Barbeques, bayous, and a…

A trip to Texas and New Orleans

It was our first time going to this part of the States, and we were full of anticipation and excitement. Much of our reason for going was to experience something unique and not have to go too far. We’d been to cities on the East and West Coast, and anything too far North was too much of an ice box to be enjoyable, and so we narrowed our focus to Texas and New Orleans. Prior to going, we did a good amount of homework regarding possible points of interest, but it wasn’t until we arrived that we discovered – for better or for worse – that no amount of research could’ve replaced the experience we had.

Austin

Our first stop was Austin, a decision driven mainly by the fact that it was close enough to attractions near San Antonio, and that it was cheaper to fly to. When we landed, our surroundings at the airport seemed to confirm that it was a great decision because there appeared to be nothing for miles. See, we’d flown Frontier Airlines and apparently they don’t park at the main North Terminal of the airport. Instead, we got off the plane at the South Terminal and it was the most hick airport terminal I’d ever set foot in. The “terminal” was literally one building the size of a small school. It took around 40 steps from when I entered the building to when I exited on the other side to the public road. Getting to car rental building also took 15 minutes, which was actually just the time it took to drive us back to the main terminal of the airport.

We didn’t have a chance to take pictures of the terminal before we lift, but here’s a satellite image. Note the scale on the bottom right, and the size of the whole building relative to the size of a car.

The first real adventure began shortly after we picked up the car. About 10 minutes after we left the rental company, we discovered that there was no manual in the glove box, or anywhere inside the car. While not having a manual is not a big deal, we were worried that the car registration, which in California is usually tucked into the pouch holding all the car info, was also missing. No registration meant we’d run into trouble if we ever got pulled over. But why would there not be registration, and who would take it? Well, the latter part of that question was rhetorical, because I had once decided it was a good idea to keep the registration slip from a rental car in my wallet. And of course, I forgot to return the slip until a few days after I returned the car, so somebody was likely driving that car without registration. Slight panic ensued, and we called the company twice to figure out the best thing to do, to which they advised that we should just return to the nearest agency. Luckily, right before we went, we decided to find out what the registration looked like, and a quick search told us that the registration is just a sticker on the windshield, which we had. Good thing we didn’t actually go back, as that would’ve been a bit awkward…but Texas… why do you have to be different -_-

Having worked out our legal issues, we drove to the Texas Capitol. By the time we arrived, it was already dark, and we weren’t able to see the campus and statues as clearly as we would’ve had we arrived earlier. Nonetheless, the architecture and environment were beautiful, and looked just as nice as it did in the pictures we saw prior to going. We went inside, and stopped for a couple of pictures before heading to our next stop – FOOD!

Texas Capitol

A 15 minute walk from the Capitol is a BBQ restaurant called Cooper’s Old Time Pit Bar-B-Que Austin. We’d been pretty stoked to try out Texas BBQ, and this place was exactly how we envisioned it to be like. The main attractions were the beef brisket, ribs, and sausage, sold by the pound. This restaurant operated more like a food court, where you’d bring a tray, order what you wanted, and sit down at one of the long benches. Plates were simply thick pieces of paper, coated so that sauces wouldn’t soak through. We ordered half a pound each of their brisket, pork ribs, and sausage, a baked potato, and 2 giant pickles. The brisket tasted by far the best in our opinion, with its simply seasoned and smoked flavor, as well as a soft tender texture that we’d never experienced eating beef in the past. The ribs and sausage were also great, but were a bit more commonplace as they weren’t things were couldn’t get back at home. Overall, the meal was pretty good and reasonably priced. Our only wish was that there were more vegetables and bland foods to go with the meat, as the high salt content in the meat made it less appetizing the more we ate.

Dinner at Cooper’s Old Time Pit Bar-B-Que Austin.

