Impressions of Texas

April 30, 2013

This is our first visit to Texas, so it was a new experience for us.  Here are some things we find interesting about Texas.

  • I’ve always heard how big Texas is. At 268,580 square miles (695,621 sq. kms), it is the largest state in the contiguous United States, second only to Alaska among all U.S. states, and is larger than every country in Europe (except Russia which isn’t really in Europe in my mind). However, the area of Texas is not quite as impressive as its reputation. There are 5 Canadian Provinces and Territories that are much, much larger than Texas (British Columbia!, Ontario, Quebec, Northwest Territories, and Nunavut), and 3 that are almost as big (Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba).
  • The word “Texas” derives from local Indian words meaning allies or friends. Reflecting this, the Texas state motto is friendship.
  • Texas has been part of or ruled by 6 nations in its modern history – Spain, France, Mexico, The Republic of Texas, The United States (twice) and the Confederate States of America (during the American Civil War). The words ‘6 Flags’ are incorporated into a lot of Texas venue names.
  • The Texas state capitol building in Austin was completed on May 16, 1888. It is the largest of all state capitols in the nation in terms of square footage. Its construction was paid for by bartering 3 million acres of land in the Texas ‘panhandle’ to the builders.
  • West Texas is mostly wide-open, dry desert. It is sparsely populated and there are no big cities except El Paso (on Texas’s Western border with Mexico and New Mexico). The Eastern side of Texas looks very different, with grass, green trees, and more agriculture. The dry west and green east are separated by the 100th Meridian (100 degrees West of Greenwich England), a line which happens to closely approximate the 20 inch isohyet (a line of equal precipitation, not unlike the lines of equal elevation on a topographic map) which is commonly used to demarcate arid and non-arid land

    A silhouette of a tree against a graduate grey background

    West Texas Landscape

  • Texas is part of the Southern ‘bible belt’ and has a majority Christian population, primarily Evangelical Protestants (65%) and Catholics (21%, a byproduct of Texas’s 38% Latino population

    A large billboard with black print on a white background reading "Think God"

    Texas Billboard

  • Famous from old Western movies, the Rio Grande River serves as a natural border between Texas and Mexico.

    A piicture of Patrick's muddy feet stadnign on cracked mud earth

    Muddy feet after I waded the Rio Grande into Mexico

  • Because Texas shares a long border with Mexico, there are almost 10,000 United States Border Patrol agents in the state. Roadside checks are common like in Southern Arizona.
  • A lot of Texans like to dance. There are old-fashioned dance halls throughout the state where people enjoy the 2-step, waltz, and occasional polka.
  • Texans also love their bar-b-que (BBQ), which is meat cooked using the indirect heat of wood smoke. What we usually call BBQ in Canada (i.e. cooking over direct heat or flame) is actually grilling, not BBQ.
  • Texas is a conservative place, and is currently one of the most Republican states in the United States. Republicans control all statewide Texas offices, both houses of the state legislature and have a majority in the Texas congressional delegation. Despite this, the state capital of Austin is liberal, artistic, and actively encourages individuality (‘keep Austin weird’)

    Brown building of Austin Texas seen from the river

    Austin Skyline

  • Texas allows RVs to park overnight in roadside picnic areas, which are generally nice and clean, but sometimes right beside and not separated from the roadways.

    The Dream Machine parked with slide out in a rest area beside the road

    Sleeping at a Texas roadside picnic area

  • Texans are very patriotic. There are American flags everywhere and a lot of Texas flags.

    The Texas flag flying against a blue background

    Texas Flag

  • Although George W. Bush is commonly associated with Texas (he was the State Governor and owner of the Texas Rangers baseball team), he was not born there (actually, New Haven, Connecticut). But Dwight D. Eisenhower (elected 1952) and Lyndon B. Johnson (elected 1963) were both born in Texas. Johnson spent much of his presidency on his ranch in Texas, operating from his home nicknamed ‘The Texas White House’.

