up with yet another surprise. And it’s a performance every one of the 3,000 crowd will always remember, not least because of the stunning setting of the Saenger Theatre. Built in 1927, it’s now listed as a nationally important building. Though over the years, it’s had its fair share of problems. In the sixties, the Saenger was divided into two separate performing areas. Eventually, new owners we found and a huge restoration programme got underway. Only for the building to suffer some of the worst water damage during Katrina.


Today, it’s back in action, complete with its fantastic flamboyance. Not dissimilar to the songs of Brian Wilson.

 

History : Past and Present

Louis Armstrong airport is about a twenty minute drive from downtown New Orleans, and the cheapest way to get there is by using the shared van Airport Shuttle service. The driver tells me his family were from England – Exeter to be precise – but that was around 300 years ago. He’s full of facts about the region, not least how the early settlers had to modify the swampy land to get anything out of it.

Fortunately, my hotel is also the first stop, enabling me to freshen up and head for some entertainment on Frenchman Street. At Bamboulas, Monday is all about the brass band. 


This isn’t trad jazz, at least how most people define it. Bands like these (and there are many) do a neat trade in cover versions of modern songs.

“If you see a girl on a bike with pink dreadlocks, tell her I’m just in the bathroom.”

In any other city, this might seem like a weird conversation. But in NOLA – and specifically at Molly’s At The Market – it’s pretty standard. Lyndon is in his early twenties and works at the bar two doors down. He lived in San Francisco for a few years but wanted somewhere smaller. Along with being a bar tender, he designs furniture and the pictures he shows me suggest a real talent. As if on cue, his friend shows up as he’s in the gents. Another random conversation drifts into the night. It’s early for New Orleans but I’ve been awake for nearly 24 hours.


At the Cabildo building on Jackson Square, the turbulent history of New Orleans is brought to life. The French influence here is obvious, but over the centuries the Spanish and the English tried their own bits of colonialism, and that’s before you ever get around to the Civil War. The list of conflicts is summed up in a long gallery overlooking the square, decked with flags denoting each era.


A joint ticket allows access to three buildings operated by the Louisiana State Museum service. And in the Presbytere, there’s a focus on the city’s more recent turbulent past.


The piano belongs to Fats Domino, and was recovered from his house when it was hit by Hurricane Katrina. It’s more than a decade since the disaster and the exhibits charts in graphic detail the gross dereliction of duty by the national authorities. The city’s cries for help were ignored by Washington for days, leaving thousand stranded as refugees in the Superdome. While that might sound like a safe place, it had no power, no sanitation, conditions akin to a third world country.

A lot of work has gone on since. The French Quarter suffered, though not nearly as bad as other areas. On most of its buildings today, you’d hardly know anything had happened.

 

An Easier Way To The Big Easy

Heathrow has its merits. Despite being an awkward hop from Nottingham, it has scale. And when you’re flying with British Airways it also has class in the shape of Terminal 5. In the middle of a Monday it’s also relatively quiet. Except for the jazz band.

But this is more than a happy coincidence, because today is the launch day of BA’s direct service to New Orleans. This is a big improvement on my previous visits, which have sometimes included fraught and frantic connections via other US airports. 

This involves the annoying necessity of firstly collecting your baggage before rechecking it in for the onward flight. I can understand increased levels of security these days, but it appears to be a pointless bit of red tape – more to keep the TSA in business so they can snoop through your bags. It seems be less about security and more about an extra level of control.

As far as Heathrow is concerned, security is thorough but highly efficient – and I’m airside within a few minutes. And suddenly, it’s a bit busy.

I’d tried to blag a BA Lounge pass at check in, but smiles and smart casual clothing don’t cut it these days. Even the guy on reception at the Aspire Lounge concedes that the £40 entry fee may not be worth it as it’s lunchtime, and therefore quite busy. He even lets me look before I try, which is generous. Instead I opt for the general terminal.

But there is a consolation prize, in the form of a 787 Dreamliner on the route today. And in premium economy, that means lots of extra space – not least because the middle seat is unoccupied.

These are relatively new planes, and that makes a big difference on a ten hour flight. Louis Armstrong International Airport is in the process of expanding, but as we arrive there are just two border control staff on duty. The supervisor quickly finds four more – and entry here is possibly the quickest I’ve ever experienced in the States.

And, as it’s a.special flight (the first BA direct in 94 years, we are told), there’s another band to welcome us in Arrivals.

Who wouldn’t love this city?

 
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Posted by on March 28, 2017 in New Orleans and Austin 2017