Archive | July, 2019

Remember the Alamo

9 Jul

November1957

Its astonishing how our childhood impressions and experiences remain with us and influence our decisions and choices decades later.

I was a boy of ten in 1957 and studying at the Delhi Public School. Almost the entire school was conducted under tents as the permanent buildings had not come up yet. I sat on the same bench as K.M. Chandrasekhar, who rose to the position of the 29th Cabinet Secretary of the Republic of India. When I last met him in Trivandrum, he was the Vice-Chairman of the Kerala State Planning Board.

I lived in New Delhi with a very distinguished uncle at 121 Kakanagar, which I suppose was a residential colony for senior Government officials.

Upstairs, in 122 Kakanagar lived an Air Force Officer and his two children. He was a widower. His son Ranjan was slightly older and his daughter Bina was younger than I.

One day, maybe in November when it was getting cold in Delhi, Ranjan and I were hunting for lost golf balls in the Golf Links across the road from Kakanagar.

Ranjan was thoughtful and suggested that we go to Connaught Circus to see a new film. I was delighted and asked only two questions. “What’s the name of the film?” and “How will we go there?”

The film was “DAVY CROCKETT, King of the Wild Frontier”. I now see that it was a 1955 Walt Disney Production starring Fess Parker as Davy Crockett and Buddy Ebsen.

“We will go on my bicycle. We can ride double” said Ranjan. Wonderful, I thought although I had to get permission from my uncle and aunt who were my local guardians.

I asked my uncle for permission to go and his first reaction was, “No, you can’t go riding double on a bicycle to Connaught Circus”. I looked at my aunt, who I knew could change the decision in my favour… She looked doubtful, even a little worried because she took the responsibility of taking care of me in Delhi very seriously. She looked at me and her eyes darted at her husband, preoccupied with a sarkari file. “If its a Walt Disney film, let him go, Daddy”, she pronounced judgment and so it was that I got pocket money to go to Connaught Circus, see a morning show, have an ice cream and come back to Kaka Nagar.

And that was how I first heard of the saga of Davy Crockett at the Alamo.

What stuck in my memory was the song with the refrain, “Davy, Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier”. See: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=txcRQedoEyY

I loved Davy Crockett’s frontiersman hat made from the pelt of a raccoon with the tail hanging at the back.

***

20 June 2019 – San Antonio, Texas. (All names are disguised although the events are true, subject to minor creative interpretation).

“Would you like to visit a friend of ours? He is from Kottayam and knows your father. He has asked us to bring you over. He has been in San Antonio for about forty years” my hostess asked.

“I would be happy to meet him before I leave San Antonio, but today I want to do something else”, I said.

“What’s that?” asked my ebullient hostess.

“I want to go to see the Alamo” I said.

“Sure we can run you down…” says she.

“Oh no! I want to go on my own and spend the whole day there”, I said very firmly.

“There’s nothing there”… my hostess said, “What will you do all day there?”

“Her husband, my host, who had his head inside the folds of the SAN ANTONIO TIMES turned slowly and looked at me over the rims of his glasses.

“How will you go? This is Texas, not London or New York. Here public transport is not as convenient.”

I won the argument and got dropped at the Medical Centre Transit Station. I got a “Whole Day Pass” for three dollars and found a bus going downtown. The Alamo Plaza was about 18 kms away. It took about 45 minutes to get there.

I had forgotten what the Alamo looked like in the movie but had done quite a bit of research.

My beautiful friend Dawn Latham says she likes my ‘potted history’ which is a specific part of a larger history. I wont go into the history of the Defense of the Alamo, which led to the slogan, “Remember the Alamo”, and became a rallying cry for the independence of Texas from Mexico.

Most of the Texas territory belonged to the Spanish Empire in the 17th century. Mexico won its independence in 1821.

The Mexican dictator General Santa Anna sent his troops to put down a rebellion by settlers north of the Rio Grande, who wanted independence from Mexico. One of the centers of resistance to Mexico was at the Mission at the Alamo in San Antonio.

On 6 Mar 1836, Santa Anna’s troops wiped out all the defenders of the Alamo and he ordered that their bodies should be burned. It is estimated that “between 182 and 257 Texans died, while most historians of the Alamo agree that around 600 Mexicans were killed or wounded.”

In addition to Davy Crockett, the heroes of the Alamo included James Bowie (after whom the famous Bowie knife is named), and William B.Travis, Co-Commander in charge of the garrison.

The Independence of Texas was taken forward by other leaders like Sam Houston and Stephen Fuller Austin. Austin is known as the “Father of Texas”, and is acknowledged as the founder of Texas.