We had a full day of activities in the San Antonio region the next day, and so we got up before 7, ate a breakfast comprised of snacks we brought with us and leftovers from the BBQ, and made our way down South to the Natural Bridge Wildlife Ranch. Having gone to a few zoos in various places around North America and being overall not impressed, this was a place where we marked as optional and almost ended up not going. Luckily, we decided not to skip it, because it was one of the more unique experiences we’d had for a long time. The Wildlife Ranch is a large safari, home to many non-predatory African animals, such as gazels, zebras, ostriches, and antelopes. You pay at the gate for the headcount in your car and are given a bag of feed for the animals. Afterwards you drive in following a predetermined trail and can get up close with all the animals roaming freely in the area. Exiting the vehicle is prohibited, but we rolled down the windows and in many cases, the animals would stick their heads in to the car and our faces would be just a few inches from theirs. In general, most of the animals were reasonably docile and would slowly approach our car and wait patiently to see whether they’d get any treats. That said, we also didn’t take any chances with some of the larger animals which had the horns and the power to likely trigger an airbag with a moderate headbutt. Of particular interest were the ostriches and the zebras – one ostrich pecked our car and the zebras would flap their lips at us. Fortunately, the ostriches didn’t have a hard enough beak to scratch or dent the car, and the zebras didn’t spit…

A gazelle?
A zebra!

Another rather amusing part of the safari park was the monkey cage in the Walk-a-Bout area. Even before we got close to the area, we’d started to hear a lot of “WOO-WOO-WOO” sounds, a slightly higher pitched version the mating calls of drunken young men. The sounds were so loud that we thought there were a group of people fooling around. Upon arrival however, we discovered, to our pleasant surprise, that there was a large cage in which a couple of monkeys were swinging around and yelling at the tops of their lungs. The monkeys were great to watch because they were so active and energetic. In fact, these were probably the most lively group of monkeys we’d seen anywhere in North America. Zoos around the country should really learn a thing or two from this safari park; monkeys are supposed to be playful and naughty – no one should have to pay to only see monkeys sitting around picking fleas off of each other.

Our next destination was the Natural Bridge Caverns, which was right next to the safari ranch. We did the Discovery Tour, which was a 75 minute walk down 180ft below ground through a cave with natural rock formations. We got to see Stalagmites, Stalagtites, “soda straws”, “fried eggs”, old bat poo, and many different large rock formations that resembled statues, thrones, chandeliers, and whatever else one’s imagination can create. The environment in the cavern was relatively damp and warm, and in some areas slippery due to the excessive water. Overall, the tour was interesting and informative, but this is probably a type of place where we wouldn’t go to too many times in our lives.

Rock formations in the Natural Bridge Caverns

San Antonio

After leaving the Natural Bridge park area, we drove straight to San Antonio for lunch and ended up at Rosario’s, a local favorite and hands down the best Mexican food I’d ever tasted. We ordered the fish tacos and the Pollo a la Maria, which is charbroiled chicken breast in a cilantro pumpkin seed pesto. The portions were sizeable and the taste was spot on, with the meat being tender and savory and nothing overly seasoned. A fresh hot basket of corn chips also came with our meal, which was a nice bonus. For under $30 out the door, this is definitely a place we’d recommend to anyone visiting San Antonio.

Our meal at Rosario’s

We had 2 more destinations in mind for that day – San Antonio’s famed Riverwalk and the Alamo, both of which were within walking distance of each. So, we drove up to try to find parking and discovered the the whole area was crowded, and parking costed around $20 even at the shopping center, which was a bit absurd, so we decided to drop our stuff and car off at our hotel located around a mile away from all the attractions. We’d booked a room at a Motel 6 in the approximate area, thinking that we’d be out late that night and the area was “basically the Riverwalk”, which meant the environment would be nice and lively. The Motel 6 was on a street running parallel to and west of an elevated highway, whereas the attractions were on the other side of the highway. Apparently, this highway separated the right side of town from the wrong side of town. When we arrived, we saw 2 emergency vehicles at the end of a small road and a group of people standing around them. At another area, we could also see a bunch of people sitting around doing nothing.

