Sunday, February 18, 2018

Beaching It at South Padre Island

We always make the drive to South Padre Island at least once each winter for a little beach time. From our camping spot in Mission, Texas, we're about an hour's drive from the Gulf. Our first stop is usually at the visitor's center on the Main drag of South Padre. We've taken pictures of the massive sand castle in front of the visitor center many times, but today's picture looks much different.

After five years in this location, the sand castle is being demolished. If you look in the bottom right corner of the picture below, you can see the "message from the artist," that is a permanent part of the display. So it was fun to get to talk to the artist--Andy Hancock--in person. He described the process of tearing down the old sand castle, which had been preserved in place by coating it with glue.

Now he was chipping off that sand/glue exterior that had kept this masterpiece standing for five years. He plans to have the bigger and better sand castle completed in time for the spring break crowds. Because we were watching with such interest, he gave us a little piece of sand castle history. It's a sand falcon from the castle--petrified by glue five years ago.

After spending time with the sand castle process, it was time to hit the sand at the beach.

The water was a little nippy, but the air temperature was just lovely. The best part was that the usually gusty ocean winds were perfectly still.

When Denisa was taking the picture above, she was waiting for a nice big wave to come in for a good background. That wave brought the water up higher than Mark had planned, getting his rolled jeans wet. Yes, that Gulf water is very nippy!

Last year we discovered that the west coast has few sea shells, so it was good to be back on the Gulf of Mexico. We were glad to see a sea-shell-strewn beach once again! Nothing fancy and no sand dollars, but lots of delicate shells makes it look like a healthy beach.

Over the years we have come here for many windy trips, getting sand-blasted on this beach. So today it was nice to stroll on such a calm day. We left Denisa's Mother sitting on a beach chair while we got a mile walk in the sand.

Turn-about is fair play, and Mark caught Denisa trying to get away from an incoming wave that got her jeans wet as well.

While on our beach walk, Denisa picked up black and gray shells. She doesn't keep the shells, but enjoys using them in a picture. This was her tribute to our day in South Padre Island.

We drove back across the causeway, to the town of Port Isabel. Last year the lighthouse was shrouded in scaffolding while it was being refurbished. It looked fresh and well-cared for against the cloudy skies as we drove through town.

We usually eat at Dirty Al's, but we decided to try Joe's Oyster Bar this time. Good fried and grilled fish and shrimp for dinner completed our successful day. We stopped by the local fish market for several pounds of gulf shrimp for the freezer. We ended our day in the not-so-glamorous job of de-veining those shrimp, but we have a little bit of the Gulf to eat in the days to come. It was a good South Padre Day!

Sunday, February 11, 2018

South Padre Island Kite Festival

We have officially lengthened our stay in South Texas for a second month--which will be our longest stay in one park ever. The activities in the park are keeping us busy during the week. But during the weekend we are always looking for fun and festivals in our surrounding area. We put the South Padre Island Kite Festival on the calendar weeks ago. But Saturday morning dawned cloudy and foggy, and we wondered if we would even be able to see the kites after our hour-long drive to South Padre Island. As we crossed the bridge to the island, the fog concealed our destination. (Incidentally, we weren't in danger because the lights weren't flashing. We took the picture below as part of our Spanish homework to bring Spanish phrases to class. We are proud to report that we were rewarded with a chocolate for being good students and completing our homework.)

Even though it was cloudy, we could see the kites clearly once we got to the festival grounds on South Padre Island. These over-sized kites were hovering overhead, and reminded us more of hot air balloons rather than kites.

The 10 mph winds at the beach kept the flags flying and the big kites in the air when we first arrived.

We got our chairs set up among the thousands of other festival-goers. We're here with Denisa's Mother, Betty.

We watched as professional kite flyers made their kites dance across the sky in choreographed programs.

These people come from all over the country. In the introductions, we heard flyers announced from New Jersey, Washington, Oregon, and even all the way from Texas.

We arrived just in time for the mega-event--twelve kite flyers doing an intricate choreography together. At the bottom center of the picture below, you can see the twelve flyers on the ground. There were lots of other kites in the sky, making it harder to get a clean photograph of the dozen kites that were racing and chasing across the sky.

We don't understand how they could place those kites in intricate positions in the sky without getting those long kite strings tangled, but they did.

They could also land them gently to the ground, in a perfectly straight line.