My photographs of the Alamo Plaza will fill in the gaps.

There will be other posts that describe the Riverside Walk, Lunch at an “Irish Pub” and getting back by the same No.100 Bus to Medical Centre Transit Station. There is a separate adventure story of my visit to El Paso on the Mexican border.

190619 Cafe du Monde, New Orleans

8 Jul

On 19 June 2019, I had a full day to wander around the French Quarter in New Orleans.

I spent some time admiring the statue of General Andrew Jackson in Jackson Square or Plaza d’Armas as it was known during the Spanish Imperial days.

This bronze statue, sculpted by Clark Mills is claimed to be first bronze statue cast in the United States and the first equestrian statue to be balanced on the horse’s hind legs.

This statue violates the tradition that an equestrian statue on the horse’s hind legs indicates that the rider died in battle. Andrew Jackson went on to become the seventh President of the United States 1829 – 1837.

There are conventions in the US and the UK for “Hoof-position symbolism” in equestrian statues. If the horse is rearing (both front legs in the air), the rider died from battle; one front leg up means the rider was wounded in battle; and if all four hooves are on the ground, the rider died outside battle.

I remembered the film THE BUCCANEER which I saw at THE ASSEMBLY ROOMS, Ooty, circa 1961, on an “Ooty Saturday” (all of 58 years ago???). The film had a fictionalised romantic story based on the War of 1812 ending in the Battle of New Orleans (1814). Charlton Heston acted as General Andrew Jackson while Yul Brynner acted as the French Pirate (Buccaneer) Jean Lafitte. The beautiful Claire Bloom acted as Bonny Brown.

By the time the film came to India, Johnny Horton’s “Battle of New Orleans” had been a number one hit song on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 (1959), and fortified my memory of the film. Since this song has a ‘march beat’ I remember we used to sing it in school while coming down to our Cottages after prep at night.

Jean Lafitte’s name lives on in the Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve, Louisiana with its bayous and waterways. Lafitte sided with General Andrew Jackson in return for a pardon for him and his fellow pirates. One of Lafitte’s headquarters was Barataria, which is almost at the mouth of the Mississippi as it empties into the Gulf of Mexico. There are hotels and B&B facilities here.

If you are in New Orleans French Quarter (also known as the Vieux Carré or “Old Square”) and want a place to sit and dream, the Cafe du Monde, on Decatur Street is probably the best place.

Coffee was introduced to Louisiana by the French settlers in the early decades of the 18th century. During a period of coffee shortage during the American Civil War, a Creole innovation was to blend coffee with chicory and this trend has persisted to this day.

An 18th century Arcadian innovation by Settlers from Nova Scotia is the Beignet (pronounced ‘Bayney’). These square ‘doughnuts’ without a hole are covered in powdered sugar. They are served with fruit, jam or maple syrup.

To have the perfect atmosphere, make sure you are listening to Johnny Horton’s THE BATTLE OF NEW ORLEANS on your smart phone. The song is available for download on YouTube. Also make sure you have your earphones so you don’t intrude on anyone’s enjoyment of the atmosphere.

In 1814 we took a little trip
Along with Colonel Jackson down the mighty Mississip
We took a little bacon and we took a little beans
And we caught the bloody British in a town in New Orleans

I have included a short video clip to give an all too brief glimpse of the energy of Decatur Street. (Sorry WORDPRESS refused to upload this clip.)

St

190616 Swamps and Alligators

3 Jul

On 16 June 2019, my host in Louisiana said he was taking me on a “Swamp Tour”. I knew that it would include a boat ride looking for alligators and made sure that the batteries of all my three cameras were fully charged.

Cajun Pride Swamp Tours is just over an hours drive (90 km) from Baton Rouge, and their office is on the western coast of Lake Pontchartrain. (Cajuns are a cultural and ethnic group descended from French speaking colonists settled in south Louisiana. They have significantly influenced the language, music and cuisine of the region).

My host had a spare morning and insisted on personally taking me on the Swamp Tour. He got the tickets which I see from their website might have cost US$27 each (https://freetoursbyfoot.com/cajun-pride-swamp-tours/).

The tour is along a ‘Bayou’ which is a slow moving stream, usually forming marshy outlets of a lake or a river.

Steeped in American folk and pop music, I remembered Linda Ronstadt’s “Blue Bayou” from the mid Seventies.

I feel so bad I got a worried mind
I’m so lonesome all the time
Since I left my baby behind
On Blue Bayou

It was clearly understood that we were going alligator spotting not on a lazy river boat ride. Louisiana has an alligator population of about 2 million.

We got to see quite a few alligators. The captain of our boat threw marshmallows into the river, which the alligators reportedly mistake for eggs and devour. Raccoons were a happy bonus, being familiar with them from American comics and books.