The motel room that we were in appeared to be huge when we first walked in. However, we discovered very soon that it was just because there was almost nothing in it. Usual amenities, even for a motel, that we were accustomed to such as: hair dryer, coffee machine, glass cups, alarm clock, and even shampoo/conditioner, were not present. We didn’t search, but I don’t recall even seeing a bible there. The bed, table, and one of the seats were bolted to the wall. The door separating the bathroom and the sleeping area was a 2-part door that didn’t close properly, and legitimately appeared as though someone stole the original door and the motel decided to jerry rig something in its place with whatever scrap was lying around. Most humerous of all of this was the fact that when we went to the front office at around 7pm, the front door was already locked, and any transaction was dealt under one of those windows you see at banks where parties exchanged objects under a trench cut into the counter. We asked to borrow a hair dryer and had to leave on of our drivers licenses with them. Now, this was not the first time I’d stayed at a Motel 6, and my prior stays were more like any other lower cost hotels. This Motel 6, however, really speaks to the area in which it’s located.

After checking in and dropping our luggage off, we went over to the touristy area and made our first stop at the Alamo. The Alamo is a historical fort built by Roman Catholic missionaries in the 18th century and occupied by Spaniards to educate Native Americans. The main entrance of it faces a large street and inside the compound were other smaller buildings in which exhibits of contemporary Spanish weapons, uniforms, and other daily life products were displayed. We went to the Alamo because it’s free to visit and also rated very highly by many visitors. However, it was overall not enjoyable for us. Perhaps it’s that the attraction was a lot smaller than we’d expected, or that there were too many people, or even that we weren’t that interested in seeing displays of uniforms and muskets. In my opinion, putting the historical artifacts in glass display cases defeats the purpose of having the exhibits in the fort; one might as well have put these display cases inside a contemporary building. Unless you’re into seeing the specific items that the Spanish missionaries used back in the day or if you have extra time and nowhere else to check out, it’s not a place we’d recommend.

The Alamo

The Riverwalk was not as lackluster, but it was also not as beautiful and exciting as we’d expected prior to arriving. The main reason is that the river felt too narrow and artificial, and the streets along the river felt too cluttered. The Riverwalk was created by digging a bypass on the San Antonio River so that it flowed around a man-made island consisting of an area the size of a couple of blocks. Stores and restaurants lined both sides of the bypass, and there are bridges every couple hundred feet for people to cross to the other side. There are also boats that give tours on this small stretch of water for $10. Overall, there was a good variety of reasonably priced restaurants, bars, and lighting that made the Riverwalk area very lively. At certain locations on bridges, it was also possible to get some nice views of the river and the energy of everything happening below. The overall experience was enjoyable.

San Antonio Riverwalk

That having been said, the Riverwalk just didn’t have the caliber that would make it an attraction we’d recommend someone to go into San Antonio to experience. The San Antonio River itself, at only ~50ft wide in the Riverwalk area, is way too narrow and hardly qualifies as a river compared to most of the other cities in North America and Asia that we’ve visited that have rivers. The tour boats also resembled the bottom half of an enlarged SPAM can. Keep in mind that San Antonio is advertised as one of the top go-to places in Texas because of its Riverwalk, which is also one of the reasons why we decided to stay a night there. Unfortunately, we learned the hard way that “Objects in pictures promoting areas with a significant number of businesses are often more embellished than they appear”. Also, next time I visit an area that has a river as part of its attraction, I’ll need to remember to check the scale on Google maps.

The next day, we visited Mission San Jose and Brackenridge Park in the morning. Mission San Jose was home to the largest Colonial Mission in Texas and the main church is still in use today. We saw a well preserved historical relic that consisted of a large walled off central park area that had the Mission at one end of it. The walled areas doubled as living quarters for the Native Americans at the time. There were wells and stone ovens that remained in their original locations, as well as some exhibits where common household items were placed into the living quarters to demonstrate how the occupants lived back in the day. Given what we’d seen at the Alamo the previous day and the fact that there were even fewer reviews, we thought that we’d be spending only around 10-15 minutes max at Mission San Jose. Upon arrival however, we were pleasantly surprised, and the visit ended up being a lot more worthwhile than the Alamo. If you ever find yourself in the San Antonio area without enough time and want to see something unique, go to Mission San Jose instead of the Alamo/Riverwalk area.

Mission San Jose

Our visit to Brackenridge Park was driven mainly by our desire to kill some time before getting lunch and driving to Houston. The park is likely frequented by locals more so than tourists, as we didn’t see any any advertisements for it during our search and the park didn’t have the usual amenities that catered to tourists. In this park was a zoo, a golf course, and a tea garden among other things. The San Antonio River also runs through this park. Overall, we found this unadvertised park very pleasant. We walked around, jumped over some steps that allowed us to cross a narrow section of the river, climbed a tree, and took some pictures. Nothing particularly stands out, but nothing made it uncomfortable either – just simple elegance.

