Monday, February 25, 2013

Pioneer Days Festival

We attended this festival at the Museum of South Texas History in Edinburg last Saturday.  Actually there was a larger fiesta going on in Edinburgh that same week-end, with a carnival and parade.  For some reason John thought that this smaller affair at the museum would be more interesting.  At this festival there were demonstrations on weaving, wood carving, corn husk doll making, and even how to rope a horse.  In the picture below several young cowboys are learning how to work the lasso.
All right, I can see my readers starting to yawn.  Wait, it does get better!  John found a booth where there was a lady very eager to teach him how to make a pinata.  She soon discovered that John was very interested in what she had to say.  In the picture below some of the pinatas which she has made are hanging behind her, one of which is a pinata celebrating the Day of the Dead.
While John was absorbing all the details which are involved in making in pinatas, I perused the written information available on the table regarding pinatas.  It is believed that the custom of swinging at the colorful boxes originated in China.  Marco Polo discovered the Chinese fashioning figures of cows and oxen and covering them with colored paper.  At their New Years celebrations the figures were knocked open and seeds spilled out.  The custom spread to Europe in the 14th century when it was adapted to Lenten  celebrations.  In Italian pignatta means "fragile pot" and clay containers were used.  In the 16th century Spanish missionaries to North America discovered the indigenous people using pinatas in a couple different ways.  They were used to celebrate the birthday of the Aztec god of war.  A clay pot was placed at the feet of an image of a god, when broken it spilled out treasures for him.  Mayans also hung a suspended clay pot, and the players of the sport, with their eyes covered, swung at it until it broke.  The missionaries adapted the sport to give the natives a religious lesson.  They filled the pinata with candies and fruit, it then was used to symbolize charity.  The stick for breaking the pinata symbolized virtue, and once it was broken the candies and fruit were the just reward for keeping the faith.  I abbreviated the religious lesson, there was much more to it than what I can cover here.  Anyway, my thinking on pinatas has certainly been broadened!
Outside of the museum there was a tent set up for musical performances.  There were cloggers from a nearby college and two Mexican ladies who did some tap dancing.  It was most impressive to also see them do their swirls and twirls with a glass of water on their heads!  I was certainly entertained at the festival, and especially enjoyed the Mexican and Native America flavor of it all.  To top everything off, a couple in their wedding regalia thought nothing of posing for pictures inside the museum, amid the throngs of people.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Gladys Porter Zoo, Part Two

Perhaps a large reason we enjoyed the Brownsville zoo, besides the fact that it has a large variety of animals, and birds on display, is the fact that it is a beautiful park.  On its 28 acres there are natural enclosures for the animals as large rocks and cave-like structures, and it also has  flowing streams and tumbling water-falls.  Not to also mention the fact Brownsville lies on sub-tropic land where there are tall swaying palms, blooming hibiscus and bougainvillea, as well as many desert shrubs and cacti.  Pictured below is a napping sun bear whose home is Southeast Asia. The picture should give you a small idea of the natural beauty of the zoo.
Our docents were quite eager to show us some of the endangered species which the zoo has.  Of the 350 species represented, nearly 50 are endangered.  The Arabian oryx is a tiny antelope who, in 1962, was discovered to be rapidly dying out.  Porter Zoo hopes to increase the herd and return it to Oman.  The animal was first mentioned in written history as the fabled unicorn.  A side view of the oryx does give the appearance of a single horn on its head.
I am misleading my readers a bit with the above picture.  Mama oryx does have one horn, she had to have it surgically removed.  In the African section of the zoo the gazelles and giraffe are penned together.  I could not pass up taking a picture of those two animals sizing each other up! 
In the Australian section of the zoo we saw a couple of mama kangaroos who had babies in their pouches. We noticed only a part of one of the joeys sticking out of his mother's pouch, unfortunately he had crawled in backwards and we could only see the feet.  Judging by the length of the feet, it was an older joey.  Our guides informed us that they get kicked out of the pouch by 8 months of age.  One of the most dangerous birds in the world can be found in New Guinea and Australia.  The bird, a cassowary, has been known to fatally injure New Guinea natives by kicking and slashing them with its dagger-like claws.  Mating can only be done when the female is in a peaceful mood.  She is generally about 5 feet tall and 125 pounds, the male is smaller.  He has the responsibility of incubating their eggs and rearing of the young.  I was fortunate that the bird came out from under his shade tree for me to get a picture.  My what big scarey claws he has!
 Our guided tour of the zoo lasted 3 hours, I don't believe the docent-led tours usually last that long, but our guides had a lot to share with us and we, in turn, had many questions.  It was one of the best tours we have ever taken of a zoo, and we felt that we had learned a lot.  There is so much more I could share with you about our time there, the zoo also has a wonderful free-flight neotropical aviary as well as a Macaw Canyon.  On our own we explored the herpetarium, as well as the butterfly and botanical gardens.

