Wednesday, 9 June 2010

East of Crockett, North on Alamo

Last night as I attempted to sort through the messy thoughts on my novel a thunder storm raged over head. At one point - at a vital narrative juncture in the story I might add - the lights flickered on and off, the television following suit, though I am positive I never had it switched on in the first place. I am surprised the boy did not even stir, it sounded like the roof was cracking in two. This morning, after boy and I watched a patch of the plaster about a foot in diameter crash to the ground in the living room (we were at the opposite end of the room at the time) we learnt from the maintenance man that the storm had severed power in various places downtown, including our hotel.

San Antonio is a world away from Houston in all senses. In the first few hours after we arrived we had driven past palm trees, sweltered in the balmy evening and been accompanied by the friendly Anna to our palatial suite. There are havana style shutters on the bathroom window. A large table big enough for a six people poker game. A sofa, two armchairs, sideboards. Space. We pinched ourselves several times. The air is hot, heavy and wet. Almost tropical. People swagger more than walk down the street. There is something lingering in the air of another time. I heard more Spanish being spoken in that first afternoon than English.

We broke up the journey from not so pretty Houston, with a stop in Schulenberg. I haven't tired of the delight I feel when I come across a town name so obviously north european placed in a part of the world whose climate is as far away from Germany or the Czech republic as you can get. And yet, as we turned into the crossroads that is downtown Schulenberg on each corner stood different shades of northern european descent. A sausage meat market run by a man with a Polish surname, a german bakery and a czech "emporium". In we stopped for a home made sausage and beef brisket drenched in barbecue sauce, which was quickly followed by a tour from Wayne, the butcher, who proudly lead us out back to his barbecue pits. It smelt smokey and familiar and was spotlessly clean. I remember a farm in Sardinia that smelt exactly the same, only difference they had been smoking ricotta not meat. As we ate, folk came in to trade over the old wooden marble topped counter. Most were quite obviously regulars. With deliciously salty barbecued goodies ensconced in bellies we nipped across the road for a slightly disappointing cream pie. I think nothing will ever match up to great-aunt Evelyn's version back in Wisconsin. A good pie maker needs at least 60 years of practice methinks. To facilitate digestion we peeked about the antique emporium next door, where a lady turned to us as we left with a "y'all come back and see y'hear?" Only if we intend to buy AR-15s from Wayne, I thought to myself, who had a paper stuck to his sausage chiller cabinet announcing they were in stock. On we drove passed Geronimo and Woman Hollering Creek. I did. She didn't. Must have been on lunch.

Arriving into San Antonio, with barely any petrol, we were immediately struck by how narrow the streets are downtown. A trolley bus passed us, much to the delight of boyo, and we quickly found the Gunther Hotel. Plaques abound the lobby, replete with memorabilia and photos of its hey day including a huge operator's telephone exchange, used until 1979. San Antonians seem a proud, culturally vibrant lot. We took to the river walk almost immediately to meet the troupe for a day off dinner. We sat outside, in the balmy night air, sipping margaritas and watching our waiter make fresh guacamole at our table. His expression just beyond caring, but the end product tasted good. The service really made you feel like you were in a hot country. It was unhurried to say the very least, and we didn't care a jot. Remember I have been trained in Sardinia, where, in the 80s as tourism was but a struggling seedling over there, you would literally be reprimanded by management (loudly with passionate gesticulation) if too many of you ordered fried calamari because it would short circuit the electrics. Then you would wait about an hour for it to get to your table. They probably were fishing it. That'll learn you for eating too much fat.

Sammy held court with his favourite actors who took it in turns to show him around, wash his hands, introduce him to the two latino ladies on the table next to us, aged 3 and 4. Usual thing. The next day Krista, for whom the boy has developed a serious attachment, offered to play with him poolside whilst Cory and I celebrated our anniversary. Tykey couldn't believe his luck. Krista all to himself! No sharing with mum and dad! Score! Meanwhile we tucked into an unhurried seafood feast on the river....

A block away from our pad are stone steps that take you down it. It is narrow, and quite shallow, looking more like a canal and protected by an advanced system of flood and drainage protection. Its banks are lined with restaurants and shops, the winding pavements taking you under picture perfect stone bridges and past an abundance of fresh fauna, succulents, palms and other tropical lushness. To our left we passed a beautiful hotel, looking like it had been shipped in from Seville, each room with a french windowed balcony and tall backed wooden chairs on them much like the sort my grandmother used to have. The man who designed the area back in the late 30s early 40s had intended to create a place that would be a mix of Venice and New Orleans. The desired outcome has been beautifully achieved. People saunter along the rivers edge and take rides on wide barges for a potted history of the city.