San Antonio River running through Brackenridge Park.

We headed over to Smoke Shack BBQ for lunch, again following online recommendations that this is the spot for authentic Texan BBQ enjoyed by locals and tourists alike. Having eaten BBQ once Austin already, we targeted only the brisket and wanted to compare how it tasted relative to another famous spot. Furthermore, we came prepared with other foods and vegetables to eat along with the salty meat. Half a pound of brisket between the two of us, and a cup of cherry tomatoes, some orange juice, and Oreos for dessert in eaten in the back seat of our car (because we didn’t want to wait for a table inside) was one of the best meals we had on our trip. The super tender brisket melted in our mouths and eating it with other non-salty foods made the meal taste consistently good until the end. Like Cooper’s in Austin, Smoke Shack was another highlight of our trip and a solid recommendation for anyone who finds him/herself in San Antonio.

Smoke Shack BBQ meal in the back of our car

Our final evaluation of San Antonio is a bit mixed. The food was great, and some of the attractions were fun, but how long someone should spend in the area is up for debate. Natural Bridge Park just outside of San Antonio is definitely worth going to, but there’s nothing else in San Antonio would make me feel like I missed out if I didn’t go, now that I know what all the attractions are like. If I were to advise my friends for this part of the trip, I would tell them to go to the safari ranch and caverns in the morning, eat lunch in San Antonio, skip the Alamo, spend ~1h in the Riverwalk, spend ~45m at Mission San Jose, and then drive to Houston, with a plan to arrive at around dinner time.

Houston

I’ll start this section by noting that Houston was the highlight of our trip. We drove for a little over 3 hours to get to our Airbnb in Houston. From the moment we entered Houston, we began to like the city.

Driving into Houston

Houston looks and feels like a metropolis. The highways are huge, with sections that go up to 8 lanes wide. There are highway interchanges everywhere, groups of tall buildings in areas other than downtown, and stores lined along the highway that one can reach immediately after getting off the highway. We’re not sure how traffic is usually in Houston, but we were driving on a major highway during rush hour on a normal weekday, and both directions were moving at a reasonable pace. Houston gave an impression of energy and livelihood, while at the same time not appearing grungy and unkempt. Overall, the city also felt more unified than some of the places in the US where many small cities make up a larger entity. A good example would be the Bay Area in California, where the same amount of land as occupied by Houston would include 5-6 “cities”.

The night we arrived in Houston, we drove to Rice University and visited their Twilight Epiphany structure. It was already fully dark by the time we got there, so we missed the hour when it was optimal for viewing and the light show that went with the sunset. Nonetheless, it was still extremely beautiful, with its beige roof projecting a calm light gradient on the well kept grass slope below. The structure was in the middle of a large open patch of grass, which allowed for an unobstructed view when standing at any angle. The several tall buildings that are a part of the Hermann medical center further away in the background juxtaposed with Twilight Epiphany demonstrated the calm in the activeness of Houston that we would come to love.

Twilight Epiphany – Rice University

That same night, we made a rather notable – at least for us – trip to a Kroger. Everything in the store was what we were used to, except the security guard. From a first glance, he didn’t look any different from what we were used to seeing, but as soon as we saw his waist, we didn’t know whether to laugh or be scared. This guy had at least 2 hand guns, one on the side of his right hip and the other in front of his left hip. In addition to that, he had 2 extra magazines below his belly. On the backside of his waist, he had 2 pairs of handcuffs. Keep in mind that this is for a grocery store, with really nothing of very high value to steal. Yet this guy had the firepower to get into a major firefight. However, we weren’t sure whether it’d do him much good in a real dangerous situation, as he looked like he had some major back pains and was hobbling place to place. Either way, this security guard reinforces the stereotype of Texas, where so many people carry guns that to set yourself apart from the general populus, you’d better have even more guns.