Gladys Porter Zoo, Brownsville, Texas

There is a lot to be seen in the town of Brownsville, we do hope to make at least one more trip there.  It is located about 60 miles south of McAllen.  Our main goal Thursday in traveling to Brownsville was to visit the zoo.   One resident of the zoo has been making the news lately, and she is the one who prompted us to make the trip there yesterday.  I am referring here to a female gorilla  born about nine weeks ago.  Apparently her mother did not have adequate maternal skills so the baby is being sent to the Cincinnati zoo on Friday where there is a surrogate mother available for her.  At the Porter zoo there is no lactating mom for her, but the greater issue is that her mom came from the Cincinnati zoo.  She was considered an outsider at the Porter zoo, and her baby would also be shunned by the female gorillas.
While at the zoo we stopped at the nursery were the baby gorilla was enjoying her morning bottle, in the above picture she is getting burped.  We were very fortunate that, shortly after we arrived at the zoo, a docent greeted us and encouraged us to take a tour of the zoo with him and his wife.  We informed him that we wanted to see the baby and it was one of the first stops on our tour.  We spent about 3 hours touring the zoo with the docents, and they made sure that we saw all of the highlights of the zoo.  The couple are Winter Texans from Canada and have been leading tours of the zoo for a couple of years now.  They were very informed regarding the different animals, even knew their given names.  The Tropical American and African sections of the zoo have a wide variety of orangutans, spider monkeys, gorillas, and chimpanzees.  Most of them were quite active while we were there, with young adult male gorilla's making their chest-thumping sounds, and mating calls.  We were also treated to the gymnastics of a female gibbon.
The spider monkeys have their own island with a moat around it.  From a distance they look quite human!
I was quite taken by the bright yellow hands of the golden handed tamarin monkey. He is from an area north of the Amazon River in Brazil and feeds mainly on fruit, seeds and insects.  I will have more pictures pertaining to the zoo in my next posting. I have so many to share with our readers as it was fairly easy to get close-up shots of many of the animals and birds as we toured the zoo. 

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Rio Grande Valley Music Festival

This just seems like a good day to get another posting out.  It is windy and overcast, and a bit chilly.  Thank goodness, however, that down here in the valley we can always count on the weather turning around for the better in another day or so!  John and I have certainly taken on a different life style in the past months since we have arrived here.  There are many social activities in the valley available for Winter Texans.  I joined a swimming aerobics class here in the park, and both John and I have joined a biking club.  I have mentioned before that we joined the Texas Chorus.  We had rehearsals and performances to attend for that in the past month.  We had our last concert, with the Winter Texas Orchestra, last evening here in the park.  I am sorry that it has come to an end.  Speaking of making music, we attended the Rio Grande Valley Music Festival yesterday.  Our sister-in-law Mary Jo has been attending many rehearsals for that.  Her Dulcimer Group had a couple of performances for the festival.  In that group there are about 22 mountain and hammer dulcimer players.  Their concert was very well done with some good toe-tapping music!    In the picture below Mary Jo can be seen on seen on the stage, she is the woman on the right with a bright pink blouse.
It was a two day festival and there was a small admission charge.  All the performers donated their time for the performances.  Money raised from the festival was given to local school groups for their music programs.
Pictured above are a couple of dancers from the Folkloric dance troupe, from Edinberg, Texas.  They receive grants from the festival to pay for their costumes and other expenses.  There were also other dance groups performing at the festival.  I was surprised to see a Mexican May Pole dance, as I thought that custom was totally European.
 One final sad note here.  Our cat KC passed on Wednesday.  He had not been eating as per his usual, and also sleeping a lot.  His back legs were giving out on him.  Strangely enough, with those weak legs of his, he had been recently attempting to slip out the door when we had it open.  He had not shown any interest toward doing that in a long time!  Also, on the last day of his life he walked toward the door again, as if he wanted to get out.  He probably wanted to die in some place other than his home.  Just before he died he dragged his body to his litter box, and I wondered why he did that, as weak as he was during his last hours.  His dying gasps were in the litter box, strangely enough.  John found a spot in the park's storage lot to bury him.  We thought of taking his ashes back with us to Missouri where KC was born, but here in the valley he will have many sunny days.  He always liked to take his naps where the sun would be shining the brightest in our home.  It will take a long time for me to get use to not having our wonderful cat around!

