Friday, July 27, 2007

Pretty Pensacola

Pensacola Beach is one of the loveliest beaches I have ever seen. Crystal clear water and the whitest sand "east of New Mexico." While the jellies dish out an awful sting, at least you can see them coming.

Sand creatures have adapted beautifully to the colors of this beach as most are very light and blend in perfectly with their surroundings. My favorite is the elusive, rarely seen ghost crab. I don't really know if that is his name but if it isn't, it should be. This guy lives beneath the sand in a hole whose depth I do not know. In fact, if you didn't catch a surprise glimpse of him during your stay, you probably wouldn't even know he exists at all. And the holes you would attribute to someone's missing beach umbrella. The only reason I saw him is because of Steve...he caught sight of him and then I couldn't take my eyes off him.

The lesson? If you're patient and observant, there's much more at the beach than meets the eye...although some creatures I'm not so sure I want to see (insert Jaws theme music here!)

~Desi

The Ugliest Feet on the Beach

In humble recognition of an all-time first in the Balla household (today I lost a toenail) the following is a list of the bumps, bugs, bruises, and bites that the Ballas have sustained on the trip so far.

Albuquerque. Z contracts a wild stomach bug.

Supai. Julie and I acquire a serious case of blisters including, but not limited to, several on our heels and toes. In addition is my personal favorite (which is the inspiration for this blog) one under my big toe's toenail. Steve scrapes his ankle while going down a small waterfall head first.

Sedona. Steve contracts summer cold. Steve, Julie, Z, and I sustain abrasions and bruises on our rear ends and thighs at Slide Rock.

Alamogordo. Steve breaks out in a head rash resembling spots you've seen only on Dr. Seuss creatures. We're still not sure where it came from but luckily it left almost as quickly as it arrived. Also, Steve smashes his knee into the white sands as he sleds leaving behind a sand burn on his knee.

San Antonio. I contract stomach virus.

Pensacola. Julie...ouch! First time in the Gulf of Mexico, she is attacked by a killer jellyfish with four foot tentacles. (Did I say feet? I mean inches.) In any case her sting was a bit more involved than an east coast sting as it remained painful until the next day. (And that was after vinegar treatments.) Z was also stung but the jellyfish did not remain on him as long as Julie so his pain dissipated in about half an hour.

Now this brings us to the inspiration behind this blog. If you know me, you know how I feel about my feet, and my toes in particular. My students have even seen them on an overhead projector. They are my favorite part. Because of recessive genes my toes are really small. In preparation for the beach portion of our trip, I was planning on painting them up all pretty. But that's not going to happen now. Remember my mention of a blister under my big toenail after hiking into Supai? Do you know what happens to a toenail with a blister under it? Ask most runners and they may be able to tell you something I never knew. It falls off and doesn't look very pleasant! Normally I'd be resentful of this but since it was the result of a major accomplishment I will consider it a trophy. But don't worry, I won't bronze it because that would be gross, even for a bio teacher.

~Desi

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Half a Million Georges

There's this Irish pub in Pensacola called McGuire's, the quintessential place to eat in town (thanks Donnie!). McGuire's is cool on a number of fronts.

The food is excellent. Let's face it...if you don't have this as an eatery, you don't have anything. The Shepherd's Pie was a stand out, as was the mushroom and tenderloin dish that Desi had.

People staple dollar bills to the ceiling and walls. This tradition apparently started years ago and customers have been initiating themselves in this way ever since. In fact, there is now more than $500,000 hanging from up there...including four bills courtesy of the Ballas.

The bathrooms are deliberately labeled to get you to go into the wrong one. Now, I'm sure regulars have no problem with this. But, as a newbie, I went down the long corridor, past a bunch of dining rooms, past the wine cellar, following this guy who seemed to know where he was going. I never looked up, although I was kind of surprised that there were no urinals. It was only much later, when Julie and Z came back from their bathroom run and reported the doorway confusion, that I realized the truth...yes, I had taken care of business in the women's room!