    The Dream Machine parked beside a Jetstar jet under a roof

    The Dream Machine and Lyndon Johnson’s mini-Air Force One

  • Many restaurants in Texas don’t have a license to serve hard liquor, sometimes only beer and wine). Some of these restaurants allow you to bring your own liquor and they’ll sell you ‘a set up’, which is the glasses, ice, and mix that you need to make your own drinks.
  • The Texas drawl is real, not just in the movies. “Y’all” is the most common pronoun here. When people call us “Sir” or “Ma’am” we feel old, but folks are just being polite.
  • Texas’s State Flower is the Bluebonnet, a sentimental favourite, which was blooming as we passed through.

    A field of blue flowers with green leaves

    Texas Bluebonnets

  • Like Arizona and New Mexico, the Texan desert is home to the collared peccary (known in the south as javelina). They are social animals, often forming herds, and adults weight 40 to 90 pounds.

    A brown javelina on dry grass.  it looks like a small pig with stiff hair.

    A Javelina visiting our campsite in Big Bend National Park

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Impressions of Greece

June 18, 2012

We drove south from Bulgaria into Greece on our own personal bailout mission for the Greek economy.  Exiting the lush mountains of Bulgaria, we immediately noticed a difference.  Although greener than we had expected (at least in the North), Greece had smaller mountains, larger valleys, and less vegetation.  Here are some things I find interesting about Greece:

  • The Greek alphabet, like the Cyrillic alphabet of Bulgaria, is difficult to read.  My background in mathematics allows me to identify most of the letter names, from which I can often guess their sounds, but it’s a challenge.  Thankfully the names of most towns on signs also have the Latin character equivalents (a requirement of European Union membership), which makes it possible to match them to our map and GPS.
  • Other than Athens, most Greek towns seem very quiet.  There are not a lot of shops open nor activity on the street, other than men drinking and talking at the local coffee shop.  At first we thought it might be a holiday, but it appears that most days are that quiet.
  • Many places in Greece have ridiculously low speed limits and a proliferation of stop signs.  However, after Romania and Bulgaria where roadside police were a common occurrence, we haven’t seen a single police officer on the side of a road in Greece.  The only place we’ve seen them is hanging out in town, sitting on their motorcycles in groups and talking.
  • Perhaps because of the previous point, Greek drivers ignore the rules of the road and the speed limits (e.g. not stopping at stop signs, passing on the right, lane splitting on scooters or with cars, double or triple parking).  In Athens, like in Italy, scooters and small motorcycles swarm about the vehicle while driving (their high pitched engines even sound like bees), and wriggle their way to the front of the line at traffic lights.
  • We were shocked by the first campsite we visited in Greece.  Although it was one that is inspected annually by ACSI (a camping club that we belong to), the place was a mess.  Many people leave their trailers there and awnings up permanently, but many had collapsed.  We decided to move on, but I asked the manager why the mess, and he said that they had half a meter of snow this winter, something they never get.
  • Greece has a growing problem with illegal immigration from Turkey and the Arab Spring countries.  As it is the closest EU country to the Middle East, the short, porous border between Greece and Turkey has become a gateway, an issue for Greece and now for the other members of the EU (another reason to them to complain about Greece!)
  • We visited Syntagma (Constitution) Square in Athens, the site of most of the protests about cutbacks imposed as a result of the Greek debt crisis, the ones we’ve seen on the news.  There were no protests to be seen, nor have there been any anywhere in Greece recently.  Localized protests that make the news leave the impression of something much larger.  The negative press has had a big impact on tourism though.  It is down considerably, reducing Greece’s primary source of foreign income, and therefore its ability to pay back the debt.
View from the top of steps overlooking square filled with normal people going about their business