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Dolphin Boat Tour

As I said in my last posting, we did see many dolphins on our boat ride from the Bazos Santiago Harbor to the Gulf of Mexico.  However, they were diving up and out of the sea so rapidly there was no possibility I could get a picture of them.  Also, we may see them come up out of the water, or at least show their fins, but there was no guarantee that where we saw them last was where they were going to come out of the water again!  They may travel a distance under the water before they surface again.  Shortly after starting our trip out on the water a deck hand dropped a net into the sea with the purpose of showing us some of the creatures of the deep.  That was about as fascinating for me as watching the dolphins.  His net brought in puffer and inkfish, as well as flounder, a variety of snails, one spider, one white shrimp and many starfish.  The deck hand who talked to us about the different fish seemed very knowledgeable about them, he said that prior to his present job he had been a fisherman for 20 years.

My sister Julia was brave enough to hold one of the pufferfish, which is also know as "blowfish".  It puffed up with air the minute it was picked up out of the tub into which it and the other fish had been placed into.  Pufferfish have an extremely elastic stomach which can be filled with either water or air as a deterrent to any predator who may entertain the idea of consuming the inflated fish.  Pufferfish are used in making sushi, however, parts of its body are poisonous.  Chefs who prepare the delicacy have to know how to prepare the fish for human consumption.  When placed back into the water the pufferfish could only lay on its side until it deflated, then it flipped over and swam away, blowing bubbles out of its mouth in the process.  What a fascinating fish!
Another interesting creature, which our guide showed us, was the inkfish.  It is actually not a fish, but a cephalopod or invertebrate; the one he showed us is one of 800 species, which include the squid and octopus.  The crew mate squeezed the ink sac of the fish to show us how it expels the colored liquid to confuse its predators.  Another fish which we looked at closely was the flounder.  It is a flat fish which usually lies on the bottom of the ocean floor.  It has eyes which migrate to different parts of its head as it changes from larval to juvenile stage.  As it lies on the ocean floor its eyes are on the side which faces up. 
We also examined several starfish closely. They have an eye spot on each of its arms.  If injured the arms grow back.  Its many tube feet are very tiny and filled with sea water, which allow the fish to move about on the ocean floor.  Both sides of the starfish can be seen in the picture below.
Later in the day, after our boat trip, we crossed the causeway over to Padre Island.  We did get some beach walking done.  We were going to have supper in Port Isabel, but the traffic on the causeway was so jammed up because of construction. It seemed a more expedient to find a restaurant on the island.  That turned out to be an excellent idea because we found a place to eat overlooking the harbor, and we had more dolphins to watch as they were cavorting in and out of the water.  What a perfect ending to our day!

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Port Isabel, Texas

Since we are located fairly close to the Gulf of Mexico, we have been anxious to get in some beach time.  However, since we knew that my sister Julia also enjoys the beach a lot, we waited until she visited us before driving over to South Padre Island.  Unfortunately, Saturday was not the best of days for such a trip.  It started out overcast, but still fairly warm.  While waiting to board a dolphin boat we did experience a brief shower.  In the long run, however, we had a great day.  The dolphin docks are at the base of the Queen Isabel Causeway, which links the town of Port Isabel to South Padre Island.  In the former town is Old Point Isabel Lighthouse, and it was at the top of that lighthouse where I took a picture of the causeway and harbor.
Old Point Isabel Lighthouse has been a well-known landmark since it was built in1852 on the grounds of a military depot.  It has survived war damage, coastal storms and years of abandonment.  It was a strategic prize for Confederate and Federal Troops during the Civil War.  Its light once projected 15 miles out into the Bazos Santiago Harbor.  That light was extinguished during the Civil War, as well as from 1885-95.  Its usefulness was forever ended in 1905.  The white house in the foreground of the picture above was once the home of the lighthouse keeper.
As I mentioned earlier in this posting, while in Port Isabel we took a dolphin boat tour.  While we were waiting at the Dolphin Docks for our boat to come in, a deep sea fishing boat arrived.  One of its passengers emptied her bucket of fish on a wooden table, which is provided on the docks to clean fish.  The brown pelicans and sea gulls seemed to know what was going to happen next!  We witnessed quite a feeding frenzy when the lady threw her fish scraps into the harbor.  I will write about our dolphin boat tour in my next posting.  We were fortunate to see many dolphins on that boat ride.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Nuevo Progreso, Mexico