~Steve

It's Ivan's Turn

Well, there we were driving along the barrier island at Pensacola Beach. Lots of road construction, we couldn't help noticing. A lot of new homes going up, too. Everything seems either just built or in the process of being completed.

It turns out that Hurricane Ivan brought great destruction to Pensacola three years ago and the community (including its tourism industry) is still recovering.

These places are so distant when we are sitting there on our couch watching images on our television. But being here reminds us that the affected people are three dimensional, with real lives and livelihoods.

This makes it all the more special to see so many church groups coming down to these parts (especially New Orleans) doing relief work. To take those images and turn them into meaningful action is wonderful (and humbling) to witness.

~Steve

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

What's the Longest Bridge in the World?

Supposedly, we just drove over it today...the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway...or at least that's what the Greater New Orleans Expressway Commission tells us. No matter...it is long...24 miles from one shore to the other.

~Steve

How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live?

What more can be said about Hurricane Katrina and the destruction it caused in New Orleans? Here's what you'll see as you drive around the Crescent City...two years after the storm...

An occupied house that looks perfect. Next door, a house with an RV parked on the front lawn, up on blocks, where a family is presumably still living until its house becomes inhabitable again. Next to that, a house that is completely deserted, featuring a brown stripe way up off the ground (the high-water mark) and spray paint on the door (indicating the house had been searched for victims).

And those are the nice neighborhoods...

~Steve

PS: The building in the picture burned for days after Katrina, causing the white smoke that enveloped much of the city (which you may remember seeing on television).

K-Ville

When we saw a huge blockade on several streets in the French Quarter (New Orleans) we had to check out what was going on. As we approached the location, we could see large trucks with the words "K-Ville" on them. Someone told us they were filming a movie. Mommy thought that it had something to do with Johnny Knoxville because of what it said on the trucks.

When we went to a restaurant, the host told us that they were filming something having to do with Miami Vice. Then our waiter told us that they were filming a docu-drama about the News Orleans police force after Hurricane Katrina.

After dinner, we went back to check out what was going on. They kept saying "rolling," and then, "cut," but nothing seemed to be happening. It seemed like everyone was just standing around and you couldn't tell the difference between the people working and the people who were just watching. They had big black curtains hanging from buildings and really bright lights everywhere.

Finally, we decided to leave. When we returned to the hotel, Daddy looked up K-Ville on the computer. He found out that it was a Fox TV show that will be starting in the fall about the New Orleans police force after Hurricane Katrina.

The next day when we returned to the French Quarter, they were filming a few streets down behind a curtain and someone was singing. They had put lights all over the street so it looked really cool. Nothing was really going on again so we decided to get ice cream. So if in the fall, anyone is watching K-Ville, don't be surprised if you see us in the background.

~Julie

Ze Natchez

Baannnnnn!!! The red wheel of the Natchez started to turn as the horn blew. We started off at a slow pace but sped up as the wheel spun faster and faster.

The four of us took a look around the boat. I had just bought sodas for all of us. Once we had a look around Julie and I took a look around by ourselves. First we took a look in the gift shop, which spring an idea in my mind that we could buy Mom and Dad gifts. Once Julie paid we made a plan to go up to them and put the Natchez necklaces around their necks. We did so and got many thanks.

Then we went off to explore. We walked around then went to a bathroom. While we were in there we heard noises and were afraid we had docked and Mom and Dad would be looking for us. Luckily for us it had only been one hour thirty minutes. The ride went for two hours so we spent the rest with Mom and Dad.

~Z

Meandering in Mind and Body at the French Quarter

Usually I don't have trouble getting a "feel" for a place but this is not the case with New Orleans. I'm not sure what it was like pre-Katrina so it's difficult to know if the "texture" of the downtown, French Quarter, has been adversely affected. I'm guessing that it has been in a major way based on my observations.

My preconceived notions about the French Quarter were that it was going to have a charming look with a party atmosphere. I expected restaurants, bars, casinos, and lots of people. Bourbon Street in particular was a point of interest since I'd seen footage of Mardi Gras on television.