The next morning, we drove straight to the main attraction for our stay in Houston – the Johnson Space Center, which is famed for its large astronaut training facilities, space R&D center, and “Houston, we have a problem”. Both of us were interested in space-related history and technology, and so getting to see the real Saturn V rocket, Apollo landing and control modules, and the space shuttle was really cool.

Johnson Space Centre

As soon as we arrived, we headed over to the building in which the rocket was kept. The exhibit was great because it broke down the different stages of the rocket as well as the engines and put them in locations for close-up viewing. The hardware still looked very clean and well kept, and we were amazed to see the scale of this rocket.

Saturn V rocket – 1st and 2nd stages. Our attempts to capture all stages at once from inside the warehouse were futile.

Afterwards, we waited in line to get driven to the training facility, where astronauts would be educated on and practice the procedures for tasks in space. The line for the shuttle going between the facilities was incomprehensibly long. We waited around 1h to get driven the distance of a 20m walk. The only good part of this wait was that it wasn’t super hot, as it would’ve been if we were visiting in the summer.

The training facility itself was cool, as we got to see a bunch of interesting modules and hardware, as well as the Orion spacecraft, which is supposed to carry astronauts for lunar and martian missions in the future. Unfortunately, the tour lasted only around 15 minutes, much of which was spent just taking photos of the facilities from far away. I’d hoped to get a closer look at ground zero, especially after waiting in line for so long.

Astronaut training facility. The Orion pod is seen on the right.

After leaving the training facility, we headed back to the main building and went to the Independence Plaza to see inside the space shuttle mounted on a Boeing 747.

Climbing the stair structure to enter the shuttle

The Space Shuttle Independence is only a full replica of a real space shuttle, but it was nonetheless very enlightening to learn what the inside of the shuttle looked like. We saw a satellite motor cradle and the Canadarm, which was used for mechanical tasks and positioning astronauts during space walks. Inside the shuttle was also a lot more spacious and empty than I had imagined, with no control panels or storage areas for much of the volume. Lockers, the toilet, and all control related aspects were at the front of the shuttle.

Inside the Space Shuttle Independence

The space center also had a wide variety of other smaller exhibits dedicated to educating viewers about space history, as well as a theater, which we checked out afterwards.

Moon rock display
Apollo 17 command module

Our third and final day in Houston was spent going around the city and visiting local attractions. We went to Hermann Park, an urban park right next to Rice University, in the morning and found it to be one of the nicest urban parks we’d seen so far in the US. The main entrance to the park is located directly behind a large roundabout whose center had a huge fountain. As soon as we entered the park, we had a beautiful view of the Sam Houston statue, behind which lay a large reflection pool and a memorial obelisk. Large open areas grassy areas are mixed in with lush greenery, a lake, and several different museums. Further into the park was a large children’s play area and zoo that was closed the day we visited.

Statue of Sam Houston at the main entrance to the park
Mary Gibbs and Jesse H. Jones Reflection Pool

At the Southwest entrance to the park is the Texas Medical Center, a huge cluster of buildings that made up many disciplines of medical sciences and included a medical school, a nursing school, hospitals, and numerous research centers. Despite the medical center not having any special qualities, it is modern and clean, and its proximity to Rice University and Hermann park made the entire area feel complete.

Our afternoon was spent at the Buffalo Bayou Park, the first of the two Bayous we would visit on our trip. A bayou is a marshy offshoot from a lake or river. The Buffalo Bayou just looked like a small river at the bottom of a valley running through a large stretch of the city, big enough for a few canoes or kayaks but not a larger boat. The park itself was nothing special, but it had various nice areas for different activities, such as a basketball court, a large dog park that separated small and large dogs, a bridge for bat-watching in the summer, and other stretches that were just comfortable to stroll through. Residential low and high-rises were on either side of the bayou and a reminder that we were in a city; at the same time, their presence next to the park made the park feel like an calm oasis.

A clear view of downtown Houston from a bridge crossing the bayou
A fountain in the bayou park

After we left Buffalo Bayou Park, we made our way to the airport for our next adventure in New Orleans, Lousiana!

NOLA

Our first impression of NOLA was that it had a really nice airport, well lit with many open spaces. It also had the nicest bathroom we’d ever seen in any airport. Anyways, we landed in the evening and took a Lyft straight to our AirBnb reservation. It was a nice room on top of a pizza restaurant ~1.5mi South of the French Quarter on St. Charles St. There wasn’t much else to do at that time because we didn’t drink or party, so we just got dinner and ended our day.