My sister Julia flew into McAllen on Thursday and, after dropping her luggage off at our home, we headed to Mexico for an afternoon of shopping.  For John and I it was our first foray into Mexico since we have arrived in the valley.  There is not too much for Winter Texans over the border, unless one is in need of some cheap dental work or medicine.  However, shopping and dining in the restaurants does provide some entertainment and fun.  In the past John and I usually went to the town Reynosa, but recently we had been warned to stay away from that town because it is not safe.  Maybe we should have questioned that by first checking with our friend from Our Savior Lutheran, who daily drives to work in Reynosa.   But Nuevo Progreso, a small town located close to Reynosa, would serve our purpose well because we just wanted to get a little shopping done and enjoy an authentic Mexican meal with a margarita or two!
Just as the margarita drink is very Mexican, so also are pinatas and tequila, pictured above.   Most tourists in Mexico may not usually purchase pinatas, but many of them are there for the tequila, and other cheap liquor buys (however, there is a hefty state tax on liquor upon crossing the border).  Pure vanilla is another popular purchase for tourists, in Mexico it is not as expensive as in the states.  It comes in rather large bottles, so unless one bakes a lot, one bottle can last a lifetime for Winter Texans!  There are also plenty other items as jewelry, handmade Mexican blankets, baskets, and purses for sale.  What is amazing to me is how low they will come down in the prices they charge, if one is willing to haggle with them long enough.  I am usually reluctant to do that, however, considering the level of poverty in Mexico.  There is also a certain amount of begging which is done outside of the stores, but usually the Mexicans have something to offer in return, as small pieces of gum.   Just as we were walking out of town and heading for the border several children ran toward us.  John was not moving fast enough so they surrounded him, hoping he would purchase the gum they had for sale.  He was so kind to oblige.  A nickel or dime, even a quarter, is a lot of money to them.

Friday, February 1, 2013

San Juan and Weslaco, Texas

Our only stop in San Juan Thursday was at the Basilica of our Lady of San Juan del Valle National Shrine.  The history of this shrine goes back to the time of the Spanish conquest of Mexico.  Spanish missionaries placed a small image of the Immaculate Conception in the church of San Juan de los Largus,Mexico.  A miracle of healing happened later at that shrine in 1623, and devotion to Our Lady grew throughout Mexico.  In 1942 a priest serving in San Juan, Texas was convinced that fostering a devotion to our Lady of San Juan would benefit the people of the town and draw the community together.  The first church/shrine was built in the 1950s, but 16 years later was burned down by a small low-flying airplane.  A new church was built in 1976, and it was later designated Our Lady of San Juan del Valle national shrine.  In 1999 Pope John Paul named it as a minor basilica.  Today the church is one of the most visited shrines in the United States.
While at the shrine we learned that there was going to be a mariachi festival the next day at the basilica.  We returned Friday evening for that event, unfortunately because we were trying to locate the wild parrots of Weslaco ( we were told at the Valley Nature Center that they can be found in various places in the town at sunset, but we had no luck with that venture), we were late to the festival and every one of the 2,030 seats in the basilica were taken.  Ushers were kind enough to find some folding chairs for us, and we were treated to some fantastic mariachi music.  The basilica has its own band, and, after they played a few selections, other mariachi bands from one middle school and several local high schools played.  All of those high school bands have received awards in both state and national competitions.  At the end of the evening all the bands gathered in front of the basilica's altar to play a couple of musical selections together.
 I have gotten a bit side- tracked here.  My original intention in this posting was to write about our trip to the Valley Nature Center,  which we visited on Thursday, after our first trip to the shrine in San Juan.  We got there in the early afternoon, and it was not a good time for seeing birds or any wildlife.  But  I did find something very interesting while walking through that park.  I happened to look down at the ground and see moving blades of grass.  The blades were being carried by leaf cutter ants to their nest.
Look carefully under each leaf and you will find an ant!  Consider a 200 pound man lifting a car weighing 2,000 pounds, that should give you an idea of the burden of the ants.   I did some research on them and learned that there are 47 different species of them.  They can be found in South, Central America, Mexico and southern parts of the United States.  Leaf cutter ants cut off leaves of plants with their strong mandibles and carry them to their nest. There they chew them up, mix that pulp with their feces and fungus spores for their food.  John and I followed a line of those leaf- toting ants for about a 100 feet,  their trail ended at two different holes in the ground.  Watching those ants made our trip to the nature center very worthwhile!