Mariachi Bands, Chacalacas and Tarzan

The travel section of Sunday’s New York Times listed Texas as the second most visited place in the US and this, I am told, is because of San Antonio’s River Walk. Lined with tall cypresses, live oaks and smaller, exotic trees and blossoming foliage, you can stroll along the shops and patio restaurants as far as the museum district to the north, take a ride on one of the little tourist boats, or cycle to the Espada Mission in the south.
Three other Missions, all dating back to the 1700s, lie on or close to the San Antonio river and one of them, San José, holds a Mariarchi mass each Sunday. Shortly before Christmas, Mike and I attended the mass for the first time; I assumed it would be a touristy event and we were both pleasantly surprised to find the packed church mostly filled with parishioners. The service was bi-lingual, and to the side of the altar a Mariachi band accompanied the small choir that sang out so joyfully. It was very simple, and very sweet. Mike grinned afterwards that his former Methodist Sunday school teacher would have probably turned in her grave if she could have seen him there.

On Christmas Day, after we had opened gifts and enjoyed an early lunch of Tamales (a Mexican Christmas specialty given to us by our good neighbour, John Gonzales), Mike, Mattie and I went for a stroll in the downtown section of the River Walk. We saw Christmas lights that stretched from tree to tree and were lucky to get the last available table in an outdoors-heated Italian patio restaurant that we all like.

On Boxing Day, we drove at a leisurely pace to the southernmost tip of Padre Island, a 70 or so mile spit which, at its southern end, is accessible via the Queen Isabella causeway. The untouched, dune-lined beaches of Padre Island are almost empty at this time of year, save for seagulls, pelicans and other shorebirds. After shell-hunting, a picnic and a drive along the beach, Mike took Mattie for a swim in the hotel pool whilst I took out my binoculars and went for a stroll in the birding centre, opposite. Built on wetlands, all sorts of migrating ducks bobbed about on the water, blue and green herons and other waders stalked the rushes, and dozy alligators lounged (unfortunately I did not manage to get a glimpse of their babies). I was also thrilled to see a dozen or so roseate spoonbills having a nap, whilst out in the bay American white pelicans flapped. On the other side of the bay, brown pelicans flock around the tiny town of Port Isabel. This tiny, charming town which sports an old lighthouse used as a lookout post during the Civil War, had been an exclusive seaside resort during the last century – its excellent historical museum displays photos of yacht club members playing water polo.

The following day it drizzled when we left the Island, headed for the Sabal Palm Sanctuary on the Rio Grande River. I had read in my Texas Parks & Wildlife magazine that the newly built border fence, separating the US from Mexico, cuts right through this sanctuary and indeed, we had to drive through a hole, literally, in order to reach the original plantation house which now serves as a visitor center. Although raining by now, I had a quick trot around a small forest (according to a guide, the first Tarzan film was filmed there) of original sabal palms that once had flourished for 90 square miles along the Rio Grande River. Close by, the last battle of the Civil War was fought at Palmito Ranch, and at Boca Chica (‘Little Mouth’), the southernmost part of the Texas coast, a Silicon Valley tech giant has recently been given permission to build a rocket launch pad there. Mattie’s recollection of Boca Chica is that it is the only place in the world where she has pee’d in the rain.

On the final day of our trip, we drove further westwards along the Rio Grande River. Apart from the border fence that appeared here and there, I found the area quite charming: large oranges and grapefruit (the ruby red variety) grew on trees, fields were planted with sugar cane, broccoli, spinach and cotton, and in the middle of a ploughed field or two sat a brightly-festooned Mexican cemetery. We also spotted an unusual old brick church which, a historical marker informed us, had had its wooden steeple blown away in a snow storm during the last century. Small Mexican shops and restaurants dotted the route, too, as well as advertisements for a Curandero, or traditional native healer. Later turning inland, we headed for the gorgeous Estero Llano Grande State Park, built on wetlands and part of the World Birding Center. Already at its entrance green jays, chacalacas and red-winged blackbirds flocked around the feeders. Lunch was in a rather smart restaurant in the nearby prosperous town of McAllen – ‘The best meal I’ve had on our trip,’ said Mike, now rather tired of the coast’s staple of fried seafood. (The restaurant owner’s family has loaned many of its handsome artefacts, dating from the Mexican and Civil wars, to the new Briscoe Western Museum on San Antonio’s River Walk.)

US 281 took us back to San Antonio (about four hours’ drive north). On the way, I was mesmerized by all the peregrine falcons, red and white tailed hawks, and merlins (I think) that looked down haughtily from the telephone posts. In the back of the car, our little bird, Mattie, was mesmerized by her Ipod…

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