The next morning, we ate a simple breakfast and walked straight to the French Quarter to experience what NOLA was famous for. Our first stop was Café du Monde, the most iconic Café in NOLA, famous for its Beignets and Café au Lait. Beignets are French style doughnuts, fried and covered with powdered sugar. Unfortunately, we went during the peak time and ended up waiting in line for over an hour. And while the beignets tasted decent, they really weren’t worth the wait, as there are many places with similar offerings that tasted just as good. When we finally got to the counter, we discovered that basically all the employees were Asian and it was cash only. With all the clamour about this place being an iconic French Café, it sure felt like a bakery in Chinatown -_- Coincidentally, there’s a fried egg puff dessert from Hong Kong that tastes exactly like a beignet and looks quite similar as well. I’m sure the beignet came first and Café du Monde is authentic, but nonetheless, my point is that the food is readily accessible in many other places, and we also didn’t get the French vibe that the internet gave.

On a side note, there’s a Café du Monde at the NOLA airport, and it has no line. We recommend travelers to just get it there and save themselves the wait.

Beignets
Hong Kong style fried egg puff pastry – yeah they don’t look the same as the beignets, but part of that is just the shape and the fry time

That afternoon, we headed back down South to the Garden District, where we saw many different extravagant looking mansions. While there were similarities in their architectural styles, most of these mansions had their own unique designs and artistic patterns. Being in the Garden District gave the impression that we’d time traveled back 200 years to a place where the rich lived in the contemporary standard for luxury. I liked this area more so than the French Quarter because of its quiet and clean environment that allows one to stop and contemplate in peace. I’ve also never seen such a dense grouping of unique and historical architecture in one place.

An example of a mansion in the Garden District

In the evening, we made our way back up to the French Quarter for dinner at Acme Oyster House, a place famous for its char-grilled oysters and various other seafood dishes. Acme is a super popular place, and the lines for lunch and dinner would often reach 1.5h long. Luckly, we arrived relatively early and waited only around 40 minutes to get inside. We got a half dozen char-grilled oysters and the New Orleans Medley. The medley was especially appealing because it contained a small amount of most of the food that NOLA is famous for, such as gumbo, jambalaya, red beans & rice and grilled smoked sausage. The food was good, but like Café du Monde, it was not worth the wait, especially for us, because we’re less into “ambience” than we are into food. The char-grilled oysters were also not as good as we feel they could’ve been. Because they’re so popular, they get churned out with more attention to efficiency than quality, so some of them had a little too much char and not quite enough oyster. The medley was pretty really good though. Now if only they had live jazz as well.

New Orleans Medley
ACME chargrilled oysters

The second full day of our stay in NOLA was spent mostly at the National WWII museum, which had the reputation for being one of the best museums in the US. The museum comprised of exhibits and images arranged in a fashion that encouraged visitors to go through in order. With each exhibit also came descriptions that told of the historical significance of what was being shown. There were also many booths in which visitors could view short videos. Essentially, someone who had no prior knowledge of the details of WWII can go through, read all the descriptions, and come out able to take part in an informed conversation about the general flow of events. There was also a cool little activity which involved getting a dog-tag of a WWII soldier and going through the museum to follow the soldier’s journey. Another add-on activity that we participated in was the Final Mission: USS Tang Submarine Experience, which involved visitors engaging in various roles aboard the most successful submarine in WWII.

D-Day landing craft inside the entrance to the museum

It was a nice museum for the price and had a lot to see, including many things I’d never seen before, such as the real weapons used by the US, Germans, and the Japanese during the war. However, there were also aspects that we didn’t like so much.

For one, there were too many people. Especially in exhibits that walked through the history of the European and Pacific campaigns, one should have the time to read the descriptions, absorb the content, and then move to the next exhibit. Instead, the experience was just a very slow walk through a tight area. Too fast to enjoy all the exhibits, but too slow to get a glance, take some pictures, and leave for the next one.