All quiet on Syntagma Square

  • There are over 2500 archeological sites in Greece.  It is expensive to excavate them, but much more expensive to preserve and maintain them.  Without a direct source of income, like visitor admission fees, many are unsustainable.  As a result, some sites have not been excavated or have even been recovered with dirt to protect them.  It’s ironic that the countries with the legacy of the world’s great archaeological sites are ones less equipped to afford them (e.g. Greece, Turkey, Egypt).
  • Almost 35% of Greece’s population lives in Athens.  For a variety of reasons, Athens grew in an uncontrolled fashion, and in 1990 was one of the least desirable capital cities in Europe.  It was very polluted, noisy, and crowded with cars.  This improved when it underwent a major re-vamp in preparation for the Summer Olympics in 2004.  Major improvements like new Olympic facilities, a new subway, and some pedestrianized streets, along with a lot of general cleanup, have greatly improved Athens.  But it still isn’t a particularly great capital city nor particularly clean.  Most people just spend 2 or 3 days visiting the monuments and museums and then head for a Greek island.
  • There are a surprising number of people begging in Greece, more than we’ve recently experiences in Central/Eastern Europe where living conditions are generally lower.  Like most places in Europe there are Roma (gypsy) people begging here, but others as well. • Like in many places in Europe, graffiti is a problem in Greece.  It’s a bit weird to see it written in Greek letters.  Thankfully most of the ancient monuments have been spared, but not the traffic signs.  Spray paint and stickers placed all over traffic signs often make them illegible, which is not only annoying but dangerous.  In Canada, although we have graffiti, it almost never blocks traffic signs.
Round red traffic sign covered in worn white stickers making it illegible

Can you read this important traffic sign?

  • Greek food is terrific.  In addition to all the foods familiar from our Greek restaurants back home, there is a proliferation of seafood, usually grilled.  The calamari is bigger, the hummus is runnier, and the tzatsiki thicker (due to the Greek yoghurt).  We’ve noticed an alarming trend away from traditional roasted potatoes and towards serving meals with french fries.  Although I enjoy good french fries as much as the next guy, they most definitely do not belong between spanakopita and a Greek salad.
  • Free-camping outside of a campsite is officially prohibited but widely tolerated in Greece.  You can’t beat this free campsite.  Yes, that’s the Mediterranean in the background!
Our white motor home parked on the beach facing toward the camera with blue water and sky in the background

Surf’s Up!


Impressions of Bulgaria

June 13, 2012

Bulgaria is the last of the formerly communist countries that we plan to visit this trip.  We continue to head south to warmer and hopefully drier weather.  We enjoyed our relatively short visit to Bulgaria.  Here are some things about Bulgaria that I think are interesting:

  • Bulgaria is a former communist country in Central/Eastern Europe.  Since the fall of communism in 1989, it has successfully transitioned to capitalism and it joined the European Union in 2007.
Ruined castle on hilltop surrounded by green trees.  Single flagpole with raised Bulgarian flag.

Bulgarian Flag atop Tsarevets Castle in Veliko Turnovo

  • Bulgaria doesn’t use the Euro yet.  Its currency is the Leva (worth about 66 cents Canadian), each of which is broken down into 100 stotinky (sometimes called ‘stinkies’ by travellers).
  • Bulgaria is very green at this time of year.  May is its rainiest month and the countryside is beautiful.
Diane beside a walking path with lush green grass and trees and a cliff in the distance

Diane walking in the Bulgarian countryside near Ivanovo

  • Bulgaria uses the Cyrillic alphabet.  It was developed in the 9th Century in the land that later became Bulgaria.  The Cyrillic alphabet makes reading menus and most signs here almost impossible.  It has extra letters (30 in total) and several false friends (letters that look the same as our Latin letters, but are pronounced differently) (e.g. ‘p’ is pronounced as ‘r’ in restaurant).
Two black and white signs pointing to Bulgaria's capital city Sohpia, the top one in Cryrillic and the bottom one in Latin charactes

Both signs point the way to Bulgaria’s capital city Sophia. Both are pronouced the same way, but the top one uses the Cyrillic alphabaet.