By this time, the winds had diminished down to less than 5 mph--unheard of this close to the gulf waters. All the big decorative kites were down on the ground, because there just wasn't enough breeze to keep them air-borne. But the announcer said this was perfect weather for trick kite-flying, allowing the flyers to do intricate moves that normal gulf winds wouldn't allow. There was just enough breeze to keep this six-piece kite in the air.

It was being flown by Connor Doran. We had seen him a couple years ago as one of the 12 finalists on the television show--"America Has Talent." His indoor kite flying was a success on the show, and he has continued to use his talent to raise funds for Epilepsy Awareness.

We spent a couple hours enjoying the festival, learning more about the world of kiting. It made us remember our few feeble attempts at getting a kite in the air when our sons were young. How do these people make it look so easy? We're glad we made the trip to South Padre on this questionable-weather day that turned out to be perfect!

Thursday, February 8, 2018

Sorry we haven't been blogging--we're having too much fun!

With classes and activities available every hour of the day inside Bentsen Grove Resort, we wouldn't ever have to leave. We have visited the area around Mission, Texas, many times before, so we often think there is nothing left to see. But we still wander outside of our gated resort to experience a little more of the Rio Grande Valley. One of our trips took us to the Don-Wes Flea Market. This market gets its name from its location between the towns of Donna and Weslaco. Here we bought honey, cheese, produce, birthday cards, a bicycle light, a billfold, kettle corn, dishes to replace our broken (and discontinued) Corelle plates . . . It's a multi-dimensional market that is always busy. In case we should  tire of shopping, there is often entertainment in the courtyard.

Some people say that the Don-Wes Flea Market is filled with winter Texans. For a more local experience, we were told to go to the market in Penita. It is actually called "Pulga." From our Spanish class, we now know that pulga is the Spanish word for "flea" and we seemed to be the only non-Spanish speakers at the flea market in Penita.

It was almost as if we had suddenly slipped south of the border, as all the signs were in Spanish. After communicating mostly with hand gestures, we bought some produce, then headed to the food stalls. We couldn't decipher the menus, but we saw people carrying around these odd sticks.

We determined that was a potato cut with a special spiral cutter, then deep-fried as one huge french fry--or maybe it is a "spanish fry" in this case. We didn't know exactly how to place our order, so we stood in line and did some pointing and managed to get one. After slathering it with ketchup, some hot spicy sauce, and a little mayo, we enjoyed a new-to-us Mexican treat.

A little knowledge of Spanish is needed to understand many of the signs on local streets in our area. We now know that "elote en vaso" is corn on the cob. Here "tunas" are not fish, but prickly pear cactus.

We have gone to several festivals and expos since our arrival to the valley. Mission hosts a Citrus Festival, and we visited the booths on the festival grounds with Denisa's Mother, Betty.

Instead of using tissue paper, this parade is famous for floats that are decorated with slices of the valley's citrus fruits. Because of the prediction of rain, we didn't go to the parade. But we did see the shoe-box-sized floats decorated by local elementary students.

It's a busy season of fairs and festivals here in the Rio Grand Valley. We are at the peak of the winter Texan migration, with the maximum number of snow birds flocking away from the cold weather up north. We have also found that many entertainers come south for the winter. People that normally hang out in Branson or Nashville during the summer, book shows all up and down the valley in the winter. Large resorts like Bentsen Grove host programs several nights each week during peak season. For around $7, we can enjoy some great entertainment without even leaving our park.

The most expensive ticket of the season is Molly B. The queen of polka music, she played around twenty different instruments before the evening was over. She only had two shows in the Rio Grand Valley, so the seats were all full that night. The largest instrument she plays is the alphorn, which took up most of the stage.

During the winter season in South Texas, Denisa is a happy camper because there is a dance at our park every Friday night. In fact, it's easy to find a good dance any night of the week down here! So we've been two-stepping and toe-tapping our way through an entire month here in the Rio Grande Valley! Sorry that the blogs are so infrequent, but we're just too darn busy having fun!

Friday, February 2, 2018

Settling into Resort Life

This is our fourth year to spend a month at Bentsen Grove Resort in the Rio Grande Valley of South Texas. After spending a few days making repairs on the cold-damage to the motor home, and restocking the groceries, it was time to settle into resort life.