That's where we were today, under the post lunchtime sun, listening to our captain's humorous journey through San Antonio. Somewhat disconcerting were the barely audible mutterings amplified by his headset mic that he drifted into in between stories. Cory pulled a face. I hoped he was not recovering from a post traumatic disorder seeing as he was eager to tell us when we boarded that he had been stationed in Essex twice with the forces. Never underestimate the psychological repercussions of living in Essex my friends.

The thing that will stay with me the most from our sailing down the water, apart from the picturesque entry into La Villitta where on one side of the river is a small stage facing mini stone raked seating on the opposite, is the fact that the restoration of the river area was mostly to do with a group of women who formed a conservation group back in the 1920s and whose vision was the propelling force for what we can enjoy today. They are still an incredibly strong group and are solely responsible for making this city one which fiercely preserves its history and unique antiquity. When the Mariott wanted to build they insisted that the 1920s landmark on the ground which they sought to develop was protected. The developers moved the entire building to be closer to the river in order to carry out their modern project. For the developers of the Hyatt it was a similar story. Te conservationists refused to grant permission for their high rise, because, they said, it would cast a shadow over the Alamo at sunset eclipsing it's picturesque glory. What a marked contrast to the rampaging newness of Houston.

At the end of the tour there was indeed only one thing to do. Put our sweaty feet one in front of the other, turn onto East Crockett street and head for the Alamo. I think I have taken enough pictures of it to satisfy my father's obsession with all things cowboy. It really is a beautiful shrine. Within its walls, manicured gardens fresh with prickly pear fruiting cacti, flowering palms, enormous succulents and immaculate lawns. Fountains trickle, coin confetti sunk down on the watery stone. It has an eery stillness to the place despite the hustle bustle of the tourists, and there were plenty of them. What a world away from the America we have seen so far. Here, in the shade of the sand time worn stone I begin to comprehend the sheer rampaging history of the place. The breadth and depth of the diverse cultures, so very alive here, and proudly celebrated. What a treat to be able to stand amongst this. Soak it up.

I asked the maintenance man this morning, as Sam and I watched him peel off more of the plaster from the ceiling, why he loved his town so. He pin pointed the diversity of the place and the way in which each of its converging cultures has a voice, a place, a home. I asked him how he deals with the humidity (my clothes have not dried in three days hung up) and he gives a little shrug and a chuckle. He tells me that in winter the frigid cold that rolls in from the gulf and is trapped by the texan hills beyond the city is just as damp. I tell him this city will never be my home but that it is mighty pretty. He chuckles again. Then he tells me that the man who plasters is in Cancun till Friday. No matter. I'm liking the crumbling Havana in august sort of look to the place. I pretend I am a writer under house arrest secretly churning out stories to maintain her sanity. At least one part of that statement is close to the truth

Speaking of sanity, I received a package the other week. On it was stamped "INSANITY". Yes sirs, for the purposes of the blog you understand, I am now a graduate of P90X. To you and me this means, my jeans are moderately less tight, though my triceps are still barely visible, and therefore to maintain my experiment in American fitness I have thrown myself into, well Insanity. Never a truer word written. Picture a hip hop star with a group of lithe folk behind him doing moves like you have pressed fast forward and play button at the same time and you are half way there. I caught myself in the mirror the other day doing jumping jacks at their speed and had to pause the DVD for some serious belly laughter at that jiggly reflection huffing and puffing back at me. After almost two weeks of the regime the boys are getting used to me shakliy exiting the bedroom looking like a cross between half cooked lobster and a seal. Listen, you've got to counter act the tex mex grub somehow. There's only so much guacamole and margaritas a girl can consume before they start to consume her.

No storms tonight. Only me, our palace, the plastic yuccas and the humid night ahead of us. Clean up tomorrow for a visit from a childhood friend of Cory's now living here. There may be tea involved, and post show drinks and snacks back at the suite later. It really is a very very tough life. I will soldier on, displaying the courage and determination of those Alamo folk.

All the trinkets and t-shirts this afternoon kept reminding me to "never forget The Alamo". One thing is sure, I will never forget San Antonio.

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