  • Thankfully, almost all young people in Bulgaria speak some English.  If we need assistance, we ask a teenager.
  • Hoping to annex Macedonia, Bulgaria sided with Germany in World War II, but refused to turn over its Jews to the Nazis, saving at least 50,000 people from the genocide
  • Bulgaria adopted communism more wholeheartedly than other Warsaw Pact countries after World War II.  They were very subservient to ‘Mother Russia’ and in 1973 even proposed that they join the Soviet Union.
  • Under communism, Bulgaria was well known for its wrestlers and weight lifters who were national sports heroes.  Afterwards they often became bodyguards for the countries leaders.
  • With the fall of communism, many of the communist leaders and their bodyguards successfully transitioned to capitalism, and now lead many of the major companies here.  This was almost certainly done with some mafia-style strong arming.  Bulgarians say, “The music changes, but the musicians stay the same”.
  • The vast majority of Bulgarians are Orthodox Christian (almost 90%), a quick turnaround from Communist days when religion was not allowed.
  • Corruption is more widespread in Bulgaria than elsewhere in Europe.  Although Bulgaria is a member of the European Union, it is monitored and often rebuked by the EU for problems with fraud.
  • Because it is cheaper than most other European countries, Bulgaria is becoming popular as a tourist destination for Europeans but it is rarely visited by North Americans.  Most of the Europeans who come here come for cheap skiing or for beach destinations on the Black Sea coast.
  • There are a growing number of British ex-pats here who can buy homes and live less expensively and with better weather than in the UK.
  • Traditional Bulgarian food is grilled meat and vegetables, stews, roasted peppers, feta cheese, and yoghurt.
  • Bulgaria is the cheapest of the European countries we’ve traveled to.  Last night we had a huge meal, 2 appetizers, 2 large and fancy meat entrees, and 4 beers for about $21.
Hot circular metal pan covered with grilled pork, onions, tomatoes, and yellow peppers.

Grilled meat with onions, tomatoes, and peppers


Impressions of Romania

June 6, 2012

• Romania appears less developed than the other countries we’ve been to in the European Union, including other former Communist countries Poland and Slovakia.

• It is common to see people driving horse drawn wagons in the countryside and smaller towns.  For many, this appears to be their primary form of transport.

• The roads in Romania are generally poor.  A lot of rural roads aren’t paved.  Even those that are can be bone jarring, resulting in average speeds of 40-60 km/hr.  Despite careful driving (don’t worry Sue and Martin), we had unwrapped eggs break while bouncing in the camper refrigerator door.

• Romania is the home of Transylvania and ‘Count Dracula’.  This should not be confused with Tasmania, an island off the south coast of Australia, and home of the Tasmanian Devil.

• Transylvania was settled by Saxons from Germany in the 12th Century, who accepted the invitation of King Geysa II of Hungary to come to Transylvania.  They established many of the major towns in the region.  There were over 700,000 Germans in Romania in 1930, but today there are less than 45,000 native German speakers.

• Romania tried to remain neutral in both of the world wars, but was coerced to side with the Allies in World War I and with the Axis (Germany, Italy, and Japan) in World War II.

• Nadia Comăneci was born in Romania, and won 3 Olympic gold medals in the 1976 Summer Olympics in Montreal.  She was the first female gymnast ever to be awarded a perfect score of 10 in an Olympic gymnastics event.

• Nicolai Ceauşescu was the leader of Romania from 1965 to 1989 when he was overthrown during the collapse of Communism.   He was tried in 2 hours and executed along with his wife on Christmas Day 1989.

• Praising the crimes of totalitarian regimes or denigrating their victims is forbidden by law in Romania.  This includes the Ceauşescu regime.

• Romanian houses are often painted in pastel colours of cream, yellow, peach, green, or blue.

Looking down a street with green, blue, and peach pastel houses.

Romanian houses painted in pastel colours

• Hitchhiking seems to be common here.  People on the roadside wave a straight arm up and down a couple of times then bend it to the thumb up position that we typically associate with hitching.  At first I thought they were indicating that we should slow down, but we don’t drive that fast.

• It is illegal to drive a dirty car in Romania.  This is hard to avoid when many roads aren’t paved.

• It is a legal requirement to wear a reflective safety vest when walking beside the road at night or in poor visibility.  This is not just for people whose cars have broken down (which is common elsewhere in Europe), but for everyone.

• There are a lot of stray or feral dogs in Romania, mostly street-smart mongrels about 8-14 inches (0.3 meters) high at the shoulder.  They are large enough to deliver a bite, but not big enough to really intimidate.

Sad mutt with grey and brown tones walking down the sidewalk

Feral Dog

• Romania has the largest wolf and bear population in Europe, but we didn’t see any.

• There seem to be a lot of short women here.  Many of the young woman are petite, but the older women dressed in traditional clothing look squat.

