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26 May 2011

Sizzling San Antonio

Day 5: Wednesday, May 25, 2011

In San Antonio, in late May, it's not just hot, it's BROILING. 100°F (38°C) with steamy humid air feels simply oppressive. It's like you're constantly under heat lamps.
The heat aside, San Antonio is a worthwhile city to visit. It's the 2nd largest city in Texas, and the 7th largest in the whole country. I've also been told more than once that it's the true heart of Texas and the most authentically Texan place you can visit.

The Long, Empty Drive Through Texas

Day 4: Tuesday, May 24, 2011 - El Paso to San Antonio

The drive from El Paso to San Antonio is the longest drive of our trip. It's over 500 miles in total. 500 miles with no cities or landmarks along the way. Not exactly a pleasant experience. And the landscape is really uninspiring.

Our couchsurfing host in El Paso is in the army, so he had to be up and out to work by 6am, which meant that Ueli and I had an early start. This is a good thing, though, because it allowed us to climb a nearby mountain and watch the sun rise over El Paso and Juarez.

We then drove through downtown El Paso and to the border crossing, with hundreds of people lined up to enter the US. I can't imagine having to endure the de-humanizing experience of passing through US customs everyday, but somehow thousands of people do it everyday.

The sun was shining brightly at 7:30am as we left El Paso. There are about 1 million people in El Paso, and 1.5 over the border in Juarez. The city is large enough to have several radio stations that we were able to listen to, each with their morning mix of music and talk. The traffic reports on the radio discussed traffic jams that are simply laughable compared to what I'm experience in LA. They also report the wait times at each of the border crossings from Mexico.

About half and hour out of El Paso, we stopped at a McDonald's to use their free wifi (which is a very useful travel tip when you're on the road!). Another hour or so into the drive, the 10 turned, leaving the Mexican border behind. So, we passed through an immigration checkpoint where the police officers told us to pull over and show them our passports. My first reaction was to feel somewhat violated. Anyway, I had to pull my passport out of the car's trunk. The fold-out map on the seat of the car was blown out by the wind. It was frustrating, and for the first time on this trip, I felt homesick.

The sun was hot. Ueli drove for a couple hundred miles; I was half asleep for most of the ride. One of the warning lights came on the car, but it was just for fuel efficiency or something unimportant. The landscape transitioned from desert into scrubland, with more green shrubs all around. For some reason this is how I imagine Australia or east Africa looks like (minus the kangaroos and lions). Oil pumps began appearing on either side of the freeway. We stopped at a rest stop and I took over the driving.

Another 4 hours to go. I kept myself awake and aware by eating one grape each time I passed a mile marker. We reached the town of Junction, about 100 miles from San Antonio, and stopped for gas. When I opened the door, a powerful breeze filled the car with searing hot, steamy, humid air from outside. I was taken aback. We were no longer in the desert. Somewhere in the last few hours, we had left the desert Southwest behind and had entered the muggy American South.

Anyway, air conditioning in the car just barely good enough to keep us from succumbing to heat stroke. It was 4:30pm as we entered San Antonio, the Alamo City. Our couchsurfing hosts were a young married couple and were awaiting our arrival. We headed straight for their apartment, which is a nice luxury furnished apartment in a big suburban complex. After dropping off our things, we joined our host, who showed us around. She (and her husband) were new to the city and so were eager to see new things themselves. It was Tuesday, and on Tuesdays, the San Antonio Museum of Art has free admission after 4pm. Along the way there, we made an unplanned detour by the Alamo. We arrived at the museum (I continued to be impressed by the intensity of the heat every time I got out of the car), and we met one of our hosts' cousins and his female friend who were both anthropologists (and as such, they were interested in many of the historic artifacts in the museum). The museum was showcased an exhibition inspired by Buddhist teachings in addition to their regular collection of Greek and Egyptian artifacts.

The five of us then drove to The Cove, a wonderful bar/restaurant/beergarden/children's playground/car wash (no, really - it is!). It's run by a bunch of Texan hipsters, as oxymoronic as that sounds, which is not a bad thing: They serve grass-fed beef and bison. I definitely enjoyed it. We sat at an outdoor picnic table and put back a couple beers in the warm late afternoon sun. As the sun set, we headed home, stopping by H-E-B Plus, a massive supermarket, warehouse size. We bought some beers and picked up our other host as he walked down the street returning from work.

A few more beers and some good conversation followed, and by the end of it all, we had worn ourselves out. I took the couch and Ueli slept in the guest room.

A Memorable Evening in El Paso

Day 3 (continued): Monday night, May 23, 2011

As we entered Texas, I noted that I was now in a state that I had never visited before. Exiting the freeway, I noticed that the traffic lights were situated sideways on the pole (horizontally instead of vertically). Immediately to the right flowed the Rio Grande, and beyond that, Ciudad Juarez, the most dangerous city in Mexico. What a sharp contrast: El Paso is one of the safest cities in the US.

We arrived at the apartment of our host, Chris, and he was actually outside, moving his truck into his garage. Perfect timing! It was about 8pm, and Chris was enthusiastically willing to show us around. We rode in his classic '63 Chevy pickup up the mountain to a wonderful viewpoint overlooking the entire city. It was spectacular, and more scenic than I thought. We looked form Fort Bliss in the east (the largest military base in the US) and south across the city into Mexico, and west toward the University of Texas, El Paso. Apparently the architecture of UTEP's campus is inspired by the architecture of Bhutan, which I found very interesting and unexpected.