Another aspect that I felt could be improved was the number of larger exhibits. I arrived at the museum expecting to see many displays of larger machinery, jeeps, anti-air cannons, and especially tanks. To my dismay, there wasn’t a single tank! Compare this to the flight museum in Seattle, which had so many different planes that I’d had a hard time finishing my tour in 3 hours. It’s not like the WWII museum didn’t have the space for larger displays, but unfortunately, it just wasn’t the focus.

Finally, the USS Tang mission was a load of bull, to put things nicely. We were just inside a dark room that was modeled like the inside of a submarine and there was a large screen on the ceiling that showed what the periscope of the vessel would’ve been seeing. Each visitor was given a role to fulfill, but nothing that we were doing mattered, and it just felt like we were pretending to be soldiers while watching a short movie. It was on par with a lame movie you’d wait in line to see at Disney. The concept is fine, but the execution can be drastically improved – at least put the people into a vessel that shakes. Our advice to anyone considering this exhibit is to just save the $7 and maybe watch the movie exhibit, or spend it on lunch instead.

Anti-aircraft gun
One of the weapon exhibits, with simple descriptions of each item
Aircraft on display in the Boeing Freedom Pavilion

The highlight of our last day in NOLA was our visit to the 2nd and larger bayou of our trip for a tour of the swampland South of the city. There are various areas around NOLA that offer tours, but the place we went to was in the Lafitte vicinity.

Location of our swamp tour in the Lafitte area

The tour was around 45 minutes, but including the travel to/from Lafitte and the wait time once we were there, our whole experience was around 4 hours.

The place had a gift shop that kept a big albino alligator, which is an alligator with all white skin, from head to tail. They kept it in a very small pool, and it wasn’t moving, so it sort of looked like a larger version of a rubber bath toy.

The albino alligator – it made absolutely no movement for the minute we stared at it

Afterwards, we got on the flat boat and made our way out to the swamp, where we got to experience up close the vegetation and wildlife of the expansive bayou. The best part about the swamp tour was the boat ride which, unfortunately was not the main reason why we paid to go. We’d hoped to see a lot of wildlife native to that area, especially alligators, turtles, and snakes up close. Unfortunately, we only saw one alligator resting by the side of the water with its head arched upwards. Like the albino alligator in the store, it also made no movement…

Do you see the alligator?

Fortunately, we did get to see an alligator up close. The tour guide keeps a baby alligator with him that he lets everyone hold. It felt like what you’d imagine an alligator to feel like, with its scales and tough skin, though I was a bit surprised at how soft the belly felt, even given its young age.

Other than the alligator, we also saw some cranes and interesting vegetation. I’m sure there was a lot more significance or cool things about what we saw, but sadly we couldn’t hear much of what the tour guide was saying, due in part to his strong Southern accent and also because of roar of the engine and poor speaker quality. The only word we could reliably understand was “alligator”, which was a bummer because there weren’t too many of those.

A view of the bayou and another tour group on a fan powered boat (unlike our motor boat)
Edge of the swamp – this gives you a sense of the scale of the bayou area

And with this tour came the end of our journey to Southern USA! We got back to the city at around 2pm and spent the rest of the time walking through some of the souvenir shops once more, shortly after which we headed to the airport.

Overall, I’d say it was a pretty good trip that both of us enjoyed. One of the most important aspects of a trip for me is the opportunity to learn. I don’t necessarily mean the stuff you get at museums, but rather a holistic experience that teaches one of the ways in which others live. We got to see the culture of a different part of the US than we were used to, and with it a greater understanding of how its history and geography shaped its contemporary societal and political aspects. At the same time, we got a feel for how the societal norms and political climate in turn shape how the cities look and feel, what the food is like, and how people carry out their lives. There were things that we did and places we went that we ended up liking a lot, and other activities that we didn’t enjoy so much. We saw the good side of all of these places, and also the side that wouldn’t make it into more shallow introductions for tourists that you’d find online. We also had our own interpretations of what we saw, and we were glad that in many cases, these interpretations differed drastically from the general consensus we got from our prior research. Otherwise, there’d be no point to us going in person if we could experience it all from surfing the web. Texas and NOLA would be great to visit if you ever get the chance, and if you read this, hopefully it helped give you some ideas and perspectives.

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