The captain of our boat never stopped talking for even a minute. He even had a baby alligator with its snout taped for the passengers to handle and look at.

190615 Bluebonnet Swamp Ramble

2 Jul

It is easy for a visitor to Louisiana (LA) to mistakenly assume that New Orleans is the capital of the State. New Orleans was indeed the capital of the Spanish and French administered Louisiana.

It is said that the shift of the capital from New Orleans to Baton Rouge in 1864 took place to reduce the tensions between the largely Creole population of New Orleans and the Anglo American population.

Slightly earlier, in 1829-31 the capital of LA was shifted to Donaldsville, 105 kms due West from New Orleans, on the west bank of the Mississippi. This was a failed experiment and the capital shifted back to New Orleans despite the socio-cultural tensions between French speaking Creoles and English speaking Anglo Americans.

The Louisiana State Capitol was designed as a modern skyscraper rather than as a traditional “rotunda-dome-and-wing” capitol instead of being modeled after the US Capitol in Washington.

In 1699, when a French exploration party first visited the site on which Baton Rouge stands today, they came to a spot on the Mississippi where a stream separated the hunting grounds of the Bayougoula and Houmas Indians. They saw a totem pole with the heads of fish and bear which had been sacrificed. The blood stained 30 foot high totem pole was red in colour, giving rise to the name, Baton Rouge (Red Stick) which has remained to this day.

My host in Baton Rouge decided that the best introduction to the city and the region was for me to spend a few hours at the Bluebonnet Swamp.

If you do a search for New Orleans on Google Maps, you will find that it is on the coast of the Gulf of Mexico. You will find the Missiissippi River snaking down from the North West, past Baton Rouge. Large parts of Louisiana are swampland supporting its own flora and fauna. The area is famous for reptiles including snakes, turtles and alligators. Where there are swamps we have to expect swarms of mosquitoes. Typical mammals to be found are Raccoons, Otters, Nutria River Rats, Red Squirrels and Wild Pigs. Birdlife includes Great Blue Herons, Great Egrets. Pelicans, Loons, Cuckoos, Owls, Hawks, Warblers and Bald Eagles.

I spent two and a half hours rambling through the swamp which has well managed trails and signboards. The heat and humidity are as extreme as what you would find in Kerala or the Konkan coast.

Maybe because it was at high noon, I didnt see any wildlife to speak of… there was a lot of birdsong which I tried to capture in a video clip.

I must say I never saw any Bluebonnet flowers for which the swamp is named. The Bluebonnet, by the way is the State Flower of neighbouring Texas State.

The Louisiana Land Purchase

1 Jul

Arriving in New Orleans, Louisiana on 14 June 2019 made me realise that I had to brush up my history of the New World if I wanted to write about my travels.

When Christopher Columbus discovered America, landing first on an island in the Bahamas on 12 October 1492, he claimed it for the Spanish Crown which had sponsored his voyage.

The Treaty of Tordesillas (1494) divided the newly discovered lands outside Europe between the Portuguese Empire and the Crown of Castile [Spain], along a meridian 370 leagues west of the Cape Verde islands, off the west coast of Africa [Wiki].

By the early 1500’s, Spain had established permanent colonies in the Americas, Spain divided its territory into viceroyalties with governors appointed by the king. Missions were established to spread Christianity.

Not to be left behind by Spain and Portugal, the Dutch, the English and France began to establish colonies in North America, the Caribbean and India in the 17th century.

The modern state of Louisiana began its existence as French Louisiana, named for the Sun King, Louis XIV. It originally covered most of the drainage basin of the Mississippi River and stretched from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico and from the Appalachian Mountains to the Rocky Mountains.

In 1803, the United States purchased the territory of Louisiana from France for fifteen million dollars. The “Louisiana Purchase” (Vente de la Louisiane) included land from fifteen present US States (Arkansas, Missouri, Iowa, Oklahoma, Kansas, and Nebraska; large portions of North Dakota and South Dakota; the area of Montana, Wyoming, and Colorado east of the Continental Divide; the portion of Minnesota west of the Mississippi River; the northeastern section of New Mexico; northern portions of Texas; New Orleans and the portions of the present state of Louisiana west of the Mississippi River) and two Canadian Provinces (Alberta and Saskatchewan).

The total land area in the “Louisiana Purchase” was 2.14 million Sq Km. For perspective, the present area of the USA is 9.83 million Sq Km and the area of the Republic of India is 3.29 million Sq Km. This means that the “Louisiana Purchase” was 22% of modern USA land area and 65% of modern India’s land area!