• The Romanian language is a romance language that is related to Italian, French, Spanish, and Portuguese.  As a result, it is easier for me to recognize some of the words than in Poland or Slovakia.

• It is common to see people selling things beside the road.  Cheap plastic children’s toys seem to be popular, as are craft and food items like leatherwork, preserves, and honey.  We saw several people selling stills by the road, large copper kettles with corkscrew condensing tubes attached.  Yes, the kind used to make hooch.


Impressions of Hungary

May 29, 2012
  • The Hungarian language is very different from those of its neighbouring countries which speak Slavic languages.  Hungarian is more closely related to Estonian and Finnish which share a common history from when the Huns invaded the region in around 500 CE.
  • The Kingdom of Hungary existed for 950 years before being absorbed into the Habsburg empire which later became the Austro-Hungarian Empire (1867-1918).
  • World War I was triggered when Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, heir apparent to the Austro-Hungarian throne and his wife Sophie were shot in Sarajevo by a Bosnian Serb assassin.
  • Hungary was on the losing side with Germany in both World Wars.  After World War I it lost two-thirds of its territory, including its only sea port and most of its population, to other countries.
  • After World War II the Soviet Union controlled Hungary, but not as strictly as in other Warsaw Pact countries.  Hungary’s soft ‘goulash-communism’ lasted until the fall of communism in 1989.
White building with many spires and a large dome beside the Danube River

Hungarian Parliament Building beside the Danube River

  • Hungary is better known for its wine than its beer.  The wine is of higher quality and is more popular.  When in Rome…
  • Hungary has some of the best food in Central/Eastern Europe.  It is famous for paprika (which is also the Hungarian word for pepper, pronounced here as ‘paw-prick-kaw) which infuses most of their food.  It is often classified as édes (sweet) or csípős (hot), but there are actually 8 different grades.  Hungarian specialties include stews, braised dishes, and soups including the famous gulyás (goulash).
  • Hungary is very good at water polo, winning gold in the last 3 Olympic games, and also in swimming (they are 4th in the all-time Olympic medal count).
  • Hungary has hundreds of small lakes and hot springs.  There are hot springs all over the capital of Budapest (pronounced ‘Boo-dah-pesht’).
  • Budapest is a beautiful conglomerate of 2 cities on opposite sides of the Danube river – Buda and Pest.  Buda is the hilly and more historic part, and Pest is flat and more modern.
Hill covered in many old buildings with church spire on top

Castle Hill in Buda


Impressions of Slovakia

May 28, 2012

We passed though Slovakia for our 2nd time. We were here last October briefly, visiting Bratislava for 1 day only.  Thankfully we had more time and better weather this visit. Here are some of the things I found interesting…

  • Slovakia is a narrow, landlocked country in Central Europe. It is surrounded by the Czech Republic, Austria, Poland, Ukraine, and Hungary.
  • For almost 1000 years, the region that became Slovakia was part of Hungary or the Austro-Hungarian empire. Slovakia then became part of Czechoslovakia, a union which took place after the World War I.
  • During World War II Slovakia separated again and was a fascist puppet state led by Jozef Tiso and controlled by the Nazis. The pre–World War II population of the country included an estimated 90,000 Jews. After the genocide only about 2,300 Jews remained. Tiso was the only European leader to pay the Nazi authorities to deport his country’s Jews.
  • After World War II, Czechoslovakia was reconstituted and was under the control of the Soviets. Jozef Tiso was hanged in 1947 for collaboration with the Nazis. As part of the many population transfers agreed to by the Allies, more than 80,000 Hungarians and 32,000 Germans were forced to leave Slovakia.
  • In 1989 the Velvet Revolution brought about the fall of communism in Czechoslovakia. Slovak nationalism was rekindled leading to the peaceful separation of Czechoslovakia into the Czech Republic and Slovakia on January 1, 1993 (known as the Velvet Divorce).
  • Slovakia has a varied geography with a lot of mountains. 20% of the land is protected in parks. The beautiful High Tatras, in the North of the country near Poland, are the smallest of the high mountain ranges in Europe.
Snow covered mountains reflected in lake with treed green shoreline
The High Tatras
  • We visited the capital city Bratislava last October. It was cold and drizzly and a Sunday, so everything was closed. The castle above the town was a recent reconstruction. I didn’t enjoy it much. It gets praise from many others though, so I’d like to give it another try some day.
Manhole cover with picture of castle and "Bratislava" surrounded by brown tile