We have been sedentary for the last 7 weeks, so it was wonderful to have lots of ways to exercise. Besides riding our bikes and walking around the campground, there are many ways to burn a few calories. Some of Denisa's favorites are line dancing and going to swimnastics. But she has also gone to aerobics, zumba, and yoga. Other options for exercise are tai chi, biking trips, clogging, water aerobics, regular exercise classes, a well-equipped exercise room, and two swimming pools.

For those that like playing a game while exercising, we really enjoy playing pickleball. But on the weekly schedule we can also play golf, softball, shuffleboard, darts, horse shoes, pool, table tennis, bowling, and volleyball.

This year Denisa is trying a new craft--dichroic jewelry. If that term doesn't sound familiar to you, she didn't know what that meant either. But at the Glass Adventures open house, they showed her examples of this fused glass art. More importantly, the projects are tiny, which is important if you live in a motor home.

Throughout the week there are lessons for quilting, needlework, woodburning, stained glass, woodcarving, paper quilling, ceramics, watercolor, rock club, scrapbooking, card making, wool working, swedish weaving, encaustic, photography, and oil painting.

All of these classes are taught by volunteers, so there is little to no expense to participate. Over the years, nice equipment has been purchased for these different craft groups. There are kilns for making glass projects, saws and polishers for rock projects, etc. All of the equipment is made available through seasoned volunteers that are happy to share their expertise with beginners like us.

Volunteers also teach other new skills. In this 55 and older park, it's not hard to teach old dogs new tricks in Spanish class, birding class, and Computer class. We are both going to Spanish class that meets every Lunes (that's Monday! We're just anxious to work on our homework this week, which is learning the days of the week in Spanish.) 

For those who like music, the resort offers plenty of opportunities to play your instrument or sing. Every week there are practices for church choir, ukulele lessons, melody theater, kitchen band, acoustic country jam, holiday choir, and senior ambassadors.

We have never participated, but there is also a scheduled time to play every card and board game imaginable. This is a long list of games one can meet with others to play every week at a specific time and place: bridge, polish poker, bingo, bid euchre, cribbage, mah jongg, nomination, 7's from Hell, "65", Omaha poker, pokeno, hand/knee/foot, card bingo, duplicate bridge, ten square, bunco, pinochle, dirty board, sheepshead, rumicub, whist, pegs & jokers, and Texas Hold 'em. Whoo! These retired people have given up working to do a whole lot of playing!

The park also has a full kitchen, and serves several meals each week. We take advantage of these opportunities, as the prices are kept low because of the use of volunteer labor. There is also ice cream served out of this kitchen every evening, and sundaes on Sunday. Another of our favorite foods coming out of this kitchen are the home-made donuts made on Wednesday. After finding out that they sell out fast, we have learned to pre-order our cake donuts. Even with all the exercise, for some reason we're not losing weight. It might have something to do with these donuts.

The schedule is full, and if anyone is bored here, it's clearly their own fault. Any time we have tried a new activity, we have been welcomed into the group with open arms. That's why we have met so many people during our month-long stays. Denisa's Mother has been coming to this park for over 30 winters, and we always teased her that this was like going to winter camp for old people. Now that we're one of them, we can see why she has enjoyed it for so many years, as we settle into this resort life for ourselves.

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Hard Rock Cafe and Escaping for Birthday Time

We made a road trip to Houston, and we enjoyed walking around downtown. But our real focus for this trip was watching the band that was performing at the downtown Hard Rock Cafe in the  evening. We arrived early, to take proper pictures at this popular restaurant.

We are here to hear our favorite band--the Won Hit Wonders.

We have been big fans of this "internationally acclaimed" band since our trip to South Korea two years ago. Our nephew, Brian, charades as an engineer for ExxonMobil by day. But in the evening, the guitar comes out and we so enjoyed the private concerts we danced to many nights. He was working on an engineering project in South Korea when we visited his family, and he put together a band of other ex-pats.

The South Korean currency is the won, so they named the band "Won Hit Wonders." They played at a Hard Rock Cafe in South Korea shortly before their jobs moved them back to the United States. Now this group is back together for their "farewell tour" before they ship off to other locations.

The restaurant was filled with adoring fans, and we had great seats thanks to the reservation skills of Brian's wife Alexia. She also rearranged the tables so we had a tiny dance floor. We got to do a little Texas two-stepping at the Hard Rock.