In reality I'm not sure about what I saw. I learned that the French Quarter was not flooded like the rest of New Orleans so there is not too much residual building damage. Here and there are closed businesses but most are open. So where are all the people?

I was struck by how few people we saw in the French Quarter. When you peered into the restaurants and bars, shops and studios there was nary a person. There were some tourists walking about but nowhere near the number I was expecting.

We walked a lot during the day and a half we spent here. Up and down streets like Decatur and Toulouse. We spent a little time on Bourbon, but after around 8pm it turns raunchy and we thought limited exposure to this was a good idea for Julie and Z's sake. We shopped at the French Market and ate jambalaya, muffeletta, fried shrimp, and red beans and rice.

Another element I wasn't expecting was a fixation on voodoo and haunted buildings. I think I would have enjoyed more of a spotlight on jazz and the Big Muddy. There were casinos, but these were outside of the French Quarter on the "American" side of Canal Street.

All in all I enjoyed our time in the French Quarter and New Orleans overall, but have mixed feelings about it. Architecturally it is interesting, culinarily it is tasty but in my mind I wonder about its past and about its future. Will this turn out to be a lull in its "history" or does it only have the atmosphere I was expecting during Mardi Gras?

~Desi

PS: Side note...as a Catholic, I am also pondering the whole Mardi Gras thing. After seeing Bourbon Street I'm wondering if Fat Tuesday is a day I want to be associated with.

Monday, July 23, 2007

NASA Fist Fight

Note from Daddy: During our visit to Space Center Houston, Julie and Z took a couple of spins through the Martian Maze, a big kiddie play area. This is Z's account of what happened inside the maze...

It started out as a normal play area, just like the ones at McDonald's. We went through twice and had much fun. There was a large slide which we went down once (oh, and Julie had to stay with me or she would get kicked out by the NASA people because she is in 7th grade and 7th graders aren't allowed in without a younger sibling).

When we were back inside the play area there weren't that many kids so a couple of the guns on the third floor were open. The ball machine wasn't working at that time so we had to bring balls up for ourselves and for the other kids, from the bottom area. When we were up there a little boy of the age of about three had a big load of balls and dropped a few. Then I picked up a few and put them in my own machine. The little boy got very mad and started yelling at me that he had gone all the way down to the bottom and brought up these balls.

Then a boy about the age of seven picked up a few of the three year old's balls. The little three year old was so mad he started throwing punches and slaps at the other boy. Then another boy came up who was with the seven year old and watched them. The two boys were laughing at the little kid and finally the little kid cornered the seven year old and punched him in the stomach and slapped him on his face. Then the two boys ran off laughing and jumping. Then the little boy looked around and saw that all of his balls had been picked up by other kids. He was so mad that he stormed off. Here ends my tale of the NASA fist fight.

~Z

PS: We saw the little boy later at our dinner restaurant.

Moon Rocks

At NASA, there are a series of different activities you can go through. They include going on a tram to view the places where the real astronauts work, "feeling" the sensation of blast off (not really), and watching a video about when we first sent a man to the moon and going through an exhibit about it.

The last thing was something we really wanted to do because in the exhibit following the film, you could see real moon rocks. The problem was that we had already been on the tram and through the blast off activity so it was almost time for them to close. By the time we got to the area where the film and exhibit were, the last group had already gone in. Luckily, the lady working there allowed us to go in even though it had already started.

When we got in, the film was already started. It showed the people who first went to the moon, when they left Earth, when they got to the moon, and what they did there. When the film finished, it was time to go into the exhibit. We skipped everything and went right to the moon rock room. When we walked in, there was a model of what a lab would look like with moon rocks, soil, and microscopes showing what the moon rocks look like up close. Then, right in the middle, was a moon rock you could actually touch! I was so excited that you could touch the moon. Touching the moon was one of my favorite things about going to the Johnson Space Center.

~Julie

So You Want To Be An Astronaut

Everyone loves astronauts, don't they? I mean, what's not to envy? Astronauts travel into outer space, orbit the Earth, and, for a lucky few, walk on the moon. The job of astronaut certainly has all of the appearances of a very glamorous, even romantic line of work. After all, what little kid doesn't want to be an astronaut when they grow up?