Bratislava Manhole Cover

  • Bratislava is only 60 kilometers from Vienna, the capital of Austria.
  • Like its former partner the Czech Republic, Slovakia plays pretty good ice hockey at the international level. Slovakians are fanatical about it, which sounds like some other people I know…

Impressions of Poland

May 19, 2012

After crossing Germany, we spent time in the south of Poland, visiting a variety of places and driving almost the full width of the country.  Here are some of the things about Poland that I think are interesting:

  • The Republic of Poland is the largest of the previously communist countries in the European Union.  At 38 million it has about 5 million more people than Canada, but has much smaller area.
  • Due to the Nazi genocide and the forced relocations that took place after World War II, Poland is very uniform ethnically.  98% of the people are ethnic Poles.
  • We had thought that Poland would be very different from the countries of Central Europe.  It looks a bit rougher than eastern Germany, but differences weren’t as great as we had imagined.
  • The campgrounds in Poland are plentiful and nice.  They have free wi-fi and the one we stayed at in Krakow even had free washing machines.
  • The Polish language is harder to figure out than German, which seems to have more in common with English.  As a result, food shopping was more of a challenge.
  • In 1795 Poland ceased to exist.  It was partitioned between Prussia (controlled from Potsdam in today’s Germany), Russia, and Austria (controlled from Vienna).  It was not reconstituted until 1918 at the end of World War I, but then immediately had to defend itself from Russia under Lenin who had visions of spreading socialism across Europe and eventually the world.  After the 2nd World War, Russia installed a communist government in Poland, despite its promises to the Allies to hold free elections.  Along with Hungary, it was one of the least repressive of the Communist Bloc countries.
  • While we were there, Poland celebrated the anniversary of its constitution, initially established on May 3rd, 1791.  It was the first set of modern supreme national laws in Europe, and second only to the American Constitution of 1787, which is something the Poles take great pride in despite the fact that their current constitution dates from 1997.
  • Poland is the birth place of Chopin, Goethe, Marie Curie, and Pope John Paul II.
  • Marie Skłodowska-Curie (Marie Curie) was a Polish physicist and chemist born in Warsaw in 1867 who did pioneering research on radioactivity in France.  She was the first female professor at the University of Paris, and the first person to receive 2 Nobel Prizes.  She died in 1934 of aplastic anemia caused by her years of exposure to radiation.
  • Pope John Paul II is revered here.  He was born Charles Joseph Wojtyla in the Polish town of Wadowice in 1920.  He suffered various hardships as a child (his parents died young), during WWII (he narrowly avoided deportation and had to study for the seminary illegally), and under the communists.  Despite this, he learned to speak 9 or more languages, became a philosopher, and a thought leader in the Catholic Church.  He took the name ‘John Paul II’ in honour of his predecessor (John Paul I), who died only 33 days after becoming Pope.  John Paul II was generally accepting of Darwin’s Theory of Evolution regarding the human body, but believed that the human soul was created immediately by God.
  • In 1980 the independent trade union Solidarity, which opposed Soviet rule, was formed in the shipyards of Gdańsk, Poland’s largest sea port.  Despite attempts by the government to curtail it, it spread until its cofounder Lech Wałęsa won the national election in 1990, ending the period of communist rule in Poland and leading to the eventual demise of communist regimes across Europe.
  • Many women in Poland try to dress in Western style, but the quality of the clothes and their fashion sense sometimes results in them looking cheap.  A lot of young women (and some older ones) prefer short, tight skirts, revealing tops, and platform heels to the point that they look like prostitutes.
  • In 2011 Poland elected the first transsexual Member of Parliament in European history.  Italy elected the first transgendered MP.
  • Poland seems to have whole-heartedly embraced capitalism.  Many of the big European chains are here (e.g. Lidl, Carrefour, Ikea, Mediamarkt) and there is advertising everywhere.
  • Overall, we were pleasantly surprised by Poland.  Diane described it as a “diamond in the rough”, with lots of potential as it develops.