Sometimes that dance floor was filled to capacity. When the band tried to quit, the crowd yelled for more. It was a truly fun evening, and that twelve-hour drive was certainly worth it.

But after the concert, we also got to spend bonus time with Brian and Alexia and their children at their home in The Woodlands. We had some nice weather, but it wasn't quite warm enough to go swimming even though that water certainly looks inviting.

Mark figured out that the children were purposefully throwing balls on the roof to get them caught in the gutter. That's because it was so fun to have Uncle Mark lift them up over his head to retrieve the balls.

Besides the concert, the weekend was special because their son Camden was turning ten on Sunday. We got to celebrate with him several times, as he got a special birthday dessert at Hard Rock Cafe on Saturday night.

After church on Sunday, he got an ooey-gooey cookie and ice cream dessert.

And then there was the flaming cupcake dessert on the evening of his birthday. Camden definitely got his share of sugar, as did his visiting great aunt and uncle.

Besides birthday desserts and presents, we also enjoyed a special birthday treat. We had heard of "Escape Rooms," but had never experienced one. Participants have to figure out clues and puzzles to unlock their way out of the room within an hour. We were in great hands, as this family has been to over twenty different escape rooms all over the world. We were warned that this one was tough, but we escaped in 50 minutes--a new record for this room for 2018.

Besides escaping from the escape room, and enjoying the Won Hit Wonders concert, we had a great weekend hanging out with this precious family. It was a great weekend in the Houston area!

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Taking a Texas Road Trip

We decided to take a road trip from our south Texas location in Mission. A six-hour drive northeast took us by a Texas icon that we have never experienced. For all the miles we have driven in Texas, we had never stopped at Buc-ees.

Targeting car-loads of travelers along busy highways, every one of the gas lanes were busy.

The billboards along the highway brag on their clean restrooms. We also found their food was outstanding. Our pulled pork/hatch green chili burrito with pepper jack cheese and guacamole was very tasty! For dessert, we also had to purchase the store's famous "Beaver Nuggets."

Carmelized corn nuggets can sound a little like a healthy vegetable dish, until you notice that the first ingredient listed on the package is brown sugar. When Denisa was taking pictures of the beaver nuggets, Mark was trying to sneak them out of her hand. They are addicting.

Back on the road, our destination this day is Houston. We found that it takes around an hour to drive all the way through this metropolitan area, and we had plenty of company on our drive as the highways stacked high above us.

Last August we watched the national news, filled with pictures of the flooding in this area. Much of the flooding happened along the bayous in Houston. This is Buffalo Bayou that meanders through this section of downtown. We enjoyed the popular walking/biking trail that follows the water along each bank.

Even though things are largely back to normal now, there are still signs of the flooding. The banks of the bayou have deep crevices caused from the water erosion.

But the most obvious indication of the depth of the water is the debris still clinging to the underpasses that are now 50 feet above the water.

When we stopped to take pictures, the resident ducks assumed we were stopping to feed them. These curiously-masked birds were friendly, but disappointed when we didn't have any food.

So our wildlife picture of the day is a close-up of these interesting ducks hanging out at Buffalo Bayou.

After being in the car for six hours, we were happy to get some exercise. So we walked some of the downtown streets. Over and over, we saw orange fencing and temporary chain-link fences that kept us away from construction zones. The bottom floors of many of these buildings had been flooded, and they are undergoing rehabilitation.

We walked into the historic downtown section with its charming store fronts. It was a time warp moment to see the ultra-modern train coming into the picture on the right among these old store fronts.

On this Saturday afternoon, we saw a wedding party taking pictures on the balcony over the street level. The bridal party was enjoying a beautiful winter afternoon for their wedding day.

A few blocks away, we walked to the Houston Aquarium. We didn't buy the ticket to see the fish, but we did walk the grounds open to the public on this 70-degree January day.

Denisa is a fan of carousels, so we had to take this picture of the dolphins and sharks merrily going around with their downtown back drop.

Even though this walk was interesting, the real reason for our Texas road trip was to get to another downtown Houston icon. We can see the outline of a guitar among the sky scrapers.

That's because we are on our way to Hard Rock Cafe, nestled among the skyscrapers of downtown. We must be big fans of the band playing at the Hard Rock tonight to drive this far for a concert! But that's the subject of another blog.