And then you go to the Johnson Space Center. You take a tour of the astronaut training facility. You see how sterile and scientific the environment looks...more fitting of an engineer than an intergalactic explorer. Spaceman Spiff certainly wouldn't last very long in Houston!

And therein lies the lesson. Those grand moments of space travel (which we all observe) are nothing more than brief interludes between long, long periods of repetition, training, and dedication to the smallest of details (none of which we normally see). Level of romance...down. Level of respect...way, way up.

~Steve

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Get Your Facts Learned

True or False:

(1) The Alamo was originally called Mision San Antonio de Valero.

(2) The United States won the Battle of the Alamo.

(3) Texas was once its own country.

(4) Daniel Boone helped defend the Alamo.

(5) There is now a Hyatt inside the grounds of the Alamo as they existed in 1836.

(6) General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna was lynched shortly after the Battle of the Alamo.

(7) Alamo is the Spanish word for "cottonwood."

(8) The Alamo is a huge, solitary building located in the middle of a dirt field.

Answers:

(1) True. What is now known as the Alamo served as the home to Spanish missionaries and native converts for nearly seventy years.

(2) False. The United States wasn't even an official party in the battle, which was part of the Texas Revolution (which itself occurred within the larger context of the Mexican civil war).

(3) True. Texas gained its independence from Mexico in 1836 and was its own autonomous nation until 1845, when it joined the United States.

(4) False. Another famous frontiersman, David Crockett, was there with a group of Tennessee volunteers.

(5) True. The Alamo is smack dab in the middle of downtown San Antonio, with all of its offices and tourist attractions.

(6) False. Although the rebel Texians lost the Battle of the Alamo (where all 200 or so defenders were massacred), they spared Santa Anna his life a month later when they turned the tables and won their independence from Mexico.

(7) True. There are tons of cottonwood trees all over the southwest.

(8) False. But that's what you were expecting, right Des?

~Steve

If You Don't Like a Good Mariachi Band...

...then you are a truly evil person! I mean, who doesn't love to sing that "ay ay ay ay" song?! In fact, you know you're singing it right now!

~Steve

I Left My Stomach in San Antonio

Montezuma's revenge or a little too much dinner-time Texas barbecue on top of a lunch of cheese enchiladas and chile rellenos? (Donna, I know what you're thinking, but I think the incubation period is too long for those ice cubes to be responsible!) In any case, some Maalox and Pepto Bismol did the trick in keeping me functional for the San Antonio portion of the trip. (There are CVSs and Walgreens all over the south.)

One of the "hazards" of traveling like this is that 37 days plus four people leave open the possibility of a bug or two. Also, eating a variety of new (and sometimes very different) foods can wreak a little havoc on the digestive system.

With Cajun country ahead, it's time to recover and get ready for a whole new set of "dangers." Etouffee here we come!

~Desi

The River Walk

Well, we've arrived back in the land of the trees, rain, and humidity! San Antonio, much like Oklahoma City a couple of hundred miles to the north, is the tipping point where east meets west (in a topographical kind of way). Driving in from west Texas, we were in the middle of a barren, flat landscape of scrubby bushes and sagebrush (literally no gas station for 100 miles or so!). Leaving on our trek eastward, we found ourselves surrounded by trees and other green vegetation (gas, however, was still relatively hard to come by).

In the midst of this tipping point is San Antonio's main contemporary attraction, the River Walk. I'm usually pretty skeptical about these kinds of places. They often seem forced to me, for whatever reason. (What say y'all?) But not the River Walk. The San Antonio River itself is nothing special. But the surroundings...they are another matter completely. A canopy of live oaks and other sub-tropical foliage (feels like we're getting close to Hilton Head!). A really interesting path that goes right to the river's edge...without a railing! (See...I'm still on that anti-nanny state kick.) Lot's of places to eat. All in all, a well-known attraction that definitely lives up to its billing.

~Steve